‘Breaking Bad’ 10th Anniversary: Recasting the Show’s Main Characters
It’s hard to believe that it’s been 10 years since Breaking Bad first entered the public consciousness after it began airing on AMC on January 20, 2008. In the five seasons it lasted, the layered and rich drama provided ample proof that television was no longer a place where characters had to solely exist in defined and clichéd avenues where good battled evil.
In Walter White, a seemingly inadequate man inundated with the pressures and minutia of being middle class – we began a journey that creator Vince Gilligan stated on numerous occasions was a desire to take a character “from Mr. Chips to Scarface.”
For those that watched the transformation, Bryan Cranston’s artful portrayal of the cancer-stricken high school teacher – who became intoxicated by a drug-fueled ambition – was truly one of the high-points in modern entertainment.
But it begs the question, had Breaking Bad been premiering in 2018, rather than in 2008, who would Vince Gilligan and AMC want for Walt, Skyler, Jesse, Hank, Mike and Gustavo Fring?
We’ve compiled our choices for a reimagined Breaking Bad if the spark of an idea occurred a decade later.
When Vince Gilligan was exploring his options for Walter White, he recalled Bryan Cranston’s 1998 guest-starring turn on The X-Files where he played a desperate man suffering from radiation exposure.
Despite his insistence that the network consider him – with reluctance overflowing because Cranston had been most known in a contemporary context as dopy patriarch, Hal, on Malcolm in the Middle – executives initially brushed off his recommendation and were instead keen on the idea of casting someone with more bankable star power; either Matthew Broderick or John Cusack.
In all three cases, each actor had that “guy next door quality” which was instrumental in establishing a character who wasn’t even in control of his own personal life – thus making the change into a drug kingpin even more unthinkable.
Sam Rockwell is currently been showered in praise for his role as a racist cop in 3 Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri which is garnering major Academy Award buzz for the veteran character actor who has played everything from a damned man on death row, to a conniving bunko artists who uses choking on food as a means of making money.
Having already won the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor, the category is often a wonderful barometer for actors capable of “breaking bad.” In the past, notable antagonists like J.K. Simmons (Whiplash), Christoph Waltz (Inglorious Basterds), Heath Ledger (The Dark Knight) and Javier Bardem (No Country for Old Men) have proven that the category is fertile ground for those willing to explore uncomfortable sides of depravity.
If there were an overarching thematic connection between Rockwell’s characters, many are down on their luck, often overlooked, and desperate; all hallmark traits involved in the transformation of Walter White into Heisenberg.
When Breaking Bad was still airing, actress, Anna Gunn (Skyler White), penned an op-ed for The New York Times responding to a near-universal negative backlash made against her character which addressed a major irony; while many sympathized with Walter White’s decision to do whatever it took to provide for his family – despite continuing to sell drugs after he had made enough money – others couldn’t identify with Skyler’s decision to turn cold on her husband in order to protect her children.
“At the end of the day, she hasn’t been judged by the same set of standards as Walter,” Gunn wrote, adding, “But I finally realized that most people’s hatred of Skyler had little to do with me and a lot to do with their own perception of women and wives.”
Gunn went on to point out that other actresses like Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano on The Sopranos) and January Jones (Betty Draper on Mad Men) were also unfairly targeted for what were normal reactions to wrongdoings by their flawed husbands.
Vince Gilligan was vocal in his support of Gunn’s assertions, stating, “With the risk of painting with too broad a brush, I think the people who have these issues with the wives being too bitchy on Breaking Bad are misogynists, plain and simple.”
Much like Sam Rockwell, actress Allison Janney is also being applauded for her recent film work for her villainous role as Tonya Harding’s mother in I, Tonya.
For everyone that has ever studied acting or screenwriting, a wise lesson to consider is that a villain often fancies themselves the protagonist of their own story – creating much more believable “bad guys” that veer away from traditional “mustache twirling” composites of yesteryear.
But in the case of Skyler White, she was actually a good person who was judged by the court of public opining to to as morally corrupt as as drug dealers, neo-Nazis and sociopaths.
Knowing what we know now about how Skyler White would become so polarizing, Allison Janney is uniquely suited for the task.
She’s gone on record as saying she loves the challenge of convincing the audience to sympathize with a character who may seem unredeemable, saying, “I think one of my big skills is making unlikable characters likable or real in some way. No matter how hateful people are, there’s always something vulnerable about them, or something that you can understand or relate to. I think that’s my job as an actress—to find those. It’s a challenge for me to make people like me. Maybe it’s just my desperate need for people to like me that I choose the characters I have to play. You will like me, I don’t care what I’ve done, you’re going to like me.”
For much of the development process, Vince Gilligan was intent on killing off Jesse Pinkman at the end of season one. But the combination of Aaron Paul’s mesmerizing portrayal of an addict turned opportunist – combined with a writers strike which abbreviated the first season – thankfully scrapped that plan.
When casting director, Dawn Steinberg, was scouring Hollywood to fill the role, she considered other actors like Penn Badgley, Reed Scott and Colin Hanks.
