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Bryan Cranston and Tom Hanks have been friends and collaborators since the late ‘90s, but their latest get-together meant a whole lot more given their March bouts with COVID-19. Knowing how fortunate they were to be in each other’s company again, the two actors swapped stories and compared notes, as Hanks even advised Cranston on where to donate his plasma, an effort that might help others fight off the disease. What’s alarming is that Cranston and his wife, Robin Dearden, had markedly different experiences than Hanks and his wife, Rita Wilson.
“[My symptoms], like my wife’s, were very mild. So lucky. You’re just exhausted. It just drains you of all the energy, and then, we lost our sense of taste and smell for three months. It has since come back, but it’s not come back full,” Cranston tells The Hollywood Reporter. “[Tom] and Rita were far more affected by it physically than Robin and I were… So we had dinner a couple of times, and just talked about it, realizing what an extraordinary experience that this is.”
Cranston recently returned to the screen in Disney+’s The One and Only Ivan, which is an adaptation of the children’s novel by K.A. Applegate. Cranston plays Mack, a struggling ringmaster of a mall-based circus that features a gorilla named Ivan (Sam Rockwell) and an elephant named Stella (Angelina Jolie). For Cranston, the family film was a nice change of pace compared to his recent dramatic turn as Howard Beale in the stage adaptation of Network. But given that Ivan is a Disney film that includes a young viewership, Cranston wanted to avoid a very tired joke.
“In the original script, the young elephant, Ruby, swings its trunk into my crotch and I double over. That never really appealed to me; we’ve seen it,” Cranston explains. “So I suggested this idea that not only saved that character and its intentions, but also deepened my character. And so, it all seemed to track and fit within the milieu of Disney, and the young viewers that will be watching this. I didn’t want to subject them to a crotch hit. That’s a cheap joke; I didn’t like it.”
Cranston is still buzzing from his appearance in Vince Gilligan’s El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which concluded the story of Walter White’s protégé, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). Cranston, as Walt, appeared in a Breaking Bad season two-era flashback that was shortly before the character reached the point of no return via an introduction to meth kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and a fateful encounter with Jane Margolis (Krysten Ritter). While an appearance on the final season of the Breaking Bad prequel/sequel, Better Call Saul, is expected by most fans, Cranston is wholly content if El Camino is the end of his charmed run as Walter White.
“I was content with the end of Breaking Bad. I thought it was the perfect ending. I know I’m biased, but I don’t recall seeing the ending of a show that was so well-constructed, satisfying and legitimate. Everything just seemed to fall into place so extraordinarily well,” Cranston shares. “They say ‘less is more’ and in many ways, that’s so true. You want to leave an audience wanting more, as we know. That old adage is very true. Don’t give them more than they want. If they start looking at their watch, you’re done. You lost ‘em. We want them to go, ‘Holy shit, it’s over? That was an hour? It felt like 20 minutes!’ That’s what you want, and they crave more because it was so well-crafted.”
In a wide-ranging conversation with THR, Cranston also reflects on the past, present and future of Walter White, his friendship with M. Night Shyamalan and the baseball movie he hopes to develop.
First off, in light of what you announced recently, how are you feeling?
I’m feeling great. Yeah, my wife (Robin Dearden) and I got [COVID-19] very early on. About five days after we had to shut down my production in New Orleans, a limited series for Showtime [Your Honor], I had symptoms. But mine, like my wife’s, were very mild. So lucky. Just a slight chest cough — dry, not much. And about three days of pre-flu achiness. You know when you feel something coming on, but it’s not yet on? It was like three days of that, and then that left. Achiness is gone. And then, I was just left with a week of, “I could take a nap.” Every two hours, like, “Ah, I gotta take another nap.” You’re just exhausted. It just drains you of all the energy, and then, we lost our sense of taste and smell for three months. It has since come back, but it’s not come back full.
Yeah, I don’t know if it ever will. I always test it. You know how you can smell coffee brewing? I can’t now. I can smell coffee when I open up the bag and put my nose into the beans; I go, “Oh, yep, coffee.” So, that’s my litmus test. (Laughs.) And I guess, all in all, if that’s the lingering effect of this, then I’m still very lucky.
When Hanks announced his own diagnosis on March 11, that’s when the virus became real to most people in the States. Since the two of you are longtime pals, did you compare notes at all?
