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Q&A / TV: Bryan Cranston

Breaking Bad's head chef on cooking meth for the masses

Over the last five years there has been a massive shift in pop culture’s anti-hero league. Now wannabe gangstas are just as likely to pay homage to Walter “Heisenberg” White, a cancer-riddled highschool chemistry teacher from Albuquerque, as they are Tony Montana or Pablo Escobar. The reason? Mr White cooks up the purest form of crystal methamphetamine in America’s southwest. He’s also acquired a taste for massacring rival drug dealers, when he’s not looking after his handicapped son, trying to save his marriage or undergoing chemo. As the protagonist in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, White’s transformation from put-upon suburban Dad to brutal kingpin has become cult TV viewing, largely due to Bryan Cranston’s multiple Emmy - winning performance. As the veteran actor wrapped shooting the first half of the show’s fifth and final season, he called Dazed from an untraceable cellphone to discuss his 33-year career, and the complexities surrounding his most celebrated character.

Dazed & Confused: There’s an American trend of people throwing Breaking Bad parties. What dish would ‘The Cook’ cook up for one of these?

Bryan Cranston: Well, you gotta start with a blue-meth martini.

D&C: A blue-meth martini?

Bryan Cranston: Yeah absolutely, that’s the cocktail where you have little crystals of blue meth floating on the surface. So with every sip, you get a high. It’s so potent that when people finish two of those cocktails, they’ll forget about eating completely. Then when you say, ‘Is anybody hungry?”, they’ll all say, ‘No, no.’

D&C: You dealt out bags of crystal on Letterman and The View. You said it was just sugar candy but level with us, were you pushing product on primetime?

Bryan Cranston: When we first started this show, I asked the network how they felt about promoting drug use. It amazed me that no one asked that question. No one cared. So I spoke to the producers of these chat shows, and they asked if we could give out these bags of ‘blue meth’ to the audience! I’m thinking, do you know what this represents?!

D&C: Are you worried that PR stunts might trivialise the perception of the drug?

Bryan Cranston: Yes, but my hope is that, in all sincerity, that display of promotion hasn’t trivialised or desensitised society to the evil of crystal methamphetamine. It is a scourge on society; it is something that will and has brought down human beings to their knees and below. And I’ve never tried it, I never will try it, but there are people who are so completely and utterly addicted to this and it’s a horrible drug.

D&C: Did you have any moral dilemmas when they first approached you for the role?

Bryan Cranston: No, not at all. As an actor we’re always looking for those controversial things anyway. We are looking for those things that have not been done before or that really change people. This is not about glorification of drug use. No one in their right mind would want to trade places with Walter White. It’s not like, ‘Look at the life he gets to lead, I wish I could do that!’ It’s nothing like that. Walter doesn’t even want to lead the life he leads.

D&C: Well, he didn’t at the start, but now he seems pretty into it...

Bryan Cranston: This story is really about the descent of man, selling your soul, and what happens when you try to become someone who you’re not in order to gain financially. All is lost.The truth is, human beings can be and are seduced into positions where they make egregious decisions all the time. And this is a show that depicts that honestly: how this upright citizen has been seduced by power, money, and recognition – albeit infamy, but he’ll take that.

D&C: You’re filming for six months at a time. Does it take a personal toll, being in such a bleak state of mind for prolonged periods?

Bryan Cranston: No, because I’ve learned over the years how to take on and take off a character. So when I go to work and slip into those wallabies and put on his chino pants and his long-sleeve shirt and shave my head and put on the glasses and look into the mirror – I see Walter White. I get it. It’s not dissimilar to the way a child plays. Children play and they completely commit. An actor really needs to have that kind of childish trait, to just jump in and play with as much honesty as you can bring into it.

D&C: Before Breaking Bad you did a lot of bit parts. Did you ever resign yourself to being a background actor?

Bryan Cranston: No, probably because of my upbringing in a blue collar, very low-income family. We had struggles, my parents split when I was young – so there wasn’t any real stability or any sense of complacency. I got my work ethic from my mother. You find a job, you hold a job and you work, work, work. I learned that when I was about 14, 15 years old, and that was my approach, a workman’s attitude towards it. My goal was to be able to make a living for the rest of my life as an actor. If I coulddo that anything else would be gravy. I put up a lot of energy pushing back against wanting to be a star. I felt it was little pompous to say, ‘I’m going to be a star,’ and also unrealistic.

D&C: Isn’t being a star part of the appeal?

Bryan Cranston: Actually, it isn’t. The actors that I respect don’t see this as a sprint to glory and fame. This is their life. We take on characters, and live a life in the theatre or on film. Fame and fortune are not things I ever yearned for – they came to me by way of doing my work. Do I love it? Absolutely! It’s much better being rich than poor. I don’t seek the limelight. I seek the empowerment acting offers. Being able to evoke emotion out of people by what I say and do is an incredibly powerful drug – I’m addicted to it. 

D&C: Walter White’s ego is out of control. How is yours doing?

Bryan Cranston: Great. House chores keep me in check. Emptying the trash; this is who I am. I’m the worker bee. It’s important not to live without ego, but to have a healthy ego.

D&C: White once said: ‘Never give up control. Live life on your own terms. Every life comes with a death sentence.’ Would you call yourself a control freak?

Bryan Cranston: In a sense, yes. I’ve had far more successes since I’ve been in control. That’s why I don’t do drugs or drink much because it takes you out of control. There are so many things I want to do and experience in my life and I don’t want to be derailed. So my high is when you get lost in character and a character gets lost in you.

D&C: The LA Review of Books has compared White to Milton’s Satan, in that he’s burningly intelligent and reeking of lust for power. Would he approve of the comparison?

Bryan Cranston: No, because Walter White doesn’t see himself as the devil. Would Bryan Cranston agree with the comparison to Satan? Absolutely. That’s what White did, he’s definitely become a devil of sorts. He’s lost his soul, he’s sold it. He’s become this other person that’s driven by his ego. He is a dangerous man.

D&C: How would you ideally like it to end?

Bryan Cranston: My appropriate ending would be... perhaps he doesn’t die. Wouldn’t that be the most tragic thing of all? This man who has become toxic and cancerous in and of himself bringing danger to everyone. Loses everything, loses everyone he loves and cares about and he’s forced to continue living. It’s like the cockroach that survives the neutron bomb. It’s like, ‘Why this little thing?’ It’s hard to say what would be appropriate. But we’ll find out, and we’ll find out what is appropriate in Vince’s mind.

D&C: Breaking Bad has broken down the stereotypes of what drug dealers are meant to look and act like. Does that make them scarier?

Bryan Cranston: It breaks the cliché. It shows what human beings are really truly capable of, in a dramatic sense. A man can go off, put a bullet in someone’s head, then come home and gently, lovingly, handle and caress his baby daughter. We are capable of that wide of a swing in our human experience. Dramatically, there’s nothing more frightening to see that juxtaposition on screen.

D&C: Do you actually like Walter White after all these years of playing him?

Bryan Cranston: I haven’t thought about that. I don’t judge him. I know that people are confounded by him, because this condition hasn’t been presented on TV before, where we initially really like someone and we sympathise with someone, and root for them. And then that turns to mush. To not only instil conflict and drama on screen, but in the audience, is the genius of it. To have the audience feel uncomfortable is perfect. That is exactly what we want.