Watching Breaking Bad is a visceral experience. Now entering its fifth and final season, the show has forced its loyal viewers to witness the slow transformation of Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston, from cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher to a Machiavellian meth kingpin, outsmarting professional drug cartels and battling his competitors to the death.
It’s a roller coaster ride of a show, with one big difference: On a roller coaster, you can at least see the tracks ahead. On Breaking Bad (AMC), the audience never sees what’s coming — ever. As Bryan Cranston observes, the show’s fans are “on this journey that they often don’t want to go on. But they have no choice because we’ve hooked ’em.”
Cranston is the remarkably savvy actor who anchors all this madness. Best known before the advent of Breaking Bad as the demented dentist in Seinfeld and the dad on Malcolm in the Middle, Cranston’s searing performance as Walter White has earned him three consecutive Emmy Awards.
High Times caught up with the genial actor near his home in Hollywood. He grew up here and watched with avid interest as the California cannabis scene evolved. And though he doesn’t partake of pot in any form, he speaks out firmly and intelligently in support of legalizing marijuana.
HT: So you grew up here in Southern California.
BC: I did. I was raised not too far from where we are right now — a little suburb of LA called Canoga Park. In this valley, there were miles and miles of emptiness. We’d ride our bikes and go into ditches and washes — I mean, it was great.
HT: Was that a pretty normal childhood for you?
BC: Well, “normal” is what you think it is. It’s funny how people are — you assume that the way you were raised is the way that everybody was raised. I remember when I was doing Malcolm in the Middle, we’d get letters, and there would be comments about the mom, who would walk around the house naked. People would say, “It’s not real, it can’t happen, mothers wouldn’t do that.” But there were just as many people writing: “Omigod! I’ve never seen anything on television like this. My mom and dad walked around the house naked!” The letters made me realize that “normalcy” is a subjective term.
HT: Speaking of normalcy, is it true you studied police science?
BC: My brother joined the LAPD Explorers. I don’t really know why he joined; I guess he just had this impulse. But he went to the LAPD Academy eight Saturdays in a row and studied police work and underwent physical training and drills. The first summer that he was a member, they went to Japan, and I was so envious. The second summer, they went to Hawaii, and I’m thinking: “As soon as I’m 16, I’m joining so I can travel.” It was just a matter of fact that I’d go to the academy and do the training for eight weeks. Sure enough, I’m 16 and I graduate from the academy No. 1 in my class. I discovered that I was good at police work — I didn’t particularly like it, but I was good. My whole family, being of good working-class stock, said: “You find something you’re good at, you go after it.”
HT: So you weren’t a law-and-order guy: “I gotta be a policeman”?
BC: No, no — but I was good at it. So, at that tender age, I was planning my life and thought, “Okay, that’s what I’ll do.” My first year, we went to Europe for over three weeks. We went to Germany and Austria, Switzerland, France, Belgium, Holland…
HT: Our tax dollars at work! I’m not sure we like this idea…
BC: [Laughing] No, no, no — it wasn’t like that: Every kid had to come up with a certain amount of money, and then we were guests. We got a special deal on flights; every police department in every city hosted us. They’d put us up in halls, and there’d be bunk beds and we had sleeping bags.
HT: Do you remember much of your training?
BC: Whenever I’m doing a character where I’m playing a cop — or, in this case, a criminal — I actually know something about how the police would approach a house. I do have some memory of that.
HT: Everybody loved you as the oddball dentist in Seinfeld, and you played a pretty regular dad on Malcolm in the Middle. So how did you get cast as the complex Walter White?
I can’t say it was written for me, but I did cross [show creator] Vince Gilligan’s mind when he was developing this. I worked for Vince in an episode of The X-Files. I played a horrible person — bigoted, angry, anti – Semitic, anti-everything. Yet the audience had to feel some sympathy for him. That’s a dangerous thing to watch, but it does give insight into the nuanced talent of Vince Gilligan.
