Bryan Cranston interview: Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan, Walter White and modern TV drama

With the first half of Breaking Bad's peerless fifth season coming to Netflix, Paul sat down with Bryan Cranston to talk Walter White...

On hearing he was in the UK to promote the upcoming release of season five of the unutterably fantastic drama Breaking Bad on streaming service Netflix, we at Den of Geek jumped at the opportunity to sit down for a few minutes with none other than Mr Walter White himself, aka Heisenberg, aka actor Bryan Cranston. 

In a roundtable conversation with a handful of other journalists, we spoke to Bryan about losing out at the Emmys, the changing landscape of television, getting lucky with Vince Gilligan, and how all Breaking Bad viewers are going to hell… 

Walt has changed a great deal over the course of the show, with the transition from Mr Chips to Scarface almost complete. Are you enjoying playing the new, more openly amoral Walt, or do you miss playing the put-upon milquetoast science teacher? 

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. 

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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. 

What kind of impact has the success of Breaking Bad had on you professionally? We’re seeing you in a lot more movies now… 

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. 

So if you just attach yourself to really good writing, it will save your ass almost all the time. And there are so many things that can go wrong in the execution of a project of a television show, or movie – any number of things. They could market it poorly, nobody finds it – then down it goes. But if it starts with the foundation of good writing, you’re in the best shape you can be. 

Do you think shows the rise of original drama on cable networks such as AMC and HBO has allowed more interesting opportunities for established character actors such as yourself, Damien Lewis, Kyle Chandler, and so on? 

It’s more opportunities for any actor. What’s happened is that the business model of television has changed. When I was a kid there were a very select few channels, and they were all governed by the same broadcast networks with the same business model, and it had to be more of a large appeal to people, and it just didn’t offer very much. So why were we attracted to independent film? Because it was risky. Because it told stories that would make us uncomfortable or go into different areas, and not necessarily end up with things tied up in a neat little bow, and “Oh, isn’t that pleasant.” That’s why were drawn to it. Now you have a situation where television has expanded, with hundreds of channels, and networks need to be able to have their own identity. So in the States, AMC has this credo that if it can be shown on a broadcast network, they don’t even want to hear it. They say: “We want the thing you thought could never be done.” That is like catnip to a writer. It’s like: “You mean the one that I wrote…? “Yes, that’s the one.” “But he’s a horrible person!” “That’s the guy.” 

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It’s empowering those writers to do exactly what they want. It’s the same with Vince Gilligan: he never thought this would be able to fly. He wrote this on his on spec, on his own, because it was in him, thinking: “No-one’s going to do this.” He still didn’t believe it when we were going into production.  He said: “You know where I’m going with this? I’m going to make a good person into a bad person.” “Yeah. Good.” “OK…” 

Because of the nature of the show and the storytelling, it’s not ever going to be a show that million and millions of people go to. It’s too different, it’s too pungent for the tastes of most people. And that’s OK with us. I think if you try to appeal to the masses, you have to end up watering it down, and I think it’s better to be specific, and be bold in your points of view and your risk-taking. 

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 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. 

But still, structurally Vince Gilligan knew that he had to plant the hook – if we didn’t plant the hook and initially sympathise with Walter White, the viewer would never feel this anxiety. So if someone tunes in at season two or three, they won’t have the same sympathies as someone who started with the show, and they’re easy to dismiss it: “Ah, he’s a bad guy, I don’t like him.” But if you started with it, you know that hook was in deep, then we let the line go, let the line go, and then: BAP! And we start reeling you in, and the viewers are following even if they don’t want to. They know Breaking Bad is going to swirl down into a morass of ugliness. We’re not going to take nice little note upwards: it’s Breaking Bad. It’s going to be bad. Even though – and you might know this – I don’t ask what’s happening, I don’t know how it’s going to end, we have eight more episodes to shoot before we’re done, and I have no idea how it’s going to go.

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Do you have any personal opinion on how the show 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. 

