An idea cooked up two years ago by director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air, Young Adult) and Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell, Reitman’s “Live Read” series has been a massive success so far. The concept, in case you’re unfamiliar, is that the director gathers with a group of actors at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (he’s held Live Reads in NYC, as well), they sit on a stage, and read through a famous screenplay aloud. Reitman reads the narration and stage directions, and he casts friends of his in iconic roles that the audience is already familiar with, often with an interesting twist. (During the Live Read of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Reitman utilized an all-black cast. During The Princess Bride, he cast Cary Elwes – who played the heroic Westley in the film version – as the villainous Prince Humperdinck.)
For last night’s first ever summer edition of the Live Read series, Reitman and Mitchell decided on Vince Gilligan’s screenplay for the pilot episode of the acclaimed AMC series, “Breaking Bad.” As the actors sat on stage, images of the locations for each scene displayed on a big screen behind them with the television actors painted out of the frame; it might seem strange, but the practice actually adds texture to the event and helps the audience imagine we’re actually there.
Here’s the list of characters and the actors who portrayed them:
Walter White: Rainn Wilson (“The Office”)
Jesse Pinkman: Mae Whitman (“Arrested Development”)
Hank: Chi McBride (“Boston Public”)
Marie: Ellie Kemper (“The Office”)
Skyler: Annie Mumolo (writer of Bridesmaids)
Walter Jr: Paul Rust (I Love You Beth Cooper, Inglourious Basterds)
Reitman began the evening by introducing many of the cast members of the show who were in attendance to watch the event (including Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte, and creator Vince Gilligan himself), before taking a moment to publicly praise Gilligan for his amazing work writing this script. In order to avoid spoilers for fans who might not have caught up with every episode yet, Reitman cryptically thanked the showrunner for “the fly, the pool, the plane, the train, the flower, the bacon, and the bell,” highlighting many of the series’ most famous moments and bringing a large smile to the faces of anyone who was up to date.
As the reading began, each actor slipped into his or her role and tried to create their own shades of these characters. This particular night wasn’t quite as raucous as previous Live Reads have been, mostly because the script is obviously dealing with some serious, life-and-death material. There weren’t many opportunities for the actors to get bombastic and really go all out – with the exception of Mae Whitman’s iteration of Jesse Pinkman. With a hood pulled over her head, Whitman was prone to big hand gestures and completely embodied the character, physically acting things out as much as one can while seated in a chair. (Her delivery of “yeah bitch!” got a big laugh and round of applause, and I overheard Aaron Paul afterward saying she was “a GREAT Jesse.”)
Rainn Wilson’s Walter White was a bit flatter than Cranston’s, but he seemed to start getting into it at the point in the story in which Walter actually starts making meth with Jesse. He brought a good mix of the mundane delivery associated with the boring, unexciting Walter in his early days, but was obviously had fun with a few of the script’s more humorous moments.
The rest of the cast had a couple of bright spots, but a lot of the pilot is just setup and laying the groundwork for building those characters later. Mumolo and Kemper had some nice back-and-forth bickering as sisters Skyler and Marie, while Chi McBride channeled Dean Norris with his Hank, making him a loud, obnoxious-but-loveable guy. Rust played Walter Jr. with a cerebral palsy affectation; that was a little weird to hear at first (since Rust doesn’t have CP but actor RJ Mitte does), but Gilligan’s script so well described the character of Walt Jr. and how he deals with his condition that Rust’s performance eventually fit right in, especially in the funnier, sarcastic exchanges.
And oh, that script. I knew Gilligan was a great writer just from having seen the show, but I had no idea how masterfully he set the stage and described the scenes as they played out. It’s downright Shane Black-esque, and anyone who knows how Black writes his screenplays knows that’s a huge compliment. Even Reitman, who read the stage directions, had to pause because he was laughing so hard at Gilligan’s descriptions (he calls Walter’s car a “shitball Aztek,” and in one scene in which Walter can’t – ahem – get it up, he writes, “No mighty oak sprung forth from whence the acorn lies,” which had everyone in the crowd cracking up).
With the series gearing up to air its last season starting on August 11th, this was a great way to remember the humble beginnings of chemistry professor Walter White and get a better glimpse into the mind of Gilligan, whose brilliant show will undoubtedly go down as one of the best of all time. Special thanks to Greg at Film Independent for orchestrating this coverage, and congratulations to everyone involved in last night’s entertaining performance.
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