Q&A: Anna Gunn moves on from ‘Breaking Bad’ by heading to ‘Gracepoint’
Skyler White is now one with the law.
Or rather, her maker, Anna Gunn, is in the upcoming Fox crime drama “Gracepoint.” After her seminal turn playing the role of Walter White’s polarizing -- sometimes law-defying -- wife on “Breaking Bad,” Gunn is in the midst of navigating the post-"Breaking Bad” portion of her career. So far, it’s one that has been marked by a role in the off-Broadway production “Sex with Strangers” and a guest spot on “The Mindy Project,” and now comes “Gracepoint.”
The limited series, which is an adaptation of the British hit “Broadchurch,” premieres Oct. 2 at 9 p.m. ET/PT and features Gunn as Ellie Miller, half of a detective duo trying to solve the murder of a young boy in a small Northern California town. (The series also features David Tennant somewhat reprising his role from the original.)
We spoke to Gunn about her new role:
I imagine you did some binge-viewing before taking on this project?
I absolutely did. I had the pilot script, or what was the first episode because they had already picked it up for 10 episodes, so I read the first episode. My manager, who watched the original series, actually said, “You have to read this. This is one of the best things I have ever watched besides ‘Breaking Bad.’” And I went, “Ooh! Ooh! That sounds intriguing,” so I read the first episode and loved it. I thought the writing and the story and the characters were incredible. Then they sent over the DVDs of the original, and I did binge-watch. I think I did it all in one day, honestly. Wait, I think a day and a half.
It definitely reels you in. I think I scarfed down the screeners in one night. I didn’t go to sleep until 4:30 a.m. or something. I wondered if it had that same effect on you.
It completely did. I couldn’t stop. And now I understand people who say they binge-watch “Breaking Bad” because I would always be like, “Wow, how can you do that? That’s such a commitment.” But when you get really gripped by a story, that’s what happens. So, honestly, “Broadchurch” was my first real binge-watching experience. I could not stop. I just kept going, “I have to know. I have to know. I have to know.” I thought, again, the first episode read brilliantly on paper and then I watched the series and thought, “Oh my God, this is remarkable.” And it was exactly the kind of project I was looking for after “Breaking Bad.”
It had everything I wanted. It had a great story, it had excellent writing, it had really rich characters -- specifically for me, the character of Ellie just really jumped off the page. And, also, I know some of the actors in our cast of “Gracepoint” didn’t want to watch because they were wary of being influenced by somebody else’s performances. But I was in a theater company for a few years, many years ago, where we did double casting, so you would share the role essentially with another actor. And I think I got used to the process of watching somebody else interpret your role essentially, which is a very odd thing as an actor. You have to step back.
What’s great about it is it takes ego out of it. You’re able to then watch from a very objective place and you’re able to be more like a viewer. And then it really informs so much about what you’re doing, because when you have that external viewpoint -- which you don’t often, you’re just playing the role by yourself and you’re so wrapped up in it -- it really gives you a great advantage, I think, because it lets you see the arc of the story, where your character fits into that story, and what the arc of your character is taking. And Olivia Colman’s performance was absolutely brilliant. I knew that there was no way I could duplicate what she had done. But we’re such different actors, I figured I could take so many things from her performance that really helped me and really informed me as I went along.
What’s interesting is you’re playing opposite someone who is reprising his role from the original. Was there comfort in knowing David had done it before?
I did find comfort in it. I think, probably, we were both a little bit nervous to start because I figured it’s pretty palpable when you see good chemistry between actors, and it was clear that [he and Olivia] had good chemistry and that their relationship really worked, and I wanted to make sure that I did it justice, basically. But David is an incredibly kind and open actor and human being. So the minute we met, we shook hands and said hello and then we hugged and said, “All right, here we go.” It was a silent, unspoken mutual decision to just take our own journey with it.
He was really game for -- he did some different things with his own character that were very interesting. And then because of a different actress with completely different traits and characteristics, of course that’s going to color the relationship, and we let that just naturally happen. I said to him at one point: “Does it feel like you’re cheating on Olivia?” And he said, “You know, I had that feeling at the very beginning, but then I met you and we just got on so well that it feels like its own interpretation, its own version.” That’s what was really nice about it.
