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Actor Bryan Cranston, 'Breaking' With Type

The actor Bryan Cranston might be best known as Hal, the childlike father on Malcolm in the Middle. He also played Jerry's dentist on Seinfeld and a guy with a severe headache problem on The X-Files. Two years ago, Cranston got his role as the lead in a dramatic series in Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad, which starts its third season on AMC at 10 p.m. ET Sunday.

Cranston stars as Walter White, a shy high-school chemistry teacher who can't quite make ends meet. When he learns he has inoperable lung cancer, something in him snaps, and he decides to use his familiarity with lab equipment to provide for his family: He teams up with a former student to make and sell crystal meth.

Cranston tells Fresh Air's David Bianculli that he started daydreaming about what Walter White would look like immediately after Gilligan told him about the character.

"I [thought White] should be a little pudgy. I [thought] he should be pale," Cranston says. "I [thought] he should be colorless. I [thought] his clothes should be this way. I [thought] he should have this silly mustache that doesn't really convey anything, except that it conveys impotence to me. It was unnecessary. And it sort of was a manifestation of what I thought his life was like at that time — basically unnecessary, that he felt useless, invisible to the world, to society, even to himself."

For his performance in Breaking Bad, Cranston has won back-to-back Emmy Awards. He was previously nominated three times for Malcolm in the Middle. His film credits include Little Miss Sunshine and Saving Private Ryan.

This interview was originally broadcast on Feb. 6, 2008.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

(Soundbite of music)

DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Before getting the starring role in the AMC drama "Breaking Bad," the actor Bryan Cranston was best known as Hal, the childlike father on "Malcolm in the Middle." You might also have known him as Jerry's dentist on "Seinfeld," as agent Stan Grossman in "Little Miss Sunshine," or as a guy with a severe headache problem on "The X-Files."

But as high school science teacher Walter White, Bryan Cranston has won back-to-back Emmy Awards as outstanding lead actor in a drama series, so he's definitely arrived. And season three of "Breaking Bad" arrives this Sunday, picking up where last season's cliffhanger left off. In "Breaking Bad," created by Vince Gilligan, we first met Cranston's Walter when his wife was pregnant, and he was diagnosed as having terminal lung cancer.

To provide for his family, Walter decided to utilize his knowledge of chemistry to manufacture crystal meth and team up with a former student, played by Aaron Paul, to sell it. Since Walter made that decision, almost nothing has gone right. And while Walter thinks he's succeeded in keeping his dark secret from his wife, maybe he hasn't.

In Sunday's new episode, she suddenly hands him some divorce papers.

Mr. BRYAN CRANSTON (Actor): (as Walter) Why are you doing this? Why are you even thinking this way? Is it to punish me?

Ms. ANNA GUNN (Actress): (as Skyler) I am not punishing you, Walt. I...

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Walter) This is punitive, is what this is. We are happily married. I am happily married. I am happy. We're just - I love you, Skyler, and I would do anything for you. Would you even consider - I mean, Jesus. You come in here and you wave these papers in my face when there's a whole other, entire side to this thing. There's your side and there's my side, and you haven't heard my side yet. You haven't heard any of it at all.

Ms. GUNN: (as Skyler) Youre a drug dealer.

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Walter) No. What? How? What?

Ms. GUNN: (as Skyler) Yeah. How else could you possibly make that kind of money?

BIANCULLI: I spoke to Bryan Cranston in 2008, right after the premiere of "Breaking Bad."

Bryan Cranston, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. CRANSTON: Thank you, David. Good to be here.

BIANCULLI: I have to be honest, Bryan. When I heard the premise for this series, I didnt think I'd like the character or the show very much.

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Because we're talking about crystal meth. We're talking about cancer. But you really pulled me in. I still wasnt sure, when the hour was over, what to think of this guy. And I'm wondering, is that the only script that you saw when you had to decide whether to accept the part or not?

Mr. CRANSTON: Yes. The only thing I saw was the pilot script. And as an actor, you know if it starts to seep into your soul and you start daydreaming about the character and having nighttime dreams about the character, then it's becoming you - or youre becoming it, one way or the other.

And when I had my first meeting with Vince a year and a half ago, I couldnt help but start saying exactly what I felt about him. This is, I think he should be a little pudgy. I think he should be pale. I think he should be colorless. I think his clothes should be this way. I think he should have this silly mustache that doesnt convey anything...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: ...except that it conveys impotence to me. It was unnecessary. And it sort of was a manifestation of what I thought his life was like at that time - basically unnecessary, that he felt useless, invisible to the world, to society, even to himself.

