Co.Create

Anna Gunn On The Art Of Playing Walter White's Wife On "Breaking Bad"

The actress talks to Co.Create about how she and Bryan Cranston worked together to portray one of television’s most dysfunctional couples and how music influenced her performance.

Anna Gunn had done lots of television, playing characters on shows ranging from NYPD Blue to The Practice to Deadwood. Then came Breaking Bad and the role of Skyler White.

"It’s changed the landscape of my career without a doubt. Deadwood started to do that, but then Breaking Bad really shifted everything for me," says Gunn, who is nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series this year. (She picked up a nod in the category last year, too.)

Anna Gunn

While the final eight episodes of the second half of Breaking Bad's fifth season begin rolling out August 11 on AMC, the show wrapped production back in March. Series creator Vince Gilligan directed the last episode, "which was really nice for all of us because there was a great sense of closure in that," according to Gunn.

The actress recalls driving home after an intense and emotional day full of group hugs and difficult goodbyes. "I realized as I was driving home that I had this huge smile on my face. I thought, isn’t that great? While there were some tears certainly, there was a huge smile at the end of it. It really was that special and that wonderful," she says of working on the show. "I’ll always remember driving home with that big grin on my face."

Gunn is going to miss a lot about Breaking Bad, including the writing—"To have writing that good, you wait for that all your life as an actor," she says—and costars with whom she was able to reach her potential.

Bryan Cranston was her main scene partner, of course, and while his alter ego Walter White went from being a mild-mannered teacher who put family first to a ruthless drug kingpin motivated by power and money, Skyler, his wife, went through a transformation, too. Initially unaware that her husband was cooking crystal meth, she was angry when she found out but ultimately became one of his partners in crime—albeit reluctantly.

When you think about how tense and acrimonious their interactions have become over five seasons, it’s hard to believe these two were a loving couple when Breaking Bad debuted. Offscreen, Cranston and Gunn forged an easy, nurturing creative partnership that allowed them to get to those dark places. Gunn talks to Co.Create about working with Cranston, the role music played in getting her into character, and what it was like to walk into that pool when Skyler went off the deep end—or at least pretended to.

Co.Create: Had you ever met or acted with Bryan before you two worked together on Breaking Bad?

No. The first time we met was when I was brought in to test for the studio and network, and they brought three of us—I think I was there with three other ladies who were testing for the same role.

They were really great about the setup of the test. They had us all go in and spend about 10 or 15 minutes with Vince and Bryan before we had to go in and do the actual test, which was nice because it’s very nerve-wracking that situation.

We had that funny scene, which I refer to as the hand-job scene, where Skyler is multitasking, as it were, in the pilot. It’s such a funny, sort of strange scene. It’s a bit daunting to do in a casting situation. We got right to that and trying to figure out how we would do that so that it wasn’t completely ridiculous but would still be kind of funny and real at the same time.

Bryan and I just started having a really good time working out the mechanics and started laughing and joking around, and Vince kind of stood back and just watched us go to town. I think he enjoyed the chemistry that was between us right away.

It was really fun. I remember really distinctly that we had a really good time. It was almost like a comedy audition, in a way. You wouldn’t have known how dark it was going to get between them at that time.

Can you give me a sense of how you and Bryan worked together once you were doing the show? Did you analyze your scenes beforehand? Was there a lot of rehearsal?

Well, Bryan and I certainly tried to do as much rehearsal as we could. We’re both theater people. So we actually liked to try to get in as much rehearsal as we could, because in TV you’re working at such a fast pace, and you don’t have a lot of time. It’s important, I think, to use the time that you have to explore as much as you can.

We always started to work in the makeup trailer. When we were sitting in there getting hair and makeup done, we just started running lines and discussing the scene, and if there were transitions or things that bumped us within the scene, we would start to talk about it. ‘What do you think about that? Do you think we need to do that? How do you think that works? Do you think we can do that with it or this with it?’

In a way, we would almost start rehearsing in the makeup trailer even before we got onto the soundstage.

They were always really generous with rehearsal time and the way they rehearsed with us. They always gave us private rehearsal time and let us run through things first before laying down marks, and that’s not always the way it is. Sometimes they really hustle you through that in television. There was always an atmosphere of great respect for everybody on the set and for everybody’s job.