“It was clear that it was Aaron Paul in the audition room,” she said. “You just knew. You feel it. You watch an actor audition, and you hear the words, and he’s no longer himself. He’s the character. We had to fight the studio tooth and nail. They though he was too good-looking. Too 90210. Too Melrose Place. They didn’t think anyone like that would play that kind of role. Sony almost didn’t make the pilot because we said, ‘it has to be Aaron Paul.'”
On paper, Robert Pattinson may seem an unlikely choice; given his good looks and ties to both the Twilight and Harry Potter franchises which are about as far removed from the world of Albuquerque meth as possible.
But then Pattinson was cast as Connie Nikas in 2017’s Good Time – a drug-fueled New York City caper that was as raw as an addict’s formication urges – where his rugged good looks were hidden amongst cholrox-bleached hair and stubble which could have doubled for gravel.
No longer were you watching a British heartthrob. Instead, you saw a character who seemed to be organically plucked off the New York City streets using a similar strategy as Larry Clark utilized for Kids.
From a craft standpoint, both Aaron Paul and Robert Pattinson used a method strategy to get to the core of the characters they played – with the former visiting “sketchy alleyways to scare the shit out of myself,” and the latter living in a basement apartment in Harlem on a diet of canned tuna for the duration of the shoot.
While many Breaking Bad viewers always focused on the dangers of an uninformed teacher entering the world of meth production, Jesse’s journey was equally perilous because there was perhaps nothing as terrifying for a junkie than understanding the intricacies of how to produce something so pure and potent.
In Dean Norris’ audition tape for the role of Special Agent Hank Schrader, he nailed a character who had white knight qualities which were buried underneath an overtly macho – and slightly racist persona – who valued street acumen over book smarts.
Before he and Walter ever become sworn enemies, this differentiation was always examined whenever they shared a scene together; with Hank self-aware enough that every time Walter took subtle jabs at his intellectual powers, it fueled him in the areas that he knew he was good at like working for the DEA.
For many people, their first experience with actor, Jon Bernthal, came on The Walking Dead as the brooding best friend of the show’s lead, Rick Grimes. In subsequent years, he’s continued a trend for portraying complicated and physically powerful men – in The Wolf of Wall Street, Fury, Wind River and as Frank Castle in The Punisher where his committeemen to service conflicts with any sense of morality.
For Bernthal, he enjoys the challenge of characters that you can’t “pin down” – pointing to the enjoyment he derives as an actor from turning his back on the audience and making choices in service to his character motivations.
Thanks to Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul, our understanding of the events which drove Mike Ehrmantraut from the streets of Philadelphia as a police officer, to becoming a stoic and cold consigliere for Gustavo Fring, are much clearer.
Through this awakening we also have an even greater appreciation for Jonathan Banks’ performance which always grounded the illegality happening in Albuquerque. At the end of day, it was always just business for Mike. He only demanded perfection from his conspirators because he understood that mistakes begot legal trouble.
Aside from the physical resemblance, J.K. Simmons has continually stolen scenes in various projects for his commitment to whatever doctrine his particular character subscribed to. Whether that was as a sadistic Aryan brotherhood leader on Oz, or as a jazz teacher who put the nuts in “salt peanuts” in Whiplash, one gets the unmistakable feeling that Simmons exudes much more than the dialogue a writer provides for him.
For a character like Mike Ehrmantraut, it’s important that an actor can make you feel something without having to deliver anything full of exposition. But on the rare occasion where he gives you an explanation – like his famous “half measure ” speech – it’s especially effective because it’s so unexpected.
There are few villains in modern television history as memorable as the fast food-selling, box-cutter wielding, Gustavo Fring.
As artfully portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito, the actor refused to indulge in the antics of other drug dealers we’ve seen on screen in the past like Tony Montana in Scarface or Nino Brown in New Jack City who couldn’t differentiate between the private citizen and the kingpin. Instead, Esposito was wise to understand that killing someone with kindness – rather than gangland shootouts – were what made his ruse that much more effective.
“All I had in the beginning was that he owns a restaurant,” Esposito said. “I wanted him to be very cordial, polite and almost aristocratic and hold himself with a certain demeanor. I found it fascinating that you could just mistake him for somebody that worked there. He owned not only this place but 17 other restaurants, and he chooses to work. That to me is a statement on who Gus is as a human being and I liked it.”
Sterling K. Brown had done a number of television shows before he landed the role of Christopher Darden in the Emmy winning series, The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story. What made Brown’s portrayal so effective was that he had to separate the man into cross-sections which were in direct conflict with one another. On one hand, he felt qualified to prosecute O.J. Simpson based on the evidence. On the other hand, as an African American man, he was aware of the biases inside the Los Angeles Police Department.
With both Esposito and Brown, we’re reminded that drug dealers can still have empathy, and prosecutors can still have deep-seated hatred for the system. It’s actually those ironies which make for terrific television characters.
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