Recently I talked with Charles Baker, most known for playing Skinny Pete in the brilliant series Breaking Bad. Baker is nothing at all like Skinny Pete; he’s an incredibly nice and gracious guy, of course. He’s also incredibly talented. We talked Breaking Bad, getting typecast, and Texas. Below is an edited transcript of our interview.
Small Screen Scoop (SSS): I was looking you up on IMDB and you’ve been in a lot of great stuff man! I didn’t know I enjoyed your work so much [both laugh] You’ve been around a while, but I how did you land the part on Breaking Bad?
Charles Baker (CB): They had three of us and they narrowed it down to 2. There was supposed to be a skinny stoner, a tattooed stoner and a chubby stoner and they ended up narrowing it down to a skinny stoner and a chubby stoner. The chubby stoner wound up being Combo (played by Rodney Rush) and I got to be Skinny Pete.
SSS: We are almost at the end. Are you happy with how the series ends?
CB: I don’t know how it ends! I mean, I’m just as worried about it as everyone else. I’m looking forward to it. I’m going to be at the Hollywood cemetery screening of the finale with Aaron Paul and that will be my first time seeing it.
SSS: When you guys were filming, especially the first couple of episodes — I think you came in around the fourth episode — did you guys know you were filming something kind of special?
CB: Yeah. Oh yeah. When I first got to the set all the other actors who were working on the show would come up and say “have you seen the pilot yet? Oh my god it’s the most amazing show!” And of course I was low guy on the totem pole and I didn’t see the pilot until everyone else did. Everyone just knew. . . they just had this feeling like “wow this is going to be awesome.” And you know, you could kind of tell it was such a unique story and they got such a great cast put together for it that it was kind of easy to tell that something special was going on.
SSS: It’s such a great time for television. We’re definitely in a golden age. Where do you think Breaking Bad will wind up on the television landscape? People compare it to The Wire and all those fantastic shows…
CB: We’ve kind of. . .well. . . I think we are going to be remembered as one of the all-time best. I don’t know if you noticed but we were just, and I say “we” like I was a big part of that, Breaking Bad was put in the Guinness Book of World Records for having the highest critic rating ever. 99 out of a 100 from Metacritic and we’re the first show to ever accomplish that. So, I think we’re going to have a pretty solid place in history. I remember Happy Days as being one of those, like, iconic shows or Gilligan’s Island and I think we will easily be put in — you know even a stronger life than that — but as far as having long term memory I think we are going to be pretty good, pretty secure. I don’t think anybody’s going to be able to compete with us [laughs].
SSS: I completely agree. For five years now it’s completely blown me away. I’m kind of scared for the ending but also very much looking forward to it.
CB: Vince and all of the writers they are all just incredible at what they do and they’ve had a lot of time to think about how they want this to go. There’s no doubt that everybody’s going to be surprised. There’s not going to be a lot of people guessing as to what’s going to happen.
SSS: That’s one of the great things about this show is you can’t guess what’s going to happen. You think you know, but. . .
CB: Right. [laughs]
SSS: I like how they give you a little bit of information about what’s going to happen, like Walt’s neighbors finding out he’s Heisenberg, but we don’t know exactly how they know. I kind of like all the foreshadowing.
CB: Yeah, it’s exciting.
SSS: I read that you went to school to be a musician and then got the acting bug, as one does. There’s a scene where you’re playing the piano in Breaking Bad. Did the writers put that in from personal experience or did you just speak up and “say hey I think Skinny Pete should play the piano?”
CB: In season 3 when we were shooting the scenes at the NA meetings in an actual church and in the back room of that church they had a piano. Matt Jones (Badger) and I kind of took turns just jamming on the piano and so it just sort of happened that one of the writers heard me playing and mentioned it to the other writers and they all sort of got together and said “hey we need to add this element to Skinny Pete.” That was one of the brilliance of the writers is that they learned about people playing the characters they were writing about. And they used elements from the actors and incorporated them into the characters to add depth. That’s been something about me that a lot of people find surprising because of my looks. They don’t usually expect me to be a classical pianist.
