When the AMC drama Breaking Bad first premièred in January 2008, Bryan Cranston was arguably best known for playing the ever-harried Hal on Fox’s Malcolm In The Middle. Three years and three consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor In A Drama Series later, his days in comedy may not be gone forever, but they certainly aren’t his chief calling card anymore. Cranston’s increased profile has resulted in several high-profile film gigs, including John Carter, Rock Of Ages, and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, not to mention stepping into Ronny Cox’s shoes to play the villainous Vilos Cohaagen in Len Wiseman’s upcoming remake of Total Recall. It’s arguable that none of this would have happened for Cranston had Vince Gilligan not selected him to play Walter White, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who turns to making meth to provide for his family’s future. With Breaking Bad returning to AMC for its fourth-season première on July 17, Cranston spoke with The A.V. Club about getting back into character and why he took a pass on directing an episode this go-round. He also mercilessly teased us about what we might or might not see over the course of the upcoming season.
The A.V. Club: They told me you were running late because a voiceover session ran long. Were you busy playing James Gordon in Batman: Year One?
Bryan Cranston: I was. [With mock shock.] You mean you didn’t know?
AVC: I guessed. They said you were doing voiceover work, so I just put two and two together.
BC: Yes, and it was a lot of fun, too. You know, the reason I took that was—well, at first, I turned it down with the comment, “Thank you, but I’m not interested in that.” And I told my agency why, and I guess the studio asked me why I would turn it down, so they told them. And they said, “No, no, no, please, it’s not anything like the TV show.” Because that’s what I thought. I was like, “I don’t want to do the ‘Bang! Zoom! Kapow!’ thing, saying things like, ‘Get to the Batcave!’” But they said, “No, no, this is completely different,” and I said, “Well, all right, I’ll read the script.” So they sent me the script. My edict is, “Everything I do really has to be well-written,” and it’s really served me well. And I read that, and I went, “You know what? This is really well-written, and it’s complex.” Even the Commissioner Gordon role is complex, because he’s conflicted. Basically good, but he has some major character flaws. And it was, like, “God, this is really interesting! This isn’t like a kid’s cartoon series. This is really in-depth!”
AVC: And dark.
BC: It is. It really is. And moody.
AVC: So when did you get the script for the season-four première of Breaking Bad? Was it before you returned to Albuquerque, or was it waiting for you when you arrived?
BC: I got it probably in December. And we shot it in January.
AVC: Steven Michael Quezada [who plays Steven Gomez on Breaking Bad] reportedly helped you get back into Walt mode.
BC: [Laughs.] Yeah, that was funny. I was asked to do a presentation at a tribute for Governor Richardson in Santa Fe in December, so I agreed, but when I got there on the day of the event, I was told that Paul Rodriguez, who was supposed to be the MC, got very ill—stomach flu or something like that—and he couldn’t make it. So they asked me if I would do it, and I’m, like, “Oh, uh, okay, sure.” So I did. I wrote some jokes, wrote some things down, and made my attempt at the MC position, which I’d done before, and it’s fun.
And then Steven was there, and he saw it and goes, “Hey, you should do my show [The After After Party With Steven Michael Quezada].” And I said, “I’ll do your show.” And he goes, “You should do the stand-up comedian part. We always have a stand-up comedian.” And I went, “Wait a minute, I haven’t done stand-up in 15 or 20 years, or something ridiculous like that.” And he said, “You never forget it! Come on, man!” So I thought, “Okay, commit to it, and then find the courage to do it,” so I said, “Okay, I’ll do it!” And then I went, “Oh my God, how am I going to do this?” So I thought the easiest way for me to slip back into that world was to do it in character. So I didn’t do it as Bryan Cranston. I did it under a pseudonym: Lester Pennebaker. And Lester was in the Witness Protection Program, so I wore one of those silly nose-glasses-and-moustache masks. [Laughs.] So it was funny. I had a good time. And then I said, “By the way, I have hair and I need to shave it. Why don’t we talk about the transformation from Bryan to Walt and what it takes, and I’ll shave my head on the show.” And he’s like, “Great!” So right there on the show, we shaved my head, put on my wardrobe, put on some makeup, put on the goatee, and I was ready to go.