Yeah, we did. He and Rita were far more affected by it physically than Robin and I were, and she more so than him, I believe. But then, when they came back from Australia and we had both gone through it and it was over, we got together for dinner, and it was the first time that you were thinking, “Wow, after a month and a half, we’re now able to actually be in each other’s presence.” Because at that time — and I guess it’s come back to that again now — it would be extremely difficult to contract it again, once you have the antibodies. So, we had dinner a couple of times, and just talked about it, realizing what an extraordinary experience that this is. I don’t think that there could’ve been anyone better than Tom and Rita to come out and say, “We had this,” and you’re right, it did make it real. And I think by their announcement, it woke a lot of people up. The country could’ve been a lot worse had that not happened.
Well, this is quite the awkward segue, but I really enjoyed your new movie, The One and Only Ivan.
(Laughs.) Yeah, thank you. I did too.
When you first get a script such as Ivan, are you able to read it objectively? Or do you immediately put yourself in Mack’s shoes and begin voicing the character as you read?
[Objectivity] is always my goal, and my agenda is to read it as an audience member. That’s why I will always set aside the time to read a script in its entirety in one sitting because that’s the way an audience is going to watch it. So I just imagine myself as an audience. After I’m done, I think about it and sometimes, it’s subtle. In other words, the effects of which won’t hit me right away. It might be the next day. It might be two days later. That’s always a good sign. If I easily forget the story or the title or “what was that about?” — that’s not a good sign for me that I should be involved in it. Or I guess you could say that it is a good sign that I shouldn’t be involved in a project if it’s easily forgotten.
So I was doing a play in London at the time, and the director [Thea Sharrock], who’s British, said she would like to meet with me. So I said, “Well, let me read this.” And my wife was over with me and we read the script, and it was like, “This is pretty good.” And I will say that I do pay extra attention toward stories that are different from what I’ve recently been doing. So I was doing a very adult sociopolitical drama onstage and before that I was doing other dramas, and it’s like, “Okay, so either a comedy or maybe a family film should be next.” So I’m on the lookout for them; my agency is on the lookout for that, and it would get extra points to move up the ladder as far as my consideration. So we read that. Then, I read the book that came with it [The One and Only Ivan by K.A. Applegate]. I thought that [screenwriter] Mike White did a terrific job in adapting the book for theatrical purposes. And then, I had some ideas, and that’s always a good sign. Then, I put it aside. My wife read it too, we would talk about it and she put it aside. And we would kind of go back to it and say, “What about…?” And when it doesn’t leave me, I have to pay attention to that. I had certain ideas that I thought would enhance the character and bring certain attentions to the character. You know the part where my character is training the young elephants to do some tricks, and he’s getting frustrated by the young elephant? And when you see something happen — I don’t want to give it away to the readers; it’s kind of a surprise in the movie. Well, that was an idea that I had. In the original script, the young elephant, Ruby, swings its trunk into my crotch and I double over. That never really appealed to me; we’ve seen it. So I talked to Mike, and he said, “Yeah, that was kind of a placeholder. Can we come up with something better?” And I said, “I think the elephant should always remain innocent.” So I suggested this idea that not only saved that character and its intentions, but also deepened my character.
As I’m developing this guy, he’s a showman, and that’s why I said, “I’d like to do an accent when he is the Master of Ceremonies, and then he drops it when he’s backstage.” That was accepted, and then I said, “And furthermore, what if when I’m Mack backstage, I wear padding, so it makes me look heavier? Then, we’ll show a girdle in my office.” And it’s like, “Oh, so when he does his ringmaster, he wears a girdle, he puts makeup on, he has the accent — it’s all a show.” And same thing with the reveal, it’s all a show. He’s not accepting of who he is, and that carried on with how he wasn’t accepting of this scheme of having his beloved gorilla in a cage. It’s gone. He’s got to let that go. It wasn’t sustainable — robbing Peter to pay Paul. And it’s like, “Oh god, how does he keep his head above water?” So it all seemed to be kind of like a domino effect. Then, I pitched this idea: “What if the baby elephant is nervous and she just sneezes? And that elephant sneeze does something humiliating and embarrassing.” But then I said, “And then, at the very end, you see that he’s come to terms with who he is…” And so, it all seemed to track and fit within the milieu of Disney, and the young viewers that will be watching this. I didn’t want to subject them to a crotch hit. That’s a cheap joke; I didn’t like it. Anyway, that’s the long-winded answer. (Laughs.)
While not quite as sleazy, did Mack’s hustle remind you of Shannon from Drive at all?
(Laughs.) Ooh, you know, that’s funny. I hadn’t thought about that. But yeah, anyone who is a schemer — and that takes such a negative connotation — but schemes, the original connotation of it, is that it’s not necessarily a negative term; you’re planning. But we know schemers to be on a more dubious track. So, yeah, it’s anyone who is ambitious and has aspirational interests in achieving certain things. So Shannon was that kind of guy, and certainly, Mack is that kind of guy. Until you mentioned that, it hadn’t occurred to me, but I’m sure that digging down into the well of idiosyncrasies, I was able to pull out certain things that were similar.
