Bryan Cranston is scaring me. We are discussing his new film, The Infiltrator, wherein he plays Robert Mazur, a U.S. Customs special agent tasked with penetrating Pablo Escobar’s vast drug money-laundering empire by posing as tough-guy mob-type “Bob Musella.” As he moves higher and higher up the cartel food chain, eventually earning the trust of Escobar cash-cleaner Roberto Alcaino (Benjamin Bratt, slick), the pressure mounts, and any slip-up could be his last. I ask Cranston if he’s ever felt the walls closing in on him off-screen; a narrow escape.
“I… did,” he replies, hesitation singeing his voice. “I felt I was capable of killing someone—that idea of being backed in to a corner, intimidated, and as a form of self-preservation you lash out. I had an experience where I could lash out and I saw so clearly how, through that fear and passion and utter temporary insanity, that I could have killed someone. I could see it. Anyone who’s ever gone through that knows that ‘temporary insanity’ is not a bullshit plea. It can be abused for sure, and it often is, but it is real, and there are those moments where you temporarily go insane.”
The Emmy-winning Breaking Bad star has told snippets of this story before, of a drug-cursed girlfriend he had shortly after his first marriage in the early ’80s who stalked him, threatened to castrate and kill him, and one dark night showed up to his Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan causing a commotion—to the point where he envisioned opening the door, taking her by the hair, and bashing her head into his exposed brick wall until it was covered in brain matter.
For fans of his AMC series, the whole ordeal seems strikingly similar to that which befell Jesse’s junkie girlfriend Jane, who Cranston’s Walter watches overdose and choke to death on her own vomit, failing to intervene.
“I had a girlfriend that was very much addicted to drugs—unbeknownst to me. I wasn’t aware enough, or she was incredibly stealthy in taking the drugs, that I never saw her taking the drugs in the year that I was with her, so it was confusing to me how her behavior was changing and aggression was increasing. I couldn’t understand it,” he continues.
“It was confirmed when she OD’d and I took her to the hospital emergency room and the doctor came out and said, ‘Are you the boyfriend? We’re pumping her stomach, she OD’d. I need to know exactly what she took.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know,’ and he got very angry with me because he thought I was lying. He said, ‘What did she take? Do you want to save your girlfriend’s life?!’ I felt foolish and impotent to not be able to be of any good to myself, to her, to the situation. It was a horrible condition to be in—a great lesson to learn—and it took its toll. The end result was having a moment of out-of-body clairvoyance that I could kill her. I saw myself able to kill another human being, which I had never felt before, and it scared me. It really scared me to my core.”
The story is one of many that will be included in A Life in Parts, Cranston’s memoir that’s due out in October. He describes it as “an autobiographical memoir of short stories I’ve told of things over the years that have happened during my life,” and says of the almost-murder story in particular, it was “cathartic” to be able to write it all down on paper. “I didn’t want it in my being,” he says somberly, “and wanted to release it.”
In The Infiltrator, Cranston delivers a stunning performance-within-a-performance. It’s one of the best undercover-agent turns ever, alongside Johnny Depp’s work in Donnie Brasco and Tony Leung’s in Infernal Affairs. Cranston prepared for the role by grilling the real-life Mazur (yes, this actually happened), and channeling his own experience exploring the split personality of Walt/Heisenberg.
“In doing my research, I got to know what doing his job is, which is to take on another character and present that character—in this case, it was ‘Bob Musella,’ this tough-guy,” he recalls. “So can I then just shed him and go back to being Bob Mazur, which is very familiar to Bryan Cranston shedding Walter White and going back to Bryan Cranston? I’m not unaccustomed to taking on and taking off characters.”
But has Cranston really taken off Walter? “It’s impossible to completely disconnect from Walter. He is inexorably tied to me, and I to him,” he confesses. “That’s the way I like it and I have no choice in the matter, either. We are who we are.”
Breaking Bad has gone down in history as one of the greatest television shows ever, on the Mount Rushmore of TV dramas alongside The Sopranos, The Wire, and Mad Men (don’t worry Game of Thrones, you’ll get there too), and ending in a crescendo of chaos that remains unmatched. And Cranston, of course, has a long history with its genius creator, Vince Gilligan. He guest-starred as a racist asshole driven mad by ELF waves in the 1998 X-Files episode “Drive,” penned by Gilligan.
