Meeting Anna Gunn is a bit like meeting royalty — in television terms at least. As Skyler White in Breaking Bad, she turned the long-suffering wife trope on its head (and I’d say being married to a meth-cooking science teacher who gets mixed up with a deadly drug cartel counts as suffering). But the first thing I need to ask Gunn is if she has a reliable brolly. It is bucketing it down when we meet at the Union Chapel, Islington, where she is rehearsing for her West End debut in Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana, alongside Clive Owen and Lia Williams. Draped in a pashmina, she’s entirely relaxed about the British weather. Yes, she reassures me, she’s got a brolly.
Despite a whirlwind weekend flying back to LA for her daughter’s high-school graduation, Gunn has the sparky energy of someone working on a project that thrills her. Joining James Macdonald’s production has felt fortuitous. She recently found an old programme when sorting through her house — David Hare’s Skylight on Broadway in 1997, starring Lia Williams. “I kept it because her performance made a huge impact on me.”
Added to that, Gunn has wanted to star on the London stage since she did a term here as a drama student — “One of the best times in my life.” There’s also the fact that she studied at the Actors Studio with Vivian Nathan, who helped Tennessee Williams to workshop the part of Maxine Faulk when he was writing it — the role Gunn is now set to play.
The part has significant vintage, having previously been played by Bette Davis and Ava Gardner (Gunn sniggers like a schoolkid when I mention their names). Maxine is the irrepressible, passionate and recently widowed manager of a hotel in Mexico, where disgraced priest-turned-tour guide Reverend Shannon (played by Owen) turns up with a group of tourists.
Also staying is spinster and sometime artist Hannnah Jelkes and her grand-father (Lia Williams and Julian Glover). It’s a night of lost souls and repressed desires. “It’s a mature Tennessee Williams,” Gunn reflects. “There’s more hope in this play than some of his other works.” His last real critical success, Williams based the play on a trip he made as a young man in the middle of a breakdown. “That’s what he did. That’s his brilliance,” Gunn says. “He wrote about his life. He brought it up and put it down on paper and it soothed him, I think.”
For Gunn, it’s an eternally relevant play about the search for connection. “It’s the quest for relief from our demons and our loneliness — that will never go out of style,” she says. “This is a tenuous time and there’s a lot of wondering what comes next. What’s going to transpire, are we going to be OK?”
She is brimming with affection for her character. “She’s tough, she’s strong. She doesn’t live up here in her head, she lives in her gut,” she explains, telling me about a letter Williams wrote to Davis when she was first playing the part. “He said, ‘Maxine is like the sea, everything about her is like nature — she’s open and free.’” It’s a welcome change for Gunn, who is used to more buttoned-up characters. “It’s actually really nice to play somebody who’s not withheld and thinking so much and being careful.”
Which, by virtue of being married to a volatile amateur drug lord who is dying of cancer, is what Skyler White was. Breaking Bad, which starred Bryan Cranston as her husband Walter, ran for five seasons — and the cast savoured it. “Bryan really helped us understand that this does not come around often,” she says. “We really were a family — we experienced weddings, births, deaths, everything.”
Gunn picked up two Emmy Awards for her performance, conveying the exhaustion and anxiety of a suburban mother numbed by ennui, who then becomes trapped by her husband’s criminal schemes. But for those with unreconstructed opinions about women in the 21st century, she was a strident fun sponge. Internet trolls heaped abuse on the character and, sometimes, on Gunn herself. So intense was the reaction that in 2013 she wrote her own response in a New York Times op-ed. It was an intervention that pre-dated the kind of changes brought about by #MeToo, so I ask her how she reflects on it now.
“I feel like I came to understand what it was, which was just the undercurrent of extreme sexism. The idea of gender roles being so deeply ingrained — it was shocking to me,” she says. “But I’m not sorry it happened, because it put me out on the other side going, ‘Huh, that’s really interesting.’ And I felt compelled to say something, not necessarily for myself, but for my daughters and other women. The vehemence of it, and the fact that it was just allowed — it was the id gone wild.”
Other actresses, playing parts on the receiving end of similar reactions, approached her for support — people still tell her how her article gave them the courage to speak up. There is deep pride — and some emotion — in her voice as she talks about it. “It was really wonderful to me to be called upon in that way, because I felt I was being of service to the people I loved and admired as well.”
Despite her determination to take the positives from it, Gunn’s voice also betrays what an unsettling time it was. She has never been on social media so she relied on other people to keep an eye on it for her. “There was this college student who had just watched an episode where Skyler makes Walt take Walt Jr’s car back, and she was very upset about that. So she tweeted: ‘Can somebody tell me where I can find Anna Gunn so I can kill her?’ Which to me sounds like a death threat. So the police checked it out. And she said, ‘Oh, I just saw the episode, you know.’ And they said, ‘Well, you did use her actual name.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I know but … I guess there’s not free speech.’” Gunn looks at me, baffled, and shrugs.
She thinks the character of Walter White awakened “something psychological” in people but that “even when [showrunner] Vince Gilligan thought he was writing hard enough on Walt, the audience continued to side with him.”
Will Gunn be in the upcoming Breaking Bad film? She smiles sheepishly. “I can neither confirm nor deny.” Does she know much about it? “A bit, yeah. A lot. A bit. I don’t know!” She smiles again. “It’s gonna be really good.” Would she ever pop up in the show’s spin-off, Better Call Saul? “Who knows? We’ve talked about just having Skyler and Walt in the background, walking past as unobtrusively as possible.”
In the era of brilliant female-led television such as Big Little Lies and Killing Eve, isn’t it time Gunn got her own show? She tells me, without fanfare, that she’s been thinking for a while about developing something for herself. “I have a vague idea. Producing for sure, maybe having a part in the writing. There’s some things that I’ve been tossing around.”
Watch your screens. But for now, a more than consolatory alternative: watch the Noël Coward Theatre’s stage.
Night of the Iguana is at the Noël Coward Theatre, WC2 until Sep 28; buy tickets with eveningstandardtickets.co.uk