Congratulations to Bryan Cranston, for winning at Emmy last night for his leading role in Breaking Bad. Not long ago we sat down with the humorous and recently dark Bryan Cranston to talk about his latest show Breaking Bad, his 7 season run as Hal on Malcolm in the Middle, his experiences with directing and much more.
His feature film credits include “Little Miss Sunshine”, “Seeing Other People,” “That Thing You Do”, “Clean Slate”, “Kissing Miranda”, “Dead Space”, “Private Offerings”, “Terror Tract”, to name but a few. Cranston is currently filming “Love Ranch” based on real events, it is a drama centered on a married couple that open the first legal brothel in Nevada. Cranston plays James Pettis, a corrupt senator that butts head with Joe Pesci who plays the brothel owner alongside Helen Mirren as the madam.
So without further ado! We give you Bryan Cranston.
Were you consciously looking for a dramatic role after your character Hal in Malcolm in the Middle?
I was looking for either something comedic that was different or dramatic yes. I was offered similar characters to Hal and would turn them down. That would just be death to my career. I wanted to do other things, but I honestly couldn’t have anticipated another extremely well written show and a great, well defined character, as Hal on Malcolm in the Middle.
Could you tell us a bit about your new TV show Breaking Bad?
It’s a complex story about a simple man really. He’s a high school Chemistry teach, mid-life. Probably living in quiet desperation, with the weight of regret on his chest, and he probably didn’t pursue the things he wanted to earlier in life and now he’s faced with this midlife crisis. On top of that he finds our that he has terminal lung cancer and has one to two years to live. So he’s having a bad day. At first he’s numbed by that information and he doesn’t know what to do with that. Then he realizes that he’s about to go through this transformation in his body, and a deterioration, and at the end of it he’s going to die. And his wife is going to care for him all the way and on top of that, he’s going to leave them penniless. It’s not as if he has any money to speak of now. A high school chemistry teacher in the suburbs of Albuquerque, New Mexico doesn’t make a lot of money. So they’re pressed already. So in that desperate set of circumstances he decides to make a desperate move and that is to use his Chemistry background to make as much money as he possibly can before he dies, by cooking crystal meth and becoming a drug dealer.
When you hear the short version of that a high school Chemistry teacher become a drugs dealer. You think, I don’t know if I want to watch that. Why would a scientist want to do that? And then you watch the show and you see that the circumstances dictate the actions and that’s what happens. I don’t think anyone even me, can look at it objectively and say yeah, he’s doing the right thing. Of course not. It’s a good man who is making bad decisions.
How did you get involved in Breaking Bad?
Through the usual channels. I get scripts sent to me from my agency all the time and little brief descriptions of what is happening here. Then you begin the reading process. Every actor just reads tons and tons of scripts. I heard that the writer/director, of Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan wanted to see me for this and I was told or reminded that he knew me from 10 years ago when I did an episode of the X-Files that he wrote. I vaguely recalled who he was, but we hadn’t stayed in touch or anything. Well, it’s always good when someone requests to see you.
So I read the script and I thought it was brilliant and I called my agency right away and I said “Yes, set it up as soon as possible.” They said OK. Then I waited three days and started ruminating about the script, the premise and the character. The character just started seeping into me and my psychy. I was daydreaming about this guy and I had a night dream about him. I just started thinking about he carried himself, how he spoke and how we walked, and how heavy he was, and how he looked and how he dressed. Everything started to come to me on it’s own. It’s just so well written that it just seeped in.
We had our meeting and a 20 minute scheduled meeting turned out to be an hour and a half. We kept going back and forth, and he would say something and I would say yes, and and then I would say something and he would say “yes and also this would happen.” Then that and then this. So after that meeting he was my champion and he fought for me to get this role and eventually won that battle.
How do you prepare for a role like BB?
Like I was saying, when scripts are really well written, a lot of the acting is already done for you, because they’re so descriptive and the signs are there, and the visual explanation of the character and the sequences of events are laid out so well, that is just takes over, and you start to embody that character, or maybe the character embodies you. It just starts to seep in and you get to know this person. It doesn’t mean that you don’t work on specific details. You experiment that way.
