On Breaking Bad, Dean Norris played Hank Schrader, a DEA agent so set in his morals and so committed to doing what’s right that he’s willing to rip apart his family; someone so sickened by a drug cartel’s violence that he retches at the sight of an informant’s severed head while his colleagues laugh.
While it might be hard for fans of Breaking Bad, the best way to watch Claws, Norris’ newest series, is to forget everything you know about Hank. In TNT’s freshman drama, he plays Clay “Uncle Daddy” Husser, a bisexual Catholic mob boss with a penchant for drugs, gaudy accessories and hosting water ballets at his Florida home. He’s the comic relief in a series that takes on everything from the price of addiction to female friendship as Desna (Niecy Nash), a nail salon owner with some shady side projects, fights to save herself and her crew from his clutches.
Paste caught up with Norris at a hotel bar in Beverly Hills during the Television Critics Association’s biannual conclave.
Paste: Are you having as much fun playing this part as I am watching it?
Dean Norris: I can’t tell you how much fun I am having playing this part. I am thrilled every day I go to work. It’s so much fun—not only the part, but also the people I get to work with. You never know what your next job brings and you hope it’s going to be this or that. This has been all that I’ve expected and more.
Paste: I watch the show on the TNT app on Roku, and you’re the image that shows up. It’s you in your purple bathrobe lying by the pool.
Norris: My favorite part is that, when you watch the show on TV, over the mature content warning is that image.
Paste: That’s a little weird, actually. Because it’s a show about women.
Norris: It is a show about women, but it’s also a show about women who are interacting with this mafia boss. There’s also a lot of nails images that show up in the marketing.
Women are the core part of the show. But certainly the plot goes through this Dixie Mafia and that moves the story. Otherwise, you just have women sitting around in a salon talking. That’s fun for a while, but at some point you need to push the plot to challenge them and get them involved in bad stuff and see how they react.
Paste: Tell me about the nickname “Uncle Daddy.” What do you think about that?
Norris: Clay Husser is his real name, but Uncle Daddy is his nickname. When my agent said, ‘They offered you the role of Uncle Daddy,’ it’s like, “I’m in.”
Technically, it’s because he’s raised his nephews as his boys. Uncle Daddy’s brother got killed and Uncle Daddy took over raising the boys, so he’s both their uncle and their daddy. Obviously, it has other funky connotations.
That character name is one of my favorites.
Paste: He’s bisexual, but you haven’t seen that played up that much so far.
Norris: I like the fact that we have that in there, but we don’t focus on it or make a big deal about it. I like that that’s one of the ways they write the show. It’s there, but they’re not going “Hey!” It’s just part of who he is. And I think that’s an interesting part of who he is because [of the] world that he grew up in. Can you imagine coming out in that tough—can I say white trash? Is that a pejorative?—bad kind of place? And he starts realizing that he has a different kind of sexuality? Imagine having to try to come out in that.
I think that’s part of his drive. I love that about him. He accepts himself. His wife accepts him. He’s this crazy tough guy, but he doesn’t apologize for who he is.
And the other thing is he’s fully Catholic and he fully believes that. He has contradicting things in his life and he doesn’t apologize for any of it. He doesn’t apologize for being bisexual. He doesn’t say, “I’m sorry that I’m Catholic.” He says, “It’s your problem if you can’t embrace the contradictions.” He can.
Paste: I know the series has been compared to Breaking Bad, but I think your character is more like Tony Soprano.
Norris: It’s funny, because I do see that more than the Breaking Bad thing. I know that Desna is trying to break bad to improve her lot in life, but I think there’s a lot of The Sopranos in the Uncle Daddy character, in that he has his family that he loves. They’re crazy, but he loves them. And he’s clearly pathological in some ways to do the stuff he does.
But I don’t think any character—or very few in history—really consider themselves evil people. I think a lot of the stuff he does is bad, but I think he’s justified it because it keeps him alive and keeps his family alive. I think he feels honor and loyalty are important.
Paste: There are unavoidable Breaking Bad overlaps, though. Kevin Rankin, who plays your nephew on this show, was one of the skinheads in the final episodes of Breaking Bad.
Norris: Yeah, I don’t know how many people know that. He was one of the white supremacist gang members who takes out—spoiler alert—Hank and now he’s my nephew.
Paste: And Dale Dickey, who was in the infamous “Peekaboo” episode of Breaking Bad as well as another, plays your wife.
Norris: I’m really happy that they cast Dale because she plays that character so well. You can just tell that she loves Uncle Daddy. She’s got a scene in number 10, the last one, that will blow you away.
Paste: I don’t know if this is ad-libbed, but there’s a scene in a recent episode where you are talking to Bryce [Rankin] and his wife, Jen [Jenn Lyon], and you can’t stop looking at her T-shirt because it has watermelon slices over her chest.
Norris: I remember talking in my first meeting with the producers about this. The thing about Uncle Daddy that I love is he fucks everything because he’s a consumer. He’s got a big appetite. He does drugs and he drinks and he’ll consume the men and the women. He’ll consume his own nephew’s wife and he’s not afraid to comment on her watermelon boobs.
Paste: Were you worried about playing into stereotypes with this role?
Norris: I think you’re always worried about playing into stereotypes. There’s a lot of Florida noir, they call it. If you’ve ever been to Florida, there’s some interesting places down [there]. And it’s fun to fully bring that to the show. The only thing you can do, as an actor, is to try to bring heart to the reality [of] what may seem like a stereotypical sort of thing.
But there’s a reason stereotypes exist. There’s a reason his house is not very tasteful, let’s put it that way. He made money and he’s going to spend it how he thinks people who have money to spend it. He’s not going to worry about buying fine art.
So I went to see Graceland. Have you ever seen Elvis’ house? It has some interesting shag carpet in it.
His shoe collection is off the hook. He’s got spiky gold shoes and all kinds of really interesting stuff. I chose all the stuff he wears around his neck. Each one of those things means something to Uncle Daddy.
Paste: What do you mean by that?
Norris: They gave me a collection of stuff to choose from, so I chose each of my rings and I chose my rosary. Each one of those things means something to Uncle Daddy that maybe, down the road for the viewers, we’ll get to see where each of them came from.
When you get money and you come from a tough background, you spend it in a different way.
Paste: The show also seems to be commenting on our country’s epidemic of oxycodone addiction. Even your character is addicted to it.
Norris: I thought it was pretty topical, obviously. It’s something that’s clearly a problem, particularly in those kinds of states. I don’t know if it’s a commentary or if it’s just reflecting correctly what’s going on in America. You have shows about coke in the ‘80s and crack in the late ‘80s and ‘90s and meth in its time and oxy is clearly the most prominent drug problem right now in a way that people don’t really quite realize.
Paste: Are you worried that the real-life people who are like the characters on the show will feel like you’re making fun of them?
Norris: I hope not, because I certainly don’t feel like we are. I love Uncle Daddy. I love who he is and I put my heart in him. I hope they go, “Hey! That’s someone who sees who we are and reflects it accurately.”
Paste: Is there anything that you want to make Uncle Daddy do that you’ve pitched to the writers?
Norris: No, but I was never one to talk to the writers on Breaking Bad either. I get in the room and [tell them] my little thoughts and they say we thought that 10 iterations ago. We’re so far ahead of you.
When you open a script and there’s a water ballet in the backyard, I think you figure that out.
Paste: You sang at a funeral earlier this season and it was glorious. Are you going to sing anymore this season?
Norris: Ha! Not this season, but hopefully Season Two.
Claws airs Sundays at 9 p.m. on TNT.