Bryan Cranston Curated
American actor, director, producer, screenwriter
CURATED BY :
If you had cancer and only a few years left to live, what would you do?
What I’ve learned from living in Walt’s shoes is that you truly don’t know. A lot of people have asked that hypothetical question at dinner parties. “What would you do if you had a year left? What would you do if you had a million dollars?” Well, Walter is living that. It’s not hypothetical for him, and what he’s realized is that it’s day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute sometimes. He made a decision to do something bold, and now the chickens have come home to roost. Here’s the bigger question from Walter’s perspective: Is it ever worth it to compromise your morality and your ethics to try to become someone else for financial gain. That’s the crux of character. To me, the character in a person is judged by the decisions that are made under pressure. Walt failed that test. I understand why he did it; temptation, humiliation, the lack of financial security – all those elements were carefully designed by Vince to put Walt in that dilemma, but he failed to rise above the pressures. When you look at it, you realize that’s the downfall of other people – when you fail that test.
Are you willing to return for the role of Walter White?
I would be in it if Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, who are co-executive producers on it, wanted me to be in it. I would do it in a second. But it hasn’t happened yet, I can tell you, and we’ll see. I don’t know. There’s one more season to go and we’ll see what happens!
Do you think you’ll be directing features in the future?
I hope so. I have a few screenplays I’ve written, and one’s starting to get some traction now. I might be able to direct it next year. So we’ll see. It’s like building a house, you need all the parts to come in – financing, the right actor, etc – so hopefully they will.
Do you think it’s important to balance out the bleak subject matter of Breaking Bad with these regular doses of dark comedy?
Again, it’s the captain of our ship that guides that. You know what’s really good is to keep people honest, to keep people off-kilter. So at the beginning of season four, you saw a very surprising, violent opening. At the beginning of season five, I think maybe the audience is like “Ohhh, what’s gonna happen, it’s going to be bad…” And then it’s not violent. Still honest – it didn’t break from who we are, but it kept people off-guard, and that’s the best thing you can do. That’s the brilliance of the writing. It’s sometimes, I feel like I get to be the lead singer, but the true talent is the one writing the songs, and he’s in the background.
How did you respond to being beaten to the Best Actor award for the first time by Damien Lewis (Homeland) at Emmy awards?
I don’t think too much of it. I never dreamt about winning awards, that has to remain a surprise to you. The fact that you’re in that conversation, that people are responding to your work is in and of itself a remarkable thing. Here’s something I found upsetting: people have a tendency to pit [actors] against each other as if it’s a competition, and I see why they think that but I truly don’t see it that way. People would come up to me after Damien Lewis won the Emmy and said: “Ah, I’m sorry, you got robbed. Man, you got robbed. You were robbed.” And every time someone would say that it would feel like someone was accidentally stepping on my toe each time. Because I know it’s not true, number one. And number two, I understand the sentiment, that they’re trying to say “I’m sorry you didn’t win,” but they feel like that’s not enough. It’s not enough to say “I’m sorry you didn’t win”, [they] have to put down the other guy. That kind of competition was uncomfortable for me. I know Damien, and he’s so terrific, and he certainly deserves that kind of accolade and attention. It was his year, so no, I’m not upset. He’s terrific. But by saying I got robbed, that’s saying he didn’t deserve it, which is a little annoying to me.
What's it like to work with a writer like Vince Gilligan?
It’s been beautiful. I’ve been very fortunate, and I don’t hesitate to mention how this all came about. In fact, I think it’s my duty as an older guy to reach down and mentor the young actor and tell them with all absoluteness that there are components that are necessary to be there to have a successful career in the arts. There’s talent: if you don’t feel you have talent, stop now, go back home, and get into the family business. But if you have talent, and perseverance, and patience, there’s still one more component left that without it you won’t be successful: luck. You have to have luck. And I had luck. I wouldn’t be sat in this chair right now. I know that. It’s good because it frees me up to realize there’s no point in worrying about things: you’re going to get to the place you’re supposed to go to. Vince was my champion to get this role: I will forever be grateful to him.
Did you have any personal opinion on how Breaking Bad should end?
I don’t. Again, I don’t try to be objective to it. I honestly feel – and I swear to you this is not a cop-out answer – I want it to end exactly how Vince Gilligan wants it to end. He’s the captain, he’s guided the story from the beginning, and I empower that. I’m his mouthpiece, basically. Some people ask me, “You’ve got eight episodes, is there pressure on you to finish it?” and I say, not at all. It’s not on me. It’s on Vince.
Many fans argue over when their personal tipping point was for losing sympathy with Walt. Have you had that moment yet? Have you lost sympathy for him?
I don’t judge him. Because I’m too subjective, I shouldn’t judge him. It’s just a guy trying to get along and trying to do the right thing. We’ve all done that, even as children: remember when you told a lie to your parents, and then you realize (shudders) you have to back up that lie, and now you’re in deeper? That’s what Walter White’s life is now. But interestingly enough, is that that’s what historically television watchers have been told: we need to like and root for the lead character. It’s embedded in our psyche. And now… now it’s different. All the rules are different. But I’ll even have older journalists – not you – will say to me, almost aggressively and anxiously, “How are we supposed to like him?” And I say, “Are you supposed to? Where’s the rule that says you’re supposed to follow some edict?” All the rules are broken, you can go anywhere.
What kind of impact has the success of Breaking Bad had on you professionally?