I understand music inspires your performances, whether you’re doing TV or theater, and that you are known to make playlists for your characters. Did you make one for Skyler?

I did. It would change season by season, because her mind-set would change every season. So it would depend on what she was going through in terms of what I would put on the playlist. I pretty much do that for every character. Music helps me a lot.

I assume Skyler’s playlist got darker as Breaking Bad went on.

Yeah, quite a bit. I’m going to look right now on my iTunes while we’re talking. Let me see if I have anything [from Skyler’s playlist]. What do I have here? You know what I have on here still—Pearl Jam "Better Man." Rather telling. And there was a fair amount of Lucinda Williams on there because, first of all, I like Lucinda Williams, but, secondly, she sings a lot about lost love and disappointment and heartbreak and things like that. It seemed to be right for Skyler.

Do you remember what your first impression was when you read the pilot script for Breaking Bad?

I remember locking myself away and reading it, and then I think I called somebody and said, ‘That’s one of the best scripts, bar none, that I’ve ever read in my life—TV or film.’ It read to me like a feature film script. Just the story contained within the pilot script was an amazing story.

I wondered if people would watch this. It seemed to me to be a risky kind of thing, but that didn’t really matter to me, and I don’t think that’s ever really mattered to me. I’ve just always been very interested in story above all. The story was just so good and so well written, and the characters were so well drawn that I was intrigued right away.

I then talked to Vince about the character Skyler a little bit before I went in to test for it, and what he had to say about her was so interesting that I was sold immediately.

What did Vince tell you about how the character would develop? Did you have a road map going into the role?

I didn’t. There wasn’t that much on the page about her as a human being, so I did want to know a little bit about where he intended to go with her. He basically said to me that she would become in essence a bit like Carmela Soprano but that she would be in on the crime. That’s what he told me. So I said, ‘Okay. Sold. That’s all I need to know.’

One of your most memorable scenes had Skyler getting up from dinner with Walter, Hank, and Marie and walking into the swimming pool. What was it like for you to shoot that scene? Can you swim?

I’m a decent swimmer, thank God, but I never thought I’d be able to do that kind of thing, because it required me having to be trained with scuba equipment, with a regulator. Going under the water and staying under the water for periods of time gives me claustrophobia.

But I also like a good challenge. The boys always got to do a lot of stunts on the show. So when I got to do something that was stuntlike, I thought, okay good. Now I finally get to do something.

It was hard to tell from the shot, but I actually had to walk into the pool, and then there was a cut after I walk down into the water. Our wonderful special effects people and our stunt people had to build a wire cage, and they rigged that blue skirt I was wearing onto the wire cage so that the effect of the skirt billowing around my head was created.

They placed that wire cage in the deep end of the pool. That’s why they had to train me to go underwater and breathe with a regulator.

Two guys had to drag me under and put me under the wire cage. We rehearsed it the day before. It was daylight, and there weren’t a lot of people around. They took me through it very slowly and carefully, and all my anxiety actually went away, and I felt fine about it. I thought, oh God, this is no big deal. I went home feeling pretty great about it.

The next night we came back to do it, and it was very different because when it’s dark and there are lights streaming in the pool it’s a very different sensation. We shot that scene all night. We didn’t get to the actual cage underwater bit until about 4:30 in the morning.

I started to panic a little bit, but again, couldn’t have had a nicer group of people around me, and everybody worked real hard to keep me calm and stop me from panicking.

Bryan, as always, was extremely helpful and supportive and got in the pool even though he didn’t have to at that particular point and swam over to me and said, ‘Are you doing okay?’

I said, ‘Yeah. I’m just really freaked out.’

He said, ‘It’s okay.’ He put his regulator in, got down under the water with me and helped me sort of calm down, then we did three shots, and we got them, and it turned out great.

It doesn’t sound like a big deal to people who are not afraid of water or scuba diving or anything like that, but for me it was kind of a big deal. I felt quite proud.

[Images courtesy of Frank Ockenfels | Lewis Jacobs | Cathy Kanavy | AMC]

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