Sarah Lucy May meets Bryan Cranston – the man responsible for some of television’s most memorable characters – on the set of the final season of Breaking Bad.
How cataclysmic are these last eight episodes of Breaking Bad going to be?
I can tell you that this is the part of the rollercoaster after you have reached the top and it’s just straight down. I have no idea what’s going to happen at the end. But I can’t imagine that [creator] Vince Gilligan would go for something nice and put a little bow on it. It’s not Breaking Kind Of Bad, or Breaking Good. It’s Breaking Bad. Things will go bad. When people say, “How do you want it to end?” – and I mean this in all sincerity, it’s not a cop-out – I want it to end exactly how Vince wants it to end. He’s writing the songs. I am just the lead singer. I get the lion’s share of the attention, but I know where the genius lies. I’m just the front man.
You go to a dark place playing Walter White. Do you ever find yourself staying there?
No. I have a method of getting out of it. I go into the make-up trailer after work and I get two hot towels, put one on my bald head and one around my face, completely covering it – I look like the Mummy – and I just sit, and steam, and take a little mind-vacation. Then I take the make-up off and that gesture seems to wipe away all that energy. I don’t want to take him home.
To lighten up, [co-star] Aaron Paul told us you play pranks on set; that when he is doing close-ups, you pull down your pants.
First of all, never believe anything that Aaron Paul tells you. I cannot deny or confess that is true. But there are times when levity is very helpful. We work long hours, and it breaks the tension. Also, I like to have a good time. On my set, I don’t allow anyone to bitch – no actors are allowed to complain about the size of their trailer, or, “I have to fly commercial?” Shut up. No-one wants to hear that.
Have you gone so far into understanding this man Walter White that you empathise or even agree with his methods?
I don’t judge him. He is just struggling to stay alive.
What could make you change your entire life, lose your family, turn you into an egomaniac lawbreaker?
We could all potentially ‘break bad’. It’s human nature. You’re either susceptible or in a place of desperate need when these decisions happen. If someone left their wallet with $300 in it, would I take it? No. I would say, “Hey! You forgot your wallet!” But I’m not under pressure. Had I lost my job, had my wife left me, and I had no place to go, now what decision do I make? Subconsciously we know, “What would I do for a million dollars?” We play it as a dinner party game. Let me ask you this: would you let me slug you in the face?
Let me do it, and I’ll give you $10,000 in untraceable cash.
Now we are negotiating. What was first an absolute “no” is now a “yes”. Everybody is susceptible to some kind of temptation.
Will you steal anything from the set as a souvenir?
I’m going to take the pork pie hat, because it’s so emblematic of that character. It’s a talisman. For Walter White to become Heisenberg and do what Heisenberg does, he needed the hat. So I am going to take the glasses and the hat, put them in a case. And that’s it.
Your personal style is very different to Walt’s – who do you like to wear, and why?
I feel good in certain clothes. John Varvatos I feel very comfortable in, and Burberry. I was wearing a Prada tux the other night. I respect fashion. A nice fitting suit of good quality with good fabric – for someone who confesses not to be a clothes person, I can feel the difference. In a tuxedo, you sit differently, you behave differently, it makes your shoulders go back, you want to look good. But fortunately, my wife and daughter are wonderful, so they pick out most of my clothes.
Have you cultivated any indulgent tastes?
I’ve just built a beach house. For me, the older I get, I want less things but more experiences. So my beach house – it is a ‘thing’, obviously, and it was very expensive – but it was created to have wonderful experiences in, of going to the beach with friends and family, having cook-outs and walks on the sand and playing in the water – and that’s why I wanted it. But that’s it. I’m not much of an article kind of guy.
Do you ever forget that methamphetamine is a problem, is bad?
I’m such an ignorant person when it comes to drugs – I have to ask my wife what to take when I have a cold, “Should I take three ibuprofen?” But it’s an unbelievably addictive and frightening drug. As a person, I’ve never done the drug, I never have a desire to do it. My high is my work. Others aren’t so lucky. When you are talking about the scourge of methamphetamine – it destroys lives. But the show is not really about the drug. It’s about this man’s decision and what happens to this house of cards when he decides to do what he does.
How do you think Walt has changed, from season to season?
He is going from Mr. Chips to Scarface. After he makes this decision to cook meth he realizes he needs to learn how to be a criminal. He didn’t have the skill-set. Then we saw he’s capable of being this man and owning it. When he’s first able to sense that someone was intimidated by him, that is a powerful thing, because Walter White, when we first met him, couldn’t intimidate anyone. Then we see him wrestling power from Gus Fring, and then his hubris and his ego coming out. He is making this metamorphosis from good to bad.
Do you like morphing?
This has never been done in the history of television. Never. You look at all the great characters… Magnum, Archie Bunker… they stayed the same; Tony Soprano, everyone in The Shield, in Boardwalk Empire, everybody was already that way when we met them – a dirty cop, a gangster. Even Dexter, creative and weird as that is, was already that guy, we just follow him.
You have lasted a long time in this business, from mainstream TV comedy with Malcolm In The Middle, to Argo, Drive and Little Miss Sunshine. Have all those roles contributed to what you bring to Walt as an actor now?
I hope not. I hope that Walt is distinctive. And when it is time to say goodbye to him, I want to bury him, just like when I was playing Hal for seven years on Malcolm In The Middle. I needed to let him go. I had offers to do a ‘Hal’-like, goofy dad. Why would I do that? I’ve made enough money to last me the rest of my life, so I’m not tempted. I’m not money-motivated. I don’t need it. So it’s about doing challenging work, finding characters that intimidate me, that I don’t know if I can do. Can I sing a song on a stage? That scares me. Okay, I’ll do it. Then it’s, “Argh, I said yes!” I respond to that fear.
You’re a child of actors and producers, was there ever anything else you wanted to do?
I had no safety net. When I made up my mind, “I am going to be an actor,” I was 23 years old. I knew it meant that when I was 57, if I was still sharing an apartment and sleeping on a couch, that was fine, that’s what I’m gonna do. To be an actor you need to totally commit, you can’t just dip your big toe in. I was all in. I had no backup plan and in a way it makes you hungrier and more aggressive to keep your eye on the prize.
What advice would you give your younger self if you could?
I tell young actors: “Divorce yourself from all the exterior stuff; money, fame, sex, cars…” all that stuff that civilians think is what we are after. True artists don’t give a shit about that. Learn early: focus attention on what you can control, fuck everything else.
Are you worried that you can’t ever top this character of Walt?
I have no intention of trying to top it. It is the role of my career. I will never have a better role than Walter White. I will go to my grave knowing I had the role that any actor would be absolutely envious of. This is the pinnacle of my career.