Breaking Bad has become one of the most remarkable TV series in history because of Bryan Cranston's Walter White, a genius chemist beaten down by life who, in the words of series creator Vince Gilligan, metamorphosizes from "Mr. Chips to Scarface." Cranston sat down with Fast Company at Albuquerque's Grove Cafe, not far from where Breaking Bad is filmed. He'd been shooting until 4 a.m. the night before but is full of life at 9:30 a.m.; the double cappuccino helps. He's chatty and relaxed, and says he'll soon wrap up the last scene of the series (its final eight episodes air on AMC August 11).
In an online exclusive, we're running the majority of the talk with Cranston. In this first installment (check back each day this week), he talks about how he helped create Walter and how he'll move beyond what may be the single best performance in the history of TV.
Oh, and he knows how Breaking Bad ends.
FAST COMPANY: Where are you in the finale?
BRYAN CRANSTON: We have Thursday, Friday and eight more days to shoot.
Do you know what happens to Walt?
I read the Sunday before last. But that's rare for me. Usually I find out about a week before we start shooting. But we had to adjust a schedule because of actor availability. So we had to shoot a couple days that were supposed to be in the schedule of the penultimate episode, and we had to shoot the ultimate episode and go back a couple times.
Does that happen often?
We're used to that. Shooting out of sequence is the norm. We always do that. As a matter of fact, tonight, we shoot the very last scene of the series. And it's odd. You get in, say “hi,” and there you go. That was the last scene ever of Breaking Bad and we're filming it tonight.
What drew you to the role?
I've said this many times before but it's so true and I feel compelled to reiterate it, and that's that I remember seeing Paul Newman win an Oscar and he said "Oscar-winning roles aren't acted, they're written." And that struck me. I was a young actor watching with wide eyes and I thought, "What does he mean by that? He acted it. It was him. Why would he say it's written?" Then over the years I realized that you're only as good as the material. So I believe the best actor in the world, say Meryl Streep, if she was handed C-level material, she could bring that up to a solid B. But that's it. When I read Breaking Bad cover to cover and I read it because my agent says "You worked with him on X-Files many years ago, he remembers you and wants to see you for this." Okay. Usually the majority of pilot scripts are pretty predictable. "She's in love with him but he's going to fool around. Yep. Yep. Yep." You're not invested. But with Breaking Bad, it was immediate. That first page:
A pair of trousers fall through the sky, bright blue billowy clouds, red rock, dirt, tires roll over them. A runaway RV in the middle of the desert. Cut to the inside you see a man wearing only tighty-whitey underwear and a respirator driving madly. There's another man passed out with a respirator next to him. Behind him, two men dead, sliding up and back in a sea of glass and chemicals.
That was the first page and I'm going "What the hell?" and it just got you right away. It was a feeding frenzy. I finished without stopping. I said, "Get me in," and my agency said, "We have an appointment early next week." And I said, "Get me in this week." Because like a feeding frenzy, I know when other actors read something like this, they want it. So they did. And when something is well-written it's not dissimilar from reading a great novel. You know how you can't wait to get back to bed that night because you can't wait to see what happens in the next chapter and see how far you can go. You put it down and you dream on it. I started daydreaming and having real dreams about this character because it was so good. It affected me. I would wake up and go, "He should look this way and he should weigh this much and he should have a silly mustache. His clothes should all be beige and sand colored and taupe. He should blend into the scenery because he's invisible to society." The amount of work is... I didn't work at all. It was instant. That's what good writing does. The hardest work I've ever had to do is on poorly written material where you're going, "How can I make sense of this? How can I…" It's effort. You can feel the flop sweat.
Describe your first meeting with show creator Vince Gilligan.
