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Over the roughly 10 years that I have been writing about film and television online, I have conducted interviews with hundreds of famous and/or fascinating people, but few of them have excited me as much — before, during, or after — as the one that I recently conducted with Bryan Cranston.
Cranston, 56, is the wonderful character actor who scored three best supporting actor (comedy) Emmy nominations for his portrayal of a goofy dad on Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006) and last Thursday scored his fourth best actor (drama) Emmy nomination for playing a high school teacher-turned-meth king on AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-present). All three of his prior noms for the latter show resulted in wins, and if this one also does — as is widely expected — then he will tie NYPD Blue star Dennis Franz‘s record for most wins in the category.
I recently met up with Cranston at the bar atop Hollywood’s Siren Studios, where the core-four of Breaking Bad — Cranston, his co-stars Aaron Paul and Anna Gunn (who were also Emmy-nominated last week), and series creator and show runner Vince Gilligan — had just completed a photoshoot for THR. It was Father’s Day, and he was set to spend the rest of the day with his wife of 23 years and his 13-year-old daughter. Before they picked him up, though, he was kind enough to grant me 40 minutes of his time for a wide-ranging conversation about his unlikely journey to the brink of Emmys history.
Bryan Cranston was born on March 7, 1956, in Canoga Park, a section of Los Angeles. His mother, Peggy Sell, was a radio actress, and his father, Joe Cranston, was an actor-turned-producer; they met in an acting class in Hollywood shortly after World War II. When Cranston was 12 years old, his father moved out and his mother, unable to afford to keep the family in their home, sent him and his brother to live with their maternal grandparents, who lived on a farm. His grandfather, in particular, became an important figure in his life, providing him with discipline, tough love, and a work ethic that he feels has served him well ever since. After a year, Cranston and his brother moved back in with his mother. A month later, he was devastated to learn that his grandfather had died of lung cancer.
Though Cranston came from show business stock, it wasn’t always clear to him that he would follow in his parents’ footsteps. He recalls enjoying the attention that he received at the age of seven when his father directed him in a public service announcement for The United Way, but says that it didn’t occur to him, at that early stage, to pursue acting further, and his parents certainly didn’t push him to do so. Instead, when he was a 16-year-old high school student, he decided to join the LAPD’s Police Explorers program, which gave young adults considering a career in law enforcement a taste of what it would entail.
Out of 111 cadets in his West Valley class, he graduated first. He then decided to enroll at LA Valley College to seek an associate degree in police science, with the goal of joining the police force after he reached the age of 21. Once he arrived at college, though, his life took a critical turn. His advisor told him that he needed to sign up for some elective classes, as well, which led him, in his second year, to a theater class where, on his first day, he was struck by the beauty of several of his female classmates. When he realized, soon after, that he also had some promise as an actor and enjoyed the work that acting entailed, he formally changed his focus.
After graduating, Cranston and his brother were both “trying to figure out what we wanted to do with our lives,” he says, and spent “a couple of years” just riding their motorcycles around the country. He says that he clearly remembers the day, when he was 22 years old, that he arrived at an answer. The duo were cruising down the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia when a rainstorm broke out, forcing them to seek shelter. “We found this little off-the-beaten-path rest stop that was near a creek, and there was a slab of cement with four wooden posts, a roof, and a picnic table. No one else was there. We pulled over our motorcycles and jumped up the curb right onto it. It looked like we were going to be there for a while, so we set up camp on this slab of cement, and stayed there for six days.”
He goes on, “Over the six days, the only thing that really got me through was reading a thick book of plays. I [had been] on a motorcycle, so I [hadn’t been able to] take a lot; I had this book of plays. And I was reading Hedda Gabler — Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler — at the time. And, all of a sudden, it was nightfall. It was dark, and I went, ‘Oh, my God! What?!’ And I realized, ‘Wow, that went fast,’ because I was so into the reading. And I thought, ‘Man, that would be–‘ Everything lifted, and I went, ‘That’s what I should do.'”
From then on, Cranston took acting very seriously. “I would go to one workshop to another,” he says, “and take what I felt I could use that worked for me from each teacher — from Harry Mastrogeorge, from Ivan Markota, from Shirley [Knight]… Warren Robertson, Bill Esper — people that I respected and got a lot from. But not any one person.” From all of this study, he came away with one general conclusion about acting methods: “If it feels right, if it feels appropriate, and you can use it, great. If not, just let it go. But be the sponge: let it come in and let it come out.”
Whatever he did differently from that point forward, it worked. Since the age of 24, he has managed to work exclusively as an actor. That is not to say that the past 36 years have been a cakewalk for Cranston. His name and face have been widely known since the turn of the century, but, for many years before that, he was among the masses of actors toiling, from project to project, in relative anonymity. But being able to pay the bills as an actor — not being a celebrated one — was always his standard of success, and among the things of which he is proudest.