One of the moments that effectively defines Mack’s frustration for me is when a show didn’t go as planned and he lost his temper over the stray dog that Danny DeVito voices. Then, he stormed out of the mall until a speeding car abruptly stopped him in the parking lot, and he flailed his head a bit out of aggravation. It’s a moment that we’ve all experienced at some point. Were you glad that Thea kept that “shoe leather” moment in the final cut?
Yeah, Thea Sharrock and I had a lovely working arrangement. Not everything that I pitched is something that she accepted, and that’s the way it should be. That’s really the collaborative art form in this genre and in film. You have to pitch ideas, but it has to be a singular vision to put it all together. She’s looking at the jigsaw puzzle as a whole, and I was looking at my own character. And so, at times, the pitches work, and at times, they don’t. That was her idea, and I said, “I could use that.” It’s just mounting frustration. So I had no idea that it would still be used, but it’s interesting that you noticed that little nuance.
Mack brought Ivan home when he was very young, and for a while, he was raised like an actual child. While I’m reading between the lines, did you also get the impression that Mack and his wife couldn’t conceive a child of their own, hence their childlike treatment of Ivan?
Yes, that was my backstory, and there was another scene or two where I think we were trying to convey that we were not able to conceive. But it ultimately didn’t feed the main thrust of those flashbacks and where the story was. So, in other words, it wasn’t necessary to say, “We love this little animal because we can’t have one of our own.” Yeah, that was our backstory in our conversations, but ultimately, we didn’t want the flashbacks to have all that dialogue and to have too much foundational elements to include in that. We thought it might muddy it up, but it was in the back of my mind and Thea’s.
Even though you shot the film a couple years ago, there are several current events that come to mind involving Mack and the animals. Are you always amazed at how quickly one’s perspective can change regarding a piece of work?
Well, it’s always been a very subjective experience, hasn’t it? In the movie theater, if you’re going and sitting next to people, you and I could watch a movie, and you could be shedding a tear and I could be shrugging my shoulders. And it’s not to say that you’re wrong or I’m wrong. We’re both right. That’s the way you feel, and that’s the respect that I certainly have. I have that credo in me that the audience is never wrong. This is what they’re feeling. Now, it’s hard to get 100 percent of everyone on the train to feel the same thing at the same time because people have different experiences. There’s age differences, educational differences, affluence… There’s foreign, cultural and religious differences. So you have this potpourri of humanity watching this program, and it’s foolish to think that, “Oh everyone is going to feel what the targeted emotion is.” You just have to hope that the masses do and then try to tell your story without being pedantic or didactic. You want to be able to walk that edge so that you tell enough of the story to keep them involved, interested and invested, and move the plot forward. You don’t want to dwell too long on any given time. And of course, even that is subjective. People say, “Oh, that was too long,” or “Too long? I could’ve watched longer!” Ultimately, if you’re the one in charge, as Thea was — although we all have bosses — you hope that they get the sense that your instincts are correct. And I think Thea did a really lovely job.
Shifting gears, I have a Breaking Bad question that you’ve never been asked over the past decade. In season three’s “Half Measures,” the episode begins with a montage devoted to Wendy (Julia Minesci), the Southwest’s favorite meth-addicted, root beer-loving prostitute. During the montage, she has a scuffle with another prostitute at the Crossroads Motel pool, and I am 99.99 percent certain that one Bryan Cranston is the other prostitute in disguise. So, Bryan, would you like to come clean once and for all regarding this mystery woman’s identity?
(Laughs.) Wow! Wow, I can’t believe you got that.
Did I get it!?
No, you’re wrong. (Laughs.)
You’ve got to be kidding me!
That must’ve been one ugly prostitute. If there’s one thing… I make one of the homeliest women. And when I have, on occasion, been in drag for shows, it just doesn’t work. In fact, I can show you a picture of me from many, many, many, many years ago… I was playing a bad character, in drag, and whatever. Nope, not me. I’ve got to go back now and see that.
I’m stunned. The jawline looks just like yours, and she even made the face you make when you grit your teeth.
Well, there is that one-one hundredth of a percent that you left open to be wrong and the long shot came through in this case.
Or this is a more elaborate ruse than I expected, and you’ll never admit to it.
(Laughs.) We’ll never admit to it, yeah.
