The actor: Bryan Cranston, a veteran TV star who made memorable guest appearances on the likes of Seinfeld and The X Files before settling into a long run as the perpetually distracted dad on Malcolm In The Middle. Last year, Cranston won an Emmy for playing the part of a cancer-ridden amateur drug dealer on AMC’s acclaimed drama Breaking Bad. Now in its second season, Breaking Bad airs Sunday nights at 10 p.m. Eastern.
Breaking Bad—“Walter H. White” (2008-present)
Bryan Cranston: Is there a pastier man in the world? I don’t know of one. A man with an impotent mustache and gawky geek glasses. No color to him at all. Who makes a fashion statement of the tighty-whitey underwear.
The A.V. Club: How much input did you have into those fashion decisions?
BC: The tighty-whitey underwear was actually in the script. And initially I was going to change it, because I had done that on Malcolm In The Middle. But then the more I thought about it, the more I realized, “You know, this works in an oddly different way than it did on Malcolm.” So I kept it. What I came up with was that I thought this guy was invisible to himself and to the world, and so there should be some sort of mask on him. So I added the glasses and the mustache. That seemed to work.
AVC: Prior to Breaking Bad, you’d been doing a lot of comedy, but while Breaking Bad is very funny at times, it isn’t exactly comic. Has it been tricky to suppress that instinct?
BC: I think the best-written films or television series have a measure of the opposite of what they are. We have some darkly comic moments sprinkled throughout Breaking Bad, as we had some sweet sentiment or serious drama sprinkled throughout Malcolm In The Middle. I think any good movie does that, any good play. You have to break it up. You can’t have one train going in one direction all the time. Audiences are more sophisticated than that.
AVC: Where can the show go, realistically, given the character’s condition? Do you have a set number of episodes in mind?
BC: You know, I don’t have a number of episodes. Look at M*A*S*H. They extended the Korean War for seven years longer than it actually lasted. So you know, screw it, if they can do that, we can extend “die-in-a-year” terminal lung cancer to five or six years, can’t we? [Laughs.] I mean, we’re not going to find a miracle cure, or, “Oh sorry, the charts! We got them mixed up!” or a dream sequence, like, “Wow, that was weird.” No. I am going to die. I am going to go out in, I hope, a really fun, big way. I don’t want to die shivering, withering away in a bed. I think Walt should go out with a bang.
Malcolm In The Middle—“Hal” (2000-06)
BC: I just saw Chris Masterson the other day, who played my oldest son. Justin Berfield’s birthday is tomorrow, so I’ll give him a call, see if we can get together for lunch. I saw Jane Kaczmarek Saturday night. So we do all bump into each other. Not with the same kind of regularity as we did when we were working on the show, of course. When a show ends, actors all scatter like roaches when the lights go on. That’s just the nature of the business. So it takes effort to maintain those relationships. I just wrote recommendation letters for college for Erik Per Sullivan, who played Dewey. He’s going to college in September! [Laughs.] Does that make you feel older? Little Dewey’s going to college!
AVC: Did you expect the show to run so long?
BC: We did seven years, 161 episodes. I think they wrote the characters so well, and it was compelling storytelling. I think all of us provided something unique and different, and we were able to really present something that was fun, and from a different perspective. There was plenty of material to work with.
The Santa Claus Brothers—“Santa Claus” (2001)
BC:What are you talking about? [Laughs.] That was a voice. A cartoon character I played. God, I did that seven years ago or something. I vaguely remember it.
AVC: You started your career doing a lot of voice work, correct?
BC: Yes, and it’s really a challenge. There are far more talented people doing voice work than I. Sitting in front of a microphone, you don’t have the advantage of an expression, and I find that difficult. So I do, from time to time, like to do that, for the challenge. I just did a narration for a children’s book on tape, and I found that day after day going in there and narrating this entire story was sometimes brutal. Sometimes you have a little twisted alliteration of the words, and you have to enunciate so every word can be heard clearly, and you get tired. It’s really a workout.
AVC: You were the voice of Santa in The Santa Claus Brothers. Did you actually do a Santa Claus voice, or just your voice?
BC: [In baritone Santa Claus voice.] I did play Santa, and I think I played him like this. A little depth, a little gravitas to the voice. “Ohhhh mother, I’m sure things will be fine.” [Back to normal voice.] Does that sound like Santa?
3rd Rock From The Sun—“Neil Diamond impersonator” (1999)
BC: [Laughs.] I loved playing that primarily because the cast was so nice, led by John Lithgow, who is the sweetest man in the business. Very wonderful people. And it was just fun. I was able to croon and be a goofball and sing and be this pompous ass. I love playing pompous asses. I think I would like that on my tombstone. “He was the definitive pompous ass.” [Laughs.]
AVC: Did you do a lot of Neil Diamond research prior to doing the role, or did you just jump into it?
BC: I kind of just jumped into it. You know, in television, we don’t have much time. They want to book you on a thing, you read it, you go “Okay,” and it’s like, “All right, you start tomorrow.”