I went into that initial meeting with him loaded for bear. I wanted to let him know and inspire him to make him feel that I'm the guy to play this. And it worked. It wasn't a trick. I just said, "I think he should be overweight. I think this man is depressed and he missed opportunities in his life. He's introverted, he imploded. So he didn't care anymore. He still loves his family, knows his responsibility, is going to work and do what he can for his special-needs son. For his wife to keep a roof over their heads. He'll do whatever it takes. As most men would. But that doesn't remove the fact that he is a depressed guy from missed opportunities, from mistakes, decisions that he made that were too safe." I asked Vince why he was a schoolteacher and he said, "I don't know." His girlfriend is a schoolteacher, he's very influenced by schoolteachers and wanted him to have that job. So me playing him, I thought maybe there's something behind that. I came to it that for me he's a schoolteacher because it was the safe pick. If you're a brilliant chemist as he was and you decide I'm going to drive a truck, people would say you're wasting your talent. But if I said I was going to teach chemistry to the next generation and try to inspire them. No one can criticize the profession of the teacher. It's honorable. So he hid out in academia so that he didn't have to face his losses.
You supplied the backstory?
I always do. I free-hand write a backstory. I never give it a limit, a minimum or maximum. I stop and if I come to a stop, I'll make some coffee. Just something that keeps my mind there. Oftentimes I'll go back and say "How does this backstory support where it's going to take us?"
When did you find out that the idea was to transform Walt?
At that first meeting, which was supposed to be 20 minutes but lasted an hour and a half. I started reeling as he told me. Changing a character from start to finish has never happened in the history of serious television. Stasis has always been the norm. You tune in because Archie Bunker is always Archie Bunker.
Do you need to know where your character is headed?
Dive in. I'm on the roller coaster. It's much more fun when I don't know the twists and turns. In life you don't have that luxury either. You have an idea and a hope, but you don't know where your life is going to go. So I just sign onto that. A very human experience. I just gave into it. Take me away, tell me the story.
Did you spend time with cancer patients? At schools? With other experiences your character has?
He's a chemist, so my biggest concern was the chemistry aspect since I haven't had it since high school. I didn't appreciate it then. I was a confused kid. At a critical time I was dealing with my parents' divorce, trying to figure out things, looking for the shortcut. I thought, "How much work do I actually have to do to get a C?" I was just unmotivated and on shaky ground. I was just trying to figure out what life was for me. I contacted the Head of the Chemistry Department at USC for a few days.
What did you learn?
I learned how incredibly important chemistry is to our lives. And now I'm fascinated by it. Literally every single element that we deal with has a chemical component to it. It's exacting. We know that a chemical mixed with something else could become a bond, a gas, a liquid, toxic, inert, any number of things. I realized there's fascination in that. Then there was the nomenclature. I needed to touch things. "How would you handle that? How would you pick that up? How do you turn on the Bunsen burner? How do you light that so you look like an expert?" There were a couple things in it that he was talking about and we read through the script and I said, "So this big round-bottom oiling flask, you wouldn't use it for titration?" And he said that was wrong. So I called Vince on his cell phone and said, "Vince, something's wrong." He goes "What are we supposed to do now?" We're basically magicians pulling off a trick. In order to make the trick believable, the more we believe it and the more confidence we exude when we perform, the more an audience will be entertained.
Did you spend any time with meth?
I didn't want to. I wanted to be able to be fresh from that because his world was not in the drug world. I also didn't want to do research on lung cancer because it wasn't part of his being when he was first starting out. I wanted to learn about that as Walt is learning about it. I would have the same honest sense of curiosity listening to the diagnosis and prognosis as Walt would. We did have DEA chemists come on the set and teach us how to cook crystal meth. At Walt's level the process is so exacting and requires such precision and high grade of equipment and chemicals that I forgot everything.
If someone knew how, would they tell you what you did wrong?
We never wanted any of our show to become a how-to video. You can actually just get that online, of course. So we always, whenever we're doing a cook montage, we're talking about it, we'll always either leave a few steps out, just omit them, or put them out of order. Again our number-one thing is to entertain. So the shots have to be great and very Breaking Bad-esque and interesting, compelling to watch and move the plot along so you want to stay tuned.
Describe the way you prepare for such a long series.
