UNTIL RECENTLY, Bryan Cranston was best known for his portrayal of Hal, the befuddled but lovable father in the brilliant family sitcom Malcolm In The Middle. But Cranston is a talented and versatile veteran of television, film and theatre. His latest and very different role, as luckless New Mexico chemistry teacher turned drug dealer Walter White, in the justly acclaimed series Breaking Bad, has been a triumph and a revelation. He talks to David Bennun about luck, morality, crime, drugs, the darkest of dark humour, the quality of today's American TV, and making the leap to heavyweight drama.
Q: How did you feel about moving from the essentially warm-heated, Dennis-The-Menace comedy of Malcolm In The Middle to something as dark and bleak as Breaking Bad?
A: It was welcoming. As an actor you've very fortunate if you get a show as well-written as Malcolm In The Middle. We did it for seven years, and at some point you have to say, that's enough of that, and let's move on. It would be like eating your favourite food but every single meal.
I didn't have control of when the show was going to end. We did 151 episodes, we told our story, and it was time to move on.
Q: You were ready for a change of direction. Did you mind which particular direction or did you mind only that it was a change?
A: The comedies that I was being considered for, they were looking to cast me in somewhat of a similar role, and I thought I've done that, I need to take a break from that. It was definitely a drama that I was looking for. It was time.
Q: You said when you first saw the script to Malcolm In The Middle, it made you laugh out loud. what was your reaction to seeing the script to Breaking Bad?
A: I just couldn't put it down, read it straight through, got on the phone immediately with my agency and said, yes, let's set this one up right away. I was fortunate enough to have worked with Vince [Gilligan, the show's creator and writer] in the past, but I didn't quite remember him. He's very unassuming, he's not a guy who fills a room, he'd rather just sit in the corner and observe. I think that's why he's so gifted as a writer, is because he has that ability. Our 20-minute meeting turned out to be an hour and a half. His writing was so good that I was thinking of how the character would dress, and walk and look. So in my initial meeting I just kept pitching out the ideas. It was a great exchange.
Q: Watching Breaking Bad, I was reminded of the Mel Brooks quotation that, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."
A: [Chuckles] There are those people who when they see somebody slip on the street go, oh my god, are you OK, and other who can't help but laugh. The other definition of comedy is that comedy is tragedy plus time. So the dark humour was welcome, and I did get it.
Q: Malcolm In The Middle was very much an ensemble piece, like a great deal of your work. Was it daunting to know this new show would stand or fall on your performance?
A: No, I loved it. I mean, actors are nothing without being risk takers. I also felt that it was important to investigate the other characters and what their plot lines are. Vince said specifically we are definitely going to do that. I think a show is best when at any point it can cut away from the storyline of the main character and you're still interested. I think any show would be very challenged if you stayed with one character. You need to break it up.
Q: After 25 years in show business, you must have seen a lot of things, but could anything prepare you for taking on the role of a crystal meth kingpin - did you find any part of it shocking?
A: No. What set me up to do this was being abe to immediately get behind this character. The right set of circumstances is what happened to Walter White. He's felt this way for a long time, and so that mounts up. That was all in the script and I was captivated by this, I went, oh my God, this is fantastic. It's so great to play a tragic character, you ask any actor. Shakespeare had them throughout. I think it's the same in any tragic character, that you first have to create an impact with the audience where they feel for you. They may not agree with your actions, but at least if they feel for you, then they can have some kind of sympathy for your character.
We don't mean to make light of it, crystal meth, in the United States, it's a scourge, it's a horrible, horrible drug. There's nothing funny about it, and we don't intend to imply that we are not taking responsibility for this, or in any way trying to glorify this drug. It's just the journey of this man. We are going to witness first hand throughout the course of the series just how horrible this drug is, and Walt's responsibility for perpetuating that dilemma through the society.
Q: What kind of research did you do into crystal meth? The show certainly feels very realistic.
A: Actually, it is. The only research that I did was from a chemistry background, because my character's standpoint is that he's a chemistry teacher and he's quite good at it. I went back to a university in California and followed a chemistry professor around for a few days. I did not want to do research on crystal meth, I did not want to do research on cancer. I wanted to have the character discover those things as the play unfolded. It really helped me, because I wanted to let the character be surprised by it as time goes by. He's very naive, Walt, in that he decides, this is what I'm going to do, and because he knows how to compile the chemistry of it, it doesn't mean that he knows anything about the world of drug-dealing. And so he absolutely is flabbergasted when he realises, these guys are real dangerous people, and they have weapons, what am I doing? He was so naive, he didn't look into that possibility.
Q: One of the strongest roles in the show is played by luck, both horribly bad and amazingly good. Walter White at times seems protected by the luck of the innocent, in a Buster Keaton way.
A: [laughs] Well, if we could have any Buster Keaton in there, that would be fantastic. I love Buster Keaton.
