Bryan Cranston on the Joy of Cooking Meth, Obamacare and 'Malcolm in the Middle'

Ursula Coyote/AMC
Dream Job: "Walter is the role of my life," says Cranston.
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I spent my weekend watching a couple of dozen "Breaking Bad" episodes and I'm feeling pretty bleak right now. Where does this darkness come from? Is it an indictment of America? A reflection?
You can look for deeper meanings and perhaps you'll find one. On the other hand it could be just an examination of one's man life, and his degradation, the downward spiral that man is on.

Particularly at the end of season two, I found myself having to screw up my courage just to get to the next episode.
Sometimes you do have to digest it and you may even try to stay away from it, but I think like the drug itself it is addictive. You may think, well, that's not for me; that's too dark. I don't want to go to that dark place. But if we've gotten under your skin then it's going to be, what's going to happen next?

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So what you're saying is the increasing popularity of the show is due to the fact that you've got America addicted to television equivalent of crystal meth?
Yes.

Do you think Breaking Bad's success can be in part attributed to the fact that it resonates with a relatively dark time in the U.S. We've got recession, war — and Breaking Bad.
The timing of it was imperative. There's certainly a downturn, and there is discontent. If the show had been pitched even a year before, or two years, I don't think it would have been right. It would be like a wine that was too young, not ready, I don't want to drink that. Take it back.

The way plot points keep hinging on how expensive health care is also pretty in tune with the times. You could argue that Breaking Bad is all about the lack of good health care. 
People have talking for years about the lack of proper health care — hopefully we are on the right track with something now. My personal feeling, if I can interject a political note, is that I don't think it is right that basic health care is a privilege. It shouldn't be. It should be a right of all human beings. And certainly in the richest country in the world. But if we did have universal health care five years ago, the show might not have worked. Thank God Obamacare wasn't in play five years ago. Whew!

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You've gotten three straight Best Actor Emmys for your work in Breaking Bad. Did you ever anticipate such success when you first got the opportunity to be part of the show?
I never even thought it. The only thing I went on, is that I knew this was an exceptional script when I read the pilot episode. I knew that. I could read that. The very first page of the pilot script: 'A pair of trousers falling from the sky, they hit a dirt road, an RV runs over them driving recklessly away from us. Interior RV: a man wearing only tight-whitey underwear and a respirator drives frantically. Next to him, also in a respirator, another man is passed out in the back. Also in back, in a sea of glass and chemicals are two dead men—'

That's the first page! I'm like, what the fuck is going on? What, what?! And it just comes out at you so quickly, it got right into my vein, it's like I  punctured a vein, right away. Just put me right in there, give me a dose, tie it off, and I'm hooked and I went through that script like it was butter. And as soon as I was done, I mean I flashed through that thing and I called my agent right away, and he says yeah, well Vince Gilligan does want to see you for this, and we're talking about setting something up for next week, and I said, no, no. THIS WEEK.

Your character, Walter White, rationalizes his decision to cook crystal meth as a way to provide for his family. But as the show evolves, it seems like he is  more fulfilled as a gangster than as a family man.
The thing I don't think he or the audience could have anticipated was how this changes a man. This adrenaline, pumping in his veins, changed him. As a man Walter White never, in his 50 years, ever came close to intimidating another human being, and all of a sudden he is doing it on a daily basis. That's power, that's feeling your oats, that's being alive. Now there's no idea of being depressed or bored in his life or missed opportunities. Fuck no, he's pumped. What I love about the show, is that as he changes, we are being honest in showing the effects on his ego, of his avaricious behavior, his hubris, it's just bubbling out of him, now, and he's owning it.

Your depiction of a man dying of cancer is extraordinarily powerful. Did you draw on any personal experience for that?
It goes back to my grandfather. The very first death of someone I loved and knew. I lived with him for a year when my parents broke up. He died when I was 14 — and it crushed me.. And he, ironically, died of lung cancer. He never smoked in his life, but he was a baker, and they surmised that the dust, inhaling the flour dust from all the years of being a baker created it. And yes, my sister-in-law now has breast cancer and we're dealing with that on a weekly basis now, watching her numbers and taking her to her treatments. At my age, I don't think anyone is untouched by cancer.

How do you rate your own legacy? You were the play-it-for-laughs bumbling father in Malcolm in the Middle and now you're a drug kingpin. That's quite the contrast.
When I was on Malcolm, I would have been very  proud to have the opening statement on my eventual obituary read "the father of Malcolm in the Middle passed away today at age 110. But [Breaking Bad's Walter White] is the role of my life. If I'm to be remembered it will be for this role. And if anything comes after this, it'll be like: Would you like more gravy on your gravy on top of your meat? Oh my god. It would just be ridiculous.

It will be very interesting to see how this story ends.
I hope we get what the producers of Lost got — notice of the end date way ahead of time, so the writers can write to a fitting end. It would be nice. But [for Walter White] you know it can't be good.

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From The Archives Issue 1133: June 23, 2011
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