He's had therapy in part to deal with his childhood issues, and dabbled in self-help in the Eighties. "I did take a Scientology class," he says. "A friend of mine was a Scientologist, and he told me about a course and I took it. It was really good." But he left it there. "I just check it out. I'm not addictive." He still sees a therapist in L.A. from time to time, "when I feel edgy or anxiety-ridden." And he and his wife of 20-plus years see a couples counselor when necessary. "The deal with my wife is that if either of us feel like we want to go, the other cannot raise an objection."
He has trouble naming the worst thing he's ever done. Maybe a little petty theft, and in any case he gave back the money. Then he comes up with another thing: He was kind of a selfish lover as a young man. "Once I started focusing on giving pleasure as opposed to just demanding it and wanting it, the overall experience, as far as sex is concerned, was far enhanced."
The most important performance of Cranston's life turned out to be on a sixth-year episode of The X-Files, in which he played a creepy bigot who was the victim of a Navy experiment that meant he would die if he ever stopped driving at a certain speed. The episode was written by Vince Gilligan, who never forgot how impressed he was by Cranston's ability to make a vile character seem sympathetic – he didn't let six years of Malcolm in the Middle dissuade him from pushing for Cranston as Breaking Bad's star. "But Sony and AMC were not convinced I was the guy, because Walter White wasn't Hal from Malcolm in the Middle," says Cranston, who heard that Steve Zahn was up for the role instead. He let it be known that he had an offer for another pilot from Fox (he would've been playing a doctor), and he's convinced that's what made the execs pull the trigger.
Still, Cranston says, "If Steve Zahn did Walter, we'd go, 'Oh, my God. Steve Zahn is the guy! Can you imagine anybody but Steve Zahn doing it?' And you wouldn't be able to."
There's a beat-up roadside pay phone just outside one of this season's locations in downtown Albuquerque, and Aaron Paul has taken to tweeting its number out to fans, answering their calls between scenes. On an airless late afternoon, he's taking a call at that booth and making up endings for the show. "Jesse dies in the finale," he says, squinting in the searing sunshine. "Don't tell anyone. He gets his head caught in an RV door and it gets ripped off. Then Walt melts his body and uses it in a formula for a new kind of crystal meth. He also decides to be a cannibal and eats the body."
After a while, Paul says goodbye, and claps his hands with glee. "The guy was like, 'Really? No! I thought Jesse would die a more epic death than that.'" With only eight episodes left - they start filming again in November or December – everyone is thinking about the end. No one knows exactly what that will be – even Gilligan, who's impressed to hear that Mad Men showrunner Matthew Weiner already knows what his own show's final image will be. "We try to be Bobby Fischer, playing chess," he says. "We try to think as many moves ahead as we can. But, sometimes, that can be a trap, because the best kind of storytelling is very organic." At the beginning of season four, the writers had one index card up on their board: It said "ding, boom." They knew that they wanted Hector Salamanca to kill Gus Fring, but they weren't sure how they would get there.
The final season, one presumes, will return to the flash-forward future seen at the beginning of this season's first episode – in which an exiled Walt returns to Albuquerque, heavily armed. Filming that scene was perhaps the only time Cranston asked for information that wasn't in the script. "I asked Vince several specific questions. I said, 'Am I alone?' And he goes, 'Yeah.' I said, 'Why am I coming back to Albuquerque?' He said, You're coming back because you need to protect someone.' And I went, 'OK. Is the cancer back?' He didn't quite answer that. He said, 'Possibly.'"
Gilligan is anxious about the ending – and not just because of his desire to live up to fans' expectations. "I fear for the day when this is over," says Gilligan. "I honestly fear that this will be the highlight of my career. And you don't want it to be! You'd rather be Clint Eastwood than Orson Welles. You'd rather be doing some of your best work toward the end than at the beginning of it. Though, shit, I'd take Orson Welles in a New York minute!"
Many of the actors have their own hopes, or at least fears. "If Jesse does end up dying," says Paul, "I hope it's not him getting shot in the back. I hope he goes out guns blazing!" Dean Norris is hoping for a big showdown with Walt, which seems highly likely (if you have a DEA agent brother-in-law above the mantelpiece, he should probably go off in the third act). And Bob Odenkirk just wants Saul Goodman to survive, so he has a chance at the spinoff show that Gilligan has at least half-seriously suggested.
For a long time, Cranston expected Walt to die at the end – a reasonable prediction for a character with terminal cancer. "But then I started rethinking it, and I thought it wouldn't surprise me if the guy who is creating all this crap, the toxic avenger himself, lives. It wouldn't surprise me at all. The guy who should die, doesn't!"
If there's one thing no one's expecting, it's a happy ending. "This isn't going to be a fairy tale," Paul says, sipping his beer across from Cranston at the Irish bar. "But I know there will be a time where I'm not ever going to get to zip on this skin again, and I love Jesse so much. I really do."
Cranston breaks the solemnity: "For me, at the end of this," he says, "I just can't wait to get away from all these assholes."
"He's just saying that 'cause he's hurting deep, deep inside," Paul replies.
Cranston smiles, looking absolutely nothing like Walter White. "No," he says. "I'm not."
This story is from the August 16th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
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