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The End of Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston cuts a fascinating figure; part character actor, part comic everyman, he is largely known for two very different roles – disengaged but loving father Hal in Malcolm in the Middle and as chemistry teacher turned meth cook Walter White in Breaking Bad.

Cranston was in London to promote the launch of the fifth season of the AMC series, which has been acquired in the UK by online video service Netflix as well as a raft of European broadcasters. The Vince Gilligan-penned series is produced and distributed globally by Sony Pictures Television.

He talks to TBI about his cancer victim-turned drug lord Walter White as the series heads into its final eight episodes (due to air next year) as well as some of the things that he plans to do after the Vince Gilligan-penned series comes to a conclusion.

How are you finding London?
I love to get lost in London.

Do you find it’s harder to do nowadays?
Having hair helps [Walter White is shaved bald] and I try and have a hat because what I enjoy to do is what I’ve always done as an actor, which is to observe human behaviour so I’ll watch a young couple and see how they relate or you’ll see someone who is mad at someone else. At some point I know I’ll be able to use it. When you become the observed, then you lose that ability.

Do you incorporate these observations into your characters?
Yes; that’s actor talk. I tell young actors they should never be bored, you should be able to work every moment of the day because our job is to study human behaviour and file it away and then reuse it at some point whether it’s at an airport or school or hospital or wherever there’s emotions, it’s a fantastic life. It changes when you become somewhat known.

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan describes Walter White as Mr Chips turning into Scarface. How do you approach such a shift?
When I first met with Vince Gilligan six years ago and he told me what he wanted to do, basically turning a good person into a bad one, I realised that this is historic, this has never happened before in the history of series television; to have your lead character change. Series television has always been about staying the same; people are very comfortable about tuning in to a show where one person solves a mystery – this is a show that completely put that upside down and is all about change and I was looking at it from the standpoint of getting myself to change with it.

When I first met with Vince Gilligan six years ago and he told me what he wanted to do, basically turning a good person into a bad one, I realised that this is historic, this has never happened before in the history of series television.

Who is Walter White? He’s a man who is 50, depressed about missed opportunities in his life, has a special needs son, conditions that are difficult, a baby on the way and then he gets this terminal diagnosis. That’s a tough break, tough to live with. If it was a movie and I saw the beginning, middle and end and then you need to know where you’re going to end because you need to modulate your performance depending on where you are at any given time. But this was un-ended. You’re not thinking about how you’re going to behave in ten years time, you don’t know how you’re going to feel. It was impossible for me to tell how I was going to feel; just need to work out right here, right now and that’s why I never asked where the story was going. I didn’t know three, four, five days before we started shooting an episode what was going to happen in that episode.

Has Vince told you how the show will end?
I have no idea how it’s going to end.

Do you have any sympathy for Walter White?
Having sympathy for my character, presumes that you’re objective and looking at it and judging your condition. I don’t do that. I am Walter White so when I play him I don’t think how am I perceived from the outside, I’m just trying to survive as the character and I’ve gotten so used to that and my hope is that Vince Glligan ends the series as he wants to end the series. I have no designs; however it’s supposed to end, it’s supposed to end. The twists and turns, I don’t know. I don’t ask, he doesn’t tell me so I just go along.

Were you aware that he was going to become this calculating killer and drug overlord from the start?
We never talked about it. I know the broad strokes and that’s what made me realise this has never been done before so by the end of this series, Walt’s going to be bad. That’s catnip [to an actor].

What was your first memories of the project?
After I read the pilot and Vince wanted to see me for it and I had worked on a episode of The X-Files, I was desperate to get in to see him and I know other actors and other actors were going to read that and kick and scratch and elbow their way to get into that role and I needed to lift my leg on that role as soon as possible.

Did you have to audition?
It’s always an auditon; there’s always an audition. With this movie Argo, I read this script and thought it was brilliant and I wanted that role and so I did more research and thought about it so that when I went in to meet with Ben Affleck I was able to have information and show him that I’m passionate about this and show them I have a specific idea about the character and make them feel that they’re making a confident choice in me.

The writing on Breaking Bad is extremely well thought of; how important is the value of a good script?
The easiest thing that an actor has is when the material is this well written, it’s all about the material. The writing is the cornerstone of the character.

Is it difficult to turn a character from Mr Chips into Scarface?
As an actor, you welcome the darkness as well as the lightness. When I was in grade school, I didn’t want to stick out, I wanted to go with the flow but when you get out of high school you’re definitely trying to be unique. It was important to me that it wasn’t just the physical danger that he got him and his family exposed to but the emotional danger. Now we’re seeing his ego, the ugliness of his hubris that comes forth and it’s incredibly important to show and even though it makes people turn against Walter White, it’s honest and that’s what we want to show.

Vince often says that Breaking Bad started life as a movie script; could you imagine it on the big screen?
I think Breaking Bad would make a terrible movie because you need the time to legitimately see the changes and the path that he or she is going down and that’s why TV is the best medium for this storytelling. Each chapter is a novel. That’s why the story should dictate the medium. If a story can be told in two hours, maybe do a play, if it’s visual, make a movie. At the end of this it will be 62 hours.

I think Breaking Bad would make a terrible movie because you need the time to legitimately see the changes and the path that he or she is going down and that’s why TV is the best medium for this storytelling.

You are also an executive producer; how do you find that side of the job?
Because I’m the face of the show, my job is to promote the image of Breaking Bad internationally and how I represent the show as well as when we’re shooting. I take it upon myself; I’m the lead of the cast, want to make sure the environment is good. We enjoy each other and enjoy the moment and after 13 or 14 hours we go home to our families. The drama is on screen, not on set. That’s how I influence from a producers stand point. Not in the story, that’s Vince Gilligan’s. He runs the show.

You have eight episodes left; do you feel a responsibility about how it will end?
No. Vince Gilligan does, he’s pulling his hair out because it’s coming down to that point and he a finite amount of time to get it just as he wants.

How are you feeling about the last season?
Right now, I feel fine but I know come March when we’re saying goodbye, there will be hugs and tears. It’s interesting because we’ve taken all of this time to weave this tapestry and come March we’re going to pull it apart.

Are you sure you don’t know what will come of Walter White?
I don’t know how it’s going to end.

What is Breaking Bad’s legacy?
It’s certainly raised the bar; everything from here on in will be measured against Breaking Bad.

It’s certainly raised the bar; everything from here on in will be measured against Breaking Bad.

What are you going to do next?
I want to do more theatre and get back to process. Because in television it’s measured. When Malcolm ended, I had a year before I started Breaking Bad and Jason Alexander from Seinfeld asked if I wanted to do a play.

You have directed episodes of 30 Rock; could you see yourself moving more into comedy?
Yes. It’s up to me. Usually the business has a tendency to reward performances with a similar kind of performance so it’s up to the actor to determine how we’re going to go from here.

What are you working on now?
There’s things I’m developing from a producer standpoint, there’s certain things I’m writing and I hope to direct a script that I wrote for a feature film next year that I’m not starring in. I just want to keep exploring and if it’s acting or writing or directing or producing. I’m also going to take a break from series television. I need to wash Walter White from my psyche and I think I need to step back for a bit.