“I didn’t even want to be famous, let alone infamous,” he says. “You don’t want to be a Kardashian. I’m going to get in trouble for that, but I don’t care. I don’t want to do a sex tape and become famous. I would much rather accomplish something, actually do something that brings entertainment to people’s lives, that makes them think or even just enjoy themselves.” He adds, “If you’re trying to maintain a certain plateau or something, you’re an idiot… I can tell you for sure: people who are at their peak right now will not sustain that. You can’t. It’s against the law of nature.”
Cranston emphasizes, “It’s certainly not in the odds that you are going to succeed making a living as an actor — very few people do — and that’s why I feel so fortunate.” That’s also why he actively discourages young people from entering the acting profession unless they are absolutely certain that they are doing so out of an irrepressible love of the craft. “If you’re not fully committed to this, why start? If you’re in it to become a movie star, or make money, [or] marry a model, you know, it’s like, ‘Just turn around now, go back to Oklahoma, save yourself some time, marry some sweet girl there, and have a life for yourself. Go do something else.'”
No one could ever question Cranston’s commitment. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he appeared on dozens of television series — from CHiPs to Baywatch to Matlock to Mighty Morphin Power Rogers to Walker, Texas Ranger to Touched by An Angel to Murder, She Wrote to The Louie Show to Sabrina, The Teenage Witch to Chicago Hope to Seinfeld — generally in small parts that lasted for only an episode or two. In 1998, though, one of those one-episode gigs changed his life — although he wouldn’t realize it for another decade.
I’ll let Cranston tell the story: “I wrote and directed, on a whim, a movie called Last Chance for my wife as a present, and we shot it out in the middle of the California desert for three straight weeks in 1998. We delayed it and delayed it. Actors would come in, actors had to drop out because they had a bigger job… So we pushed it and pushed it and pushed it. Finally, we said, ‘We gotta go. We have to do this.’ And so we did it in three weeks.”
He continues, “I come back after shooting that and directing it, and I’m in the editing room — I was back for four days — and my agent calls and says, ‘There’s a role on X-Files. Do you want to go in?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I need the money! I put everything I had into this movie.’ That was when I met Vince Gilligan. He was a writer-producer of X-Files, and he wrote that episode [“Drive”]. I could easily have not been available for that show because of this movie that I kept pushing and pushing. We could’ve pushed it another week, and I wouldn’t have been in town when they cast it, so I would not have met Vince Gilligan.”
But Cranston was in town, and won the role of a character who does terrible things but remains sympathetic to the audience, and knocked it out of the park. Gilligan never forgot that. Years later, after Cranston had completed his career-changing seven-year run on Malcolm in the Middle and most of the parts that he was being offered were for similarly goofy dads, Gilligan came calling again. Cranston marvels, “I was his first interview for this show, Breaking Bad. That’s luck.”
For Breaking Bad, Gilligan needed Cranston to perform the same trick that he had on The X-Files. He would be playing Walter White, a middle-aged husband, father, and high school chemistry teacher who has played by the rules his entire life, but who learns one day that his persistent cough is actually terminal lung cancer, and, in that moment, starts to become a different person. He knows that he cannot afford the medical treatment that his condition will require — certainly not without plunging his family, which is expecting a new addition, into abject poverty, both during and after his lifetime. And so he decides to do the only thing that he can think of to make a lot of money for his family before his time runs out: he reaches out to a former student of his who deals drugs, and together they quietly begin illegally producing and selling meth. As the operation begins to take off, White does things that he would never have been capable of doing before. He compromises his morality and soul — but ostensibly for a noble cause.
Cranston remembers being impressed by Breaking Bad from the outset. “[After] I read the pilot, I was dreaming about it,” he says. “That’s good writing, when it gets inside you.”‘ Then, when he first saw the episode, his belief in the show was confirmed: “We screened the pilot at Sony Studios and I was, ‘Wow!’ I didn’t even recognize the guy who was me — that guy who was depressed, and nervous, and out of his element, and trying to figure things out. I felt sympathy for him. There was a detachment.” (Others might not have recognized Cranston on the show for other, more visible reasons: in order to portray a person under treatment for lung cancer — the same disease that had claimed his grandfather’s life — he shaved his head, grew a goatee, and lost a considerable amount of weight.)
Plenty of quality shows are written and shot but still fail for one reason or another. Breaking Bad could easily have been one of them. It was first developed at FX, but the premium cable channel declined to pick it up. AMC, meanwhile, was aiming to expand, and to that end was seeking material that could not air on a broadcast network in order to brand themselves as a place for smart and edgy television. They had already started in that direction in 2007 with Mad Men, and decided to take a chance on Breaking Bad, too. It debuted on January 20, 2008, at 10pm EST, to rave reviews, if not incredible ratings. (“We only have two million people watching us every week,” Cranston notes. “If we were on a broadcast network, we would’ve been canceled after the first or second episode. We’re in the right place. This is where smaller stories can have a life.”)