AVC: Last season, you directed the première, but you opted out of directing any of this season’s episodes, correct?
BC: I did.
AVC: Was that to just kind of take it easy, relatively speaking?
BC: Yeah, it’s very difficult. I did miss it, and I may ask to do the first episode in season five. If we’re so lucky as to be picked up for season five. I may, because I do miss directing, but I wanted to step away for a year and just, you know, devote myself. It is much easier not to. [Laughs.] But part of it was just logistics. Being in New Mexico, I had time, because we were not in production for the first episode that I was directing, so I had no other duties. It was fun, it was easy, and we’re focusing on how to shoot it, where to shoot it. I was able to cast and do location scouting and all the other millions of details involved. And then production starts, and because I slowly absorbed my lines and the intention of each scene, it wasn’t difficult for me to step in as an actor when I needed to. The difficult part was, for one, when you’re acting and your character leaves a room and other characters continue or something, I couldn’t see it, so it was difficult to find out how it was being done.
But the biggest difficulty was that you’re done shooting episode one, great, that’s done, the editors are putting together an assembly cut, and you go back to work as an actor on episode two. And after your 14-hour day, you come home, and you have dailies from episode one that you watch and make notes on. And you spend four or five hours a night doing your cut, doing your editing. And during that second episode, I just got to be exhausted from burning the candle from both ends and trying to do my main job and act, then trying to get as close to what I hoped to see in my cut for Vince to take a look at. And I think there was some suffering going on. Some things I wasn’t exactly thrilled with on my end, that I regretted not getting a shot, or not shooting it the way I thought, or thinking about it later. So there were some issues there—purely my own—but the biggest thing is that you just don’t have the luxury of being in the same room with your editor, which is a huge, huge thing. And when you’re in that room with your editor, you and he or she get into a rhythm, and they start to get your tempo and your beats, your thinking and your feeling, and they start doing it. And you go, “Yeah, okay, take a little there… no, right there. Perfect!” When you have to do every little moment by writing an e-mail and you’re not being able to convey that personally, you miss a tremendous amount. So the experience was 10 times harder, and 10 times less fun.
AVC: When I visited the Breaking Bad set in March, Giancarlo Esposito [Gus] said that after he read the script for the season première, he had to set it down and walk away because he was stunned and shaken. What was your reaction?
BC: It was shocking. What’s great about well-written material is, if you can shock with justifiable actions, that’s the best. You can shock anybody at any time on television, but if it’s out of left field, if you’ve got a situation where it’s, like, “Oh, well, you know, he’s a crazy man, so he just goes and kills people,” that’s weak writing to me. As I was reading the season première, it was certainly shocking, and I was going, “Oh my God, oh my God. But, wait, why would…?” But then I realized, “No, that’s justifiable,” and after that, I just went, “Wow, what a way to put paddles on the heart of the audience and jump-start their season!”
AVC: Understanding the need to avoid spoilers, if only to keep Vince Gilligan from sending hired goons to The A.V. Club offices—
BC: And he’ll do it, too!
AVC: —what you can say about where season four will find Walt?
BC: Well, you know, there’s that spectrum of Walt changing character from Mr. Chips to Scarface, as Vince so fondly refers to it, and we are well along that color change. I think he’s closer to Scarface than Mr. Chips by now, for sure. And this season deepens it by at least another notch. But that’s not a surprise. What is, though, is that Walt’s been fooling himself the last couple of seasons, still thinking, “I’m doing this for my family, it’s not for me. What do I get out of it? I get nothing out of it. I’m just terrorized!” Now I think he fully realizes who he is, what he’s capable of, and not to resist it, but to embrace it. He is now this man, and there is that unknown. Just like when he was working in chemistry, the unknown of what is possible, what could be created, could lead to some great, significant health or lifestyle improvements, so too is this, in an odd, bastardized way, where he can say, “How far can I take this? How big can I get?” As this goes along, Walt is feeling his oats, and certainly the issue with Gus is first and foremost in his mind. That’s the thrust of the season. It’s almost kind of a Spy Vs. Spy thing with Gus. [Laughs.] And just like Spy Vs. Spy, I get the better of him, and then he gets the better of me. Except it’s more like he gets the better of me twice, and I get the better of him once. So it kind of just slows down his advantage. That’s really the truthful assessment of it. And then it works its way into this tightly knit, frenzied, anxiety-ridden climax. It’s fantastic.
