Earlier this week, I sat down with “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston to look back on his memories of some of the classic Walter White moments from the AMC drama’s first four seasons. It was such a long conversation that I had to split it into two parts. Part one ran yesterday, and after the jump, I talked with Cranston about two of the most famous Walter White lines of all – “I am the one who knocks!” and “Run.” – the breakdown in the crawl space, and more.
You mentioned Tio. What was it like playing those scenes with Mark Margolis, where he can say nothing and express so little?
Bryan Cranston: That’s the thing. What used to frustrate me going into an audition was that some inexperienced, lesser casting people would think that actors are acting only when they’re speaking. (He improvises both sides of an audition scene where the casting person’s face is buried in the script whenever it’s their turn to talk, only looking up when the actor speaks.) That would frustrate the hell out of me, because you’re not getting it. It’s like watching a television and every few seconds turning away and then turning back. You’re missing things. And you miss a look, or a nuance, and it’s everything. Mark Margolis is such an accomplished actor that even if he doesn’t say a word in the scenes I played with him, he speaks volumes. He’s fully there, he acts, on or off-camera, he is right there for you. And through his expressions, he speaks.
And you get to speak through these great monologues the writers give you. Let’s start with “I am the one who knocks!” First, what was your reaction when you read the script and got to that line?
Bryan Cranston: This is one of those times where I had to really get into that head. I was questioning, “Why is he telling her this? Why is he putting himself in a position to boast about this?” It was silverback gorilla time for me. He’s usually more careful and circumspect. Sometimes I had to release and let go that Walter White is on a different trajectory than maybe I thought it was. I thought it was maybe going to take a little bit longer to get from here to there, and he’s already there. Once you fully grasp it and embrace that and let it be what it is, I opened up to it and was able to do it. The justification was, he first wanted to tell her not to worry, that no one’s going to come knocking. But then it becomes, “There’s no one more dangerous than me.” And there was some satisfaction to him to being the one in charge, to being the dangerous one. He’s been able to do all these things in total anonymity, which is at first what he thought he wanted. But as he’s going along, he realizes this invisible infamy is not enough. He’s hearing respectful things about his product, what his genius is able to do, but he kinda wants to say —
He doesn’t want Hank thinking it was Gale.
Bryan Cranston: And that was his hubris coming out in that scene. He had to have a little wine to justify it. We talked about that, I said, “Just to come out and say it, no. But at the end of the night, drinking wine, you get a little looser, and boom! You say things you shouldn’t have.”
The start of the third season has the school assembly where Walt gives this terrible, self-justifying speech, and it just keeps going and going…
Bryan Cranston: When I first read it, I asked, “What’s going on here?” But I realized he’s been living with this for weeks and weeks. I directed that episode, and I wanted to make sure that we saw that he’s been doing research: that the way he gets through something is to learn more about it. So he’s been reading and reading for the last couple of weeks, watching the news on it, to help him get through. So he’s at a different point of mourning than everyone else. Everyone else is crying, and he’s going, “Oh, it could’ve been a lot worse. We really should be celebrating our fortune.” It’s like going to a funeral and going up to the widow going, “So… want to go out sometime?”
A reader pointed out to me that the kid who stands up at the assembly to say “We should all get straight A’s because of this” is the same one who in an earlier episode tries to hustle Mr. White into bumping up his grade because he really likes chemistry.
Bryan Cranston: Yeah, he’s a shyster. And one of the other kids who got up is my daughter. The girl who got up and said, “Why would God do this?” That’s my real daughter. It was great to have her get her feet wet doing something like that.
I want to talk about “4 Days Out” and “Fly,” those episodes where it’s just you and Aaron, in one location, for the hour. What was it like to do each of those?
Bryan Cranston: Two great, unique episodes – probably “Fly” being the more unique of the two. “Fly” came about almost by accident as a bottle show. Vince was willing to entertain doing one to save some money for the collective good, but only if some justifiable, honest reason could be found to do it. We’d been doing things where the scope is big: up in mountains, the plane crash, and all that stuff. Why not go small? After macro, go micro. It was really an interesting journey for us, because it happens – it’s real. We get myopics about things that are only important to us, and other people are like, “Come on! Let’s go!” So Walt is just fixating on this fly, this fly. It’s interesting how Walt sees this as an adversary. That was his whole mindset. And Jesse was like, “What? It’s a fly! What are you doing?”
