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Breaking Bryan

Our exclusive unedited interview with the Breaking Bad star.

By / Posted on 14 July 2011

This Sunday, AMC premieres the fourth season of the most compelling show on television, Breaking Bad. The story of a meek high school chemistry professor who turns to a life of crime to protect his family, Breaking Bad has earned widespread acclaim for its sharp writing, lush cinematography, and deeply emotional performances, all while balancing severe adult drama with laugh-out-loud black comedy. In its first three seasons, Breaking Bad has won six Emmy awards, including three consecutive Best Lead Actor in a Drama for star Bryan Cranston.

Just after his first win, before the season two premiere, we interviewed Cranston for Nerve.com. Always the charmer, Bryan took time out of his busy production schedule to talk with us about working both sides of the camera, chemistry, and – of course – public nudity. In anticipation of the exciting new season, we present that same interview from 2009, unedited for the first time:

Breaking Bad

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman and Bryan Cranston as Walter White

First of all, congratulations on your Emmy win! That was really big. I hope this doesn’t mean you’re going to leave comedy behind to strictly focus on the greener pastures of drama.

(Laughter) Are they greener? I guess so… um, well, it was a wonderful night and a big surprise. Delighted, great for the show, great for me, personally, knowing that my peers voted on this. It’s very humbling and definitely rewarding.

This fraternity that you’ve joined, Best Lead Actor in a Drama, in recent years that award has gone almost exclusively to tough-guys like Dennis Franz, James Gandolfini, Michael Chiklis and Kiefer Sutherland. Do you think that your role as Walter White is enough of a badass to really take down criminals the same way that those guys have?

(Chuckle) Well, he’s kind of the anti-hero-anti-hero. He’s not a tough guy. He’s not taking down criminals, he is one, so I guess the closest parallel would be Gandolfini, but the differences are is that in the beginning of the series he was who he was and he’s comfortable and familiar with his environment of who he is. Walter White has no clue what he’s doing in this world of the underground. He is around nefarious characters and badasses and unreliable drug users and untrustworthy… I mean, he doesn’t have the skillset for this. He woefully underestimated getting involved, and it was a rash, stupid decision and now he’s got to cover up to pay for it and there’s no going back.

Breaking Bad‘s Vince Gilligan actually wrote the episode of the X-Files you were featured in over a decade ago. Did he remember you from that brief experience or was getting together for Breaking Bad just a small-world coincidence?

No, he did remember me, which I’m so grateful for, and so it’s like advice to actors, you know? Do your best and be on your best behavior at all times. You never know what job is going to lead to another. He did remember me, and the reason why is because my character in X-Files was this guy who was in the backseat of a car, the title of the episode was “Drive”, and David Duchovney had to drive 80 miles an hour in a westwardly direction of my head would explode. No one likes to clean that up, so that’s why he was doing it. The interesting thing is that if he wrote my character to be a nice guy, well then everyone – David’s character and the audience – would say “yeah, try to save this guy, he’s a great guy, he’s a sweet guy, family guy”, y’know, sure, that’s the obvious. What Vince does and the nuances he brings to writing is that he made my character a miserable bigoted son of a bitch. And so it raised a dilemma, a moral dilemma, within the lead actor, and that was “is a human life still worth saving if it’s this guy, who’s an awful person?” And that’s the kind of sensitivity that he brings to the scripts of Breaking Bad, and that’s what was in the pilot episode that attracted me. So he’s able to write a character that you embrace as a human being, and yet you completely hate what he’s doing and the decisions that he’s made. It’s a natural conflict, inner conflict for the audience, and it’s wonderful.

Breaking BadThat’s very interesting, how committed to the complexity of the character both you and Vince are. Do you discuss your ideas with Vince about how your character should be portrayed in certain moments?

Absolutely. Our initial twenty minute scheduled meeting turned out to be an hour and a half and we kept going back and forth. I would say “I think he should look like this, I think he should have a mustache that makes him look impotent, I think he should have hair that always looks like it needs a trim, I think he should be rather heavy because he’s gone to seed and he just doesn’t care anymore, I think his shoulders should be round and I think the color should be out of his face, I think he should wear glasses,” and we’re going back and forth about what we think this guy, who we think this man is, because I think we both realize that if you didn’t care about him, the show’s over, everything’s done. So what we’ve tried to craft, we want audiences to understand him. Not necessarily agree with him, just understand him. If they get him, if they understand why he’s doing what he’s doing, that will be enough to have them follow his adventures through these choppy waters.

