In addition to being one of the rare actors versatile enough to earn individual recognition for both his comedic and dramatic work from the Television Critics Association, Bryan Cranston has a well-deserved reputation as one of his industry’s truly good guys.
The same can no longer necessarily be said for Walter White, Cranston’s meth-cooking, cancer-fighting, family-reconciling character on AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” Recent episodes of Vince Gilligan’s dark dramedy have seen Walt take increasingly violent steps to protect his piece of the drug business, as well as his loved ones. The character, formerly a meek-and-mild chemistry teacher, has become a killer and the temperature of his blood is getting cooler.
Cranston, who has already won two Emmys and a TCA Award for his “Breaking Bad” work, has temporarily moved on to lighter work on the set of the Tom Hanks-directed “Larry Crowne.”
He was still gracious enough to catch up with HitFix for a long conversation about this “Breaking Bad” season, a chat that touched on Walter’s Dark Side, intimidating facial hair and the difficult chore of directing as well as acting.
Click through for the interview, complete with finale spoilers…
HitFix: I rushed through last week’s episode and then the finale this morning in no time flat. That’s some pretty terrific TV.
Bryan Cranston: You know, that’s pretty smart of you. That kind of thing, if you watched it at night, you might have some nightmares.
HitFix: I also wouldn’t have been happy having to wait a full week between last Sunday’s episode and the finale.
BC: That’s a great testimony. That’s what we like to hear.
HitFix: And, while I’m being a fanboy, congrats on the TCA nominations.
BC: Thanks you so much. That means a tremendous amount to me. It really does. I won the award last year and it was against Glenn Close and all of these other people and I went, “Oh my God!” It’s from probably the most discerning tastes in all of America. Know what I mean? I really believe that. People who watch television for a living are deciding the one person. It’s like “Wow!” I was exceptionally pleased and proud of that moment.
HitFix: And are you ready to crush Aaron [Paul] this year?
BC: [Laughter.] He is beside himself with glee and rightfully so. He’s a tremendous young actor and I just adore the man. We have a great time working together. You never know when you start a project, especially on a series, how you’re going to respond. There have been people, historically, who have disliked each other and who have had to work together and it just makes for a miserable working condition. It’s like I say about your in-laws: It’s not imperative that you get along, but it just makes things nicer in the marriage. It’s the same thing with your co-stars. Fortunately, we have a very good, tight-knit relationship with everyone and we’re really happy. It’s good stuff.
HitFix: This is going to run after the finale airs, so I hope we’ll be able to chat about the season as a whole and specifically where we leave things with Walt. The end of last week’s episode was a pretty tremendous step. Walt’s a killer now. Do you think he sees that action as something he did to save Jesse or is this just a sign of Walt accepting who he’s become in the past three seasons?
BC: Dan, that’s exactly how I see this season played out. The first season is about the decision — What does that do? What does that mean, the decision that he’s made? How is he going to go about becoming a manufacturer? What does he need to learn? Things like that. The second season was truly about the ramifications of that decision — What’s the ripple effect that occurred that he wasn’t prepared for? This last season was about accepting himself. What he realized he had to do was embrace the dark side of his character in order to survive this world of crime. He had to improve his skill-set to literally live another day. In order to do that, he had to accept himself as a bad guy and accept that he’s capable of that. I think that anybody would really give pause before they’re willing to truly accept that. You can say that, like what Jesse said at the very beginning, “I know who I am. I’m the bad guy.” But as we realize throughout the rest of the season, and especially in these last two or three episodes with him, he’s truly not the bad guy. He’s a confused guy. He thinks he is. He’s trying to recover and trying to find out who he is, but his true nature can’t help but care about other people. This young woman who he’s now been introduced to and her son and the little boy who was murdered, that effects him to the point where he’s willing to die for it. Now that’s not a bad guy. That’s a hero in some aspects.
