Anna Gunn almost didn’t audition for Breaking Bad. She had given birth to her second child just four months before and was down with a bad cold, which led her to cancel several meetings with casting director Sharon Bialy. When Bialy finally tracked her down by phone, Gunn recalls, “I said, ‘I’m exhausted, I’m a new mom again, I’m overloaded.’ ”
“Take an echinacea and read the script,” Bialy replied. “You won’t be sorry.”
Gunn tore through the pilot in a single sitting. “It was one of the best scripts I’d read,” she says. “I called Sharon back and said, ‘I’ll be in tomorrow.’ ”
As the 10 million–plus viewers of the AMC award-showered hit (accolades include this year’s Golden Globe for Best TV Drama) well know, Gunn was Breaking Bad’s formidable Skyler White, the wife of Walt, a chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine cook played by Bryan Cranston. Through five seasons that ended in September, Gunn negotiated a rocky, Emmy-winning ride of discovery, outrage, complicity and alienation, all within the context of what seemed to be a model suburban marriage and family. Breaking Bad was disturbing, riveting and bleakly funny. But Gunn, 45, left the heaviness behind at the end of the day. “You go on a journey with these characters. . . and [when one of them] has a trait that’s inspiring or fascinating, you get to take that with you. The other stuff you leave on the shelf,” she says.
The Los Angeles–based actress, now divorced from actor and real estate agent Alastair Duncan, chose the quaint tearoom nestled in the Huntington Botanical Gardens near Pasadena for our interview. “I used to come here all the time with my girls,” says Gunn. Her older daughter, Emma, is 13; Eila is seven. With her blonde hair and crystalline blue eyes, Gunn has an ethereal quality, but in conversation she is thoughtful and eminently grounded. Cranston says he was impressed with her from their first test scene, in which Skyler gives Walt a distracted hand job as a birthday present. “She was aggressive and assertive yet vulnerable,” he says. “I knew that we’d gotten a tiger by the tail.”
“We were a fun-loving set,” says Betsy Brandt, who played Skyler’s sister, Marie, and now costars on The Michael J. Fox Show as Fox’s wife. “When we were doing that deep, heavy stuff, I had to come up for air and joke around. But Anna stayed very focused the whole time.” As Cranston puts it, “Anna takes her life as an artist very seriously. She loves to act, and you can tell. There’s a joy that comes through her, even in the most harrowing moments.” In the lighter ones, Cranston cracked her up. When the cameras rolled for an intimate bedroom scene, Gunn recalls, laughing, he appeared with a can of hairspray wedged into his tighty whities and a wig on his head, calling, “Hello, honey! I’m ready!”
Breaking Bad was shot in and around Albuquerque, New Mexico. Gunn and her daughters “lived in a little village just outside Albuquerque. We hiked and biked and went camping and to the balloon fiesta. It was really fun to show my girls all these things from my childhood,” says the actress, who grew up in Santa Fe.
Until she was a sophomore at Santa Fe Preparatory School, Gunn thought she’d be a writer. But a sense--memory exercise in an acting class made her pivot. “The memory I chose was about my older brother going away to college,” she says. “It was about saying good-bye to him at the airport.” She found herself so immersed in the recollection, she cried. “Afterward, I had that lightbulb moment when I realized this is the way I want to do my storytelling.”
Her parents—Shana, an interior designer, and Clem, who worked in real estate (both are now retired)—were encouraging. “My dad drove me to every rehearsal, even in blizzards, five nights a week. My mom made every costume. They were tremendously supportive.” Gunn went on to major in theater at Northwestern. Later she paid her dues, cleaning toilets between gigs early on and holding out for parts that interested her: a Vegas showgirl in Nobody’s Baby, starring Mary Steenburgen; a -buttoned-up assistant D.A. in The Practice; the sheriff’s complex schoolmarm wife in Deadwood. She consistently pursued theater, too, starring as Isabella in a Sir Peter Hall production of Measure for Measure and as Marie Curie in Radiance.
But none of her characters drew the attention and, in the early seasons, the vitriol that fans directed at Breaking Bad’s Skyler. A vocal segment in what was then a mostly male audience saw her as the nagging, buzzkill wife of their meth-cooking murderous champ. Gunn was hurt—she liked Skyler—so she penned a considered response that was published by the New York Times as an Op-Ed. “I’m concerned that so many people react to Skyler with such venom,” she wrote. “Could it be that they can’t stand a woman who won’t suffer silently or ‘stand by her man’? That they despise her because she won’t back down or give up? Or because she is, in fact, Walter’s equal?”
For all her poise, Gunn is petrified of public speaking. So when asked to give last year’s commencement address at her high school alma mater, she took fear as her theme, telling the audience about the Erica Jong quote she tapes to the mirror in every dressing room she uses. It reads, “I have not ceased being fearful, but I have ceased to let fear control me. I have accepted fear as a part of life, specifically the fear of change, the fear of the unknown. I have gone ahead despite the pounding in the heart that says: Turn back, turn back; you’ll die if you venture too far.” “Being afraid,” Gunn says, “means you care and want to do your best, so forge ahead.”
Which is what Gunn, now renovating her Hollywood home, is doing. In January she began filming Gracepoint, an American adaptation for Fox-TV of the BBC series Broadchurch. Costarring with David Tennant, Nick Nolte and Jacki Weaver, Gunn plays a detective who must solve the murder of a child in the tight-knit coastal town where she grew up. “She was our collective first choice,” says Carolyn Bern-stein, an executive producer on the show. “We were all rabid fans of Breaking Bad. As Skyler, she made this very challenging character deeply sympathetic and relatable.”
To research the Gracepoint role, Gunn spent time with retired police officer Ally Jacobs, who was pivotal in cracking the 1991 Jaycee Dugard kidnapping case. “She told me about what you have to pay attention to as a cop,” Gunn says. “People’s mannerisms, their gestures, the most minute details. I love this part; I have a notepad and carry it everywhere.”
Gunn is also loving her forties. “When I was in my twenties and thirties, I spent so much time worrying: the next job, the next review, the next blog,” she says. “It really was wasted time. I haven’t stopped worrying, but now I have the ability to say, ‘I’m going to enjoy the time that I have working and that I have with my kids and my family and my friends. And I’m not going to spend it going, ‘Oh dear, oh no, what comes next in 20 minutes or two hours or tomorrow?’ I’ll wake up and deal with it.”
Margot Dougherty profiled Courteney Cox for More in February.
Related: 6 More Questions for Anna Gunn