Breaking Bad vet Dean Norris breaks down Hank's return on Better Call Saul
“My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go f--- yourself.”
There are a million ways to die in the Southwest, and few memorable characters on ultra-revered TV dramas went out with the bang that Hank Schrader did in the final season of Breaking Bad. Seven years later, the proud, tenacious DEA agent has been revived on AMC’s Bad prequel, as the drug business turns into serious business. In the third episode of Better Call Saul’s fifth season, Hank (Dean Norris) — flanked by the partner he loves to razz, Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) — made an audacious return, slapping his credentials against the glass window at the police precinct, there to interview a potentially promising suspect who'd been arrested during a drug bust that could lead back to the cartel. That suspect was Krazy-8 (Max Arciniega), who was, somewhat against his will, being represented by Jimmy McGill-turned-Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). Hank soon sniffed that something was fishy with this suspect, but he took the bait, not quite realizing the extent of the subterfuge in progress: drug lord Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) had tasked Saul with feeding Krazy-8 intel that he could then feed to Hank, which would dent the end of the cartel business operated by Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).
What happens now that Hank is on the hunt for next-level dealers and manufacturers? Did Norris (who has been a cast member of Claws) ever think he would wind up reprising his dearly departed character? And what was that revival process like? Let's take Norris into the interrogation room.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You had a truly tragic but indelible exit on Breaking Bad. Was there a part of you that was like, “It can never be as good as that goodbye. Let’s just let sleeping Hanks sleep?” or were you always curious to see if there was more life in this character?
DEAN NORRIS: Peter Gould [who created Better Call Saul with Vince Gilligan] had talked to me for several years about this possibility of coming back. And it always came down to be that I asked him, “Just don't let it be a gratuitous return, just to say he's in it.” And when they called me to ask me to do it, the only question I asked was, “Do you think it's worth him coming back?” for exactly the reason you're talking about. Vince said, "Yes.” And I said, “Well, if you say yes, then I'm in.” He told me that one of their rules has always been to never do the original show any harm. He thought that was the case with this particular return, so I was like, “Great, let's do it.”… Peter said that it would be really interesting and fun if Hank Schrader played some small role in the development of Saul Goodman. Which meant it was not gratuitous. It was there for a purpose. It was there to push along the story of Jimmy McGill turning into Saul.
You’re playing an earlier version of Hank. What kind of conversations did you have with Peter about where he was in his life at this point, where he was good at his job but more of a goof, still in the s----eating grin phase?
That was a fun thing, I thought, because I said, “Hey, you know, it'd be nice for the fans to see him back in his prime again [laughs], before the PTSD and all that stuff." And they were like, “Yeah, he's prime Hank swagger at this point.” Even more so than Breaking Bad, because [Better Call Saul is set] a little bit before, but certainly consistent with the first season of Breaking Bad, he’s his loudmouth, boisterous, over-the-top, macho self. I thought, “Well, that's great to get to go back and play that," because it was such a change for him in the second and third season of Breaking Bad. He became such a depressed and dour guy [laughs] that it was great to go back to the original fun Hank and play him that way.
You walk on set. How surreal was it to be in that character again, cracking on Steve, meeting Saul for the first time?
It really was surreal. Obviously, that show had such an impact on my life — on everyone’s life — and I have such great memories, and here we are more than 10 years later, at least from the start of the show, where I first met Steve Michael Quezada. We had just been introduced, and I've stayed friends with him, so I've known him for all these years. Now we get to go back and play like we're buddies in the show, and we actually are buddies in real life, you know what I’m saying? So it was weird and it was great and it just brought back good memories. It brought back a lot of reminiscing; so much of the crew is the same — at least half if not more. And, of course, being back in Albuquerque and all the feelings you’ve had of that time that had been passed. I've done two shows since then, you know? So now I get to go back and revisit all that stuff — and it was really special.
Did it come back easily, like muscle memory, or did it take a few takes to shake off the rust?
No, it came back quickly because they wrote him so well, as they always did in Breaking Bad. It's hard to act when the lines aren't good, but it's easy to act when you have great writers. And they got right back into the Hank Schrader of the early years, and it was easy to just go with the script and go with the words. And once I learned the words the character came right back.
Hank initially senses that something is off about what he’s being offered by Krazy-8 and Saul, but he goes along with it. He’s a smart, perceptive detective — and he knows it — but does he think he’s smarter than he is?
