Interview date: 11/10/2009
Run date: 11/13/2009
If you’ve watched Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walter H. White on AMC’s “Breaking Bad” over the course of its first two seasons, then you know that the man is a phenomenal actor. What you are about to learn, however, is that he’s also a hell of an interview. Cranston chatted with Bullz-Eye in connection with the series’ appearance in the latest TV Power Rankings as one of the shows we’re most excited to see return in 2010, and in addition to taking a look back at the evolution of Walt over the course of Seasons 1 and 2, he also gave us a few ideas about what we can expect when “Breaking Bad” returns in March of next year. Be sure to stick around ‘til the end of the chat, though: you won’t want to miss his reminiscences of his first-ever TV role…on “CHiPs.”
Bullz-Eye: Hey, Bryan, how are you?
Bryan Cranston: I’m good, man! How are you?
BE: I’m good. We met very briefly at the TCA Awards.
BC: Ah, yes, I remember the TCAs, my friend…
BE: Many people who were there do not, so I guess it depends on how late you stay. So you’ve long since started back to work for Season 3, is that right?
BC: Oh, yeah. We…God, I left…well, actually, the Awards was the last day of July, I think, and I left the following day to go up to New Mexico. And we’re here now, in the middle of our eighth episode, with five more after this. And, yeah, it’s going very well, and…you know, what’s interesting is that it’s even different from our second season, which is different from our first season. It’s almost like this show is like a moving target. You can’t really pin it down.
BE: I think that’s fair to say.
BC: Yeah, it keeps changing and evolving, even for us!
BE: Well, actually, that’s funny, because my first question was going to involve asking about the evolution of Walt over the course of Season 2. It was considerable, though I guess to say that it was a for-better-or-worse situations would be apropos.
BC: Yeah, he is a guy…I mean, in the first season, we pretty much explored the newness of his decision and tickled the idea of where it might take him, and in Season two, we really dug in and investigated the ramifications of this decision and how he’s living now that he’s made this choice and he’s gone past the point of no return. And, now, in Season 3, we’re going through a whole other phase of having him become a more savvy businessman and understanding the parameters more clearly of this new business that he is in, like it or not, and how he has to behave at times in order to be successful. We’re watching this man change before our eyes, and he’s on track to do exactly what Vince Gilligan wanted him to do, and that is…from the beginning of the series to the end of the series, we’re going to watch a metamorphosis of a person from one type of guy to completely change his personality and his characteristics to become another person. Which is what ultimately fascinated me about the project and why I was so desperately on board with this. (Laughs)
BE: So how deeply did Vince paint the character of Walt when he first pitched the show to you? I mean, did he give you kind of a general outline of where he was going to take him?
BC: Yes. What I first had was the pilot episode, which…I think we held really true to the script, and so that’s what I was introduced to. That very first page was a middle-aged guy wearing a respirator, driving madly in an R.V., only wearing his tidy-whitey underwear; next to him, another man, slumped over, wearing a respirator, out cold; behind them, two dead bodies, sliding back and forth in a sea of chemicals. And I’m going, “What the fuck is going on?” It’s, like, “Oh, my GOD!” And it’s that smack-you-in-the-face kind of thing that got my attention quickly, and I couldn’t wait to get through the whole thing to see how he possibly justifies this experience. And he does. He carefully goes back and measures how it’s conceivable that someone could find themselves in that position. And that’s the kind of care Vince Gilligan has taken throughout this experience. So when I first met with him, it was not only talking about that, but also about where he’s going, and that’s when he told me what was not evident in the script of the pilot episode. But he told me he wants to do something that’s never been done before. And in the history of television, it’s never been done before: to introduce a character with one set of circumstances and conditions, get to know that guy and who he is and how he thinks and how he walks and talks, and completely change him. And so he had to think, “What are the elements that would be necessary to be in play that would allow that justifiably to happen?” And so he’s planting all of these things in his way, and it’s just fascinating to me! Hopefully, we’ll be able to go the duration and tell our story over the course of….I’m hoping five years, or maybe even six.
