If—like much of the television-owning adult population—you were glued to your screen watching “Breaking Bad” for the past five years, chances are the question of why Marie Schrader always wears purple has crossed your mind. According to Betsy Brandt, the actress behind television’s smuggest meddling in-law, it certainly wasn’t due to her own color preferences. In fact, she politely mentioned once that the color really wasn’t her favorite. “After I said that, I feel like they brought me even more purple,” she jokes.
In person, the 40-year-old Michigan native and mom of two looks as if she could pull off just about any color. Though Brandt is a recent NYC transplant via California and New Mexico, she carries herself with the casual sophistication befitting a long-time city dweller. Yet she shows no hint of pretentious airs or ego. Sure, she enjoys a daily decaf cappuccino with some dark chocolate to get her day going—“It’s good for my skin…and my memory…and my feet”—but she’s also quick to commiserate with her hair and makeup team about the pitfalls of early morning call times (like the one she had for our cover shoot and interview) and spill cute anecdotes about her kiddos.
Brandt now plays the wife of the ever-dreamy Michael J. Fox on “The Michael J. Fox Show,” but her rise to primetime success didn’t happen over night. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alum had a solid resume of theater, television, and film work behind her when she first read for “Breaking Bad”—and since has consciously challenged herself to take on parts totally distinct from her previous ones.
It’s with this same sense of thoughtful determination that she’s relishing her favorite role yet: raising two growing youngsters—an 8-year-old daughter and a 5-year-old son—and easing her family into the pace of city life. But that’s just scratching (or “breaking,” if you will) the surface, as Brandt proves to be just as reflective on topics like modern motherhood and work-life balance as she is genuinely warm and down-to-earth.
You and your family moved to New York just last June—how has the transition been?
[It was] a lot easier than I thought it would be. I thought New York would be so much harder to navigate with kids. But in some ways, because the city’s so huge, it’s easier. You just have access to everything.
When we first moved out in June, I didn’t know if my family would be out for the summer, and I didn’t know if I was going to go back and forth—it all depended on school because I didn’t know how quickly I’d be able to figure out the school thing. That is a whole other thing, which I’d never experienced. I saw that scary documentary [“Nursery University”] about getting your kids into preschool in New York, but it still couldn’t prepare me. My husband and I have been together a long time and he said: “I’ve never seen you more stressed out in all the years that I’ve known you.” I didn’t know what I would do if I couldn’t get my kids into school… It worked out, but it took a village. I talked to a lot of moms who had kids my kids’ ages, and that was so helpful to me.
So, would you say the education landscape here is very different than what you faced out West?
Oh god, it’s definitely different than New Mexico! In New Mexico, I just heard about a school and it [turned out to be] amazing—here there are so many great options, just stellar schools, but then you have to get into the one that’s good for you, and find the right match for your family. To me, a big part of a school is the community you’re in, it’s not just about what they’re learning.
What grades are your children in right now? Do they enjoy school?
[My son] is in preschool and my daughter’s a third grader… And they love it! My daughter, [who has] been in three schools over the last few years, said that “all the schools are 10s,” but her New York school is her favorite—and you know what? It’s probably my favorite too.
Was your role on “The Michael J. Fox Show” the primary factor in moving?
I always thought I’d live in New York, especially because I do theater too. Once I moved to L.A. and started doing TV, I thought I’d stay there because there’s always plenty of work in L.A. Then I thought I’d come out here and do a play and just be out here for a few months. So it thrilled me that [this role and this move] worked out.
You live on the Upper West Side. How did you choose the neighborhood? Did you consider the suburbs?
When I found out we were coming to New York, I would just talk to moms and say “Where are the kids living?” Sometimes, I swear, it’s all parents and kids in this neighborhood… It makes it easier for playdates.
I thought [the suburbs] might make it easier for my husband and my kids to have the space, but with the hours I work, being able to get home quickly from the studios makes a difference in whether I can put the kids to bed at night or not.
What do your kids really enjoy doing in the city?
My kids have scooters—they dig that and it is just goin’ on in style! They scoot to school and just love scooting around town… The other day we were walking to school and [my son] was so cute. He saw this boy scooting with the same scooter my kids have…but the boy didn’t have a helmet on. And my son says: “You need to have a helmet on when you scoot!” I was proud.
Also, my kids love Central Park. We had parks in L.A. and New Mexico, but nothing like Central Park. Whenever I drive through it going to work, it just blows me away that it exists… We’re also doing all the touristy stuff. We did the Empire State Building—they think that’s fantastic.