BIANCULLI: A question about a very dramatic scene, which is where youre deciding - or confronted with the decision of whether or not to undergo chemotherapy treatments, and your wife stages a sort of intervention. And everyone's around, and you take turns talking by holding a talking pillow, which gives you the right to speak. And it's a funny idea...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: ...in a very dramatic scene, and youre the last to speak. And finally, you get the talking pillow. And I thought, this was the first time you've had the talking pillow in four or five episodes. And how hard a scene was that for you to do - because you were quite, quite strong in it.

Mr. CRANSTON: The thing about an actor approaching a scene like that is, you can't for a second think that what youre doing is funny. Because if you do, then there's a slight wink-wink, nod-nod to the audience - oh isn't this cute; we're using this talking pillow. And all of us just took this idea that this gave us the right to speak at that time and to speak uninterrupted. And it's very respectful of the audience, I think.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: We dont have a laugh track to it. And if the audience finds that piece funny - as you did, Davi -, then I think you can smile or laugh if that strikes you that way - or not. And ultimately, that is just so juicy to play because there's a whole wide range of reactions that an audience can have at any particular time, and none is wrong.

BIANCULLI: Your resume fascinates me. You seemed to have been, in the '70s and '80s, in one episode of almost everything.

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm.

BIANCULLI: Not several episodes, just one. But I mean...

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: Great shows like "Chicago Hope" and "L.A. Law" and "thirtysomething" and "Hill Street" - and then youre in "Walker Texas Ranger," "Touched By an Angel," "Jake and the Fatman" and "Baywatch."

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm. A wide range of good programs and crappy ones.

BIANCULLI: That's sort of my question. But I mean...

Mr. CRANSTON: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: ...clearly a working actor...

Mr. CRANSTON: Oh, dont be embarrassed.

BIANCULLI: ...but how - and your first job is like, on "Chips." Bless your soul.

Mr. CRANSTON: Uh-huh.

BIANCULLI: So first of all, how do you get started on "Chips" and then how do you balance this career?

Mr. CRANSTON: Well, when an actor first starts out, youre looking to work -any work. You need money to pay your rent, and money to pay for your eight by 10 pictures and your resumes and your acting classes. So you, and you need some film on yourself and that's - youre willing to take just about anything. Yeah.

BIANCULLI: But what do you remember about "Chips?"

Mr. CRANSTON: I remember I had this terrible Southern accent. I think I was talking like this. I was talking like this.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: And I had a wife on the show named Kathy Shower, who was apparently - and I didnt really even know it at the time. She was a very pretty woman.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: And she was a Playboy Playmate and it was like wow, Erik Estrada, that's all he had to find out. A Playboy Playmate and, you know, he was after her like nobody's business.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: And it's like, you know, it's interesting because I heard nothing but bad things about Erik, things saying oh, he does this, he's, you know. And he was nice to me on the show, I must say.

BIANCULLI: Well, another bad TV show - I mean, I've been a TV critic since '75, so I can say this.

Mr. CRANSTON: Oh.

BIANCULLI: Another bad show you were on, but it had a good result for you, was "Airwolf." Wasnt that Jan-Michael Vincent in a helicopter? Is that the one I'm thinking of, or am I confusing that...

Mr. CRANSTON: No, that's the one, Jan-Michael Vincent on his descent into his personal hell, which was horrible. This guy was, you know, had so much promise and he was late every day and he had, you know, his drinking problem, his drug problem. And there was a scene where we're in a helicopter and they're shooting what's called a poor man's process, which is a helicopter is not actually in the air, but if you shoot from a low angle up, all you see is sky behind you. And there's a couple grips in the back, moving the rotor, and it looks like the whole thing is in the air.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: And there was - our first AD would say OK, roll sound. Sound speed. Here we go, slate it. And Bryan - and he would shake his fist to me. That would be my cue to wake up Jan.

BIANCULLI: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: And to have - no seriously, to wake up Jan and have him, you know, act in the scene. And it was such a shame and I was like God, this is so horrible. Especially for a beginning actor, when I was pretty new there and wanting more than anything to be able to be a part of the acting community and to have the gift that has - eventually came to me, to become a good working actor. And I dont take it lightly, and I dont have any expectations of what the business owes me. I have no sense of entitlement. I just work.

BIANCULLI: We're talking to Bryan Cranston, star of the AMC drama series "Breaking Bad."