But, I knew this guy. I know people like that. My belief is that regret is one of the worst human conditions there is outside of being physically ill. Because it just stays with you and the manifestation comes out in two ways. One way is that people that we know who are angry and cynical and bitter and say things like: I could have done that, he’s not that great, she’s ugly. People become bitter, angry and vicious. Then there’s the other type of, and this is where Walt falls in, they implode, and become invisible and soft and blend into the wall. Their voice becomes quiet. Everything around them becomes smaller. Their life, their persona, and that was Walt. He just started caving in.
The other thing about it, what it really taught me, is that the people that we would seem to be very mild mannered, or weak or introverted, all of those people, just like Walt White, have a trigger inside of him/her that can be pulled at any given time if you push the right buttons to effect that person. And this is whats happened to Walt, he’s had this volcano of emotions just blow it’s tip and there’s no going back. He’s now felt feelings that he hasn’t felt for 25 years. So not only is there no going back emotionally, but socially, criminally. He’s stepped over the line and he’s on a journey that he really doesn’t know how it’s about to end up. The only thing that he’s accepting is that it will end in the next year or two.
How much of the script did you leave unconsidered and how much was mapped out? Did you leave any room for improv or interpretation on set?
Most of the time when you read a script that is so well done, you don’t want to mess with it (laughs). And the problem areas that you do have early, which are natural, I’ll read early on and I’ll bring it up to Vince and we’ll discuss it, and he’ll agree and we’ll make those changes, or he won’t agree and we’ll hash it out and finally get to come kind of compromise. And/or if he’s certain we’ll do it a couple different ways, one his way one, my way. You don’t have to take the time to make the decision in production, it can be made in post-production and editing.
Do you think you’ve learned to work like that with experience? I mean, as an actor, if you were a 20-year-old actor would you be that diplomatic in terms of providing a solution?
No. When I, like most actors first begin, acquiesced all the time. Because, when you’re new and you’re happy to be there and you know you want to please them and you don’t want to ruffle feathers at all and you want to develop a good reputation so you think that even if it’s something you disagree with, you’ll think, “Oh, I gotta make this right. How do I make it right?” and you do it. Then once you start doing that you realize “I knew it was wrong when I read it. I knew it was wrong when I performed it. And now I’m watching it and it’s confirming that it was wrong.” Then you get mad at yourself for not speaking up and saying something, and trying a different approach. You know the best directors and the best writer/producers are confident enough and secure enough to be able to listen to differences of opinion and weigh them. It also reinforces the relationship in that everybody’s invested in, in the best possibly outcome of this project.
Ever have any regrets over the decisions you’ve made with your career?
I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to, you know, make a very good living and as an actor, it’s just spectacular, so I don’t have regrets in
Did you ever find any parallels between you and Walt that made you reconsider things in your own life or feel thankful for what you have?
You realize, “Man we’re the same age,” and it could happen at any time, but I’ve never really lived that way. So, I have a very small section of attention, very, very small section of attention in my being on the past – mostly good thoughts and friends and experiences, and a very small section of awareness of the future. You know, there’s a, that’s out there and the majority of it is in the present.
I, will lighten the mood a little bit. You have a lot of comedic experience. Do you think that allowed you to approach the black comedy, black humor in Breaking Bad differently to an actor that had not had the same comedic experience as you?
I suppose so. Yes. I mean, I think the most important thing is to be able to recognize the comedic opportunities in a script and then play with them in different levels. Comedy, as you know, is really very fragile and, so you need to float it a little bit. When you do a comedic scene you can ether go balls-out, slapstick, very physical comedy or all the way to subtle that many people don’t even get it. We’re (Breaking Bad) much more on that line where some people really get the dark humor in the show, and some people don’t. The good thing about it is that it still works. You don’t have to get the humor to it, but I think it’s a more enriching experience if you do. And it’s a lot of fun to play, I mean, Malcolm was a high-energy and silly at times. Fun, physical comedy and this is much more character-driven and circumstantial comedy. So it’s different, but it’s just as fun.
