‘Breaking Bad’ star Bryan Cranston looks back at Walter White’s greatest hits, part 1

Though “Breaking Bad” will have another eight episodes to run next summer after the eight that start airing Sunday night at 10 on AMC, this is technically the start of the show’s final season. So when given the chance to sit down with the show’s two leading men, I thought this might be a good time to let each of them revisit some of the most memorable moments for their characters, and what it was like to play those scenes. I first spoke with Aaron Paul, then sat down for lunch with Bryan Cranston.

This conversation wound up being quite a bit longer than the one with Paul, so I’m splitting it into two parts. Today deals with a variety of topics, from Heisenberg’s hat to what Cranston knew when about the Brock storyline. The second half (which includes “I am the one who knocks!” and “Run.”) will come tomorrow at this time.

You and I have talked in the past about how you came up with the costume and the mustache and all of that. The one piece of the wardrobe we never talked about is the Heisenberg hat. Who found that and what was your reaction when you first got it, and how it helped you get into that side of the character?

Bryan Cranston: That was all working with Vince Gilligan and Kathleen Detoro, the costume designer, deciding on an iconic kind of look. I don’t know where it came from. I was talking with Vince about it. I said, “It’s interesting how in the fifth episode of the first season, how he shaves his head because of the chemo, he discovered something in that look that made it okay in his head.” It’s almost like a different person in the mirror looking back at you. And as long as he can’t recognize that guy, can he sort of justify this double life? It’s like he’s a different man. That’s why we continued to shave his head even though it was said in later episodes that his hair was back with the remission. He couldn’t go back to the little simplistic mustache and the mop of hair. He’s different. He’s a changed man. So he’s now become Heisenberg. That was more an overt way to show that.

The porkpie hat, and the dark glasses, and even the darker goatee that came out in place of the mustache – that’s changed him. I think it’s fun that it’s on t-shirts, even in silhouette form.

There’s a scene in the first season finale, where they’re throwing the baby shower for Skyler, and Walt is asked to record a video message to the unborn baby. And Walt is surrounded by all of his friends, and he doesn’t want to show any emotions to them, but he knows he’s recording this message to the daughter he may never see. What do you remember of shooting that? It’s a small moment, but it’s one of my favorite bits from that season.

It’s like being on a ride for the first time, and you’re starting out floating around and not knowing where it’s going to go. I remember being uncomfortable doing that as the character. He’s not used to making proclamations. And the last time he recited into a videocamera was the pilot episode when he’s going, “This is not an admission of guilt!” So it was a little moment. It’s good that you caught that. The little moments are the things that really make this work. And makes it work to the point that it’s in the right medium. If it’s in a film, that would be the first thing that’s cut. So you don’t get a deepening, wide foundation to this. It’s Get to it! Get to it! Go! Now he’s the bad guy! And to me, it’s all that foreplay of getting to the bad guy that has been so rewarding.

Vince has said many times he was going to kill off Jesse in the first season and changed his mind. Is that something you knew in the early stages as you were working with Aaron, or did you find out after the fact?

I did know. He was supposed to die somewhere in the fourth or fifth episode, I think. It’s a credit to Vince and the writers to be able to let the pendulum swing in a different direction. And that’s what good, good writers do. They will have a basic broad stroke idea of where they’re going, but not finalize anything. It’s like trying to decide what you’re going to wear next week. I don’t even know what I’m wearing today. He saw something, saw the dynamic between Jesse and Walt, the oil and water mix, a great opportunity for humor and a lot of things. And Aaron Paul’s mastery of all that was great.

And at that point, you’re fine just rolling with it, ‘I’m going to be working with this guy for a while now’?

Oh, yeah. Going into any show, you have to let go to a degree. If you try to micromanage or hold onto something, not so good. In television, the writer is king, which is as it should be. In your first acting class, they do a trust exercise, where you have to turn around, close your eyes, fall back and the other guy will catch you and lay you on the floor. Because we’re going to be on stage, and you have to trust that I’m going to be there for you. It’s meant to prove that point. When you get on stage or in front of a camera, you have to trust that the other person and you are going to push and pull. Same thing with your writer. We have to trust that he’s going to take us and protect the characters. Not sell us out for a joke or something. That’s what he’s done.

You directed the season 2 premiere, and there’s a scene in there where Walt has just come home, he’s had this terrifying experience at the junkyard with Tuco, he’s in the kitchen with Skyler and they have this horrible, violent, ugly sex in the kitchen. And you have to both play and direct this. What are your memories of that?

I did the character work before. So I knew what I wanted to do by the time we started shooting. So that when I’m on stage talking with Anna (Gunn) and guiding her through this, and with Michael Slovis, my DP, I wanted to make sure I was clear where I wanted to go with this. And it is a violent act. I wanted to make sure Anna was physically safe, for one, emotionally safe, number two, and then carry on with it. And from a character standpoint, Walt had this bottled-up sense of anxiety, and he just witnessed a brutal beating that was so violent to him – remember, he’s new to it – that he’s reeling from it, and doesn’t know where to place it, and just needs comfort right now. So I wanted to specifically make Walt go to his wife for comfort, and what happens is that in seeking comfort – just come up from behind her and smell her and feel safe – what happens often with men is it gets misplaced, it gets confused. He gets charged up, kind of excited and aggressive and get this angst out, this sense of tension. And that’s why he goes to that point. That’s how Bryan had to justify it and then tell Walt how to play it.

