The New Yorker has a profile by Tad Friend on Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad out today, and like most New Yorker profiles it’s comically long, probably north of 7,500 words or so. Because of that, I haven’t been able to make time to read the whole thing yet today — I’m only about a quarter of the way through it as of this writing.
Sadly for those of you who aren’t New Yorker subscribers, the profile is behind a paywall. However, each Monday morning the magazine’s PR staff emails out a press release detailing all of the stuff in the new issue for that week, and, just like New Yorker articles, those releases are comprehensive and long, so much so that I sometimes don’t feel I need to read the actual article being promoted. In this case, the summary of the Cranston profile that came in this morning’s email clocked in at over 800 words and touches on many of the piece’s highlights.
In “The One Who Knocks” (p. 52), Tad Friend profiles Bryan Cranston, the actor who plays Walter White on AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” ‘’In Hollywood, where everyone routinely calls everyone else a genius, the praise Cranston inspires is remarkably fervent,” Friend writes. “It borders on envy, not just of his talent but of his expansive approach to life.” But it was a long road to Cranston’s late-in-life success. His parents separated when he was twelve. “My dad wanted desperately to be successful, and he wasn’t, and it just brought him to his knees,” Cranston tells Friend. After the separation, the family’s house was foreclosed on. Cranston’s mother and the children lived with three boarders in a house that had one bathroom, surviving on food stamps. “My mother had a great zest for life, but when my father rejected her it just destroyed her,” Cranston says. “She became like Blanche DuBois with men, she wallowed in anxiety, depression, and alcoholism, and she lived in clutter.” After discovering acting as a young adult, Cranston began taking classes. “He studied Meisner and improv, tried est and psychotherapy and Scientology, and even worked as a comedian to conquer his fear of doing standup,” Friend writes. “It was like putting together a bouquet,” Cranston says. Though Cranston “was soon making a good living from commercials, he felt close to creative despair.” Early in their marriage, Cranston told his wife, Robin Dearden, “I feel I’m stuck on the junior varsity.” She gave him a gift of private sessions with the self-help guru Breck Costin, who suggested that he focus on process, not outcome. Cranston tells Friend, “It incrementally came to me that when I audition I’m not trying to get a job, but to give them something, my acting. The victory is not ‘Did I beat that other guy out?’ but ‘Did I present that character as believably as I could?’ That was the turning point.” Today, Cranston receives so many offers he’s constructed a complex grid to assess them. Story and script count the most, he tells Friend, because “an actor can only raise the level of bad writing by a grade. C writing, and I don’t care if you’re Meryl Streep—you can only raise it to a B.” After ranking the role, director, and cast, and factoring in bonus points (high salary = +1; signiﬁcant time away from family = –3), he’d pass on a project that scored less than 16 points, consider one from 16 to 20, accept one from 21 to 25, and accept with alacrity one from 26 to 32. “ ‘Argo’ was a twenty-eight,” he tells Friend. “Ben was a three as a director—he was ‘good’—and now he’s a four.”
Despite his troubled childhood, on the “Breaking Bad” set, “Bryan was very much the dad of this series,” Vince Gilligan, the show’s creator and executive producer, tells Friend. “Even I looked to him as the dad.” Dean Norris, who played Hank, tells Friend, “Bryan set the example on set. . . . But he also set the example for how to be a professional, the work ethic. I was more, ‘Ah, fuck this,’ and he told me, ‘You can’t be the “Ah, fuck this” guy. They’re paying you a lot of money, so you need to play your role and be a member of the “Breaking Bad” team. You need to grow up.’ ” After the third season, Cranston told Gilligan he wanted to be one of the show’s producers. “I wanted it for future credibility,” the actor tells Friend. “It is important to me to come across as the leader—I like the power, the empowerment.” Gilligan, who viewed producers’ titles as a writer’s prerogative, was resistant, but looked into it and discovered, he tells Friend, that “in large part it was Bryan who was keeping the ship from foundering.” Cranston is also the “public face” of the series, and is unfailingly gracious with fans, at being the “Bryan Cranston” they expect. “Bryan’s really good at it,” Robin Dearden tells Friend. “But it takes him longer to shut that oﬀ than it does to get out of character—it usurps his energy, overwhelms him. When he comes home, the last thing he wants is a woman’s chat. . . . I try not to take it personally when he gets curt, because one reason he gets exhausted is that after years of trying so hard to get anything he could, he doesn’t have that gauge of, ‘O.K., I’ve done enough now.’ ” But, “for all his geniality, Cranston has a barbed side,” Friend writes. Cranston “runs for exercise, and every so often he’ll be jogging along and realize that his face is contorted with anger—‘rage blasting out of my body, a rush of toxins and rage,’ ” he tells Friend. His sister, Amy, says, “He gets a lot of hostility out by running, and it’s always tied back to childhood or his father.” “Part of me—of any human being—is really dark,” Cranston tells Friend. “And this, with Walt, is how I work through my issues. It’s much easier for me to allow the character to explode than it is for Bryan to open up.”
Again, if you’re a subscriber you can read the whole thing here. I plan on finishing it tonight during the halftimes of the TWO MONDAY NIGHT games.