I always enjoy hearing about television roles that start out very small and spiral into something much bigger. For instance, if the original pilot of FX's Justified was shot as originally written, most wouldn't know the name Boyd Crowder, since Walton Goggins' character was initially set to be killed in the pilot. AMC's hit series Breaking Bad had a similar scenario during its first season, when Charles Baker signed on to play an unnamed character known only as "skinny stoner" for just one episode. Five seasons later, Skinny Pete is one of the show's most colorful characters who, along with Matt Jones' Badger, provides a lot of the comic relief in key moments. I recently had the chance to chat with Charles Baker about the evolution of his character, who returns with "Blood Money" on Sunday, August 11 at 9 PM ET on AMC. Here's what he had to say.
I read that Skinny Pete didn't even have a name for that first episode. Can you talk about when you found out that this one episode might be turning into something more?
Charles Baker: It was really exciting for me. That's been my goal since I started working in TV, to be a recurring character on a TV show. When I first got to the set of Breaking Bad as skinny stoner, the energy on the set was just incredible. Everybody seemed to know that this was just going to be an incredible show, so I knew that I just had to be back. This would be the greatest show for me to be on. I had a feeling in the back of my head that he would have friends. My agent called the next week and said they want you back, but she didn't know they had a name for me, just that they want me back. I kind of flipped out when I first heard, then when I got there, to the set, they took me to the location where Tuco's office was, and they were shooting this scene as Bryan Cranston was exiting the building after he blows it up. I was standing by the monitors watching the scene, and Bryan Cranston walks up to me and said, 'Hey, I've heard so many great things about you. I can't wait to get working with you on this show.' I almost lost it. The dad from Malcolm in the Middle is talking to me (Laughs). They told me the story, about how they had hired Matt Jones to play Badger, who originally introduces Walt to Tuco. After they cut the scene together, they realized they just didn't think he was tough enough, or had enough hardness to have done prison time. He didn't seem he was hard enough to have known Tuco in prison and survived, I guess. So, they were trying to figure out what to do, they needed to find somebody and they didn't have a lot of time, and Bryan said, 'Let's bring back that skinny stoner dude.' They looked at my tape, and decided that I had enough hardness, I guess, to have survived knowing Tuco in prison, so they brought me back. I didn't have a script until I got there, and I actually wasn't a member of the Screen Actors Guild until this episode, because I was working in Texas and hadn't had enough credit yet to join the union, so I actually had to join the union to do this episode. It actually costs more to join the union than I got paid to do that episode (Laughs). I jumped into it, and we got my union membership so I could keep going, and luckily, they liked what I did. I can't remember if it was a writer or a producer, who at one point told me that each episode is an audition for the next episode.
That's amazing. You talked about how great the energy was on the set that first day. Have you found that energy has either sustained or grown throughout the five years you've been there?
Charles Baker: The energy on that set would either remain the same or get higher. The crew remained almost constant, throughout the entire run, which I find is not always the case. Everybody became like family. I think a couple of crew members got married throughout the process. Once Bryan started winning Emmy's and Aaron Paul started getting nominated, everyone knew that we were just on something golden. It's incredible, the relationship we all have, and the way that Bryan was a father figure to everybody. He not only helped the actors do better at what we do, but he encouraged everyone to do their best, to love what they do also. It's a wonderful thing.
When you knew you were coming back, was there any research you looked into about how someone like Pete would conduct himself or react in a certain situation? Was there anyone you talked to, or anything specifically you looked into to craft this character?
Charles Baker: I haven't really had too many in-depth conversations about Skinny Pete's character. The first season, we had a different director each episode, and then they narrowed it down to a specific set of directors, but each director I worked with, had their own idea of who Skinny Pete was. It didn't matter what he had done before. They'd go, 'You have to be very angry. You have to be very mean and tough about this scene.' Then others were like, 'You're just a stoner.' It was kind of a mixture of different interpretations from the directors, and a lot of times, I would have to find ways to justify that within myself, or find a balance that I would do. I would try to come up with my own back story for Skinny Pete, on my own, but then they would bring me back and do a new scene that would kind of contradict something I had already come up with in my own head, so I kind of stopped trying to think about who Skinny Pete was, and just let the writers guide me each episode. It was almost a study in improvisation for me, in that I got to improv the same character over this long period of time.
I've actually met Matt Jones a bunch of times at this improv club in L.A. that I hang out at. As you were saying, it was a study in improv, but do you find that the show allows you to go off book at all?
Charles Baker: For me, I'm always kind of a purist when it comes to scripts. This has never been an issue for me, and I always get a little nervous about going off book. In scenes with Matt Jones and I, every scene we do is verbatim, the way it's written. Every "yo," every "bitch," every word is pretty much in the order. I actually ask permission to change the order of a "yo." They will have, "Yo, this is great." And I will say, "Can I say 'This is great, yo?'" And they'll say, "Yeah, that works." Like I said, they told me at the beginning that every episode is an audition for your next episode, so I had this horrible fear of not coming back, so I tried my best to make sure everything was perfect on set, as perfect as I could. You'll find there's not a lot of outtakes with me, where I messed up my lines, because I didn't want any kind of hassle or any kind of delay on set.
I'm sure you can't talk a whole lot about the upcoming episodes, but I know you're in the first episode back, "Blood Money". Is there anything you can tease about where Skinny Pete and Badger and Jesse might be heading in these final episodes?
Charles Baker: I actually don't know. I've found that Skinny Pete is mentioned in scenes and episodes that I'm not involved in, and I've learned new stuff about my character, just from watching shows where they talk about me or have a phone conversation about me. This final season, I only see the parts of the scripts with my dialogue. There are other parts of the scripts where I'm mentioned, but I haven't seen them. I really don't know where any of it is going, except for the few scenes that I have seen. I'm a huge fan of the show myself, and I don't like getting spoilers either. There's not a whole lot that I know about what's going on.
Can you talk about who you play in NBC's The Blacklist?
Charles Baker: Yeah. The Blacklist, I really, really love that show, and, to be honest, I don't know if I'll remain on, or what's going to happen there. In the pilot, I play Gray, who is James Spader's driver and confidant. James Spader plays a character named Red, who is one of the FBI's most wanted criminals, who turns himself in, in order to help the FBI capture all the other criminals that are on the most wanted list. He's still considered a criminal, but they're giving him a little bit of leeway. So I work for him, and if he were Batman, I would be Alfred. I love playing him, because he's the polar opposite of Skinny Pete. He wears a three-piece suit, has a nice haircut and shaves, he speaks English quite well, he can read. I really loved playing that different character, and I really hope I get to keep doing that.
What would you like to say to all the Skinny Pete fans who have been supporting the show and why they should keep tuning in for these final episodes?
Charles Baker: I can't appreciate them enough. They're such an intelligent, really astute group. I read a lot of message boards and on Reddit, the things they say about the show. There are just so many incredible ideas that people have, about where things are going. It's amazing, and the love they have for the show, has been inspiring. One of my favorite aspects of it, is the show has inspired artists of all different mediums to produce art based on Breaking Bad. I'm a true lover of all forms of art, I've tried all of them, so seeing sculptures and paintings and drawings and clothes designed, all the things that are coming out of this show, has been so amazing to me, and very inspiring.
Excellent. That's all I have. Thanks so much. It was great talking to you, Charles.
Charles Baker: Thank you. Have a great day, Brian.