BE: One of our editors said that, during the last season, Walt had “become a dick”…
BC: All right!
BE: (Laughs) …in the way he had treated Jesse and his family. Do you think he’s still a likable character at this point?
BC: Well, it’s never…well, again, if you are attempting to do something that’s never been done on television, then you have to throw out all of those rules, including the rule that you have to be a likable character. The responsibility that we’ve established here is that we will be honest characters. We will give you an honest portrayal, given the set of circumstances, of how these people behave, and if we do our job right, then we are portraying them as whole individuals with some good points and some bad points to them. Some vulnerability and some aggression. Some ignorance and some intelligence. And, so, it’s a whole full meal. So we’re not so concerned with maintaining that he is a likable character. All we hope to do is to present him honestly, so that people can root for him or against him but ultimately understand him. That’s what we’re looking for.
BE: Well, accepting those parameters, do you personally think that he’s still likable? Understanding that he doesn’t have to be.
BC: I don’t know. It’s not for me to decide, you know? I…I mean, when I get into Walt’s head, he certainly doesn’t care or wonder if he thinks he’s likable. He’s just doing what he feels he needs to do, and he’s doing it for altruistic reasons that he holds tightly to.
BE: Do you think there was any moment during the course of the second season where even he hesitated, where he thought, “Maybe I have crossed a line here”?
BC: Oh, yeah. Oh, he’s a smart man, and I think that if he took off the blinders for a second, he would probably desperately try to figure his way out of this. But the interesting thing about it, though, is that he also is being seduced by this lifestyle. He’s never been in this position before. He’s in a position of power. He has adrenaline pumping in his veins. He’s got some money in his pocket. He feels like a man, for the first time in his adult life. He’s never intimidated anyone before. Now he has. It’s an unbelievably seductive situation that he finds himself in, this power that he has, and so he subconsciously is investigating some darker sides to him. Ego. What it feels like to be dangerous. And I think it’s interesting. I think it also points out…well, it really pointed out to me, playing him, that, man, given the right set of circumstances, anyone can be dangerous, even the meekest among us.
BE: Based on just the way you talk about it, it’s clear that playing this role has the adrenaline pumping through your veins. Which stands to reason, of course. It’s quite a role.
BC: Oh, it’s the role of a lifetime. I don’t know that I’ll be able to top this. I’m not looking to top this. I’m looking to experience this completely and have the experience and own it and enjoy it and, like any good experience, it has to end. And when it ends, I want to be able to look back and say, “I lived it, man. I didn’t leave anything. That character, that show…I wrung it out. And now it’s time to hang it up and walk away and be proud of what we were able to accomplish.”
BE: I talked to Krysten Ritter a couple of weeks ago…
BC: Oh, yeah!
BE: …and as it stands right now, she says that “Breaking Bad” remains the best experience she’s had in her career.
BC: Wow. Of course, she’s very young… (Laughs)
BE: Well, sure. (Laughs) But, of course, she did have a heck of a role herself, and the character of Jane certainly had to suffer through a harsh fate. Was that one of those moments where you read the script and thought, “Wow, this is incredible…and, wow, this is dark”?
BC: Oh, yeah. It was dark even playing it. And at one moment, I saw this beautiful young girl lying there, dead, and my own daughter flashed in my head, and it just scared me. It just gave me that moment that any parent would feel is their worst nightmare, to see…it’s not the natural order of things. It’s one of those things you pray about: “Let me have a nice long life…and let me die before my child. Please don’t put me through that.”
BE: I’ve got a 4-year-old daughter, so I understand.
