Our Man in Hollywood
Vince Gilligan – L.C. Bird graduate and creator of AMC’s "Breaking Bad" – adds the county’s Bravo award to a long, long list of credits.
Fame never was Vince Gilligan’s ultimate destination. In another life, the 1985 L.C. Bird High graduate just as easily could’ve used his artistic talents to build a quietly satisfying career as a painter, sculptor or animator.
But when you’re the creator and executive producer of one of America’s most critically acclaimed television series, hanging out in the background isn’t an option. Like it or not, Gilligan has become the public face of “Breaking Bad,” and now everyone wants a piece of him.
“If you had told me five years ago that I’d be doing ‘Conan’ or ‘Colbert,’ I wouldn’t have believed it, and I would’ve been terrified,” Gilligan says during a recent telephone interview from his office in Los Angeles, where he and his team of writers are working on the final eight episodes of the award-winning show’s fifth and final season.
“I don’t have much of a comfort zone,” Gilligan adds with a laugh. “I’m pretty much a worrier. I’m nervous about a lot of things. But over the years, I’ve been able to force myself to do things that have made me uncomfortable.”
An introvert by nature, the 45-year-old acknowledges that “life has changed a lot” since the first episode of “Breaking Bad” aired on AMC in 2008. Despite a screenwriting résumé that includes three feature films (“Hancock,” “Home Fries” and “Wilder Napalm”) and directorial credits from a stint on Fox’s “The X-Files,” Gilligan could’ve robbed a bank in Hollywood five years ago and many in the general public wouldn’t have recognized his mug shot.
Now he can’t walk down the street for a cup of coffee without someone stopping him to ask for an autograph.
Actors Bryan Cranston (from left) and Aaron Paul with Vince Gilligan on a rooftop during filming of “Breaking Bad.”
“I’ve found myself adapting to the demands the job puts on me,” says Gilligan. “I thought my job was going to be putting together a good show every week, but a lot of it is dealing with people. You have to be socially skilled. I have to say I haven’t been for most of my life, but I have tried to rise to the occasion.”
This month, he’s receiving a hometown award – a Bravo from the Chesterfield Public Education Foundation – and he makes a point of talking about it graciously. He says he’s “very, very honored” to be receiving it, though he can’t come to the ceremony at The Jefferson Hotel in Richmond because he’ll be in Albuquerque, N.M., working on preproduction for “Breaking Bad.”
“I wish I was going to be there,” he says. “Being home is always great. Any chance I get to come back, I take it.”
George Vincent Gilligan Jr., the elder of George Sr. and Gail Gilligan’s two sons, was born Feb. 10, 1967, in Richmond, but spent most of his childhood in Farmville.
From the beginning, it was apparent his brain operated on a different plane: He already was speaking in clear, complete sentences at age 2 and on his first day as a first-grade student at Cumberland Elementary, he asked his teacher, “Am I going to learn to read today?”
“We knew he was sharp – he had an IQ out of sight,” recalls Gary Lambert, Gail’s brother, who helped cultivate his nephew’s love for science fiction.
Gail Gilligan, who divorced George in 1974, stayed in Farmville and raised Vince and his younger brother, Patrick, while she worked as a teacher at Longwood University’s J.P. Winn Campus School.
“My sons were my most important students,” she says. “Most of the time we had away from school was spent exploring and learning about one thing or another. Vince took to it like a duck to water.”
Gilligan (left) and Paul, who recently won an Emmy for his role on “Breaking Bad,” on the set of the show.
Another teacher at the Campus School also had a significant influence on Gilligan’s future. Art teacher Jackie Wall, whose son Angus was one of Gilligan’s best friends, frequently gave the boys her Super 8 camera and encouraged them to make their own movies.
Gilligan was 12 years old when he completed his first film, “Space Wreck,” with his little brother in the starring role. A year later, he won first prize for his age group in a film competition at the University of Virginia.
Wall recognized Gilligan’s talent and creativity, and recommended to Gail that he pursue acceptance to the Interlochen Arts Academy, a prestigious boarding school in Michigan. Gilligan earned a full scholarship and he, Gail and Patrick made the long drive from Farmville to the banks of Lake Michigan about a week before he started eighth grade.
