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“Yo, man! I’m skinny Pete!” That line from a 2008 episode of Breaking Bad was among the most important of Charles Baker‘s career so far, because it’s when his character was given a name.
“That was when I went from being just a day player to being a character on the show,” Baker tells The Hollywood Reporter. “That was the biggest compliment you can get — to get a name.”
The line was in “Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” in which his character, Skinny Pete, introduced Jesse (Aaron Paul) to the murderous drug dealer Tuco (Raymond Cruz).
Skinny Pete, the meth dealing ex-con, is as about as far away as you can get form Baker, who loves theater and studied mime and piano.
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“Most of my close friends who knew me before I was on Breaking Bad, they laugh hysterically just seeing me play this character,” Baker says.
He isn’t saying whether Skinny Pete ends up dying in the final episodes (the second of eight airs Sunday on AMC), but he does reveal it’s something he’s thought about since the early days of the show.
“Every time I got a script, the first thing I checked was, ‘do I live?'” he says. “Somewhere in the middle of the third season I told the writers ‘If you kill me, make sure I’m crying, make it an emotional scene, because it’s going to be hard for me not to go ‘I don’t want to die’ [mock cries].”
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Find THR‘s full conversation with Baker below, where he talks about what makes Bryan Cranston a master actor, what the cast and crew were like shooting the final episodes, and which piece of Skinny Pete memorabilia might end up in the Smithsonian (seriously!).
The Hollywood Reporter: In the premiere you and Badger (Matt Jones) have this lengthy conversation about Star Trek. What kind of direction did Bryan Cranston give you on that?
Charles Baker: Those scenes come from [writer] Peter Gould, most of the time. He’s our resident geek on the show. Bryan mostly let us go with it to see what we do. That was the first time I’d worked with Bryan as a director. He would help us with some beats, some comedic timing, which he’s brilliant at, but for the most part he let us do what we do.
THR: In that scene, the point is that you guys are happy and Jesse is miserable. Does Skinny Pete notice Jesse has changed?
Baker: He’s noticed the change, but, like they say, ignorance is bliss. We’re kind of trying to be respectful of his privacy and just trying to be there for him. I think that’s why we work so hard at taking him away from it. We know that something is affecting him, but we don’t really know what is affecting him. We don’t really feel like it’s our place to try to get it out of him. Even if we had tried, I don’t think he would have told us.
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THR: You and Badger end up being funny. Are you aware there is humor as you shoot?
Badger: I’m aware there is humor in the scenes. I’m wary of trying to play it as humor. I hope that’s what makes it funnier. I try to play it as serious as possible. When it’s as completely out there and ridiculous as it is, the more serious you play it, the more funny it comes across. I hope that’s what’s happening.
THR: You are a dramatic actor. Is this different in that it’s a funny role?
Baker: I try to play it serious and straight, but I know when we finish and everyone in the crew is laughing their heads off while we’re doing the scenes, we know we’ve got something.
THR: Last year, Skinny Pete plays the piano, which was a surprise. How did that come about?
Baker: I made that happen. I had heard one of the writers talking about how they watch the actors behind the scenes to pick up clues about them that they can use in the writing. I held that in the back of my head for a while. We were shooting the narcotics anonymous scenes where Badger and I are trying to sell meth. While we were shooting in that church, there was a piano in one of the back rooms. We took a lunch break and there was a piano in the back room. I started playing it.
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They called me about a month before, and said “we noticed you played piano. Would you mind playing piano in a scene?” I said “absolutely.” [After settling on Solfeggietto in C minor] I worked for the rest of that month three hours a day working on playing that entire song perfectly.
THR: You probably didn’t realize this character would be going on so many years later. Do you feel like you had to stick your head in to make sure you stayed on the show?
Baker: Around my third of fourth episode, one of the writers or producers was watching a scene, and they were standing next to me and said, “You know, you’re pretty much auditioning for your next episode every episode you do.” So every time I got a script, the first thing I checked was, “do I live?”
Somewhere in the middle of the third season I told the writers “If you kill me, make sure I’m crying, make it an emotional scene, because it’s going to be hard for me not to go “I don’t want to die” [mocks crying].
