Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad's craziest season and what's next

Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad's craziest season and what's next

As Breaking Bad enters the twilight of its run—the AMC series’ fifth season begins on July 15, with the sixth and final season starting sometime next year—some would say series star Bryan Cranston should start thinking about his next move. However, given that he has two high-profile films in the pipeline (Total Recall and Argo), not to mention the three Best Actor Emmys he’s accrued in the course of playing cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned meth impresario Walter White, it’s probably fair to say that Cranston can do whatever the hell he wants. Cranston recently spoke to The A.V. Club in advance of the return of Breaking Bad about what to expect from the new season, how Walter White’s posture has changed, and what Cranston thinks about the way John Carter was received. (Note: Cranston’s thoughts on Breaking Bad’s upcoming season are broad and general, but this interview contains several specific, major spoilers about season four.)

The A.V. Club: It’s been almost exactly a year since the last time you spoke with The A.V. Club, but you’ve been very, very busy in the interim.

Bryan Cranston: That is true. [Laughs.] But I’m doing good. I’m a little tired, but I’m all right. I’ve got one more day here on Breaking Bad, and then we’re done for season five. 

AVC: How’s that feel?

BC: It feels good, because I’m tired. [Laughs.] But I’m okay, because I know we’re coming back for season six to wrap everything up. 

AVC: In one of the promos for the new season, Aaron Paul says, “Hands down, this is the craziest season yet.” Do you feel the same way?

BC: It may be the craziest, yeah. It gets a little weird. Just when you think it can’t take another left turn, it does. It certainly does have its moments. But because the story is winding down, the production is also winding up. They’re really gearing up for these 16 episodes—eight and eight—and it’s going to come to a head. What’s interesting is that it took—let’s see, when did Gus Fring come onto the scene? Was it the latter part of season two? And his story wrapped up at the end of season four. Now, with that whole storyline done, we have 16 episodes, not two and a half seasons, to almost create a new storyline and then wrap it up. So it was an interesting dilemma for the writers. Either Walter White says, “I won and I’m done, I’m out of here, this is it,” end of show, or else he goes back in to cook some more. And that’s what happens, of course. He says he’s not done. So what happens in season five is that Walter White, instead of going, “Whew, that was a close call! Goodbye, everybody!” he feels like a peacock preening. He just defeated the mastermind. He outwitted the smartest guy in the room. And that was the adrenaline kick that motivates him to go further. Not to be a shrinking violet, but to say, “I’m going for it. Let’s go. Let’s do it.” 

AVC: How did you approach playing Walt when you came back for season five? He’s got such a history of hubris to begin with, but now that he’s the big man on campus, there are a multitude of ways things can go wrong for him.

BC: Well, it is called Breaking Bad, not Breaking Good, so things do take a turn downward. [Laughs.] This was the total package. We wanted to explore not just the physical danger of where this goes for this man and his decision-making, but also the emotional. What happens to a human being, the deterioration of a soul. And that’s what happened. He lowered himself ethically, and in so doing, he created a little cancer of his own in his soul that started to deteriorate and allowed for that hubris, for avarice, for jealousies, for pride to become the cornerstones of his life. And it’s fascinating to play that. And honest, I think, because you look at it and say, “I believe this could actually happen to someone, that someone could change this drastically, given the right set of circumstances.” 

AVC: How do you balance Heisenberg’s badass-ness with Walt’s tendency toward impotence within his own family?

BC: Well, it’s kind of like a drill sergeant who is in total command of his squad, and he gets home and starts barking at his wife, who says, “Shut up and take the trash out.” [Laughs.] And his teenage daughter rolls her eyes and says, “Yeah, right.” And he can’t figure out how to control that. He’s the man at work, but he can’t control his home. There are situations like that, we’ve all been there, where the man is going, “Wait a minute, why can’t I control this?” And it’s because you’re not in charge of every single thing. There are elements you don’t have authority in, try and control it as you may.

AVC: So what you’re saying is that there are a number of similarities between Breaking Bad and Major Dad

BC: [Long pause.] That’s exactly where I was going. I didn’t want to say those words specifically, but I’m so happy that you picked up on it. [Laughs.]

AVC: You’ve said you like to be surprised when it comes to where the show is headed. How far into season four were you let in on the depths of Walt’s despicability? 

BC: Episode by episode. For example, it was about five days before we started shooting this last episode of season five that I read the script. And that’s for two reasons. First of all, that’s about when I want to read it, but it’s also about when it was ready. [Laughs.] There are some surprising things coming up. What’s great, though, is that this season’s opening episode—the teaser is the most revealing, as far as giving new information, but also the most frustrating, because you’re going, “What the hell?” It’s really a fun teaser, ’cause you can’t believe what you’re watching. It’s like, “Wait a minute, that’s not what I’m used to. That’s not how it was!” It’s all new information, and you don’t know what to make of it.

AVC: It seems that they’re playing things even closer to the vest than usual with this season. As of this interview, they’d released all of one line of dialogue, and that’s Walt telling Saul, “We’re done when I say we’re done.” 