It's different for someone who is on a series. In a film there's a beginning, middle, and end. So you really chart out, you can almost put on a spreadsheet where you want to go with your character. If you sell something too soon it's anticlimactic. If you get to the finale, "Well, we've already seen that fella around him, what has he overcome to foil the bad guy? Where have we gone on this journey?" You can chart that out. In a series it's so long and down the road that you're basically focusing on right now. I didn't know where it was going to go. All you have to focus on is your character. And after a while in a series, you don't even have to focus on him because he's so embedded in your soul that there are a few talismans that I use then, boom, I'm into it. The glasses, the Wallabee shoes, I shaved my head again. And it's like "There's that guy."
How important are those talismans?
We stumbled on that. I knew I was going to shave my head once I realized that my character was going to go through chemotherapy. The happy accident was that Walt continued to shave his head even though his hair was coming back.
Well for me, playing him, I wanted to create a sensibility that as long as he didn't recognize the man in the mirror you could almost justify your actions. Like a Jekyll and Hyde. The other thing was that we learn the most intimidating look a man can have is no head hair, but have facial hair. The softest look a man can have is head hair and no facial hair. Because it softens the face, frames them. Without it, there's hardness. So we just kept it throughout the series.
Do you use the comedic parts you do as a way to get away from Walt?
Basically. As satisfying as doing a serious heavy drama has been, after that main meal, I like a little dessert, or a different taste. I just did an on-camera sketch with Warren Buffett to entertain his stockholders for the next Berkshire Hathaway gathering in May. He came out to visit. He's a great sport. I just cooked up a batch of peanut brittle. And Jesse goes, "Mr. White, it looks like peanut brittle," and I go, "That's right. This is the gateway candy. From here, it's onto nougat, and nougat is everything. It's like taking candy from a baby." Warren Buffett wants to buy us out, or run us out of his territory. It's very funny.
Shifting between comedy and drama keeps your career interesting.
Right. I was happiest when I kept hearing the comments, "Wait, Walter White is the guy from Malcolm in the Middle?" That's the best praise I can get.
Cranston, thankfully, works much better with collaborators than Walter White. In this second installment of our interview with him for Fast Company's Most Creative People issue, Cranston talks about how to handle creative differences while maintaining the quality of the project. And trust falls.
FAST COMPANY: How do you work with a rotating cast of collaborators?
BRYAN CRANSTON: It's a weird setup in television because the director of an episode is often a guest. They come in and say hello. They don't know anyone. They do it and they leave. That's why most show runners like to develop a few directors they want to return on a regular basis so the learning curve is reduced. But we are creatures of habit.
Is there a trick to working with new people on the team?
My thing is to be the honesty police and help out these directors by saying, "My side of the bed is over there. We have to adjust your shots in order to keep honesty to the character. What married couple switches sides of the bed randomly?" Same thing with the kitchen table. You sit at your seat. We've made sure that we sit at the same seats for the entire run of the show. Those are little things that if you didn't do that, it would be what I call a pinch of poison. You give the audience a tiny pinch of poison. They can take that. They can take two or three or four pinches. But they might not feel great. They might not be able to articulate why they're not attaching themselves to the show. But they might say, "Why did that happen?" Because we lied to you. Sometimes it's a necessary evil, theatrical license where you have to truncate a story, leap over logic at times. But if at all possible, work hard to make sure that there isn't illogic.
How do you tactfully correct that mistake before it happens?
We just shot one scene. We're in a bar. I have a huge parka and I'm making a phone call. But they don't want me wearing the parka. I don't want to carry it, it's a huge parka. Why don't we put it over a stool and leave it there? The bartender says, "What can I get for you?" If my parka's there, he's already said that to me. So let's trace it back, and I said, "Here's my pitch, let's put the parka over the bar chair. I come to there and he says instead of "What can I get for you?" He says "Ready for that drink now?" Boom, we instantly know he's been there. He probably said "What can I get for you?" Nothing, I need to make a phone call, "Oh it's right over there." We as thinking human beings accept that logical pattern. That was a quick fix to a little bump, not a big bump. But why give any poison if you don't have to? Cover yourself. It takes that collaboration. That's the part of it that excites me.