You finally had the opportunity to direct an episode of Breaking Bad with the season 2 premiere episode. How did it feel to boss everybody around behind the camera when you spend so much time being pushed around by others on camera?

(Slow and satisfied) Ohhh, finally get my revenge! I always have someone that I bring on, a new crew member. The first day I work I always bring a new crew member on staff for the sole reason so that I could fire them and scare everyone else into doing my bidding. Of course, I’m jesting.

It’s nice. I think what it is for me was after thirty years doing this professionally, you find yourself often saying “why did they take that take?” or “I think the camera should be over here to tell the story” or “I think it’s too big, it should be more subtle.” You keep saying to yourself “I think, I think, I think,” and if you ever get the opportunity to direct, to do it yourself, well then you should either throw your hat in the ring to ask to direct or shut up, because what you find is that it’s very difficult. It’s extremely difficult to harness all the energies of actors and to fine-tune their performances so that they’re not giving away too early what they’re intending to reveal later and all those things, as well as, the question I always ask is “Where do I want to view this scene from?” When I answer that question, it’s where I put the camera, so I know how I want it shot. If I want it messy, if I want the overlaps of dialogue, if I want it clean. We have a style on our show, Breaking Bad, that we do most everything handheld. It gives a sense of urgency and importance to the scenes, so it’s interesting that way. You come into a show and you follow those edicts, but then you also want to try to put your own little touches to it. If you’re successful, that’s wonderful.

When you directed this episode, you’d already worked with the cast and crew for a while, you were already generally familiar with what everybody could do. It had to be a significant advantage for you to already know what performances your cast were capable of and therefore be able to coax it out of them.

That’s true, you do know them, and I’d worked with them for a year already so I do have personal dirt on them. If they don’t get the performance that I want, I threaten them. Any means necessary to get the performance, that’s what I say.

Directors in television are really guest stars. They cannot do every single episode, they basically come in and come out, another one comes in, another one goes out, so they’re the guest stars and they don’t really know everybody’s name on the crew, but we’ve seemed to manage this long in that system so it works alright. You basically try to ingratiate yourself with the crew as a guest director, which I have been on other shows. I always want to pay for a coffee truck that comes for the crew, and they start to like you and they work for you, and you kind of butter them up a little bit and tell them what a great job they’re doing, and they work hard for you and that’s what you want. We work hard in this business. We work fourteen hours a day, average I guess, when we work, and then we have time off, so it can be a grind.

For me at least, watching season 1, some of the most endearing moments came when your character (Walter White) would plot nefarious deeds with Aaron Paul’s (Jesse Pinkman) and, in the process, lecture him about chemistry. Have you ever yourself thought about teaching? It seems very natural from the way you present it.

Bryan CranstonWell, I’ve given lots of seminars before to young actors, and I enjoy that because I enjoyed watching seminars of actors who had experience before me, trying to gleam any information that might help my career. I think it’s one of those feelings of handing down or passing the torch. I love actors and I feel for them. It’s a tough, tough business, the business side of acting, so when I talk or lecture about acting, it’s always about – just stay focused on what your true job is and that is not to wonder about who they’re going to hire and not look around the room and be intimidated by other people you may know their work from, just focus on your job and that is to interpret the script, create an interesting, compelling character, deliver it to the room, whoever happens to be there, and then once you’re done, you’re done. Don’t even think about it, walk away, you’re finished. Decision-making is out of your hands so don’t waste an ounce of energy trying to figure that out. And that really, really helped me, when I stayed focused on what my job truly is and stayed away from all the exterior interference.

It really is a testament to your skill as an actor that your portrayal of a chemistry professor is so stunningly convincing. Did you have to undergo any special training? “Proper handling of bunsen burners” or “How not to use hydrochloric acid”?

