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Betsy Brandt bids good-bye to ‘Breaking Bad’

By B.J. Hammerstein
Detroit Free Press
APTOPIX People-Betsy Brandt
Dan Hallman - Dan Hallman/Invision/AP

DETROIT Betsy Brandt still can’t believe “Breaking Bad” won its first-ever Emmy as best drama just one week before the show went off the air.

“Quiet, please!” Brandt announced over the phone. “We’re that show about the high school chemistry teacher who cooks meth. And we just won the Emmy!”

Brandt’s mock news conference, motivated in part by the AMC series’ edgy content, ended with a maniacal laugh. “That just made me look like a crazy person, right?” she said playfully.

Well, the past year for Brandt has been pretty crazy.

A year ago, Brandt, best known for “Bad” character Marie Schrader – wife of DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and sister-in-law to crystal meth-cooking Walter White (Bryan Cranston) – lived in Los Angeles (and Albuquerque, N.M., where “Bad” was filming six months out of the year) with her husband and two children. She was looking for her next job, knowing the show’s conclusion had been planned: The saga of Walter White, one way or another, would end in September 2013.

When “Bad” ended its five-season run, Brandt wasn’t in Los Angeles celebrating. She was watching the finale from New York City, where she and her family now reside, then going to work on “The Michael J. Fox Show.” There she plays Annie Henry, wife of the “Family Ties” and “Spin City” sitcom star who left series TV more than a decade ago to manage his escalating Parkinson’s disease.

After high school, Brandt earned a BFA in acting at the University of Illinois. She studied theater at the Moscow Art Theater School at Harvard and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. She acted in different plays across the country and had guest-starring roles on TV shows such as “Without a Trace” and “Judging Amy.”

She met Norris for the first time just before they both auditioned for the show. She remembers it well: She didn’t know whether “Bad” was a drama or a comedy, but it was the best pilot she had ever read.

“I think I was meant to play Marie. I think that’s how they saw me,” said Brandt, who also read for the part of Walter’s wife (played by Anna Gunn) and a role that never made the show. “Marie could’ve been a nothing role. And even if she was a nothing role, I would’ve happily done that.”

Over the past five seasons, Brandt filled in Marie’s backstory by initiating conversations with show creator Vince Gilligan, Norris, Cranston and Gunn. Purple, she said, wouldn’t just be a color she wore. Marie’s personality needed to be all in.

Marie, whom Brandt describes as a huge “pain in the butt,” is a character she loved from the beginning. Though she didn’t get as much screen time as other players, Brandt brought a tremendous amount of depth and compassion to a flawed former kleptomaniac. Marie was fully devoted to Hank, who in the show’s third season struggled to regain his strength and mobility after being gunned down and temporarily paralyzed by members of a Mexican drug cartel.

In the fifth season, as Hank went directly after Walt and the secrets of the White family were revealed, viewers saw how important Hank and Marie were to each other.

Brandt said she couldn’t be happier about going from the dark and dramatic “Bad” to a traditional family comedy. “The Michael J. Fox Show” is NBC’s sitcom about a New York news personality who is ready to get back to his career after he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.

“You know, one of the most amazing things about him – and not everybody can do this – but he really is an amazing actor, whether it’s comedy or drama,” she said. “He’s an icon, but he’s also just really good at being a guy. And people relate to him because of that.”

That show debuted Thursday with back-to-back episodes. NBC gave it a full, 22-episode season order in January and plans to air it at 9:30 p.m. Thursdays. Reactions have been mixed, because the new show’s humor – which includes jokes about Parkinson’s – is inconsistent. It was NBC’s top-rated program Thursday with about 7.2 million viewers tuning in to both episodes. Although the show’s ratings were solid, Robin Williams’ new CBS sitcom, “The Crazy Ones,” debuted at 9 p.m. Thursday with 15.6 million viewers tuning in.

Brandt, for her part, isn’t thinking about how big the moment is. She’s just enjoying the unique experiences and creative people she has been fortunate enough to build relationships with.

“You know, this is a crazy business,” she said. “I just look at what right’s in front of me and go for it.” She laughs. “And that’s probably both a good and bad thing.”

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