Interview: "Breaking Bad" Star Bryan Cranston On Seeing Red, Going Black And Being A Chameleon

Bryan Cranston On Seeing Red, Going Black And Being A Chameleon

Sam Adams
12 min read
The Colorful Mr. White
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He’s won three consecutive Emmys for his leading role on AMC’s "Breaking Bad." Watching him alternate between the feeble, stomped-upon character of Walter White and a meth kingpin persona known as “Heisenberg,” the dramatic range that brought Bryan Cranston such acclaim is clear. “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan calls him the greatest talent he’s ever worked with—“an actor who comes along every hundred years or so.”

Alibi spoke with Cranston about Albuquerque, getting inside the mind of Walter White and why Michael Jordan should step aside.

You’ve said it hasn’t been easy breaking free of Hal, the role you played in “Malcolm and the Middle.” But despite the differences in tone between that show and "Breaking Bad," aren’t there some striking similarities between Hal and Walt?

They’re men who are desperate in one way or the other. The emotional core of Hal was fear—he was afraid of everything. Afraid of disappointing his wife, afraid of losing his job, afraid of being a bad parent, afraid of many, many things. And that translated to physical things—afraid of heights, afraid of bugs. … So that also gave me the opportunity to play comedy.

With Walter White, it wasn’t so easy to discover. I kept looking and looking and looking, and I finally realized I know why it’s so hard—he’s so callused over. He hasn’t allowed himself to experience a true emotion in so many years, it’s calcified. It’s like a fossil egg that’s now a rock. And so by virtue of what he’s gone through … that rock has softened and exploded and his emotions spewed. They’re all over the place.

Now instead of being able to control his emotions … it’s a rush. His anxiety and fear and paranoia and anger and elation and pride and all those things are just gushing out, in haphazard ways and sloppily. It affects his thinking process. But it’s a great sociological experiment that we’re in, being able to transform this man who is good and watch the change, to have him become what would be society’s estimate of “bad.”

Will we see him seizing more of his own personal power? When he’s done it before, it’s been commanding.

Oh yeah. Oh, absolutely. Once you get a taste of that, especially relatable to that sense of rising above the oppression, in some cases self-oppression—that pilot was just so brilliant. …

It set the table for everything that the series was going to show you. … That moment in the classroom, where he gets lost in the joy of chemistry, and he’s trying to share his joy with the class. He looks out and he sees this sea of apathetic faces of his students. And he just gets so depressed that he wonders, Have I wasted my time? What am I doing with my life? No one cares. No one gives a shit about science. … The next thing, he’s at the car wash because he needs extra money to pay for his son’s physical therapy, and [he’s] chided and ridiculed by his students. This man is just down at the bottom. And then he finds out he’s got terminal lung cancer.

All those things were justifications. Not singularly, but the amalgam of those issues created that decision to be selfish really for the first time in his life; be bold for the first time in his life, do something out of the ordinary for the first time in his life. Make money for his family, set it aside and then die. If you’re gonna have any kind of legacy, at least have your children think, We weren’t left in poverty. … That’s how a man wants to be remembered, that he was important on some level.

What sources have you drawn from to make the transformation from Walt’s milquetoast personality to his menacingly criminal persona?

There’s certain tools in an actor’s toolbox that you use and one is personal experience. Another is imagination. … You have a situation where here’s a character who has terminal illness, and I don’t have that experience. And here’s a character who is deeply involved in very adroit-end chemistry. OK, well I don’t have that experience either, so let me go find that. So you find out what the character needs, and you go in it. …

I trailed around the head of the chemistry department at USC for a couple days—very helpful. And I was able to gather enough information—at least a jumping-off point—to be able to understand that world now as an adult, because I was a high school student when last I took chemistry. And I have a much, much greater appreciation for it now than I ever gave it back then. …

How a character goes dark and is capable of doing some heinous things—imagination. You start imagining what you are able to do, and if there was a time in my life where—I don’t know if you’re familiar with the term “seeing red,” where you flip. You’ve heard of the term “temporary insanity”?


That’s a defense plea, and quite frankly, it’s real. Where at the moment you get so emotionally distraught—so angry or so hurt or so scared—that you lash out, that you do something that you wouldn’t do under normal circumstances. So it was a temporary moment of insanity, because you did things that were not sane, right?

So I did have a moment of that, actually a couple moments, [
Laughs. ] where you go momentarily crazy. And you realize that at that moment, you are as dangerous as anyone could be. And playing Walter White, you tap back into that, and you go, What are the things that could make you dangerous? And Vince Gilligan and his staff carefully craft those elements that would make him momentarily crazy. …

A lot of people asked me, Where do you think he turned? He broke bad right at the beginning when he became someone that he’s not. I really, honestly believe that given the right set of circumstances, anyone—even the little, tiny, sweet lady— could become unbelievably dangerous. With that as armament, then you realize that it could happen to anyone—anyone could be dangerous.

But it seems like Walt started with a relatively pure intention—to provide for his family. Now that his cancer’s in remission and he’s made the money he needs, where do his motivations really lie?

Well, what happened to Walter White is an honest depiction in our guestimate of a man. We didn’t actually do case studies and say, OK, let’s give this guy cancer and see what he does. We’re imagining what would be a real response, an honest response. What I love about it is that we’re not trying to keep Walt likable—we’re trying to keep him honest.

