How Scots star Laura Fraser landed a career-changing part in cult US TV drama Breaking Bad from her apartment
What’s not to like about an actor who asks to move table, from a bright window seat in the hubbub of the bar, to one in a back corner, so as to avoid “getting embarrassed”? It’s true that if someone was to listen in to an interview they’d think it was a pretty strange conversation – one person hardly saying a word while the other talks relentlessly about themselves without ever asking the other a question. But that’s not what any conversation with Laura Fraser would sound like, partly because the Glaswegian actress is so easy to chat to, it feels less like an interview and more like a blether, and partly because she asks so many questions, you wouldn’t know which one of us is the subject.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Fraser, 38, made her debut in Small Faces. There was an abortive year of study at the then RSAMD around the same time, but since then there’s been a steady stream of work in everything from Hollywood movies (A Knight’s Tale, Vanilla Sky), to homegrown films (Richard Jobson’s Sixteen Years of Alcohol and the Graeme Obree biopic, The Flying Scotsman) as well as a string of TV dramas (The Passion, A Single Father, Florence Nightingale).
Now, though, Fraser’s career has taken another turn with a key role in the final series of the critically acclaimed American crime drama Breaking Bad. Created and produced by Vince Gilligan and set in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Breaking Bad is based on the travails of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) a chemistry teacher who turns to a life of crime, more specifically the production and sale of methamphetamine (crystal meth) when he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
The show is another in the pantheon of great American TV dramas – it was voted No 13 in a list of the 101 best-written TV series of all time by the Writers Guild of America. It has picked up seven Primetime Emmy Awards as well as a cult following, who are at present getting their fix of the fifth and final series on Netflix.
Fraser plays Lydia Rodarte Quayle, a business executive who also happens to be a black marketeer and is, says Fraser, “demented,” perhaps at least part of the reason she has been described as one of the show’s most intriguing and mysterious characters. “She’s always in fight or flight mode,” says Fraser. “It means there’s always something to play with her – she’s never got a normal scene where she’s having a cup of tea or eating her breakfast. You don’t see that, and if you did, someone would be about to die. Lydia vibrates at this high-pitched frequency, there is always nervous intensity. It’s always life or death with her.”
Fraser vibrates with a kind of nervous energy too. After stints of living in London, Brooklyn, West Cork and her home city, Glasgow, Fraser and her husband, actor-writer Karl Geary, and the couple’s seven-year-old daughter, Lila, are now based in a ramshackle house in upstate New York. “It’s in the woods on a mountain, just past Woodstock,” she says. “Seven months of the year it’s totally amazing – you can swim in the rivers, you can do yoga outside, it’s just divine – but the other five months are brutal, so cold it hurts your face.”
Fraser and her daughter are back in Glasgow while Geary shoots with Ken Loach in Sligo. Having dropped off her daughter at school, Fraser arrives at the bar, apple core in hand, where we’d agreed to meet a few minutes late. The handshake is firm, the questions start immediately: did you cycle? Where from? Are you going to have something to eat? I believe her when she says that playing a character as “stressy” as Lydia made Fraser feel stressed herself. “At the end of the day my body would feel in bits because I’d been holding it really tight,” she says. “Combined with that there was the pressure of trying to fit into the Breaking Bad family. All of the cast and crew are absolutely at the top of their game and it was such an opportunity so sometimes I really felt the pressure. My husband kept reminding me to enjoy it because I might not get to play a character as brilliant as her again.”
Fraser has been an actor for long enough to know the truth of this statement. She also knows the slog of auditioning, a process that she describes as a job interview where “20-30 people more attractive and slightly younger” are going for the same position. Fraser’s solution, to this problem at least, was to tape her auditions herself and just send them in rather than showing up in person.
“I got Breaking Bad from my apartment – I never met anyone,” she says. “So weird.” And what about when you turn up on set for the first time? She smiles. “It’s a bit like, I hope you didn’t think it was the other Laura Fraser.” She laughs. “It was very strange. We were jumping up and down when I got the part. We’d never seen the show but we’d heard that it was good. And then I was like, oh s***, this is going to be really scary.”
The critical response to Fraser’s portrayal of Lydia has been wholly positive, with most praise focused on how well Fraser holds her own in such a well established and celebrated ensemble cast. The production was, says Fraser, “a well-oiled machine”.
“I’ve never worked on anything so supremely organised, down to the tiniest details. The only thing that was normal was that you were given your script at the last minute.”
The way Fraser speaks about acting and the movies she watches, and the writers whose work she enjoys, it’s clear that she remains smitten with her profession. She made two independent films while she was making Breaking Bad, Wish You Well, with Ellen Burstyn and The Sisterhood of the Night, a reworking of The Crucible in contemporary times. It’s clear that it’s the process of acting the enthrals Fraser, even if there are aspects of the business that she’d probably rather do without. What she diplomatically describes as “various reasons” have surfaced throughout her career and tested her willingness to continue. At first it was, she says, “the weight thing”. My eyebrows shoot up because Fraser is titchy and, from what I can recall, always has been. “No, no, I haven’t,” she says. “I mean I wasn’t unhealthily overweight, just not a skinny actress in her twenties. I was always being told to lose weight and I lost parts because of that. It really pissed me off and made me feel s***. At the time I didn’t realise that it was just another layer of sexism.”
In her thirties she’s started to feel “pissed off” at having to audition as much as she does. Making audition tapes feels, she says, like full-time work.
“It feels like with any other job you get to a certain level and you move up, whereas with this it sometimes feels as though you’re going backwards.” She pauses, then explains why it is that she’s kept on going. “I know how it feels when I don’t try to do what I love,” she says. “I feel even worse, so I’d rather deal with the excruciating embarrassment of feeling shy but pushing through, or feeling like I’ve said something stupid, or not been articulate enough, or famous enough, or whatever-enough, but doing it anyway.”
That’s probably the reason that in the nearly 20 years that she’s been acting, Fraser has never had to take another job. And when you think of it like that, it’s hard not to be impressed.
“Society tells you that there is a cut off,” she says. “If you’ve not made it to this level by this time then you’re not going to. But Breaking Bad showed me that that’s not the case. I got that part – I wasn’t famous and I wasn’t under 35.” She smiles.
• The final season of Breaking Bad is available on Netflix. The Sisterhood of the Night is out in November.