Dean Norris on ‘Men, Women and Children’ and the Chances of Seeing Hank Schrader on ‘Better Call Saul’
It’s hard not to root for a guy like Dean Norris. After years of being a character actor in everything from ‘Terminator 2’ to ‘Police Academy 6: City Under Siege,’ everything changed after Norris was cast as an Albuquerque DEA agent named Hank Schrader in what would become one of the most successful television series of all time, ‘Breaking Bad.’ Funny thing, as Norris explains, when you play a guy like Hank, well, then everyone else wants you to keep some sort of version of Hank – for Norris, this is a big reason why Jason’s Reitman’s ‘Men, Women and Children’ was so appealing.
Norris plays Kent -- who is basically the opposite of Hank Schrader – a father who doesn’t understand why his son (Ansel Elgort) gave up football and now only seems interested in online gaming, who is also balancing his own budding relationship with Joan (Judy Greer), who has secrets of her own. We see a lot of emotions in Kent, but that’s the unique quality of Norris: even though he commands an intimidating presence, there’s a warmth to him. When we see Norris on screen, our instinct is to trust him.
I spoke to Norris by phone, which in itself is always complicated because it’s impossible to gauge a visual reaction to how a question is taken. Put it this way: after mentioning Norris’ role in ‘Police Academy 6,’ there was a long enough pause that I found myself cringing … right before Norris (thankfully!) burst into laughter. ‘Police Academy 6’ aside, Norris also explains that, yes, down the road, there’s a chance we might see Hank Schrader pop up on the AMC ‘Breaking Bad’ spinoff, ‘Better Call Saul’ -- but, then again, maybe it’s for the best we’ve seen the last of Hank.
You have an intimidating presence, yet there’s always something I trust about your characters and that really comes through in this movie.
I hope so, that’s nice! I mean, certainly one of the reasons for doing this was that he was a damaged character and I wanted to get away from playing guys that had that meaner, tougher presence. So, it was a real joy, even though it was a downer of a character [laughs]. I remember the four weeks of that movie being kind of sad, you know?
It was. All you’re thinking about is sadness, your wife is gone and you’re trying to take care of your kid and all of this stuff. So, my memory of making that movie was just sadness. But doing it was fantastic. Jason Reitman is one of, like, 15 [directors] I want to work with in my life, and there he is.
And you at least see Kent’s point. I never once thought he was an asshole.
You know, I always think that’s a goal – it’s your duty, not even a goal. In a way it’s your duty as an actor to try to find that guy’s truth. Nobody wants to think they’re an asshole; he’s certainly trying to do it for the right reasons. The thing I love about the sweetness of that guy is that he just didn’t understand, you know? And I get that a little bit. I mean, I obviously use the Internet…
You are on Twitter, I’m under the impression you know what you’re doing.
Yeah, but I understand, as an adult now, I still remember my parents not understanding me. But that doesn’t mean that they were mean, they just didn’t understand … He wants to not be a dick to his son, but he just doesn’t understand the stupid games that he’s playing all the time.
You alluded to this, but how much did this role stand out? Are you getting offered a lot of Hank Schrader type parts?
Absolutely. I was in the fortunate position, I guess, of turning down a lot of roles – sometimes in more high profile movies – but they were playing cops.
Is that scary to turn down big movies?
I’ve been around a long time…
And you’re in a good position right now...
Yeah, exactly. It certainly wasn’t done without some thought. But, yeah, I got that from Bryan Cranston, actually: The best thing you can do is exactly the opposite of what you’ve just done. And it’s a good point. Because it is comforting and it is comfortable to go, “Oh, I’m just going to do that. That’s what they’re willing to pay me to do,” and just take those roles. But, then, how long does that last? It’s just not satisfying creatively. And when I saw that script and met Jason, I couldn’t have been happier. It’s such a different, sad role. There’s not a Hank moment in it.
Like you said, you’ve been around a long time. Is it weird to now also be a known actor? People love you now.