BC: Oh, really? Funnily enough, that was actually just Bryan Cranston to Bob Odenkirk. We weren’t even shooting yet. He said, “I’m done with this show,” and I said, “You’re done when I say we’re done.” “But I’ve got other projects!” “Bob. What did I just say? You’re done when I say we’re done.” [Laughs.] Well, I can tell you that, as surprisingly violent as the opening episode of last year was, this season’s is surprisingly non-violent. This one’s intellectual. And there’s more humor in this opening episode than there has been in the past. It’s really good. I think it’s what Breaking Bad does best. It still intrigues. It still has oh-my-God moments. And you squirm and you get involved and… It’s really good. We’re excited about it. 

AVC: Vince Gilligan has always been effective when it comes to bringing in guest actors who deliver without being distracting. For instance, the scene with Jim Beaver selling you a gun was a highlight of season four’s early episodes.

BC: He was great, wasn’t he? Jim is a terrific actor, and he just nicely underplayed it. You don’t know where it’s going, and… [Dramatic pause.] We may see him again. 

AVC: Steven Bauer also turned in a strong performance, but at the same time, there was a moment’s hesitation when he first turned up. It was, like, “Really? Isn’t this a bit on the nose? Is this going to be distracting?” It wasn’t, but—

BC: [Laughs.] Well, you know, you get it. And maybe, what, three dozen other people? Other than that, it’s just some guy who speaks Spanish. ’Cause Steven has changed considerably since his Scarface days. But he was terrific, and he so loved the experience and was grateful to be here, and just jumped in with the character. It was terrific how he did all that, and we were very, very happy that he was that involved and eager to be a part of the show. 

AVC: How much did you have to tweak the insanity of your laugh at the end of “Crawlspace”?

BC: We didn’t really even talk about it. It was just what I wanted to do. And it was one of those things where… It’s like smiling at a funeral. It seems out of place, and yet is it, really? People deal with pressure and tense situations in unusual ways sometimes. And it was just the utter futility. It was scripted, but I don’t know if they knew I was going to go so guttural. [Laughs.] I just felt that Walter felt that this was it. “This is how I’m going to die. I had it all set, and what happens? My wife gives the money to her former lover.” How about that for a fuck-you, you know? It’s like, “Oh my God, of course. I deserve this. Of course it has to be this absurd. This is how it ends.” You think about it, and it’s, like, that’s the worst and probably most fitting awful ending. And he truly felt that was it. That he couldn’t escape at that point.

AVC: Walt is perpetually less in control than he believes himself to be. Do you have any model from some other source—film, theater, literature—in your head when you’re playing him in those moments? 

BC: No, but physically, early on, I did think about my father, because I always felt Walt was older than he really was. He carried himself as if he was older than he was. Now, though, that’s changed. Because of what he was able to do with Gus Fring, his posture has changed, and I’m standing much more erect, almost like Gus Fring. That kind of presence. So I thought about that. He’s now proud of himself and where he’s going and what he’s done, so he stands up straight. As far as emotionally, though, no. I’ve been tracking him this whole way, and there’s a spectrum you have to look at, the whole “Mr. Chips to Scarface” thing. And sometimes—for instance, a year or two ago, I was thinking he was further along in that spectrum, and Vince was like, “Uh, no, he’s not.” So we had to get it straight and go, “Well, where exactly is he on this journey now?” So that we’re both in sync. And now we know the end is near, so where he’s playing is appropriate. I think it’s a broad stroke to say he’s at Scarface, though. We’re not going to go to that point, in the sense that he’s not high out of his mind. He’s still going to be Walter White. He’s just the new Walter White. The Heisenberg-infused Walter White. [Laughs.] Now with more Heisenberg!

AVC: So when do you return to start filming season six?

BC: We come back to film the sixth season in mid-November, and I’m going to direct the opening episode of that season. And then we finish in mid-to-late March. And then we’re done. Then we all pack it up and go home. 

AVC: Does that make you nervous?

BC: No. No, I’m not nervous. Right now, at this point, being effectively done with season five, I’m happy. We’ve done it, and it was a very adventurous, aggressive season. I thought, because we were only going to do eight episodes, “Oh, it’ll be a little easier.” And it hasn’t been. It’s been much more physical, a lot of hours, and… They’ve worked us. Well, me, mostly. [Laughs.] But it’s been good. I’ve enjoyed that experience, and I’m glad we did it. And I know we’re coming back, so there really isn’t any melancholy on that front. We had our season-five wrap party two days ago and had a great time, and there wasn’t any sadness or tears, because we know we’re coming back to finish things up right. So once more unto the breach, and then that’ll be it. 

AVC: Aaron Paul stirred up a lot of online discussion when it was revealed that he’s already attached to an HBO pilot. Have you begun to contemplate what you’re going to do in the post-Breaking Bad era?

BC: Um… no. I mean, there’s a movie I want to direct, one I wrote, that hopefully will go next year. It’s being set up, and it looks good, so we’ll see. 

