ALBUQUERQUE -- Long before the casting director called his name for his Breaking Bad audition, veteran MMA fighter Keith Jardine had already begun his act.
His role-playing wasn't born out of any method acting approaches but stemmed from the emotion people would least expect from a guy who locked himself in cages with the scariest men on the planet -- nervousness.
"You walk into a room and there's a bunch of people sitting down with their papers, going over their lines. The tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife," Jardine remembers of the waiting area outside the casting call. "I just pretended I knew what I was doing. A guy came in after me and went and started filling out this paperwork on the table they had set up. So I pretended I knew what I was doing. I walked in after him and copied what he did."
"Breaking Bad is the real deal," he said. "I didn't care [what the role] was. I didn't care if I was going to push a broom on set.
Jardine landed a part one step above broom pusher -- appearing in Season Three, episode "I.F.T" as a drug dealer who draws the ire of fictional DEA agent Hank Schrader, played by actor Dean Norris. Jardine is one of two former mixed martial artist appearing in the critically-acclaimed, cultishly-followed show. Tait Fletcher, who fought under the King of the Cage and World Extreme Cagefighting banners, appears in more recent episodes as Lester, a member of an Aryan gang. Fletcher's character will most likely appear in the series finale airing Sunday (9 p.m. ET.)
The Breaking Bad cameo was one of Jardine's first acting jobs, a list that now includes more film and television credits (35) than fights (30). He recently wrapped up a stint doing stunts on the forthcoming film, Transcendence, staring Johnny Depp and Morgan Freeman. After Transcendence, Jardine jumped over to the set of Inherent Vice, a movie currently in post-production by the esteemed director, Paul Thomas Anderson.
For Jardine, the gulf between fighting and acting isn't as wide as it might seem. He tells the story of walking into a scene with Joaquin Phoenix in Inherent Vice, when he heard the stage door close behind him.
"It was just like fighting," he said. "You walk through that door and man, you're on. It's just like walking into the cage and letting your mind go free
Jardine's reputation as a fighter has helped boost the number of roles, but has limited the scope of them, too.
"I make a joke with my friends that I get readings auditions for Thug No. 3 all the time," he said. "It's hard to break those stereotypes."
Just as he's working on expanding his on-screen roles, he's simultaneously expanding his business and personal portfolios. He's teamed with Fletcher to build a product line that supports what he calls a "Paleo-ish" diet --mostly comprised of foods available to humans during the Paleolithic period -- and develop a specialty coffee called Pirate Life. With Invicta fighter Jodie Esquibel, he's helped launch Hot Yoga Infusion, a fitness studio in Albuquerque's Northeast Heights. But Jardine's increased interest in acting and enterprising doesn't mean a diminished desire to fight.
"In my mind it's been a couple of years since I've fought because when I dropped down to 185 I don't count any of those fights as fights," the former light heavyweight and heavyweight fighter said. "I really wasn't healthy then... I feel the healthiest I've been in five years. There might be a point where I decide I've got to go test myself -- test my diet, test my nutrition -- and one time go out there and fight and leave it all behind. Like that was the real me. I can live with that -- win or lose."
But the 37-year-old clearly sees a career beyond the cage. Nothing signals a shift in his priorities more than when he received a call last summer from an Australian fight promoter offering Jardine a bout. At the same time, Hollywood called with stunt job. Needless to say, Jardine didn't hit any Australian beaches. Still a presence at Jackson-Winkeljohn's MMA, Jardine hasn't fought since July 2012.
"I'm putting in the hours every single day towards my craft," he said of his acting. "At this point, I don't feel like I'm pretending anymore. I don't feel ashamed to call myself an actor... Maybe one day I'll be a trivia question: Hey, did you know that Keith Jardine used to fight?' That's my goal right now."