The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Laura Fraser (‘Breaking Bad’)

As “Breaking Bad” began winding down toward its inevitable conclusion with its fifth and final season, the series introduced a new character who has gone on to make a surprising impact for someone who started off all but shivering in fear at the prospect of what the future might hold for her. Laura Fraser may not be a familiar face to those who prefer their TV to be wholly American, but she’s done quite a bit of small-screen work in the UK, and you may recognize her from some of her big-screen performances as well…like, say, playing against Heath Ledger in “A Knight’s Tale.” Bullz-Eye chatted with Fraser about her current gig as well as some of her earlier roles, including a gig she was hired for but was subsequently replaced…and if she hadn’t ended up on “Breaking Bad,” she’d probably still be miserable about it.

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BE: So how did you first find your way onto “Breaking Bad”?

LF: Just a regular audition. I got sent a scene that wasn’t from the show, but it was, like, similar to the scene in the diner with Mike in the episode “Magical.” I had to make a tape, which I did, and I sent it to the casting director, who sent it to Vince Gilligan, who said it was great. And then Vince gave us a note and a real scene from episode 2 of Season 5. So I did that, and I got it from that. And I never met anyone! It was all on tape. So it was as if by magic. [Laughs.]

BE: What was your familiarity with the show up to that point? Had you been a fan?

LF: I wasn’t a fan, ‘cause I’d never seen it. I’d heard of it, and obviously I knew that it was critically acclaimed and had wanted to see it at some point. It’s one of those shows that you put on your list, y’know? And then when I got it, I was too scared to watch it! [Laughs.] I was afraid I’d be, like, “This is really intimidating,” and I wouldn’t want to go on the set! So I didn’t watch it. Also, I kind of just wanted the actors’ face to be, like, normal faces, not famous faces that would throw me for a second. I was trying to stay in the world that I was reading from the script.

So when I went there, to Albuquerque, I had my first scenes with Jonathan Banks, who played Mike, and I was asking him all the questions about the characters and the histories and the relationships and Gus Fring and whatnot. And finally he said, “Have you not seen the show?” And I said, “No, I haven’t.” And he went, “Oh, for God’s sake…Go and watch it and come back to me, and then we can have a conversation!” He was getting impatient with me. He was, like, “Go and watch it! You’ll like it! It’s good!” So I went and watched it with my husband, and we watched the whole thing in, like, four days. We were, like, meth-head binge watchers. [Laughs.]

BE: Jonathan Banks is someone you really shouldn’t trifle with. If he asks you to do something, you just need to go and do it.

LF: Yeah. You don’t fuck around with Jonathan Banks!

BE: So who was Lydia when you got that first script? Has she evolved since you got that first script?

LF: Well, she’s certainly surprised me, to put it mildly. [Laughs.] Yeah, she’s sort of gone from cold to glacial. I mean, I thought she was a wee bit demented, but she’s positively deranged. I feel like she’s a clean-cut bonkers sociopath. Initially, I thought, “Oh, this is a woman who’s got into this, she’s stumbled into this meth world and is trying to get out of it, to do the best deal and then get out, and she’s always trying to protect her life and her daughter’s life. But now she’s choosing to be there. She does not need to be there, and all her sensible choices are in her blind spot, and she’s got an extremely zany take on rational behavior. She’s gone a little bit nuts. She’s a nutcase, yeah.

BE: When the show came back for these final episodes, I was, like, “Isn’t that storyline over?” But then I realized, “Oh, it’s a means to an end, to keep coming back to the meth manufacturing.”

LF: Um… [A very long pause.] Yeah, uh, there is an end. [Another very long pause, followed by laughter.]

BE: I understand. You can say no more.

LF: Well, there will, uh, continue to be developments. [Hesitates.] Do you know when this interview will run?

BE: After the episode on September 8th.

LF: In that case, I can say that she’s rather underwhelmed by the efforts of her new neo-Nazi pals, but she’s taken some steps to protect her investment and…there’s some interesting developments on Sunday, so…uh, yeah. [Laughs.]

BE: I don’t need spoilers. I can’t wait to see how it’ll unfold.

LF: Neither can I!

BE: Without speaking to specifics, what was your reaction as you continued to read these scripts? Were you aghast at the developments, or were you just, like, “This is awesome”?

LF: I ended up laughing most of the time. It was, like, that kind of shock, where you’re get those hysterical giggles, and you’re going. “Oh, my God!” And you just want to tell people, but I knew that I couldn’t tell anybody. I wanted to go, “Oh, my God, you won’t believe what I’m doing,” but then I realized, “Oh, yeah, I can’t tell you.” I’m kind of blown away, though. The quality is just outstanding. It’s just unbelievable.

