Television
2:19 am
Thu September 19, 2013

Dean Norris, Breaking Out Of That Good-Guy Mold

Originally published on Thu September 19, 2013 8:44 am

Actor Dean Norris took to Twitter the other day. "Missed last night's Breaking Bad," he wrote. "Heard it was intense. Filmed several alternate versions. Can't wait to see what they used."

Please note: There's a spoiler farther down this page.

Norris plays — played? — a drug enforcement agent on the acclaimed AMC series, which wraps for good after just two more episodes. His character's brother-in-law is a chemistry teacher with cancer who, at the series' outset, gets into cooking methamphetamine to pay for his treatment.

But even as Breaking Bad began to wind down, Norris kept busy on Under the Dome, a summer sci-fi show based on a Stephen King novel. His character, Big Jim Rennie, is a small-town politician who takes control after the town is cut off — literally, by a giant dome that suddenly materializes above it — from the outside world.

Norris tells Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep that "having played a morally constrained character for five to six years with Hank, it's nice to play a character who's less morally constrained [on Under the Dome]."


Interview Highlights

On his final episode of Breaking Bad

Yeah, that was surreal. I've been killed before, but not a character that I played for so long and gotten to know, and got inside his skin. When we filmed it, it was just sad, because it was saying not only goodbye to that character, but it was saying goodbye to Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan and the whole show. ... I thought they wrote me the best death the guy could have. He went out with dignity. Vince kind of explained it to me when he first told me: "The only thing you have left is your dignity, and you're going to keep it when you die."

On his character's path over the course of the show

It's really one of the main concepts of the show that his brother-in-law is hiding in plain sight, as the saying goes. It's impossible for him to have imagined that this dweeby high school chemistry teacher could possibly be this [drug kingpin] Heisenberg. ... We always had wanted to walk this line, because we didn't want him to be a stupid character. We wanted him to be really good at what he did. And he was never satisfied, as the DEA was, that they ... had caught Heisenberg a couple times. And many times they didn't believe Hank Schrader. So he was on his trail, he got close, and at the end he finally figured it out.

On not reading the book version of Under the Dome

I had the book and was going to read it, and it became clear by talking to the producers and writers and CBS that we were going to deviate from the book, and so I decided not to read it. I'm told the character in the book is a little bit more of a straightforward bad guy. And it immediately became clear to me that we didn't want to do that, that we wanted to have a more complex character.

I think Big Jim thinks that he's helping the town, that he's helping people — and he is! I think that he is! It's just that his way of going about it sometimes leads to death and destruction. In his own mind he's not an evil guy, he's the guy who can take care of this town.

On the differences between him and his character Big Jim

I'm not the guy that wants to stand up and lead, to be honest with you. But I understand it as a character. As Big Jim Rennie, I understand how it works. You know, everyone else sees this dome as a crisis, and he sees it as an opportunity. I always kind of imagined him as a guy who was reciting Winston Churchill speeches in the shower and kind of waiting for the day he can show his leadership abilities — and all of a sudden this dome comes down and he's like, this is it! This is the time! But no, as a person I don't [get it]. I'm not the guy who wants to get up and lead a bunch of people into battle or anything like that.

On starting to perform at 5 years old

I remember very clearly, literally at the age of 5 years old, my parents would take me to bars where big bands were playing, and I would go up there and sing in my little white suit and people would throw money. They would throw money at me! And then afterwards really pretty women would ask me to sit on their laps, and they'd give me money. I'm like, OK, I get it — if you perform well you get to sit on pretty women's laps and they give you money.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Some fans of the TV series "Breaking Bad" may not have seen the newest episode, which first aired on Sunday. And if you don't want the ending given away, the next couple of minutes are a good time to turn down the radio.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The actor Dean Norris took to Twitter the other day. Missed last night's "Breaking Bad," he wrote. Heard it was intense. Filmed several alternative versions. Can't wait to see what they used. Dean Norris played a drug enforcement agent on the acclaimed series. His character's brother-in-law is a chemistry teacher with cancer who goes into cooking methamphetamine. We say Norris played an agent because of what happened to his character in his final episode. But Dean Norris's character continues, for now, in a hit sci-fi series called "Under the Dome." He's a small-town politician who takes control after the town is cut off from the outside world.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "UNDER THE DOME")

DEAN NORRIS: (as Jim) People are looking to me to lead, to stand up, like a man does. It reflects poorly when my son is AWOL. Our situation is an opportunity. All your life, I provided you with advantages, opening doors, like with the football team...

ALEXANDER KOCH: (as Junior) Dad, I never wanted to play...

NORRIS: (as Jim) Point is, you only get so many chances in life. Do not squander them.

INSKEEP: We did not want to squander the opportunity to talk with Dean Norris as his characters come and go, so we've invited him into our studios at NPR West. Welcome to the program, sir.

NORRIS: Thank you very much.

INSKEEP: I want to ask first about "Breaking Bad," because you were tweeting about watching the final episode. What was it like to see your own character shot?

NORRIS: Yeah, that was - it's surreal, you know. I've been killed before, but not a character that I played for so long and gotten to know, and gotten inside his skin. When we filmed it, it was just sad, because it was saying not only goodbye to that character, but it was saying goodbye to Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan and the whole show.

INSKEEP: Let's just mention, Vince Gilligan was the creator of that series. Bryan Cranston is the star, the teacher who turns into a drug chef, let us call him. Did you argue over the manner of death?

