Alumni Interview: Betsy Brandt

The actress on her new sitcom opposite Michael J. Fox, what could happen to end Breaking Bad, and her changing philosophy of on-screen nudity.

Betsy Brandt Betsy Brandt ’96 FAA is a longtime cast member of the award-winning AMC television drama Breaking Bad. The show’s final season airs in August. (Image by Jeffrey Fiterman)
The actress on her new sitcom opposite Michael J. Fox, what could happen to end Breaking Bad, and her changing philosophy of on-screen nudity.

We’ve shot the pilot for The Henrys. I play Michael J. Fox’s wife on the new sitcom. It’s loosely based on Michael’s life – he’s playing a successful New York news anchor who is diagnosed with Parkinson’s. Hollywood is such a weird business that I don’t like to count my chickens until I’m making chicken soup, but we’re planning to start shooting 22 more episodes this May. Michael and I kind of hit it off. Sometimes you just meet somebody, and you feel you’ve known them forever. And I didn’t have that feeling just because I grew up watching Family Ties – and I loved Family Ties. I loved Michael as Marty McFly in theBack to the Future movies and all the things he’s done. But I just had a sort of familiarity with him right away. At our first table read of the script, I had this moment where I’m like – “Oh my God! It’s Michael J. Fox!” He’s a comic genius – phenomenal – and I’m just trying to keep up with him.

I did not really become interested in theater until high school in Michigan. I auditioned for a play junior year and got the lead. I thought it just kind of fit. I loved it. For college I auditioned for all the big schools. I really wanted to go to New York University and I got in, and they said they were going to give me a scholarship – and my scholarship, it was just, like, super piddly. Going into the theater, I didn’t want to come out of college with a bunch of debts. So I went to University of Illinois, and it was a fantastic choice for me. I was an undergrad, and I felt like I was pretty much working on a graduate-level degree. When I started working professionally, I felt really prepared. I knew how working at an Actors’ Equity theater would go. That was familiar to me because of my training at U of I. I met my husband, Grady [Olsen ’96 ENG], at Illinois. My sorority used to watch the football games with his fraternity. He was an engineering major, and now he works for a software company.

Marie Schrader, my character on Breaking Bad, can be annoying. I get that she is not for everybody, but I love her, and I love playing her.

Marie Schrader, my character on Breaking Bad, can be annoying. I get that she is not for everybody, but I love her, and I love playing her. In the beginning, when [Breaking Bad creator] Vince Gilligan and I talked about the character, we agreed you can’t have a family where everybody’s perfectly likable and is cool to hang out with. I’m so happy playing the difficult one because it allows me to do some comedy. Sometimes the annoying person can be very funny.

On Season 1 of Breaking Bad, we got away with a little more profanity because no one was really watching the show. But once the network’s standards and practices department realized that people were watching it, they made us tone it down. We are now allowed to use only one “f-word” a season, and I always beg that they give it to me. I give them all kinds of reasons why Marie should have it, but it never goes to Marie.

One of the first movies I did was a short film called Dominatrix. I played the dominatrix. This crook hires me to beat him up, so he can say that the money he’s carrying for someone has been stolen. I had to pistol-whip this guy and stuff like that, but I kept my clothes on – my parents would be happy about that. It’s funny. When you’re young, you say, “I’m, like, not going to take my clothes off,” and that’s when you look really good and you should be taking your clothes off. I’m looking down the barrel at 40, and I’m like, “I don’t care what I wear.” A lot of people have told me I’m so grounded for Hollywood. I’m from the Midwest, and I’m so proud of that, and I’m so thankful for that because being in Hollywood is kind of crazy, and you see how people will do things. But I say “please,” and I say “thank you,” and I do wear underwear. It’s very straightforward for me.

Last year I played the banker in the movie Magic Mike. The director was Steven Soderbergh, and I’d do any movie with him. If he wanted to shoot a movie on his cellphone, I’d do it. He said, “I would love to do a Breaking Bad movie,” and I said, “I don’t know if there will be anybody left” – I still don’t know. This is kind of naive of me, but I would be really upset if anything happened to the main characters. And I know that probably the odds aren’t so great on our show. If this were Love Boat, everyone probably survives – you know, they’re not tossing people over on the Love Boat. I just hope we all make it.