The gravity of Breaking Bad doesn’t lie in its spectacular cinemascapes, nor how precisely the narrative is tailored to fit its themes, but in the relationship network linking its core characters. Whether it’s Jesse and Hank, Flynn and Skyler, or Walter and every single drug lord he conquers, the show’s foundation depends entirely on the choice of cast.
It’s easy to claim that Breaking Bad cannot be replicated, and while those arguments have some merit, there are several actors who could play the same roles with just as much depth and relatability. That said, Breaking Bad today would be wholly different from a decade ago, and would have an entirely different cast along with it.
Gus Fring — Donald Glover
Gus Fring’s character is smart, unyielding, and practically expressionless (which flips in moments of intense emotion). Giancarlo Esposito validates the complexities of his character over and over again, to the point that audiences find it hard to separate the actor from his role.
Donald Glover, more famously known as Childish Gambino, is best suited to playing a new version of Gus — perhaps not as uncompromising as the original, but Glover can delve into his vast repertoire in order to make this character work with his own particular spin.
Jesse Pinkman — Robert Pattinson
Gaining fame through the Harry Potter franchise (and later Twilight), Robert Pattinson was initially considered little more than a teenage heartthrob, let alone a serious actor.
He has upturned these views with incredible performances in movies like The Lighthouse (2019) and High Life (2018), proving that he can handle the Western genre as easily as horror. Range is an important quality in any actor who wants to play Jesse Pinkman, an intelligent young man with an immeasurable, and sadly inaccessible, reservoir of empathy.
Saul Goodman — Dev Patel
Picturing Dev Patel as a skeezy lawyer with a dubious moral system is simple enough, considering the actor is known for his incredible versatility. Anwar Kharral in Skins enjoys the wilder side of life, indulging in activities that are contrary to his faith, while David Copperfield from The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) highlight’s Patel’s grasp of the absurd.
Saul Goodman is a difficult character to parse, what with his problematic past returning to haunt him at varying intervals, but Patel isn’t likely to have trouble doing so. It would certainly be a departure from his usual style, but a believable one.
Mike Ehrmantraut — Idris Elba
Mike Ehrmantraut is a simple man, indulging his family with gifts and greatly enjoying their time together. He is also one of the most badass killers in the series, contradicting his grandfatherly exterior.
There are few people who can take on a role that’s deceptively easy on the surface: Idris Elba is one of them. From the inhospitable Commandant in Beasts of No Nation (2017) to the masterful Stringer Bell in The Wire, Elba’s complicated villains justify casting him as Mike.
Todd Alquist — Timothée Chalamet
Timothée Chalamet is cinema’s latest golden boy; most projects he’s involved in benefit from his presence, and for different reasons. Call Me By Your Name (2017) and Lady Bird (2017) are proof that he can match actor Jesse Plemons in temperament, at least if pushed to his limits.
It sounds paradoxical given that Chalamet doesn’t typically play ruthless killers, but there is a certain rawness in his characters, a feature that is essential to Todd Alquist, one of the most unsettling villains ever created.
Lydia Rodarte-Quayle — Alison Brie
Lydia’s general demeanor can be accurately described as anxious, seeing as she rapidly devolves into a paranoid mess if she believes that the slightest thing might have gone wrong.
It’s strange that someone as jittery as she would align herself with a drug lord and help him run his empire, though it’s clear Lydia is powered by a force entirely contradictory to her overt nature: shrewdness. Alison Brie can effortlessly portray Lydia’s quirky aspects while simultaneously channeling her darker characters, like Sarah from Horse Girl (2020).
Hank Schrader — Mahershala Ali
Mahershala Ali is known to play a variety of characters in seemingly unrelated movies and shows, such as Moonlight (2016), Green Book (2018), The 4400, and House of Cards.
That said, many of his roles contain undercurrents of mid-life rebellion, something that Hank Schrader experiences throughout his story arc on Breaking Bad. Hank’s facade of composure is heroic but brittle; it shatters quite often, and for unexpected reasons. It’s almost as if Dean Norris is playing a weak character within a strong one, which makes Ali well-equipped to manage this character.
Skyler White — Viola Davis
Skyler begins her story as a loving wife and doting mother, with her character fraying at the edges around the time she discovers Walt’s secret “business.” At first a put-upon spouse, she is later forced to become a criminal to protect her husband (the only effective way to keep her children safe).
If there’s any actor who understands Skyler’s emotional architecture, it’s How to Get Away with Murder‘s Viola Davis. In fact, the character of Annalise Keating can be easily modified into Skyler, although Viola’s interpretation is going to be radically different from Anna Gunn’s.
Marie Schrader — Melissa McCarthy
Melissa McCarthy is popular for her comic genius, and that’s what makes her such a great option for Marie. Skyler White’s kleptomaniac sister is a heavily post-modernized version of characters popular during the Golden Age era, specifically in the screwball comedy genre.
Actresses like Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, and Barbara Stanwyck could have seamlessly transformed themselves into Marie Schrader, but given Breaking Bad‘s setting and time period, there’s no one more fit for the role than Melissa McCarthy and her brand of self-effacing humor.
Walter White — Nathan Fillion
As the star, antihero, and villain all rolled into one, Walter White’s character is not as straightforward as he appears, as audiences discover pretty much instantly. The magnitude of the transformation he undergoes from banal school teacher to megalomaniac meth lord would be a monumental task for most actors — Nathan Fillion being a rare exception.
Caleb, his evil priest in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, is eerily similar to Walter in that both of them are in it for the ride (and nothing else). Fillion is aware of exactly how to fine-tune his character in order to extract the most revulsion from his audience.