AVC: Is that Home Again

BC: Well, that’s the name of the book it’s based on, but it’s going to have a different title. I don’t know what the title’s going to be yet. But it’s good. I really enjoyed writing the script, and I’m hoping I have an equal experience directing it. It’s going to be a challenge, as everything is. But I’m having a blast. And there are other projects in various stages. Some film work that might come in during this nearly five months before we go back to Breaking Bad. It might happen, it might not, depending on how things go. We’ll just see. I guess that over 33 years of doing this professionally, I’ve come to just let things go and not have such a strict, stringent hand on things. Things will fall into place or they won’t. Just let it be what it’s going to be. That doesn’t mean you’re complacent. You go after things you want to do. But it also means not everything can fit. So you see what happens. I admit, I do a lot of projects, but it’s because I’m in a position now where I’m reading a lot more scripts and plays and things, and I’m really listening to offers and trying to think what I want to do at any given time. “That sounds fun, let’s do that,” or, “That sounds good,” and then these elements came together. But the reason I work so much more right now is because I don’t play golf, so I have to do something with my time! 

AVC: Among your recent efforts have been several voice-acting gigs.

BC: Yeah! Madagascar 3 is out now and doing extremely well, I hear. And I did Archer, and I have a little recurring role on The Cleveland Show, and then I did The Simpsons, which was a lot of fun. I played Stradivarius Cain, which was Homer’s fantasy alter ego. That’s kind of a benchmark, really, if you do a voice on The Simpsons. It’s like, “Hey, look at that.” 

AVC: You also got behind the camera for an episode of Modern Family

BC: Yeah, and I’m hoping to do another one. We’re trying to figure out schedules. I intend to do more directing TV. But it’s like I said: I don’t need a job, I don’t want a job, I want to do projects that I like and I’m into and that I’m attracted to. That’s why I wanted to do Modern Family, and I had a good time doing that, so we’re looking at dates for me to come back and do it again. But there are movies that are coming out that are going to demand my time for promotion, like Total Recall in August, which I’m excited about. And also Argo, which is coming out in October. That’s gonna be a very important movie. 

AVC: Having talked to Ronny Cox last week, The A.V. Club has now officially covered the market on Vilos Cohaagens.

BC: No kidding! How is Ronny? 

AVC: He’s not doing much acting these days, but he says he’s busy making “dozens of dollars” touring around and playing folk music. 

BC: [Laughs.] That’s a good line. He was a great Cohaagen. I certainly didn’t go into it trying to replicate his performance, though. My take on it was that I really loved this kid, and because it’s Colin Farrell and not Schwarzenegger, the age difference is now keen. He’s like my son. And he was my right-hand man, and I loved this kid and want to bring him back into the fold. And when he resists, he’s like a petulant teenager. I get angry with him. And it’s like, “Don’t do this. I’m the dad! I’m calling the shots here!” So that’s fun. I’m excited about that. It’s just a good time for me right now. A really fun time. 

AVC: Speaking of movies about Mars: Just about everyone else has weighed in on this, but as a cast member in John Carter, what did you think about the way it was received at the box office?

BC: I thought it was unwarranted. I enjoyed the film; perhaps I’m too close to it, but I really did. I thought it was a fun family adventure. You know, I think… [Hesitates.] Something’s happened in our society which I don’t think is beneficial, and that’s that you see the public being fed box-office news. Newscasts now, every local station—I’ve been traveling around the country a lot, and you see the local news, and they give box-office reports. What movie came in at No. 1, making how much money in just a week, and No. 2 made this much money, and No. 3, and they go down and do the top five in 20 seconds of time, when they should be giving a review. 

Give a review! Give an informative, intelligent review of a film that actually helps people decide what movies they’d like to see. “Hey, here’s what I recommend for the family, and if you’re an adult, here’s what I recommend for you. It’s a little out-there, but it’s a fun adventure, blah blah blah…” In the same amount of time, you can actually give some informative news to someone, as opposed to… Why is it all of a sudden important for average Americans to know how much money a movie made at the box office? Once again, that equates in their mind with “This is what is good.” “If it makes money, it is good. If it doesn’t make money, it is not good, don’t waste your time.” And it’s killing art. It’s the same thing Ronny Cox was saying: There’s dozens of dollars to be made out there in folk music… [Laughs.] But does that mean don’t go see folk music, just because it doesn’t pull in multi-millions of dollars on concert tours? So we just have to get away from that. 

I kept hearing, “It’s not tracking. John Carter is not tracking well.” I was like, “What do you mean it’s not tracking?” “Oh, it’s only going to make $18 million this weekend. That’s not good. It’s going to collapse, it’s going to be a flop.” And this is before anyone had even seen it, before any reviews had come out. I think it’s totally legitimate for someone to take it to task and say, “Artistically, I think this was good and this was not so good.” That’s fine. I have no problem with someone doing that. I just have this problem with someone looking at it from a strictly financial standpoint and determining worth by that component. An opinion, even if you hated it, I can’t argue that point, because, okay, if that’s how you felt. But you say, “Well, it only made $37 million, it can’t be any good,” well, I have a problem with that. “Did you see it?” “Well, no…” Sorry to get up on my high horse there. [Laughs.] But there are people who just hold on the money and treat it as a review of the film. And it’s not