Thesp has created memorable characters but Walter White takes icon status
Bryan Cranston’s hair has grown back in. His goatee has been shaved. Physically, the thesp has transitioned from the now-iconic Walter White, “Breaking Bad’s” meth-cooking antihero, after wrapping the final episode of the AMC series earlier this year.
But, as Cranston, who will receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his TV work on July 16, recognizes, there is a bond between him and the characters of White and White’s alter ego Heisenberg that won’t easily be broken.
“Walter’s a part of me, and I’m a part of him,” Cranston wistfully says of his character. “We’re inextricably tied for the rest of our lives.”
Aug. 11 will mark the beginning of “Breaking Bad’s” swan song, as the Emmy-winning drama enters its final eight-episode run to much fanfare. But AMC’s initial campaign for season six is simple: smoke on a green background with the words, “All Bad things must come to an end.” That’s something Cranston has come to grips with in an almost philosophical manner.
“Just like any good thing, if you know it lasts forever, it’ll lose its value,” he explains. “But because it’s ephemeral and life is ephemeral, you hold onto something like this with more grace, respect and honor than you would otherwise. … It’s like a microcosm of life itself.”
Six years ago, Cranston encountered the pilot script from “Breaking Bad” creator and scribe Vince Gilligan. While he may not have been able to predict the reverential trajectory of the drama during his first glimpse at the script (including his three lead actor Emmy wins), the thesp knew, from conversations with Gilligan, that “Breaking Bad” would be different.
“What Vince wanted to do was something that has never been done before in the history of TV,” the actor recalls. “Take a character, introduce him to the audience with specific characteristics, and then begin to make him change slowly, over the course of two years in storytelling time until he’s a completely different person. What he described to me, that wasn’t evident in the pilot script.”
When “Breaking Bad” debuted on AMC in 2008, some broadcasts barely broke a million viewers. Thanks to word-of-mouth and Netflix making available several binge-able seasons of the show, “Breaking Bad” developed a cult-like following and more than doubled its initial viewership.
Celebs, biz honchos and consumers alike asked one another over the last year, “Have you gotten into ‘Breaking Bad?’” On June 9 comic strip “Doonesbury” even weighed in with lead character Mike Doonesbury succumbing to the series in an all-night binge.
The drama’s following led to some displays of fandom that had even Cranston raising his eyebrows.
“The tattoos that people have, permanently inking Walter White on their chests” are the most surprising kinds of fan art Cranston has seen, he says. “I’ve seen big ones on their chests or arms or legs. … It’s like wow, that’s forever, man — you just made a commitment forever.”
Cranston’s brand of commitment to “Breaking Bad” was evident during the lensing of the series. Shaving his head for the role seemed like a no-brainer, even though Cranston was offered the option of a bald cap.
“I said, ‘No, no, no, let’s shave my head,’ ” he recalls. “It was the best thing for the character, which goes back to being able to ingest the character. You can look in the mirror and see things happening, and that helps with your transition.”
While his physical transformation made it easier to absorb Walter White, it did create practical issues while shooting.
“We shot in the sand dunes west of Albuquerque and it was 5 degrees without the windchill factor,” Cranston says. “Even though we had long underwear on, I’m bald, which means I lose all the heat coming out of my body.”
During this shoot, Cranston would strip down out of his jacket and hat when cameras began rolling, and time how long he could stand the extreme weather.
“I stopped my watch when I could feel the cold start seeping in and change my ability to stand still because of the shaking. It was about a minute and a half. After 14 hours of that, you’re driving home and can’t believe how exhausted you are, and you realize it’s because throughout the day, your body has been tightening up, then loosening, then tightening up. Your muscles, your neck, your back are sore. Those are things you really remember.”
Physical challenges aside, Cranston also faced new territory as an actor as he took on a character who would undergo a radical metamorphosis during its arc. Surprisingly, Cranston remarks that the key to executing this kind of character, for him, was to only read about “five days ahead” so that he could absorb the incremental changes in an organic way and not make leaps that Walter White — and the audience — weren’t ready for.
Cranston continues to crave the new. He explains that when his series-long tenure, from 2000-06, on “Malcolm in the Middle” came to an end, he was offered “two pilots of sweet, easy-natured dads” and declined them without hesitance.
“I thought, ‘Oh, thank you, but no, I just did that for seven years. Why would I want to be redundant? I need and want to do something different every time.’ ”
Something different currently means taking a role in Warner Bros.’ 2014 entry Godzilla, directed by Gareth Edwards, and starring this fall in the American Repertory Theater’s production of Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, in which he plays Lyndon Johnson. That production begins performances Sept. 13.
“I thought for sure the bar was going to be set too high” for projects after wrapping the critically acclaimed “Breaking Bad,” Cranston admits. “But, then I thought, ‘No, I don’t want to be prudish or feel like I’m now in the aristocracy.’ ” The thesp simply looks for projects with strong, character-driven components to them. Like the words of Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” pilot, for Cranston, “The script has to speak.”