How do you and the writers keep things flowing as the show progresses?
It's about the writing. I will stop in the writers room and say hello and bring donuts and just see how we're doing. Things like that. Good writers will watch actors and pick up little innuendos, sensibility, tidbits that trigger something in their psyche and will start writing that in. Little things like that. But television is really a writers' medium. The quantity of product necessary requires empowerment of the writer. In our case it's a really, really good thing.
There's a trust exercise done in every first-year acting class. You pair up with someone else. "Okay, turn around. She's going to fall back and you'll catch her and gently place her down on the floor." It's the first moment of saying, "In order for me to be up here, I need you to be up here with me and know that I can trust you." You fall, I do catch you and lay you down. And it's a little weird because you're voluntarily leaning back, knowing if I don't catch you you're going to hit the ground hard. It's weird, but huge. Then I turn around and now I'm thinking, "You're a thin woman." I fall into your arms. Then we start working together. It's the same relationships with actors, writers, directors--that triumvirate of creativity--we have to rely and trust each other to be able to get the final product. It's no one dictator over the other. It's truly a collaboration ... when it's working well.
How do you handle really serious disagreements, then?
I have enough time to point out an issue. And there always will be. An actor looks at themselves from a self-centered point of view. It's what we're trained to do. Our job is to fulfill our character's quest. What do I want? How do I get what I want? Who's in my way of getting what I want? It's always me, me, me. When actors take that perfectly appropriate behavior in their work and take it into their personal life, that's where there's trouble. But it's absolutely necessary in your working life so that you have a drive, an agenda. You don't just show up on the set and go "Where do you want me to stand? What do you want me to do?"
So if collaboration is like a dance, what are your signature moves?
I've adopted this: Even if you have a disagreement, it's always put in the form of a preface. And the preface is, "I have a pitch." I'm not telling you you're wrong. We're dealing with a subjective point of view. Who's wrong and who's right? You and I watch a movie together and you're "meh" and I'm weeping. You can't dare tell me I can't be weeping to what I saw. I had a personal experience. It didn't connect for you. You're not wrong either. That's what's so great about this. No one can be wrong.
Can you describe one of the tougher ones and how you got through it?
There was one where I moved back to the house and my goal is to get back with my family. My wife accepts my brutish force but banishes me to the baby's room to sleep on the floor. She won't cook my meals. I'm trying to get my way back in with the help of my son--he wants me back in the family. She's passing by the baby's room one day and sees my things piled there and has a laundry basket. She thinks about it for a second, goes in, takes my laundry. She's been wanting me to sign the divorce papers. I won't do it. She sees my laundry and she goes in and does my laundry. Then she tells my son the next night there's a place setting for three. "Do you want to ask your father to join dinner?" So then the next scene is that I've signed the divorce papers and left them for her. I went, "Wait a minute. The one thing I want is to get back with the family. She's showing signs of slowly accepting me back into the family. Why would I sign divorce papers?" You call it a bump. I bumped on this. Whenever anything doesn't quite sit well, you just call it a "bump," which is a more palatable way of saying "I have a problem with this." But if you start a sentence with "I have a problem with what you wrote, and here's how we're gonna fix it." as opposed to, "Something bumped me, and I have a pitch." It's not saying, "I'm right, you're wrong, and here's what we're gonna do." It's saying, "This is a problem for me and if you're invested in this storytelling, you want to smooth out the rough edges." You want to be able to satisfy because I'm not coming as an empty vessel to work. I'm coming because I'm passionately involved in this and I have something to offer. So do you as the writer and you as the director. Together we're stronger. We do a dance.
And how'd they react to that one?