NORRIS: No way. I thought they wrote me the best death the guy could have. He went out with dignity. Vince kind of explained it to me when he first told me. He said the only thing you have left is your dignity, and you're going to keep it when you die.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: I don't think it's unfair to say that at the beginning, he's kind of comic relief. And I want to play a clip from the first season to explain to people what I mean. This is an instance in which he's sharing the screen - he's out on a porch with Walter White, his brother-in-law. They're sharing Cuban cigars. And, of course, the DEA agent, your character, has no idea what his brother-in-law's other life might be.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

BRYAN CRANSTON: (as Walter) Cuban.

NORRIS: (as Hank) I did a little favor for an FBI guy.

CRANSTON: Now, I was under the impression that these were illegal.

NORRIS: Yeah, well, sometimes forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest, doesn't it?

INSKEEP: Now, first, Dean Norris, I really enjoy the way that your character is in this position of being really street smart, but he doesn't know the central fact of the whole situation.

(LAUGHTER)

NORRIS: Yeah, I mean, it's really one of the main kind of concepts of the show, is that his brother-in-law is hiding in plain sight, as the saying goes. It's impossible for him to have imagined that this dweeby high school chemistry teacher could possibly be this guy Heisenberg. And he was smart...

INSKEEP: Heisenberg being the name that they gave for this...

NORRIS: Walter White, right, Bryan Cranston...

INSKEEP: ...drug source he didn't know, yeah.

NORRIS: Exactly. So, anyway, we always had wanted to walk this line, because we didn't want him to be a stupid character. We wanted him to be really good at what he did. And he was never satisfied, as the DEA was, that they thought they had caught Heisenberg a couple times. And many times, they didn't believe Hank Schrader. So, he was on his trail. He got close. And at the end, he finally figured it out.

INSKEEP: Your other major character right now, Big Jim Rennie, in "Under the Dome" - I think layered is a proper term for him. As I watch you play this politician on screen - he's, in some ways, an inspiring guy, and in some ways, an evil guy. He can change very quickly, and you change him very quickly.

NORRIS: Yeah. That's - I'm really having a fun time playing Big Jim Rennie. And it was a very important point that we talked about with Stephen King that I didn't read the book. So...

INSKEEP: Let's remind people it's based on a Stephen King novel.

NORRIS: Stephen King novel, "Under the Dome." And I had the book and was going to read it, and it became clear by talking to the producers and writers and CBS that we were going to deviate from the book. So I decided not to read it. And I'm told the character in the book is a little bit more of a straightforward bad guy. And it would - immediately, you know, it became clear to me that we didn't want to do that, that we wanted to have a more complex character. And I think Big Jim thinking that he's helping the town, that he's helping people - and he is. I think that he is. It's just that his way of going about it sometimes leads to death and destruction. But, in his own mind, he's not an evil guy. He's the guy who can take care of this town.

INSKEEP: I can see why you would have fun doing that.

NORRIS: Yeah. And it's also having played a morally constrained character for five to six years with Hank, it's nice to play a character who's less morally constricted.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: Some people will know - many people will know you're from Indiana.

NORRIS: Yes, South Bend.

INSKEEP: Well, tell me about that. What were you like growing up?

NORRIS: I had a great childhood. I had great parents and I had a good family. I was the guy who was doing, you know, school plays at five years old. My dad had a band. He loved singing. He loved entertaining, and I kind of got that from him. I would play with his band when I was, I think, eight, nine, 10 years old. So, entertainment was always kind of a part of who I was - not necessarily acting, but music, as well. I remember very clearly, literally, at the age of five years old, my parents would take me, like, to bars where big bands were playing. And I would go up there and sing in my little white suit, and people would throw money. They would throw money at me. And then afterwards, like, really pretty women would ask me to sit on their laps, and they'd give me money. I'm like, OK, I get it. If you perform well, you get to sit on pretty women's laps, and they give you money.

INSKEEP: I want to ask one other thing, because you're playing this character that will continue in "Under the Dome." And we said this guy has his good points and bad points. He's ambitious. Do you relate to that ambition?

NORRIS: No, I don't, actually. I'm not the guy that wants to stand up and lead, to be honest with you. But I understand it as a character. As Big Jim Rennie, I understand how it works. You know, everyone else sees this dome as a crisis, and he sees it as an opportunity. I kind of always imagined him as a guy who was reciting, you know, Winston Churchill speeches in the shower and kind of waiting for his day that he can show his leadership abilities. And all of a sudden, this dome comes down, and he's, like, this is it. This is the time. But, no, as a person, I don't. I'm not the guy who wants to get up and lead a bunch of people into battle or anything like that.

INSKEEP: You have been ambitious, though, I'm assuming, to have made it this far.

NORRIS: Well, I'm certainly persistent. Yeah, that's for sure. I think that that's certainly part of the deal. But really, it's about - for me, it's about falling in love with acting and doing it. I mean, there's nothing - I'm never happier, even if it's a bad role, than to be on a set getting ready to play some character, and you've got these cameras going and really fun people to hang out with. And it's just a great, great feeling.

INSKEEP: Dean Norris, it's been a pleasure talking with you.

NORRIS: Thank you, sir.

INSKEEP: "Under the Dome" has wrapped up its first season. The final two episodes of "Breaking Bad" air this month. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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