Over just the past four years, gruff-looking actor Dean Norris has been cast repeatedly as gruff-looking lawmen – a police captain, a police lieutenant, a police sergeant, an FBI agent and, most famously, DEA agent Hank Schrader on AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”
So for director Jason Reitman’s new dramedy, “Men, Women & Children” (in theaters Friday), Norris ditched the badge to play someone with an even tougher job: a single father with a troubled son.
“A big part in the reason for doing this movie was because he is very much not a tough guy,” Norris says of his character, Danny Vance, who has been left by his wife and is coping with a teenage son suffering from depression and a video-game addiction.
The film – featuring an ensemble cast that includes Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer and Rosemarie DeWitt – underscores the ways mobile devices, computers and the Internet can affect all types of relationships.
Norris, 51, has never been a cop in real life, but he has plenty of experience as a parent. He and his wife, Bridget, have five children: three boys and two girls, ranging in age from 5 to 22. So he knows a little something about the challenges the proliferation of the Internet presents.
“Mainly, it’s about making sure that they don’t get on and see things that they shouldn’t see,” he says, “because it’s so much easier now. When I was younger, I sadly can still remember the one porn magazine that seven kids shared. … It was impossible for me to watch a porn (film) because the only way would have been on the family TV.
“But now, every little device is connected to the Internet on some level, in ways that I can’t even figure out; they can get ahold of a world of information, and unfortunately a lot of that is pretty graphic stuff. … Controlling access to what they can get to is really the challenge, I think, as a parent.”
Norris shot his scenes for “Men, Women & Children” last winter, during a break from what’s become his regular job playing James “Big Jim” Rennie on CBS’ “Under the Dome.”
That show – a sci-fi drama based on the novel by Stephen King – was renewed for a third season this month. And despite the recent voting down of North Carolina’s film tax credit program, production will once again return to Wilmington, where Norris has spent five months shooting each of the past two years.
“It’s the first time I’ve spent a significant amount of time in the South, and it’s just fantastic,” says Norris, who grew up in Indiana then attended college at Harvard. “Love the beach in Wilmington; it’s beautiful. I look forward to getting back there next spring.”
“Under the Dome” is his second steady TV gig since 2008. The previous one? “Breaking Bad,” which ran for five seasons on AMC.
On the show, Norris’ DEA agent was the brother-in-law of chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston). In its final season – which ended in September 2013 – “Breaking Bad” won six Emmys, including Outstanding Drama Series for the second straight year.
And although he loves “Under the Dome,” and loved being a part of “Men, Women & Children,” Norris misses “Breaking Bad” every day.
“What I miss is the quality of the work,” he says, “the scripts that you read and you go, ‘Oh my God, I get to say that? I get to do that scene?’ In a way, it was the easiest job. Bryan used to say this all the time, that the easiest job as an actor is when you get scripts like that. …
“People still come up to me and say, ‘Man, I watched that show, and I really loved it. It affected me; it made me cry, made me laugh.’ And you can tell they really mean it. It’s one of those things you look for as an actor: to be a part – above and beyond everything else – of something that affected people’s lives in a great way.”