SSS: I think that did surprise a lot of people. We got to learn a little more about Skinny Pete as someone other than just a drug addict.
CB: What was neat was I saw a lot of online comments where people opened their eyes about drug addicts in general. Because they realized that they weren’t born with the label drug addict and don’t grow up just handed a bottle full of meth. They have lives before this drug takes over and destroys them and I think they needed to be reminded of that. It really had profound effect on some people just seeing Skinny Pete, this guy who can’t spell street, playing classical music.
SSS: It was actually one my favorite small moments in the whole show.
CB: Yeah, me too.
SSS: The show deals with such heavy topics. How do you deal with it after filming and leave it there and not take it home with you?
CB: Well, one, I’ve been really, really lucky in that most of my scenes have been kind of fun and I haven’t had to do a lot of the heavier drama on the show. But any time I’ve been around it the one thing I’ve noticed is that cast is very light. They joke around and kid around in between scenes and they don’t let [the material] wear them down. They know it’s part of the job and they play it. When Aaron had to shoot Gale, that scene was pretty heavy for him. I wasn’t in that episode but I just happened to be on set just as they were shooting that scene. Aaron was like “oh my god, you’re not going to believe what’s going to happen! Don’t watch! Do not watch! I don’t want you to see this! I want you to see this when it comes out!” Normally he’s the opposite and when I show up on set he just starts spilling all these spoilers to me and telling me all this stuff that’s going to happen. So, I don’t think they took it too hard too often. I mean, they love the characters and they become very sensitive to those characters and I haven’t seen them really take it home with them luckily. I think that would be a hard thing to do. The only thing I actually bring home with me that my wife kind of hates is that I tend to say “yo” a lot and I’m a little too old to be talking like that. “Do your homework, yo!”
SSS: You mentioned earlier about comments from people surprised about drug addicts being people and aren’t born with that label. Have you gotten a lot of feedback from former addicts as far as—not really complimenting the show – but as far as the portrayal of that horrific mess people can get themselves into?
CB: I have an older brother who was really into drugs and he ended up cleaning up and working with a rehabilitation group in Galveston. And a lot of times the entire group of recovering addicts would watch the show, and while we were shooting the NA scenes they were all watching and at first they would call up and be like “oh my god, I can’t believe you guys are [selling drugs]!” And I would just say “hey guys, relax, it’s just a TV show so just watch and see what happens.” And it comes back and I’m like “Yo man, I’m on step five!” and they all jumped up and cheered like” yes! The program works! It really works!” It was neat to see it from their eyes. They came to be and said that actually is a problem in NA meetings, people coming in and pushing their drugs on these guys who are trying to get clean. Or drug dealers who were selling to these guys who were trying to get clean and going to the same meetings because they don’t want to do the drugs that they are selling. And that was an issue. As far as honest portrayal, I have gotten a few comments about how, well the first time I played the piano, actually because that was one of the first times I noticed it. When I played the piano in season 5 people said things like “Just doing that made me realize he’s actually an actor.” And I was like “really? You just thought I was a drug addict?” And apparently a lot of people did. I think that speaks volumes in how it’s portrayed and it was really more on how it was written and I just had to come up with a dialect and study the words. The writers did most of the hard work.
SSS: Going away from Breaking Bad, you generally tend to play the bad guy. How has that affected you, and do you worry about being typecast? Is it easier to play the bad guy when you’re a nice guy?