It was the first in a series of defining moments for Gilligan, who wasn’t sure he wanted to leave the security of his family to live and study with a bunch of rich kids he didn’t know. His mother immediately sensed his uncertainty.
“Vince, you can get back in the car with me and Patrick,” Gail told him. “You don’t have to do this.”
“Yes, I do,” he replied.
Gilligan stayed at Interlochen through the end of eighth grade, then came home and spent his freshman year at Prince Edward County High. When Longwood closed down the Campus School, Gail took a teaching job in Chesterfield County and moved the family into the Deerfield Estates home where she still resides.
Her elder son enrolled at L.C. Bird, his fourth different school in as many years. As usual, it took Gilligan less time to make an impression on his new art teacher than for him to develop new friendships.
“From the beginning, he was very inventive and outstanding in his ability to execute his ideas,” recalls Helen Sanders, who taught Gilligan for each of his three years at Bird and nominated him for this year’s Bravo award. “He was different from the other kids. He was always thinking outside the box.”
Gilligan’s report cards indicate he was never an exceptional student, but Sanders notes that his maturity, creativity and intelligence were off the charts.
“He was beyond his years in his thinking,” she adds. “I used to enjoy talking philosophically with him. He liked to investigate thoughts and ideas. He’d create problems for himself just so he could figure out how to solve them.”
Way beyond the comfort zone
As Gilligan began his senior year of high school, Sanders found herself hoping he’d choose a college at which he’d be able to use his talents as a painter or sketch artist. Gilligan had other ideas.
“I’ve been lucky in that I always knew what I wanted to do and what drove me,” he says.
Determined to pursue a career in television and movies after graduating from Bird, Gilligan gained acceptance to New York University’s famed film school. Just as he did in eighth grade, he had to leave behind his family. This time, he traded the slower pace of Chesterfield County for a high-rise dorm in what was a crime-riddled section of Manhattan during the mid-1980s.
There were drug dealers and homeless people by the dozens in nearby Washington Park, which Gilligan crossed several times daily on the way to his classes. But he saw something else in the streets of New York City: opportunity. Movies and television shows were filmed in the city on a regular basis, and he wanted to be right in the center of the action.
Gilligan’s big break came in 1989. Shortly after he graduated from NYU, he won the Virginia Governor’s Screenwriting Competition for a script titled “Home Fries,” which nine years later would become a film starring Drew Barrymore and Luke Wilson.
One of the judges of that competition was Mark Johnson, a University of Virginia graduate who produced the Oscar-winning film “Rain Man.” Johnson took Gilligan under his wing and facilitated a meeting with “The X-Files” creator Chris Carter, who was impressed enough by Gilligan’s freelance “X-Files” script to offer him a full-time writing position on the show.
Johnson advised Gilligan to keep developing projects in Virginia. Gilligan didn’t want to leave. He mulled over Carter’s offer and went back-and-forth several times before he finally decided to take the job.
The thing that worried me the most was that he wouldn’t be able to separate the good guys from the bad guys [in Hollywood],” Gail says. “He’s such a nice guy, I was afraid they’d step all over him.”
Notwithstanding a mother’s natural protective instinct, Gail needn’t have worried. Her son may have been quiet and studious, but he was nobody’s doormat. If he had been, “Breaking Bad” likely never would’ve seen the light of day.
A difficult sell
Gail Gilligan, mother of “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, keeps posters and
other mementos from his film and television career in an upstairs bedroom at her Deerfield Estates home in Chesterfield County.
When he set out to pitch “Breaking Bad,“ Gilligan’s success as a writer and the contacts he developed during the seven seasons he worked on “The X-Files” gave him the credibility to get in the door with some of Hollywood’s top television executives. He was excited about the show’s concept and truly believed it could become a successful series. But it didn’t take long before many of those same buttoned-down suits were looking at Gilligan as if he was one of the extra-terrestrials from an “X-Files” episode.
Gilligan chuckles as he recalls trying to sell the story of a 50-year-old high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with cancer and begins manufacturing and distributing crystal methamphetamine to support his family.
“After the first couple meetings, I realized how crazy it was and how unlikely it was that the show would ever get picked up,” he says.
Showtime passed. So did TNT. Even HBO, which had previously shown a willingness to push the creative envelope with such series as “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” made it painfully clear that it wanted no part of Gilligan‘s show.
