Bryan Cranston, age 54, has been a working actor for nearly three decades, though in anonymous roles most of that time. A decade ago he was cast as the hapless father on the Fox comedy Malcolm in the Middle, and suddenly everything changed. Usually an actor is lucky to have lightning strike once for him. But for Cranston it’s now happened twice. His second act as the mega-intense high school chemistry teacher-turned-crystal meth maker Walter White in AMC’s Breaking Bad has earned him two Emmys and a 3rd straight nomination. He faces off in the lead drama actor category against Michael C. Hall (Dexter), Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), Jon Hamm (Mad Men), Hugh Laurie (House) and Matthew Fox (Lost). Cranston spoke with Ray Richmond for Deadline Hollywood about how Walt is like Tony Soprano, and why he’s fearful of saying something dumb on Emmy night:
DH: It’s difficult to imagine two characters more different than Hal and Walt. It’s tough to reconcile it’s even the same actor playing both parts.
BC: That’s why I look at being able to play Walt as the gift of my life. Jason Alexander has talked about how his transition from Seinfeld has been so difficult. We truly do become victims of our own success. I spent seven years developing and strengthening that character on Malcolm. And now I’m trying to wash it away so I don’t have to live in its shadow. Fortunately, the people attracted to the material we’re doing on Breaking Bad aren’t generally the same ones who are fans of situation comedy.
DH: But you were not an obvious choice for ‘High school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer who becomes a crystal meth chef to make a quick killing’. How did Vince Gilligan cast you?
BC: Well, Breaking Bad was one of four pilot scripts that had arrived at my house, and there was a little note from my agent that mentioned it was written by a guy I’d worked with when I guested on The X-Files. I read it before looking at any of the others and had no idea what the term “breaking bad” even meant. But I was sold from the first page. I called up my agent, who told me they were starting to read people the following week. I told him next week would be too late. I knew if other actors saw this first, it would be all over for me. So I insisted on getting in immediately.
DH: Was the stuff you were up for at that time slapstick comedy?
BC: Exactly right. They were mostly derivatives of what I’d already done on Malcolm. No one could understand why I’d be turning that kind of material down. And of course, that was the reason I was. This is the best role of my life. I’m more grateful for it than anyone will ever know. It’s almost like a version of Tony Soprano, the big difference being that while Tony was in his milieu as a criminal, Walter White is the ultimate fish out of water.
Vince and myself and the whole production team are trying to do something that’s never been accomplished in the history of television, and that is to change the lead character from one type of person to another. I’m grateful to guys like David Chase for paving the way for characters like this one. I’m deeply honored and tickled by this whole turn of events for me.
DH: How did you feel about dark direction of Season 3?
BC: I think it was our best. I really do. The writers and producers really took things to another level this year.
DH: But you don’t come back for Season 4 until July 2011?
BC: I think what AMC is thinking is there will be less competition in July than there was in March, when we launched Season 3. But to tide everyone over, we’ll be shooting interstitial mini-episodes of 3 to 4 minutes each beginning early next year that will go up on the AMC website. And I don’t want them to be just filler but actual storyline. If we’re going to do it, I’d like it to be a part of the larger story.
DH: Are you doing a lot of outside projects during the break?
BC: Yes, I’m developing projects and have one I’m writing and directing, Meet the Murphys. I’ve finished working on Larry Crowne and John Carter of Mars. I’m shooting another one right now. It’s interesting, as an actor when you first start out, you just accept everything that comes your way because work is hard to scare up. You get into that mode of automatically saying “Yes”. Now when scripts come in, I’m already leaning toward saying “Yes” when I have to learn to say “No”. I’ve finally reached the point where I have to be careful in my choices, which is an amazing place to be. But I have no anticipation or sense of entitlement for where this journey takes me next.
Deadline Hollywood: So you could win your 3rd Emmy in a row on August 29th after losing three in a row for Malcolm In The Middle.
Bryan Cranston: Yes, it’s a possibility that I can hardly grasp. And all I can think is, if I win again, that I don’t get up there and say something stupid that I’ll need to apologize for later.
DH: Does that really worry you at this point?
BC: Totally. You don’t want to be presumptuous and have a speech all written, but by the same token you want to keep something in your head you might like to say so you’re not caught flat-footed. Because I have to tell you, when you’re up there, it’s such a surreal moment. Everything moves at time warp speed. You have a multitude of thoughts. Did I have tuna fish before I left the house? How many games are the Dodgers out of first place? And no one wants to see somebody get up there and fumble around with, “Oh, um, uh, wow.” That’s charming for the first second and a half, then it’s grating and irritating. I have have no recollection what I said up there either time I won.