(Laughter) Well, yes! I shadowed a chemistry professor at USC, University of Southern California, and had to just get reacquainted with the nomenclature, the materials and how to handle things. What chemicals you need respirators for and what don’t you? When do you need the smock and gloves and apron? What is volatile? You start realizing that you’re tapping back into a world that really is fascinating, and I certainly didn’t appreciate it back when I was in high school, which is the last chemistry class I ever took. I didn’t appreciate it. I didn’t apreciate the combination of chemicals of liquids that could make a gas. It’s really fascinating how those things work, and I love the juxtaposition on Breaking Bad of the orderly fashion and numerical answer to questions in the chemistry lab, and Walter White is at home there, it makes sense to him, it’s orderly. That’s fun, to play that, and then I step out of that classroom and I enter a world of crime and everything is completely the opposite: horrible characters, drug users, unreliable, untrustworthy, murderers, it’s just mind-boggling for the character. He realizes that he stepped into something that he’s not skilled for. He has no skillset. He underestimated what would happen and he really didn’t think it through, and yet now he’s made his bed and he’s got to lie in it. He’s got to deal with what he’s created.

You had to basically relearn all of that high school chemistry to be able to talk about it in such an authoritative manner. Did you ever feel the urge while you were relearning this, and portraying a character who used it for ill intent, to go home and try some experiments with an easy-bake oven? 

(Laughter) I was given a chemistry set as a gag, and actually opened it up and you start thinking “oh, well, this is for children. How cute! Wait a minute… can that egg really be sucked out with… let’s try that!” Once you forget about it, in its own simplicity, it’s a beautiful thing, how chemistry affects our lives and how they’ve been able to create products and services that help us through chemistry. It’s really an amazing environment and I am in awe of those who are proficient in it.

I assume you never felt that tinge in the back of your neck “maybe I should try cooking meth”?

Breaking Bad

Well, I have no desire to do that, however, as consultants on the set of Breaking Bad we have had DEA chemists show us how to do it. I have a thriving sideline going now. It’s very interesting, and certainly when we show the making of the product on the air, we don’t show it step-by-step, we do it in a montage. We don’t want it to become a how-to video. In the first episode of the second season, I directed, and you have my character making a poison out of a bean and I didn’t want to show that so we have a policy that we put it into a montage format. It’s much more effective that way, and also you don’t show the world.

You don’t want kids actually handling ricen.

Exactly.

Your first appearance on Malcolm In The Middle, which a lot of people still remember you from, was completely naked in the kitchen, and your first appearance on Breaking Badwas sporting tighty-whities in the desert, so it’s safe to assume that you’re comfortable with your body on camera.

My assumption wasn’t that. My assumption was that this is what America wants to see me naked.

From naked in Malcolm to tighty-whities on Breaking Bad, are you growing more modest over time?

(Laughter) Modest, yes, next I’ll have another article of clothing on. It’s really interesting, how all that worked out. I initially was not going to wear the tighty-whities, as it was described in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, because of the reason that I wore them in Malcolm, and Vince said “oh yeah, go ahead and change that,” and I intended to. I went into my wardrobe call and they had all the kinds of underwear out there. There was a specific reason why I chose the tighty-whities for Malcolm is because he was a big boy himself and it really just said “oh yeah, this is perfect, he still hasn’t outgrown this” and that made it funny. In Breaking Bad, I kept looking at the other underwear and going “oh yeah, that’s standard, I guess that’ll work too…” and I kept looking over at the tighty-whitey, and it was in the script so for some reason Vince thought it was appropriate. So I kept looking back over there and the more I did the more I realized “I have to wear these again,” and the reason I have to wear these again is because it too, for different reasons, was a manifestation of Walt’s lack of care. That his point of view gets stunted at some point as well, and he just doesn’t care what he’s wearing. This is what he’s worn when he was young and through college and okay, that’s what I’ll wear. He just doesn’t care so it kind of was indicative of how he felt and that’s the choices we should make when we’re selecting wardrobe and makeup and hair and everything.

That shot of you in the tighty-whities, that’s the DVD cover for season one and that was the big promo graphic they had for season one last year and I remember seeing billboards of it here in New York City. Those billboards were actually up where once there were images of Kate Moss, so how does it feel to be such an atypical sex symbol?

You know, I don’t want people to just think of me as a sex symbol. Of course, I am, but I don’t want them to just think that I’m that shallow, that there’s more to me than just the obvious sexiness. To give me more creedance than that and to realize that beyond the gorgeous exterior is a functioning human being with thoughts and feelings.

