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06/18/2013 10:35 am ET | Updated Jul 08, 2013

'Under The Dome': Dean Norris On Big Jim's Duplicitous Nature And The 'Breaking Bad' Finale

CBS

"Breaking Bad's" inimitable Dean Norris portrays James "Big Jim" Rennie in "Under the Dome," CBS' blockbuster summer series based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.

In preparation for the show's June 24 premiere, The Huffington Post will take you inside the epic CBS drama, introducing you to each of the show's major players through our series of on-set interviews, conducted around the filming of the fourth episode. Whether you're a fan of the book or a newcomer to King's world, the series has plenty of surprises in store. For the uninitiated, "Under the Dome" centers around the fictional town of Chester's Mill, and explores what happens to its inhabitants after an impenetrable dome of unknown origin cuts them off from the rest of the world. Will they rise to the occasion or devolve into chaos as they try to find a way out?

Norris has gained acclaim from critics and fans alike for his role as DEA agent Hank Schrader, the brother-in-law of Bryan Cranston's Walter White in AMC's "Breaking Bad," which begins airing its final eight episodes in August. Below, the actor discusses about what attracted him to "Under the Dome," the show's differences from and similarities to "Breaking Bad," and who he based his duplicitous character on. Light spoilers ahead.

What are the most important things to know about Big Jim Rennie, for those who aren't familiar with the book?
Big Jim, he's a great character. He loves his town, but I think he's probably, at some level, psychopathic. He likes to be in charge. Stephen King told me I was Dick Cheney. [Big Jim's] reading Winston Churchill's biography in the story ... And everybody else is freaked out by the dome and Big Jim seems to be like, "Wow, my time has come.” He's fun because ... he's the only one that interacts with every other character. They have their own things, the groupings and people that interact, but Big Jim interacts with all of them and he interacts differently with all of them because he has a different personality ...

He's lizard-like in his strategy; he's amoral. I don’t know if he's immoral, but he's amoral. He's a "The ends justify the means, keep the trains running," kind of guy. And it really comes out with his poor son, who has his own issues, and you can see why. He has a dad like me. We have this hug in the first episode and we talked about how it's maybe the first time he's ever hugged his son. It's a real awkward kind of thing and poor Junior's always waiting for his dad to say “I love you,” and his dad always says, "Toughen up, pussy.” He's that kind of guy. But it seems like he's the most evil or mean when he is with his son, because everybody else he's kind of charming with.

Let's talk a little more about his relationship with his son, Junior [Alexander Koch]. Junior's mother is gone, so he and Big Jim are stuck together, but it's clear that their unhealthy dynamic is probably the root of many of Junior's issues and questionable deicisions. What can you reveal about their relationship at this stage?
First of all, I love him as an actor. He's a really good young kid. And it's so good because what he brings to it is kind of innocent, but it's also super creepy that way.

It sounds like Big Jim relishes the opportunities presented by being trapped under the dome, so what's his motivation at the beginning of the season?
[The producers] have arced the show as "faith," "fear," and "fascism." And I think Big Jim's the fascism part. But he starts, early on, to co-opt people. He gets Barbie [Mike Vogel] on his side and he does it by complimenting them. “Man, we really need a guy like you to help keep the order.” He's not pounding anybody over the head. And Linda [Natalie Martinez], the deputy, he's very fatherly to her and trying to get everyone on his side. Right now, I think he sees this as an opportunity to start getting his ducks in order, at least start taking charge and getting people on his side. He's always talking to the townspeople and telling them, “Hey, listen to me. If we all work together, everything's going to be fine. I'm the guy.”

I know that you avoided reading the book once you got the role, so what did you do to prepare? Was it all based on what was already there in the scripts?
I get it from the scripts. Every script I get, I get more stuff about him. [Episode] 3 was really good. It gave me a lot more stuff about him. I talked to [executive producer] Jack Bender a lot, talked to [executive producer] Neal Baer about where we want to go, and Brian K. Vaughan [who developed the series], and talked about who this guy is, where we want to go with him. It was very important to me that I told them early on -- and they agreed -- that the more I can bring out the charm early on, the better it'll be -- more interesting and complex down the line. We want people to actually kind of be on his side, which will make it even worse when you're like, “God, that fucker.” [Laughs.]