Gilligan stayed busy with other projects, most notably the Will Smith superhero comedy “Hancock,” on which Gilligan was a writer. Then in 2006, Gilligan’s agent, Mark Gordon, finally found a network willing to buy into Gilligan’s vision for “Breaking Bad.”
Six years later, the show has won more than 15 Emmy awards. Gilligan’s handpicked leading man, veteran character actor Bryan Cranston, continues to be hailed for his portrayal of troubled protagonist Walter White. Nearly 3.5 million viewers tuned in for the first episode of Season 5 in July.
“I’m very happy and grateful for his success, but it doesn’t surprise me,” says Sanders, Gilligan‘s former art teacher at Bird High. “He was always very devoted to everything he did. He would take things the furthest he could go to create a dramatic scene.”
The show’s critical and commercial success has vindicated Gilligan, who compares the multiple snubs to a “former girlfriend who calls you a loser.” Asked if he derives any quiet satisfaction from the knowledge that there are TV execs who now regret passing on “Breaking Bad,” Gilligan acknowledges that “I’d be lying if I said I didn’t.
“That’s just human nature, I guess,” he adds. “But it’s not personal; it’s part of the job. In the movie and TV business, you get turned down a lot more than you hear ‘Yes.’ I still feel very fondly toward most of the companies that turned us down.”
Other than his family and longtime girlfriend Holly Rice, Gilligan reserves his greatest affection for the cast and crew of “Breaking Bad.” He goes out of his way in interviews to praise others for the show’s success, noting the “astounding” amount of work it takes to produce a weekly television series while suggesting “it just feels right to give credit where credit is due.
“Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan was a gifted art student and drew these
sketches during the three years he spent at L.C. Bird High School.
“I feel proud that, along with the producers, I’ve been able to bring together this incredible group of people,” he says. “It feels like a family. For me, that’s the saddest part of the show coming to an end: Here you have a group of people who have been through the fire together, and when it’s all over, everyone disperses into the wind.”
Success is ‘trickier’ than failure
With just eight more episodes left to shoot, the day of reckoning is fast approaching for both Gilligan and his show’s main character. After all the lies, murders and other assorted treachery, the series conclusion promises to be not very pretty for Walter White.
“I’m just hoping for a strong ending,” says Lambert, Gilligan’s uncle.
What about the man who created Walter and has spent the last five years locked inside his twisted head?
“‘Breaking Bad’ has ruined me for every future project,” Gilligan says with a laugh. “Now I’m going to want everything to be twice as good … and really, how is that even possible?”
Gilligan expects life to be “very interesting going forward” as he deals with the pressure to come up with another successful project and avoid the dreaded label of “one hit wonder.” And he’s under no illusion that it will always be a smooth ride.
“Success is always trickier to deal with than failure,” he adds. “Everybody understands failure. God knows I do. Navigating a path after such tremendous success is far more uncertain.”
True to his inquisitive nature, Gilligan has pursued a variety of interests away from work. He once took a welding class for fun. He bought a motorcycle, flew solo in both a helicopter and a fixed-wing plane and is a certified free-fall skydiver.
“Sometimes it’s easier for me to jump out of an airplane than talk to a stranger,” he says.
Gilligan’s mother believes he already has a head start on some of his Hollywood contemporaries in one respect: He’s managed to maintain a clear sense of self and avoid falling victim to the temptations that come with fame, power and more money than a middle-class kid from Chesterfield ever could’ve hoped to make.
He’s still with the same woman he dated before he became famous. He still prefers jeans and running shoes to suits and ties. While he’s been exceedingly generous to family members and friends – he bought his mom a BMW Z3 convertible and paid to put his brother through college,
among other things – Gilligan isn’t likely to go broke because of an extravagant lifestyle.
"I was a little afraid [Hollywood] was going to change him,” Gail says. “People say, ‘You must be so proud,’ and of course I am. But I’m more pleased that he’s still a good, humble man. He’s still Vince.”
Gilligan’s remarkable success story is one that teachers at his alma mater use as motivation for their teenage students.
“He’s just a regular guy,” says Keenan Entsminger, chairman of the history department at L.C. Bird and a devoted “Breaking Bad” fan. (He says he’s been “beating the drum” for three years to get Gilligan nominated for a Bravo award.) “That shows the kids the goals they can achieve and the opportunities they have are endless in this day and age.”