Do you feel comedic acting can be a mechanical process or from instinct?
I, I think it’s all correct. You could, as a general subject, say that comedy comes out of the unexpected a lot, right? So you know, guy takes the arrow out of his quiver and he puts it in his bow, and you see the target and we expect him to hit the target and it hits the cow next to the target. That’s the surprise. Anytime you have an element of surprise therein lies comedy. But you can’t teach it in that sense. It really has to be innately learned and drawn out. You can do that, though. If someone has a basic sense of comedy, of comic ability, and that doesn’t mean appreciation for sense of humor, it could be brought out and broadened.
One of the things I’ve noticed, a common theme between Walt White and how they both wear tighty-whities. Was that a conscious decision?
No. I remember, well, I guess it is. It was kind of put upon me in the sense of Breaking Bad. In Malcolm in the Middle, when I went on my wardrobe call, you know, that was eight, nine years ago, to select our wears, I saw all kinds of boxers and stuff. I looked over and saw the boys’ clothes and they had tighty-whities for the boys, well that made sense. And realizing how I was just a big boy, and was going to be, I said I should wear those too. And they, and the first thing Heidi Kazynski, our wardrobe designer did was laugh. And I said it’s right because he’s a boy.
Now flash-forward to Breaking Bad, and it was in the script that here was this man that was driving this RV with a respirator and no clothes on, except tighty-whities. And, I didn’t initially react to it that way ’cause that I was thinking about it more objectively. When I realized I was gonna play him, you know, I brought it up to Vince, that my character on Malcolm wore tighty-whities all the time, and he went, “Oh, yeah. I forgot that.” He said, “We’ll change it. Go ahead and pick out whatever underwear you want,” and so, I went to Kathleen del Toro, our wardrobe designer on Breaking Bad, and she had all kinds of things: boxers and long boxers and short boxers and patterns and I’m looking at ‘em all and it just something about it wasn’t right. I looked over to the tighty-whities and I looked at ‘em and, I just started think, “How sad.” How sad that a grown man would wear those. And I realized, oh that’s what makes it right for Walt.
For very different reasons, I chose to stay with the tighty-whities because it sort of indicated to me the stagnation of his development as a human being, as a man. You know, and it sort of felt bad â here’s this poor sap, you know, still wearing tighty-whities. He hasn’t progressed, you know, in his clothing choices or his, I mean his intellect and his emotional status have all kind of stagnated and that sort of helped me, you know, bring that out visually.
You’ve directed comedy before with the Malcolm series. Would it appeal to you to direct something like Breaking Bad or Breaking Bad itself?
I would like to. I don’t know if I’ll direct an episode this season or not. Depends on a lot of things, but if we were to go a third season, I would definitely be directing an episode or two. I enjoy the distinct differences between acting and directing, and realize how hard it is to direct and how as an actor you’re sort of groomed to be self-involved. Even in acting classes you’re taught, “What is your character? What does your character want? Who is in your way? What just happened to you?” You know, it’s all about you. And that’s really how you have to approach a character, is me, me, me, me. Well some actors carry that “me, me, me, me” over in their real life and get in trouble that way or develop a reputation that’s negative.
What do you feel the real differences between being a Director and an Actor are?
A director has to look out for everyone, I mean, every single dept has a myriad of questions that need answers and you’re the person that’s gonna answer them. Sometimes you think, “Oh, that’s a silly question. Why should I even answer that?” I remember I did an independent movie called Last Chance about nine years ago and had a ball making it. It was a sweet, romantic drama, very linear story about a woman who feels she has no choice or hope in her life and how she regains that.
I remember the property master came up to me when I was directing and said, you know, “What color coffee cups do you want, in the scene?” And I was busy doing other things that were, in my opinion much more important. It doesn’t matter. Coffee cups. Whatever coffee cups. Just pick some coffee cups and put ‘em on the table, and I kind of dismissed him and he said, “ok.” And he went away, and then came time the next day for that scene and the coffee cups had polka-dots on ‘em.
So they were completely wrong for the scene?
