Bad to the bone
Unlike his on-screen character, Bryan Cranston usually plays it safe, writes Geoff Shearer
BRYAN Cranston has done a bad, bad thing. The Breaking Bad star has just confessed, after years of grappling with his guilt, that he is a criminal, nothing more than a low-down common thief . . . As a child he stole candy. What? Back up. Is that what he considers his ‘‘break bad’’ moment, the one time in his life he went off the rails?
‘‘In my childhood, yeah, I’ve stolen a candy bar here or there and felt guilty about it. But it’s kind of a learning curve for children,’’ he says philosophically, speaking on the phone from New Mexico, where the critically lauded drama is filmed.
‘‘Otherwise, I’ve been very fortunate in the sense I knew early on that in order to sustain my life as an actor I needed to get my house in order and be real solid. So my home life is as boring as can be so that my work life can be as exciting as can be. That’s pretty much how I’ve set it up and it’s been great.’’
All of which sounds not a bit like the rollercoaster ride his Breaking Bad character, Walter White, takes. As the series opens, the once highly regarded research chemist is eking out an existence teaching chemistry to a group of uninterested kids in a New Mexico high school.
When life throws Walt a curve ball, he is inspired to make big money by cooking meth in his own mobile drug lab. But a pair of competing dealers have other ideas, and soon he is thrust down a blood-soaked path of no return.
Cranston, 53, played it for laughs as Hal, the gormless father of the title character in Malcolm in the Middle, but in Breaking Bad his take on fatherhood is dark and dangerous.
‘‘The very first page of the script has a middle-aged man driving recklessly in a Winnebago. He’s not wearing pants. He’s wearing a respirator, and tighty-whitey underwear. Another man with a respirator has passed out in the passenger seat. Dead men are sliding back and forth in a sea of chemicals . . . and that was the first page,’’ Cranston says.
‘‘I was like, ‘What the hell is going on?’ It is so whacked.
‘‘From that moment we realised Breaking Bad was going to ask more questions than it answered. And I think that’s the charm of it — it hooks people by answering a question then asking three more. But that is what life is like; just as something settles, three more things pop up.’’
The role has already earned Cranston two Emmy awards and he’s delighting in working with such a strong cast. Anna Gunn from Deadwood plays Walt’s wife, Skyler; Aaron Paul is his partner in crime, Jesse; and newcomer R.J. Mitte — who was born with a mild form of cerebral palsy — plays the disabled Walt Jr.
‘‘Yeah, it’s (Mitte’s) first role, but he does great things. That scene in the first episode, when Walt Jr is trying on pants at a store, Anna just improvised, ‘Well those are nice, they look like those skater-boy pants’. And he didn’t know she was going to say that. He just looks at her and says, ‘Do I look like a skater?’ I knew from that point he had good instincts despite his lack of experience,’’ Cranston says.
‘‘Anna Gunn is a terrific actor, and so is Aaron. It’s the same feeling you get when you play tennis with someone who is better at it than you are. Your game will improve. It’s the same here.’’
That, combined with the intensity of the character, means exhausting days on set.
‘‘When I’m finished for the day I have a ritual that helps me wash away the character,’’ Cranston says.
‘‘I don’t want to take Walter White home with me, oh God, that’s too depressing. So I go into the make-up and hair trailer and put on make-up remover, take a couple of hot towels and drape them over my head and just sit there as the warmth soaks in. Then I wipe off the make-up. It feels like I’m getting rid of that guy.’’
Though Walt is still the ‘‘good guy’’ of the show, viewers are constantly having to reevaluate their acceptance for and support of him. What starts as a money-making venture becomes an adventure in morality . . . and mortality.
‘‘At first he thought it was about money; that he would die in less than two years and ‘let’s see how much money I can make for my family, then let me get the hell out of here’,’’ Cranston says.
‘‘So he had honourable intentions at the start, but as the series progresses you’ll see he’s getting caught in a web of ego. He’s being seduced by the lifestyle.
‘‘I think men, especially, can relate to that. For the first time in his life Walt has some money in his pocket; he’s intimidated another man. That’s never happened before and that’s very powerful, very seductive.’’ Breaking Bad, M ABC2, Friday, 9.30pm Conservative dad gets himself into a fine old meth Duration: 1 hour
High profile: Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston and (below) in character as Walter White.