BC: Oh, yeah. And it’s an amazing experience, isn’t it? It’s an amazing depth of love…and for men, especially. And I think this is why I related to this character and why I believe most men can: it’s like we have an innate sense of responsibility. Not so much before you have a child…I mean, you take care of yourself, and you have that responsibility to take care of your bills or whatever, but it’s not until you get married and you have this child that you go, “Okay, now I need to do this, and I want to do that, and this going to be set up, and I’m going to do this,” and you…I don’t know, it gets very animalistic, I guess. We’re foraging, right? We’re going out, we’re hunting…and Walt is going out and hunting right now. He wants to make sure that he has plenty of meat… (Laughs) …for his family after he’s dead. It’s a very animalistic but very understandable condition for men to get to, so it wasn’t very difficult for me to get into that headspace. And to see Krysten lying there…? (Exhales audibly) She did such a wonderful job on the show, and it was unfortunate that it came to an end, because I think it was such a rich character that was developing. But that’s what makes the show that much more shocking: you spend time with someone, you get to know them, you see their struggles, you get to like them and care about them, and there’s the two of them together, and then, all of a sudden, BAM! Life intersects. And you go, “Wow, it is that delicate, isn’t it?”
BE: You spoke of the foraging mentality. I guess that makes it a little easier to rationalize why Walt would’ve missed his daughter’s birth to do the big meth deal, but I would guess that, as the father of a daughter yourself, that would’ve been interesting to play…and not necessarily in a good way.
BC: Mmm. It’s painful. I mean, I’m here in New Mexico and my daughter and wife are in California, and I knew that when I took this job, there was going to be a sacrifice. And I handed the script to Robin, my wife, and I said, “And before you read this, know that it shoots in New Mexico.” And she read it, and I was looking at her read it…and read it…and she read it all the way through. And I say that because it’s rare to read something all the way through. Usually, you put it down, you go make some tea, you read some more, you make a phone call, you read some more. But when something is this compelling, you’re into it. And she read it all the way through, and she looked at me, tossed the script back, and she said, “Shit.” Because she knew that this was a role that I had to go for. I had to do this. It was a huge part of me. And, quite frankly, it is true to my life. I was an actor long before I met my wife and got married and had a child, and my daughter wants to be an actor. She’s actually in our first episode of our third season. I cast her in a role that’s perfect for her, and she did a marvelous job. And, so, this is good experience for her, that we are, as our tradition is, truly vagabonds, that we need to travel and get into the wagon and go to the next town. (Laughs) We put on our play, and we pass the hat. It’s changed considerably since then, of course, but the origins are still kind of there, and they still apply.
BE: Well, to further talk of marriage, can Walt do anything to save his, or has that ship sailed? And, mind you, I know you’ll have to choose your words carefully, since you’ve already filmed eight episodes.
BC: Yes, but it’s the one thing that he’s agonized over, and he certainly understands…he truly feels dogmatically that, if Skyler finds out what he’s doing, everything’s lost. Everything’s over. It’s done. And he just valiantly holds onto that belief. (Hesitates) Well, I’ll tell you this: in the first episode of our third season, she finds out. And everything unravels. And, now, he’s got to try and pick up the pieces and get it back together again and hold on, and it’s just…he feels like he’s adrift in the sea.
BE: As far as Season 2 goes, I have to tell you, nothing says “quality television” like a shot of a charred pink teddy bear.
BC: Wasn’t that something? Yeah, when they started writing the second season, they knew. They came up with that idea that it was all going to lead toward that ending, and so they had to then…once they realized what they wanted to do, Vince and his writing staff, they had to go backwards and justifiably get us all to that place. How would that work? How would we get to that place? But that’s not the device of the show. Again, it’s a moving target. We don’t do that in the third season. It’s completely different. It feels different. It expands in a different way, in a different area. New characters come into play that…it’s just interesting, odd choices, and it’s, like, he’s such a brilliantly unique man, and to figure out how he thinks…? I don’t know if you’ve ever met Vince in person…
BE: Briefly, yeah.
BC: He’s so unassuming. He’s just this sweet kind of Mr. Chips guy, with his glasses. He’s from Virginia, he’s a straight-and-narrow kind of guy. (Affects a Southern accent) “Yes, ma’am, I’ll have some iced tea, please.” (Laughs) And you’re, like, “Wow, this guy? This guy writes that? Are you kidding me?”