Do you remember that episode where Jesse met the boy in the house with the ATM machine?
Bryan Cranston: And in the beginning, Jesse’s playing with the little stinkbug, and he’s like, “How you doing, brother? What’s your life like?” And the car comes and he puts it down. And then here comes Skinny Pete, and he just stomps on it! And it’s like, here are two completely different points of view. It was fun, because Rian Johnson directed “Fly.” It was like a play: long scenes, in delirium, I almost gave away a couple of bad secrets.
When you’re reading that script, and Walt is on the verge of telling Jesse about Jane, are you wondering what happens if you get to the next page and Walt says it? What’s Jesse going to do? Do you ever think about how Jesse will react if he finds out all the terrible things Mr. White has done to him?
Bryan Cranston: Yeah. The only thing – I can easily lie about Jane. The only way that comes out, is if I tell someone else, and Jesse hears about it. Because if he comes to me and says, “Wait a minute, were you at my house when Jane died?” I can just say, “No, she was already dead when I came in.” I can lie about it. But poisoning the boy? That’s the deal-breaker, I think: “Funny thing, Jesse. You’re gonna enjoy this story, Jesse,” and go into like a Woody Allen (he switches into a Woody impression): “You know, it’s, uh, odd, because, uh, we’re going to laugh, uh, about this at some point…” There’s no defense there. If he finds that out, it’s bad news.
There’s a scene at the start of season 3 where Skyler has found out about the fake cell phone, has started putting things together in her mind, she confronts Walt with her theory that you’re selling marijuana with Jesse Pinkman, and it just gets worse and worse.
Bryan Cranston: I directed that one, and I liked the idea of her fishing, as opposed to her coming over and confronting him by saying, “I know what you’re doing!” I justified that with Walt, where he’s kept it secret for so long, and keeping that secret takes so much energy. And you can relax to a certain point. You don’t have to be so on guard.
At the end of “Half-Measures,” Walt runs the guys over with the car, gets out, shoots the one guy in the head, turns to Jesse and says, “Run.” There’s so much in that one three-letter word.
Bryan Cranston: It’s interesting, because when I read that, I thought different things than when I saw it. The way I played it was he gets out of the car, it was all impulsive what he did, to save Jesse, and now it’s “Oh my God, oh my God,” and this one’s crawling around underneath looking for his gun, so I have to take the gun. I take the gun, I look at him, I look at Jesse, am thinking, “What to do? What to do?” I look around for witnesses, there are no witnesses, I look back at him, he’s writhing in pain, and I think, “Oh, shit. There’s only one thing I can do.” And I look at Jesse, and he’s in shock, and now I have to get the courage to do it. I look, and think, “Jesus, just do it!” And BAM! And “Run.” So there was a culmination of thought: witnesses, threat, this guy, ugh, ugh. It was a thought process. And they cut it together, and it was BAM! BAM! “Run.” I saw that, and I went, “Holy shit.” That’s an example of Vince’s trajectory not being on the same track as mine. I thought he was still in “Oh my God, oh my God, what did I just do,” and Vince is thinking, “I’m taking control, he’s the threat, bang, kill him, tell my partner to get out of here.” It was one of those moments where it pushes you back in the seat of your chair.
Though he’s not exactly a kid at this point in terms of killing people. He’s killed Emilio, he’s killed Krazy-8, he was ready to poison Tuco, he’s let Jane die. He’s done some stuff by this point. He’s almost an old hand.
Bryan Cranston: Oh, but killing doesn’t get old. Still has the freshness of the very first day!
In the next episode, the final scene has Mike on the verge of killing Walt, Walt is cowering, he makes what we think is a move to sell out Jesse to save himself, and then all of a sudden, the switch flips and Walt is suddenly in control. How do you play that kind of switch so it feels natural and earned?
Bryan Cranston: We realized he was acting – pretending to sell him out. What happens if you tell a lie, you need to back that up, so you tell another lie, and another lie. After a while, you get good at telling lies. And telling lies, you’re basically acting. So he became a pretty big liar, and pretty good at it: the fugue state, all of those things trained him for this moment to be really strong and really good to save his own life. This is the performance of his life, and he does it.
