Charlie Baker, who played Skinny Pete on Breaking Bad, answers my Skype call like he just emerged from a fallout shelter. He looks a bit weary and noticeably exhausted, a suitable demeanor for our current quasi-apocalyptic predicament. He admits he has been on the strictest of quarantines and rarely leaves home except for the occasional trip to the hardware store. Charlie has been passing the time working on his house, a fixer-upper he bought last year. You can see the pride on his face when he talks about it; anyone who lives in L.A. knows the high bar you have to climb over to be a homeowner. It’s been a couple weeks since I last saw Charlie, and he was in a far worse situation than he is in now; a crooked cop had just double crossed him on HBO’s new period drama Perry Mason.
Charlie I know the pandemic shut all the productions in town down. Were you working on anything before the safer-at-home order?
No, actually I was really sick, and I mean really sick, in February and March. I thought it was flu at the worst, but if it was, it was one of the worst flu’s I’ve ever had. I’ll be honest. I never really looked into what it was because I have two children. One’s eight. One’s twelve, and they bring home all kinds of germs from school every single week. So we were all sick, but nobody else in my family was really hit as hard as me.
You’re telling me you were really ill, at the exact time a global pandemic was consuming our nation? What were the symptoms?
Oh, I had a really bad fever and I had a really bad cough. I had a hard time breathing. There was one night, and I didn’t want to tell my wife at the time, but, honestly, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the night. Funny thing was, I didn’t think of getting medical treatment at the time. I kind of was gaslighting myself into believing that it wasn’t as bad as it really was.
Are you ok now? How long did that last?
For months I haven’t had much energy, but I’ve been starting to get energy back like the last couple of days. Honestly I still get winded really easily. It was really weird. We have a pool, and when it got warm enough to start swimming, I could barely make it across my pool. I used to break records swimming in olympic pools, so this was really weird.
You do know those are the exact symptoms people describe when they have COVID right?
It was bad. It’s of course possible, and I’m not discounting the idea that I had an early case of COVID, but I couldn’t be too sure. I don’t know if getting an antibody test right now is worth the risk of going out. Whatever it was, I don’t ever want it again.
That’s crazy. It’s good you are on the mend. How are your kids handling life in the pandemic; how do you explain to them what is going on?
Both my kids go to highly gifted schools, and one of the first things my son had to do was to do a verbal report on COVID. So he really told me more about it. I let them teach me. I think that helped them because they became very aware of what was going on. So they’re handling it really well.
What kind of dinner table conversations are you having with them about what’s going on?
Mostly, we’ve just been trying to talk about paying attention, keeping track, keeping record of what’s happening, because this is a historic moment in human history. Having firsthand accounts of this I think is important. Maybe their kids may want to know what it was like during the pandemic.
I’ve been learning more about the Spanish flu. Looking at personal accounts of people who had been through that. Maybe if we would’ve remembered that part of our history before this pandemic, maybe we would have been better prepared to not necessarily stop it, but at least be more rational in our attempts to stamp it down.
For a lot of people this time off has been a personal time of reflection. Have you learned anything about yourself?
Uh, no. I’m really, really messed up. I’ve known that for a long time. There’s like a double edge kind of thing for me here because I really needed a break. In my opinion, in a perfect world, they would have just put me up in a little jacket and put me in a nice cozy little padded room for a few months and let me just chill there with maybe a nice view of the ocean or something. And so this was almost the next best thing for me right now.
Let’s talk about the entertainment industry. Are you worried about how it will fare as the pandemic rages on?
Typically in some kind of major crisis, the world turns to the arts. During a recession or depression us artists are like “let’s go,” we thrive. You know the old saying, the show must go on. But for the first time that’s not the case. I don’t even know how to comprehend it.
With the lack of work comes the lack of money, are you worried about your financial prospects?
Sure, but I learned something in my last few years on Breaking Bad, from Aaron Paul actually. He was wonderful about sharing this and gave me some great advice. He was like, “You’re going to get a good job every now and then and they’ll pay you a lot of money. Don’t spend it, ‘cause you don’t know when your next big job is going to come.” And he told me that from experience, you know, his own mistakes.
But I am really anxious about everything. I just got a new house… I do have money coming in because I did a lot of good TV shows that are getting re-aired. That’s very helpful, but my income has been cut in half. So not having money is always an anxiety for an actor, not knowing where your next paycheck is going to come from. So it’s tight right now. And it’s kind of getting tighter and tighter as we go. Honestly, I don’t see a light at the end of the tunnel yet. And so we just have to keep our fingers crossed that somehow everything’s going to work out.
Acting isn’t your typical 40 hour per week job, I am sure you get somewhat accustomed to having long periods off. Is this time period any different?
As an actor I get hired and fired twice a month, and that’s when I am doing good. It’s exhausting. So what’s been kind of a blessing is that at least now I know why I’m not getting hired. I know it’s not my fault that I’m not getting a job right now. And that’s like actually kind of a relief.
In your industry work begets work. Are you worried about losing momentum?
My first instinct — once I realized that actors were not going to be working — was, I still have to stay relevant, because you know, out of sight, out of mind. I think a lot of producers think if we don’t see you, we don’t remember you. And there is always somebody else waiting to take your place. So I’ve seen other celebrities doing the social media thing. I get on Instagram, Twitter, and those things and just like throw spaghetti at the wall, see what people will like. It’s like “Hey, look at me, look at me. Don’t forget!” And like I honestly, I hate doing it. I hate having to prove my relevance, but I know that after all this is over the actors that people are thinking about will be the one’s getting hired when productions are hiring again.
Seeing as how L.A. is spiking in cases again, are you worried about going back to work? If you were offered a job would you go?
As desperate as I am to work and as much as I would love to go back to work, I am horrified by the consequences. You know, actors are the most vulnerable because we are the ones who have to have that connection. We are the ones going to have to be talking to each other face to face without any kind of protection. We’re going to have to trust our scene partner to be following all the guidelines, to be living safely offset. There’s always going to be someone who is desperate enough to take a chance, because that’s the business.
That’s why as an actor it’s always been a scary proposition to ever admit being hurt or sick when you’re out for a role, because it’s so much easier for the producers to say, okay, well, we don’t want you to get any more hurt or any more sick and we don’t want you to get anybody else sick, so you don’t get the job. We’ll find someone else.
What is your biggest concern about how we are handling the crisis moving forward?
My main concern is this government is going to be too insistent on reopening before it’s safe, because money is more important than apparently everything in this society. I feel like there are a lot of people who are going to take a chance because they have no other option, and they’re going to put not only themselves at risk, but other people at risk.
Is there anything you’ve learned about America watching us flail around with this public health crisis?
That’s a hard one. There’s a lot of issues that are really happening right now that I’ve been kind of screaming about for years. I am not surprised by the amount of xenophobia and racism and hatred. I’m surprised how proud people are of their ignorance. I don’t remember being raised like that. I remember people wanting to be considered intelligent. This weird glorification of white trash is just baffling to me.
Read more on how some mavericks made their own television show so they didn’t have to shut down with the rest of Hollywood.