It’s a good time to be Dean Norris. Not only is his long-running role as macho-yet-noble DEA man Hank Schrader on AMC’s Emmy-winning Breaking Bad finishing up later this summer with his character due to play a major role in the final episodes, but he’s also starring in the plum role of “Big Jim” Rennie, the manipulative town leader in CBS’ Under the Dome, the eagerly-anticipated Stephen King adaptation from Steven Spielberg and Lost writer/comic book superstar Brian K. Vaughan that premieres on June 24.
During a set visit to Under the Dome at Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, North Carolina, we got a few minutes to talk with Norris about Under the Dome, Breaking Bad and more – and tried to pry a few secrets of those shows out of him:
MTV Geek: So Dean, here’s a Breaking Bad-ish question to start: Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Fring) has been shooting Revolution in Wilmington, where Under the Dome films. Have you had a Hank and the Chicken Man reunion yet?
Dean Norris: I wish we did! I ran into him on the first or second day I got into town, just randomly, and we hugged. But they were leaving, because production had wrapped already.
MTV Geek: You’ve just wrapped a long run on what’s been a much-acclaimed show. What made Under the Dome and “Big Jim” the project for you?
Norris: Two things. One is Stephen King/Steven Spielberg – when they ask you to do a show, your answer is “yes.” The other thing is that it’s completely different from Hank in Breaking Bad, both in terms of character and genre.
Hank was the good guy, and he has all sorts of internal angst toward the end of that series that he has to deal with, that internal, emotional kind of thing. And the genre of that show was more naturalistic and intimate, I thought, though it’s a very expanded reality.
On this show, the character is…you’ll find out he’s the bad guy, I don’t think he’s the bad guy, but at the end of the day (laughs) viewers might see what he’s done as evil.
MTV Geek: He’s broken bad already.
Norris: He’s broken bad. There’s no conflict. He like the Dome. It provides him with an excuse to pursue his power dreams. And I think he might be slightly psychopathic as well. He’s able to interact with every character differently – you see him with the townspeople and he’s really charming, and then he’s with his son and he’s…a real strange dude.
MTV Geek: You mentioned some of the differences between Under the Dome and Breaking Bad earlier – Breaking Bad is, as you mentioned, a sort of elevated universe where there’s consequences for your actions, but if you get shot, you die. And in Under the Dome…well, you still die, but there’s this fantastic element of the Dome cutting off the town and other elements that go with that. As an actor, how do you approach that different type of material?
Norris: I think that, as an actor, what you do is you find the reality of the script, whatever that reality is. I mean, if you’re doing Shakespeare, it’s certainly different from if you’re doing David Mamet, you know what I’m saying? Some elements of the acting process are the same. With Shakespeare, it’s un-naturalistic language. We don’t talk like that. So you still have to find a way to make that as realistic as you can. Whereas with Mamet, he writes as we speak –
MTV Geek: He calls it “uninflected.”
Norris: Right, uninflected. But you can see where that comes from if you’re from Chicago, especially. It has that un-naturalistic quality to it as well, if you want to call it that, but the point is you have to find the reality of those scripts, and anyone else you’re playing – Sam Shepard, anyone.
So it’s the same thing here – it took a couple episodes for me to get into what this guy is saying and how he’s saying it. But now (around the filming of Episode 4 when this interview took place), I feel a lot stronger about how I’m handling this character than when I first started. It’s just a different process – he talks a different way, walks a different way, sees the world a different way.
The more scripts I read, the more the character finds himself.
MTV Geek: The $64,000 question is – how much of your characterization comes from the book? Are you basing more of it on a combination of the book and script, or are you just letting the script speak for itself?
Norris: I’m letting the script speak for itself. It’s funny – I bought the book to read, and I kind of struggled with whether I should or not, and right now I’ve decided not to read it until we’ve at least finished the first 13 episodes. It’s so different from the show that I don’t want to be confused by the book, based on what’s coming out in the script. It’s significantly different from the book.
MTV Geek: It’s this version of “Big Jim.”
Norris: It’s this version, and that’s what’s coming from me based on the scripts they’re writing, vs. the book. So I don’t want to have that book in my head and keep confusing it, because it’s not the same. Though I still want to read the book! I’m just choosing not to right now. Maybe at the end of this 13.
What I’ve been told from my wife, who’s read the book, and from the producers, is that “Big Jim” is more kind of specifically evil and mean in the book, and in the series, they’re trying to make it a little more complex, so it’s not so obvious that he’s the bad guy.
MTV Geek: Well, it’s always interesting when you have that demagogue type – I’m thinking of All the King’s Men or its real-life inspiration, Huey Long.
Norris: Huey Long’s interesting. Stephen King told me he saw “Big Jim” as Dick Cheney, and I told him I saw him as Alexander Haig, when Ronald Reagan got shot: “I am in control here.” He uses this opportunity of a crisis to take over.
In the script, he’s reading a biography of Winston Churchill, so I imagine “Big Jim” is kind of practicing Churchill’s lines in the mirror. Because “Big Jim” is unabashedly not concerned about this Dome. He loves the Dome! It gives him the chance to be the king under the Dome.
MTV Geek: You’ve got the last run of Breaking Bad coming out later this summer – these shows will actually be airing at the same time?
MTV Geek: You’re having a good summer.
Norris: It’s the summer of Dean Norris. On TV at least. (laughs)
MTV Geek: Obviously, I’m aware that if Breaking Bad spoilers leak out (creator) Vince Gilligan will have our legs broken. But knowing that the last aired episode put Hank in a major position, and that it’s all coming to an end, what can you tell us about the experience of these final episodes?
Norris: Well, it’s the most and best I’ve gotten to do in the whole series. It’s definitely a Walt/Hank kind of conflict– I’m not giving away in spoilers, that was telegraphed in that last episode. And they’ve been building to this for a while. Vince told me that this is the last issue they need to address. There’s things he needs to deal with involving his wife and Jesse Pinkman, but in terms of a plot, Hank finding out and what happens when that happens is something we’ve been kind of waiting to do, and that’s what these eight episodes address. And I think they’re eight of the best episodes of the whole series.
All this tension – when Hank finds out, it’s like (mimes an explosion), you know? It’s like, let’s go and see what happens.
MTV Geek: And it’s been a big journey for your character – going from this macho comic relief type to this noble figure –
Norris: He’s the one good guy left in the show, you know? He’s the only one who hasn’t broken bad. Everyone has compromised their morals in the show, and Hank refuses to do that. I always describe Hank as the guy who just wants to have some soul left at the end of the day.
MTV Geek: Anything you’d like to say to fans about Under the Dome?
Norris: Under the Dome is going to be a great ride. I’m having a great time, and every script we’re getting is better and better. Check it out.
Under The Dome premieres Monday, June 24 at 10pm ET on CBS!