BE: As a Virginian, I’m not surprised. (Laughs)
BC: Oh, are you, really?
BE: Yep. I’m sitting in Chesapeake, VA, right now.
BC: Wow! Yeah, he’s very proud of his state, and I think…you know, I think that’s where the colloquialism of “breaking bad” came from: his family and his experience in growing up in the South.
BE: So how quickly into the third season do we find out the identity of the bodies that we saw in the finale? Or do we?
BC: Well, to be fair, we don’t. That was just the tease that they were doing to give the audience a little mislead, to think that there was going to be some kind of murder and mayhem, and what it really is is the unfortunate victims of the airplane crash. But what happens in the first episode is that Walt finds out…he discovers his culpability in the airplane crash, because at first he doesn’t realize that he has any relationship to it whatsoever.
BE: So how was it working with Bob Odenkirk? Had you ever worked with him on anything before?
BC: No. (Laughs) He’s fun! Yeah, he’s got a great role. I love the role of Saul, and to his credit, he has really brought that character alive, because you never know. I mean, you have an idea, you have a concept of what you want to do and how you want to present it, but you present it and then it may not be performed to its completion or fully, so then you diminish the character and change it and go onto another area, or you put the emphasis on something else. And with Bob, he has embodied that guy, Saul, and so they’ve written more for him. He’s certainly come back, and he’s become this guy, this interesting …guy. (Laughs) And he’s a lot of fun to watch.
BE: He’s another guy who was known far more for comedy than drama, though he’s certainly managed to throw some dramatic elements into his performance.
BC: Yeah, he certainly remains…he has a comic sensibility to Saul Goodman now, and I think that’s what fun about the show. We do have purposeful comedy in it, but there are no jokes. I mean, it comes out of the character and the true relationships to the others and the conditions that they find themselves in.
BE: Obviously, you went from “Malcolm in the Middle,” and when the show first started, it looked like it was going to be a dark comedy, but it quickly became evident that there was going to be some hard drama in the show. How was that transition for you as an actor?
BC: Comfortable. You know, as an actor, the more you can do, the more opportunities for work you have, so if you just do drama, you’re cutting out a huge section of entertainment that you’re not going to be open to. And, so, before “Malcolm in the Middle,” I did a lot of drama, and before that, I did comedy, and before that…I’ve always gone back and forth, and I’ve always respected people who can. Like Jack Lemmon, who seemed to be able to blend easily to either arena. I think that’s the goal of most actors: to be able to do a multitude of things and not just one kind of character. I certainly don’t want to do one guy, and when “Malcolm” was over, I was looking for a drama more than a comedy…but if it was a comedy that came up, it would have to be as well-written as “Malcolm” was, and it would have to be a different kind of character than I played on that show. That’s harder to come by. In drama, there were more opportunities, more options for me, and when I read this, it was just, “Good night, Nurse! I’m going after this sucker!” (Laughs) But it was easy…in a sense. I mean, I worked with Vince 10 years ago on “The X-Files,” and he remembered me from that episode. And that’s how he knew he wanted to see me for this role. And he was a champion for me to get this role from the very beginning.
BE: So how hard did you have to press him to get a shot behind the camera? Obviously, you’d had experience from “Malcolm,” and I know you did your own film, “Last Chance,” as well as a few other TV episodes.
BC: I didn’t direct any or ask to direct any in the first season, because I knew that this role was going to be very demanding, and I wanted to make sure that, if I did miss it, then I would know after the first season. And, also, I would know whether or not I was physically and emotionally capable of doing this demanding role as an actor, but also then accepting that in triplicate as the director of an episode. So I just wanted to make sure. And then I assessed it after this first season was over, and I thought, “You know, I do miss it, and I think I know this character well enough that I think I can do it.” So I asked to be able to do it, and they granted that request for the first episode of the second season. And then they asked me if I wanted to continue in the third season, so I directed the first episode of the third season. And we’ll just take it season by season. I’m only able to direct an episode where I’m not in production, so that I have a week to prep for it, and so that really only leaves the first episodes.
