Now playing in theaters is director Jason Reitman’s (Up in the Air) latest feature, Men, Women & Children. Starring Ansel Elgort, Dean Norris, Adam Sandler, Rosemarie DeWitt, Judy Greer, J.K. Simmons, Elena Kampouris, Timothée Chalamet, Olivia Crocicchia, Dennis Haysbert, and the voice of Emma Thompson, the drama follows the loosely connected stories of a group of teenagers and their parents as they attempt to navigate life in the digital age. Loaded with great performances and a smart script, Men, Women & Children is able to tap into the zeitgeist of our tech-obsessed culture yet it doesn’t feel pedantic or forced. It was definitely one of my favorite films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. For more on Men, Women & Children, read Matt’s review, watch some clips or the trailer, or click here for all our previous coverage.
Recently I landed an exclusive phone interview with Dean Norris. Besides talking about working with Jason Reitman and making Men, Women & Children, we talked about his career, the way he likes to work, playing a small but key role in Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall, Breaking Bad, his thoughts on Better Call Saul and if he’d like to cameo on it, getting to work with Christopher Plummer on Atom Egoyan’s Remember, and so much more. Hit the jump for the interview.
Steve: I usually don’t interject about me in an interview, but I have to say the last time I spoke to you was five years ago at the end of season two of Breaking Bad. You were at a Mad Men event and you and Aaron Paul were like the after thoughts. How things have changed.
DEAN NORRIS: [Laughs] Wow that was a while back, yeah.
I’m looking at the interview right now as I was prepping to talk to you and in my intro I’m saying how fantastic this show is called Breaking Bad and how you all need to be watching it. Anyway, I think it worked out.
NORRIS: Yeah, we appreciated all the critical support we got on that show early on, so thank you for that.
Before I jump into getting to work with Jason Reitman, what has it been like for you – because you worked so much on TV shows and did one-offs – so sort of all the sudden to have this new chapter in the last few years where you’re getting these really meaty roles.
NORRIS: It’s been fantastic is the short answer. I’ve always looked at it as a marathon rather than a spring [laughs]. As you’ve said, I worked really steadily, which actually helped me out a lot. I got better and better at what I did and it was helpful, and when the time came to do something as fantastic as Breaking Bad I felt more comfortable in my skin as an actor. It was great. It was obviously a fantastic opportunity. One that really nobody could have known or figured out when we started. I mean, we all knew it was great script. I think I’ve probably done eight or nine pilots, a hundred pilots maybe [laughs], and when I read that script I said, “Oh my god, this is it. If this goes, what a role for me and what a fantastic thing.” But none of us every had any confidence that anybody would see it or that it would stay on the air long enough to do anything. So it was great. It was a great gift to be given and now I get to work with guys like Jason Reitman [laughs]. You know?
A hundred percent. Before I jump into the Jason Reitman thing, I absolutely love Total Recall, the Schwarzenegger version, which you play a key role in. A small but key role. Do people still want to talk to you about Total Recall or do they not realize that you’re a big part of it?
NORRIS: The good hardcore fans do, oddly enough that role for some reason kind of stuck out. That was my second movie – actually it technically was the third, but the second movie that ever came out – that I ever did after moving to California and it was amazing. All the sudden I’m this kid from Indiana out of my wits in a place like California, and here I am doing a movie with Schwarzenegger. And at the time he was at the height of his popularity – that might have marked the height actually – and here you are doing a movie with this big, huge movie star. So it was a fantastic time. It was great. Just very great memories of that show.
Yeah, and also a huge hit. I wish Paul Verhoeven would do more. He did some classic films.
NORRIS: Yeah, I don’t know what happened after Basic Instinct and I did Starship Troopers with him actually, and then yeah, he just kind of retreated back to his home country and I don’t know what he’s doing recently. I haven’t seen much about him.
Let’s jump into why I get to talk to you today. I think Jason Reitman is a fantastic filmmaker and he has yet to make a bad film. I’ve heard from some of the other actors about how they got involved. Jennifer Garner told me she was cast on an airplane that she was sharing a flight with Jason. How did you get to the role?
