CHICAGO — Marius Stan is a senior scientist and director of the Nuclear Energy Advanced Modeling and Simulation program at Argonne National Laboratory in Lemont.
At science conferences, where he lectures regularly, Stan often is recognized by fellow researchers eager to discuss his work.
But while walking around Chicago, the Printers Row resident said he was more likely to be stopped by passers-by for selfies, rapid-fire questions and autographs because of his side work as an extra and bit-part actor.
The first thing they always recognize is the eyebrows.
"For somebody to say, 'This guy has big eyebrows like that guy in "Breaking Bad,"' to recognize the person with enough certainty to say, 'You are an actor in "Breaking Bad!"' ... That means you are pretty certain that he is the actor," Stan said, in the heavy accent of his native Romania.
That it happens so often "was a surprise for me," he said, "because I didn't think this character was so prominent."
That character is Bogdan Wolynetz. Originally a minuscule part in the Emmy-sweeping AMC show's pilot, he is a car wash owner who gains increasing significance with recurring appearances in seasons three and four.
Stan got the part after auditioning at an open call for extras in a then-unknown drama being shot in Albuquerque, New Mexico, not far from Los Alamos, where he lived at the time with his wife and two children.
Stan and his kids auditioned "100 percent out of curiosity. It was an experiment," Stan said.
Wolynetz never became a main character in the five-season series, but the character developed a cult following so feverish that a Facebook fan page for his eyebrows has nearly 200 followers.
The trained physicist and biochemist said he's most appreciative that the show made science look cool and could potentially inspire young viewers to pursue it as a career path.
There's a surprising level of accuracy "in the chemistry that is involved," Stan said.
"Although, one cannot make meth by watching 'Breaking Bad,' which is very good, and safe," he said with a laugh.
On Saturday, Stan will be the VIP reception's "guest of honor" at an Illinois Science Council benefit. He said he was delighted when he got the invite to learn that the organization shares his goal "to have more people interested in science."
"I never would have imagined that this would help me promote science," Stan said of the occasional crossover between his "Breaking Bad" fan base and people who know him for his energy research.
Stan said his appreciation for the potential of that general, positive impact allows him to tune out the show's occasional inaccuracies, even though key plot points in the show often hinge on diluted versions of scientific principles that land squarely within his realm of expertise.
For example, "In the pilot, [there's a] scene in the RV where they mix chemicals, and everything explodes," Stan said.
"In a chemistry lab, if you have an accident, or an incident let's say, you get some fumes, and some toxic chemicals, [but] they are contained. Nothing blows up like in a movie.
"But I did not look for anything like that in 'Breaking Bad,' so I don't know if there are inaccuracies," he said. "I'm more interested in the relationship between characters, and how characters evolve, what the dynamic of the scene is. I try to see if I can learn anything from the acting, the way the actors perform."
Stan said he counts the show's stars, Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn, and producer Vince Gilligan as both friends and role models. He hopes to continue acting, and he recently signed with a Chicago-based agent.
In addition to making great friends and advancing his acting career, he's also grateful to his "Breaking Bad" experience for the warm reception of his unruly eyebrows.
For those wondering — he's never trimmed them, and chooses his barbers on one principle: If they "offer to trim them more than once after I've said no, I don't go back," he said.
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