Walt, on the other hand, he does what he needs to do to survive. I feel like at times, he just wants to be left alone. Like, “Please, let me just do this. I had a simple plan. Let me just make this s*** and deliver it and make the money for my family and let me die. Please just let me die.” Again, he’s like, “I don’t want the drama, the histrionics. Please. Can’t I just do this?” It seems like it should be simple, especially when he sees the super-lab and he can just focus on that. He’s in a dungeon. He’s in a safe cave. You know? That’s what was going through my mind the whole time when he’s feeling the frustration of being pulled outside again and having to deal with this. Then Hank gets shot and he realizes, “That was me? They were after me? Why were they after me?” He shows his ignorance. He thought he could just start manufacturing this in massive volumes and not step on toes? That’s ignorance. And he truly did not think of that fact, that he would be impacting the bottom line of the cartel. Then, all of a sudden, he’s going “Holy s***.” And that’s when he needs to fully embrace this new Heisenberg, or else he’s a dead man.
HitFix: Even there, though, there’s still a huge gap between killing the dealers at the end of the penultimate episode. They had it coming. But poor Gale in the finale, he’s innocent and Walt is prepared to kill. Do you see that as a huge leap he’s making just between those two episodes?
BC: Oh yes. And that’s why it came down the guy who thought he was bad, Jesse, he says to me, says to Walt, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.” And I say, “I’ll do it.” And it’s because of what I just said, because he started to embrace, because he realized he actually is capable of killing another human being and why he can be effected by it, he’s still capable of it. He’s still like, “If it means I get to live longer, he’s got to go.” It’s not fair, especially with that character who Dave Costabile created, who was beautifully written and sensitive and kind of libertarian kind of guy, an opera lover, a tea drinker. It was a beautiful, delicate thing that was created, this almost fragile flower and we just go over and pluck it.
HitFix: Is it a bridge too far for Walter? Have these last few episodes taken him past a point of no return? Or did he pass that point a long time ago?
BC: Oh, I think he was already past the point of no return. It’s when he went back to school after the plane crash and he realized then that he didn’t belong there. I’m sitting in class and I’m not even paying attention. Why should I? These kids don’t want to learn. They don’t care about chemistry. They don’t have a passion for it. What the hell do they have a passion for? F*** it. Why should I do this? So he takes that attitude into the meeting with the principal. He says, “Screw it. I’m gonna make a pass at her. What the hell? What have I got to lose? I’m gonna be dead in a year-and-a-half. If I’m *lucky* I’m dead in a year-and-a-half. If someone doesn’t put a bullet in my head before that. What have I got to lose?” So when she rebuffs him, shockingly, he doesn’t apologize. It was like, “You know what? OK.” He’s past it. He’s a changed man already. To what degree or where he goes or how far he goes or how quickly he goes there, I don’t know. But he’s going.
HitFix: There’s still a big step from that “What the f***?” moment to finally, after three seasons, taking lives. I don’t want to start looking for a “happy ending,” but can he even go back to his family at this point?
BC: I think so. I don’t think that killing someone is mutually exclusive from loving another. I can only imagine. I’ve never killed anyone. I hope I never do, by accident certainly is what I mean. I would be frightened if I ever thought I would intentionally kill someone. But I don’t think it’s beyond human capability to be a killer, to take one life, and then to take another. I think the capacity is great in humans. Now, does that mean it’s good? Of course not. But I think it’s fair.
HitFix: After three years of playing this role, how proprietary or protective do you feel of Walter and of the things that he does?
BC: Very. It’s a visual thing. When you first start a character, it’s outside of you and hopefully through your process, through time, you ingest it and then it begins to live inside of you. Then it becomes a part of you and it comes out when you want it to. When I go to work, I put on the clothes and they help me see the man. I get into his head and I play the man and I stay in the man. Depending on the given scene, sometimes I have to stay in him throughout breaks in order to hold onto a certain thing that might be more difficult than others. But through 31 years of doing this professionally, it’s become easier for me to turn it on and turn it off, turn it on and turn it off. That’s the way you want it to be. I want the drama to be in the scene and not in the life. That’s why I laugh when someone says, when anyone says, that we’re glorifying drug use or drug abuse. Well, I don’t know if we’re glorifying it, but I don’t know if anyone would ever say, “Man, I wish I was him.” I don’t know anybody who would want to trade places with Walter White. I know I wouldn’t.
