When Breaking Bad first began, Hank Schrader, played by Dean Norris, was kind of an asshole. Norris plays a DEA agent/brother in law to Walter White (Bryan Cranston) who is full of himself—bragging about drug busts to the point that he unwittingly provides a gateway for Walter White, a window into the world of making and selling meth. But as the show goes on, his character opens up, never quite losing his brash sense of humor and off-the-cuff frankness, but becoming softer, more sympathetic and likable. He's the only guy on the entire show who tries to do right at all times, and that is often rewarded. He's perpetually getting promoted as Walter White travels further down the meth rabbit hole. The two of them exist in parallel, experiencing highs and lows like a teeter-totter. Walter's meth production increases as Hank deals with post traumatic stress from a particular shocking scene involving a bomb hidden in a severed head being carried slowly across the desert on the back of a tortoise. We talked to Norris about his character, the aforementioned exploding head scene and hypothetical Breaking Bad situations.
Can you explain your character to those that don't know?
Sure. I play Hank Schrader. I’m a DEA agent in the Albuquerque area. I also happen to be the brother-in-law of Walter White, the character played by Bryan Cranston. The show kinda starts with Walter White seeing how much money these guys make because he watches his brother-in-law, me, Hank, take down, I don’t know...like 700,000 dollars and that gets the ball rolling in his head that this might be an avenue of some cash for the man. In addition, we have a relationship where Hank’s a real—he portrays himself in the first couple seasons as a real tough guy, a blowhard. He’s a good agent, but he’s the kind of guy that would wear on you at parties and stuff. He just yaps a lot. His guys love him, his agent guys love him, but Walter? They don’t hang out together, and Hank just thinks that Walt is kind of wussy-ish, kind of nerdy. He’s a teacher, didn’t quite have the same exciting thing in his life as Hank does. So, as the story goes on, he starts to, unknowingly, go after him, but he doesn’t realize it’s his own brother-in-law. He can’t imagine that this guy, who he knows or has known for ten to fifteen years, could ever possibly be the guy who is causing or wreaking all this havoc in the Albuquerque drug scene.
Hank Schrader seems like the polar opposite of Walter White. As Walter descends further and further into the meth business, Hank keeps getting promoted within the DEA.
They have a really interesting arc for Hank this season. We get to look into his dark side, the audience will see that Hank is on track to find this Heisenberg—as Walter White calls himself in the drug scene. But Hank has problems with his own PTSD, [post-traumatic stress disorder], which was brought on by an exploding head turtle. His superiors in the DEA don’t really believe him, they think he’s a little bit off his rocker and that’s frustrating for him this season because you see that he’s really on the trail to catch him.
Hank initially comes off as kind of a jerk, but his kind-heartedness really comes out as the show goes on.
I think that that really is reinforced this year. I dare to say at the end of the season, there’s really one guy that’s trying to do the right thing in the story and that’s Hank. It’s good old Hank. It’s interesting that he’s the guy who you’re like, Wow, that’s the guy we’re left with who is trying to do the right thing? But we do get into his demons and dark side this year, he's the one guy left and even he is having his own mental problems.
The stuff your character experiences is really intense based on his line of work.
Oh yeah. Every time I read the script, I’m like, Oh my god, I can’t believe this. I think that turtle scene for me is quintessentially Breaking Bad. If you look at it, you think that the punchline—you think that the payoff in the scene is the head on the turtle, which would be certainly more of a payoff than any other TV show. Then, if that’s not enough, it’s like, This one goes to eleven. They explode the turtle. When I read that, I was like, These guys are crazy! But interestingly enough, Hank, they use his weakness, his PTSD, it’s what gets him away from the turtle. He made an excuse, he is getting sick [from seeing a severed head on a turtle], and he starts to have a panic attack and they’re all making fun of him, but that saves his life. His own weakness saves his life, but if he was trying to be macho and with the guys, he would have blown up with them.
That seems to be a common thread with Hank. You're a skilled agent, but you also fall on a lot of luck, just because you're constantly moving through the ranks and having to prove yourself.
Yeah. They pursue that a lot more in season three. The audience really sees that Hank is on it, he’s gonna nail the guy. And they have to extend the tension. They want to keep him away from Walt for as long as they can. I can’t tell you ultimately what happens, but they spread that out. They try to hold that tension for as long as they can. The way they do it this year, again, it’s frustrating for the Hank character because they all think he’s kind of off his rock, off his game, but the audience sees that he’s on his game. The superiors at the DEA see that he’s having some problems and we don’t know if we should trust him, but he’s like, Believe me, this is where it’s at. I think it makes for some interesting dramatic tension this season.
How aware are you of the endgame? Are you episode by episode or do you know the grand picture?
I’m an episode by episode guy. I think we all are. I think the writers are. I’ve done enough podcasts and Q+As with the writers and [creator] Vince [Gilligan] and he claims that he doesn’t have an endgame. They go along, they sit down in the writer’s room and they see where the characters take them. They try to be truthful and they follow it and when I get the script. I don’t think they know the endgame. At some point, I think they have to know Walt and Hank—they’re going to have deal with that situation and I can’t wait to see it. I don’t know how they’re going to deal with it, but that’s one of the final things left in terms of dramatic tension. I don’t think that’s the end of the show, I think that could be the beginning of a whole new direction for a season, so who knows how that will be dealt with? It’s interesting for him to find out and then know what he does with that information. I’m not sure what he does. Does he arrest him? I don’t know. I don’t think so. Does he figure out a way to get him out? Does he save him? Does he join him? I don’t know.
On a smaller scale, when Walt lies and says he’s been smoking marijuana as a cover, all direction points to you freaking out about it and you’re just nonplussed and don’t really care.
Right. It definitely could go in that direction. I think anybody who’s been involved or reads about—and I’ve read a lot about the DEA—it’s not black and white, there are some gray areas. They have to put up with some stuff in order to get bigger catches. It’s not like there’s some absolute moral reason for him to automatically without question arrest him and put him in jail. There’s a lot of options for him. He could try to extract him, get him out of it safely. Or he could use him as an undercover plant.
I didn't even think of that one.
All of a sudden he’s working for the DEA. Uh oh. I don’t know what it would be. I know that there are a lot of options and with these writers, they can always think of ten more options that I can’t even think of.