Any favorite ways that you and your husband, Grady Olsen, like to spend kid-free time?
There are great restaurants in L.A., and I’d honestly gain 5 lbs every time we’d shoot in New Mexico because I dig Mexican food, but the restaurants here? It’s just a whole other thing… The last time we had a date we went to Del Posto, which was just a phenomenal meal—I can’t even say “meal” because it was an experience.
Are you excited for your first holiday season in NYC?
Yes! We’re going to do all the holiday stuff, which I’m excited about. We’re going to—I hope I can still get tickets—the Radio City Music Hall show, and I’m going to take my kids ice skating.
Does your family have any fun holiday traditions?
On Christmas Day we’ll be at our house in L.A. We go to our neighbors’ on Christmas Eve… And on Christmas Day, we either have people over or go somewhere. [This year] we’re going to have people over for dinner. At least half of our friends and family who celebrate Christmas with us are Jewish, so we always serve matzo ball soup—we like to be all-inclusive. And presents for everybody!
Tell us about transitioning between “Breaking Bad,” which is such an intense show, and “The Michael J. Fox Show,” which is much lighter?
I always think about that old saying that actors say: “Dying is easy, but comedy is hard.” When I was tired on “Breaking Bad,” I loved it, because you can use that… But with comedy, you have to get your energy up, even if you’re underplaying something.
I find [my character Annie Henry] very straightforward. She’s funny and she’s very real. I love her and I’ve learned a lot from her as a mother… I love that Annie’s not perfect and she’s okay with that. I really like moms who support each other, not just working moms who support other working moms—we all need to be behind each other, because it’s hard. I say to my husband: “We’re going to make mistakes, so let’s just try not to make the big doozies.” And my kids are really good kids. I’m so proud of them. They come to work, they hang out on set, and they love it.
Do you channel your own motherhood experiences as you play Annie?
I’m definitely more like her than any other character I’ve played on TV… I have moments all the time when I feel like this is such an Annie moment. [Recently] I was getting ready to go to work but I had to get my kids ready, and our babysitter was going to take them [to the bus]. My son was having a hard time…so I said I’d walk him—and I had on my pajamas, I hadn’t put my contacts in, and I had total bed-head. It was not a flattering moment, so thank god the paparazzi don’t follow me. And my daughter says, “Mama, don’t do it! People are gonna laugh at you!” I told her, “Honey, this is New York City. People are going to see much stranger things than a lady in her jammies.” But I thought it was such an Annie moment, because Annie wouldn’t flinch at that.
Though your character on “Breaking Bad” had no children, she was often very motherly toward her niece and nephew. Did you relate to Marie in that way?
She loved them. She definitely loved them. I was just so different from her—not in every way, but in a lot of ways. It felt very foreign to who I was…like when she tried to take baby Holly home, I thought Marie saw that as rescuing.
When you were filming “Breaking Bad,” what did you say to your kids about your work?
With my daughter, I could explain that it’s a really good show, because I was really proud of it, so she was proud of it too. She’s aware of the response. She went to this day camp in L.A. and one of her counselors said: “Your mom is on the best show on television.” And my daughter would say: “I told so-and-so’s mom about ‘Breaking Bad’ and how we live New Mexico and your character wears purple!”
Do you let them watch “The Michael J. Fox Show”?
I have, but there are certain parts I don’t let my son see because he’s much younger. I don’t think he would understand why I’m kissing [Michael J. Fox] and why we lay in bed together.
You and Michael J. Fox seem to have a great chemistry on the show. What’s it like on set?
The set is pretty fantastic, and I didn’t honestly know if I would be that lucky twice. “Breaking Bad” was so special, and then this—it’s such a good group. I love shooting scenes between Mike and Annie. I don’t know what it is but I feel like I’ve been working with [Michael J. Fox] for years. It’s really easy.
The show’s shooting schedule is very rigorous. How do you balance work and family?
I wish I had the answer! I feel like you do the best you can, and that changes. You have to be open because what works for your family changes… What I’m working on is to not do the guilt. Because then I’m putting out energy that I could be putting toward my family. I also try to give [my kids] a concept of work and money…I tell them that my job feeds my soul—not every day, but most days.
Do you have any exciting projects coming up?
I’m slated to do a movie called “Red River.” It stars Jason Isaacs, Patricia Arquette, Peter Facinelli, and myself. It’s a great script. I started talking to them about it while I was still doing “Breaking Bad” and [at the time] I always tried to do roles that weren’t Marie— “A nun? Great, I’ll do that!”—so when this came up I thought: “This is so not Marie!”