It’s created a level of opportunity professionally that I’ve never experienced before. When actors first start out, you’re auditioning for everything, you’re talking to your friends, saying “What else is out there? What are you up for?” You’re trying to sniff it out like a pig after a truffle. You would do anything, and if your agent calls you and says “They’d like to hire you for…” you say “Yes” before the phone call has finished, because you need the job! You need to pay your rent. So it’s nice to get out of that mindset, where you’re just saying “YES!”, and what I felt I’ve become pretty good at, is being able to identify well-written material. That’s the cornerstone. Everything that you do as an actor – if something is well-written, it has a chance to be good. If it is not well–written, it will not be good. It can even become popular but it won’t be good. If it starts with the foundation of good writing, you’re in the best shape you can be.
Did you enjoy playing the new, more openly amoral Walt, or do you miss playing the put-upon milquetoast science teacher in Breaking Bad?
This is the role of my life – I won’t have a better role for the rest of my career. Ever. But instead of lamenting that or feeling that, I’m embracing it, I’m enjoying the ride. Especially at my age now – I’m 56 now, I was 50 when we shot the pilot, and to have that come into my life at that age, it’s unbelievable. I knew where it was going, and as an actor, you hope to be able to have a career that sort of that mirror your own life – you want a well-rounded experience. You don’t always want to be serious, you don’t always want to be silly, you want to be able to experience a bunch of different things. But to be able to do that in one role? It’s ridiculous. It’s an amazing gift.
You mentioned Electric Dreams being a passion project. Could you maybe explain why? Could you articulate your passion for Philip K. Dick?
Storytelling. I’m really fortunate that I get to be a storyteller. It’s my job. I get to tell stories for a living. Storytelling is probably your earliest memory. Dragging a book to your parent’s lap. And looking at the pictures as they’re telling you a story. It’s like, ‘Wow, look at this, and then the monster did this, and the beanstalk, or whatever.’ It’s like we’re enthralled. It’s one of the joyous things of being a human being – actually very sweet and innocent about human beings – that we are willing, as mature adults, to spend really good money, to have people tell us a story, that we know is not true. But we don’t care. It’s so important to us. I will layout all this money for you, please, tell me a story! Right?
How important do you think the success of Black Mirror was to getting something like Human Is made?
Very. Very important. It told that there is an audience for this kind of storytelling. And I think it’s a terrific show. And it’s not… I guess you could say that we would want to compete with it, but in essence it’s maybe not competing with it, but working in conjunction with it. You know, anything is a competition, but I don’t really see it that way. What I see is, like, I don’t feel I’m in competition with other actors. And that’s not to say, ‘Oh no, no one’s in my league.’ [Laughter] That’s not at all what I’m saying. What I’m saying is that I don’t look at it that way. I look at it from a standpoint of: I’m going to present to them a possible solution, or option for them. For producers, writers. And if they select me, they’ll get a certain thing. If they select someone else, they will get something else. And so I just look at it like, ‘Oh, they wanted that.’ So it’s not offensive or anything.
Could you kind of explain how hands-on you are in your executive producer role? For example, have you helped sort of bring, actors, onboard? Have you chosen the writers yourself?
I have been working with the other EPs for three and a half years, I think. Developing the pitch, going to the pitch meetings, selling it to Amazon, selling it to Channel 4, and developing the construct of how we would do this. Ten different writers, ten different directors, ten different casts – it’s a monumental production. Logistically, it shouldn’t work. It really shouldn’t. It shouldn’t, and yet it does. It comes together. Somehow, someway. Reading. My work is mostly reading and noting. Meetings on the phone. Ten different outlines, two or three times. Either twenty to thirty outlines to read and note. Each episode had at least three drafts each. Most of them had four or five. Human Is had twelve.
Did you know that you wanted to do Human Is [the episode that Cranston is appearing in is an adaptation of Dick’s 1955 short story Human Is] straight away? When you first talked about the short stories?
It’s like when I’m doing a movie or something. I read a project, I read a script, objectively, so I don’t already place myself into that character’s position, you know? I wanted to see because I always want to see, how it affects me. Does it stimulate my imagination? And it has to stay with me. Sometimes if it scares me a little bit, that’s a good sign. But certainly, if it stays with me. If I wake up thinking about it if I’m walking around, if it stays, like, it’s a good sign.
As an actor, you must get newfound excitement getting to discover which of director Wes Anderson's worlds you're going to be incorporated into, right?
Exactly right. He works with that core of actors who all have the same thing. Believe me, they don’t know what his next project is going to be but they’re all in because they love the experience. They love him as a person. He's very protective, he's very congenial and familiar. He always organizes cast dinners - he's like, 'Bring your mates, I wanna meet your spouse. Your daughter? Bring her along!' You feel like a family, you really do, and when someone makes you feel that warm and welcome - and happens to be a brilliant auteur - say no more. If Wes calls me again, which I hope he does, all he has to say is, 'I have an idea. Let's do it.' It's just that.
Were there moments when you struggled to detach from the character of Walter White?
You use talismans - worry beads or meditation or a crucifix. We used items and implements to help us connect to things. I'd go into the hair and makeup trailer and I have two hot moist towels - one wrapped around my face and one around my bald head like a turban that I would just sit and allow the heat and the moisture [to take its course]. It almost made me a little sleepy or dizzy, but it pulled out the dirt and slime and, not physical but maybe the emotional baggage that the character had. I would just wash my face and head completely, put on some moisturizer and my own clothes, drive my own car, call my wife and leave Walter White at the studio. The more you do it, the more comfortable it becomes.
Was there anything from the story you wanted for Walter White that didn't make it into the series Breaking Bad?
I pitched early on that Walter should go through a whole metamorphosis from a man who was at one time very noble and dignified, a family man, a scientist in his chemistry, a learned man, and as he was going through the transition into more of an ego-driven impulsive man filled with common emotions of rage and resentment and greed and competition and all these things.