Vince Gilligan pays tribute to Robert Forster and how he did big little things in El Camino
The 'El Camino' director explains why the late actor was 'brilliant' and shares a memorable Forster scene you didn't get to see.
In Breaking Bad, he was known as the Disappearer. That was fitting, because Robert Forster disappeared into his roles, turning in quiet, nuanced, phenomenal performances that netted him cult praise (Twin Peaks) and even an Oscar nomination (Jackie Brown).
The kindly and respected character actor, who died Friday at 78 after a battle with brain cancer, appeared in just one episode of Breaking Bad, the acclaimed meth drama’s penultimate installment that was titled “Granite State.” But this sturdy rock of a performer imbued such understated mastery and mystery into the near-mythic character of Ed — the vacuum-store owner that happened to run a stealth one-man witness protection program — that series creator Vince Gilligan was compelled to make Forster a key part of El Camino, the two-hour Netflix sequel movie that follows meth fugitive Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) on the run.
Midway through El Camino, Jesse appears in the store with a trash bag of cash, and tries to enlist Ed’s services without using proper protocol. Ed puts on a fantastic game face before finally giving in, but he does demand past-due payment. When Jesse falls $1,800 short of the bill, Ed rebuffs him, Jesse refuses to leave, and Ed calls call 911, which Jesse wrongly calculates as a bluff. (As the criminal scurries away, Ed honorably reminds him to take his bag of money.) Jesse later raises the funds through dubious and dangerous means, and Ed reluctantly agrees to disappear Walt’s partner to Alaska under the name Mr. Driscoll while promising to mail Jesse’s letter to Brock, the son of his late ex-girlfriend, who was shot to death in the brutal wake of Jesse’s misdeeds.
This role stands as stellar final work, as Forster died on the very day El Camino was released. Still grieving, Gilligan (who learned that Forster was seriously ill only the day before he passed away) spoke with EW about Forster’s impact on the Breaking Bad franchise — and the ending of El Camino. “He’s truly one of the good guys,” says Gilligan. “We’re all torn up about it.” In the following interview, Gilligan pays tribute to the man he calls a “brilliant actor” and “the real deal.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How far back does your appreciation for Robert go? When did you first become a fan?
VINCE GILLIGAN: I remember watching Medium Cool in film school at NYU. And being impressed with him in that. And as it turns out, he met Bryan Cranston on Alligator. I always liked that movie. John Sayles wrote it, Robert Forster stars in it, and Bryan Cranston was some assistant to an assistant to the special effects guy. Gotta love that. Just for its pedigree if not for the movie itself. I remember it being a fun movie; it’s been years since I’ve seen it. The Black Hole — that was Disney’s first PG-rated movie, and that was a big deal when I was 12 or 13 years old. I enjoyed that. Robert was the captain of the spaceship. But my favorite, really, for him, and probably most people’s, was Max Cherry in Jackie Brown. It’s my favorite Tarantino movie — I’ve seen it a dozen times, easily. Anytime it’s on TV, even if it’s cut with commercials, I’ll still watch it. I’ll wind up screwing up my plans for the day and sitting there and watching it, even though I’ve got the damn thing on Blu-ray. It’s a great movie, and Max Cherry is one of the all-time great characters, because you want to know this guy, you want to hang out with him, you want to go have a beer with him. He’s just a good, solid, dependable man. And that’s the part where Robert wasn’t acting. I think that’s him in life.
What made Robert so perfect for the role of the Disappearer?
He’s the guy you count on. I think Robert was that person in real life, and what he brings to the character of Ed — the character we call the Disappearer; originally, he didn’t even have a name — but you just innately believe this guy will be able to help you. You believe he is competent to the point of mastery, that he’s going to pull this thing off, this very difficult disappearing act that Walter White [Bryan Cranston] and Saul Goodman [Bob Odenkirk] and then Jesse Pinkman need to avail themselves of. With Robert, I can’t think of many who were at his level as an actor. And he always made it look so easy. When someone makes something look easy and they exude competency and confidence, and they do it a quiet, humble way — they’re not beating their breasts or showing off; they just quietly go about their business and get the job done, they take care of business — you believe in those kind of people. You put your trust in those kind of people. And he exuded that quality playing the part of Ed.
What unique gifts did he have? Much was often communicated with little.