What was the first meeting with David like? I’m curious. I mean, the role he plays is very serious and internal. But David, the actor, is very rambunctious.
It was interesting. I was in my trailer. And, yeah, he is incredibly enthusiastic and buoyant and gregarious and funny. He greets everybody with tremendous excitement. He’s like, “HELLLLLOOO!” I could hear him outside the trailer and I was like, “Oh, that must be David Tennant.” So I opened my door, he walked up and he was like “HELLOOO!” He was so gracious and lovely and nice. I said, “Oh my gosh, I’m so happy to meet you. I’m such a fan of yours, you’re brilliant.” And he said, “You’re not so bad yourself.” We just had a good rapport from the beginning. And I think any nerves of feeling “Oh, is this going to be weird?” were instantly dispelled.
We both have a similar sense of humor. I think we approach work very similarly in the way that we like to use our time as much as possible in the makeup trailer -- or wherever we have it -- to run lines, to discuss the scene or work the scene, because you’re moving at such a fast pace in television that you have to use whatever time you do have to really mine the depths of what’s there. So we both really took advantage of that and did that. At the same time, in between playing a lot of those scenes, which were very serious, we were able to have a good laugh and have some levity, which is extremely necessary when you’re descending into those depths of emotional grief and sorrow and darkness, and all the rest of it. You have to emerge from that at some point during a 13-hour day or else you are probably going to crazy. So I just couldn’t have asked for a better scene partner.
We really get on, and that’s a big relief when you’re sitting in a cop car for many, many hours. And we were together so much. It was great.
But I would imagine he’s not a prankster quite like Bryan Cranston though, right?
No, no. He doesn’t do pranks quite like Bryan. He doesn’t run around set in his underwear. He’s a little more modest. But we totally had our inside jokes and ridiculous moments. Both of us definitely researched our roles very deeply and knew exactly what we were doing, but there were times where we would prank each other or tease each other. Like, I’m the tough detective and I’m going to pull out my fake gun. Or, I was the one always driving so I decided that she was a very fast driver, and I would say, “I’m going to drive pretty fast and he would say, “Drive as fast as you want.” And I’d peel out and the teamsters would be looking and going, “Oh my God!” And I never messed anything out. I just decided that that’s who she was. She has some vulnerability and insecurity, but she definitely has a feeling of, “I’m good at this job and you’ve come in here and you want to tell me how to do it and what to do. I’m going to show you that I’m as tough as you.” And part of a way to get that across, to me, was through her driving. So we had some good times with that in the car.
Was there any hesitation about taking on another show with such heavy emotions that lead to such dark places after coming off “Breaking Bad,” which was quite harrowing?
I did a pilot that was kind of a dramedy, I guess you would call it. It had a lot of comedy to it, with some drama. And, unfortunately, it didn’t get picked up. It was called “Rita,” and it was going to be Bravo’s first non-reality show. And I really liked the story, and I really liked the character because she was really, really different from Skyler. But they didn’t move forward with that. And I wanted to take a little bit of a break as well because I have kids and I wanted to spend time at home with them.
But I’m always looking for good writing, a good character and a good storyline, and this had all three. Certainly I knew that the storyline was an extremely serious one and would lead me to dark places, but I’m not particularly afraid of that as an actress. That’s the meaty stuff, often, as an actor. And when it’s written really well and when it’s not overly sentimental or maudlin, which it wasn’t, they wrote it so carefully and they got the tone just right -- then I felt that it was really worth doing.
How do you think people will respond to Ellie Miller? Skyler was put through the wringer by some viewers. They are, obviously, different characters in different situations but did some of that Skyler blowback make you wonder how a character you see clearly comes across to others?
I mean, when I watched “Broadchurch,” I felt so much empathy and compassion for Ellie. I felt like she was such a fully drawn human being. I saw so many aspects and color to her. I saw a part of her that did feel like, “Hey, I wanted that job; I wanted that promotion. I felt like that was mine. I worked hard for it.” You felt her disappointment and anger when she got sucker-punched in a way when she got back to the precinct after her vacation.