Breaking Bad came up about a year and a half after the end of Malcolm in the Middle, and I was in the right place at the right time. It was the best one-hour pilot script I’ve ever read, and I went after it. When you read something that’s really well constructed and full of conflict and pathos, you get excited. You also don’t have to work that hard, because you dream about it — your character seeps into you. Literally, I woke up a couple of times with insights about Walter. When I had my meeting, it wasn’t an audition — it was: “I think he should weigh this much. I think he should look like this. I think this and this and this.” And I seemed to be hitting base hits — Vince said, “Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!” By the time I left, I think I was his choice.
HT: The character of Walter White has reached a critical point in the show now: Will he embrace evil, or will he somehow redeem himself?
BC: There’s this assumption that the lead character in a show needs to be likable or sympathetic. People ask, “How am I supposed to still like you?” I answer, “Are you supposed to still like me?” It’s risky, what we did in the opening episodes: We hooked the audience. Walter’s a good guy, trying to do right for his family. He’s a teacher who’s put upon by the system: He doesn’t have adequate health care, he needs a second job to pay for his special-needs son. He’s an everyman who’s been dealt a bad hand, and he’s going to die in two years. Each one of those things sank that hook deeper and deeper into the audience. Once they completely bit, we yanked and took them on this journey that they often don’t want to go on. But they have no choice, because we’ve hooked ’em. We’ve got ’em, and now they can’t spit it out.
HT: Laurence Olivier said that acting is just pretending. But other actors experience roles emotionally: Martin Sheen had a nervous breakdown on the set of Apocalypse Now, Al Pacino was deeply affected by playing Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II. What’s playing Walter White like?
BC: There’s the so-called British way of approaching characters from the outside in, and there’s the new school, the Actors’ Studio way of going from the inside. But I think acting has to do with how much you can relate to a character. If I’m playing a serial killer — wow, that’s really outside of me. I have to do research to figure out who that person is, how I can justify him. The one thing you don’t want to do is judge a character. You’re not standing outside of Walter White — you’re taking things moment to moment, behaving as that character would behave given each set of circumstances.
HT: But does the character affect you psychologically at all?
BC: No. The palette of an actor is experience and imagination. What you lack in experience, you fill those gaps with imagination to justify this person.
HT: You’re dealing with a subject matter — meth production — that has never been dealt with so comprehensively before. How has law enforcement reacted?
BC: When we first did the pilot and were going to series, I was concerned that people not see the show as glorifying drug use or its manufacturing — but I also didn’t want to be on the other side condemning it in easy, moralistic terms. We wanted to create a situation that tells the tale of this man and his decision-making. Let the audience decide how they feel about it.
HT: When you appeared on Conan, you and he pretended to eat “blue ice” — the name for the meth Walter makes in the show. You guys joked that it’s “going to be a great show now.” Was there any backlash to that?
BC: Good question, because I was concerned about that. But let’s back up a step: I’ve never been confronted in any interview by anyone saying that I’m doing society a disservice. I think people get it. My contention is that it’s circumstantial: If Walter White were a math teacher instead of a chemistry teacher, he would’ve gotten into the same situation — he would have developed a way to count cards or something that he knows in that arena. It’s just circumstantial that he’s a chemist. Audiences are sophisticated; they’re smart. Joking about the product that I make on the show doesn’t mean that I think it’s a great idea. We didn’t get hammered for that.
HT: What research did you do for this role?
BC: The research I did was chemistry.
HT: Did you talk to meth addicts?
BC: No, because Walter White doesn’t know about that; his world is chemistry. At the beginning of the show, I followed a USC professor around — the head of the department. I tried to learn the sensibility of it, the nomenclature, what the different devices are used for. In fact, he pointed out one device used only for titration and another used for boiling. I said, “I think we have that wrong in the script.” I showed him and he said, “Yeah, that’s wrong. You wouldn’t do that.” I called Vince right away and told him we got it wrong. The people who would really know — chemists and other people of that ilk – are maybe a quarter percent of the audience, but those details are very important to us.
HT: Is it true that the DEA are technical consultants on this?
BC: Yes. The situation is this: We informed them — with all due respect and consideration — that we’re doing this show, and “Would you like to be a part of it in a consultancy in order to make sure that we get it right?” They had the choice to say, “We don’t want anything to do with it.” But they saw that it might be in their best interest to make sure that we do it correctly. So DEA chemists came onboard as consultants and taught Aaron Paul and me how to make crystal meth.
