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The Chemical Brothers of 'Breaking Bad'

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As we take our seats, tattooed guys in Ed Hardy-style T-shirts with skulls on them start approaching Paul, who is ceaselessly gracious, even when the same guys come by more than once. They take pictures with him, pitch parts for themselves, suggest that he cook them some blue meth, and say Jesse Pinkman-ish things like, "There's no flash on this bitch." "You're a cool motherfucker, man," says one fan. "You're not all stuck-up."

Paul is definitely not stuck-up. Though his distinct speaking voice – its nasality and slight overemphasis of every other word – is reminiscent of Jesse Pinkman, his startling pale-blue eyes radiate openness, and he comes off as almost impossibly sweet as he enthuses over his relationship with his fiancee, Lauren: They had their first kiss on the Ferris wheel at Coachella; they have tattoos of each other's electrocardiograms. "I tell her we should have, like, 12 kids. Let's just do it. Let's start a compound."

Family values come naturally to Paul, who grew up in small-town Idaho, the son of a Baptist minister. His parents were, and are, loving and supportive, albeit with some strict rules. "Like, I wasn't allowed to watch The Simpsons," he says. "My dad being the minister, each week during youth group, I would have to memorize certain Scriptures. A lot of people are religious and they haven't read, you know, the Bible. I've read the Bible front and back numerous times, and it's just so out there, it's like reading a science-fiction novel." Paul isn't sure exactly what he believes now: "Do I know exactly what is out there? No. But do I believe if you do something bad that you're gonna burn in hell forever? Not just a thousand years, but for trillions of years? Absolutely not." But what about Walter White – doesn't he deserve to go to hell? 'You'd want to believe that. But, I don't know."

It took Paul a while to move past his upbringing, even after he moved to Hollywood alone at 17 following an early high school graduation (he worked multiple jobs back in Idaho to fund the move, including gigs as two different radio mascots, one a giant tookie bird, the other a giant frog dressed as Garth Brooks). "I didn't curse until I was in my twenties," he says. He also lost his virginity at what he considers a late age, but asks me not to print that story.

Though the character he plays leads people to assume Paul is constantly high, he's never had a drug problem. He did have a meth-addict girlfriend years back, which informs his performance. "It went from coke and then it escalated to meth. Meth is the one that grabbed, like, nails-deep into her soul and slowly just ripped it out. She was this beautiful being, turned to this hollow shell."

He has been known to smoke weed. "The first time I actually felt it, it was around Halloween time, and I ate an entire bowl of Reese's Pieces and I couldn't stop laughing. It was incredible," he says. "Now I rarely smoke." He has a medical-marijuana card, though, which he says he actually uses for medicinal purposes: "If I go to the dentist, I'll get an eighth. I am against pills. I don't even take Advil. I think pot 100 percent should be legalized."

Jesse Pinkman wasn't even supposed to survive the first season, but Paul's performance made it inconceivable to kill him. Says Cranston, "I was amazed that Aaron could make this guy who is a high school dropout, a drug abuser, a drug pusher, into a guy you really care about. It's a testament to him."

Unlike Cranston, who continues to work with acting coaches to this day, Paul is an untrained, purely instinctual actor – who has nevertheless won an Emmy. So it's not surprising that his representatives see him as a potential major movie star. "I keep battling my reps, saying I am a character actor," says Paul, who is in talks with HBO about starring in a post-Breaking Bad show called The Missionary. "I have no interest in being a superbig star. I want to have some private life."

When Bryan Cranston was a young boy, he watched his father get eaten by a giant grasshopper. Cranston's parents met in an acting class in 1948, and they both worked for years in show business, with highly inconsistent results. Like pre-Heisenberg Walter, they were often downwardly mobile – one year, they'd get a swimming pool, and then find themselves without the money to fill it the next summer, or they'd trade in a new car for an older one. Cranston's dad, Joe, spent years chasing the dream of being a movie star, and instead ended up with TV parts and small roles in B pictures, such as Beginning of the End, the grasshopper-attack film. "I learned not to try to achieve some plateau, like stardom," Cranston says, sitting on the couch in the White-family living room. "My father was reaching for that brass ring, and if you fall short, then you must think, 'Well, I failed.' So my goal was to be able to make my living in my adult life exclusively as an actor. That's my victory."