Chicago Hope—“Jesus” (1998)
BC: Bless you, my son. You know what, these are the fun things. I’ve played the devil too. I did a thing called Fallen for the Disney Channel. And then I also played Jesus. The two bookends. [Laughs.] But this character was interesting, too. Here was a guy who had played the lead role in Jesus Christ Superstar his entire acting career, to the point where he became this Jesus, and started to have a following. It blurred the lines of, “Who does he really think he is? And who’s to say he’s not?” Who’s to say Jesus doesn’t come back as Jesus, huh? That would throw people for a loop.
AVC: Did you worry about ruffling the feathers of the religious?
BC: No! [Laughs.] Actors take on all kinds of characters. Like with Breaking Bad, I’ve never felt like, “Uh-oh. Is this going to offend people?” No, you take the role because you feel that you can do a good job with it. This isn’t high school, where you can get cast as the grandfather even though you’re 17. When you become a professional, you learn quickly what you’re good at and what you’re not good at, so hopefully you can focus on those things and then expand to see what works well for you. But no, I don’t think I owe anybody any apologies or anything like that. Viewers can determine what they want to watch and what they don’t want to watch.
AVC: Besides being a pompous ass, what do you feel you’re good at?
BC: I love playing the know-it-all guy who is also kind of stupid. That guy who thinks he’s great, but he’s not. That’s a wonderful character to play. Kind of the Barney Fife type. He’ll tell you what’s going on, but inside he’s very insecure. That’s always a fun character. And I loved, for pure fun and enjoyment, my character Hal on Malcolm. Because I found his emotional core, and once I found that, I could leap off from that and the writers started to write for it. And that core was fear. Hal was afraid of everything. Every single thing. He was afraid of heights, he was afraid of failing as a father, he was afraid of getting fired… Someone would walk into the room and surprise him, and he’d yelp, because he was afraid of noise—afraid of a lot of things. That lent itself to a lot of humor, but it was also a true emotion that you could lock in on.
From The Earth To The Moon—“Buzz Aldrin” (1998)
That Thing You Do!—“Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom” (1996)
BC: Fantastic times. The Buzz Aldrin HBO thing was amazing, because here you are taking on the role of a living hero, and so the responsibility on my shoulders was great. And talk about research! I really did as much research as I possibly could, and quite often would find myself waking up at 4 in the morning with the research material all over the bed, and there were volumes and volumes of it. And then there was the technical aspect, and the emotional aspect of this person himself, and his point of view. And the challenge to make all that jargon-y dialogue clear, distinct, and accurate. I talked to a lot of people, and hopefully zeroed in on the man and paid homage to him.
Gus Grissom was another fun thing to do. There was a lot more to it that was cut out of the movie. We tried to show a person out of his element. A man of science who’s a fighter pilot and is more comfortable in that world, sitting on a rocket and blasting into space, than he is on television. I wanted to convey that he was just reading some written lines, some jokes that were written for him.
Saving Private Ryan—“War Department Colonel” (1998)
BC: The one-armed colonel in Saving Private Ryan was written as a one-armed colonel, so I worked up a whole thing about him pouring a cup of coffee. He poured a cup of coffee, picked it up with his one hand, took the spoon off the demi-tasse saucer, stirred the coffee, put the spoon back down, adjusted his fingers, and then put the cup and saucer down on his desk, and then the door opens and in comes the guy with the news. So I worked on it and worked on it and wanted to show Steven Spielberg. And he liked it, but he was like, “You know what. I had this envisioned in my head, and I just want to push right straight in on you sitting at the desk.” And I said, “But I love it! I love it! It can work!”
AVC: Did you get to do the thing you wanted to do?
BC: Oh no. [Laughs.] But he gave me an attaboy.
AVC: If it had been a different director, would you have pushed for it more?
BC: I pushed for it! I pushed for it, but it hit a wall. Because that’s Steven. Steven Spielberg always knows exactly what he wants to get. We’d be shooting a scene and he’d cut right in the middle of it, and of course the actors would think, “Wait, what happened? We did something wrong?” And he’d go, “No, no, that was great. But I won’t use any more of that shot in the scene, so we’re done. We can move over here now.” He’s already editing in his head. He knows exactly what he wants to do and where he wants the camera to be at all times. He’s a genius. But also a sweet man, and he loves actors. He’s very supportive.
AVC: Would it have been different if you’d had a larger role as opposed to a smaller role? If you’d had a larger role, would you have worked more on moments like that with the director?
BC: Oh, you always get that opportunity, certainly. Stars have much more power. I’m the star of my show Breaking Bad, and I have the power to try to sway opinions. Absolutely. And that’s the reason you want to become a star as an actor, to be able to have more control of your destiny. Actors basically are the type of person that with three seconds left, we want the ball. Give us the shot to make it or miss it. We’ll take the lumps if we miss it, but we want the chance to get the glory. An acting coach of mine, Shirley Knight—a great actress—said that it’s the actors’ arrogance. We want the chance. Give it to me. We know plenty of people in life, back in Little League or whatever, who’d say, “Oh, please don’t hit it to me. Please don’t hit it to me. Oh dear God, please don’t make me have to make this decision. Please don’t make me get onstage.” There are those people, and then there are those of us that say, “Give me the shot. Let me take it.”
