Interview: Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston

by Fiona Rae / 11 April, 2012
In season three, screening on Four, Walter White's descent continues, and it's the role of his life says Cranston.

In a world of television heroes, gods and monsters, Breaking Bad stands apart. It describes, in blackly humorous detail, the destruction of a man’s character. Under the glaring Albuquerque sun, Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who has become a meth cook, is turning into Mr Black. But, as Cranston explains, as we head into season three, Walter was already broken.

At the end of season two, Walter allowed Jesse’s girlfriend to die – was that a significant moment for the character? Thinking back on the seasons now I’ve often been asked what was his turning point – where did he break bad? And when I really think about it, to me it was the first episode. Whenever a person changes who they are, makes a decision to lower themselves morally, in order to have financial gain, albeit as altruistic as his original intentions, that’s when you’ve sold your soul. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was in for a very bumpy ride for the rest of his life.

You directed the first episode of season three – why did you want to direct it, and what do you remember about doing it? I did direct the first episode of season three and season two, and I will do one more before all is said and done of Breaking Bad. Basically, I’ve always had an interest in directing and I’ve been acting for 33 years now, so I think if you yourself start to involuntarily think about where you would place the camera and how you would direct an actor and where you would pick things up and cut things and how you would edit, then it’s innately speaking to you. I’ve done an independent film and several episodes of Malcolm in the Middle and other television shows and I just did an episode of Modern Family that will air here in the United States at the end of the week.

Walter tries to get back with Skyler in this season, but is he too morally compromised and can never go back? You know, the “never say never” line comes to mind, because you never know what could really happen. Also, there’s the possibility that this man, who prior to his initiation into criminal behaviour, never got a parking ticket before in his life, never broke the law, and all of a sudden through the right set of circumstances, can take on a different persona and become someone else, then why couldn’t Skyler, why couldn’t Walter jnr? I think that’s what our show tells is that given the right set of circumstances that anyone could become dangerous and be susceptible to behaviour changes.

You seem to be signaling that Skyler may be having a moral change herself? It’s possible. I think that’s the wonderful thing about his exploration. It’s parlour games. We’ve all sat around a dinner table and asked the question, what would you be willing to do for a million dollars? And as long as it stays in the hypothetical, that person can stay on the high road – oh, I would donate it to charity, I wouldn’t commit a crime. But if it’s actually presented, not hypothetical, that it’s there for the taking, do you do it? And I’ve always said that that is the measure of character. That is how character is established in a person, it’s the decisions that are made under pressure creates character. And Walter White, we thought his character was above board, but we realise it’s not, and maybe it’s not fair for us to think that anyone’s would be.

Given that, is it quite tricky to keep him likeable? The interesting thing is that it’s been historically accurate to say that television characters need to stay sympathetic with audiences, it seems logical, but this show attempts to do something that has never been done in the history of television – and that is, change. If you look back on television characters, they’ve all stayed the same; they’ve gone through things, but they are basically the same person we first saw to when the series ended and went off the air. This is completely different, he’s going through a metamorphosis and we’re welcoming that. The idea to maintain a sense of likeability is not our concern. We’re trying to take the courageous step into allowing the audience to change their mind on how they feel about this guy. When I first heard that from Vince Gilligan, my mouth was agape, I couldn’t believe it, and I was thrilled and excited at the prospect of it and I went after the character, lobbied very hard for the job.

And have you talked to Vince since about why he chose you? I worked with Vince Gilligan 10 years earlier on an episode of The X-Files, and in that episode that he wrote a character had some of the similarities that Walter White has and he remembered me from that episode and wanted to talk to me about possibly playing Walter White and when I went in, it was supposed to be for only 20 minutes, it ended up being and hour and a half, and he and I were just clicking, just hitting all the same cylinders, we were in line with our thinking, and I pitched to him on how Walter looked, how he behaved, and why he behaved the way he did and apparently I was saying the right things, and he became my champion to get that role.

Do you have much input into the way he looks, the way he’s transforming – will he spend less time in his underwear this season? Yeah. He’s changing and getting in and out of physical danger and what we’ll see in the coming seasons is that he’s also getting into emotional danger, exposing his ego and his hubris. We thought that was fair to explore those avenues – the total descent of a man as opposed to just physical danger, and along with that comes adjustments to looks and demeanour and that sort of thing. I was going to say evolving, but it’s really devolving to where it’s going to go in the end. At present, we’ve got 16 more episodes to shoot until it’s all done. The one good thing is that we know that it’s the end. That total will be 62 episodes that will be necessary to tell the story and I’m very happy about that, that Vince has an end date, and he and his writing staff can write to that end. And it will be fitting. But to be honest, I don’t know how it’s going to end; I don’t know, I don’t ask. I read the script one week before we start shooting it – that gives me enough time to question certain things, motivations, clarify certain points, raise concerns, things like that. Usually there’s none. It’s been one big trust exercise from an actor’s point of view, I fall back and Vince Gilligan catches me.

Why does Walter protect Jesse so much – it would be easy for Walter to let Jesse go wouldn’t it? I think Jesse slowly got under Walt’s skin and he saw the true person that Jesse could be, even though outwardly he’s a high school dropout, he’s a drug addict, he’s a drug seller, he’s always looking for the short cut in life, he disdains education and experience, so there’s really nothing that Walter White and Jesse Pinkman have in common, except this one element that is currently in their lives. And Walter looks at him as a necessary inconvenience. Unbeknownst to Walter on a conscious level, is that Jesse has endeared himself to Walt and he almost looks at him like a long-lost nephew. He‘s really a family member now, and you really can’t pick and choose and you can’t discard them, they are who they are, and as you saw in the end of season two where Jane’s father said “family is family and you just have to be there for them”, and that’s why Walter White went back to try to help Jesse one last time.

It’s an incredible role, is it fair to say that it’s been a game-changer for you both professionally and personally? It’s the role of my life. Whenever my demise will be, hopefully many, many years from now, I anticipate it being the first line in the obituary. I’d be very proud of that.

The show has absolutely pitch black humour – do you ponder what goes through Vince Gilligan’s mind, that he puts severed heads on tortoises and the like? I try not to think about what goes through Vince Gilligan’s mind, because it would give me nightmares. He’s a very unassuming man, if you were to meet him on the street, you’d be surprised because he’s not aggressive, he’s not intimidating looking by any means, he’s soft and kind, what we could call a Southern gentleman here in the United States. And yet, this gives me reason to say what I said earlier about you never know: any person is capable of very dangerous things given the right circumstances.

There’s a New Mexico Gothic feel to the series – does the location feed into the show? I would say that New Mexico might have more in relationship to the Australian Outback than it would to a contemporary urban environment. You have the Aboriginal history and we have Native American and Hispanic history and the blend of those two plus what the Caucasians have brought and it blends into this melting pot, whether it assimilates smoothly or not. But it is unique to our story and helps to support it and we’re very fortunate that the New Mexico topography and the people and the culture has actually created another character, another dimension to our show which has enriched the storytelling.

BREAKING BAD, Four, Thursday, 10.30pm.
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