When asked if he and Gilligan have discussed reuniting on a project together, he pauses. “No we haven’t, but it doesn’t mean we wouldn’t,” offers Cranston. “We needed separation because after eight years—we were developing together, and then worked together for six years—we needed to go our separate ways. Vince jumped into Better Call Saul, which I’m a fan of and it’s really fantastic, but to be able to grow as a creative person, I think you need separation. That being said, oh man, I would be very eager and desiring of getting together with him again, and doing something that we both could really dive into at some point. I don’t know when that would be, or where, but I’m excited for that.”
The Oscar nominee is currently filming the blockbuster Power Rangers, where he’ll star as the Rangers’ Oz-like mentor, Zordon. It’s a fascinating turn of events for Cranston, who provided numerous voices for the first season of the TV series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers all the way back in 1993. And he was so beloved on set that the character of the Blue Ranger, Billy Cranston, is named after Cranston.
“At the time, and this was 25 years ago, I did a tremendous amount of voiceover work for Saban—in particular doing the dubbing from Japanese to English—and enjoyed it a lot, and was very grateful for having a job and giving me experience behind the microphone,” he remembers. “Creating a scene and a character with just your voice was very challenging. Little did I know, and I didn’t realize this until years later, when the Japanese material came over they didn’t have Americanized names for their characters, so they were charged with creating them. It was like, ‘Oh, well Bryan Cranston’s here, but we can’t call him Bryan Cranston so why don’t we call him Billy Cranston?’ So they just did it as a lark, never thinking that anything would develop out of that years later.”
He laughs. “But interestingly enough, it did.”
In addition to voicing Power Rangers and fantasizing about killing a former girlfriend, another truly bizarre occurrence in the life of Bryan Cranston is the time he ran into Charles Manson, the serial-murderer and leader of the demented Manson Family.
As the story goes, a 12-year-old Cranston, who grew up in the Canoga Park section of Los Angeles, was riding horses at Spahn Ranch—a former film set for Hollywood Westerns owned by George Spahn. The octogenarian allowed the Manson Family to live there rent-free in exchange for doing various chores, including helping run his horse-rental business.
“I was very young but old enough to be on my own,” remembers Cranston. “Me and my female cousin, who is a year-and-a-half older than I am, we were dropped off to go horseback riding while my mom and uncle went off and did something else. So we were checking out our horses at Spahn Ranch, which is very close to where I was raised. We noticed that the people around there were all strange in their own kind of interesting way. There was an old guy [Spahn] checking us in and some guy in his twenties came in yelling, ‘Charlie’s on the hill! Charlie’s on the hill!’ Everybody looked around and there was this frantic nervous energy going on, and they all jumped on horses and away they went. We asked the old guy what was going on, and he said, ‘Oh, it’s nothing. It’s happened before.’ We thought, well, Charlie must be someone important.
“So we get our horses and go along the trail, and about, oh, 20 minutes after we left the barn area where the horses were gathered, we see this trail of horses coming back,” he goes on. “There were about eight or so people, and there was a man in the middle on a horse but he wasn’t holding his own reins—there was someone on the horse in front holding the reins—and Charlie, I guessed, was this comatose, bearded, long-haired guy with big eyes riding as if he’s just stuck to the back of a horse. Totally zoned out. You couldn’t take your eyes off him. My cousin turned back to me and said, ‘Wow, that guy’s weird.’ When we passed him and their whole group, she turned around again and said, ‘That must be Charlie,’ and I said, ‘Yeah… and Charlie’s freaky!’ We didn’t think anything of it.
“It wasn’t until a year later that the murders happened, and then it was six months or so after that when he was arrested. I saw his face on the news and my jaw dropped. My cousin called me first and said, ‘Can you believe this?’ The picture of Charlie Manson was the guy on the back of this horse. And we thought for a second, oh my god, what if? It was very freaky, to say the least. Oh, man…”
Eventually our talk steers back to The Infiltrator, which reunites Cranston with his Lincoln Lawyer director Brad Furman. There’s one particular scene in the film that is Cranston’s shining moment—a master-class in tension where his Bob Musella is forced to assault a restaurant waiter (lest he blow his cover) by shoving his face into a birthday cake.
For Cranston, the scene gave him a sense of utter satisfaction. “It’s so much more fun than you think you should have. It was a joy to be able to smash that face,” he says, with a sinister chuckle. “It just felt right.”