Bryan Cranston’s GQ Cover Story: Tighty-Whities, Fake Penises, And Becoming Walter White

Bryan Cranston is the subject of a new GQ cover story — written by Brett Martin, who will be joining us later this week to discuss his new book, Difficult Men — that goes in-depth into his career and the process of becoming his Breaking Bad character, Walter White. The whole piece is fascinating, mostly for the way it drives home the contrast between the genial, good-natured actor and the increasingly ruthless character he plays. It also includes some hemming and hawing from showrunner Vince Gilligan regarding the final eight episodes of the series, and the ultimate fate of Walter White, but it’s not much we haven’t heard before, and the anticipation is already killing me, so let’s just skip to the juicy stuff, shall we?

On Walter White’s fondness for tighty-whities, which we also discussed yesterday in a post about the most recent Breaking Bad teaser:

Cranston has spent his professional life tamping down his good looks, if not always his charm. The poor man has never been allowed to wear decent clothes on-screen—from the brocaded shirts of Tim Whatley, his recurring smarmy-dentist role on Seinfeld, to Hal’s short-sleeve dress shirts, which one imagined coming in a ten-pack from JCPenney. It is safe to say that no other great American actor has spent as much time appearing in his tighty-whities.

Actually, he’s insisted on appearing in them. While shooting the Breaking Bad pilot, Vince Gilligan had a crisis of conscience watching his star thus dressed in the freezing New Mexico desert. “I wimped out,” Gilligan says. “I took him aside and said, ‘Would you be more comfortable in sweatpants? Or boxers?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I’d be more comfortable. What’s your point?’ ‘So you’re okay with the tighty-whities?’ ‘Well, what’s the most pathetic thing I could be wearing here?’ I said, ‘Tighty-whities.’ And he said, ‘Well, what else do we need to talk about?'”

On auditioning for the role that has earned him three Emmys (and counting):

That meant coming in to his audition with a crystal-clear picture of Walt. “I actually thought of my father, how he stands hunched, burdened,” he says, slumping his shoulders. “We didn’t have Walt stand erect until he became Heisenberg.” He also had a precise vision of everything from Walt’s weight (186 pounds) to his mustache. “I said, ‘I want his mustache to look impotent. I want people to look at it and go, Why bother?’ I thought he should wear clothes that blend into the wall: beige, sand, taupe, khaki. His hair should be a mop. Nothing’s remarkable about this man.” The meeting with Gilligan, scheduled for fifteen minutes, lasted an hour and a half; Gilligan emerged committed to fighting for Cranston to get the role. And the Walter White of that pilot—humiliated by his students, receiving a halfhearted birthday hand job from Skyler as she surfs eBay—was so convincing, so fully hatched in his pathos, that it’s impossible even now not to root for him to get up and find his inner Heisenberg.

On the closest he’s ever come to evil, when he envisioned killing a drug addict ex-girlfriend who showed up at his door after repeatedly threatening him:

“And I envisioned myself killing her. It was so clear. My apartment had a brick wall on one side, and I envisioned opening the door, grabbing her by the hair, dragging her inside, and shoving her head into that brick wall until brain matter was dripping down the sides of it. Then I shuddered and realized how clearly I saw that happening. And I called the police because I was so afraid. I was temporarily insane—capable of doing tremendous damage to her and to myself.”

And, finally, on big floppy fake ding-dongs:

Leadership, on a show as frequently grim as Breaking Bad, has also meant knowing when it’s necessary to lighten the mood—particularly with the use of prosthetic phalluses, of which the show’s prop department apparently had a disproportionate supply for a basic-cable production.

“Remember, I spent six years seeing the man in his underwear. Sometimes less than his underwear,” says Anna Gunn, who plays Walt’s wife, Skyler. “He would constantly try to appear with various…things on his…situation.”

“There’s nothing better than a good penis for a laugh,” the man himself says.

Words to live by. Carve some time out this afternoon to read the whole piece.

Photo credit: Nathaniel Goldberg / GQ