Seinfeld—“Dr. Tim Whatley” (1994-97)
BC: I loved that guy. It was just supposed to be one episode. I remember in my audition, Jerry laughed, and that was it. You make Jerry laugh, you’ve pretty much got the job. And I did six episodes of that show over four years, and anytime we stopped shooting was almost always because Jerry was caught laughing. And Larry David: “Cut! Cut cut! Jerry! Jerry, Jerry! Don’t laugh, don’t laugh!” And Jerry’d be, “All right, all right.” And you can still see him, with the big smile on his face, and those were the takes that we finally had to go with. And that’s a nice, nice thing, to stop shooting because you’re having fun, you’re enjoying it. And Jerry’s such a good barometer of humor. You know you’re hitting it right when it passes the Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David test. That’s not an easy test to pass. It was a fun show. I learned a lot from them. From Jason, Julia… Everybody was brilliant. You know, Michael Richards with his physical comedy. It was a great, great experience. It was almost like training for me to be in there and be among that group.
AVC: You’d been in the business almost 20 years prior to Seinfeld, but after that, your profile seemed to rise. Would you credit Seinfeld to a large extent, or was that just coincidental?
BC: Seinfeld had a lot to do with it. It certainly gave me credence in the comedy world, absolutely. If you did Seinfeld… I did Seinfeld for six episodes, and they saw something, and I saw something, and it was funny and it worked. And quite frankly, it was the brilliance of that writing staff, and Larry and Jerry, who created an environment for an actor to step in and be funny. Look at the “Yadda Yadda” episode, where I converted to Judaism to tell the jokes. I mean, that was a gift that was handed to me because I created that role of Tim Whatley. So I’m very fortunate. But to be perfectly honest with you, almost anybody could’ve made that part work.
Erotique—“Dr. Robert Stern” (1994)
BC: That was a risqué one. I wanted to do something that got me out of my comfort zone, and I had this opportunity, and it was a very sexy script. It was testing the bounds. How far would I go? There was a masturbation scene and me feeling up a girl… I almost kidnapped her, basically. And it was kind of a risqué thing. I haven’t seen it in years and years, so I can’t really remember all the details. [Laughs]. Let’s just let our imaginations take care of the rest.
Loving—“Douglas ‘Doug’ Donovan #1” (1983-84)
BC: Loving was a seminal moment for me, because that was 26 years ago. From that point on, I worked as an actor solely. Loving was a daytime drama that I shot in New York, so it took me to New York, where I lived for five years, and that experience also gave me confidence. I knew I could actually do this. And confidence goes a long way in working as an actor. When you walk into a room for an audition, a big chunk of an actor getting a job is confidence. It’s talent and confidence, and if you can convey both of those things, you’re in great shape.
AVC: You said “daytime drama.” Having worked in soaps, can you still not say “soap opera?” Is that still not allowed?
BC: Oh no, you can say soap operas. The only thing I don’t like is the term “soap actor.” Because it’s like, I don’t consider myself a certain classified kind of actor. “A soap actor.” Basically, actors want to work. And we take jobs in daytime or primetime or movies or stage or in children’s theater… wherever we can find work. We’re vagabonds. I didn’t approach the work any differently. It’s very hard because the content is so intense.
Raising Miranda—“Uncle Russell” (1988)
BC: It was a show about a young girl whose mother abandoned her. And I played the mother’s brother, who lived in a van in the driveway. And James Naughton played the dad, who was still there, and it was just her coping with her new life. So it was a sweet show. It wasn’t a laugh-out-loud guffaw show, and it was never intended to be. I think it was a little mishandled by the network, with the amount of canned laughter and all that stuff going on. I was doing a character based on a director I worked with in the theater who [Affects surfer voice.] had this sort of speech pattern kind of like this, and it was really interesting. All his S’s would sing, and that sort of thing. So I started working on a character like that. Pretty soon I was this guy, and I played this guy named Russell, who was like, “Ohhh yeeeeah, I’m living in my vaaaan.” [Normal voice.] Yeah, okay. And so I decided that the character was so way out there that I had to go in and audition as the guy. I couldn’t let them see me as Bryan and then take on this character… it’s too far out. So I just went in as the guy. And they didn’t know I wasn’t “the guy” until the first day of work when I show up and I go, “Hi, I’m Bryan.” and they’re going, “Omigod.” [Laughs.] They panicked for a second. I said, “Relax, I can get him back.”
AVC: You’ve done more TV than features. Do you have a preference for one over the other?
BC: It’s all about the written word. Whatever’s well-written. It doesn’t matter if it’s features, or children’s stories… it’s all about the written word. And it could come in any different form, but that’s the criteria. That’s it for me.