It's like if you do Shakespeare or you do David Mamet, they're so different. At some level, there's a core, but both of them are languages that are not natural, and you have to just find the tone and the feel of the script and the stuff that they're giving you, and it just kind of comes along from that. I thought of Alexander Haig with the “I'm in charge here,” and the Dick Cheney concept. I imagine that his character actually recites some of these Churchill speeches at home to himself in the mirror. So I just kind of keep an eye on thinking about those kind of guys -- guys who like power. What it's like to be a guy who loves power and is obsessed with it? That's what his thing is: He's obsessed with power.

Are you tempted to go back to the book? Not even for the story, but just because there's so much interior characterization that Stephen's put down that might give you insight into who Big Jim is?
Yeah, I got a hard copy that I had him sign, which was nice. I was a fanboy when I met him ... I had him sign "The Shining" and "Under the Dome." Then I have a soft copy that I started a little bit and then said, "Oh shit, better not." What I might do is go read some other stuff of Stephen King's just to kind of go back, just for the hell of it, just to kind of get into the head.

What attracted you to the role of Big Jim, aside from the strength of the writing?
It was the fact that I wanted to do something completely opposite of “Breaking Bad” in all ways -- character, genre. I didn't want to even do another cable drama. And this is 180 degrees different. The character could not be more different. The genre could not be more different. The only thing about it is that it is character-driven and for a CBS show, it feels like a cable show. You end it and you're, "Whoa, OK.” It would end and you would want to get to the next episode. It's intense and the quality of actors they got are just great. These young kids are really, really good. So all of that feels like I'm doing a cable show. It is like the best of both worlds, even though on paper, it seems like completely opposite. Every script I get, I'm even more excited.

If a dome really came down and trapped us all, do you think that you'd be a power player like Big Jim, or would you be a first responder and try to help people?
I think I'd just lock my family away and hope for the best. "Leave me alone." [Laughs.] True to life, I think I would be worried that the constraints of society, once they're gone ... human beings are some mean fuckers, they really are, without constraints. And I think that's what we see in "Under the Dome" -- things go to shit pretty quick.

I think one of the producers recently noted that the world is like the dome itself already -- look what we've done to our environment and what we do to each other without even being trapped.
I think so. I mean, there is that element of -- I think it's in Harvard Law School, they talk about "the wise constraints that make men free." You really can't be free unless you have certain kinds of constraints in the world. So I think it turns to totalitarianism pretty quick in "Under the Dome," because those restraints are gone now. There's nobody to keep power in check, so power wins. I mean, power wins anyway in the world, doesn't it? So like you're saying, it's the world we live in anyway. But we're always worried that something like a dome-like event is going to happen. When I was growing up, it was always going to be a nuclear war -- which could be now too. But now, it's kind of shifted towards terrorism; all of a sudden, buildings are going to fall down. So you always have this impending sense that you're going to turn the news on and shit's blowing up. So I think that is part of it too.

If a dome-like scenario happened, do you think the outcome would be exactly as Stephen envisioned it? Would anarchy reign?
I think pretty quickly. I think they do have the "faith" part of this -- which is the first five episodes -- where you think, "OK, we're going to get out somehow. We have technology. We'll figure this out. We're smart. We're Americans." Supposedly, we're smart. But then, they try to blow it up and it doesn't work. And all the best minds from the outside are not figuring out how to do this and then people start going, "Fuck." And fear sets in and somebody has to come along and create order.

Let's discuss the end of "Breaking Bad," because the last episode that aired ended up with Hank finally realizing what's been under his nose this whole time; where does the next episode find him? Is he just beating himself up for not figuring Walt out sooner?
There's some of that. But I tell you, the last eight are the best eight of the whole series. Because once that secret is out, it just [explodes] ... Hank has some issues of losing his job or whether he could be culpable. So there's a lot of that stuff. And [Walt] also had been paying for Hank's medical stuff so he actually is culpable, because he's taking his money. But really it's a Hank-Walt showdown now, because it's opened up. It's like boom, and that's what it starts with. And just like “Breaking” has always done, it heads right into that, and it's a good ride.

I know that there were quotes circulating a while back when you allegedly said that you wanted Hank to die in the final eight episodes -- was that accurate?
It was kind of misquoted ... When they first picked it up, they picked it up for 16 episodes, and that would have been shot straight. And that's how we thought it was going to be shot. So I could have done a pilot, shot the episodes. If they pick up the pilot, I'm on another show. Somewhere in between there, they decided they were going to split it ... I was like, "Not only can I not do a pilot this year, I can't do a pilot next year." So Vince [Gilligan] is a really great guy, and we talked about it and he said, "I can't [write you out]. We need you. But the schedule says you'll be out in time to do a pilot." I said, "That's all I needed." He gave me his word and he was right. Literally, I finished a scene on “Breaking Bad” in the morning and flew here in the afternoon. And then I came back a few times. "Breaking Bad" were very cool to work with the schedule. So he was a great man of his word, always has been, so it all worked out fine.