Breaking Bad

Not to harp too long on this topic, but it’s obviously one that people enjoy, can we look forward to similar states of undress this coming season?

(Teasing chuckle) Well, in season two, episode three, you’re going to see me in all my glory, Derrick. I am sans clothes entirely. I don’t have a stitch on me in one sequence. We’re following the pattern, there were a couple of scenes last year that I actually insisted on. There was a moment in the bathroom where I was naked and I said “you’re missing a shot here” to the producers. I said “a shot of this man who finds himself curled up on the cold tile floor in the bathroom in the morning. He should be naked because that’s the way he feels. He’s naked to the world.”

And that the audience needs to see that?

And the audience needs to see that, that that’s where he’s gone to. So I curled up into a position that was similar to that of John Lennon curling up to Yoko in bed when he was naked, although he had someone warm to curl up to, I had no one. And I thought “maybe if I tried to match that same position that I remember from that photograph” and without someone next to you it was a very lonely feeling. So in this season, I’m in a very public place without any clothes and in season three I hope that I will be completely naked in perhaps some national park somewhere.

I just want to make sure our readers know that they have something to look forward to.

(Laughter) Either to look forward to or cautionary! “At six minutes into the episode, please divert your eyes as to not burn your retinas.”

Ah, no, I’m certain that our audience loves Bryan Cranston’s body enough to Tivo that.

Ah yes, give them what they want, I always say.

Breaking BadAnyway, speaking of your body image, Walter White seems to have been a fairly physically demanding role for you. As you mentioned, so far you’ve grown a mustache, gained weight, shaved your head and then lost weight for the cancer treatment. How did you gain and lose that weight so quickly during what was essentially a seven-episode run?

The easiest thing for a man is to cut things out, not to start calorie counting and saying “well I can have this but I can’t have that,” because I couldn’t keep track of all that stuff. What I did is I borrowed the Atkins/South Beach type of philosophy of no carbs. All the simple carbs left: pasta, bread, rice, potatos, that sort of thing, that’s all gone. I would reduce my portions a little bit and I would also maintain my exercise program along with no alcohol, no simple sugar. I would still have, like, an apple. I would get sugar that way, and bulk and vitamins, and I would still also have vegetables, so I would get carbohydrates that way without the simple carbohydrates. If you starve your body of carbohydrates, and you’re still asking it to function, it has to use something as fuel. Its first desire is carbohydrates. Gimme the sugar. Gimme the sugar. It burns that fast. If it doesn’t have sugar, if you deprive it of sugar, it goes to fat. It’s a really simple philosophy, but it works.

Breaking Bad and beyond, what else can we expect from you in the near future?

I wrote and directed a very sweet romantic drama, a very low-budget independant film that is going to premiere the night before Breaking Bad premieres. Breaking Bad premieres Sunday night, March 8th on AMC, and Last Chance, the name of this movie, appears on WE, Women’s Entertainment network, Saturday, March 7th. I wrote it as a valentine for my wife Robin Dearden, who stars in the movie with me, and it’s a really sweet, wonderful, empowering story for women, and that’s why it’s on WE. It explores the concept that this woman who has been so pragmatic and now reaching forty and wondering how she got to where she is, and she realizes that she doesn’t allow herself to have a dream or a wish on anything and that that’s no way to live. Human beings need to have that as hope, so she realizes that it’s even more important just to have a dream than it is to even achieve that dream. With a slight change of perception, she does just that and now begins to live with hope.

And how did your wife feel about you making this for her?

She was lovin’ it! Of course, as a guy, I’m saying “okay, hey look, look what I did here for you for Valentine’s Day. This should set me up for a few years. I don’t need to do anything romantic for the next five or six years, right?” That’s not the way it works, but I was hoping I could skate for a while. It was a great experience and a wonderful small low-budget, my god, we made this movie for less than it would cost to have snacks on Breaking Bad, but the story and the characters prevail and you follow them and want to see what happens with them, and that’s the whole point, whatever dramatic piece you’re writing or directing or whatever, it has to inform and take people away on a journey.

 

Breaking Bad season four premieres this weekend on AMC. Bryan Cranston has won the Emmy award for Best Lead Actor in a Drama every season so far. It is our favorite show and season three was intense. Watch it.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.