AVC: The tension that builds between you and Giancarlo Esposito during your scenes together is remarkable. There’s a lot of acting going on even when there’s no dialogue.
BC: Yeah, that’s what so cool about this. From the very beginning, Vince had the courage to say, “Look, we’re in command.” You know, there was an old show during my years called The Outer Limits. And in it, the narrator said, “We control your television set. We control the horizontal, we control the vertical, we control the sound. We take you now to this…” And then at the end, they said, “We return you now…” [Laughs.] And Vince was, like, “We’re in control.” But with that comes responsibility. You need to tell the truth to the audience, or they will throw a brick through the TV. They’ll turn you off. We have a responsibility not only to be true to the real conditions to what this drug really does to the world, but also to Walter White and the decisions that he’s made. He still has lung cancer. That hasn’t gone away. “Remission” only means that it hasn’t progressed exponentially. By the end of two TV years, he will die of lung cancer, if not of something else first, and by the end of this season, we will have accumulated about one full TV year from that diagnosis.
AVC: Walt is aware that he’s crossed lines in the past. Given what he’s gone through thus far, do you think he’s now past the point where he cares what lines he’s crossing, at least when it comes to business?
BC: I think he crossed the biggest line when he decided to change professions and go into something completely foreign to him. Since then, he’s crossed so many lines that I think he’s lost count. [Laughs.] He’s become an adept liar, quite a good thinker, and he’s developed street cred. And that’s not easy to do. He’s really developed this sensibility that he is a different man and he is in control. Throughout the year, what’s interesting, what I think is really gutsy—and when I first read it in the script, I had a knee-jerk reaction to it—is that we explore the other personal ramifications of his decisions. Not just the bigger, broader strokes of how it affects his family and the jeopardy that creates, or the jeopardy of even staying alive, but also the smaller things. Seemingly smaller, anyway. How it affects his ego. And this avarice nature, which he never even knew he had, because he never had any money—but now that he does, we get a taste of it, and you see the real, honest human behavior of wanting more, of being greedy, and exploring his hubris. These are all little finite touches that are sprinkled throughout the season that are just delicious.
AVC: How long will it be before he becomes Heisenberg without needing the hat?
BC: [Laughs.] I don’t know. I think, like Batman, he needs that mask, and I think it gives him some power. I know that when I wear it as an actor, it makes me feel different. And I know what it represents. So I like it. Even if they’re few and far between, I like it when we have the opportunities to put it on. It makes sense, and it works.
AVC: As far as the relationship between Walt and Skyler, Anna Gunn has said that Skyler is beginning to find her own inner Heisenberg this season.
BC: Yeah! Well, it’s interesting that Walt and Skyler are living what is normally a hypothetical. Now, that makes it sound like Walt and Skyler are real—and, of course, to us, when we play them, they are real. But the hypothetical that I think everybody has played before is, “What would you do if you had two years to live? How would you live your life?” And the other one is, “Would you steal a million dollars if you knew you could get away with it and you wouldn’t get caught?” People say, “Nope, absolutely not, wouldn’t do it.” And some people would say, “I could not get caught? Absolutely? Then, yeah, I’d do it.” Some people would say, “Well, who am I stealing from?” See, there are all these conditions that are connected to these hypotheticals. They’re never easy. And you put it into the real world—if you will, if I can say that—of this drama that we’re doing, then all of a sudden, someone who might be pious and say, “I would not steal, I would not do that,” oh, if you found yourself in Walt’s condition… Let me paint those circumstances a little differently for you. If I were able to talk to that person and know that person’s history and the names of that person’s family members, it might change. I think it would change. What I’ve realized in playing this role is that everybody has the possibility of becoming dangerous. Everybody.