HT: Wow … could you do that in real life?
BC: If I was trying and used all my memory prowess, I still couldn’t — I couldn’t retain all of the details that are necessary and very specific. It was very in-depth. Of course, we’re dealing with higher quality, because that’s the only way that Walter White would be involved in it.
HT: You grew up in California during pot’s ascendance here. What’s your stance?
BC: I went on Bill Maher’s show and publicly said, “Legalize marijuana.” Marijuana started out with a bad connotation, as you know — but to me, marijuana is no different than wine. It’s a drug of choice. It’s meant to alter your current state — and that’s not a bad thing. It’s ridiculous that marijuana is still illegal. We’re still fighting for it.
HT: Do you use it?
BC: No, pot has always had the effect of making me sleepy. I have a friend who will smoke — or suck on a pot lollipop — on a daily basis. It not only doesn’t put him to sleep, he cleans the entire house! He goes to work, no ill effects. It’s just his metabolism. Everyone’s body is different. I’m usually very active throughout the day; certainly, when I’m shooting Breaking Bad, by the time I go home after 14 hours, I take a shower, hit the pillow and I’m out — I’m done. But if I ever couldn’t sleep, give me a hit or a little bite of an edible and I’d be out in 15 minutes. It comes down to individual decision-making. There are millions of people who smoke pot on a social basis and don’t become criminals. So stop with that argument – it doesn’t work.
HT: Your daughter is in college now. How did you approach the topic of drugs with her?
BC: Again, it’s about decision- making. My wife and I handled it that way: We said, “Look, you know we trust you. You make your own decisions; we know you’re smart. If you go out and you want to drink and smoke, be in an environment where you feel safe and comfortable — and don’t drive!” I see all these celebrities who go out and either get high or get drunk and then drive. It’s like, “What is wrong with you? You have all the means — if you want to go out and party, go out and party. But why can’t you hire a driver for the night? C’mon!” I don’t know … I don’t get it. It’s about being smart.
HT: You’re one of those lucky actors who, in his fifties, is reaching the pinnacle of his career. Can you actually plan an acting career?
BC: Yes. Before you have success as an actor — or as any artist — you take a job because you need a job; you need to pay your rent. There’s nothing wrong with that — I never condemn anyone. However, I do suggest that if you’re successful, you set yourself up so that you don’t have to make artistic decisions based on financial need. Try to free yourself of that. Follow the well – written word. If an actor can develop a keen sense for assessing the material and say, “This TV show is really a horrible, stupid show, while this play that pays me nothing is really good,” then you can hopefully find the courage to accept the job that is better for your artistic spirit. If you do that crappy TV show, you’re part of that; the stink is partly on you.
I’ll give you an example: My agent sent me this script for this movie called Little Miss Sunshine. They said, “There’s no role in it for you, but we think it’s going to be a great film.” I read it in one sitting, and I thought it was terrific – if done well, it had a chance to be a really wonderful film. I wanted to get in on this. My agent said, “No, Steve Carell and Greg Kinnear are already cast, and you’re too young for the grandfather. There’s no role in it for you. You can’t play the gay boyfriend — you’re too old for that.” And I said, “What about Greg Kinnear’s book agent?” My agent said, “He’s only in two scenes. You’d work one day.” I said, “It doesn’t matter. It’s really well-written, and I want to be a part of things that are really well-written.” So I went to meet them, and I pitched my take on how the character should be. I tried to counter the desperation of Greg Kinnear’s character. I was flippant, and it seemed to work. And I’ve received so many accolades for that performance. It’s not flashy; it’s just this little slice. But because everybody loved that movie, people say: “You were fantastic!” This is interesting to me, because it didn’t warrant that kind of hyperbole. But because they loved the whole, that tide raises all boats.
HT: You’re aware, of course, that High Times named Breaking Bad “the best show ever”? That’s so cool. That’s huge! Better than The Simpsons or The Twilight Zone. New York magazine’s reviewer even called watching it one of the “best experiences” of her life.
BC: [Laughing] We just see ourselves as a conduit for trying to bring people together. The readers of High Times and the readers of New York magazine — c’mon, can’t we all just get along?