Some of my favorite moments on Breaking Bad involve Walt alone with his thoughts, especially when he’d reflect in front of his pool or that beautiful hotel pool in season 5A’s “Rabid Dog.” During filming, would you remain in Walt’s thoughts, or would you drift to your own life at times?
The artistic answer is I would remain in Walt’s head. That helps you, for the most part, but acting is an illusion. We are human, and we are susceptible to fatigue and lack of focus, for whatever reason. Our job is to exercise those muscles of focus and developmental abilities in characterization. So, for the most part, you can stay in that headspace, especially if it’s a real quandary for the character. So, yes, those were times when you were, most of the time, able to do that. If you had a director who insisted on 15, 20, 25 takes, your mind would be wandering. So, I could be sitting there contemplating, “I wonder how many more takes they’re going to do before they realize that it’s pretty much the same look; that look of contemplation.” (Laughs.) Or, “I wonder what I should have after work. Should I go out and eat? Or should I just pick something up and take it home? Let’s see, what time do I have to work tomorrow morning? That might determine if I have enough time.” You know? (Laughs.) Sometimes, it’s that, to be completely honest. Some might say, “You’re phoning it in.” Well, no. Phoning it in is if that’s your regular approach to the work. When those kinds of mind-wanderings happen in the past, I used to get tough on myself and go, “What are you doing? Come on. Come on. Shut up. Pay attention. Here we go.” And now, I just go, “Oh wow, I was thinking about all kinds of things there.” So you just let it go. You give yourself a pass, but recognize it. It’s certainly not somewhere where you want to live and use on a regular basis because, by and large, people can read through those things. If you’re not really thinking of something, if you’re not anguished by the character’s situation, I would pick it up. Those are those subtleties and nuances that we see from other actors that you just feel what they’re feeling and you’re right with them. And if the goal, as it is, is to take this audience on a journey with you, you’re the storyteller. You’re responsible for the audience’s emotional care and when they should relax, when they should get tense, when they should worry. All those things are on your shoulders. And “your,” meaning actor, writer, director — this is a collective, and I take it very seriously. You feel it every night doing a play.
A year ago, I was onstage in New York, and one of the easiest things that can happen to a human being is when you feel very confident that you know what you’re doing, you have a tendency to relax. Well, you don’t want to completely relax onstage. You want to be relaxed, but don’t relax. So I always would gather my cast and say, “Let’s lean into it.” I’d try to give them and myself a visual. I do it on a film set, too. You lean into the story and into what’s happening, as opposed to back onto your heels. And that kind of visual is usually something that people can take in. They get it. They feel it. If every cast member is leaning forward to tell that story that night, that’s going to be a better show. The odds are that’s going to be a much better show than if everyone just said, “Whatever, let’s go do the show. It’s two hours and then, we’ll go have a drink with a friend.” If that’s the idea, and you would just allow the words to take over, then you’re not working at full capacity. It’s kind of like going to the gym, doing a couple reps, resting and then chatting for fifteen minutes. And then, you leave and it’s like, “Yeah, I went to the gym.” And I go, “Wow, did you?” (Laughs.) “How’d that work out for you?” You know? (Laughs.) So you have to be a little self-disciplined in that regard.
Your family nicknamed you “Sneaky Pete” as a boy, and you created a great show called Sneaky Pete. Somehow, it’s also a phrase that Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) used in his first scene on Breaking Bad (season two’s “Better Call Saul”). Since it’s not the most common saying, did one influence the other?
God, I have no idea. Back when I was playing the prostitute at the pool in that— oh shoot! Sorry, sorry. (Laughs.)
(Laughs.) I’m never going to live this down.
(Laughs.) Yeah, I have no idea. I don’t even remember that line that Saul used. I have to see the series again. I’ve only seen the series once, and that was while we were making it.
Is it partly because you’re too close to it?
No, no, just, I’ve got other things to do. And quite frankly, I lived through it, so it didn’t feel like urgent appointment television. I would like to watch it again with someone or two or three people who have never seen it. If I come across any people like that who are my friends, and I go, “Let’s watch it together. I’ll watch it again, but let’s watch it together.” It would be fun to see their reaction because I will have forgotten a lot of things, and then when you start watching, you go, “Oh, I know what’s going to happen. I’m going to watch my friend get this reaction.” So I kind of get two shows out of one. (Laughs.)
I have to say that your bald cap in El Camino is the best bald cap I’ve ever seen. Normally, they look like Alien Nation, but KNB [EFX Group] really outdid themselves, along with VFX.