Vince Gilligan was hugely respected for his work on X-Files, but is now mentioned in the same breath as David Milch, David Chase and David Simon at the forefront of a new wave of respected TV auteurs. As a producer as well as star of the show, what’s your relationship with him been like during the course of making the show? 

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 was doing a movie I wrote and directed, and just took a flier. I put all my money in it, and I went out with my wife and we made this little movie, and we postponed it three, four times. I came back [to LA] to finish it, was in town for three days, and my agent called me. “There’s a role on X-Files. Would you be interested?” “Well, yeah, I’m broke, I need the money.” And I got it. It was written by Vince Gilligan. That’s where I met him. Had I not been available, 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. 

The relationship between Walt and Jesse has gone from teacher and pupil, to a kind of heavily dysfunctional father and son relationship. Now Walt’s ego is rampaging out of control in the early stages of season five, do you think he still feels the same kind of duty of care towards Jesse, or now sees him more as a disposable asset? 

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No, I think it’s kind of both. I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. You know it used to be, we were talking about the condition of the television watcher, people would watch [whoever the character was] because they knew they would stay the same. Whether it’s Archie Bunker or Thomas Magnum, or whatever, you’d watch it because you know, there he is, I’m comfortable, same guy. 

[Breaking Bad] has been a series of changes and adjustments, and what I’ve learned through that is that human beings are capable of a much wider spectrum of emotions. That’s the real honesty of it. That given the right set of circumstances anyone of us could become dangerous. And it’s not mutually exclusive to have a person who is angry and goes and kills somebody, because that’s this part of them as a human being compartmentalized. Then go home and can pick up their little baby daughter and be honestly and earnestly nurturing and loving and tender. In a way it’s very chilling, but I believe human beings are capable of that, it’s within that realm. 

And the way it’s been depicted before is a hitman, like: “Oh, he’s a bad guy. He hates children.” That’s not real. As we explore real human emotions, we all have the capability of those wide ranges, of hating someone, and loving someone else. So why not show that in our programmes? And it adds confusion, it adds discomfort, an anxiety within the viewer. That’s what Breaking Bad and Vince Gilligan have done so beautifully. To add not only the drama and anxiety within the characters, but also in the viewing audience. 

They’re saying things like “[stammering]I..I just…I don’t like Walter White…” And the way they’re saying it to me! [babbles incoherently] They’re upset that they were drawn into this.  They hate the fact that they’re watching, and we’re dragging them down to hell, and they can’t help it. And they’re going to hell. “I know you’re going to take me to this place, but I don’t want to go…” [calmly] “But you’re going.” [excitedly] “I’M GOING!” [wails] 

That’s great when you can drive them in with you. That’s beautiful, crafted structure. You give them a taste of what they’re familiar with: a taste of sympathy, of familiarity: “I feel for this guy, he has bad health, and a son with special needs.” You see him in class, and can see that little spark of energy he has in his chemistry, and then there’s just a sea of apathetic faces, like, “Whatever.” You feel for him – and now I’ve got you, and I’m going to take you along with me, and you can scream and fight and rebel against it, but we’re taking you down to hell… 

How did you respond to being beaten to the Best Actor award for the first time by Damien Lewis (Homeland) at this year’s Emmy awards? 

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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 to 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. 

The opening of season five demonstrates perhaps a bit more humour than people may have been expecting. 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. 

Do you have any idea why Breaking Bad hasn’t found a home on television in the UK, finding its audience instead through online streaming services, DVD sales, and downloads? 

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I don’t know. It’s an underground show. In fact, it’s kind of cool that it is. It’s kind of cool that a lot people still don’t know about it. It’s almost like a private little club. And that’s alright, because as I say it’s a very pungent show. If you like vanilla, you’re not going to like Breaking Bad. You need to like a specific flavour that is unusual, that is different, that takes risks.  And most television shows don’t do that. 

Bryan Cranston, thank you very much! 

Breaking Bad Season 5 is available on Netflix UK from November 1st. Seasons 1-4 are available on DVD and Netflix UK nowFollow Paul Martinovic on Twitter, or for more babble, check out his blog here.

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