Catching a break
Bryan Cranston steps up to the, um, beaker in AMC's Breaking Bad.
Fans of Fox’s late, great sitcom Malcolm in the Middle know Bryan Cranston, 51, can do just about anything and still get a laugh—his work as the show’s rough-around-the-edges dad, Hal, scored him a handful of Best Supporting Actor Emmy nods. Now he finds himself fronting Breaking Bad, a new AMC dark comedy/drama series about a chemistry teacher Walt White on the brink of a midlife crisotunity. Terminal lung cancer diagnosis? Bad. Chance to make killer crystal meth and sell it for loads of money? Good. We caught up with Cranston and learned a bit more about Walt White—and a lot more about his mustache.
Time Out Chicago: The show seems very Weeds-inspired. Did that cross your mind when you were reading the script?
Bryan Cranston: No, only afterwards when I realized where the show was going to go. I realize it has that sort of flavor, albeit that the issue here is crystal meth, which is far more dangerous, obviously, than pot. It helps the dramatic aspects of the show in that it raises the stakes. And at the same time, it demands that we address the social aspect and responsibility part of what we’re doing. We would be remiss if we didn’t—if not, people wouldn’t be able to relate to the show as much. I don’t think Weeds has to do that.
Time Out Chicago: On your website you say, in reference to Last Chance [a film he wrote and acted in], that you play a role that is very different from Hal. Is that something you always feel the need to clarify?
Bryan Cranston: Absolutely, especially when you do a character for seven years like I did on Malcolm. I heard through the grapevine that AMC was dubious about me doing this role, like, “That guy? Really? He’s kind of a goofball isn’t he?” I mean, it’s a role. I think people naturally tend to think what they see is who you are. I’ve had offers to do goofy dad roles, and I’ve turned them down because that would be the death nail for me. I don’t think I need to play that role anymore. I wouldn’t know how to do a goofy dad any differently than what I did, so I’d be repeating the same thing, and that’s like, [Groans] that’s ugly.
Time Out Chicago: How do you see Walt White then?
Bryan Cranston: He’s a very bright man who developed a fear of success. Way back when, after he got his doctorate degree, rather than accepting a job at a top pharmaceutical company or finding a cure for diseases—everything he thought he wanted to do—he suddenly went the “easy” route and became a teacher. Not to besmirch the profession of teaching, obviously. The only thing I could come up with is that he didn’t feel he could measure up to the expectations from his family, professors, from himself.
Time Out Chicago: Not so much like Nancy Botwin.
Bryan Cranston: [Well,] I looked at the script and I saw a Sopranos type of show. The big difference is that Tony Soprano had his problems at home like Walt White does, but when he goes to work, he knows his business—knows what he’s doing. Whereas Walt White is entering into a realm where he doesn’t know what to expect. That really intrigues and excites me.
Time Out Chicago: Not to mention that he gets to sport an impressive mustache.
Bryan Cranston: You know, we’ve thinned that thing out ’cause it was too masculine.
Time Out Chicago: I’ve read that you used to grow a beard while on Malcolm hiatus. Now that Malcolm’s off the air, are you just going to let it fall untamed?
Bryan Cranston: I’ve got a full beard now. I just got a job where I go back to Albuquerque, New Mexico [where they film Breaking Bad], and the beard gives me an opportunity to go, “Okay, so this character, would he have a mustache? Would he have a soul patch? Would he have a goatee? Vandyke? Long mutton chops? A full beard? Would it be trimmed? It gives me tremendous options to change my look. That’s the only reason I do it.
Time Out Chicago: It also gives you less of a Phil Hartman look, which is something I’m sure you get a lot.
Bryan Cranston: Yes I’ve actually received that compliment many times—not just in look, but in manner. I had the pleasure of meeting him and sharing a table with him at a premiere for a miniseries I did, From the Earth to the Moon. We had such a great time, making each other laugh so hard. We were actually talking about when we could get together, and we had decided May, which is when he died. [At the premiere,] I mentioned in a joking way, “You know, I get people telling me that I look like you.” He said something to the effect of, “Why would you tell me that?”
Cranston breaks himself Sunday 20, 9pm on AMC.