HitFix: Like you say, you’ve been doing this for 31 years. One wrinkle you added in recent years is directing. You’ve taken on the premiere for each of the past two seasons. What does starting a season with that extra responsibility do in terms of getting you in the proper head space for the rest of the season?
BC: It’s a diversion. It’s enjoyable. I don’t know if I’ll ask to do the fourth season. I have to think about it. Every time, there is a measure of diminishment. When you’re cutting an album, unless it’s purposefully a live album, “Live at the Hollywood Bowl” or whatever, you lay it down separately. You put your music down. You put your vocals down. You put your bass down. And there’s a reason for that, because you can truly focus on that one thing at a time. Acting’s no different. There’s a measure of loss in some area, but hopefully it’s mitigated by your preparation.
The biggest problem for me, though, is not that. The biggest problem for me in doing this show as a director is the editing. I miss the opportunity of doing editing as it should be, with the director being in the editing room with the editor. Unfortunately, I can’t be. The last two shows I did, I literally would come home after 13 or 14 hours of work and I’d sit in front of my computer and I’d pop in the dailies from all the shots that I did on my episode and I’d make notes and I’d watch ’em all and I’d write notes and send notes. I would make three pages of single-spaced notes and I’d send them back and I’d get to bed at 2:30 or 3 in the morning. I’d get four hours of sleep. Or less. And I’d pop up and do another day and I’d get more sleep the next day, until that following day I’d get what came back from the editor in California, since I’m shooting in New Mexico. As well as you can try to explain it, if you’re not in the room with the editor and feeling it and getting a vibe with each other, it’s a little like the Telephone Game, this process. It’s too frustrating. I’m leaning toward not throwing my hat into the ring for Season Four.
HitFix: Based on that commitment, it sounds like a premiere would be the only episode you’d be able to direct anyway?
BC: I can only do the premiere because we’re not in production yet during my seven-day prep week. That’s the most important week there is for a director, to be able to do the location scouting and talk to all of the department heads, casting, choices for wardrobe and hair and makeup things, how big of a bump on the head does one character have… There are millions of questions. To be a good director, you have to love puzzles. You’re putting a 10,000 piece puzzle together without the benefit of the picture on the box. It’s in your head. You still start with the edges. You try to get the frame of what each scene is in your mind and then shoot within that. In television, we have strict budgetary and time constraints, but even that can be very creative. How do I get the best in this amount of time? It’s like being on a budget. Go out and buy yourself some this, that and the other for a thousand dollars. Oooh. Well, I have to be very careful about how I spend that. And it’s kind of fun that way. I don’t mind that at all.
But television directing is different from feature directing in one distinctive way: In television, you’re not directing to suit your own vision. It’s always for the writer/showrunner’s vision, the person who created the show. That’s who you’re really working for. You’re trying to meet that person’s vision. And that’s fair. They created the characters. They created the show. And you’re in there as a guest and you’re trying to find interesting visual ways to tell the story. And my win is if my showrunner, whatever show I’m working on, says, “Wow. I didn’t expect that. When I thought about the scene being shot, I didn’t see it from that angle. That was cool. That was great.” And that’s a bonus. That’s my win, because I didn’t establish the characters. You don’t create that, so you have to look for your contribution in other areas, so that’s what what you seek.
HitFix: As you said, the limitations of TV sometime lead to interesting creative choices. One of my favorite episodes of the season was “Fly.”
BC: Oh wow. Cool.
HitFix: You had this amazing bottle show that’s just you and Aaron in a room for 45 minutes. How did you react when you heard this kind of episode was coming?