AVC: Meanwhile, Dean Norris [Hank] has been teasing that he got to work more with you this season.
BC: Yeah, and it was fun, because he and I, we kind of work on opposite ends. Obviously. [Laughs.] And there is occasion during this season that makes sense that I—I help him out, actually. He’s not ambulatory, so out of my guilt for him being in that position anyway, and my relationship to it, I help him to just get around and stuff, because I feel for him. But then he drops some interesting pieces of information on me that makes me want and need to be with him. [Goes pointedly silent.]
BC: Yes. Hmmm… [Laughs.]
AVC: Do you think people have been making too much out of the “cliffhanger” of whether Jesse killed Gale, given that Vince basically said outright—and straight to the A.V. Club, no less—that “it’s not actually meant to be ambiguous. It’s meant to be, ‘Oh my God, Jesse shot poor Gale’”?
BC: That was one of those happy accidents. Art forms are so subjective, and no one is ever wrong. So you and I are sitting watching a movie, you hate it, I love it, you can’t believe that I would love this piece of shit, and I tell you, “I don’t know. It struck me. It hit me hard. In the heart. I felt like I knew this character.” So who’s right and who’s wrong? Well, no one is. It’s all up to the experience, you know, and what histories you bring into any given situation. And so that’s the same thing with our show, that we present as truthful a display of human behavior as we possibly can, given the set of circumstances that we’re constructing, people then take that and filter it through their own experiences and their own history and come out with a variety of interesting ideas and thoughts. Some people are thinking, “Oh, that was intentional that the car that was hit was a white car, because his name is White!” And it’s, like, “Uh, okay.” It may not be at all. But it doesn’t mean it’s wrong, either. It’s like, “Whatever you get from it.” People talk about it, and the fact that people are talking about it is what’s important. It doesn’t matter what they’re talking about. If they’re talking about the show, it means we’re striking a chord with them.
AVC: Plus, you can’t really put anything past Vince Gilligan anyway, as far as what he might or might not do.
BC: Well, at the very least, he certainly didn’t plan this. He didn’t concoct this controversy. I think it’s a happy accident, because it got people talking about what was basically a camera move. Because they were so tight on the gun, when you don’t see the backgrounds in relationship to the foreground, you can’t tell what’s moving.
AVC: Not that you’re confirming what did or didn’t actually happen.
BC: Absolutely not. I admit nothing! [Laughs.]
AVC: Speaking of Vince, what do you think his Virginia upbringing brings to Breaking Bad?
BC: Well, he certainly is a Southern gentleman. [Laughs.] No, he really is! And what’s great about that is that you don’t see it coming. If someone said, “The creator of Breaking Bad is coming in to do an interview,” and you had never seen him or met him before, you’d go, “He’s the guy? This man? This soft-spoken, congenial gentleman with the Southern lilt to his voice? This is him?” So you’re initially off-put. You’re, like, “Wait a minute, you’re not at all what I thought you would be!” But what I can say about Vince is that the people who, because he is kind and generous and soft-spoken, might possibly construe—and they would be deadly wrong—that he is a pushover. He is not. If you think, “Oh, I can pull one over on him or bully him,” you’ll learn otherwise pretty quickly. He is steadfast, he can be stubborn, and he will dig his heels in, but for all the right reasons. He’s not digging his heels in because his trailer’s not big enough. It’s because of story, story, story. And that’s when you should.