BE: Lydia had an encounter with Skyler a few episodes ago where the mood was about as icy as I’ve seen it get on the show, which is really saying something.

LF: Yeah, I think Lydia’s got a little bit of an issue with women. She was, like, supernaturally scared of Skyler. She high-tailed it out of there way faster than she would have if it had been a guy. Lydia’s   certainly not comfortable about anyone, but especially not women. I think she’s got a mother issue or something.

BE: It’s funny that every time she does anything outside of her comfort zone – like, say, when she meets with Mike at the diner – it seems like she’s pretending she’s in a movie. Put on sunglasses? Check. Sitting in the other booth, facing the opposite direction? Check.

LF: [Starts to laugh.] I know! And she thinks she’s being very subtle as well, which is why it’s so funny. She thinks, “Yeah, I got this, here’s what I’m gonna do for this one,” and most of the time nobody lets her do it. They’re, like, “What the fuck are you doing? What are you playing at?” And I think she gets really annoyed. Yeah, she takes herself extremely seriously.

BE: You’ve got some great moments with Jesse Plemons, who plays Todd.

LF: Oh, yes, he’s been wonderful to work with. Our characters’ relationship, as it’s developed, is a very unusual one, and it’s made us both laugh. Yeah, he’s a sweetheart. And a really, really talented actor. I’ve just watched him in “Friday Night Lights,” toward the end of shooting “Breaking Bad.” Did you watch that show?

BE: I did, yes.  

LF: Oh, he’s amazing on that! I just love that show. Being the Scottish woman I am, I can’t believe how much I got into American football, how much it really mattered. I thought, “God, I’m really into this game now!” [Laughs.] And it’s because of “Friday Night Lights”!

BE: Out of curiosity, when you started exploring “Breaking Bad,” did you have a favorite episode, or was there a particular moment where you realize, “Oh, my God, this is the greatest show”?

LF: There were a few episodes that did that for me, but I liked the episode with the toddler. I can’t remember what season it was, but there was the ATM in the house? Oh, my God, that episode is amazing. Oh, God, there’s so many of them. Gus Fring and the shoot-out at the pool in Mexico? Oh, my God, that was amazing as well! Yeah, I love so many episodes. If I start listing them, I’d list all of them, going, “Oh, that one! And that one! And that one!”

BE: It’s a shame you didn’t actually get to spend any time with Giancarlo Esposito.

LF: Yeah, I never even got to meet him! But I’ve heard all about what a lovely guy he was. Ah, maybe one day I’ll get to meet him…

BE: I wanted to ask you about just a few other things from your back catalog, and I have to admit something that’s a little embarrassing: until literally yesterday, I did not realize that the actress who played Lydia on “Breaking Bad” was the same actress who played Door in “Neverwhere.”

LF: No way! [Laughs.]

BE: And the reason it’s embarrassing is that I’ve been a massive fan of that miniseries since I first discovered that it existed, which was, like, 1999. It was long enough ago that I had to go to our local indie video store and rent a VHS copy that they’d dubbed from the UK because it wasn’t yet available in the States.

LF: Oh, my God. That’s… [Starts to laugh.] That’s really funny. Yeah, that was me. I saw a picture from it recently, just some stills from it, and I just thought, “Jesus Christ” It was just freaky. I was, like, “God, I’m old! I’m from another era!” And it’s so funny that Neil Gaiman is so huge now! I mean, he’s absolutely huge!

BE: Certainly much bigger than he was then, that’s for sure. Where you familiar with him when you got the gig?

LF: Well, I am now, of course, but, no, I wasn’t when I got the show. I’d just moved to London, and I met Neil and his daughter and went over to their house a few times, and he was just such a gorgeous human being. It was really interesting doing that show, because I’d just moved to London, but we filmed in all of these abandoned underground stations, and you felt like you were in the second World War, because underground London…nothing had changed since then. And at the end of each day, you’d blow your nose, and this black soot would come out!

BE: It sounds like the experience was a unique one, if nothing else.

LF: It was unique, and it was so interesting. We filmed on…I think it was the H.M.S. Belfast. One of those old warships, anyway. And there were just so many interesting characters. I just loved all of the names Neil Gaiman gave to the characters. He’s just brilliant. I mean, what an imagination. The man is like a portal to himself.

BE: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on over the years that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?