Well, they did some remarkable work on that, and the CGI guys in post did even more. Here’s the issue: When I was doing Breaking Bad, that was my head. I just shaved my head. It wasn’t a bald cap. So, every other day, I would shave my head, but this was shot in January of ‘19 and I was doing my play. So, naturally, I’m not going to shave my head. I can’t. So I finished my Broadway show on Sunday at 5 o’clock, during the first full week in January, and zipped out to Teterboro, on a private jet. It flew me out to Albuquerque, I stepped off the plane onto the tarmac and two steps later, our transportation captain, Dennis Milliken, was waiting for me. I went with my wife and our assistant, and we took off, went to an Airbnb and Dennis showed us around. It had all the food, and then he said, “You know you can’t leave?” And I went, “No, I know.” It was like we were in a witness protection program.
The next morning, he picks us up, takes us to the set, and we did all the cafe scenes. And the bald cap. So they plastered my hair down with this goop, and they got it as flat as possible, and then they squeezed on that bald cap as flat as possible. And then, tight makeup, makeup, makeup. But it was different, and Vince noticed it. My head was a little bit like Mr. Big Brain. (Laughs.) A cartoon. And I noticed it too, but it didn’t quite really bother me as much. Of course, I wasn’t looking at me, obviously, as much as I was looking at other people. But Vince was and he said, “It’s just a little… seems a little…” And there was just no way around it. There’s a lot of hair under there and a bald cap on top of it. So, even though it’s thin, it was just a little bigger. So, they went through, and in the scene that we were doing there, any time it was on me, they had to go in, computer graphic, cut away the overall size of my head and reduce it somewhat. KNB, they’re always fantastic; Greg [Nicotero] and Howard [Berger] over there. Also, the postproduction guys in CGI — they’re masters.
You shot El Camino during your limited time off from Network on Broadway. Did the whirlwind of El Camino catch up to you during your first show back, or did adrenaline prevail?
Adrenaline. I was so happy to do [El Camino]. I was thrilled that Aaron was able to be number one on the call sheet. He so deserved it and to finish telling his story. I was there to support him and support Vince Gilligan. Aaron and I both say, if he starts to ask a question, we just say, “Look, the answer is yes, whatever you’re going to ask. We’ll do whatever.” He changed our lives. So we’re eternally grateful to him and happy to do it. The fact that it was so good, on top of that, is one thing I knew. I just know that Vince Gilligan agonizes over every aspect of storytelling. He does have a level of anxiety that does help him in some way, and in other ways, I worry about him, you know, because he cares so much. He knows he’s got one chance. He always says, “I’ve got one chance to do this.” But I know that he wouldn’t let anything go forward unless it passed his seal of approval, and that seal is very discerning. And I just thought it was so fantastic. In fact, when I was reading the script, I completely forgot that Walter White was in it. I’m just following along, “Oh, what happens next? And he goes there. Oh my god, he’s escaped. Oh, there’s a flashback. Oh, that’s me! That’s right. That’s why I’m reading this. Because I’m in it.” (Laughs.) If you can do that to me — and he did that to us throughout the series… We know the characters better than anyone. We know the show better than anyone. And yet, he was able to surprise us. Day in and day out, it was like, “Wow, I did not see that coming. How did that happen?” Masterful, he is and a great guy on top of it. Since I stopped working for him, we’ve developed a relationship that’s beyond Breaking Bad and our wives are good friends. He’s a very dear friend of mine now.
There’s nobody better at cough acting than you. Did it come back rather quickly on El Camino?
Yeah, I can do a fake cough, a fake sneeze… I can do double-takes, triple takes. I can even do a quadruple take and spit takes. It’s all the stuff that you learn in Harvey Lembeck’s Comedy Workshop. For years, I took the “Master of Improvisation” here in Hollywood, and it was just a lot of fun being able to draw back into things, the goofiness that you practice on and being able to use it. But it’s taxing. It puts stress on your vocal chords and things like that, but it was so much fun. And then, we flew back to New York on Tuesday night after the two days of work on El Camino, under the shroud of darkness, and back into New York City. I slipped back in, and nobody knew anything. I even did The Tonight Show on Wednesday between shows, and they didn’t know it. Fallon asked me, and I lied. It was like, “Well, this is kind of that sworn to secrecy thing.”
Most people say “Ozymandias” is their favorite episode from Breaking Bad’s final season, if not the whole series, but I actually prefer “Granite State” with the great Robert Forster. I’m always impacted by the moment where Walt offers Ed (Forster) $10 grand to “stay a little longer,” as it perfectly illustrates Walt’s “fall from grace” and his desperate, unrelenting need to deliver his blood money to his family. What comes to mind from shooting that scene or episode with Forster?
