Most people know Dean Norris for his role as DEA agent Hank Schrader in the groundbreaking series Breaking Bad, but many would be surprised to learn that the Harvard man had been in the movie business for over 20 years before landing that role. With over 150 credits on IMDb, Norris had made a career taking smaller (often cop) roles in blockbusters like Total Recall, Terminator 2 and Lethal Weapon 2, in addition to dozens of TV roles.
The success of Breaking Bad has given Norris the opportunity to branch out into unfamiliar territory, like his role in Atom Egoyan’s new thriller Remember. In the film, Christopher Plummer plays a holocaust survivor with dementia hunting down the Nazi who killed his family in Auschwitz. His search brings him the doorstep of one of the men he thinks it might be, only to meet his son, played by Dean Norris. Once again Norris is cast as a law enforcement agent, but as he mentioned in our interview, that’s not essential to his character, “he could have been a train conductor or a taxi driver.” The character has held on to his father’s Nazi memorabilia, but it’s unclear how deep his loyalty runs.
We caught up with Norris just prior to the film’s premiere at this year’s TIFF to discuss working with Egoyan and Plummer, as well as how Breaking Bad has changed his life.
Your character in this film is very flawed, broken man. How do you approach someone like this?
It’s not for me to judge the character and it’s important that you don’t. I think if you do then you’re screwed, you’re offering an opinion on the character, which is not my job, that’s your job and whoever is watching the movie. So I just needed to find whatever humanity there might have been in that guy, and there was. He was a sad, broken guy. It made me kind of cry, the guy, you know what I’m saying? Then when this father figure ends up at his door, it was kind of weird that he would take him in so easily, but for me, and Atom and I talked about this, the idea that he’s just alone all the time, and here’s a kind of frail old guy that reminds him of his dad, it was like the best thing to happen to him that month, maybe that year! Was that this old guy would show up at his door and then he could start talking about these things that he certainly can’t talk about at work or he’d be fired, that part of it felt really right and comfortable. He was drinking and happy to be hearing his thoughts with this guy. It was crazy but from an acting point of view it was cool.
At the top of the scene, your character is very warm and welcoming, then you get to do bit of a 180 partway through, was that fun to play?
It’s nice to do a little sleight of hand with this role, when people think they know who you are and you get to throw out something different.
For that part, it was hard to even block it. You know like the few times in your life where you literally see red. You just gotta get there and then it was a matter of just turning the cameras on. At that point the script went out, we tried to get as close as we could, and Christopher was right there for it, he was right there in the moment of it. It was like temporary insanity, you just kind of go to this place and I don’t even remember exactly what was said or what was going on, which was kind of weird, usually you do. Nobody was saying ‘hey you had your right hand up at this point so you gotta do it again’, I was like fuck it, we’ll just do it three or four times. Cut it together, that’s your problem (laughs). I think they might have had three cameras on that day.
How do you from studying social studies at Harvard to becoming an actor?
It’s more how did I get into Harvard? (laughs) My dad was a local band kind of guy, he kind of came from nothing, so entertainment was always part of our family. He didn’t go to College, my mom didn’t go to college, but I got into Harvard, so you know, you go! Then it was kind of okay, what do you do now? You had to go from making a choice between being an investment banker which was in ’85, right before the crash of ’87, it was a hot thing to do, from Harvard you could stroll right onto Wall Street. Or do what you really wanted to do, I figured well you gotta take your shot now.
A social studies degree would land you a job in finance?
At the time, they didn’t teach you anything that was actually practical at Harvard, which was great. Read great books and then you parlay that into a job at Goldman Sachs.
Even before Breaking Bad, it seems like you spent almost two decades playing cops, were you getting tired of being typecast?
For the longest time I was able to take care of my family playing cops so I have nothing bad to say about it. Now I have the chance to do other things. A third of the roles out there are cops, if you’re not a lawyer or a doctor, you’re a cop. The chances that you get to play other things are great, and I get that chance now, but I could never complain about being typecast, because it kept me working for so many years.
When you look back at your experience of being a part of Breaking Bad, what resonates the most?
In my life I just want to be in one of those movies that some college kid like me is going to see 20 years from now and look back and go what a great movie to have been a part of, it turns out that Breaking Bad is going to be that. There’s going to be College kids who maybe couldn’t see it, for good reason, when they were 14, and they get to College and they go ‘hey man you gotta see this Breaking Bad show.’ It’s really nice to have that in your back pocket.
When are we going to see Hank Schrader on Better Call Saul?
Everyone always asks that. I had dinner with Vince (Gilligan) last week. It hadn’t been a possibility before because I was on this other show (Under the Dome), but now that show’s not on anymore so, I’m sure it’s out there. The producers, they’ve talked about it tangentially, so we’ll see what happens. Probably not this season, but if things happen next season… If Vince Gilligan asked me to do anything, I would do it. I’m sure they wouldn’t unless they had a pretty cool thing to do with it, so that’s up to them.
Read our review of Remember here.