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article imageA conversation with Breaking Bad's Jeremiah Bitsui Special

By Mindy Peterman     Jan 15, 2014 in Entertainment
Jeremiah Bitsui is nothing like the sociopath he plays on Breaking Bad. However, he is thankful to have had the opportunity to portray one of the baddest of the bad on the hit AMC series. [Spoiler alert]
Jeremiah Bitsui is best known for his role on AMC’s hit show Breaking Bad as Victor, an enforcer and henchman in Gus Fring’s drug empire. His character was on the show from Season 2 through Victor’s death in the fourth season episode “Box Cutter”. That death could quite possibly be considered one of the grisliest ever to be shown on the small screen.
Bitsui’s story starts many years before his star turn on Breaking Bad. He was first seen on the big screen at the age of five in the Japanese film Mickey’s House. He later went on to appear in the 1994 film Natural Born Killers as well as other films and television dramas.
He can be next seen in the Robert Redford produced film Drunktown’s Finest, a project of which he says he is “very proud.” The film is set to be in competition at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
I spoke recently with Bitsui by phone, catching him before he was heading out to do some Christmas shopping in sunny Las Vegas.
Where are you from originally?
Originally I am from Arizona. That’s where I was born and raised for part of my life. I come from a rodeo family.
Was that ever something you wanted to do?
It was something I would have loved to do but I had severe allergies that prevented me from being the master rodeo man I should have been. My father was a bareback rider, mom was also a rider. The genes were there but they weren’t there in terms of the allergies. I physically wasn’t able to do it.
I guess you were meant for other things. You began acting at 5 years old in a Japanese film called Mickey’s House.
Oh, yeah, that was my first thing.
How did that role come about?
It came about through rodeo, in a sense. My parents had horses and there was a Japanese film crew that was coming through town. They wanted to work with us because we had the best horses. I attended every meeting because I was a big fan of Japanese cinema. At the time, Ninja movies were really big, and I thought they were filming a Ninja movie. So I’d be there every time [my parents] would meet with these guys. Eventually they not only winded up getting a few horses, but they ended up hiring me as the lead. That was my first real experience. It was kind of what really sparked the fire for me.
In 1994 you appeared in Natural Born Killers.
Yeah, that was my first real American gig.
It’s satirical yet such a dark, disturbing film. What comes to mind when you think about that movie now, especially since you’ve gone on to play in equally disturbing projects such as Breaking Bad?
At a young age, I had an understanding that it was satirical and a commentary. I watched it recently and I thought it was still in some ways ahead of its time because it foreshadowed how much we’re entertained by violence. I’m guilty of it. I’ll be on YouTube watching two puppies and the next thing you know I’m watching The Best Knockout Fight, or something like that. And I’m like, “How the heck did I get here?” It’s interesting that as a culture we have kind of a bloodlust. I still see it as interesting, like with Breaking Bad. Literally, you’re tuning in every week to watch a very dysfunctional, sometimes very uncomfortable situation play out.
You’ve become known for your role as Victor in Breaking Bad. Could you talk about how you got the role?
I was in New Mexico, working on other projects and I got a call from my agent who told me I had an audition for this role of a store manager of Los Pollos Hermanos. I read for it and felt I wasn’t right for the role. They ended up casting a female for that role. So I was backing up out of the parking lot and Shari Rhodes, who passed away a few years back, ran out and got me and said, “We’ve got to read you for this other part.” At the time [the part] wasn’t very big, just a few lines. The character’s name was Nondescript Customer. I just had a good feeling for it. I knew what the character was about, potentially, and just built off of that. I didn’t really know it would go anywhere else. When we shot the episode, I was thankful I was able to get on something that seemed like it was really special. From there I got invited back to Season 3 and then into Season 4. I was just happy to be living that long as a bad guy.
How do you see your character in hindsight and what was it like playing him?
It was fun playing Victor. I saw him as being someone who was highly influenced by Mike and definitely wanting to be part of this organization for the long term. He wasn’t someone who was a car thief or a petty criminal. He was someone who’d been fostered from an young age and maybe even had a military background. That was the cool thing about Breaking Bad. You were allowed free reign to come up with your own backstory. That really allowed me to create a background for this character.
Did you share your ideas for Victor’s backstory with the producers?
It was really in my head but there were times when Vince [Gilligan] would check in and let me know where we’re going or what direction to take. But for the most part it was pretty much free reign. Character-wise, a lot of the decisions being made were kind of in the line with the plot of the story. It’s always a great thing when you create a character and give him that freedom and there’s not really any conflicts, plot-wise.
Victor’s death scene in Breaking Bad was one of the grisliest ever to grace the small screen. What was it like shooting that scene?
It started in L.A. with a prosthetic house, where we had to go through and actually practice different flows of blood. You never knew what Vince was going to want. There was one where blood was shooting across the screen, like a Quentin Tarentino movie. Then there were ones with a little bit more subtle flows of blood. We would play with that. On the day, we must have shot that scene...oh, I don’t know... it was a full day shoot. I know Giancarlo [Esposito] had quite a hard time with it. But we got through it. It was quite an experience for us all to dive into something that brutal and that bloody. People always ask me if I was mad that it happened. I never expected to live that long (laughs). To live until the fourth season and be the center point of the scene was just a huge compliment. I feel tremendously blessed by the opportunity. Originally [the scene] was just a little bit longer, and when we premiered it in L.A., Bryan Cranston reacted strongly to it and actually fainted. So because of that it was shortened and modified quite a bit.
Do you have a favorite moment from the show?
There was an interesting interaction that Bryan and I once had. It was a scene where he actually touches Victor. He grabs on to Victor. The communication was going so well. There was no “star” feeling. No one was greater than anyone else. [Still], I look back at it as this huge risk. I asked Bryan, “Would you mind just grabbing my arm? Could we try one like that and see if it feels natural? Instead of letting me go, grab onto my arm and then we’ll both react.” So he grabbed my arm and I gave him a look like, “Why the hell are you grabbing my arm?” It just was a wonderful moment between us. I’m glad I was bold enough to push for something like that. As an actor it broadened my horizons and showed me that it’s good to be bold. It’s good sometimes to throw the ideas out there. That’s really why, I think, Breaking Bad was so successful. There were a lot of great people working on the show and we had the freedom to create.
How do you feel about how the series ended?
I was nervous to be honest. I wanted it to end well because we had such great steam behind the show. All the critics were raving at that point. For the final episode it was wonderful to be able to share the experience with the cast and the crew and everybody we’d been working on it with. Really, to see the final product was amazing. It was a work of art. I was proud and I wasn’t even in that episode. It was a great way to conclude this whole experience.
Could you discuss your role as Luther Sickboy Maryboy in Drunktown’s Finest?
Absolutely. It’s a movie I’m very proud of and I’m really anxious to see the final cut. It’s basically a coming of age story. Three Native American young adults are trying to find their identity and their way in life, and at the same time trying to get out of Drunktown, which is Gallup, New Mexico. My character comes from an abusive past, from a family with an addictive background, addiction to alcohol and other substance abuse. This was a chance for me to play a guy who is from the exterior, at least, bad, but has a good heart. Here’s a guy who has a baby on the way and is trying to make some changes in his life. [He’s] just trying to work with what he has to provide for his family. We’re taking the film to Sundance this year.
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