Favorably. They cut the laundry business and actually turned it around. Instead of her saying to her son, "Do you want to ask your father to join us?" they gave the line to him. "Mom, can dad join us for dinner?" Now she either has to disappoint her son or give in. She takes a moment and says "Alright." So it came from my son. I realized she was still not doing this. I had to sign the divorce papers for the plot to continue. We just had to go back and find the elements that would justify me doing that. That's fine. I enjoy solving those problems.
How deep into the crew does this collaboration go?
I go to the wardrobe, costume designer, Kathleen DeToro, all the time to say, "This is what I want: sand, taupe, beige, everything that makes him blend into the walls. I want him invisible." I went to Frieda Valenzuela, our makeup artist, and said, "I want an impotent mustache." We had to experiment. There are three steps to an impotent mustache. I can offer assistance. First, any mustache that drops below the creases of the mouth, gone. You cannot have any hair below the creases. Muy macho. It stays up. Then you have to thin it out. It can't be so thick. You want to be able to see skin through it. Then lighten it up. We did those three. Then there it is. It's a "Why Bother?" mustache.
How would you describe the goatee?
He grew the goatee, that was Vince's idea. He's experimenting. He's already bald now. And as is the case in chemo patients, you may lose your head hair, but you don't necessarily lose your eyebrows or your beard. That came out and that's when we discovered it's a pretty badass look. Then when I take on that persona, you can become intimidating. Here's a man who was never in his life intimidating. That's what happened to Walter White, not that he had this agenda, but he was developing a sense of power. For a man to be able to intimidate another man as ugly as that character is to his, it's powerful. He was seduced by that, for the first time having a pocket full of money. By grabbing his wife and forcefully having his way with her. It's animalistic, but it's powerful. This man was milquetoast. A scientist cutting off the crust of his PB&J.
"Now I have the task of putting Walter White to sleep," Cranston says. He knows how Breaking Bad ends (and he's not saying, obviously), but more importantly, he has a strategy for moving on, creatively, from his indelible character. Here, in this final installment of our interview, he explains (Hint: It involves another kind of monster).
FAST COMPANY: Where do you go after Breaking Bad?
BRYAN CRANSTON: I made a television deal with Sony TV and they've been great partners with Breaking Bad. I want to now produce really compelling television for us.
You'll star in these?
No, not necessarily. That was the thing that was clear up front. This is a production deal, not a vehicle for me. If something surprises me and it's right and I feel connected to it and think it's the perfect fit, I'd reconsider. But I think that would be two or three years down the road. I can't go into doing another series right now. Physically I can't. Emotionally I can't. I can't do it on any level.
Do you plan to get behind the camera?
I'm a producer on Breaking Bad. In a different capacity than I will be in these others. In essence, in Breaking Bad I'm the face of the show and produce the image of what Breaking Bad is domestically and internationally and promote it in that sense. Protecting the brand. That's when I step outside and look at it objectively, realize what my role is and what I can bring to it that maybe others can't. That's where I found the value to it. As well as on the set. Leading by example and setting a good tone. Creating a work environment that people want to come to work at and enjoy each other, hug each other, tease each other and laugh, get serious work done and then go home to our families. That's the environment I want. Keep the drama in the scripts, not in the production of it. That's what I want to present. Those are the working conditions I want to be involved in.
Will you be looking for scripts?
I have such respect and reverence for writers that I look forward to having that association. Getting with a writer who has a clear vision on something and taking him/her to my studio and pitching it, seeing if I get their support. Then take that and go to the network and pitch it as a series or longform to HBO or Showtime, FX even. Who knows?
So how, ultimately, do you plan to put Walter White to bed?
There is a strategy and an approach. It's my own. But it's just a common sense approach. One is to not accept a role that's like this character. It's a natural sense to say, "Bryan Cranston would be great in this role. Let's contact him. Because it's similar to Walter White." That's fine. That's not disrespectful--having someone attracted to you. That's a nice thing. There's nothing wrong with that. But you politely say, "No thank you." So when I left Malcolm in The Middle, I said no to two pilot offers, not knowing what was available.... I wanted to be challenging myself, so after the seven years on Malcolm, I did a play, which was a lot of fun and Breaking Bad came along. And that's six years.
