Saturday, July 16, 2011

From Sitcom Dad to Scarface

060911hubpmmentv_512x288.jpg (512×288)                                                            Bryan Cranston can't go on like this forever. The actor knows his days are numbered playing Walter White, the cancer-stricken, meth-producing chemistry teacher in AMC's "Breaking Bad." The only thing he doesn't know is whether it will be the cancer or his lifestyle as an Albuquerque methamphetamine kingpin that kills him.
That setup may sound dark for the man who prior to "Breaking Bad" was best known as the affable dad Hal on Fox's long-running sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle." After that, Mr. Cranston risked becoming typecast like other successful sitcom stars. "I was being offered lots of goofy dad roles and turned them all down," he says over coffee at the Lambs Club in New York.
Instead, he jumped on the chance to play Walt in "Breaking Bad." At the time, Mr. Cranston says people gawked at his decision to go with a little-known cable channel. Now, "Breaking Bad" is a critical darling with five Emmy Awards including three consecutive best-actor wins for Mr. Cranston.
Long before "Breaking Bad," Mr. Cranston appeared in '80s and '90s TV shows including "Hill Street Blues" "L.A. Law," and "Murder, She Wrote." He met his wife, actress Robin Dearden, playing the villain of the week on "Airwolf." In a six-episode stint on "Seinfeld," Mr. Cranston played Tim Whatley, the dentist whom Jerry accuses of converting to Judaism just so he can cash in on Jewish jokes. The accusation gets Jerry labeled an "antidentite."
But it was a small role on "The X-Files" as a man going insane from high-pitched sonar waves that caught the attention of TV writer Vince Gilligan, who thought of Mr. Cranston when he created "Breaking Bad." Mr. Cranston says the idea is that Walt will evolve from "Mr. Chips to Scarface" over the course of the series.
As the show prepares to begin its fourth season Sunday, he says, "We're well beyond the midway point of having him become this hardened criminal."
The Wall Street Journal: What were you thinking when you first read the "Breaking Bad" pilot script? It opens with a guy in his underwear.
Mr. Cranston: I got a stack of scripts from my agency. One of them had a note on it that said "This one is by Vince Gilligan who knows you from 'X-Files.' " I'm thinking "Vince, who?" I started reading and the first page is a pair of trousers falling from the sky over red clay dirt, an RV runs over them. And I'm going, "What? An RV? Huh?" It drives recklessly down an empty dirt road—and inside the RV, a man dressed in tighty-whitey underwear and a respirator drives frantically. Next to him is another man passed out with a respirator. Behind him are two dead men sliding up and back in a sea of chemicals and glass.
That was the first page. It was the best drama script I'd ever read. I called my agent and said I want to meet with Vince this week. I knew that for anyone who was lucky enough to get this role, it's a game changer.
We know Walt was a miserable high-school teacher working part-time at a car wash before he starts cooking meth, but we don't get too much back story. How'd he get to that point?
Part of an actor's job is to draw up a back story. I wrote an extensive back story for myself using the confines of what Vince has said. I came up with my own reasoning that he [Walt] developed a severe panic of failing. He was a bright young man whose teachers, peers, professors and family members all told him the sky's the limit, you can write your own ticket. If enough people tell you that it can make you vibrate a little bit in panic.
How did he become a teacher? I realized teachers are immune to criticism. It's such an honorable, noble profession that no one can criticize you for making that move. If you became a truck driver, people would say, "He's wasting a brilliant mind," but Walt can hide out in his decision to be a teacher. He's invisible. I handwrite all this. I've never shown it to anybody, but it informs decisions along the way.
I've read that you based the character on your dad.
I always felt Walt carries the weight of the world on his shoulders so he wouldn't stand straight. He'd stand like someone burdened with a heavy life. My dad is 87 now, so he's kind of rounded over. When I play Walt I make sure to round him over. It presents the feeling of burden. You don't have to say much more than that.
You recently played Julia Roberts's husband in "Larry Crowne." How did that come about?
I'd worked with Tom [Hanks] before and we've been friends for years. My wife and his wife are longtime friends. She was in their wedding 23 years ago. We did "From the Earth to the Moon," "That Thing You Do!" [and "Saving Private Ryan"] together. He asked me to do this.
At the time I was bald and working on "Breaking Bad." I'm hunched over and grimacing and I told him I feel more like Julia Roberts's dad than her husband. Sure enough, my hair grew back. I worked out and bleached my teeth. I got a spray tan. All these external things helped me feel that I could possibly be in the same league with her because I didn't want audiences to think, "How could she be married to that old guy?"
A lot of people said the episode in season two, in which Walt lets Jesse's girlfriend Jane choke on her own vomit, was a turning point. Do you agree?
I think that's a good measuring stick. He allowed this young girl who could've been his daughter to die. That has got to be a turning point in anyone's life. His act of omission speaks volumes.
How can you keep a character like that likable?
I don't think about that. I don't care about keeping him likable. My approach is to just keep him real. I don't want to get to the mustache-twisting phase, you know, those poorly written scripts when someone is evil for the sake of being evil. We need to know what motivates this person.
We're witnessing a metamorphosis of character, but at every step there's a dose of humanity. Walt can kill someone one minute and lovingly caress his baby the next.


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