If you’re a person who complains about everything all the time, then you’re just the boy who cried “wolf.” But if you do it on occasion and about the right reasons, then people listen. And that’s where I think characters develop. When he’s willing to draw a line and say, “No, this is the way it’s got to be.” As Breaking Bad was making its way through the gauntlet of trying to find a home, it started at FX, then it went to TNT, I think, and I don’t know the order, but there was HBO and Showtime, then finally AMC. But at one of those stops, somebody said, “Let’s make it marijuana. It’s too hard to make it crystal methamphetamine.” And he said, “No, we’re not going to soften it or make it easier to watch this. We’re going to throw it right out there. It’s intended to make people uncomfortable, because of the severity of the issues with the type of drug we’re using.”
AVC: Even with his profound vision for the show, though, he’s still willing to discuss creative changes.
BC: Absolutely. And that’s something anyone should. He fully understands that this art form is collaborative, and always has been and it always… [Hesitates.] As soon as I said “always,” I realized that there are some tyrannical people who say, “It’s my way or the highway, I don’t care who you are, you’ll do it this way or you can get out.” But those people, you ask anybody who’s worked with them, and they say it’s horrible. I mean, there’s all this flak about Michael Bay. I’ve never worked with him, but everybody talks about him. Even people who like him seem to do so with conditions attached. [Laughs.] “Well, you know, he’s just this and that…”
But Breaking Bad is collaborative, so Vince will—it’s there for a reason, so if something is in the script, you can damned well be sure that it wasn’t done on a whim. It wasn’t, like, “Oh, well, make it this. Make it a flat green Aztec that he drives. Why not? What the hell.” No, it’s all specific. It was all designed for that. So if there’s a problem, if I have problems with the script, I damned well better have a good reason and reasoning, and make my argument sound and logical, or else I won’t say a word. It’s not, like, “Hey, why don’t we change it to marijuana instead of crystal meth?” That’s an easy rejection. Then you lose respect for that person, who doesn’t have real justification behind their argument. And it doesn’t matter what you’re arguing. It could be political, it could be religious, it could be whatever. The trick, though, of course, in this collaboration is that you can have a disagreement without being disagreeable. And that’s the goal: to be able to respect the other person’s opinion and still disagree.
AVC: I know that, for instance, he was willing to tone down his original plan for Jane’s death at the end of season three.
BC: Yeah. And thank God, because I think it turned out better. You heard which way it was originally going to go, right?
[Editor’s note: Cranston discussed Gilligan’s original plan for Jane’s death in a roundtable discussion during the winter 2010 TCA tour, saying, “The original version was far more egregious of an act than what we did. The original way was that Walt is filled with disgust about the wasted life. He looks over at Jesse, and he’s lying strung out. He looks to Jane almost in a paternal way, like, ‘This is someone’s child.’ And then he pushes her on her back. Pushes her back, she flops back—boom!—and starts coughing and choking. And that was the way he originally wrote it. He originally wrote it that she dies and he walks out. And that’s the first one I read, and that blew the top of my head off.”]
BC: If it had gone there—I think it was an AMC note, and I agreed with them. I thought that move would leapfrog the very careful stair-stepping that Walt is taking from one character to another, and I thought it would be abrupt and shocking, but not in a good way. And eventually Vince turned and realized that they were right.
AVC: You’ve said that Breaking Bad is and remains the role of a lifetime, but based on the IMDB, that clearly hasn’t stopped you from trying to find another role of a lifetime. You’re working on at least four things simultaneously at the moment.
BC: It’s so busy. I can’t even tell you. Good busy. Things have exploded. I mean, here I’m 55 years old, and I’m just… when I turned 40, everything turned for me. There was a term that a friend used regarding a daughter. When she was having difficulty in middle school, he said, “You know, I just realized that it’s not her time.” And by saying that, it takes the huge pressure or onus off. “No, every year’s got to be exciting and happy!” No. We go through all these periods of ebbs and flows of emotional and physical highs and lows, so it’s okay to say, “This was a tough period in my life, it wasn’t a good time, but this is a great time.” Just accept it. Some periods are your time and some aren’t. But my goodness, this must be my time! [Laughs.] And I fully embrace it. It’s like, “Let’s go and grab on to it,” because I know for a fact it won’t continue. It’s just the nature, the way things are. And that’s okay. It’s really all right. I’m fine. I just try to be easy and loose with it and let it guide me.
