It is, simply put, one of the most iconic characters in the history of television, starring in one of the best seasons of television in history. The second half of the fifth and final season of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad was a crescendo of insanity that saw our once-beloved antihero, Walter White, venture deeper and deeper into the abyss. And it was Bryan Cranston, the journeyman actor, who helped bring that beleaguered high school chemistry teacher/cancer patient turned meth cook to thrilling, excruciating life—that is, ’til Badfinger’s “Baby Blue” began playing.
Cranston’s been nominated for his sixth straight Best Actor Emmy for Breaking Bad—winning three. He also recently took home the Tony Award for his scenery-chewing portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way.
The Daily Beast spoke with Cranston about life after Walter White, the amazing close to Breaking Bad, and his future roles.
Has it been tough to shake Walter White? Do you still see him bubble to the surface every once in a while in your daily life?
There’s no way to shake him completely, nor do I want to—he’s inexorably tied to me, and I to him. But I’m also not delusional. It is a character, and that character is no longer needed in my occupation, so you move on. The experience with Breaking Bad created a tremendous amount of opportunity, and the first of which was doing a play. I wanted to get away from TV for a while, so I jumped when the Lyndon B. Johnson play All the Way became available.
You did hint that Walter White might not be dead…
I think it was on the Ashley Banfield show on CNN, and she brought up the speculation. I was just toying with her and said, “I don’t know!” which created a whole brushfire of rumor. I don’t think that we’re going to see any kind of rebirth of that show, or that character.
But we could see him pop up in the Breaking Bad prequel/spin-off Better Call Saul.
I don’t know in what context it would work in, because we’re in different phases. The characters didn’t meet until the second season of Breaking Bad, when Walter needed to meet him. I suppose they could have a serendipitous brush of each other down the street or in the market, but I don’t know what good that’ll do—it’s just a little cookie. I’m looking forward to going down there next year and directing an episode, though. It’s family. They’ve got the same crew, and it’s exciting to think that we can rekindle that flame; that it’s still alive.
It was recently announced that All the Way will be developed into an HBO film, executive-produced by Steven Spielberg. The play seems so relevant today, because many of the things LBJ fought for—civil rights, immigration reform, education reform, welfare—are things that Republicans are fighting against these days.
Right. And Medicare, too. He was on the vanguard of domestic policy and created a tremendous amount of legislation that we enjoy today. That was the point of the play—to look back and provide an accurate display of history, and revisit the legacy of Lyndon Johnson. His legacy was one of failure because of the Vietnam War, so it’s historically valuable and entertaining to be able to tell this story.
LBJ was also strong on gun control, signing the Gun Control Act of ’68, and gun control really seems to be a big problem these days with all the mass shootings.
Well, I think so, too. It’s going to be a tough battle, and I’m not sure how it’s going to pan out. But I have a feeling that we’re going to have a woman for the next president.
You’re going to be on the Hillary train?
Oh, yeah. I’ll be on the ticket, are you kidding? She’s going to pick me for her vice president. How about this: Hillary and Heisenberg. I’ll wear the hat, and do all the dirty work. [Laughs]
I also heard you’re going to be playing Dalton Trumbo in a biopic?
Yes. We’re going to start shooting in September, and I’m very excited about that. I’ve worked with both John Goodman and Helen Mirren before, and they’re phenomenal actors. Diane Lane is in it playing my wife, Elle Fanning plays my daughter, and Michael Stuhlbarg will play Edward G. Robinson. It’s a wonderful cast that Jay Roach, our director, is gathering. It’s a theatrical film, and has a sensibility of a Capote—a very strong character, but it’s plot-driven.
Backtracking a bit, but the first time I saw you was as Tim Whatley on Seinfeld, who converted to Judaism for the jokes. So I’ve gotta ask: What’s your policy on regifting?
Oh, I do it all the time! Oh, yeah. My philosophy is like Tim’s: If you get something and it’s not for you, give it to someone else. I regift wine all the time, where you’re given an abundance of it and then you go to a house party and bring that bottle of wine. But nothing like The Label Baby Junior! That was classic.
I was just speaking with Michel Gondry about Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine, and he told me that it’s far easier to bring a comedic actor down for dramatic roles than it is to bring a very serious actor up for comedy. Why do you feel comedic actors make such good dramatic ones?
Comedy’s harder, so if you can do that, there’s a good chance you can do drama by dialing it down. But if you’ve never reached as far as to being able to do good comedy, the chances are you’re not likely to be able to pull it off at a given point. On the set, where everything counts, it’s much harder to ask someone, “Is there a way you can be funny here? Can you deliver that line as a joke?” If you don’t have it then you don’t have it.
Whenever I was babysitting my little sister growing up, she’d have Malcolm in the Middle on. What did you think of that hilarious Internet theory that Breaking Bad was an elaborate prequel to Malcolm in the Middle?
[Laughs] That Malcolm is Walter White in the witness protection program? That’s cute! A lot of fertile minds out there.
How were you first cast on Breaking Bad? Did Vince Gilligan remember you from that X-Files episode you were on where you played the crazed bigot?
That’s exactly where he remembered me from—almost 10 years later. He thought that the character of Walter White had to have similar characteristics as that character, Crump, had in the backseat of that car: a despicable man who’s not a very enlightened person, closed-off, and bigoted, and yet you still had sympathy for him. He felt like the audience would have to maintain sympathy for Walter White as he was going about his very unsympathetic actions. He was my champion to get this role. Without Vince Gilligan, we wouldn’t be talking right now.
What do you think was the moment where Walter permanently stepped over to the dark side? For me, it was when he kidnapped Holly in “Ozymandias.”
