Three Years After 'Breaking Bad', Bryan Cranston Still Hasn't Shaken Walter White
The coldblooded meth kingpin turned out to be the role of Cranston's life.
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when Christian Slater and Matthew Broderick were both being considered for the role of Walter White on the AMC series “Breaking Bad.”
Lucky for us — and for him — the role went to Bryan Cranston, who until then was best known for playing dentist Tim Whatley on “Seinfeld” and the obtuse, roller-disco-skating father Hal on “Malcolm in the Middle.”
The coldblooded meth kingpin turned out to be the role of Cranston’s life and “Breaking Bad” a pop-culture juggernaut that would land at No. 3 on Rolling Stone’s list of The 100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time, bested only by “The Wire” and “The Sopranos.”
Three years after the finale, Cranston still hasn’t shaken Walter — which is fine with him.
“Walter is in me and I am in Walter,” the actor said in a recent phone interview. “He created me and I created him.”
Their story is a major part of Cranston’s new book, “A Life in Parts.”
“A Life in Parts” isn’t as much a memoir as a collection of stories. The approach made it easier for Cranston to write — much of it done on airplanes.
“It was piecemeal, whatever came into me,” Cranston said. “I imagine I would have faced a lot of blank screen if it was a novel. It was actually not difficult to approach, because these were stories I knew.”
Cranston took to writing individual stories about his childhood. His father leaving when he was 10. His mother taking to drink. His early designs on law enforcement. He and his brother spending time on their grandparents’ farm, learning to cut the heads off chickens. A motorcycle trip with his brother. Auditions. Relationships. The genesis of Walter White.
He expresses sadness and loneliness. Self-doubt. He writes about the day he told his first wife he didn’t want to stay married; that he had misled her into thinking he was someone she could count on. And he describes an unstable ex-girlfriend, and how he once imagined smashing her head into a wall.
“I was losing myself and feeling out of control,” Cranston remembered. “This diminutive woman had so much control over me, and at first I was embarrassed to admit that. I am a grown man; I am strong. And I had to get out of my own ego.”
He writes of how he wanted the Walter White role so badly, he made the network executives think he was about to take another job to expedite the casting (no need; they wanted him all along).
He describes on-set conflicts, and his grueling preparation to play LBJ, including weeks of intense memorization and a diet limited to oatmeal, fish and vegetables.
“I try my damnedest to make my characters as honest as possible,” Cranston said. “Why would I withhold? Why would I sugarcoat? Why don’t I just say it like it is?
“When I felt insecure and alone, when I felt powerful,” he continued. “Here’s me at my best and me at my worst. The mistakes I made.”
He writes lovingly of Walter White, the character that made him a household name.
“I do think that we are inextricably tied,” he said of Walter, an ordinary high-school chemistry teacher who turns to manufacturing methamphetamine to pay for his cancer treatments and to provide for his family after his death. Over the course of five seasons, the mild-mannered Walter morphs into Heisenberg, a murderous drug lord.
Cranston won four Primetime Emmy Awards for his performance (three of them consecutively).
Walter taught him what it was like to be powerful, and the character allowed Cranston to experience and express “the gamut of emotions.” At first, Walter was depressed and lethargic. He loved his family and was working to support them, Cranston said, “But he wasn’t alive.”
“Then the diagnosis happened and he took a chance and became a powerful person,” he continued. “Even the meekest person among us can be dangerous, given the right set of circumstances.”
We talked about the black hat Walter wore to embolden himself and become his alter ego, Heisenberg. The hats are for sale around the world now, he said.
“But it was a mask,” Cranston said. “It was a talisman. You put that on and you’re halfway there. That’s what it’s like taking up a character.”
It was the same when he portrayed President Lyndon Baines Johnson in HBO’s “All the Way.”(Cranston originated the role for the stage and won a Tony.)
Cranston would get to the set before everyone except the makeup and hair crew and sit for almost three hours.
“And I’m sitting there with a cup of coffee seeing a tired-looking Bryan and by the time they were done, I was looking at LBJ,” he said. “I could see him start to come and adding the dialect” — and here he drops into a Texan accent — “is almost a meditation on a character, so I used that time to sink into who that character is.”
Cranston grew up in a dysfunctional family. His father — an aspiring actor whose career never hit big — left when he was young. They stayed in touch, but it was sad and painful. The son’s success couldn’t save the father from himself. It’s all in the book.
“I’ve been using my acting to try to purge myself of that,” he said, “as a catharsis to move through my issues. I have my acting as my therapy, and by and large it’s been very healthy.”
The book also serves as a handbook for those interested in acting. Cranston writes in detail about how he prepared for roles, his frustrations, his tricks, and how he drew on the events of his life to enhance his performances.
“I have been a professional actor for 37 years now, so it is part of the fabric of who I am,” Cranston explained. “I don’t know anything about acting that I can’t share. And I do want to help with the next generation. We are all just moving along, and it’s a big tent. Let’s all support each other.”
He has been working almost nonstop since “Breaking Bad” and “All the Way.” Movies, video games, an untitled Wes Anderson project and a new “Power Rangers” movie.
“I think the industry and the public has designs on what they’d like me to be,” Cranston said. “I personally just love what I do, and it doesn’t feel like work. It doesn’t feel like a burden or a task. It’s what I love.”
So his success is far beyond what he ever could have imagined. He described a recent dinner out with his wife, the actress Robin Dearden (they met filming an episode of “Airwolf” and have been married 29 years), when they took stock of their lives.
“We were saying, ‘Can you believe this?’ You can’t predict it,” Cranston said. “It’s amazing.
“She said, ‘You’re married to your work,’ and I started to object, saying ‘No, no!’
“And she said, ‘It’s OK, as long as I am your only mistress.’
“I’ll take that deal.”