I thought, this is fascinating, you have a man who is middle-aged and is entering into a very hazardous world that he doesn't know at all and doesn't have the experience to cope with. But there are narrow misses in life, there are strokes of luck. Some would say it would be lucky if he was caught, that he wouldn't be in such danger, and that's true too. But at the moment he's putting on the blinders and he's doing this very selfish act to provide for his family after he's gone, and that's his whole agenda.
Q. There's an irony in the title, given that Walter White has been so ill-rewarded for leading the best life he can, but his fortunes take a turn for the better when he "breaks bad". It's like the American dream in reverse.
A: It is, sort of, isn't it? You have a man who's never gotten a traffic ticket in his life, been on the straight and narrow and done everything right, but he is living with a whole chestful of regrets in his life. He didn't take advantage of some opportunities early on. And I think that's what happens to people. One or two things happen to a man or a woman who lives with that kind of regret and develops a depression, as I believe Walt White did. And that is either you become caustic and hard and angry, and you lash out, and you blame everyone else for your failings, that kind of person. Or you do what happened to Walt White. He sort of imploded emotionally. He put a cap on his emotions, he went to seed, he got a little fat, soft in the mind and body, and he just put one foot in front of the other and tried to make do and just get through life. And he got used to that. He got used to living without a dynamic, fully realised life, and just accepting of that, and almost became a foreigner to his range of emotions.
And then you have this diagnosis of terminal lung cancer. And that thrust him into... he has to feel now. And it's good in a way, and even though the realisation is that he's going to die in a year or two years, he's also never felt this much passion in his life, in the last 25 years. He's got adrenalin pumping in his body again, and he's living, he's breathing, he's functioning, and he's like, wow, this is what life could have been had I thought of being able to do this beforehand.
As I'm thinking about it, if you were to ask Walter White, would you trade it in? Would you trade in two years of a fully realised, fully involved, active, passionate life for who knows how many years of a life devoid of emotion and passion? I'm not so certain people would take longer years and sacrifice the emotion.
Q: When you started out in American television 25 years ago, could you have imagined that a series such as Breaking Bad could get made?
A: No. When I started, you didn't really know better, but with the exception of some well-written plays where you had some more rounded, real characters who had some good qualities and had some negative qualities, it wasn't evident in television, really. I was flipping through the channels, I don't know if you remember an old American series called Simon And Simon, that caught my eye. For some reason I started watching it a little, and I realised, a series like this would never ever get close to being on the air now. It was just so routine. You know, here's the two guys, and there's a problem, and by the end they're going to solve this problem. I don't mean to diminish the work that was done by the actors, it's just a style that was accepted by the era, and that style just would not accepted now. In comedies I think Seinfeld had a lot to do with that, Malcolm In The Middle had a lot to do with that. The dramas, the Sopranos had a lot to do with that.
And everyone is benefiting from that, there are well-written scripts and well performed productions, and it's all around better for television.
Q: Would you say cable has revolutionised American TV drama?
A: It has. First pay television, HBO, Showtime, they march to a different drummer, they don't have the same standards-and-practice limitations that network television has. And so they had more freedom. And the baby brother of those stations, the regular cable which my show is on, AMC in the States, but also TNT, USA, all these other outlets. Because they needed to bring attention to themselves, so they could offer a platform where there was very little, if any, creative interference. And the creators, the executive producers and writers, were thrilled. They were saying, wait a minute, you want me to come and do exactly what I wrote here, and you're not going to tell me I can't make this character this complex? And so that's what AMC did for us. If it was on a network like NBC, ABC, CBS, Fox or anything like that, it would never have seen the light of day. It wouldn't have been made.
So I'm grateful for that. Not only personally, but it opens it up. I remember years ago, in a writing class, they said, well, write what you know, but write what is also possible to be produced. But now, that's obsolete. You write to the extremes of your imagination, and it can be done, with all the computer graphics now, you don't have to limit yourself.
And that's somewhat what's happening on cable now, you don't have to limit yourself, and say, well, this character is of questionable moral status, and perhaps the audience might reject him. Well, that's awfully intriguing if your lead character might be rejected by audiences. That was certainly a conversation that Vince and I had early on. I said, this is very risky. And he said, yup. I said, if he's not likeable, if he's not liked by the audience, there is no show. And he agreed. He said, that's why I'd like you to do it. You have a likeability. Well, thank you. But he's right in that the audience has to be pulling for Walter White to be successful, and yet have that moral dilemma inside, to question, what am I pulling for him to do, because he's doing this horrible thing.
Q: Did you consider the drama might be a subversive commentary on America as a whole? The character's name almost seems representative of an idealised American suburban existence that reality is bound to fall short of - half Walt Disney, half white.
A: That's interesting, that might have been a subtle thing... I don't even know if Vince realised that. But that's really interesting. I'd accept that.
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