There’s no other answer than “it’s fantastic.” But, quite frankly, the nice part about it is that I’ve gotten years to get better at what I do without being in the spotlight, you know? So when finally something came along like ‘Breaking Bad,’ I felt so much more comfortable and confident in the craft of it all, in a way, it was a good place to be. Sometimes things come around at the right time. And I was old enough to appreciate it; I was old enough to be a lot better than what I was when I was 25. And then came the role that mattered – the one that really mattered. [Laughs] I had probably done seven or eight pilots, something like that? And I had done one called ‘Tremors,’ and they canceled it after a year, but they regretted it because the numbers on it were really good. What if that thing had gone? I’d be the guy from ‘Tremors’! And I never would have had ‘Breaking Bad.’
It’s always the way you get through as an actor of my sort, because there have been so many roles -- either that you’ve done and didn’t turn out how you thought, or that you didn’t get – and the only way to get through that without killing yourself or drinking yourself to death is to say, “Hey, the good news is that always around the corner is another role.” And, sure enough, out of disappointment of not getting other things, I was able to do ‘Breaking Bad’ – and it turned out pretty good.
One of your first roles was in ‘The Equalizer’ television series...
That was my very first! That role is what got me my SAG card. That was literally my very first professional role. Literally, I had no idea how to become an actor. I went to New York and I had some kind of random manager, they said, “Hey, you have this audition.” And literally the next day it’s, “Oh, wow, holy shit, I have a job.” I remember it well because I had one line in a bar and I missed it. And I was so scared, I’ve got to find that and look at it again. Because I see the camera coming -- and I didn’t know anything about marks or where to be – and the camera is coming my way and and I felt like Homer Simpson, “Doh!” Right when the camera comes in I’m supposed to say one easy line and I’m like, “Fghlbd.” And it was, “You can’t do that again, you’re not going to get a job.” I remember that very well, I missed my first line ever.
The name of your character was Martin. It’s too bad Martin wasn’t in the new ‘Equalizer’ movie.
That would have been fantastic, man. Absolutely [laughs].
When you were doing press for ‘Under the Dome’ you were asked about appearing as Hank on ‘Better Call Saul.’ And you explained why, contractually, it probably wouldn’t work out. This kind of made me happy. I’ll remember your last episode, ‘Ozymandias,’ forever and part of me wants that to be it for Hank.
I kind of agree with you, man. I have very conflicted views on ‘Better Call Saul.’ You know, I’m such a big fan of ‘Breaking Bad.’ So, I thought it was the perfect show and I thought it ended perfectly and to just kind of mess with that in any way, what’s the upside? You have to make another perfect show, you know? I’m going to watch it like a mother watches her kids playing baseball or something, because I want it to be so good and I want it to work and I want it to be great. But I think they’re going to turn that show into something completely different. And, smartly, it’s going to be its own show. And maybe, years down the line, maybe I’ll show up on that show. But, I’m afraid.
As an audience member, we said our goodbyes to him. And it might be weird to see him again. I know that sounds corny.
Oh, I agree with you. Maybe a few years down the line, once that show gets established and has its own rhythm, maybe then something comes up. But, it certainly wouldn’t be for a long time. If ever.
What’s it like to be in a ‘Police Academy’ movie?
[Pauses, then starts laughing]
I have to know.
You know, man, at the time, it was fantastic. There’s not a single job that I ever regret or don’t like, because every one of them paid my rent for the next two months or something. So, I was happy at every single one I got and that was definitely early enough to go, “Wow, I’m in a ‘Police Academy’ movie! That was fucking great!” And it’s fun to look back now and have on that, what do you call them, wife beater shirts? I look like Olivia Newton-John in that exercise video, or something.
You’ll always have that on your resume.
You’ll never have to do another ‘Police Academy’ movie.
Never again. And I was in one!
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is the senior editor of ScreenCrush. You can contact him directly on Twitter.