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It’s fascinating how watching deadly scenes onscreen can make a viewer feel so alive.
Such was the topic of a moderated discussion between Breaking Bad and All the Way star Bryan Cranston and Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire showrunner and writer of The Wolf of Wall Street and The Sopranos, as well as neuroscientist and professor James Fallon. The Tuesday afternoon conversation, part of the Tribeca Film Festival, also led Cranston to share which Breaking Bad scenes made his stomach turn and Winter to list what his onscreen psychopaths will never do.
After screenings of the “I am the one who knocks” Skylar scolding from Breaking Bad’s fourth season and Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi)’s murder moment during Boardwalk Empire’s season-two finale, the chat at New York City’s SVA Theatre kicked off with Cranston’s diagnosis of Walter White.
“I just always felt that he was a man who was given the set of circumstances that created the type of person that he became,” Cranston explained, noting that showrunner Vince Gilligan set out to make a show about change, and that White was “catnip” for the actor to play with. “When we first were introduced to him it was hard for me to get into his character, because his emotional core was calloused over, he was in a depression. I didn’t really know what kind of man he was, what he thought or felt. Then, through the diagnosis of terminal lung cancer and two years to live, it did two things: First of all, it exploded his emotional core, because then anything was open, and he made these decisions that were seemingly rational and impulsive but had a purpose, but it also gave him a sense of life. He was going to live an extraordinary life for those last two years.”
The key to making amoral psychopaths so personable for an audience? “If you show any human being in all of their full range of color and emotion, you’re gonna find moments of relatability,” said Winter, listing Boardwalk Empire’s Al Capone (Stephen Graham) as an example, since the audience is introduced to him as a man with a partially deaf son. “It’s just really being honest. I don’t know if anyone is purely evil or purely good; we’re all a mixture of those things.”
Fallon noted that viewers’ brains release dopamine and oxytocin while watching characters like Walter and Nucky, triggering a feeling of “euphoria,” and Winter agreed. “It’s like riding a roller coaster — you get the experience what it feels like to almost die, and not die,” he said. “Dopamine is released; the second rush is I’m still alive and I can do it again. We create these characters, and you get to spend time with Walter White and be inside that world and what it must be like to live that life — live like Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) or Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and not have the consequences. You really get to live vicariously…. You feel one millionth of what it must like to do that, but again, where else do you get that time, to be in that circumstance?”
Cranston took it one step further and added that today’s onscreen psychopaths are relatable. “The more complex a character is and the more honestly a character is depicted, I think it touches people and it resonates through them, and it was done very craftily,” he said. “In days gone by, there were the bad guys of poorly written material, and they’re just bad, and it’s easy for the audience to cast them aside…a more interesting complex character is someone who, I’m not sure if he’s good or bad. I’m uncertain.
“He weaves in and out of his own morality,” continued Cranston of the pragmatic approach to meth-making that Walter initially had, shooting only for $737,000. “He said he was doing this for his family. That to me was a reasonable thing to hold onto to justify his actions…. [He didn’t want] the last image that his children and his wife would have of him was a shriveled up old man who couldn’t even pee on his own…it was about leaving something for his family and having more control about how he’s going to die.”
Such logical rationalization is the key to lasting relatability, agreed Winter, citing the Sopranos comparison of a mobster being like a soldier going off to war, “conveniently disregarding the collateral damage.” Tony Soprano also told his therapist that cheating on his wife actually made him happier and calmer when sexually pacified, so he could then be a better family man at home.
Another major ingredient of an onscreen psychopath? “These characters lie to each other all the time. Even early on, sometimes we would get network notes, they’d say, ‘This doesn’t make sense — on page 12, Tony says this, but then he says the complete opposite on page 18!’ It’s like, ‘Yeah, he’s lying,’” Winter said of the Sopranos, also adding that one of his top season-one Boardwalk Empire scenes is when Nucky initially gives a speech to an African American church. “He says, ‘We’re gonna bring these people to justice and take care of this,’ you push in really tight and pull back, and he continues with the speech, and he’s addressing an all-white church, saying, ‘These Negroes won’t get away with this!’ Completely duplicitous right down the middle, telling everybody what they want to hear.”
When asked which Breaking Bad scene made his stomach turn most, Cranston immediately mentioned season one’s body disposal in Jesse (Aaron Paul)’s upstairs bathtub, triggering a ceiling collapse of “liquified body parts of bones and jaws.” But he also retold the story that he saw his own daughter’s face when he saw Jane (Krysten Ritter) choke on her own vomit and die.
Winter said he doesn’t let his mind go to harming children onscreen, and while women are often offed on his shows, he said of Adriana’s death on The Sopranos, “I didn’t do it consciously, but I wrote in the scene that she crawls off-camera and then gets shot…. At the time, it felt like the artful choice, but I realized I didn’t want to see that. I didn’t want to see her get killed. I like Drea [de Matteo], the actress — it wasn’t because she was a woman and I was suddenly being chivalrous, I don’t know, I just didn’t want to see it.” He also added that he’s not a fan of cruelty to animals, and recalled a scene where Tony Soprano breaks car windows with a baseball bat and a wife emerges with a barking dog. “I think it was kind of a bit of a mind f— to see Tony Soprano holding a baseball bat and a yapping dog, and there’s just a cut to the dog, and everybody, including us, said, ‘Oh my god.’ You’ve seen the guy kill 50 people, and if he had killed that dog, we probably would’ve lost more people.”
Cranston said the psychopathic habits of Walter White have informed his current portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way on Broadway. “He was certainly a man who damned the means, justifying to the ends. He would do anything in his arsenal to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish. He would throw someone under the bus, even if they were innocent. Sadly, you look at that and say, ‘Well, he gained tremendous accomplishments domestically that we all share and enjoy to this day, but if he was not that type of person, would he have been able to accomplish these things?’ A lot of historians say no. No way.”
Fallon also spent much of the conference explaining the brain maps of psychopaths — including his own, which he initially thought was that of a criminal — and revealed that he himself comes from four generations of murderers and is related to Lizzy Borden. He also admitted that all of his field’s research has shown that “we can’t find a case of an adult or teenage psychopath that can really change — it’s pretty fixed. We have hope as a society that they can, hope that a character will somehow break out…it’s really quite tragic and dangerous.“
The conversation never veered into Winter’s The Wolf of Wall Street, and Cranston left just before the audience was able to ask questions. However, when an attendee’s phone rang at one point, Cranston did joke, “I am the one who rings.”
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