NORRIS: I don’t know how he got to me, but I got a phone call saying that Jason Reitman wanted to meet me for this movie, and they shot the movie over to me, I immediately read it, and I met him at like nine AM on a Sunday morning. I think it was at the SoHo House in North Hollywood. And we talked for – what should have been maybe a half hour turned into an hour and a half. I love the guy. There’s fifteen directors I want to work with and he’s one of them. We just hit it off. He was a big fan of Breaking Bad, we talked about that, I talked about Up in the Air and Juno, he talked about Breaking Bad [laughs], and we couldn’t stop talking about different moments that we loved, this and that. And that was it. A couple days later they called and said “Let’s do the movie.” I was really excited, because when read the movie I said, “Oh man this is a fantastic opportunity.” Plus, for me personally, the role was different than the kind of boisterous that Hank was, or even a different kind of hurt at the end that Hank was. It was a different kind of role and it was very fun to get to play that role in this movie as opposed to the stuff that I have been doing. That happened to work out well, although it was Jason Reitman, I would have played a cop again if he wanted me to [laughs].
I completely understand. One of the things that’s really strong about the film is that it balances the adult and the teenage storylines really well. Could you talk about that aspect od the film?
NORRIS: Yeah, there are a lot of storylines in this movie and I think it would take someone like Jason to kind of flesh them out. We were conscious of each of these storylines during the filming of it. It was hard to know until you saw the final product what it would be, but I thought he balanced them really well. The intersections of the different stories seem to make sense. We were certainly conscious of that, but for me I just concentrated obviously on my relationship with my son, Ansel Elgort, and the hurt that was going on in our household now that my life had left and what that meant to him. It was really fun working with Ansel. So I didn’t really look at – I obviously read the script, but after I read it the first time I didn’t really even think about what he was doing or what anybody else was doing. I just concentrated on our relationship and had faith that Jason would cut it all together. And I’ll tell you what, it played. I saw it by myself at Jason’s house and I really liked it, but then I saw it at the premiere with a crowd and I really really liked it even better. It was nice to hear the crowd laugh at the parts you’re supposed to laugh at and it was nice to feel the crowd feel uncomfortable at the moments where you should feel uncomfortable at. It’s nice watching it with a crowd.
I completely agree. From when you got the script to what people are seeing on screen, how much changed a long the way?
NORRIS: Nothing really, I mean there were parts, as in any movie, that were trimmed down, but all the essential scenes were there. Really, the script did not change, for me at least. It didn’t change for our scenes really at all. So what I saw on the script and what I saw on the final film was pretty much the same.
You’ve been working for a long time. Has your process as an actor changed along the way? Have you refined your process at all and did you do anything special for this role?
NORRIS: It’s sort of like – it’s funny because I’m not a very good golfer, but I just got done playing [laughs]. I always relate it to that, you know from doing it enough times you start to feel comfortable in that you don’t have to push certain things. I don’t think my process has necessary changed, but I feel like I’ve relaxed into it better. I feel more confident that an emotion will show up if I just feel it as opposed to having to try to push it. I think that’s the biggest thing that’s changed over the twenty or twenty-five years of doing this. You start to go from seeing yourself and you go, “Ok, I don’t want to have to try to push that emotion or that feeling, or demonstrate that. I just have to feel it and I trust that the camera, and a particularly a director like Jason Reitman, will see it and it will be up there on the screen.” So I done think that’s a change necessarily, I think it’s just having more confidence in the process than you originally kind of went in with. That then allows you almost to…I want to say relax into it, but it’s not relax into it as much as not be tense with it, and that opens up a better expression of things because you’re not pushing it. When you first start out, at least when I first started out, “I’ve got to make sure that feeling or emotion gets through” and now I can just trust that the camera picks that up. That’s kind of the only thing. Maybe more of a refinement as opposed to a change in the process.
If I’m not mistaken you recently worked with a pretty famous Canadian director on Remember.