Completely wrong because it was too cheery. Also because when an actor lifts a polka-dotted cup, you focus on the cup. You’re looking at the cup, and I thought “Well this is my lesson.” Every decision is important and I didn’t blame him. He was doing his job, and I was impatient and learned a good lesson. I said, “I’m sorry. Do we have any other cups?” And we get some plain brown cups.
You never seem to have any trouble getting work, what advice do you have for aspiring actors, if we take talent as a prerequisite?
Yes. That’s always good. The most important thing I think for any actor is to work as an actor. So wherever you can do that, whether it’s on stage anywhere or student films, be working as an actor as much as you possibly can. Each time you do, you learn something. You learn one or two little things, or an experience you had, or you’ll meet someone who might be important to your career later on or something. It’s possible.
As far as when you are starting to audition professionally, I have a very specific piece of advice for actors and that is don’t go in looking for a job. If you go into an audition hoping that you’re going to get that job, you’re setting yourself up for failure, because that’s just not what you’re doing there. If you turn it around and change your perspective on it and realize that what you’re doing there. Your job is not to get the job, your job is to focus on the character and serve the play or screenplay, whatever the case may be, and do the best interpretation or most interesting version of the character. Maybe even the most surprising version that you can do. Compelling. Something, to make the people in the room take their heads off of their hands and look at you. Your job, then, is to just present that character within the context of that audition to them, and then leave.
And if when you’re in the elevator leaving and when you’re in your car driving home or whatever, and you review it in your mind as all actors do, just ask yourself, “Did I do what I wanted to do? Did I do the best job I could? Did I hit those points that I wanted? Was I emphatic when I wanted to be? Was I shy when I wanted to be?, whatever the case may be. And if you can answer “Yes”, then you need to celebrate that. You did a good job. You did your job, and forget about it. And go home. And don’t call your agent. Don’t do it. “Can you get feedback? Can you tell me ?” Don’t. If they want you to continue along that journey, they’ll contact you. That was a way for survival for me. So that you don’t look at every audition as either Pass or Fail. Get the job or fail.
What was your first experience of acting?
When I was seven years old I did a commercial for United Way that my dad produced and directed. Yeah, and I was kid playing baseball and the ball goes out in the street and I run out after it and get hit by a car.
Were you instantly taken with the whole experience, the set, the lighting, the whole thing?
I knew at the time, I think immaturely, I was taken with the amount of attention that I got. It was “Wow. Look at all these people standing by, coming out of their houses to watch us do this.” And look at all this, it was a way to get some attention which anybody likes. And then I kind of got older, it morphed into how powerful it is to affect people’s emotions, whether it’s by making them laugh and saying a few things or making them angry, or cry or, I mean it’s unbelievably powerful. And I think that’s what everybody on earth is looking for. Everyone is looking for their power, and some people find it in their work and some people find it in their children. Some people find it in their charity work, or whatever it is. Some people find it in producing the best looking roses on the block, and it’s fantastic. So, people are constantly looking for what empowers them and that’s what I mean by that â looking for their power.
Can you tell something about the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which I know is a charity you sponsor?
Yes. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is my main charity that I devote a lot of time and attention to. I host their award shows back in Washington, D.C. every year and also a Congressional breakfast, and it honors law enforcement personnel and government officials and even just some regular people on what they’ve done in extraordinary events that have helped save lives of children. And a while ago I made a DVD called Kid Smarts and it is a half an hour program both in English and Spanish. It’s for families. You sit down with your family, kids from six years old and on up. You learn the basics how to stay safe from abduction and online predators.
It’s a great initial program for families to be able to open the discussion about how to stay safe for their kids and it’s a fund raiser for the National Center, so they can buy it from Amazon. All the proceeds go to the National Center so it’s a great way to support them and also to help educate your family. It allows families to be educated and feel empowered with information, as opposed to being victimized by ignorance, and it’s done without any weapons or violence and I’m really proud of it.
Is that the best way to support the charity, to buy that DVD?
Yes. That’s the best way to find it. It’s called, KidSmartz and it’s fantastic. They can also go to netsmarts.com or missingkids.com and get into the website of the National Center, and if they’re more interested on getting more information on how to protect your kids and stuff.
