The first five episodes of Breaking Bad‘s fifth season have left viewers scraping their jaws off the floor. It’s one explosion (sometimes literally) after another as Walter White settles into his position as New Mexico’s new crystal meth kingpin.
Some of this season’s most powerful scenes, however, focus not on Walt, but on Walt’s wife, Skyler — played brilliantly by Anna Gunn. Thanks to her Emmy-nominated performance, Gunn’s Skyler is far more than either a trapped housewife or reluctant criminal. Hollywood.com spoke with Gunn about her meltdown at the carwash, how she lightens the mood on set, and some of Skyler’s very own Heisenberg tendencies.
[SPOILER ALERT: This interview reveals key plot points to aired episodes of Season 5 of Breaking Bad]
Hollywood.com: This season of Breaking Bad has started out really intensely right away. And from Skyler especially we’ve gotten to see a lot more range. I wanted to talk to you about how you prepared to play this side of Skyler — where she is so clearly terrified of Walt. And also, of course, your epic meltdown with Marie.
Anna Gunn: Yeah, that was so incredible. It’s been really wonderful to play because I felt like Skyler has essentially just held on to her emotions and held onto herself so tightly for all these seasons. It’s been since she found out even that Walt was ill, and then certainly everything else she’s found out. And she’s somebody who’s tried to deal with everything in a way. She always says, “Okay, this is not good, but what can I do? What action can I take? What can I do?” And Skyler’s thing has always been to try to control things through action. And now she’s really realized she has no control. This is an uncontrollable situation and no turn she’s taken, no move she’s made, has made any difference, she feels. And so I think she feels really backed into a corner and held hostage by Walt and put in a position that’s just completely impossible for her. She’s become a villain to her son, which is probably the most painful thing about the entire situation, but she’s taken it on to protect him. And I think she’s gone through, in her own mind, every possibility. Should I go to the police? Should I run away? Should I take the kids? What should I do? And she’s just been turning it over and over and over and now there’s nowhere, I think, she feels for her to turn.
And that’s why the kettle has just been boiling and boiling. With that scene with Marie, the lid finally pops off, and all that stuff that she’s been keeping inside just explodes out of her. And I think the shock of it, and the pain of it — which is why it was, I think, such a beautifully written moment— just explodes in anger with that “Shut up, shut up, shut up!” and then just the realization of, “Oh my god,” and then the pain also just tumbling out of her. Because she’s kept that all really really tightly inside of herself. Even, I think, in private. Which is why the audience never really saw a moment where Skyler went into a bathroom and closed the door and sat down and just dissolved into tears. Because I think had she done that she feared she would never get up from the floor. And so it’s always been about putting one foot in front of the other and continuing on and this season starts out with her in a state of utter despair. And there’s depression and it was very heavy, very intense.
How did you prepare to go into filming that scene with Betsy Brandt (Marie)? Where was your mind?
Sometimes it’s just, the show is so beautifully written and the material is so rich that part of it is just the imagination getting really active. I know Skyler, and I’ve lived in her skin for so long that her journey feels like my journey, and they’re sort of enmeshed. So the pain that’s been building up is just something that has been happening through acting the last four seasons of this show. So essentially it was very, not easy emotionally, but logic-wise it was easy to find my way into that. And then it just, it just… There are some parallels that you draw sometimes between your own life and the character. But with material that’s this good—it’s like, when the writing is this good it does a lot of the work for you as an actor, it really does. Bryan said once, “Actors are only as good as the material that we’re given, and we’re just blessed with phenomenal material.” If you give yourself over to it it kind of takes you on the journey.
Another scene I wanted to ask you about that intrigues me, personally, is that scene where Skyler goes to visit Ted in the hospital. For me, it really seemed like a turning point, where she realized for the first time that people were afraid of her and that’s how deep in everything she is. I was wondering if you saw it that way, or just what your thoughts about that scene were.
Yeah, I think absolutely that when she goes into the hospital she’s just terrified of what she’s going to find. Then she comes in the room and she couldn’t have imagined seeing him in that state, in that apparatus, looking like he’s at death’s door. I think the guilt that just hits her is like a tsunami and it just knocks her over. And then she realizes, as he continues to say, “I’m not going to tell anybody,” that there is—The writers and the director and I discussed that Skyler has these moments along the way that are much like Walt’s Heisenberg moments. The beginnings of it, where the sense of empowerment is all of a sudden kind of activated and it’s brand new and there’s something kind of seductive and heady about it. And at the same time that she’s feeling really tremendous guilt and remorse, theres another sense of, “Yeah, I told you.” It’s a little bit of, “I told you, I told you to take care of this and you didn’t.”
And it’s also, again, about control. She’s felt like she’s been so unable to control things and she’s been a pawn and she’s had to do all of this stuff that Walt’s really made her do, and — it’s so complicated! There’s a sense of, now somebody knows what it feels like to be in the position I’ve been put in. There’s that sense of, “I told you to take care of this, and I didn’t mean for this to happen, but this is what happened.” And it’s such a complex moment and that’s what’s great, again, about what the writers do with this show; every character is so complex. Nobody’s all good or bad, and nobody’s all light or dark. Every human being has so many different aspects and facets to them. And there can be something noble and something really dark and dangerous going on in a person all at the same time. And that’s what was so great about that scene, that it was so many layers at the same time.
Like you said, so much of the show is dark and serious. Are there things that you try to do or you try to do with the other cast members to keep things light?
We joke around a lot. It’s a very funny cast. Every single person really is very, very funny, and that helps a lot. And Bryan and I especially have those long, dark, intense scenes, and he is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. There are times in between takes where emotionally we both need to kind of stay in the [dark] place and the head space. But there are also so many times when you just need the relief of a conversation, or laughter, or pulling a practical joke, or something like that. And so that happens a lot, and I don’t know how we would do it without that. I really don’t. So it’s great to have that relief. And, like I say, I just sit and am the happy recipient of Bryan [Cranston]‘s wit.
With the end of Breaking Bad looming, what do think or hope will happen for the White family at the end of it all?
Well, I have my, Anna’s, sort of romantic notion of what I would like to see happen, which of course would be, is there a way for them to somehow extricate themselves from this whole thing. And for Walt and Skyler to somehow find their way back to each other and for the family to be out of danger and okay and whole again. That’s a very idealistic, romantic notion to have and probably completely unrealistic.
I never try to guess what’s going to come, what’s going to happen, because I’m constantly surprised by the twists and turns that Vince [Gilligan] takes in the story. So truly I have no idea what’s coming. And that’s really kind of exciting, because anything could happen. I sense that it’s not going to be a nice picture at the end. Especially for Walt, yeah. One has the sense that it’s just not going to end up pretty. But again, they’ve just taken so many twists and turns with the story as it’s gone along that things happen out of the blue, and who knows. It could be anything! So I’m just as excited as any audience member or viewer; I’m kind of on the edge of my seat with it. It’s going to be a wild ride, I’m sure.
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[Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC]