Things are getting hairy in Chester’s Mill. In the second season of the hit CBS show “Under the Dome,” premiering June 30, the village that has been trapped under a mysterious dome finds itself facing a new dilemma: too many people, not enough food. So “Big Jim” Rennie, the local councilman, has proposed a really extreme solution (use your imagination). And as played by veteran character actor Dean Norris, you know Big Jim is one serious — and scary — dude.
“Big Jim doesn’t believe he’s doing things for evil purposes,” says the 51-year-old Norris, who, after years playing cops and other law enforcement types, catapulted to fame as DEA agent Hank Schrader, brother-in-law of meth kingpin Walter White in the acclaimed TV series “Breaking Bad.”
“Jim believes he’s doing whatever it takes to make things work,” continues Norris, “and if it takes some evil things to do that, c’est la vie. He doesn’t see them as evil; he sees them as keys to survival.”
And when it comes to surviving, particularly in the film and TV universe, Norris is an expert. The native of South Bend, Ind., was high school class valedictorian and attended Harvard, where he pursued an honors liberal arts major. But instead of becoming an investment banker (“If you went to Harvard, it was an easy pass into Wall Street,” says Norris), he indulged his lifelong passion for acting, attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, moved to L.A. in his 20s and, within a year, had been cast in three major films: “Lethal Weapon 2,” “Hard to Kill” and “Total Recall.” Norris has been working nonstop ever since — he has nearly 150 film and TV credits — although it has only been post-"Breaking Bad” that he has been recognized on the street as anything other than “you’re that guy from that show.”
“I knew immediately from reading that script it was one of the best pilots I’d ever done,” Norris says. “I had just gotten really close to another pilot for HBO that I thought was one of the best scripts ever written, and I was so disappointed. Then this script came along and I thought, I’m going to be disappointed again because I’m so right for this role.”
“He nailed [the part] as soon as he walked in the door,” “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan says. “He brings humor to the role, a depth of feeling, humanity. He’s got many layers, like an onion. And the longer I knew him, those shadings were revealed in the character of Hank Schrader.”
That ability to bring empathy to a basically unlikable character also comes into play in “Under the Dome.” When it came to casting the role of Big Jim, says Jack Bender, a director and executive producer on the show, “we wanted someone who could be both larger than life and be the guy who could sell anybody a used car, and likewise sell anybody as a politician anything he wants to sell them. [Norris] was an actor who gave us that reality and that range.”
Gilligan describes Norris as a “guy’s guy” who combines a down-to-earth personality with erudition. During a recent on-set interview, Norris managed to reference Edgar Allan Poe, “Moby-Dick” and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa while joking raucously with the crew.
Career-wise, he’s on a roll: He doesn’t have to audition for roles anymore and recently turned down a slew of jobs before accepting a part in a new Jason Reitman film costarring with Adam Sandler and Judy Greer. And achieving fame at his age is, he says, “such a great time to get it. I’m kind of settled in the business, so for me it wasn’t like going from 0 to 60, it was like going from 35 to 60. It wasn’t quite as big a change.”