BC: I was dubious about it, to be honest with you. I had heard that Sony was requesting a bottle show. They’re very delicate. I don’t object to them. I understand the rationale behind them. But they can be very delicate, because you want to be able to be still within the framework of what the show is and not abort because, “Oh, well we can’t do what we normally do, because we have to do a bottle show.” Every show vulnerable to that. When I got the script, however, I looked at it and I went, “This is really interesting.” I think that as we progress and we do episodes that go at a fast pace and the audience has to hold on going through it and dramatically experiencing things, it’s also, in a very different way, traumatic and frustrating to see a show played out at a slow pace. Maybe you get anxious watching it, like “Come on! What’s gonna happen?” And that’s good, because we’re still evoking an emotion out of our audience that is in the wheelhouse of what our show is. And isn’t that just like life? Just when we think things are gonna go quickly, they show down, and just when we think, “Oh good, I get to rest,” it speeds up. We’re constantly saying that to ourselves, “Oh, it’s been a crazy week! I can’t believe what happened.” Or else, “Nothing. I didn’t do anything over the weekend. Nothing. That was weird.” It always surprises us. I think a good show should do that. A good show should surprise the viewer, not only in content, but in pacing and characterization and plot development. Keep them involved. Vince does a great job with that and I think the true “Breaking Bad” fan has to be willing to invest in the show, not just their time, but their emotions and their intellect and their sense of morality and judgement. They’re all invested in the show. I think it enriches the experience by doing so.
HitFix: So many TV shows are afraid to let people talk, but on “Breaking Bad,” you guys are constantly given meaty monologues and speeches, particularly in episodes like “Fly.” Does it change your preparation known that you have to shoot one of those scenes?
BC: Just from a pragmatic standpoint, you have to have more time for memorization. But for me, people always ask “How can you memorize all of those words?” but it’s a muscle you exercise. The more you exercise it, the more it comes to you. It’s just like anything. I’d contest than any two-year-old can sing the “Happy Birthday” song and that’s memorization. So it’s not just memorization. It’s connecting emotionally to it. If you know what you’re saying, if you can connect one speech to the next… Why would I connect this? Why would this last line that I say trigger this next thought? That’s what I try to get. I try to get the connecting tissue from one line to the next. Once I look for that and I try to make the connection, it works most of the time and sometimes it doesn’t, sometimes you get a hitch on something and it’s like, “Why can’t I say this word?” I did an interview earlier today and I had trouble saying “ravenous.” I just abandoned it. It’s interesting, isn’t it? But for some reason, “ravenous” just couldn’t come out of my mouth. That happens at some point with every actor. And that’s what you see on the blooper reel.
HitFix: Did you at least find a proper synonym? Or did you abandon the thought entirely?
BC: Yeah! You hope that you can find something else. I think I said “ravage.” I said that I was ravaging the script like a hungry hyena. Something like that.
HitFix: Changing course a little… In the finale, you get to begin with that flashback to Walt and Skyler in simple times. On one hand, you had the hairpiece to help you to embody that younger, more innocent Walt. What else did you do to reverse engineer who Walt was before all of this?
BC: You know, a lot of it is purely that, it’s the sensibility and clothing. An actor will try to work inside-out or outside-in and quite frankly, it doesn’t really matter how you get to it. It’s just that you need to get to it. I never try to impinge on somebody else’s process on how they do it and everyone’s different. Sometimes it’s just easier to do outside in. I know that if I’m lounging on a couch in blue jeans and bare feet, that’s appropriate. If I were in a fresh tuxedo, I wouldn’t be sitting that way. It helps you feel different. My makeup as Walt has always been dour. I said, “Make me dour” and they would put lines under my eyes, bags under my eyes, and I’m feeling old and feeling worn-down. And that’s what the character was. He’s tired. And I’d look at myself and I had my glasses and I had that silly mustache in the beginning — Which I dubbed The Impotent mustache, because that’s what I was after, a mustache that said, “Who cares and why bother?” — and you design these things to help you get into that character. They’re little handles, if you will, for actors to hold onto and to help you digest it so that it goes down better and you don’t choke on it and so that the character can live.
Once the character is able to live within you, then you can pretty much call upon it when you need it, with some exceptions. On exceptionally different or difficult scenes or something that stretches the character, it may be unique, but for the most part you can pretty much call on that person if you need it?
HitFix: If that was The Impotent Mustache, what was this season’s goatee?