I’m sort of the wrong guy to ask that because when you play a character, you don’t want to judge the character. We have moments of self-reflection in our real lives where you think, “Ah, why did I do that?” and feel contrite and try to mend fences. But Walter didn’t really have any time for that; the luxury of self-reflection wasn’t afforded to him because of the intense time-crunch and the threat of danger at any given point.
In “Ozymandias,” he’s so crushed and hurt by the rejection of his family—by his wife thinking he’s a monster and his son holding the knife out at him—that he impulsively grabbed the one person of his family who did not judge him that way. I think the audience felt that baby was not going to be in harm’s way—although as I say that, I’m remembering that he did slam Skyler’s car as he’s trying to get away—but I think they understood why. And Walt, in the same episode, understood, “This baby doesn’t belong with me. As much as it hurts to give it up, it doesn’t belong with me.”
We were very fortunate to have this baby and the guardian of the baby was her grandmother, and she called her mother “mama” and her grandmother “ma-mama,” so when we were shooting that scene in the bathroom of a service station and I’m changing her diaper, I stood her up and the little girl was getting a little fussy, and she was calling out, “Mama! Ma-mama!” For the audience, it was just a young girl calling for her mama, but for Walter, it was perfect. We thought, “That’s gold! That’s gold, Jerry, gold!!”
“Ozymandias” is, in my opinion, up there with the best Breaking Bad episodes. “Blood Money,” which you directed, is up there, too. It really set the tone for the second half of Season 5, ending with that great “tread lightly” encounter between Hank and Walt. Do you have favorites?
I haven’t thought of any one. I too liked the episode I directed because of what Vince Gilligan decided to do with it. In the last episode of the first eight, which I call the “fifth season,” is where Hank discovers who Walter White really is. I thought, “OK, he’s going to let this linger for a while and let the tension build.” Nope. The very first episode back—BOOM!—we’re right into it, and it surprised even me. Vince had to keep assessing where the story was going, and he didn’t want to become derivative of himself as far as treading the same storyline or slow things down, so he realized we’d come to a head, and that 16 episodes was it. Initially, he thought he could only do one 13-episode final season, but they asked him if they could do more than that, and once he got to the writer’s room, he realized there was a lot of story still left.
With the finale, were there alternate endings to Breaking Bad that were thrown around?
The impression is that we had some say in that, but during the entire run of the series, I never asked Vince Gilligan where it was going. I didn’t even know from episode to episode. I’d read the scripts five or six days before we started shooting, so before then, I had no idea what any episode was about. As far as the ending, Aaron Paul and I read the ending about four days before we started shooting it, and we didn’t know anything, and we read it together, and it was a great experience. It’s all Vince.
When it comes to portraying a dark character, and Walter in particular, do you have a mental reserve of darkness—a sinister side—that you mine?
There’s darkness within everyone—unless you’re this enlightened being who’s able to rid themselves of fear and anger. But the art that those people create isn’t going to be that interesting. The only thing that makes storytelling work is conflict, so troubled minds, or people with experiences that were exciting, troubled, or problematic—split families, abuse, drugs, alcoholism, or whatnot—those unfortunate experiences are also the fodder for great material. It’s like a boxer. You never see a boxer come out of a well-to-do family because they have nothing to fight for. They were fighting to break free, and there are very few writers who have had luxurious, upper-class upbringings where their parents are still together and have a great relationship, because if you put that onscreen, nobody’s going to watch. Nobody cares to see someone succeed at every turn. People want to see people fail, and bring themselves back up.
I’ve read that you based Walter in part on your father, with whom you’ve had a pretty strained relationship.
Mostly, it was physical. When I first started to think about Walter, I just thought the weight of the world rested on his shoulders; the burden of being alive and just getting through the day. You’d put one foot in front of the other, his posture was not very good, he was a little overweight so he had a belly and love handles, and pale skin because he stayed out of the sun. He’s just a depressed, colorless kind of guy. So, I thought about my father who’s 30 years older than me. He just turned 90, so it’s natural for a man of his age to have a body that’s breaking down, to an extent. But yes, we’ve had a challenging life together. There was a time when I didn’t see him for 10 years—very formative years—where he’d very self-admittedly say he had a midlife crisis of significant proportion, and we were estranged from each other. Years go by, we reacquaint, and slowly but surely, our relationship changed. We’re now adults as opposed to a true father-son, and it’s an interesting thing. It’s created a lot of good material for me, and I think about it in those terms. Now, if anything in my life happens that’s unfortunate, there’s a spark in my brain that thinks, “Yeah, that sucks, but it’s going to make a good story.”
Have you ever tried meth, maybe out of curiosity because it plays such a huge role in the show?
No, I’ve never tried it. I never want to try it. I missed a lot of the drug world, and I was very fortunate that at 16 years old, I joined a Police Explorer Group—which was kind of a branch of the Boy Scouts—in the Los Angeles Police Department, and the only reason I joined was because my older brother was in it, and he got to travel with them to Hawaii and Japan. I thought, “I’m a poor kid from the San Fernando Valley, so the only way I’m going to be able to travel is by joining this group.” You had to go to the LAPD Academy for eight Saturdays in a row and study in March and do physical training and the whole deal, and I graduated first in my class out of 111 16-year-olds. I thought, “OK, this is what I’m supposed to do—be a policeman.” By virtue of all that, it kept me out of the drug scene, so I wasn’t in the “let’s get high” scene. The first year at junior college I took elective classes—acting and stagecraft—and lo and behold, I discovered that the girls in theater/arts are a lot prettier than those in police science. That’s all it took.