It's really tough to get involved. Fortunately the business model of cable affords you time. Doing 13 episodes of a drama, an hour drama, that's about five and a half months. You still have half a year to be able to rest, do a film, or look for other opportunities. When you're on a broadcast network, you don't have that. Mark Harmon is a friend, a great guy, and I worked with him before. He's on this number-one show, does extremely well, but his hours are incredible, and he works 10 months a year. So when he stops shooting, I just imagine him collapsing and resting until [knocks] "Mr. Harmon we're ready for you again." The champion that he is, he goes to work.
Actors often say they like to dip into theater between film or TV projects--why do you?
The process is completely diametrically opposed to film and television for an actor. For film and television you work on your own. You come up with strong ideas and A choice or B choice by yourself basically. Maybe you have the luxury of talking with your director. But by and large you're on your own. Sidney Lumet used to require a few weeks of rehearsal before production. I missed my opportunity to work with that genius. But that's a luxury, not too many people could afford to do that. He structured it more like theater. But in film and television, sometimes on the day of and you meet everyone and then love the scene. You have to truncate your whole process of how you get to the finished product. It's kind of a reversed funnel. Imagine that, the small spout on the top and you jam in very specific things and what comes out expands with the color direction and sound effects and special effects and music and all the things that are added to a film or television show that add life and depth to open it up. Theater is the reverse. It's like a normal funnel, open at the top. Big, which means, "Try this, try that. I don't need to know the answer today." You put a lot of ideas in and it shakes down and comes out. When you're on stage, sure there are theatrical shows with pyrotechnics, but by and large it's to care about someone and root for people. That's what the human experience is. You can have all those firecrackers going off but it doesn't mean a damn thing if I don't care about them. Then you come down and have this one point where there's a person standing on stage with a full audience and there's nothing more powerful than to say a word to make the audience gasp or laugh or groan. The only thing that's not the desired effect is boredom. I think that a bored audience, you've lost. It's scary. I did a play in '06 and then before that was '98. It's been a while. I know I need it, I know I want it. That's what my focus is right now.
And then do you just wait for the right offer?
I'm not much of a person who waits, so I'm pretty aggressive in that sense. I had offers coming in. I'm very fortunate all the time and, quite frankly, I don't know how long that's going to last. I'm riding a wave right now and it's great. Opportunities are presenting themselves. But in a way, to let Walter White go I need to change the equation again and go into an area I'm not comfortable in. I need to change it. In terms of the concept, in terms of everything. The more I can change the easier, the more fluid the change will be so that Walter White, the image and the character of him, can be allowed to go. Then I try to be as chameleon as possible and become someone else. I think, it has to be good writing. I'm going to do Godzilla. I leave on the fourth of April and start work on the eighth. I'm the title character. I fit in the suit.
I play a scientist, and at first I thought, Godzilla, they wanted me for this role and said it has a strong father-son component to it, not just people running from the monster. But I loved Godzilla when I was a kid. I thought it was so cool, stomping on things, fire breathing. I was more of a Godzilla person than a King Kong person. Godzilla was just about destruction, that's fun stuff. King Kong had that emotional side and he's gentle with Faye Dunaway or whoever that was. So there's actually this pretty cool story about father-son and a decision that the father makes early on that is monumental, puts a divide between them and they have to overcome their issues to possibly have a relationship. And meanwhile, it's a nice blend. I was surprised when I read it, it was really good.
So this is refreshing?
Oh yeah. No goatee, no facial hair. I'm going to have a couple different wigs. It should be fun. There's nothing wrong with fun. I don't want to put forth a sense that any kind of "Oh no, Breaking Bad was so respected in its production and writing that I can't go have fun." I'm not highbrow. It's just a pure fun, escapism summer movie. Go enjoy it.
[Photo by Casey Rodgers; grooming: Janine Maloney; styling: Barbara Lee Brice; illustration by Justin Mezzell]