So that being said, what you’re seeing is Walt being seduced by the darker sides of a human experience, an avarice nature. … Here’s a man who never had two nickels for a beer, and now he’s got a pocketful of money. That’s seduction. That’s an aphrodisiac to a man. If you’re truly honest—your chest goes out a little bit. You walk with a little confidence. …

What I’ve realized is that human beings are capable of living that dichotomous sort of life where you can believe a person going out and killing someone else for being wronged in business or whatever and then having that same person come home and coddle and nurture his young daughter with love and tenderness. We are capable of living that kind of life.

You bought a place in Albuquerque. What do you like most about living and working here?

We came to Albuquerque out of financial need, because of the film incentive program. That’s the only reason we went to Albuquerque. It was written to take place in a rural area of Southern California. Once we realized that the incentives were necessary in order to make this show, then we embraced it. We said, Then, well, let’s go to Albuquerque, and let’s take this.

And what we found is many-fold. First of all, it’s become an important character to our show. The topography. Really the blue skies, and the billowy clouds, and the red mountains, and the Sandias, the valleys, the vastness of the desert, the culture of the people—the mix of cultures, which is so wonderfully diverse, I love it. The Hispanic culture, the American Indian culture, the Anglo culture—just mixing in and taking what you can, take the best of all of that. And food.

What are your favorite restaurants?

I love El Pinto. It’s good food and a good atmosphere and a good way to show any guests that come into town authentic New Mexican cuisine.

Probably my favorite area is where I live, in Nob Hill. … It reminds me of some very hip places in California where you can walk. I leave my place and I walk into Nob Hill and I go to restaurants, whether it’s Zinc, or Scalo, or Nob Hill Bar & Grill, Shogun Sushi—I go to them all. And Flying Star. Love Flying Star. I’ll go there with my coffee and my computer and to get my oatmeal for the morning. It’s always consistent.

How would you describe you relationship with co-star Aaron Paul, who plays Jesse Pinkman?

My first impulse is to say he’s like my baby brother, but I’m clearly old enough to be his father—my inability to realize my real age—but I love that kid. He’s a good man. When you work with your co-stars on any given project, it’s like you’re in-laws. It’s not imperative that you like them, but it just makes things easier.

Beyond that, he’s a hell of a good actor. And beyond that is that he’s a willing actor. I remember several times I would come to him and say, Look, I’m directing this scene, and I’d like to go over it with you after work. [And he’d say] "Yeah, man, sure, absolutely." Each day we’d stay for a couple hours after our 13-hour day and work on a scene that we’re shooting the next day. …

The best thing I could say about him is that he’s still tickled, and he’s so appreciative, and he’s so humbled. … There’s at least one time through the year that we look at each other and go, Can you believe that we’re allowed to do this? This is our job? … Can you believe that we get paid, that this is what we do for a living? It’s unreal. And we’re just like two schoolgirls.

Vince Gilligan says it took people a long time to recognize the quality of your work because you’re such a chameleon. Do you think people had trouble recognizing you from one role to the next?

I am fortunate because I do have an everyman look; I have a no-man’s look. Now I’m getting much more recognized, but I was—for a long
while there—able to go from one thing to another to another and be unknown. Well, for an actor that’s really it. If you wanted to be a personality and a star, that’s not so good. But that’s just who I am. That’s how I look and what God gave me, and that’s it. [It’s] perfect for an actor, because then you’re not typecast. You can go into other things and look different and be different. …

Like the idea of shaving my head. A lot of people ask, What’s it like? Is it traumatic when you have to shave your head? … And I guess it’s more traumatic if I thought I was really bald, to be honest—maybe I would have that feeling. But I’m not, so shaving my head means nothing to me. If it’s right for the character, that’s all I care about. And so I have no drama in any way when it’s time to shave my head. And that same thing in losing weight or gaining weight or being naked. There’s several scenes … where the storyline dictates that you went temporarily crazy and there you are, standing in a grocery store naked. All right, well, let’s do it.

Co-star Anna Gunn said that not only do you not mind doing those scenes, but she thinks you appreciate them more than anyone on the cast.

Laughs. ] Well, the truth is that, sure. It’s not that I’m like, Oh yeah . I’m not a nudist. I think clothes are a good thing. I think there are very, very few people in this world that you really want to see without clothes. Everyone else, please, keep ’em on. And I’m no different.

What I think happens is that we have defense mechanisms, right? So I think that when I get embarrassed about anything, I go to comedy. That helps me to overcome embarrassment. So instead of just shyly or kind of embarrassingly taking off my robe—and I’m naked and I have to do a scene—I’ll try to jump out of the cake, so to speak. So I think the comedy in those conditions, it’s a defense mechanism. It’s just a way to make myself feel more comfortable.

Fruit of the Loom or Hanes?

Laughs. ] Well, in real life, what makes you think I wear anything?

I guess I’ve never thought about that.

You know what? I’m waiting for the contract. I’m waiting for the phone call from Fruit of the Loom or Hanes or whomever to go, Hey, there’s a market out there for tighty-whities—let’s have you be the spokesperson. So I don’t want to step in one or the other, but I think it’s time that Michael Jordan step aside, don’t you think?
The Colorful Mr. White

Sony Pictures Television / Ben Leuner

The Colorful Mr. White

Sony Pictures Television / Ursula Coyote

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