BC: Badass. Truly. Here’s the interesting thing, it’s a generalization, but the generalization is true, hair can either be intimidating or not. And here’s the interesting distinction: No hair on the head, a man is more intimidating. A bald head is more intimidating. But no hair on the face, is less intimidating. So if you have hair on your face and not on your head, then you have the combination that’s most intimidating. It’s just an observation that I came up with. I looked around and I started looking at different photos and at different people around town and I’m absolutely convinced of this. No matter what race and no matter what age, hair on the face and no hair on the head is the most intimidating look there can be. That’s what I wanted and that’s what we talked about. I said, “When the chemo comes, we’ve gotta shave the head” and I lost all of that weight because of the chemo and then I said, “We should keep this.” It was right for the character and, at the time, I said “I think that if Walt doesn’t recognize the man in the mirror, I think he can convince himself to continue what he’s doing, but if he sees the old Walt, with the hair and the little mustache, he may start going, ‘Oh, what am I doing?'”
So that was my argument for keeping the bald head. Then I started making that other observation and I thought that Walt’s paying attention and he’s looking around. He’s intimidating people for the first time in his life. The first time it worked was when he had to lose his hair and went to Tuco’s lair and he threw down that fulminated mercury and that was badass. And he went, “There’s something here. There’s something to this.” There was a look, a feeling, a presentation. That can all be very intimidating, so that’s what we stayed with, the facial hair and the bald head. And unless I hear a better argument, that’s where I’ll stay.
HitFix: And then he’s got the last step that he went through in the finale, putting back on his Heisenberg hat.
BC: It is. It wasn’t called for in the script and when I read the script, the first thing I thought was that he should be full Heisenberg there and he should use it as a touchstone. That’s what I have Walt do is use that hat as his touchstone, his anchor to Heisenberg. When he puts that on, he feels different. He looks different. His attitude changes. He gets more specific. He drops his voice. “This is what’s going to happen.” It’s a character that Walt puts on and that he’s living through.
HitFix: This time it feels like he believes it, too. The first time around, Heisenberg was almost a boogie man, as you said, like a role he was playing. In the finale, it’s actually him.
BC: Yeah, like I was saying, this season has contributed to that, because he has had to learn how to be a bad guy and embrace his dark side in order to survive and that’s what this season was all about. He had to accept himself for who he really is, warts and all, in order to survive as a criminal. He had to get smarter. In order to get smarter, he had to truly embrace who he was. It’s not outside of him anymore. He’s thinking and feeling like a criminal now.
HitFix: If you had your druthers, what does that set up for next season?
BC: A wild ride. You know know, I don’t know. I don’t even like to venture a guess. I went through six months of shooting him and then I’ve just gone through three months of promoting him and talking about him. That’s nine months out of the year that I’ve lived with him. It’s time to let him go. I’m not doing any more press after tomorrow. That’s it. I need to let it rest. I need to regain some thoughts about other things. Then, when it’s time to pick him back up, then then it’s time to pick him back up and I’ll be looking forward to that then. If I constantly stayed with him and kept contemplating him, thinking about him, talking about him, then I wouldn’t miss him. I would still be tired and then when we started the season again, I’d still, “Oh God. I’m kinda tired.” But for the fact that I know I’m going to let him go now, until January when we got back into production, we’re going later now, that I’ll be looking forward to it. Then it’ll be, “Oh, I can’t wait!”
HitFix: How total a departure is “Larry Crowne”?
BC: Completely. Every aspect has been a complete departure. It’s such a welcome respite, to be able to go from an angst-ridden, bald-headed, older-than-his-age man, weight of the world on his shoulders kinda guy about to die, to a guy who is full of life and has hair and is married to Julia Roberts, and we’re having fun on the set — We have fun on the set of “Breaking Bad” too, but it’s different when you’re doing a comedy — and not to be the lead and get back in line and that’s life. We lead, we follow. That’s the whole thing. And I like it that way.
For more “Breaking Bad” finale commentary, check out Sepinwall’s interview with Vince Gilligan.