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I worked hard at not getting killed off, which included being the nicest person I could be on-set and off. You won’t find any blooper reels of me messing up or making jokes on camera because I’m not going to waste anybody’s time. I’m not going to give them an excuse.
THR: Aaron Paul was originally going to get killed off in season one. Combo does in a later season. Was there any talk it’d be you or Badger instead of Combo?
Baker: It was always going to be one of us. I think he got the short end of the stick because he had the shortest resume. He was a great kid, and this was his first acting job ever. Rodney Rush was the guy. He’s a DJ and a rapper in New Mexico. He had heard about an open all and went in, and happened to blow the audition away. You couldn’t have those three guys working in this show and not have some kind of tragedy. Matt Jones and I are actually surprised it wasn’t one of us, because of how close we were to Jesse and what kind of impact it would have on his character.
If they were going to kill me, I was hoping they would wait until the very end. Of course, we’ll have to see how that happens — if that happens or not.
THR: Where will you watch the final episodes?
Baker: I like to have a little party at my house with my friends and family, and kind of keep it to myself. I know how the fans can get if something doesn’t go their way [laughs], and I don’t want to take the blame for that in public.
THR: What do your friends or family say about this experience?
Baker: Most of my close friends who knew me before I was on Breaking Bad, they laugh hysterically just seeing me play this character. I don’t know that culture. I did a lot of Shakespeare and theater. I studied mime. I played piano. I had friends who didn’t watch the show for a long time, because every time they saw me they couldn’t take it seriously.
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My youngest daughter was born right when I started, so she grew up with me as Skinny Pete. She’s never seen the show — she’s seen little clips of me when I’m not using bad language. She thinks it’s funny people call me Skinny Pete. Every now and then she’ll walk up to strangers and say “my dad’s Skinny Pete.”
THR: Do you have a favorite Skinny Pete Moment?
Baker: We were the comic relief or a break from the tension. But we always got these great, epic moments. All of the nerd conversations we’ve had — we talked about Star Trek, Star Wars, video games — those have been so fun.
One of the most endearing moments was the piano thing. It’s kind of weird being locked in a character who is such a lowlife — who is dumb, inarticulate and illiterate, and seems like your basic scumbag. To be able to jump out and throw this at people and go “oh, yeah, he used to be this” — it was really endearing to me. That was a beautiful moment.
THR: As a fan of the show, what is your favorite?
Baker: When Jesse was about to confront the street dealers and Walter White comes roaring in with his car and runs over them, and gets out and shoots the guy in the head and says “run.” I jumped out of my chair when that happened. It was fantastic. As an actor, watching Bryan work, it’s like a study in how to do it right.
THR: What are some things Bryan does so right?
Baker: The really deep, hard sad stuff. When he watched Jane die, while she was choking on her own vomit. That tear coming out of his eyes. The concentration that takes to be able to stay in that moment and not be able to worry about this whole army of people standing around you with microphones and cameras — to be able to let that emotion flow, that’s pretty heavy. And Aaron Paul is another one who can do that on the drop of a hat. It’s amazing to me. I was a military brat. We weren’t allowed to show emotion. That’s inspiring. I think a lot of people who take it for granted and think “so what, he cried.” Yeah, you try it. [Laughs]
THR: What were people like on the set these last episodes?
Baker: It’s like family. We all were so proud of what we had accomplished. We knew that we had gone out the right way. There was a lot of pride in knowing that we’re still going to blow them away with what we’re making now. There was a little bit of sadness in knowing that this was the end and knowing “this job I’ve had for six years is no longer a job.” There’s a whole bunch of layers involved. It was emotional, that’s for sure.
THR: Did you take anything from the set as a memento?
Baker: I asked for Skinny Pete’s hat at the end of the run. I didn’t want to just steal it. They said “Oh, sorry, it’s slated to possibly go into the Smithsonian.” OK, nevermind. What can you say to that? It’s not a guarantee, but they are holding on to stuff because of the impact it has had on TV. They are holding on to a lot of the props and costumes.
THR: What’s that like?
Baker: I spent a lot of time at the Smithsonian as a kid. To think I could be there next to Fonzie’s jacket, that’s the epitome of what you’re trying to do in this business, to be remembered. To be recognized for my little contribution would be amazing.
Breaking Bad airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC.
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