The Whites' house is flooded with daylight, but we're not actually in a house, and it's not actually daylight. We're in the middle of a vast, warehouselike studio on the edge of town that holds most of the sets for Breaking Bad's best-known interiors. Wandering around can be highly disorienting: The inside of Saul Goodman's law office, with its hilariously huge Bill of Rights backdrop, is just a few feet away from the interior of the Whites' car wash, which is in turn right by their house. The exteriors, of course, are shot at an actual house in Albuquerque, which this set is designed to match precisely. It's uncanny in its detail, though a close inspection reveals some questionable choices: Would Walt really have read the Star Trek novels on the bookshelf – or for that matter, the novelization of the 1979 Disney film The Black Hole? (The answer is no: I learn that Gilli-gan is "chagrined" that I noticed: "They're going to look into fixing that.")

Cranston is far from a Method actor – he is able to sit around between scenes, singing snatches of songs (today's is "Please Come to Boston," an obscurity by Dave Loggins), teasing his castmates, greeting visitors, and then step in front of the cameras and reach into the darkest depths of his character. "He just fuckin' puts on the black hat and he's Heisenberg," says Dean Norris, who plays Walter's brother-in-law Hank, the burly DEA agent. "He's not one of these guys who spends the whole day in the corner going, 'I'm Heisenberg. I'm Heisenberg. I'm Heisenberg.' He just does it. He is a capital-A actor."

For Cranston, Walter White's rage is very real – and much of it comes from his problems with his parents, who divorced when he was young. Their house was soon foreclosed on, leaving him and his siblings to live with their grandparents. "There was no money," he says later that night, sitting at a rooftop hotel bar downtown, as Frank Sinatra plays in the background. "There was alcohol abuse. And there were broken lives. There were two broken people. It was ugly. I didn't see my father for 10 years.

"I have some anger issues," he says. "Comes from dealing with parental issues." Sometimes it comes out when he's exercising. "I'll go running, and I'll feel like I feel right now, fine. And I'll start running, and it's MOTHERFUCKER, grah! It's like a demon was stuck in there somewhere and escaped." Other than that, he has an easier time accessing his emotions as an actor than in daily life. "I look at my wife, and she's so emotional, she can't hold it in," he says. "She is beautifully honest, and I marvel at women. If there's another life for me, I would like to experience that as a woman, because I want to see what that's like."

As a teenager, Cranston was deeply confused about his future, so he followed in the footsteps of his brother, who had joined a police-academy youth group that gave kids a chance to travel. It put Cranston on a path to becoming a police officer, which he moved away from forever at age 19 when his pursuit of girls led him to an acting class. "I said, 'Women. This is what I want to master. This is where I want to be.' And, yeah, so the hormones of a 19-year-old boy basically dictated the projection of where I was going to go as an adult. Amazing."

The police group did have other benefits – after I tell Cranston that Paul regretted sharing his virginity-loss story, he offers to top it: When Cranston was 16, he and his fellow teen police explorers spent six weeks in Europe. Amsterdam was a particular revelation. "Beer is a nickel, and the hookers are cheap – it was 24 guilders, which I think was $8, to get laid. We're all writing home to our parents for more money, 'We're having such a good time, Mom and Dad! Please send more money! We promise to pay you back! We've got to protect the citizens from the hookers!'"

After working blue-collar jobs – loading crates on the graveyard shift stands out vividly – he spent two years on a motorcycle trip with his brother that sounds movie-worthy in itself (they would hook up with carnivals or bus tables for money, traveling from town to town). He fell into a starter marriage, but realized he wasn't ready to settle down, and began pursuing acting: His big break came with a soap-opera role when he was 26. He wasn't actually famous until he got the role of Hal – the goofy dad on Malcolm in the Middle – at age 42, so he never went wild with success. "Pot was the only drug I've ever done," he says. "It just makes me sleepy."

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