Well, those characters were just so well drawn, and Bob’s character was so inscrutable. You didn’t know how he felt at any time. He wasn’t mean; he wasn’t nice. He was just matter of fact. And he was willing to be a companion, but for a price. It was just so interesting because human beings can’t peg him. They can’t place him in a certain thing. Who is that kind of man? And that was such a great, great character. It was nice to see Bob be able to be healthy enough to do El Camino before he passed. I wrote about him in my book [A Life in Parts], and the moment where I met him. I was an assistant to a couple of people, and I was a production assistant on a movie that he did called Alligator back in the day. And I bumped into him in a van. He came in, and we were all going to the set. He sat next to me, and I was like, “Oh my god, this is Robert Forster.” And he kind of looked at me and said, “Hey, how are you?” And I go, “I’m fine.” (Laughs.) I didn’t want to engage because I was like, “Oh, actors, they don’t want to necessarily engage.” And he goes, “My name’s Bob,” and I said, “Bryan.” Then I shook his hand, and he asked, “What do you do, Bryan?” And I thought, “Wow, he cares!” I said, “Well, I’m the assistant to the assistant’s assistant,” and he laughed. (Laughs.) I said, “Yeah, I’m just a production assistant, but I’m an actor.” And he said, “Hey, how’s that going for you? Keep at it. It’s a long haul.” So we rode to the set and he went, “Nice to meet you, Bryan.” And I said, “You too, Robert.” “Call me Bob,” he said. So I said, “Okay, Bob.” And it was like… wow. That kind of behavior, that comportment really registered with me, and you collect several of those about how to behave.
Tom Hanks, I learn a lot from him. Helen Mirren. How to present yourself. And I thought, “Yeah, that’s what you do when you are able to be the number one on a call sheet and take a cast under your wing, and how you want to behave because that sets a tone for everyone else to follow.” If the top person is that, then no one can change that dynamic. There might be a couple incidents here and there, but by and large, you can control the temperament of that working condition. And it was like, “Yeah, that seems right. That seems like the thing to do.” So, that day on set, we sat down, and it was so interesting because we just grabbed the cards. “What do you want to play?” “I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. Play the cards.” I think we were supposed to be playing [seven-card stud], but I think he was dealing Blackjack. You could see it. He flipped over my card, and it was a king. He flipped over his card, also a king. And he said something like, “Huh, just two kings.” And I just looked at him, and that was the end of the scene. It was unscripted because we didn’t know what cards were going to come up, but it was remarkable how two kings happen to show up at the same time totally by accident. It was just kind of daunting to have that happen, and relevant to Walt; he was the king. Walt was the king at one point in his little fiefdom. And now, is he really a king? Who’s the king? The guy who’s controlling the situation is really the king, and that would be Robert’s character at that moment. You could also relate it to the animal world where two animals are going to fight for supremacy in a harem or something. The old guy and the young guy. Who’s going to take over the kingdom? So it had so many different meanings, and I think Peter Gould was directing that episode and was like, “Oh wow! Look at that.” (Laughs.) I said, “That was great. That’s got to stay.” And he goes, “Yeah, I think so.” So fun.
There’s a moment where Walt is waiting at the gate for Forster’s character to return, and I got the impression that you played it like a dog waiting at a window for their owner to get home. The way you moved your arms was like a dog wagging its tail. Is that the case, or am I projecting again?
Well, back when I was playing the prostitute by the pool, I thought of that scene. (Laughs.)
(Laughs.) I’m never going to hear the end of this.
No, that was it. That was it. Walt was so starving for human companionship that it was that, and yet, when he got there, I didn’t want him to see that I was incredibly anticipatory of his arrival. But yeah, that was definitely that moment when the dog is looking and cocking its head, “Is that him? Is that him?” and then getting excited. So I just played that where my movement increased. Once I saw the truck coming, my movement increased to convey excitement as I opened up the gate. You know, that was fun stuff. And what was great is that we shot that right in Albuquerque’s Sandia Mountains, which is 5,000 feet higher than the floor of Albuquerque. And right there, that was our New Hampshire.
While I have my reasons for why I think you’ll be in season six of Better Call Saul, your scene in El Camino is a perfect capper in its own right. If that’s the last time you play Walt, are you thoroughly content?