From a character standpoint, would you want Hank to die in service of the plot?
No, I didn’t want him to die. I didn't want the show to die. We all would like to do that show for another 10 years, but we know it needs to end. I mean, it's smart that it ends and needs to end. But no, it was more of just a business decision. I know fans, and I'm a fan of the show too as well as being in it, and they're all, "Oh, how could you possibly want to be off that great show?" At the end of the day, I'm not an actor just for the fun of it. It's my job. And that was eight and it ended. This goes on. This is already 13. So it was a very practical kind of situation.

And "Under the Dome" has so much potential, because the book only takes place over a certain amount of days, but the scope of the show is already much larger -- you can see ways for it to stretch out over multiple seasons.
Yeah, and they've got a lot of interesting characters that they can figure out how to interact with each other. And I'm sure we can discover more people under the dome when we need them.

What has been your favorite part of the "Under the Dome" experience so far?
Man, they write this great stuff ... We had this speech in Episode 3 where it's so fun because they're smart enough to allow him to suck you in. And for a moment, I said, "All I'm going to do on this speech is, for the first half of it, make people almost feel sorry for Big Jim," and then it twists, and you're like, "What a fuck!" It's fun from an acting point of view to do that, and have them just be, "Oh, poor Jim," and then, "Oh, what a fucker." [Laughs.] They're starting to write this really great stuff, and my scenes with my son have been really delicious because it's just underplayed meanness and you just feel for him.

It only seems like a matter of time before some of the characters wise up to his games, though. The town's reporter, Julia [Rachelle Lefevre] seems too smart to fall for his act. What can you preview about their dynamic?
She's on to him, I think, and that's going to be an interesting thing. Also, the Barbie relationship is going to be really fun because he needs him as an Iraq war veteran, all those kind of skills, and yet, he can also be a threat to Big Jim, so he's got to play that one real coyly. He's got to figure that one out. That's what Big Jim spends a lot of time doing: strategizing. He's a super smart guy because he gets them on his side so they think Big Jim's the hero ... With Barbie, I say, "Hey, I need you on my side. I need your skills." I'm not threatening him. I'm saying, "Please come join me" as opposed to, "You'd better join me."

The book goes to some pretty dark places, but since this is obviously broadcast and not cable, do you have a sense of how dark it's going to get?
It's darker than I thought they could go. From what I saw so far, it's like, "Wow, are you sure it's not on cable?" But it's on 10 p.m. on a Monday in the summer. They're telling you what it's going to be ahead of time. It's not 8 p.m.

It's the new economics of the shows. You need to have shows that people will go to Amazon and Netflix and go because they're paying now for it, half of it ... You don’t go to Netflix to watch "CSI" because it's the same every week, or you can see it on rerun any time you want. But you do to go Netflix to watch all of "Breaking Bad" in a row and all of "Under the Dome" in a row ... which didn’t used to be the case 10 years ago. I remember when they did "24," it was like, "Whoa, you can't do a serialized drama on network. We can't sell syndication rights," or something like that. And then "Lost" and everything else kind of opened it up. Now cable, I think, is forcing them to do it with even more shows -- destination TV.

Right, audiences have come to expect darkness and gore and adult themes.
And the intensity of the drama. Not just the goriness, although that comes along with it a lot of times, but I think it's the intensity. I mean, [what goes on] between me and Junior is creepier than any cut-off leg that you can find, you know what I'm saying? The psychological creepiness of it ...

How much input has Stephen had on an episode-to-episode basis so far?
Yeah, he's been on the set and he sends me emails, so he's watching dailies ... I don’t know how much he then tells [the producers], but I know that he sends me a couple emails about how it's going, and he likes it and likes this. The last thing he said to me before he left was, "Remember to keep the sparkle in your eye." It was a good note. Even though you're playing a bad guy, make sure you keep that sparkle in your eye. So I think about that once in awhile. Am I sparkling? Just to keep him charming and an interesting guy because you can't just have a bad guy. That'd be no good.

"Under the Dome" premieres Monday, June 24 at 10 p.m. ET on CBS. Come back to HuffPost TV every morning for a new interview with a member of the cast.

"Under the Dome" set interviews:
Mike Vogel as Dale "Barbie" Barbara

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