‘Breaking Bad’: Hank Gets Back on the Heisenberg Hunt

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Dean Norris as Hank Schrader
Dean Norris as Hank Schrader

As cocky DEA agent Hank Schrader on "Breaking Bad," actor Dean Norris has spent plenty of time running around busting bad guys and gleefully boasting about it. But ever since Schrader narrowly survived an assassination attempt last season, Norris has been delivering most of his lines from a reclining position and with an angry glare.

Although his wife, Marie, seems powerless to ease his pain, surely his spirits would be boosted if he got a big break in the Heisenberg case, right? So when we got an early look at how this week's episode ends, we just had to get Norris on the phone to ask him about what's ahead.

It was hard not to picture him lying in bed on the other end of the line.

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead.

Even though Hank has been stuck in bed for a while now, struggling to learn how to walk again, by the end of this week's episode he's got Gale's lab notes in his hands and things start to look like they're about to get a lot more interesting for him.

Yeah, you can't keep a good man down, and he gets back into the investigation. The really interesting and funny part of the next few episodes after that is that he can't drive, so he has to get people to help him out. Of course the guy he asks, number one, is Mr. Walter White. [Laughs] It's that great "Breaking Bad" tradition of tense but funny, and it's some of the stuff I love to see Bryan do the most. He's just squirming nonstop because I have to get him to drive me to different places for the investigation, and that's a really fun part in the middle of the season.

Hank's come close to catching Walt before — the two were once separated by just the thin wall of an RV. Will it be getting that thrillingly close again?

It does, and somehow the brilliant writers are able to continue to get him close and yet not close enough. I can't give the exact details, but yeah, it gets real close. You know, Vince told me at the beginning of this season, "Look, there's only two things left to really do. One is when and how does Walt die, because he's gonna die. And two: When and how does Hank find out, and what happens when he does?" ... Certainly they've jacked up the stakes by having Hank be shot, and whenever that revelation [of Walt's involvement] comes around, I think that's gonna make it that much more intense. But I'm sure in a "Breaking Bad" way it'll be intense, scary, and funny.

You've been involved in some intense action scenes on this show, but lately you've had to act mostly from a reclining position in an adjustable bed. What's it like to shift gears like that?

I think [Hank's immobility] is really the heart of the matter at the beginning of the season, and it's really heartbreaking. Some of the scenes were difficult to play, and I know they're difficult to watch, because you've taken a guy who, you know, his physicality was a real big part of who he is. Certainly his bravado and overblown sense of his self revolved around the fact that he thought he was kind of a tough guy. And now all that's been taken away from him and he's left at the mercy of his poor wife to change his bedpan, and it's just so humiliating for him. You know, I think that's the source of his disgust and the source of his meanness towards his wife. It's tough. I think that anybody in that situation — you go through a range of complex emotions, including anger, and I think that's where Hank is right now. Eventually you find something again that makes life worth living, and ultimately for Hank that's getting back to work.

Check out a scene from this week's "Breaking Bad":

It must be terrible for Marie to have to change Hank's bedpan and bear the brunt of his anger.

Our relationship's always been one of my favorite things on the show, and it's always fascinated me because they're both really imperfect people but somehow they still love each other and they manage to get each other's back. He's just angry, and she's the only person around. I think at some level it's like, "Hey, I've been f---ing shot. I can't walk anymore, and I'm bitter about it, and I need somebody to feel my pain with me, so it's gonna be you."

Hank almost has more appreciation for the minerals he's collecting than for his wife. On a show where even the smallest details usually have bigger meaning, viewers have to be wondering if there's some kind of subtext to Hank's new hobby.

To me, it's simply the furthest thing away from cop work, the furthest thing away from any kind of action or activity — something to take his mind off the fact that he's landed in bed. I think there's something about the inertness of rock minerals. It's just dead weight, and I think if anybody wants to read into it, I think that's probably what it would be — just the fact that it's so inactive and so not the adrenaline rush you get from doing police work. I think he's trying to use it as therapy to get his mind off of anything else. He just looks at the pretty crystals and it gives him some comfort.

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You trained pretty extensively with law enforcement officials to prepare for your role as a DEA agent. Before Season 4 started shooting, did you also study up on minerals?

I did a little bit. Luckily I have a son who's a big fan of that kind of stuff, and he kind of took me through a little bit of it so I could sound like I know what I'm talking about.

How about prep work for playing a man working through paralysis and struggling with physical therapy?

Yeah, that was really interesting because I was able to talk to people who don't have the use of their legs. One of the great things about this job is getting to learn about people and meet people. And from a physical point of view, we had an advisor on the set, a medical advisor telling us how you would carry your leg or not carry your leg. But for me the mental element was the most striking part. It's almost like when you talk about those stages of death: anger, denial, etc. I think it's sort of like that as well. You can understand the bitterness of being able to walk and all of a sudden you turn around and you can't, you know? Eventually you work through that and you don't wanna believe that that's the case, and you wanna get better and you try harder. And eventually you say, "Heck, I've got two choices: Either I can wallow in my pain or I can live life the best I can." I think ultimately that's what Hank gets to. He also gets better. I mean, he does learn to [walk] — not perfectly — but as the season goes on he gets back on his feet.

Back on his feet, and back on the trail of that blue meth. Meanwhile, you've been traveling around the world doing your own drug investigation of a different sort. What can you tell us about the History Channel's "The Stoned Ages," which you host?

We went to New York, London, Greece, Honduras ... and it's kind of my journey through all the ages of humankind and how we've related to drugs — all the way back to early man. There was no moral judgment for them — drugs were part of their life, part of their experiencing God, part of their experiencing reality. And then there came a turn and drugs became moralistic, and we go all the way through that up to now, where we have so many drugs pumped out by the pharmaceutical companies, making huge amounts of money and really in many cases they're the same as the illegal drugs. Oxycontin is basically heroin, but if you shoot up heroin you go to jail. It's a very complex relationship we have in this society.

Having studied drugs pretty intensely for your role as Hank, were there still things you were surprised to learn while making "The Stoned Ages"?

Oh yeah. [I was shocked by] how many drugs there are available — something like 24,000 drugs on the market. You can heal or attempt to heal anything. And the question we often asked was: Are we really coming up with drugs to heal a problem, or are the pharmaceutical companies making us think we have problems so they can sell this drug? The amount of money being spent on a daily basis on pharmaceutical drugs is staggering — way more than I thought. When you add that to the illegal drugs [being used], you realize that we really are a society where everybody's on something, whether it's just blood pressure medicine or it's heroin, and everything in between. It's amazing how many drugs are coursing through our collective veins at any given moment.

"Breaking Bad" airs Sunday at 10pm ET on AMC

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