AVC: So have you actually started filming either Rock Of Ages or Total Recall?
BC: I have. I’ve started shooting Total Recall. I’ve shot for a week up in Toronto, and it’s going terrific. Len Wiseman is a great guy. He knows how to create a good mood on the set. He’s not a yeller or a screamer; even if he’s unhappy, he’ll come smile and say, “Hey, okay, can we try one this way?” [Laughs.] It’s, like, “Oh, good, okay, you mean completely opposite of the way I’ve been doing it? Okay, we can do that!” And that’s the key to being a director: to handle your actors in a way that never makes them wrong. Ever. Because you want to support what they’re doing, and in order to be an effective actor, we need to know that it’s safe for us to take risks and try something that makes you go, “Mmm-boy, that’s really going out there,” and not to be ridiculed for it, but to be praised and hear, “Fantastic! That was a great attempt! How did it feel?” “Maybe not so good.” “Yeah, maybe not. But still, great!” [Laughs.] You know? You have to be willing and able to take those chances. And I was looking around the set the other day, and there’s Jessica Biel, a beautiful woman. And Kate Beckinsale, who’s gorgeous. I look over, and there’s Colin Farrell, a fantastically handsome man. And I thought, “My God, what am I doing here?”
AVC: Well, you’re the bad guy, right?
BC: Oh, I’m obviously the bad guy. [Laughs.] But it’s a lot of fun.
AVC: So will you get to sing in Rock Of Ages?
BC: I will! And how much fun is that? I play Catherine Zeta-Jones’ husband.
AVC: Of course you do.
BC: Yes, I’m playing Michael Douglas. [Laughs.] No, I’m the mayor of Los Angeles in 1980. It’s going to be so much fun. I’m looking forward to it. That’s in August. I’ll be heading down to Miami to do that.
AVC: And in the meantime, you’ve got John Carter and Contagion coming out in the semi-near future.
BC: Contagion comes out in October or November; I’m not quite sure which. And Steven Soderbergh is a prince. Just a prince. The way he commands a set is by not commanding a set. He breezes in, everything’s fine, everything’s easy, and he just draws you in and makes you want to work for him. It’s, like, “What do you want me to do? Steven, I’ll lie down in this gutter. You want me to lie down in the gutter? I’m lying down. It’s 9 degrees outside, wind-chill factor below zero? Let’s do it!” So, yeah, it’s terrific. That was a fun experience, and I think it’s going to be a gripping story. It’s going to be really good.
AVC: How did [John Carter director] Andrew Stanton do working with real people for a change?
BC: [Laughs.] I’ll tell you a little story about Andrew. Taylor Kitsch and I were doing a scene that was very physical, so we rested between scenes… by which I mean we collapsed. We’re wearing all of this heavy clothing, I’m wearing a wig, it’s white-hot, and I’m being mopped between scenes. And he came over to us and gave Taylor a little note, and then he looked at me and gave me a little note, and we said, “Okay, yeah, we can do that.” And we went and we did the next take, and we go back and we’re getting mopped away, and he came over to us, and he had this huge smile on his face. I said, “Andrew, what are you so happy about? Did you like that take?” He goes [Andrew Stanton impression.], “Yeah, but what’s so cool is that, just a minute ago, I gave you guys notes, and then you just did it! You just changed it, and you just did what I wanted you to do! And it was just so cool!” And I’m laughing, and Taylor’s laughing, and I said, “What do you mean?” And he goes, “Well, in animation, I give a note, and then I have to come back in three weeks to see the effects of it. Here, it’s three minutes!” He was just tickled. And it was, like, “Oh, aren’t we all still just little boys and girls? We’re still playing make-believe.” It’s just too much fun. It really is.
AVC: So how would you convince someone who has yet to try Breaking Bad to give it a shot for season four?
BC: I would simply say, “Like the drug it’s about, Breaking Bad is addicting. So be careful.”