LF: Oh, gosh. There’s so many of them. Most of them. [Laughs.] But then maybe if they didn’t get the love, that was a good thing in the end. [Long pause.] I don’t know. I can’t think of one specifically. I’m sorry!

BE: That’s quite all right. Of the work you’ve done, do you have a preference between TV and film? Or does it feel nowadays like there’s much of a difference, anyway?

LF: It feels the same to me to shoot film and TV. I mean, “Breaking Bad” is shot on film, anyway, so it felt very similar, like doing a film but just a wee bit TV’ed up. That’s the only difference. I guess I like doing TV because then you can relax and know that you’ve got a job for a long time and you don’t have to be unemployed for ages. [Laughs.] TV lasts for awhile…as long as you don’t killed, which happens a lot in “Breaking Bad”!

BE: Do you have a preference between comedy and drama?

LF: Oh, I like ‘em both. But I suppose I’d be 60/40 in preference of drama.


BE: So what was it like working with Cameron Crowe on “Vanilla Sky”?

LF: Well, on “Vanilla Sky,” I’m credited, but I’m just a voice. I’ve got just a little voiceover at the end of the film, because I met Cameron Crowe for a different film, which I didn’t eventually end up doing, but he wanted my Scottish accent for “Vanilla Sky,” so I just did a voiceover for that. I mean, I spent the day with Cameron Crowe, and he’s a great guy and I really enjoyed hanging out with him. But, nope, didn’t get to do much in “Vanilla Sky.” [Laughs.] Everyone goes, “Oh, what were you in ‘Vanilla Sky’? Are you sure you’re in that?”

BE: Well, your credit for the film on IMDb is that you’re The Future, but I admit that I also couldn’t quite place you having been in it. This would explain it.

LF: Yeah, that’s true, my character was called The Future. But it was just a voiceover.

BE: You had a bit more to do in “A Knight’s Tale,” thankfully.

LF: Oh, yeah, and that was great. It was nearly half a year! We were there five and a half months in Prague, and it was most people’s first time in the Czech Republic, and there were all these castles, and it was summer, and we were all in our twenties. It was kind of brilliant. And Heath Ledger was just kind of at the brink of being extremely famous, and he was a sweetheart. He had a lot of innocence about him. He was a lovely guy. So many fun people, and loads of interesting stunts. I used to love watching the stunts with the horses, although… [Starts to laugh.] Even though I was playing a blacksmith, I was terrified of horses, because I’d been thrown by one, and one of them backed me into a fence and I got a little bit crushed. So I was having all of these bad horse experiences, so I was a little bit scared. The only blacksmith who’s scared of horses! But it was a really brilliant job, yeah. I loved it.

BE: So what’s on your plate for the future?

LF: I’ve got a couple of little indie films coming out, but I’m not working just now. I’m totally slacking here in Scotland. [Laughs.] I’m just hanging with my friends and family. My husband (Karl Geary) is over in Ireland doing a Ken Loach movie, so I’ve sort of based myself here nearby – well, with just a little bit between us – and we visit every other weekend. But we go back to upstate New York in October, and then I’ll hopefully get a job when I get back.

BE: Vince was just up in Scotland last month, wasn’t he?

LF: Yeah, I saw him! He was speaking in Edinburgh, so I went to his talk and saw him and his girlfriend. They’re such a great couple. But they were on this lightning fast trip – they were going to Vienna next – so it was really just a case of going, “Hi! Bye!”

BE: Well, to close on a bit of a sidebar, I do a feature for the website AntennaFree.TV called “Pilot Error,” where I talk to people about pilots they’ve done that didn’t get picked up. I know most of your TV work has been in the UK, where the business model is a bit different, but have you ever gone through that experience?

LF: I haven’t, actually! But I’ve done a pilot and then got kicked off it. [Laughs.] I got replaced! But, no, I haven’t been on one that didn’t get picked up…though I’m sure I will!

BE: Should I ask what that pilot was?

LF: I was on “Homeland,” and then they replaced me. But I’ve heard that’s just a thing that happens sometimes, so…um, yeah,

BE: Well, it’s a pretty short list of shows that you could’ve ended up on instead where you can say that it was actually better that you didn’t end up on “Homeland,” but “Breaking Bad” is sure as hell on it.

LF: I know! [Laughs.] Yeah, I feel like if I hadn’t lost that part… I was really sad at the time, but I lost it, and then I got “Breaking Bad,” and I would never have been able to do them both, so, yeah, I feel like it kind of ended up successfully. So I’m happy.

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