LOS ANGELES — It’s a tough job, and Bryan Cranston is more than glad to do it — playing Walter H. White, the frazzled antihero at the center of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” that is.
Though playing White, a meek chemistry teacher who gradually transforms into a hardcore drug dealer after he finds out he has life-threatening cancer, is “a dream come true,” Cranston pointed out that the character and the series’ increasingly dark tones have taken an emotional and physical toll on him.
“At the end of the day, I take two moist towels, put them on my head and wash all of Walt’s energy off of me, and leave him at work,” Cranston said, sighing heavily.
After decades of being mostly relegated to guest shots and supporting roles in TV and film, the actor has found a breakout role in AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” Cranston was previously best known as the buffoonish father on “Malcolm in the Middle,” but “Breaking” has scored him two consecutive Emmys for outstanding actor in a drama series, an achievement that has propelled him to the top tier of TV dramatic actors.
And the character of White, whose initial rationale for getting into the drug trade was to give his family a financial foundation after he died, now joins a gallery of prominent antiheroes such as gangster Tony Soprano (“The Sopranos”), corrupt detective Vic Mackey (“The Shield”) and advertising hotshot Don Draper (“Mad Men”) at the center of complex dramas.
Additionally, the show has established AMC, which also airs “Mad Men,” as a venue for quality original programming.
In its third-season premiere this month, the series drew its largest audience ever, attracting more than 3 million viewers.
“Breaking Bad” has grown consistently darker as creator Vince Gilligan maps out what he calls White’s journey from “Mr. Chips to Scarface.” Cranston, who directed the season opener, says he is particularly excited about the upcoming episodes: Even though he had his doubts when “Breaking Bad” started that it would work, he now has total confidence in its direction.
“What made me want to do this in the beginning was the notion of taking a character and completely changing him from one kind of person to another,” he said last week while relaxing in the immaculately tasteful San Fernando Valley home he shares with his wife, actress Robin Dearden, and their young daughter.
He added, “That’s never happened on TV before. I knew we would have to find a way to make this man sympathetic. If we didn’t make him relatable or identifiable to the majority of the audience, we wouldn’t have a show. His actions are indefensible. All we were hoping for was to get an understanding of why he’s doing this, not to condone his actions.”
Still, despite the critical acclaim surrounding “Breaking Bad,” Cranston and its cast, including Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn and Dean Norris, catching the cultural zeitgeist has been more elusive than it has been for other A-list dramas such as “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men” or “The West Wing.” Entertainment-oriented magazines have passed him by for covers. Though “Mad Men’s” Jon Hamm and January Jones, who have not won Emmys, have hosted “Saturday Night Live,” Cranston has not gotten the call.
Gilligan, who praised Cranston as a solid and “courageous” actor, said he is mystified: “Bryan truly deserves to be more noticed. He is much more a chameleon than most actors, and he truly disappears into his role.
“Perhaps it’s that quality that has kept him from getting more covers or things like that. Hopefully that will change because he can absolutely do anything. If he hosted ‘Saturday Night Live,’ he would hit it out of the park.”
But Cranston is much more understanding and philosophical about the road of celebrity, and he is more devoted to the craft of acting than to the more superficial trappings of fame. Visitors to the Cranston home won’t spot his Emmys on the living room mantel. Nothing in the front rooms of the home suggests that he is an actor on hit TV shows and movies.
“There’s this notion that in order to draw attention and to be considered for roles I want to be considered for, you need a certain amount of notoriety,” he said.
“I never pursued that. My goal has always been to be a working actor.”
Leaning forward, he added, “Would I like to host ‘Saturday Night Live’? Hell, yes, I’d love to. But it’s not going to have a big impact on my life if it doesn’t happen.
“I feel good our show is doing well and ‘Mad Men’ is doing well, and we have a symbiotic relationship, and, it’s fair to say, a healthy competition. We can only benefit by their success, and they can benefit by ours.”