I saw that you were associated with Fright Site on Netstudio TV, could you tell me a little about that?
Sure. That’s a cool new thing that came up and I agreed to sign on to it. It’s basically to help young writers get a foothold into the business of writing screenplays and such, and so what we came up with is this Fright Site; we’re going to produce this film short, a horror film short or a thriller film short. It’s already in progress so they can go to Netstudio.tv and then go on the Fright Site section of it and find out what place in the competition â basically we have different categories in development of this screenplay. So, you will pitch an idea and we’ll pick the winner of the original idea and then we say next, ok now we need the plot. What’s the plot? Next, okay, who are the characters? Who is the antagonist and such. And so we go all the way down until we get all that information. And we compile into a film short and then shoot it, and then present it with all its contributors and then the winner wins prizes and cash.
So, what’s a time scale for that? When will we be able to see a finished piece?
I think another couple of months before we’re done with the contest, and then we shoot the, compile all the writing samples and then we’ll write the final script. Then we’ll go through casting, of course, and then we’ll shoot it, and then we’ll present it on Netstudio.tv initially and eventually Youtube and everywhere else.
Quick Fire Round:
A simple and complex, curious person.
What would you be doing if acting was not an option?
I think I’d be working outdoors, I mean, if I wasn’t an actor I’d probably want to be some sports management. I love baseball, so I’d probably do something in that.
What is the best piece of advice that someone has ever given you, and did you follow it?
Best piece of advice. Wear comfortable shoes when you’re directing. And I did.
Was it good advice?
Yes. Brilliant, because at the end of 16 hours of on your feet you’re actually just tired, not broken.
What piece of advice would you give the 20-year-old Bryan Cranston?
Don’t worry. You’re gonna have a great life.
Most memorable moment on the set, if it doesn’t involve polka-dot cups?
Most memorable moment on the set? I think for Breaking Bad was when in Episode 6, I think it was, Episode 6, I get out of the shower after realizing gobs of my hair are falling out of my hair from the chemotherapy and swirling around the drain, depressed and having to take all these pills I just decide to shave off the rest of my hair and to become bald for the first time. So I just took that razor on camera and shaved it off.
What annoys you?
Waste and litter.
What are you good at?
What am I good at? I can load a dishwasher better than anyone.
What are you bad at?
Patience. I’m not, I need more patience
What embarrasses you?
What embarrasses me? Not much. Hmmm. When you’ve appeared naked in tighty-whities in front of a crew of 65 men and women, not much embarrasses me.
I was going to say, tighty-whities obviously don’t embarrass you.
Nothing embarrasses me.
Three great movies.
Godfather, Lawrence of Arabia and Little Miss Sunshine.
Three great actors or actresses. Living or dead.
Spencer Tracy, who else, Meryl Streep, and George Sanders.
What’s your favorite thing about L.A.?
Familiar. The weather.
Your least favorite thing about L.A.?
Best food in L.A.?
Mediterranean restaurant called Carnival in Sherman Oaks.
What’s the best thing in L.A. that no one know about?
Probably the hikes that are available around reservoirs in L.A.
Finally, tell us something we probably didn’t know about you.
I was an ordained minister and I’ve married about twelve couples.
How did you become ordained?
It’s a silly little thing. It’s through the Universal Life Church, which is a male-order church.
Yeah. And I did it when I was in, I just graduated from high school and a friend who was a, turns out he was Reverend Bob. And he had accidentally booked two weddings at the same time and couldn’t be in two different places so in an emergency he grabbed me and said, “You want to make a hundred bucks and perform this wedding?” and I said “OK.” So he put the piece of paper and the certificate in the IBM Selectric, tells you how old it is, and typed up my name and sent it in to the state to make it official. Then he gave me the credentials, the address, and a book to read from/ And I thought, well that’s trippy. That whole process took about ten minutes, and then it was a way to make a hundred or a hundred and twenty-five bucks or something. Back in the early ’70s, which was great.
Thank you very much for your time!
Photos by AMC