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The small screen changes dimensions

Having caught the world's attention in the stellar series Breaking Bad, actress Anna Gunn earned an Emmy Award for her portrayal of Skyler White. The performance of this New Mexican actress has helped move "small-screen" television work to the forefront of the "big-screen" world of Hollywood.

MOST RECENT, HIGH-QUALITY TELEVISION SERIES EXPLORE THE BEHAVIOUR OF ORDINARY HEROES FACING EXTRAORDINARY SITUATIONS. THEY PIERCE THE PSYCHOLOGICAL WORKINGS OF PREDICTABLE CHARACTERS, AS UNEXPECTED EVENTS GRADUALLY REVEAL WHO THEY ARE. THERE WAS ­DEXTER, FOR EXAMPLE, THE ADVENTURES OF AN ANALYST FOR THE MIAMI POLICE DEPARTMENT WHO CONCEALED HIS DOUBLE LIFE AS A SERIAL KILLER WITH VARYING DEGREES OF SUCCESS. The Sopranos, too, combining the day-to-day life of a conservative, depressive father with his duties as a New Jersey mafia godfather. And Breaking Bad, the odyssey of a small-time chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer who becomes a methamphetamine producer and trafficker as a way to provide for his family upon his imminent absence. This series has won multiple Emmy Awards (essentially the “Oscars” of American television), including taking the trophy for Outstanding Drama Series, with Bryan Cranston garnering three wins for Outstanding Lead Actor and the award for Outstanding Supporting Actress going to Anna Gunn, who is masterful in her role of the middle-class wife slithering from the heady bliss of innocence down into the muddy morass of guesswork and guilt.


Contemporary moviemaking seems to be taking off in two opposing directions. There’s the blockbuster business on one side and, on the other, a resurgence of realism. In short, the former is shouldered by the studios’ performances; the latter, by those of the actors. And the advancement of dramatic arts is unquestionably keeping pace with the progress seen in special effects, just as the development of ever-faster race cars does not preclude professional sprinters from beating land-speed records. Thus it was that the Cannes Film Festival jury awarded the Palme d’Or to the passionately natural Blue is the Warmest Color, stating (for the first time in its history) that the award was for both the director and the two lead actresses. Movies of this genre are somewhat like Impressionist painting, depicting whatever landscapes or fruit baskets might be in sight to distinguish itself from more academic, edifying, pompous scenes: the triviality of the theme serves to showcase the effectiveness of its representation. In a real-life movie style, inspired by true events, it is less a question of being plausible as being a lyrical expression of verisimilitude, a pace that has been trimmed of the fat of daily life’s duller moments, of the disjointed nature of natural speech. But reality is made up of insignificant details, infinitesimal developments that are challenging to “stock” in a feature film, and this is how Blue is the Warmest Color ended up keeping an audience spellbound for nearly three hours in a dark room. In Hollywood, this verist approach has taken root and flourished in a number of superb televised drama series.


For the past decade or so, American screenwriters have no longer been reluctant to make the shift to the world of the small screen for the chance to round out the lives of their heroes, season after season. With starkly honest and realistic portrayals, like the work of Anna Gunn, television has entered another golden age, providing Hollywood studios with a new model of profitability, as blockbusters see profits melt away as their budgets soar skyward, approaching the annual outlays of a small country. Realism – be it aesthetic or budgetary – is now de rigueur. More and more film work is being shot out-of-doors, sometimes far from California. Breaking Bad was filmed in Albuquerque, in the New Mexican desert. The acting trade, therefore, has a bright future ahead. It is moving forward by dropping the mask, somehow passing viewers through screen’s proscenium arch, drawing rawer acting from the players. Making it look as though they were truly exposing their insides, genuinely experiencing a situation, when, in fact, they are only saying their lines.


To create her Skyler White character in Breaking Bad, Anna Gunn spoke extensively with director Vince Gilligan and his fellow producer and her on-screen partner, Bryan Cranston. “In the beginning, Walter White’s wife was only sketchily included in the script. It took me two seasons to really identify her and start making her more consistent. Bryan Cranston and I spent a lot of time thinking about the couple our characters created. Knowing how they met, how the White family got started, really helped us convey this very lengthy separation on which the logic of the series is partially based.” Each of them is, to a degree, blind, making the unconscious choice to not face their respective disillusionment. To escape that state, Walter breaks the law, and Skyler clumsily tries to reconcile the crime with her dreams. But their respective natures move imperceptibly and directly toward a tragic end: “Vince Gilligan very subtly, intelligently and discreetly sows the seeds of disunity that takes on an overwhelming presence as the series unfolds. Gradually, Skyler understands that her compromise has become fraudulent and she starts to panic.” The credibility of her acting has led to Anna Gunn’s being the target of a veritable online lynching, which, in turn, spurred her to send an open letter to the New York Times, which was published as an op-ed feature. She is still surprised by the inability of some members of the public to distinguish between a role and the person playing it: “Maybe TV reality shows have led to people sometimes forgetting that movies are fiction,” she ventures. Nevertheless, the actress finds that viewers resent Skylar’s dissociating herself from her husband’s criminal career. The Bonnie-and-Clyde scenario of “couplehood in crime” remains an emotional foundation of American culture ever since the public became bored with the comfort that followed the conquest of the West.


Breaking Bad has the merit of posing a number of other questions, some of which are universal: “When faced with imminent death, what would you be capable of doing?”, others more timely (the story of a chemistry teacher forced to use his knowledge to support organised crime because he doesn’t have the means to get the appropriate medical treatment, echoing the debate on healthcare coverage reform that so divided American society at that time. The series also encompasses a detailed study of the addictive nature of the savage capitalist represented by Walter White, from his macabre habit to his sales effectiveness and the dirty money he doesn’t even manage to launder, but to which he also becomes as addicted as his customers are to his methamphetamine. Around him, a vacuum slowly forms, in the way that everything Midas touched died in turning to gold. The fact that Hollywood produced such a series demonstrates the creativity and self-preserving instincts the show-business capital truly has. This is one reason why Anna Gunn has lived there for 23 years. Originally from Santa Fe, New Mexico, a then-small adobe town of artistic temperament, the actress had to recreate her life to match this sprawling metropolis, where civilised humans walk on four wheels. But it was worth the sacrifice. Beneath its arid appearance thrums an exceptionally expressive cultural diversity. There are first-rate theatres, operas, ballets, art galleries and museums. Nights in L.A. are no longer just for sleeping. At first, the magnitude of the distances to be crossed to obtain life’s basic necessities reinforced the illusion that Los Angeles was just one immense residential neighbourhood. But by virtue of traversing it time and again, one comes to realise that, what it might lack in urban density, it makes up for in its own extraordinary intensity.


1968  Born in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

1991  Moves permanently to Los Angeles.

2008  First appearance in Breaking Bad.

2013  Wins the Emmy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

2014  Shares top billing in the Gracepoint detective series with actor David Tennant.

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By Julien Bouré - Photos Jean-Claude Amiel - Production Sandrine Giacobetti

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