Of course. I was content with the end of Breaking Bad. I thought it was the perfect ending. I know I’m biased, but I don’t recall seeing the ending of a show that was so well-constructed, satisfying and legitimate. Everything just seemed to fall into place so extraordinarily well. And with that, from the beginning of meeting Vince (Gilligan) again before I got the role to the development of the character and the story and the prep and getting out there and shooting the pilot, then waiting and then six years of shooting, I mean, it’s seven-and-a-half years. I experienced a very satisfying beginning, middle and end. It’s as if you came to the end of a good children’s book where the kids were saved and they lived happily ever after. And then, you turn the page and it goes, “The next day… ” It’s like, “Wait, what!?” And we’ve seen movies like that. We’ve seen them, movies especially, where it’s like, “Oh, it should’ve ended. And now, we’re going on. It’s like this movie has two endings or they weren’t quite sure where to go with it.” And I even equate it to someone saying, “Don’t you want to come back and do it again? If they rebooted Breaking Bad, wouldn’t you want to come back?” And I go, “No, I really wouldn’t.” And they’re like, “Why? Why wouldn’t you want to do that?” And it’s like, “Well, if you’ve had a perfect meal… a cocktail, a nice little appetizer, a salad, a perfect main course, a nice light little palette cleanser and maybe a little piece of chocolate. Maybe even an after-dinner drink or a little espresso or something. Just perfect. And then, someone brings out more dessert, and it’s like, “oh no!” I don’t want to indulge that because you would be overstuffed, and it’s too much. They say “less is more” and in many ways, that’s so true. You want to leave an audience wanting more, as we know. That old adage is very true. Don’t give them more than they want. If they start looking at their watch, you’re done. You lost ‘em. We want them to go, “Holy shit, it’s over? That was an hour? It felt like 20 minutes!” That’s what you want, and they crave more because it was so well-crafted. So that’s the goal.
There are many sides of Walter White. As rewarding as the entire role was for you, did you happen to have a favorite dimension to play among the family man, teacher, Heisenberg or the Mr. Lambert persona of the last two episodes?
(Laughs.) It’s all me. If I were doing a scene where it was menacing, Heisenberg-y, awful and some innocents died or something, like the kid (Drew Sharp) on the motorcycle, there were times where it’s like, “Oh god.” If we’re playing in that realm for a while and then you see a flashback to when Skyler (Anna Gunn) is first pregnant and everything’s happy, then it’s like, “Oh, I’m looking forward to that.” (Laughs.) It was almost like a cleanser. As it was, we feel things deeply, and no one is immune to that. So I had a process. At the end of every day, I would take a big hot towel and put it over my head like a turban. I’d take a moist hot towel, put it over my face and cover my face completely, like I’m going to get a professional shave. And I would just sit in the makeup-hair chair for ten minutes, just letting the heat and moisture draw out all the grime, both real and imaginary, and just wipe my whole head and face. You come out of that like you come out of a sauna. You’re lightheaded slightly, you drink some water and then change out of Walter’s clothes, and put my own on. Then, I’d get in the car, call my wife and have a conversation that had nothing to do with Breaking Bad. And by the time I got home, it was wiped away; the whole day was gone. I’d get home, have something to eat, start pouring into the next day’s work and memorize what I had to memorize. I would read the scripts about four or five days before we were shooting because I didn’t need to know too far in advance what was happening on the twists and turns of this guy’s life. I’d just let it come as it’s coming, and it gave me enough time to ask questions, challenge something if I thought something might be weird or I didn’t understand it. And then, also, if it’s like, “Oh, this one, I have a couple of big speeches,” I’ll bone up on those on the weekend. You parse it out so that you don’t let anything catch you by surprise, like, “Oh my god, tomorrow, I forgot! I have a two-page speech to give.” You don’t want to be in that position, so you kind of look ahead a little bit in that way.
I’ve always said that you’d be a phenomenal Oscar host. If you were asked to host someday, would you strongly consider it?
Only because of the novelty of it, I would consider it, but I don’t know if that’s the gig for me. I mean, Billy Crystal was a great host because he was so entertaining on so many levels. Obviously, comedy, but he can deliver a line, he can sing and he can command an audience. So it takes that kind of all-around performer to be able to hold their own in that setting, and I’m not so sure. The thing that would really make the deciding factor for me on something like that is, would this detract from audiences seeing me as a chameleon, as an actor? That’s much, much more important to me than getting some airtime or something. It’s just so rewarding to me when I hear people go, “When my brother told me that Walter White was the dad on Malcolm in the Middle, I made a bet with him, and I couldn’t believe it. Oh my god.” I love that, because that means that I’ve transformed into a different person. That, to me, is not only my favorite kind of comment from an audience, but also my favorite kind of approach to the work. I want to get lost in a character. I try, even though it’s extremely difficult. The more you do, the more you see different things that, oh, you know, like you pointed out, that could’ve been part of Shannon as the part of Mack. And it’s like, well, you are the same person, but maybe time helps erode some of those different characteristics that you used for one that you would not use for another.