You’re not a self-conscious actor at all – your resume proves that. But if you’re in a scene like that where you’re also the director, does that change the performance at all? Does that layer of self-consciousness slip in, or are you able to separate the two?

No, I’m able to separate it and able to identify what has to happen when, and where am I. So if Bryan clearly understands where Walt is at any given point – that’s where it was for me. I told Walt where he was going to be, and it felt right to him to play it that way. And the way I wanted to shoot it, I wanted it to be fragmented – as messy as you can – so I shot it in a way that it was a hand, slipping, pushing, moving, a side, and I didn’t want them in the same shot. So it was either him or her, and then a hand and a foot and a stomp and a face and a push.

A few episodes later, Walt has to fake the blackout to explain where he was when Tuco had them captive. There’s this moment with the doctor where he realizes he has to tell this guy a better story, and he asks about doctor/patient confidentiality, and I’m thinking, “Oh my God, is he going to tell him about the meth?” There are moments throughout the series where Walt seems on the verge of confessing, whether through circumstance, or he’s under the influence. How do you play these moments, where Walt’s a very closed-up character and the valve’s about to open and then it doesn’t?

It’s just that: you open it just a crack. Each time a character has an action or a reaction, you the actor have to justify that. When I’m told direction, I often go off and take in the information and I process it, and I see how it makes sense to my world in that given time. And if I have an issue with it, I’ll ask a question or a concern. And then until you can has it out and get to the point. And that’s very much the process of it.

For example, in the fourth season, the twelfth episode, when Jesse comes and says (Jesse Pinkman impression), “You poisoned Brock! You did it! I’m gonna kill you!” And I’m going, “Whoa, whoa, whoa, why would I do that?” Two things there. First, I didn’t read episode 13 yet, so I didn’t know I had done it – which reinforced my choice not to know in advance, because I had to be convincing that Walt didn’t do this. So that worked. But Vince directed the episode, and he first had a certain idea of how it would be, and it didn’t work, so we reworked it, and the second idea didn’t work. So that took more time than it normally would to just figure it out. Something would happen and Aaron would say, “That doesn’t feel right to me.” So each actor has to protect their own character, and the visionary, Vince Gilligan, has to protect the overall. That’s his most important thing: the overall story. So actors come in and say, “I need to protect me first,” and you try to work things out. We had to dance and dance and dance until we finally got to a point where it made sense and was interesting, and he pushes me down on the floor. Something happened by accident: on one take, I grabbed him and said, “Do you want to kill me?” and I forced him to put the gun to my head. And I didn’t know it at the time, but I’m holding the gun to my forehead, so when he pulls it away, there’s that little circle on my forehead.

Jane dies. Walt watches her die, essentially causes it by changing her position, and then he stands there, doesn’t save her, doesn’t roll her over. What’s going through your mind and what’s going through Walt’s mind as this is happening?

Two different things. Walt’s thinking, “Oh my God.” Immediate kneejerk reaction is, “Someone’s choking, save them.” Split-second later is, “Wait, this is the woman who was going to extort money out of you, ruin everything, you go to jail, your family gets nothing. And this is the same woman who hooked Jesse on heroin, eventually she’s going to get him killed with that. Fuck it! It’s better that she dies! But she’s a human being, she’s a little girl! She’s a person!” I’m as close to her as I am to you, and I have to do something. It’s almost like the angel and the devil on the shoulder, telling you what to do. And it forced Walt into inaction. And his omission spoke volumes, when it’s like, “It’s probably better that I don’t do anything.”

What happened to Bryan on one take, I looked at her, and I just see a little innocent. Krysten Ritter is such a fine actor, and she was totally into it off-screen for me, and any actor appreciates that. I was able to conjure up all kinds of feelings because of it. In one take, I saw my own daughter dying in front of me, and that choked me up. That’s the worst thing for a parent.

Obviously, if Vince says Walt is going to do something, you do it. But are there any actions – that one, the poisoning with Brock – where you’re reading the script and it troubles you?

From a character standpoint or a Bryan standpoint?

Let’s start with the Bryan standpoint.

It’s really about the character. If it’s right for the character, I’ll do it.

So you think he would’ve let her choke and he would’ve poisoned the kid.

Yeah. It’s gotten to that point. This is how I justified when he poisoned Brock: all this time, Gus Fring had been the puppeteer. He has the video camera surveillance. He has hired thugs, he has all the money, he’s in control. It’s like David and Goliath, and yet David wins this one. How does he win it? I’ve gotta have an ally. I can’t do it alone. So I have to think, “What am I willing, what could I do to get Jesse back in the fold so he can be bait?” It’s this cat-and-mouse, and at that point, Gus Fring represented the more powerful, more lethal dilemma to me than, “If I can figure out the right amount of poison so I won’t kill the boy, but it’ll be serious enough to make it look like he was poisoned.” (He shrugs apologetically.) You have to do what you have to do, Alan.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com

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