As the show was getting off the ground, the country was (a) entering a massive debate about how to deal with the rising cost of healthcare, (b) plummeting into an economic recession of historic proportions, and (c) on the brink of learning about wealthy Americans, like Bernie Madoff, who had found ways of cheating the system under which so many middle-class Americans were struggling. Without that unfortunate set of circumstances, though, it’s doubtful that the show would have resonated with the public to the degree that it has. “Yes,” Cranston agrees, “Breaking Bad came about at just the right time. If it was pitched a year or two before that, not right.”
The show, which just began its fifth season and will end after its sixth, has won rave reviews throughout its run from fans and critics alike. They celebrate the truly original storytelling of Gilligan and his writing staff, the first-rate acting of the entire cast (even supporting actors who appeared for only one season, such as Giancarlo Eposito and Krysten Ritter, now have shows of their own thanks to their impressive work on Breaking Bad), and the remarkable production value that the show’s technicians have managed to provide for it (reportedly on a budget of $3.2 million per episode).
But Cranston says that the real secret to the show’s success — which this year includes seven Emmy nominations, including one for best drama series (a category in which it has been nominated for each of its seasons, but has yet to win) — is “the hook” that was laid at its outset. Continuing with the fishing analogy, he explains, “The bait was there for you to sympathize with Walter White, his life. Here’s this guy — a good man, with a special-needs son, a wife who’s expecting, he’s depressed… We see him in the classroom and he’s like, ‘Isn’t this cool?’ Searching, hoping for one set of eyes that thinks it’s cool — chemistry, science, learning. Nobody. Just a sea of apathy. That brings him down. He’s been beaten down as a teacher, and it doesn’t pay enough, so he’s gotta have a second job and be humiliated by these kids who are in his class as he’s scrubbing tires. And then he collapses. Now he’s got terminal lung cancer. The audience is going, ‘Oh, this poor bastard! This poor son of a bitch! I feel for him. God, this is awful. What’s he going to do?'”
Cranston continues, “And then you see this sad sack, milequetoast man grow some balls, and he decides, ‘I’m going to do something for my family’… Walter White would’ve slowly disintegrated as a physial person and as an emotional person. His wife would’ve emptied his bed pan and wiped his drool, and then they still would’ve been broke because they would’ve eaten up all their savings. And then she would’ve had to go on food stamps and welfare. And they have two kids. Forget college. It’s like, ‘No, no… That’s not going to happen. I’m going to do something — anything! What can I do?… Wait a minute. Making drugs is really just chemistry. Do it. Just do it.'”
Now, he says, “It’s a runaway train, and he’s the conductor, and he doesn’t know what’s around the bend or what’s in that tunnel. So you sympathize with him… Vince brilliantly got the hook into the audience — tight. They can’t spit the hook. They got it. And so now we’re starting to pull you in. And we’re pulling you to where we’re taking you. And the audience sometimes doesn’t want to go… Now they want to spit the hook, but they can’t. It’s like, we’re pulling you in: ‘Come to the dark side! Come to the dark side!’ They’re like, ‘Ahhh!’ And it’s great. We’ve got ’em.”
(Cranston also wants to set the record straight on a related matter: “Breaking Bad would not have made [or make] a good movie,” he says, “because, I think, to make it an hour-and-a-half, this story, you would’ve had to cram it, and truncate the storylines, and cut out a huge part of it.”)
During the final two seasons of the show, Walter will complete his transformation “from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as Gilligan famously put it. Cranston says that the remaining episodes “will be all about his expression now — how he presents himself in owning who he is.” He clarifies, “Now he’s the king, and now he’s feeling his oats, and we’re exploring not just the physical transformation of this guy, but also the internal implications — his hubris, avarice, and greed for attention and respect that he didn’t get before… Now he’s going about it in such an aggressive manner because he still knows he’s only got the two years. Now it’s down to one year. He’s got one year. ‘I better make my mark.'” In other words, “He’s a totally different guy. He’s a completely different man than he was before.”
The same cannot be said for Cranston, who seems to be taking the show’s success — and his own — in stride, and defers most of the credit for it to others. Above all, he credits Gilligan. The show “changed the landscape,” he says, “because of Vince’s dream.” He muses, “Television shows historically have always been about the same, staying the same, being consistent, because that was the predominant thought — that people want to tune in and see the same, you know, whether it’s Thomas Magnum, or Matt Dillon, or Chandler on Friends. They want to see the guy that we love… And it has its place, and it’s fantastic, and the actors do a great job. That’s what we’ve been accustomed to. [But] this — Breaking Bad — breaks the chain. It breaks the policy of, ‘We always have to like the lead character.’ No. I’ll have journalists say, ‘How are we supposed to continue to like you?’ And I go, ‘Are you supposed to?'”
Looking ahead, Cranston’s thoughts are not focused on ratings, awards, or celebrity. He is simply grateful to still be able to act for a living, and has no plans of giving it up anytime soon. “I want it all,” he says with a smile. “I want to be able to experience everything. I want to experience being a husband, experience being a father, experience, maybe, hopefully, someday being a grandfather, and all those things. I want that experience. When I die, I want to be exhausted.”
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