One thing that I find in common between your part of Hal in "Malcolm in the Middle," and your new part as Walter in "Breaking Bad" - and there isn't that much that they have in common.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: But it's as an actor, a total lack of vanity when it comes to attacking the characters as you see them. And I'd like to play the first scene from "Malcolm in the Middle," where we meet your character.

Mr. CRANSTON: Hmm.

BIANCULLI: Youre the husband and youre down - the kids are at the breakfast table, they're trying to eat. Youre nude, reading a newspaper that's strategically opened to cover things while youre reading it...

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: ...and your wife, Jane Kaczmarek, is shaving your back hair with some hair trimmers.

(Soundbite of TV series, "Malcolm in the Middle")

Mr. CRANSTON: (as Hal) Huh, look at this. They're sending an unmanned probe to Venus and letting a bunch of schoolchildren name it. That's going to end badly.

Ms. JANE KACZMAREK (Actress): (as Lois) These clippers are dull already. Honestly, Hal, youre like a monkey.

Mr. FRANKIE MUNIZ (Actor): (as Malcolm) They do this every month. He has sensitive skin. The hair gets itchy under his clothes.

Ms. KACZMAREK: (as Lois) It always seems like such a shame, to just dump this in the trash. Maybe birds would like to make nests with it or, I dont know, maybe you boys could use it for school projects. Arms up.

BIANCULLI: So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

BIANCULLI: What memories does that bring back to you? And is it true that you had to have, for your first scene in a sitcom - or the first scene, maybe they were shot out of sequence - but you had to have yak hair glued all over you to make that scene work?

Mr. CRANSTON: Yes. I have nothing but fond memories of "Malcolm in the Middle." It was a fantastic period of my life - brilliantly written by Linwood Boomer. That was the first scene. The first scene I ever shot in the pilot was the scene where I'm naked in front of all these children. And...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: ...the person who's in charge of kids, you know, in taking care of them - from the Coogan Law, and they have all these rights, which is fantastic now...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: ...insisted that in between scenes, I stand behind this black curtain. So apparently, while we're shooting it, my nudity was OK and didnt hurt the retinas of their little eyes. But in between, I had to go stand behind this curtain. But yes, it's true. I was, except for a modesty patch - and believe me, it was very modest...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: ...I had nothing else on. It took three makeup artists four hours to apply yak hair to my body. And they said it was yak hair, and they told me why. Yak hair most resembles human hair but it's longer, so they were able to use part of it for the glue and still have part of it that is unmatted and standing out. But that meant I couldnt sit down. So for the entire day that we're shooting this, I never sat down. And I had my arms out most of the time so everything wouldnt get matted.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: But when it came time to actually shaving this hair off my body, the glue would get stuck in the razor and it would start to pull my skin. So we had to have a casting call for hairy back people. And they brought in all kinds of people. It looked like a carpeteria(ph) store where...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: ...there was shag and there was low pile and there was, you know, berber, and they picked the body type that they felt was most like mine, which is very unfortunate.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: And they had a body double, and it turned out to be one of our Teamster guys.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Bryan Cranston, star of the AMC drama series "Breaking Bad."

One of the things I learned reading about you for this is that your parents were actors; Joe and Peggy Cranston. Would I know them from anything?

Mr. CRANSTON: You wouldnt know my mom, and my dad might be hard to remember: remember when my dad was, you know, he had the real actor's life. His life was up and down and up and down. And I remember him mostly - dying in everything that I saw him do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: Whether he was a soldier on top of the roof in "The Day the " - not "The End of the World." I forget what the movie was. The sci-fi movie with the large grasshoppers that took over the city. He was in that saying, you know, sector eight is flying here...

(Soundbite of scream)

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CRANSTON: And we'd see him die, you know. Or else he was an infantry man or he was, you know, in the cavalry, and he got shot with an arrow. He was always dying. Hey, dad's dying tonight, you know, so wed watch him. But he met my mother in the late '40s in an acting class in Hollywood, and they were all in the same class with Anne Bancroft and David Jansen at the time.

And it was kind of, you know, a good time for them and post-war, and everything was kind of on the upswing. And they married and decided to have children and that's when my mom decided well, Ill either have a career or be a mother and -those were the choices for women in those days, and she always regretted that. She always wished that she had pursued both.

BIANCULLI: Bryan Cranston, it was a joy having you on FRESH AIR. Thanks very much.

Mr. CRANSTON: Thank you, David. I appreciate it.

BIANCULLI: Actor Bryan Cranston, interviewed in 2008. He's since won back-to-back Emmy Awards for "Breaking Bad." The show's third season begins Sunday night on AMC. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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