So we come back in the next season, Walt and Jesse have to pay the price for this. They’re in the superlab, Gus enters, Gus gets undressed, Gus says nothing, and you just have to keep talking and talking and talking through this, Gus kills Victor, Gus gets undressed again and leaves. And because Giancarlo only says a few words at the end of the scene, you are verbally carrying it. No one else is saying anything. What was the atmosphere like as you were filming that?
Bryan Cranston: It’s nerve-wracking. It read that same way. You could see it playing out that way, it mentioned him taking off the glasses. So I justified me talking through it, because some people do often talk a lot when they’re nervous. Something’s going to happen, and they’re in trouble, and then sure enough, that is the case. I had to build ourselves up and put down Victor, try to talk Gus into letting them go back to work. What Gus does is so shocking. I don’t think anybody saw that coming. His anger is on us, and then he kills the guy who’s been so supportive of him. But in the end, you realize it was pragmatic: Victor was seen at the scene of the crime. He can tie Gus to it.
Ultimately, you had to say goodbye to both the Winnebago and the superlab. Did you miss one set more than the other?
Bryan Cranston: I think nostalgia lets me miss the RV more than the superlab. With the RV, we were in control. It was a small operation, but it was. Superlab, we were under the impression of Gus Fring.
But in terms of Bryan Cranston the actor, you’ve got this enclosed space where there’s barely room for you and Aaron, and then you’ve got this big playground that’s designed so the camera can shoot anywhere, you can be anywhere, do anything within it.
Bryan Cranston: Bryan then misses the superlab more than he does the RV. It was a lot easier to shoot in the superlab than the RV. The interior of the RV became a set inside our stage, but you still had to pump heavy lights in there to justify the light. No air, cramped quarters – it was trying at times. But from the sake of the story, I miss the RV; from the sake of simplicity of shooting, I miss the superlab.
Okay, just a couple of more scenes. One is from much earlier on, Walt goes out to lunch with Gretchen, Gretchen feels sorry for Walt, and Walt says a word you can’t actually say on AMC back to Gretchen.
Bryan Cranston: “Phooey,” I think it was.
I don’t know. There was no sound. I can only guess.
Bryan Cranston: That was difficult for me, because Bryan wouldn’t dare do that. But Bryan’s not in that scene; it’s Walt. So I had to figure out where Walt was emotionally in order for it to be logical that he would blurt this out. It had to be a blurt. It couldn’t be something where he’s just waiting to tell her off. It had to be, “I don’t want your pity.” A man doesn’t want to be pitied. My life learned years ago that when I have troubles not to come and hug me, not be, “Let’s talk this out.” No. I want to go in my cave, I’m a little irritated. I want to be alone.
Gretchen was kind of placating, and maybe he took it as condescension, “Oh, we’re happy to come to your rescue.” And he doesn’t want her to be smug with him. “I’m fine, so fuck you.”
The last one is the end of “Crawl Space.” Walt is just insane, losing his grip on anything. That’s a very terrifying emotional place in there. How do you work yourself up to that?
Bryan Cranston: That’s the right choice of words: you have to work yourself up to it. Laughing and crying on stage or in film are two very, very difficult things to do believably. You see it all the time on stage or movies where you don’t believe either one for a second. If it’s not readily apparent for the actor to get to that space, it makes it more difficult. So I had to figure out, it said in the script “He laughs maniacally at the situation.” And before I could force a laugh, I had to figure out why. And we got to a point where he thinks the problem is solved: “I’ve planned for this, I’ve got money stashed, I’ll give it to the guy who will help us disappear, we’ll have new names in a new state, but we’ll at least have the family together.” And not only is it not there, that’s not what makes me trigger the laugh. It’s where the money is. “You gave it to your former lover?” There’s not enough salt to pour in that wound to equal the absurdity of that revelation. And that’s what does it. It’s so basic and so guttural, and so, “We’re fucked!” It’s just beyond belief. It’s so absurd that the situation can create that odd laughter, where I’m thinking, “I’m dead! I’m dead!”
It’s funny you use those words, because a lot of people looked at how that scene was shot, and Walt through the crawl space hatch almost looks like a body in a coffin, and they said, “This is the moment where Walter White dies, and now Heisenberg.”
Bryan Cranston: Yes. Walter White is dead, and Heisenberg rises from the ashes. And that’s basically what happens.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org