BE: The process of Walt’s evolution as a character…obviously, Vince is the main man, but how involved are you in that process? Does he talk stuff over with you, or is it just a case of him saying, “Okay, fasten your seatbelt, because this is what you’re going to be doing this season”?
BC: It’s more like that. (Laughs) It’s more like the latter. But it’s not without my input. I had tremendous input in the very beginning in creating the character. I remember that I expressed that I thought he should be a little chunky, and that his hair should always look like he needs a trim. I just always thought that he was an invisible person, to himself and to society, so I thought that his clothes should be beige and tope and sand-colored, and I think he should wear glasses and have this silly moustache that looks impotent, and he should have makeup that takes out any ruddiness, so that he just blends into the wall. A person that you wouldn’t give a second thought to, or you’d walk right past him on the street and wouldn’t even notice that you passed a person. That’s who I thought that guy was. So we worked on that, and the character and what he’s holding onto, as an actor, I said, “It’s this sense that I need to provide for my family.” And Vince has always said, “Oh, it gets under your skin early on, and you like it. You love it.” And I go, “Yeah, but it’s for my family.” And he says, “Okay, whatever you need to tell yourself.” (Laughs) He’s going, “This guy, he’s opened a Pandora’s box here.” Which is true. And he’s taking us for this ride of this man exploring his emotional journey.
BE: Can you speak to any of the guest stars that we’ll be seeing in the third season? Obviously, the show is driven predominantly by its main cast, who else is being added to the mix?
BC: We still have Giancarlo Esposito as our drug dealer. We have Jonathan Banks as Saul Goodman’s private investigator. Um…yeah, we don’t have a huge guest cast, or stars coming in. We do have some visitors from the cartel coming up for the third season, and they stay awhile and change the game a little bit. A lot bit. (Laughs) Yeah, it’s an interesting web. It’s certainly intricate and detailed. Tess Harper and Michael Bofshever are returning as Jesse’s parents. Jere Burns does a guest starring role, and he comes back and does another one. Who else? Maybe a couple of other ones, but I can’t really think of anyone else right now.
BE: And before we go, I just wanted to ask you about a couple of other things you’ve done. First off, I think virtually everyone who knew that I was going to be talking to you today wanted me to tell you how awesome you were in “Malcolm in the Middle.”
BC: Oh, that’s nice.
BE: One in particular, however, wanted me to ask if you had any idea how often you were going to have to get naked when you took the part.
BC: Which part? (Laughs) Because I’m also naked a lot on this show! And it’s odd for me, because it’s not like anyone’s going to say…I mean, I am indeed a sex symbol to all of the octogenarians out there. For my age group, octogenarians are my cougars. (Laughs) But…I don’t know, it was just right and funny. I found the core emotion for Hal on “Malcolm in the Middle” was fear. He was fearful of everything. Of being fired, of being a bad husband, of being a failure as a provider, a father…everything. So that was a great jumping-off point for everything that happened to him and by him in that series. He was just a fearful man. And he was also really a man-boy, because he was as much of a little kid as his kids. So that’s why I decided to wear the tidy-whiteys on that show: because it just seemed like an extension of being a boy. He never really grew up. And this show, in “Breaking Bad,” it was in the script that he wrote tidy-whiteys, and initially I told Vince, “You know, I just spent seven years in tidy-whiteys.” And he said, “Oh, that’s right! I didn’t realize that. Maybe I wrote it subliminally with that in mind. But go ahead, you can change it.” So I said, “Okay, thanks,” and I went to Wardrobe, and I’m looking at all the underwear, thinking, “What kind of underwear would Walt wear?” And I see boxers here and boxers there, and…there’s not much choice for men, really. (Laughs) I mean, it’s boxers. Boxers or briefs. And I didn’t really see him as a briefs guy, but boxers just seemed too…normal. And I kept looking back at the tidy-whiteys and wondering, “What was in Vince’s mind when he wrote that? Why was he thinking that way?” And he said, “I don’t know!” (Laughs) So I had to find out what was a good reasoning for that, and I just kept looking back at that, and I justified it by saying, “You know, I think this will work, because in Walt’s case, it represents stunted growth.” At a certain point, he stopped caring. He doesn’t care about his appearance or looks or being stylish, and it’s evident by the Wallabies and the Chinos and the hair…back when I had hair. Everything. So I thought, “This’ll be good.” And it’s just funny. Tidy-whiteys, for some reason, are just funny. And so it seemed to work for him as well.