CB: It’s been back and forth, really. In “Temple Grandin” I was a pretty good guy in that and I was pretty proud of that movie. But I’ve struggled with that. A lot of people, especially since Breaking Bad, they call my agent and say “hey we want that guy that plays Skinny Pete!” And then I come in for the audition looking like I do without the hat on and they go “who are you? We want the guy who plays Skinny Pete.” It’s been kind of difficult to get anything but [those roles]. But on the bright side because of Skinny Pete, if they want a role like that they don’t really have to ask if I can do that. They just go “hey you want to play this role? We got a drug addict role, want to play it?” But I’m trying to break out of that. In Terrance Malick’s film “To the Wonder” I wasn’t exactly a great guy so to speak but I still wasn’t a really bad guy so that one kind of ruined me and I thought “hey I don’t have to keep playing bad guys. Now I can play a good guy!” I told my agent I didn’t want to play bad guys anymore and they went “uhhhhhhh, yeah I don’t know if that’s going to work” [laughs]. But we’re all trying together to worm my way into different things. It’s not so much good or bad it’s interesting and dynamic. I want to play characters that make me feel like I’m an actor and not so much just an ugly face. I like to stretch my imagination and skills and see how far I can go. I’ve been doing some short films. . . to show people that I’m more than just a scary face.
SSS: You used to do a lot of voice acting for anime. Do you enjoy doing the voice over work?
CB: Yeah it’s really fun. I’m not sure I’m really good at it though. [laughs] I’ve heard a couple of things that I’ve done and it’s really difficult work. It’s the hardest, purest form of acting, in a way, because you don’t get any time to sit and read the script. You don’t get any time to understand your character or even know what other people are saying to you. The ones I’ve done are basically English redubs so it’s always been animated to someone’s voice and I have to go in and just match my voice to their words. They show it to you once and then you do it. And you have to be really quick and it’s almost an improv lesson and it’s really really fun. Most people would never recognize my voice because I do really grumbly stuff, biker-type guys, and really strange character voices. But it’s a whole lot of fun.
SSS: I like anime because the fight scenes are ridiculous. The tracks are great! I think you’ve done some of that before where there’s a fight scene and you just have to grunt and do all these onomatopoeias, which I find it hilarious. Is that hard to do?
CB: I’m really good at the fight stuff. They show whole long sequences of fight stuff and I just watch it and I can almost nail every little grunt and moan. If they have laughter that’s where I fail because I have the goofiest laugh in the world and they never want me to do my [does a funny laugh]. So they try to get me to laugh like other people and we do 30 takes. The laughing tracks are really tough for me. But anything else I can do.
SSS: I read that you studied as a mime in Ft. Worth. How has that translated into your physical acting style?
CB: I did it because Bob Hoskins, who did “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”, [he] got that part because of his mime skills. Johnny Depp in “Benny and Joon”. . .even “Pirates of the Caribbean.” Acting classes in England still have mime as a requirement. In the states they took it out. I took mime and movement from a guy who studied with Marcel Marceau, Johnny Simons, and he’s brilliant. I did it so I could be better as a character actor. I’m not going to be a lead kind of actor, so I need to be prepared for anything else. It helps in every moment I can do as a character. So the reason why most people have seen me in a lot of different things and don’t know that it’s me is because of the mime training that I’ve had. I try to carry myself differently in everything I do. I use physicality as a part of my character and it helps a lot. I really want to do one of those green screen movies where I have to fight a bunch of aliens.
SSS: You’ve got a part in Blacklist, the new James Spader show on NBC. What else are you working on?
CB: If it gets picked up, TNT is doing a Steven Bochco crime drama called “Murder in the First” and that will start airing next June and I have a recurring part on that. And Blacklist, like you mentioned. And I’m trying really hard to get on the last season of Sons of Anarchy!
SSS: Oh man, you’d fit right in with the guys in Charming!
CB: I already had the tattoo before the show started! There was a reaper on my arm before Sons of Anarchy was even made. So I think they owe me money or something [laughs].
SSS: They at least owe you guest spot!
CB: At least! Come on! [laughs]
SSS: So one final question: Will we see you in the final episode of Breaking Bad?
CB: I might be but I’m not at liberty to say!
Blacklist airs Mondays at 10/9c on NBC and the final episode of Breaking Bad airs this Sunday on AMC.