During his 30-year career in movies and television, Dean Norris has been cast as cops and other law enforcement officials more often than not, most memorably as DEA agent Hank Schrader in Breaking Bad. The Indiana native and Harvard grad also has Little Miss Sunshine, Starship Troopers, Evan Almighty, two Terminator flicks and a turn as Ben Franklin in Sons of Liberty on his extensive resumé.
But since 2013, he’s stirred up trouble as ‘Big Jim’ Rennie, the power-mad town councilman in the CBS summer hit Under the Dome, which returns June 25th with a two-hour premiere at 9/8c.
Turns out he loves playing the guy everyone loves to hate—and the shot in the arm it’s given his career—as he explains in this conversation.
“Luckily enough, I now have the opportunity to make choices. For a long time it was just making a living.”
How does Big Jim compare to other roles you’ve played?
He’s different. He’s unapologetically a force to be reckoned with. I love that he’s straightforward in his meanness. He does what he does and he’s not really all that concerned with what happens. In this crazy world, he seems like the guy you most want on your side. You want a bad guy like that when you have a crazy dome to deal with. I’m having so much fun this year I can’t even tell you. It’s so much fun to play this guy who is so crazy and narcissistic.
But oddly enough, he becomes this guy you will probably root for because he seems sane compared to all the craziness that’s going on. This year they’ve done something I’m really glad about: they’ve brought out his sarcastic humor. He’s a complex character, so he goes through nice phases and tougher phases. But there’s definitely a change this year. Having lost his wife, that kind of does a little something to him. And he gets a little friend this year, a dog, and you kind of see a little bit of the heart of Big Jim come out in relation to that.
Did you read Stephen King’s book before you took the role?
No, and I still haven’t, on purpose, because it was made very clear to us early on that this wasn’t going to be based on the book, and I didn’t want to confuse myself.
What kind of feedback do you get from viewers?
The global reaction has been insane. I get tweets from people in Brazil and Argentina, Australia, Spain. It’s been pretty cool. It’s the sci-fi thing: People who are into that love it. They ask why is the dome there, and what’s its purpose. And I think that’s what we’re going to delve into this year. I had an idea of where it was going to go in the long run—the basics of it—and we get a big part of that this year. We talked about what was going to happen and I put my two cents in, too. We owe the audience some answers to a certain extent and this is the time to do it.
They’ve killed off a lot of characters, and Big Jim came close. Is he safe?
I assume so. I think they need him.
Do you have a favorite scene so far?
Probably saying goodbye to my wife. You saw the humanity of the guy just having to face the fact that his wife died, and that was something, as an actor, that level of an emotion and that kind of thing is interesting and fun to deal with.
What’s ahead in your relationship with Jim Junior?
He shot me at the end of the last season. Big Jim didn’t take very kindly to that. But Junior’s still his son and he still has fatherly feelings for him. So it’s always been kind of a tension in the show: Big Jim’s love for his son versus the fact that his son has some issues, and that comes into [play] this season as well.
What’s your criteria in choosing roles?
Just that they’re intense, I guess, that they’re strong characters in one way or another. I pick them because they are opposite or different from what I’ve done before.
What goals do you set now?
Luckily enough, I now have the opportunity to make choices. For a long time it was just making a living. It’s a great position to get a lot of stuff offered, so I can start crafting a strategy or path to do things. I’m looking at a lot of smaller movies, indies, and getting to the point of finding my own. It’s hard to find something that hasn’t already been optioned but that element is definitely worth looking at.
You have a couple of movies coming up—Secrets in Their Eyes, for one.
Yeah, with Julia Roberts. It’s an old-fashioned detective story, Chewitel Ejiofor and I are detectives who revisit an old case, and Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman are involved in it. Remember is another film, with Christopher Plummer in a tour de force performance.
What’s your role?
Might be a good guy, might be a bad guy—I can’t tell you, but I had some really intense scenes with Christopher Plummer, which made my life.