BE: What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
BC: Hmmm. I guess my movie “Last Chance,” that I wrote and directed, I really enjoyed. It was my first directorial job and, quite frankly, was just done on a shoestring budget. People say, “How did you know when you were done editing?” I said, “That was easy: when I ran out of money, I was done.” (Laughs) And that was true! You know, there are things about that simple tale that I wish I could’ve done differently, but that’s what art is all about. You look at paintings, and…how does an artist know when that painting is done? And, believe me, the agonizing part of being an artist is that you really don’t know. And sometimes it’s outside forces that say it’s done. Or you just get sick of it and can’t look at it anymore because you don’t know what else to do, and you get frustrated. But I think “Last Chance” was an interesting tale. It’s the story of someone who doesn’t believe that they have any hope left in their life, and when an opportunity presents itself, will you even recognize it? Do you take advantage of it? Do you ignore it? So it was all about that, and about hope, and taking your last chance if it’s offered.
BE: I just wanted to say that you were awesome on “Thank God You’re Here.” The show might not have lasted long, but you definitely made an impression.
BC: Oh, thanks! Yeah, I don’t know why that show didn’t work. It seemed like a fun kind of thing. I enjoyed it. It was nerve-wracking, but I ultimately had fun with it.
BE: And, lastly, I’m just curious if you remember anything about your first TV appearance, on “CHiPs.” (Laughs)
BC: Yeah, I remember…that I had this ridiculously bad Southern accent. (Affects overwrought accent) I was talkin’ like this, almost like Gomer Pyle! (Laughs) And, y’know, they don’t really care. It’s not very discerning. It wasn’t a good show, like a lot of those shows back then weren’t good. “Murder, She Wrote” and things like that. I did ‘em all because you’re an actor and you need to pay your rent, and for your pictures and resumes and your acting classes and things like that. You work because you need to work, and I didn’t really have much judgment on it back then, because you get offered a job and you take it. But I worked with a Playboy Bunny on that. Her name was Kathy Shower. Pretty girl. She and Erik Estrada, they found each other very interesting. They were very fond of each other, shall we say. During, uh, lunch and stuff. (Laughs) And I was, like, “Okay, whatever.” You know, it was…the wild and wooly ‘80s. It was a wild time. It was that “me” generation, and there was a lot of stuff going on that…I remember one time doing an audition, and the callback was on a Saturday, at a major studio. And I walked into there, and there were only, like, three guys, and we were spaced out like an hour and a half apart, so we never even saw the other two guys who were up for this role. And nobody else was there on this weekend, and I remember walking into this room, and there was cocaine lined up on the glass table. And the director’s, like, all hopped up, and goes… (Snorts) “Hey, man, oh, hey, glad to have you back. Hey, want a hit?” And I go, “Uh, no, I’m okay, that’s all right.” It was definitely crazy. Crazy times. And out of crazy times, some bad shows were created. (Laughs) I don’t know, it was an interesting, odd experience when I look back on it. I don’t think I had much of a thought about it when I was doing it, but now I look back and I go, “Wow, weird stuff.”
BE: (Laughs) You’ve come so far.BC: Thank God! (Laughs) I don’t think I’d want to go back. Some people say, “Oh, I’d love to go back and do this over again and do that right.” I wouldn’t. I like where I am right now. I wouldn’t change anything.