Dean Norris chooses a pool cue and rolls it on top of the table. “My buddy’s old trick. You got to roll it to see if it’s straight. If it’s crooked, you can have it,” he says with a cackle. “My uncle Tom used to say, ‘In a bar always go for the heaviest stick, so if you get in a fight, you can whack someone.’ ” He makes the opening break and misses. “Do you get to go again?” I ask. “Wow,” he says. “You really don’t know much about pool, do you?”
It’s late afternoon on a drizzly Thursday, and we’re the only patrons of the Edge, an East Village bar a few doors down from Hells Angels’ headquarters. Norris, sipping his second Grey Goose on the rocks, is on his first break in three weeks. He’s been in North Carolina, shooting his just-renewed CBS show Under the Dome, and participating in a Breaking Bad victory lap—nonstop premieres and panel discussions celebrating the final half-season of AMC’s darkly comic drama about chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White (a.k.a. Heisenberg). On that show, Norris plays Hank Schrader, the DEA-agent brother-in-law of Walter, played by Bryan Cranston. At last night’s New York premiere of “Blood Money,” the first of the final eight episodes (which aired this past Sunday), Norris got a taste of the scope of Breaking Bad’s fan base: Keith Richards and Warren Buffett. “Keith came over,” says Norris. “And all I could comprehend was”—he adopts a strangled growl that sounds vaguely British—“ ‘Oh, hey, hey.’ He had five girls with him. I think they were nieces—actually, I don’t know what the hell they were. But one of them reminded me that in the pilot Hank says that Walt holding a gun is kind of like Keith Richards with a glass of milk.”
And Buffett? “He pulled out his wallet and said, ‘Take a picture of me bribing you!’ ” As fans know, Norris has an impressive arsenal of laughs, including the Muttley-style heh heh that he unleashes now. “Buffett has this routine where when women ask to have their picture taken with him, he gets on his knees and says, ‘Will you marry me? No prenup!’ ”
I tell him that Buffett sounds a little like early “I shit you not” Hank, the man of a thousand clichés and inappropriate jokes. According to Norris, 50, his character was a lot worse in the pilot’s original script. “He was more racist. There was some hard-core shit. But they toned that down.” Series creator Vince Gilligan tells me that had a lot to do with Norris: “I had a very schematic understanding of Hank when I wrote the pilot. But knowing Dean—seeing how smart and sensitive and well educated he was—made me realize the character could be much more.”
Gilligan loves Hank because he’s heroic without being a superman, but time will tell how far that heroism goes. “Hank is very human,” says Gilligan. “He has weaknesses brought on by all the various traumas he’s suffered—all of them, he’s now realizing, caused by Walt. But where Walt’s reaction to trauma was to take a dark path, Hank took a light one. He seemed invincible when we first met him, and now we realize he’s a man just like the rest of us. Walt always talks about doing everything for his family, but, in fact, it’s Hank who is the family man.”
After easily pocketing three balls, Norris misses. As I aim my stick, I ask if it bugs him that fans have griped about how long it’s taken Hank to figure out that Walt is Heisenberg. He’s more interested in my inability to hit the cue ball. “I’m kind of in awe of how bad you are,” he says, lifting his black polo shirt to rub his Buddha belly, as if reassuring himself that it’s still there. “If I make this next one, you have to say I’m the best pool player you’ve ever seen.” That, I point out, is a pretty low bar.
“It’s obvious to viewers,” Norris says finally, “because they know Walt is Heisenberg. But Hank’s a cop, and cops put people into categories, for better or worse. If you have limited resources and time, you’re going to focus on the likeliest bad guys. Hank has an image in his mind of a drug kingpin, and it sure as hell isn’t his milquetoast brother-in-law.”
Under the Dome is to Breaking Bad as a penny dreadful is to Dickens, and that’s fine with Norris. He’s having fun playing the sociopath this time, “Big Jim” Rennie. (Perhaps there’s some Walter White envy; he plays a drug dealer in the upcoming Ridley Scott film The Counselor.) What Dome lacks in nuance and earned tension it makes up for in viewers. “The argument for network shows, of course, is that I’ve been seen by three or four times as many people on Dome as on Breaking Bad. It’s hard to say we should spend more time building tension when 13 million people are watching.”
Dome’s very black-and-white world is something “we battle constantly on set,” says Norris. “When we were developing Big Jim, I tried to bring more to him. I really don’t want him to be a mustache-twirling bad guy.” But he knows the show will never be Breaking Bad. “It’s absolutely clear to me that the success of that show is due to AMC allowing one person—an obsessive person—to control it.” Case in point: Though Gilligan wasn’t often on set, he approved or vetoed every script or set change. “You may have noticed that Vince loves color,” says Norris. “Before every episode we’d have all these damn wardrobe fittings, which annoyed the shit out of me, so Vince could see photos of all the different color variations on me—you know, five different shades of crimson, five different shades of gray. The first time I went to his house, I went into his guest bathroom, which was all orange. I’m thinking, Son of a bitch, he’s sitting on the crapper and thinking, ‘I’m going to make Hank wear orange.’ ”
Norris went to Harvard, which tends to surprise people; nearly three decades of steady work playing mostly cops and booya military types will do that. He doesn’t mind the typecasting; he’s a workaholic. I don’t suppose that has anything to do with having five freaking children, I say. Norris laughs. “Yeah, the nightmare scenario for me is my wife, Bridget, saying, ‘Let’s go to Hawaii for two weeks.’ I would fucking kill myself if I had to sit on a beach for two weeks. I love my job—it’s fun.”
I ask Norris if he was a brainiac in high school. He answers almost sheepishly: “Yeah, straight A’s. I was valedictorian of my class.” He grew up in South Bend, Indiana; his father was a part-time singer and furniture salesman. “He was an amazing guy. He had a really bad childhood. He and his sister would sing on the streets of Chicago so they could eat. My favorite thing he’d say is, ‘I’m not a singer, I’m an entertainer.’ For me, it’s the same with actors. It’s something you study; it’s a learned craft, not some special mojo or magic dust or staring at some piece of shit for an hour to get in the mood. I think Bryan Cranston is an entertainer. It’s weird because Cranston reminds me of my dad—they have the same build.”
Cranston directed “Blood Money,” which, after a flash-forward, picks up where the 2012 finale left off—Hank emerging from the Whites’ master bathroom, having just taken the most illuminating shit in TV history—and ends with the long-awaited Hank-Walt confrontation. Aside from a convincing right hook to Walt’s jaw (“That was a lot of fun,” says Norris), it’s a remarkably quiet scene; Norris, who has only a few lines, brings new meaning to if looks could kill. “The key for me was that it wasn’t just rage,” he says. “It’s the betrayal by someone Hank’s known for twenty years—a family member, which is even worse. Vince asked me last night about grabbing the back of Walt’s head when I say, ‘All along it was you.’ I realized that it was from The Godfather: Part II, when Michael says, ‘I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart.’ ”
As we finish up the game (“Sorry I kicked your ass,” Norris says unconvincingly), I tell him my wish for Hank is that he’ll be the hero, the last man standing. “You can still be the hero and not standing,” he points out with a parting cackle. True. And, to paraphrase Michael Corleone: If anything in this show is certain, if history has taught us anything, it is that anyone can be killed.