What I really loved about the Ellie character is that she doesn’t have a bitter bone in her body. She doesn’t have a resentment in her. She is about hard work and she is about getting the job done. I think she is truly one of those cops that believes in the motto “To serve and protect.” And I think she felt that deeply in her soul for her community, and I got a lot of that from Oliva’s performance, but it was also on the page. When I did my research, I was lucky to interview a variety of people in different positions in law enforcement. And I got to interview some women who were mothers as well, because I really wanted to know about the balance of being in that particular job and also having kids, and how do you let go of the horrific things you might have seen or dealt with during the day, and then go home and try to cook dinner for your kids and try to be a normal, happy, present human being. And I learned a lot from the women who were kind enough to spend time talking with me.
So, that was a real core to my creation of her, and I think that’s what I feel is such an intrical part of her character, and I hope that comes across. She and Carver have the same goal: They both desperately want to solve this case. They have different reasons for it, but really the overriding reason is the same. They go about it in very different ways, but her imperative is to protect her community, to heal her community, to make sure that damage is not done to the people in her community. And that what was so admirable to me. I admired her as a human being. And that was part of the pull, for me, to her character.
There are some really gripping and heartrending scenes, particularly in the first episode. I’m thinking about the scene on the beach. In some ways it made me think back to the episode of “Breaking Bad” where Skyler runs out onto the street and falls to her knees when she learns Walter has taken off with their baby daughter -- just in terms of reaching maximum-distress level.
There are a couple of scenes in “Gracepoint” that came to that level. The one on the beach in the beginning is one, and then there’s one to come toward the end -- it’s not the same kind of physical scene as the beach one, but the emotional impact required such concentration and focus. You can drop in and out, sometimes, of those very emotional scenes, but there are some you cannot. There are some you have to stay submerged in. And those are the very hard ones.
I remember that scene in “Breaking Bad.” We had to wait several hours because it was snowing, then there was hail. Then when I got out onto the street, there were all these onlookers, and I didn’t expect the sheer number of people that were lining the sidewalk. All of a sudden I felt like, “Oh, no. this is so public, and yet this is such a private moment.” It scared me, actually. It took some doing. It took me doing one take where I knew I didn’t get it. And then between takes having our director, Ryan Johnson, stand with me and tell me that “there’s nothing you have to do. Whatever it is you do is right. You don’t have to fall to your knees.” And I said, “But she has to do that, because she has literally been brought to her knees.” And I just felt the image of that was so important and I wanted it -- but I didn’t want it to be fake. I could feel in my body when it was, so I wanted it to be felt deeply in my soul.
When he just stood there and gave me the sense that I was safe, I felt like, “OK, I can do it now.” I have a director who says go for it and let’s see what we get -- that’s gold. We had that certainly on “Breaking Bad,” and we had that a lot on “Gracepoint” as well. It was a free environment to work in.
Are you ready for people to begin hounding you with their theories of who may be behind the crime in ‘Gracepoint”? I’m sure you’re used to it from your time on “Breaking Bad.” I mean, people think Walter White is still alive.
I know. There’s all these theories of did he really die? Will he come back in some form? Will we see him in “Better Call Saul”? People keep asking me if I’m going to show up on “Better Call Saul” and I’m like, uh, I don’t think that would make sense.
Where do you think Skyler is these days? We last saw her in a new apartment …
I hope that Marie and Skyler patch up their relationship, which would certainly take some doing. Those two women were really survivors, and they were the only family that they had. They didn’t have a mother and father, they had each other. My hope for them was that they would patch it up and create this bond and maybe go off and settle on a tropical island.
Uh, why wasn’t this the spinoff?
Exactly! Skyler and Marie on a tropical island. The new Thelma and Louise -- who wouldn’t want to see that?
Do you think Skyler was super-annoyed by Marie’s love of purple?
I think Skyler was annoyed by a lot of things about Marie, but because she was her older sister and took the role of the mother figure, she’d be like, ”All right, that’s what you like. That’s fine. And you steal things. Whatever.” I love their relationship.
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