Being Betsy

betsy brandt
When people create roles for me on shows like these, it still floors me.

 Before I interviewed Betsy Brandt, an actress known for her seamless ability to shift between gritty roles (Breaking Bad) and more comedic parts (The Michael J Fox show), I mentioned her name to a friend. Many years ago, this friend worked in television, as a production assistant, a position at the bottom of the proverbial ladder, in which he mostly fetched people coffee and was largely ignored. In other words, Betsy had no reason to be overly kind to him. Yet, when he worked on one of her shows, she went out of her way to say hello to him every day, ask him how he was, and get to know him. She was kind for the sake of being kind. If you believe in karma, it’s easy to see that this generosity has come back to her tenfold during her career. If you don’t believe in karma but you do believe in talent, then that talent has opened door after door. I believe in both, and after talking with Betsy, I have to believe she does too. 

I ask Betsy what she’s working on currently, and included in that question an important bit of subtext: where do you go after a role on Breaking Bad, a show that many critics (and viewers) hail as the best television series of all time.  

“I didn’t want to chase that sort of result again,” Betsy says, “because I was so lucky the first time.”  

Breaking Bad was fearless in the way it portrayed the underbelly of a culture, and yet never shocking for the sake of being shocking. Betsy calls it, “a dark, dark, dark comedy with really wonderful storytelling.”  

For now, she’ll focus on more straightforward comedy. Her next project is a show called Life in Pieces, premiering on CBS. “It’s not a crazy concept,” she says, “just really well-written, about a family and all its complications.”  

On the show, two of her heroes played the role of her parents, James Brolin and Dianne Wiest, actors whom she’s always deeply admired. I asked her if that fact intimidated her.  

“I find rock stars intimidating,” she says. “With actors, when you’re in the room together, you speak the same language. It makes you want to do better, to rise to that occasion.”  

Plus, Betsy has experience in comedy. In addition to a recurring role in Parenthood, she starred as Michael J Fox’s wife on the “brief but wonderful” Michael J Fox show, who happens to be one of her favorite costars of all time.  

“He’s funny in regular life,” Betsy says, “without a script, when he’s not even trying.” Incidentally, so is she.  

And this is what I mean by the endless good fortune Betsy seems to have tapped into: she also has a recurring role on Masters of Sex, Showtime’s texturally rich and spanning episodic look at Virginia Masters and the Sexual Revolution.  

“When people create roles for me on shows like these, it still floors me,” Betsy says, “I still get emotional.” In fact, on Masters of Sex, when the creators made a chair with Betsy’s name on it, she burst into tears. “I started as a guest and they made me feel like family,” she says. “Meanwhile, everyone was like, ‘has she never had a chair before?’ I have!”  
Part of Betsy’s approachability and down-to-earth personality might have something to do with her background. She grew up in Michigan, after which she moved to Seattle to do plays.

“It’s a city where all big careers are made,” she jokes.  

Still, there weren’t many theaters —or roles— in the rainy city, and when she came out to Los Angeles to do an independent film, she decided to stay. She met her husband in college, at a frat party, and they still go back to Michigan, where her parents still live, at least a few times a year.  

I asked her what made her want to be an actress—if there was some early, transformative experience.

“My mom was my reading teacher in elementary school, and one of the class assignments was to read a play,” Betsy says. “For some reason, I suggested we act the play out. My mom cast me in the leading role, only because she knew I’d be able to memorize all the lines. I was really good at memorizing.”  

She also remembers writing and directing plays while growing up in her Michigan neighborhood.  
“I must have been pretty bossy at that time. It’s funny to think about now, because of how collaborative I am when I’m working. Now, I’m constantly seeing multiple sides, asking for other opinions, thinking, Or that could work.”  

As a mother of two young children, compromise and patience are crucial. I ask her if she has any advice for working mothers. “Don’t be so hard on yourself,” she says. “It’s easy for mothers to feel guilty—we feel this intrinsic responsibility to do it all, and to do it all really well, if not perfectly. As a mother, being kind to yourself goes a long way. We’re doing our best.”  

Betsy was pregnant with her second child while filming Breaking Bad. Her children have spent so much time with her on set her daughter used to call the Breaking Bad set “the big box with candy.” This makes me laugh. “That’s what gets their attention,” Betsy says, “craft services.”  

I ask Betsy if her children show any interest in acting. She laughs. (Betsy laughs often and easily—a pleasure).   

“It’s funny,” she says, “on Breaking Bad, my daughter would see girls her age acting and she would think it looked like fun. I had to explain to her—that little girl is working. She doesn’t get to go play after every take. She has a job.”  

This rationale seems indicative of Betsy’s thoughtful parenting. Committed to preserving their childhood, her kids get the best of both worlds—the candy and the play-time. If her children wanted to be actors, she explains, they certainly could, when they’re older.  

When I ask her about advice for young actors, she says this: “There are certain actors that when I’m around them, I feel proud to also be an actor. They’re talented and kind—generous with their time. That’s my big advice, be the kind of actor that would make you proud to be around.”

In my opinion, she might as well have described herself. While I’m not an actress, I do feel proud to be around Betsy. She teaches workshops for young actors. She, too, is generous with her time and talent.  

“I find it very rewarding,” Betsy says, about teaching. I teach a class entitled “Intro to Writing,” so we talk about that for a while, how best to communicate your passion for a subject to which you’ve dedicated your life.”

At the end of our time together, I tell her the story about my friend, to whom she was so kind when he brought her a coffee and Danish on set. “Wow,” she says, “that’s so nice to hear. What a cool story,” and I agree. Then again, it’s very easy to say nice things about Betsy.  

Photographer: Louiza Vick Stylist: Sarah Kinsumba Assistant Stylist: Simone DuBose
Hair & Makeup: Eric Leonardos For Planet Salon
Nails: Elisa Wishan For CND Vinylux Locket Love
Story: Amy Silve