NORRIS: Oh man, that was fantastic too. I can’t wait to see that – and a pretty famous actor named Christopher Plummer, which was – I mean literally, I would have paid them to do that [laugh]. I love Atom Egoyan. The Sweet Hereafter is still one of my favorite all time movies, and not mention many of his other ones. That was just – again, the fruits of having worked on Breaking Bad. I met him over in Rome doing some publicity and he was a big fan of Breaking Bad and we just sat and talked at a dinner one night, and then six, seven, eight months later he calls up and says, “Hey, I got this role in this thing and you get to work with Christopher Plummer.” Man, wait til you see that. Do you know anything about that movie?
NORRIS: It’s going to – if it turns out like it felt Christopher Plummer will be up for and should be a high contender for the Oscar for that. It’s going to be an intense movie. Hopefully it will get out there in the next spring sometimes.
I have to tell you, I interviewed Christopher for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I had like fifteen minutes with him, I sat across from him, and it was definitely one of my thrills.
NORRIS: How about it man?
It was insane.
NORRIS: I got you. I would sit there on the set and I would sometimes say to myself, “Holy fuck, I’m looking into the eyes of a guy who’s been doing this at a high high level.” It was – wow. It was like playing basketball with LeBron James or something, or better than that even. It was like, wow, what a joy to get to do this. And all of my scenes were just with him, so I spent like two weeks just on the set every day with Christopher Plummer, you know? And Atom Egoyan on top of it, directing it. It was just a thrill.
I’ve spoken to a lot of actors and a lot of them say that they would work for free and they get paid for the publicity.
NORRIS: [Laughs] Ok, this wasn’t so bad, but yeah, I got you.
I am as excited and scared for Better Call Saul than I’ve ever been for any show.
But I’m being serious. Breaking Bad is easily one of my favorite shows of all time. It nails the finale. It does everything right, and they’re going back and playing with the universe. So I think I speak for a lot of fans that are like, “Oh my god, more in that world, but please don’t fuck it up.” So I have to ask for you, have they asked you anything about doing any sort of cameo? Or are you scared to even be a part of it? What are your feelings on it?
NORRIS: Well your feelings are just about exactly mine. They have not asked me. I’ve kind of expressed that I didn’t want to be a part of it really in any way for exactly the reasons that you’re talking about. It was just such a perfect gem the way it ended, which is rare. No show goes out the way that show went out. I’m obviously a huge huge fan of the show. I thought it was a perfect show all the way through, maybe even more perfect by the fact that it ended perfectly. So what’s the upside, man? [Laughs] You know what I’m saying? You can’t…you’re not going to… it just seems like such a – but I wish nothing but the best. And they’ve got Vince Gilligan doing it, man. That guy, he can do it. They spent the time – and Peter Gould too. They were all fantastic writers, but he in particular was one of the great ones. And the fact that they’re going back…I think they’re going to reinvent that show so that they’re going to be far enough away from Breaking Bad that the concerns about it being compared to Breaking Bad hopefully will not affect it. I think it’s going to be its own show.
I’m speaking only from few conversations with Vince about how it’s going and stuff, so I don’t really have any inside information, but my sense is that they’re going to create their own show and that’s why I don’t think they necessarily want anybody back – at least in the beginning – because then they’ll draw too many comparisons to Breaking Bad. So I think they’re smart in that way. They’re going to create their own show, and if three or four years down the road they decide to bring back some of the Breaking Bad characters, then that might make sense. But I think they smartly want to have their own show defined in its own way. I think it’s going to be good [laughs]. It’s probably going to be great. I’m really looking forward to it, but I feel the same way. I feel like a parent watching a kid play baseball or something. I want it to be so good and not mess anything up. I’m going to watch it with a pillow over my eyes or something.
I have to let you go, but I have to say that I completely agree with what you just said. I think that after it’s been on the air, say it’s a success, with Vince I’m sure it will be, but after a few years, like you said, once it’s standing on it’s feet, if there’s a small cameo or something that you can sort of wink or nod and it’s done in a really good way, I think fans and hopefully the actors would be like, “That works, that’s cool.”
NORRIS: Oh yeah, that would be the way to do it absolutely.