Tina Parker is on the precipice of the greatest success of her career—and, potentially, the greatest disaster.
In mid-April, millions of viewers watched the Dallas actress make her debut on the AMC series Better Call Saul as Francesca Liddy, the chipper new secretary hired by the show’s antihero, Jimmy McGill. It wasn’t actually Parker’s debut as the character; Francesca had a minor recurring role on Breaking Bad, the show to which Better Call Saul is the prequel. The Woodville native (“Hook a hard east at Huntsville, where they execute the prisoners”) originally landed the part of Francesca in 2009, during Breaking Bad’s second season. She was skeptical going into the audition; Parker had imagined Francesca as “a blonde with big boobs in a suit” and knew that wasn’t who she could play. “I’m a plus-sized lady, so I had to ask myself what I could bring to the table,” she says. Outfitted in a curvy, rockabilly-style dress, Parker went in determined to be herself: snarky, wry, and packing an attitude. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan later said that when he watched Parker’s audition tape, he knew immediately she was the person he wanted to play Francesca.
Parker appeared in only one episode that season but returned for eight more, getting a major scene with the show’s star, Bryan Cranston, in the season four finale, in which Francesca attempts to blackmail his character, Walter White. After Breaking Bad ended, in 2013, Parker didn’t know if Francesca would be resurrected for Better Call Saul until last summer, when she was asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement and then offered the gig. The NDA is strict enough that Parker can’t reveal how often Francesca will show up or what, exactly, transforms her from the eager beaver we’re seeing in Better Call Saul to the corrupt figure she was by the time she turned up in Breaking Bad. “I can neither confirm nor deny any words that you speak,” she says, smiling cryptically.
That’s the great success. The potential disaster involves the Dallas theater company Kitchen Dog Theater, where Parker serves as co-artistic director. The company, which was founded in 1990 by a group of Parker’s fellow SMU grads, has been a staple of the Dallas theater scene, producing more than one hundred plays. For two decades, it had the good fortune to be headquartered in a multipurpose arts venue that didn’t charge rent. Then, two years ago, the building’s owner was offered a deal she couldn’t turn down, prompting the company to act fast to find a new home. Last year, with the help of an aggressive fund-raising campaign, Kitchen Dog purchased a million-dollar former tile showroom in Dallas’s Design District.
But Kitchen Dog can’t actually use that million-dollar theater, because it’s not a theater yet, and the company doesn’t yet have the money to turn it into one. Instead, Kitchen Dog has hopped from venue to venue, moving five times in two years, and it’s wearing the company down. “We have a million-dollar building,” Parker says, becoming visibly emotional. “But a bigger ship can’t steer as fast, and sometimes this feels like the Titanic.”
And of course she’s been trying to steer that ship while working on one of cable television’s most popular dramas. When Parker went to Albuquerque to start filming Better Call Saul last fall, the show’s star, Bob Odenkirk, did a public event with Cranston, who was in town promoting a book he’d written. She was invited to the live Q&A, but she had to go in disguise, since it hadn’t been announced that Francesca would be returning; Parker’s mere presence in New Mexico would have been a tip-off to the show’s rabid following. Yet despite wearing large glasses and sporting a different hairstyle (members of the production team didn’t even recognize her), she was spotted by Breaking Bad superfans at the event, who advised her to take the Breaking Bad tour (there’s a thriving tourism industry that caters to people who want to see Walter White’s house and car wash) and recommended she stop by the Better Call Saul set. “In my head I was like, ‘I was just there getting my makeup done!’ ” she says.
Parker won’t say what her current status is with the show, but she’s back in Dallas directing Kitchen Dog’s latest play, Trevor—a dark comedy based on the true story of a chimpanzee who attacked and nearly killed his owner’s neighbor—and is focusing most of her energies on Kitchen Dog’s travails. It’s not tough to draw parallels between Parker’s trajectory—the starry-eyed young thespian turned stage veteran beaten down by her theater’s never-ending crises—and that of Francesca, who goes from model employee to would-be extortionist. “I’m a good person!” Parker says. “But every time I turn the corner, someone is there to knock me out.”