You never caught him acting. That was the old Spencer Tracy quality that he had. You didn’t see the work. You didn’t see the sweat. You didn’t what he must’ve put into it in his off hours, not just learning the lines, but figuring out the way he was going to assay every moment, emotionally. I guarantee you he was doing that work at some point, but it was out of view from me. [Laughs] And when he showed up on the set, he was just ready to roll. He always knew the lines and he always had such a positive wonderful editor. The crew always loved working with him. I’m just sorry I didn’t get to work with him more. In the grand scheme of things, I might actually have had only two days directing him in my whole life. I mean, it’s amazing what a large footprint he left on Breaking Bad, when in fact he was in it very little. He was only in the one episode out of 62 of Breaking Bad. To me, in my mind — and I’m not just saying this because he passed away — he was one of the more prominent characters. Pound for for pound, in terms of screen time versus impact that he left, he might get the prize.
I knew when I wrote the movie that I wanted to bring him back, like the character of Todd, played by Jesse Plemons. That’s another good example — key characters who I wanted to know more about, oddly enough more as a fan. I wanted to spend more time with them in the writing stage and then the directing stage because I wanted to learn a little bit more about them. And thank God we got to do that. I’m so sad he passed away; it was such a terrible shock to us on the movie and Breaking Bad, but I feel so blessed that we got to work with him one more time.
Do you have a favorite story about him from either “Granite State” or El Camino that sums up his essence?
Well, I gotta tell you, I’ve never met anyone quite like him. When I met him, he gave me a present. He would give people presents. He carried around a bag full of gift-wrapped letter openers that he would give to people that he enjoyed his time with, that he enjoyed interacting with, and I was the very fortunate recipient of one of those letter openers. And trust me when I say it’s been sitting on my nightstand since the day I met him. When I heard that news, all of us were floored, I went upstairs — I was going to bed for the night — thinking about him. I reach to turn off this light and there’s this letter opener. And it’s… it’s a very emotional thing to think about.
But a lot of people got them, not just me. I want to stress that. It was a charming thing. It was one of his trademarks. I said to him, “How many of these have you given away over the years?” He said, “Oh… who knows?” He was such a cool guy. He really was the real deal. I’ve met some cool people in my time. He was one of the coolest people I’ve ever met. And one of the most down-to-earth. He was just a sweet guy. He reminded me of my dad. He always did. And he’s really not that much like my dad, except that they’re both from upstate New York. He’s just the guy you wanted to have as your dad. He was this wonderful straight-shooting guy who enjoyed people’s company and enjoyed talking to strangers, was curious about people, was curious about the world…
The whole thing is sad, but it was my great good fortune to be able to work with him at all. I wish I could have spent more time with him. And by my big regret is the last time I saw him was on the set of the movie, and it was the final scene we shot with him. It was up on Sandia Crest, which is this highway that goes along the Sandia Mountains, it overlooks Albuquerque, and that’s where we shot some of the Alaska sequence at the end of the movie in the parking lot. He basically shakes Jesse Pinkman’s hand and sends him off to a new life. That was the last scene we shot with Robert. And as he was about to get in the van — a teamster was going to drive him back down the mountain and get him to the airport — I said, “We should get together and have dinner.” And he said, “I’d love that! Let’s do that.” And I’m always going to regret that I didn’t try to make that happen. One thing led to another, you think, “Oh, we’ll catch up later,” and then you find out that’s never going to happen.
In bringing back Ed, you have fun with unfinished business, given that Jesse had backed out of the arrangement with Ed and still owes him $125,000. It’s a standout moment, and one of the funniest moments in the movie as Jesse attempts to match wits with him. So much of this movie is grim — Jesse’s on the run and dealing with PTSD, but in that scene he comes alive and you get the old Jesse from Breaking Bad. The show, of course, always had its share of black comedy, but did you write that to provide a little balance and comedic relief in this story of this broken man?
Good. I’m glad. It’s everything you just said. If Breaking Bad was everything that it was minus the humor, I don’t know that anyone would’ve been able to sit through it. It just would’ve been to ponderous and too depressing and too bleak. We have to find the humor in things because life — maybe it’s just because I’m getting older, but it just seems like every year things get more and more bleak. I just figured, “You’ve got to look for the laugh in everything. Otherwise, what are you even doing this for?”