Given your history with the property, what did you think of the Spahn Ranch scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood?
I really love that movie, and when I saw the Spahn Ranch, it kind of sent a jolt through my body. I whispered to my wife, I said, “God, that is it! That is what I remember from when I used to go there to ride horses when I was a kid.” So Quentin’s production designer must’ve scoured through a ton of photos to reenact that. That was the Western town motif with the facades, the old truck sitting out there and the horses. But the size of it was really remarkable. And the fact that I had the same experience that they showed in the movie — that there was a need for the group to get on horses and ride away — it was like, “Oh my god, that’s exactly what happened to me!” It was unbelievable. And then, they rode back in and it was like, “Wow!” To the maybe 50 people who are still alive and still remember the Spahn Ranch, who had it indelible in their mind or, in my case, ever crossed paths with Charlie Manson, that was a remarkable moment. I assume you’ve heard my story on that; it was such a thing. “Charlie’s on the hill!” And it’s like, “Whoa.” And then, here he is, and it’s like, “Wow, that must be Charlie.” We made such a thing of it, and it’s almost like passing an accident. You’re looking at him and staring at him out of the corner of your eyes. I remember seeing that face, and I think it was about two years later when he was arrested. I was like, “Oh my god. That’s the guy!” Crazy.
In 2017, when you were shooting The Upside, you and M. Night Shyamalan went to a Philadelphia 76ers-San Antonio Spurs NBA game, and since it was a national broadcast, it caught a lot of people’s attention on Twitter. Out of curiosity, did the two of you discuss working together?
We did. Just a really great guy, a great filmmaker. It was fun when I was down in Philadelphia for that time, to be able to hang with him a little bit. Yeah, actually, we tried a couple of times, and in fact, just a couple of weeks ago, there was a project that he was thinking of doing in the COVID world that was really his milieu — a mystery thriller and scary. But I’m in first position to this limited series called Your Honor down in New Orleans where I have to finish that. I’ve got seven weeks to finish that, and we just don’t know when we’re going back. So I had to tell Night, “I can’t commit to it because I don’t know when we’re going to be called.” I mean, that’s just the truth of it. So I said, “Buddy, thanks for thinking of me, but until I’m totally free, I just can’t. I’d hate to say yes, then we plan it and all of a sudden, I have to call you and go, ‘Oops, I can’t do it.’ Then, you’re really stuck, and you have to quickly get out and try to find someone.” But great guy, fun, loves to laugh, terrific filmmaker, and I hope someday we’ll be able to work together.
Since you’re an avid baseball fan, does your agent ever look for good baseball movie scripts? Or even something like Field of Dreams that uses baseball as a springboard for another story?
I’d love to have that happen. I’m interested in writing a story that actually might be of its time. It won’t star me. I won’t direct it. In fact, I probably shouldn’t even write it, but it’s something that struck me. Once when I was in Kansas City, I went to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and I was just amazed by what I was seeing. And that stuck with me, because I was realizing that there were less and less African Americans playing baseball. And I went, “Man, I wonder why that happened and where they went. Certainly, they’ve navigated to basketball and football, but what happened to baseball and why not?” So I was just thinking about that after visiting the museum. So I sketched out a story that involves that social element, and god, it might be very relevant now. We’ll just have to see how it plays out. If it comes together in my head, I might write a treatment to it and then hand it off. Right now, we’re living in an environment where old white men such as myself, we’re not to be on the vanguard of a movement right now. We are here to listen, be quiet and support. We have an opportunity to see fundamental change to our lives and really establish a level playing field of equality no matter what your race, religion, sexual orientation or gender is. One of mutual respect. And I’m tying in the #MeToo movement that started a few years after Black Lives Matter now. I think it all came to light because of the COVID-19 situation. So there’s a purpose for all of this, and I feel very optimistic that significant, meaningful changes can happen to our society. This is the time to have that happen — right here, right now. We’re looking at a lot of different headlines of unfortunate events, and looting and rioting that goes along with protests. And the thing to remember is that revolution — which this is; it’s a social revolution — is never easy. It’s muddy, painful, uncomfortable and inconvenient, all the way back to the Revolutionary War when we were trying to form this country. Protests and revolution was how this country was formed, so it is extremely and literally American. It’s an American quality and how this country was started. So that needs to be understood from a history standpoint and embraced from a society standpoint.
The One and Only Ivan is now available on Disney+.
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