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Bryan Cranston Reveals Walter White's Motives

'In chemistry, everything's logic, everything's mapped out,' says the 'Breaking Bad' actor

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in 'Breaking Bad.'
Ursula Coyote/AMC
September 17, 2013 8:30 AM ET

In anticipation of the Breaking Bad series finale on Sunday, September 29th, Rolling Stone will publish an exclusive interview with a new cast member every day, Monday through Friday. Yesterday, Aaron Paul told us he misses Jesse Pinkman terribly. Later today, Giancarlo Esposito will share his memories of Gus Fring. In the meantime, here's part two of our conversation with Bryan Cranston. (In case you missed it, here's part one of our talk with Walter White.)

See Where Gus Fring's Death Ranks on Our List of the Best Breaking Bad Kills

Walter White doesn't exactly transform from a meek schoolteacher to a drug lord. Even in the first season, he's excited by violence, and thrilled to be in positions of power. Given how fast the switch happens, was his violence pretty close to the surface?
When we first see Walt, he's depressed. Everyone in his past – college, parents, friends, teachers – said to him, "The sky's the limit for you." And perhaps his emotional makeup didn't allow him to reach for the stars, when he should have. If he'd decided to become a truck driver, everybody would say, "You're wasting your talent." But he became a teacher, which no one can criticize, because teaching is very noble.

When he received the information about his cancer, his depression made him more susceptible than if he was whole and feeling good about himself. My theory is, everyone is capable of being dangerous. We're all capable of inflicting harm to ourselves and to others.

So you don't demonize Walt the way some people have?
Well, I don't have the luxury of total objectivity. When you play a character, he's in your skin. You are him. When people ask what I think of Walt, I have to step out of my head and my body, and try to look back at me. Vince Gilligan can answer that, because he creates Walt. But for me, it's much more difficult.

Vince says he's lost all sympathy for Walt.
Fuck him. [laughs] That, to me, is like hearing Vince say he's lost all sympathy for me.

So you're neither perplexed nor disappointed that people are still hoping he'll get away with this?
No, I'm not. I love the ambiguity of it. I love that it's not clean. We see examples of extreme behavior all the time. We scratch our heads, but we don't now about someone else's mental stability, or educational background, or pressures. Look at that football player for the New England Patriots, Aaron Hernandez. He's got fame, a multi-million dollar contract, yet he murders this kid, allegedly. What is that about?

Or the kid who blew up the Boston marathon. He's 19, and his friends are going,  "He loved to dance and party." We're accustomed to watching black and white characters on TV: the good guy, the bad guy, the asshole, the vixen. People aren't like that. We're a medley of all different kinds of things. Imagine Whitey Bulger – he has a couple people killed, and I think he absolutely would love to pick up his little baby boy, kiss him and play with him, and mean it!

Even Hitler loved Eva Braun.
I bet Hitler also liked cats or dogs or something. [Laughs] Right? Sometimes you see a despicable person being kind, or picking up litter. And I know that Walter White never lost his love and desire for his family, even if he used it to justify his behavior.

Walt has a weird way of showing his love, especially towards Jesse.
How so?

He persuades Jesse to end his relationship with Andrea, whom Jesse loves, and he poisons Brock, Andrea's son. He ruins Jesse's life!
Okay, hang on a second. [Laughs] Jesse is already a drug dealer, he's just a bad one, an inefficient one. So I didn't corrupt him there. Then the first killings. How did they come about? Jesse brought Krazy-Eight and Emilio into the picture. And they were going to kill us. So how is that Walt's issue about introducing death or destruction?

Walt also stands by while Jesse's next girlfriend Jane chokes to death.
Hmm. Certainly some conflict there. But isn't it true that she got Jesse hooked on heroin? What happens to people who are hooked on heroin? They usually die, at some point. Now, that's certainly a justification, I'll grant you that. But it's like we were talking before. There is no clean version of this.

No one in the show is innocent, except Walt Jr.
And Holly! [Laughs]

Did you keep any souvenirs or mementos from the show?
I've got the hat. I've got Heisenberg.

Why does Walt leave his copy of Leaves of Grass sitting on his toilet? Is there a part of him that wants to get caught, so the world will know he's the great drug dealer Heisenberg?
When we meet Walt, he is very methodical. In chemistry, there's an answer for everything. Everything's logic, everything's mapped out. You can follow it. And his whole emotional core was calloused over by the depression.

When he gets deeply involved in his new endeavor, his core of emotions blew up. He's expressing accomplishment, pride, joy. People respect his work, and he has a sense of power. And he has the negative side: greed, avarice, ego, all those things that make up a full person.

He wasn't accustomed to dealing with his emotions, so it was messy. That's where the impulse to kill Mike came from. He's become an impulsive man. The Walt of old, the methodical guy, would've made sure that book was well-hidden or destroyed. But he slipped up. When you're emotional, you're less methodical.

When you talk about Walt being depressed, it suggests that he might still be teaching high school if he'd started talking Wellbutrin.
It would be a short series!

So does Walt deserve to live?
Does anybody? Was it fair that he got lung cancer, as a non-smoker? Does he deserve terminal lung cancer? You can open up a whole set of questions like that. What's fair?

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