I think a guy like him maybe always thinks he’s smarter than he is. [Laughs] But I also think that's part of what makes him good and allows him to survive. He's wise to question it because Saul is not somebody he trusts, and he's always going to question whether or not an informant is going to be telling the truth. But he ultimately makes a decision, goes with his gut, and decides to proceed.
That’s a really long and fun interrogation scene. What was the trickiest part of filming this chess game?
The main point I remember is the turn that Bob Odenkirk and I talked about, of giving legitimacy to it. Bob says, “Hey, I want you to make sure you take care of my guy and make sure he doesn't get hurt.” There's a turn there where Hank has to kind of assess — because in his mind, he probably knows that he might not be able to take care of the informant. That’s a dangerous place to play and he has to make a moral judgment where he gives his word to Saul and says, “Hey, yeah, okay, we'll make sure.” Now whether he's telling the complete truth, whether he's going to hope to do that, whether he's just blatantly lying because he wants to see what happens with this guy — that'll be left for the audience to figure out. But I thought that was an interesting turn. It's also an interesting moment where you see some moral character from Saul. You see him concerned about his guy, instead of just money.
Hank and Gomie get some intel that needs to be checked out. What can you hint about what happens when they go on the hunt and scope out these dead drops?
There's actually some action in it, probably more action than there was ever in Breaking Bad, actually, with Hank. The two of them have more fun banter because they're stuck on this stakeout for hours. And I think that's probably all I should say. [Laughs]
With the drug trade only expanding, it seems logical that Hank will be back in the mix. Have you had early discussions about his return beyond next week, perhaps next season?
I probably couldn't say. It's fair to say that now he’s back in the story, maybe, maybe not he's part of some future stuff — and we'll just have to wait and see how that works out.
Is there something you'd love to do on Better Call Saul — a dream scene that would allow you to work with a particular actor?
I love them all. I don't see it as a possibility, but I'd love to act with Rhea Seehorn [who plays Kim Wexler] or Michael Mando — I think those guys are fun. Whether he could ever have a scene with Jonathan Banks [a.k.a Mike] again, I doubt it because I don't see it as a story. But who knows? Maybe they could figure something out. Any of those actors, I would be excited to get to play with.
If Hank does return, are you hoping that Betsy [Brandt, who played Hank's wife, Marie] can be brought into the mix?
Oh, man! That would be my favorite right there. She and I love playing together, and it would be unbelievably fantastic if we could get a scene with them, with Marie back in there.
Fans were excited for Hank’s return. What do they want to talk to you the most about these days when it comes to Breaking Bad? Do they still recite the “My name is ASAC Schrader” line and talk minerals?
We all got lucky to have a few iconic lines from that show, so you hear that a lot from people. But mostly people are very respectful and they're very sincere and passionate in their chit-chatting. They always like to tell me how they came to the story: “I didn't want to watch it, but my husband made me do it and I'm so happy.” That's what you get most — their story of how they got to Breaking Bad, and then how thankful they are that they did and thanks for the entertainment. And that continues because new people continue to discover it constantly on Netflix and other places. It's really quite nice, to be honest. We have the best fans. It’s not like, “Hey, man, you were great on that show.” It's like, “Man, lemme tell you something — that show really, really affected me, and it was really one of the best shows we've ever seen and thank you for that.” So it's always a proud moment when that happens.
If we're not watching your return on Better Call Saul with a Schraderbrau in hand, are we really even watching the show?
Oh, believe me, I was like, “Are you sure he’s not drinking a Schraderbrau during this interview?” [Laughs] Vince is a big supporter of Schraderbrau, so he was laughing about it. I have some behind-the-scenes shots and maybe a video or two regarding Schraderbrau that we'll get to put out on social media after the episodes air, so that’ll be fun.
There's a final season of Claws coming up. Where else will we see you in 2020?
I'm doing a pilot for Chuck Lorre called The United States of Al on CBS. It's really cool. Chuck Lorre has a pretty good record, and if that goes, then that'll be what I'll be doing for a while.... [My character] is kind of a modern-day Archie Bunker in a way. He’s a Midwestern veteran who lives at home and his son comes home from Afghanistan and he brings his Muslim translator to live with them. So it's kind of a clash of cultures where this Ohio guy is trying to figure out how he's going to relate to somebody he wouldn't have anything in common with. And his son has got problems — he's got PTSD, he's got alcoholism and all kinds of stuff. So it's kind of in the way that Chuck Lorre has been going with Mom and shows where they're more socially aware, they’re not just funny jokes every 30 seconds. It's really funny, but it's also really culturally interesting. And I think it would be fun if we could pull it off.