That was definitely something I had top of mind when I was writing the script and directing the movie. Just so long as the moment of humor is earned, so long as it’s not cheap, or derives from something other than a character’s real impulse or instinct, I’d say go for it. I try to do that every time, and that seemed like an appropriate moment for Jesse to try to match wits with this gentleman. It’s not as even so much that he’s matching intellect… It made me laugh watching the monitor and seeing those two guys play that scene. It was such a pleasure watching Aaron Paul and Robert Forster spend the day together matching wits — so to speak — just spending the day toe-to-toe, playing the scene over and over and over again. It’s about a nine-minute scene, and I was nervous going into it. As a director, I was kind of dreading it because I thought, “God, all of us are going to have watch this thing 100 times here, between directing it and in the editing room” — because you have to get all these different angles, and each take is like nine to 10 minutes long — “and I’m going to wear out these poor actors, and I’m going to be tired of watching this freaking thing.” Going into it, I was thinking, “Oh, God, I can’t wait ’til this is over.” Now I just wish I had more of it.
Was there an exchange in that scene that particularly amused you and stands out as a highlight?
I love the way Ed stonewalls Jesse. I think the line that made all of us laugh over and over again — and I’ve been able to see the movie with a few audiences — somehow is when Robert says, “Hoover products are right over there on the wall behind you.” [Laughs] It wasn’t even meant to be a funny line, but some of my favorite lines are the ones that I didn’t even think were that funny but they seem to consistently get a laugh. And that one seemed to consistently get a laugh even when it wasn’t really meant to. It’s just so much fun watching him. The guy was an iron man, over and over playing this part, never missing a trick, never dropping a line, just nailing it for 10, 12 hours straight. It was a pleasure. I was lucky to get to work with him. I wish I had worked with him more.
In the original version of the script, the audience heard Jesse narrating that letter to Brock [Ian Posada]. In the final version of the movie, we see Ed finishing up reading the letter to Brock and sealing it up. He communicates so much with a microscopic shift in his stoic expression. Did his literal sealing up of that powerful moment in such a minimalistic fashion validate your decision not to have the letter read?
I’m glad you mentioned that. The original ending to the movie was to hear Jesse in voiceover reading his letter. And I just remember thinking, “Maybe it’s better to not let the audience have all that stuff explained to them explicitly.” And what Robert’s acting in that moment allowed us to do is to skip the letter entirely. This is the thing about Robert Forster — you never saw him acting. You never catch him at his work. He’s just unbelievable in every single moment. And when Ed reads that letter, every take — and we didn’t do that many takes because we didn’t need to; this guy nails it every time — watching him play the part, you feel like that’s the first time ever he’s reading that letter. He’s never broadcasting it to the audience. He’s inhabiting it all by himself in that one moment, and yet it comes across. It just kind of leaks out of his expression. He’s not hitting it one iota harder than it needs to be hit, yet I can watch that moment of reaction over and over again.
There’s another silent reaction he gave that I wish wound up in the final cut of the movie. It’ll be, I guess, in the deleted-scenes feature at some point when we have a Blu-ray out. We have a deleted scene that’s a big moment that people may be surprised to hear was originally in the movie: Jesse originally got shot in that shootout. He got shot in the side. There was this whole other scene with Robert in the movie originally where he finds Jesse hiding out behind his vacuum store the next morning. And there’s this moment, a silent reaction where Jesse pops up the trunk of his Fiero and there’s all this money in it. There’s this close-up we got of Robert where he’s staring down at this truck full of money. It was just so perfect. I didn’t mind it cutting the scene because I just wanted to get to the end of the movie at the point. I didn’t want to linger, and I realized that Jesse really didn’t need to be wounded. It didn’t amp up the stakes because you kinda knew that he wasn’t going to die at that point. So it felt almost a little bit like false jeopardy. Unless we’re really going to pay it off and kill of the character, which I think we would have been run out of town if we tried to do that. And rightly so. So I figured, “All right, let’s just cut the scene.”
But the one regret I had in cutting the scene where Jesse gets wounded is that this moment where Ed stares down at the money and silently realizes, “A deal is a deal. Your word is your bond. And I’ve gotta go through with this now.” It’s really so beautiful. That’s what made him such a great actor. You never saw him trying hard. You never saw him sweat, but every time you looked at his face, you could read his mind. That’s the mark of a truly brilliant actor.
Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.