Local Girl Gone Bad

Anna Gunn helped boost Albuquerque’s profile by starring in Breaking Bad and reflects on making television history in her home state.

Santa Fe–raised actor Anna Gunn remembers exactly when Breaking Bad blew up, bringing her along with it. She was walking through her neighborhood supermarket in Beverly Hills with her two young daughters, picking up groceries for dinner. “The butcher was slicing deli meat as I walked by, and he began to exclaim, ‘Oh my God. Oh my God!’ I stopped and asked him if he was OK—I thought he had cut off his finger. He said, ‘You! You! It’s you! You’re Skyler!’”

Now, mind you, this is Beverly Hills, where butchers see famous people every day—at least, the ones who do their own grocery shopping. But Breaking Bad—a juggernaut of an AMC cable-TV show about a high school chemistry teacher of humble means with terminal cancer, who turns to making and selling crystal meth to secure financial security for his family—had seared the very couple-next-door faces of Walter (Bryan Cranston) and Skyler White into millions of viewers’ minds.

The show did the same for its setting, Albuquerque and surrounding areas. Along with giving Gunn’s respectable career (her credits include Deadwood, NYPD Blue, Enemy of the State) a turbo-boost, Breaking Bad mandated that she spend months each year in her beloved home state with her daughters—quite the perk.

This fall marks the end of the final season of the multiple-Emmy–winning series, which is legitimately in the critical conversation for “best television show of all time.” We caught up with Gunn before the season began, to talk about the impact and legacy of Breaking Bad for New Mexico, her time here, and what’s on her horizon.

What was it like for you to be involved in this landmark series, which put New Mexico on the pop-culture map? When they first sent the script, it was originally supposed to be in Riverside County, outside of Los Angeles. But our wonderful casting director, Sharon Bialy, said, “How would you like to work back in your home state? We’re going to shoot it in Albuquerque.” I said, “You’re kidding me.” I have two little girls, 6 and 12, and when I got the role, the youngest was five months old. I’ve always secretly wished that I could live back in New Mexico part of the time. I was thrilled. Getting to come back and shoot half the year over a six-year period has been amazing. I got to introduce my castmates and my kids to all of the things I love here: Balloon Fiesta, camping, skiing, the Pueblos, horseback riding, green chile . . .

What did the cast and crew think of New Mexico? They all fell in love with it. Much of the crew was local, though. I’ve heard each cast member remark that what was so wonderful about Breaking Bad was getting to know people from New Mexico. We became such a tight-knit family.

Where did you live while you were shooting? The first season, I lived in Albuquerque, but after that, I rented a house out in Corrales. Dean Norris [who plays DEA agent Hank Schrader] moved out there first. He has a wife and four kids, and sent his kids to the public school in Corrales. They really loved it. Betsy Brandt [Marie Schrader, Skyler’s sister] lived out there, and put her kids in the Cottonwood School. I loved going to the farmers’ market on Sundays—they had the best pies. And I loved going to lunch at Perea’s for their delicious, home-cooked New Mexican food.

It’s such a special place. It has such a sense of community. When I moved into my rented house, a woman came to the door with toys for my kids, saying, “Hi, I’m your neighbor.” That would never happen in L.A. My neighbor had three horses and a couple of donkeys, and she used to give my daughters rides in her donkey cart—she even took them for a ride in the Fourth of July parade.

How do you think Albuquerque residents received the presence of Breaking Bad cast and crew, given its dark subject matter? Were they welcoming? We felt from the beginning that there was a sense of, “Are you making a comment about Albuquerque?” But we made it very clear that it wasn’t a comment on this city or the state. [Methamphetamine addiction] is a problem that’s happening everywhere in this country, in big cities, small towns. It could have been set anywhere. But because of the state’s film incentives, creator and producer Vince Gilligan thought about Albuquerque. He also had the Sergio Leone films [e.g., The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly] in mind, as part of his idea of the show and vision for the story of Walter White. When he came out here and saw the studio out in the middle of nowhere, the mesas, the desert shots—it sealed the deal.

What’s fame like in New Mexico? It never felt overwhelming; the people were great, very welcoming, and excited to have us here. If we went out as a cast to Imbibe or O’Neill’s Pub in Nob Hill, Aaron [Paul] did tend to get a bit mobbed by women, though. We became part of the community. A lot of that had to do with the way we became involved. Bryan made sure that we did a lot of charity and community work, that we remembered that we were guests here.

What are your favorite haunts here? In Albuquerque, my favorite restaurants are the Grove, Sadie’s on Fourth, Jennifer James 101. I took my girls to Explora [Science Center and Children’s Museum] constantly. In Corrales, I love Indigo Crow Cafe, and the Corrales Bosque Gallery, where I bought a lot of local artists’ work. In Santa Fe, my favorites are El Farol, Cafe Pasqual’s, Felipe’s Tacos, Maria’s, the Cowgirl, and I go to Santacafé with my parents. When I shop there, I go to Keshi, where I like to get people fetishes as gifts. If I’m there at the right time of year, I make sure to hit the Folk Art Market, Spanish Market, and Indian Market. Fiesta was always my favorite time of year: Zozobra, the Pet Parade—I remember it as a kid so distinctly. While I was here, I took my daughters to Taos Pueblo and Chimayó, to Bandelier, skiing in Santa Fe and Taos; I love to eat at the Bavarian in Taos. I also love to go rafting up there.

What’s next for you? I am sifting through a pile of film scripts and theater projects, and I just workshopped an exciting new film at the Sundance Institute’s Directors Lab, a psychological portrait of the making of a zealot.

What’s it like to see Breaking Bad wind down? what do you think its legacy will be? At the wrap party at Hotel Albuquerque, there were a lot of speeches, and there was a lot of weeping. The cinematographer, Michael Slovis, quoted Dr. Seuss: “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.” In terms of legacy, Slovis’s cinematography is a love letter to the landscape. My scenes were usually interiors, but when I watched the shows later, I saw the colors and the vistas and said, “He captured it!” As the years go by, it will be so nice for me and others to look back at this living history: a certain way to view the landscape and sky and culture. And that will live on as an indelible part of Breaking Bad’s extraordinary storytelling.

 

Managing editor Candace Walsh is the author of Licking the Spoon: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Identity (Seal Press).