October 6, 2013

‘Breaking Bad’ co-star looks back ... and ahead

Betsy Brandt joins the ‘Michael J. Fox Show’

By B.j. Hammerstein
Mcclatchy Newspapers

Betsy Brandt still can’t believe that “Breaking Bad” won its first-ever best drama Emmy last month – one week before the show was to go off the air.

click image to enlarge

Betsy Brandt played Marie Schrader in AMC’s just-ended “Breaking Bad.”

McClatchy Newspapers

“Quiet, please!” Brandt announced over the phone. “We’re that show about the high school chemistry teacher who cooks meth. And we just won the Emmy!”

Brandt’s mock news conference, motivated in part by the AMC series’ edgy, complex content, ended with a maniacal laugh. “That just made me look like a crazy person, right?” she said playfully.

Well, the past year for Brandt has indeed been pretty crazy.

A year ago, Brandt, best known for “Bad” character Marie Schrader – wife of DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and sister-in-law to the crystal meth-cooking drug kingpin, Walter White (Bryan Cranston) – lived in Los Angeles (and Albuquerque, N.M., where “Bad” was filming six months out of the year) with her husband and two children. She was actively looking for her next job knowing that the show’s conclusion had been planned and the legend of Walter White, one way or another, would end in September.

Sunday night, “Bad” ended its incredible five-season run. And Brandt, who loves her “Bad” cast and crew to death, wasn’t in Los Angeles celebrating. She was watching the finale from New York City, where she and her family now reside. And then going to work Monday on NBC’s “The Michael J. Fox Show,” where she plays Annie Henry, the wife of the “Family Ties” and “Spin City” sitcom legend who left series TV more than a decade ago to manage his escalating Parkinson’s disease.

After high school, Brandt earned a BFA in acting at the University of Illinois. She studied theater at the Moscow Art Theater School at Harvard and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. She acted in different plays across the country and had guest-starring roles on TV shows like “Without a Trace” and “Judging Amy.”

She met her on-screen “Bad” husband Norris for the first time just before they both auditioned for “Bad” creator Gilligan and his crew of casting agents and producers. She said she remembers it well: Not knowing whether “Bad” was a drama or a comedy, instantly knowing she wanted to work for Gilligan after meeting him, and that “Bad” – funny, serious or seriously messed up – was the best pilot she had ever read.

“I think I was meant to play Marie. I think that’s how they saw me,” Brandt said of the casting process, which included her reading for the part of Walter’s wife, Skyler White (a role that would be filled by Anna Gunn), and a role that never made the show. “Marie could’ve been a nothing role. And even if she was a nothing role I would’ve happily done that. Anything for Vince.”

Over the past five seasons, Brandt filled in Marie’s backstory by initiating conversations with Gilligan, Norris, Cranston and Gunn. Purple, she said, wouldn’t just be a color she wore. Marie’s personality needed to be all in, she said.

Marie, whom Brandt describes as a huge “pain in the butt,” is a character that she loved from the beginning. And although she didn’t get as much screen time as the show’s other players, Brandt brought a tremendous amount of depth and compassion to a flawed, onetime kleptomaniac, “purple-loving freak.” And Marie was fully devoted to her husband Hank, who in the show’s third season struggled to regain his strength and mobility after being gunned down and temporarily paralyzed by members of a Mexican drug cartel.

In the fifth season, as DEA agent Hank went directly after Walt and the White family secrets were revealed, viewers saw how important Hank and Marie were to each other.

“She brought an enormous amount of heart, soul and dignity to Marie,” Norris told the Detroit Free Press via e-mail. “I will always love her and miss her. She was an important part of making my ‘Breaking Bad’ experience special.

“Plus, she’s really, really, really funny.”

Brandt said that she couldn’t be happier about going from the dark and dramatic “Bad” to a traditional family comedy where Fox is front and center.

“I’ve never done a half-hour sitcom or, really, comedy on stage or on film. I’ve never done it on TV either. Well, ‘Breaking Bad’ is pretty funny,” she said. “After ‘Breaking Bad’ you want a good job. And I was hoping that a comedy was in the cards for me and this just kind of happened.”

Brandt plays Annie Henry on “The Michael J. Fox Show,” Fox’s new NBC sitcom about a New York City news personality who is ready to get back to his career after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

“You know, one of the most amazing things about him – and not everybody can do this – but he really is an amazing actor whether it’s comedy or drama,” she said. “He’s an icon, but he’s also just really good at being a guy. And people relate to him because of that.”

“The Michael J. Fox Show” debuted Thursday with back-to-back episodes. NBC gave it a full, 22-episode season order in January and plans to air it at 9:30 p.m. ET Thursdays. Reactions have been mixed because the new show’s humor – which includes jokes about Parkinson’s – is inconsistent. It was NBC’s top-rated program Thursday with about 7.2 million viewers tuning in to both episodes. Although the show’s ratings were solid, Robin Williams’ new CBS sitcom, “The Crazy Ones,” debuted at 9 p.m. Thursday with 15.6 million viewers tuning in.

Brandt, for her part, isn’t thinking about how big the moment is. She’s just enjoying the unique experiences and creative people she has been fortunate enough to build relationships with.

“You know, this is a crazy business,” she said. “I just look at what right’s in front of me and go for it. (Laughs) And that’s probably both a good and bad thing.”

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