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Chemical Brothers: 'Breaking Bad' Stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul

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Heads turn as we make our way toward the backyard patio, which would offer a mountain view if it wasn't so dark out. The sparse, college-y crowd murmurs, almost as one, "Breaking Bad" – as far as the cast members can tell, every single resident of Albuquerque watches the show, which portrays the town as half suburban refuge, half methed-out hellhole.

But some people take it more personally than others: We order beers from a waitress, but a male staffer – a beefy dude with sad eyes – shows up with them instead. "I love y'all's show," he says, depositing our beers on the table (Paul told the waitress to "bring me whatever you like – but it has to be good"; Cranston ordered a Guinness). "But I don't watch it too much 'cause I'm a recovered addict and I have nightmares. I've been clean for five years. Y'all's show shows a lot of truth of some things. It's a little sugarcoated, though."

"If you don't mind me asking, clean from what?" Paul asks.

The answer, it emerges, is crystal meth. Cranston asks him how he got clean.

"I went to a Christian ministry that builds houses in Juárez and evangelized for about a year. I ate, slept and drank God. Rehab didn't work. It didn't work for me. You just meet better drug buddies – you guys want a round of waters?"

He returns later with our check. "It was awesome meeting y'all – can I ask, did y'all go to acting school to do this show?"

"I just learn off of him," says Paul.

"I was sold into the business as a baby," says Cranston.

"Hey, yo, I was just curious, man," the waiter replies. "Y'all's show shows a lot of truth."

They leave the guy a $20 tip – though Cranston can't resist a bleak joke. "We're giving him meth money," he says.

A week earlier, Gilligan is sitting in the middle seat of the middle row in a screening room ensconced in a Burbank studio lot, 800 miles west of Albuquerque. He's wearing pale dad jeans, New Balance running shoes and a black T-shirt. He, too, could be safely cast as a high school chemistry teacher. Today, he's working on the sound for season five's second episode, and giving editing notes for episode three, even as he remotely supervises the production of episode seven, which is shooting in Albuquerque. Beneath his half-rimless glasses, his eyes are slightly bloodshot with exhaustion. "They'll show me photos of wardrobe that shoots tomorrow and I'll say, 'I don't like the guy's boots,' or whatever, and we'll try and find some others. It's wearying, but it's never boring, because you get to be the Sun King a little. There's 300 people out there, saying, 'What do you think of this?' all day long, and then I'll be like Nero. Thumbs up or thumbs down."

Gilligan is, to say the least, known for his attention to detail – or as one crew member puts it, with fondness, he's a "complete and total control freak." Everyone tends to cite the example of the toenail polish Skyler wore in a season-three scene where she consummates an affair with her ill-fated boss, Ted – we see her feet in a close-up on the heated floors of his bathroom. Gilligan spent at least half an hour pondering the color – Anna Gunn, who plays Skyler, thinks it may have taken considerably longer. "If my toes were vixen red, as opposed to a more hesitant pink, that would mean something different," she says. "He knew exactly what he wanted those toes to say, and at first you're like, 'Wow, that is really detailed.' But, you know, I get it."

Not long ago, Gilligan and Holly Rice, his longtime girlfriend, were renovating their bathroom, and everything looked fine to Rice. "In about five minutes, Vince pointed out probably 10 tiles that needed to be adjusted," she recalls. "I told him I'm surprised he didn't become a watchmaker."

Gilligan and his team, including music director Thomas Golubic and composer Dave Porter, just sat and watched all of episode two in silence on an enormous screen as he scribbled slanted notes on a yellow legal pad. Now, he's delivering his notes to them in his Southern drawl (part Slim Pickens, part Bill Clinton), which he claims has softened since he left Virginia for Hollywood in the Nineties. "Great job as always," he says, before starting a list of changes that will take as long to deliver as it did to watch the entire episode. First, he praises and then gently eliminates an entire piece of music that Porter wrote, an ominous swell that signals Jesse's unease as he ponders the absence of a poisonous cigarette from last season. "It tells the audience how to feel emotionally, which is not something we like to do on this show," he tells me later.

There's much more: various doors close too loudly or too softly; you can hear birds chirping in one scene ("When I hear birds, it just makes everything feel like it's happy"); a bed creak "sounds vaguely farty"; two characters are discussing killing people far too loudly. His final note relates to a creepy sex scene between Walt and Skyler. "When Walt pulls off his underpants, I don't hear anything," he says. "More underpants peeling off!"

At one point, someone says that most people won't notice any of this, that they're unlikely to have the kind of astounding sound system that's in this room. "I don't give a shit," Gilligan says. "Someday everyone's gonna hear it like this – that's all I care about." ("People think I'm nicer than I am," he says later. "I fake it pretty well.")

Breaking for dinner, Gilligan and I head off to another, empty soundstage to talk. He pours us each a shot or so of Maker's Mark, and he picks at a pile of fried stuff that he identifies as corn fritters. "I don't eat that well," he says. "I don't sleep that well. And I probably, you know, drink a little more than I used to just to help me sleep. I mean, that's another reason this show probably does need to come to an end." (When Cranston became a producer on Breaking Bad last season, he made it his mission to "protect Vince from himself" – which means leaving him out of as many minor decisions as possible.)

Gilligan, 45, grew up in a small Virginia town – his mom was a teacher, his dad an insurance adjuster. From the moment he saw Star Wars, he knew what he wanted to do with his life: make movies. His initial love was special effects. "I wanted to build my own version of C-3PO or R2-D2. All through high school I was staying at home on weekends making spaceships and movies in my basement and molding my own face in plaster with the help of my little brother," he says. "I never went to my prom. I was doing all that shit instead. I had a very stunted social life in high school, but I guess it paid dividends."

He wasn't a cool, goth-y nerd – instead, he was the kind who made his own Spock uniform out of a sweatshirt, complete with Starfleet emblem, and then actually wore the thing to high school. "It was a cool school, and I base that on the fact that no one ever actually beat me up. I was begging for it, man! Someone should have kicked my ass." He pauses. "Just kidding."

He also was playing Dungeons & Dragons, reading lots of Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, and setting off "little bombs" in his backyard that could be heard throughout the neighborhood – "the kind of stuff they'd put a bag over your head and send you to Guantánamo Bay for now." He got into NYU's film school with an application that included a film he'd made called Henaissance – which told the tale of a man who slowly turned into a chicken. "Always that theme of transformation!" he says.

At NYU, he finally had a drink or two, went on a few dates. He also sold the very first full-length screenplay he ever wrote, Home Fries, which became a middling Drew Barrymore movie. "I basically made the mistake of thinking, 'Man. I'm in,'" he says. "'It's all gonna be just gravy from here on out. I don't even have to work that hard, and I'm making more money optioning scripts than I ever dreamed.'" Taking well-meaning advice that moving to California would ruin his distinct regional perspective, he bought a house 45 minutes outside of Richmond, Virginia – and promptly began to stagnate.

He was less in danger of breaking bad than breaking fat. "It was like The Shining, especially in the winter. I got snowed in once or twice, and if I had been more of a self-starter it would have been great, 'cause I would have gotten all kinds of work done. I could write all day long if I chose to. But instead I chose to play video games and eat Cheetos and waste time all day." He wrote a couple of other movies – including what eventually became the Will Smith vehicle Hancock – but studios butchered them, and the offers stopped coming. It was the X-Files gig that saved him.

He spent seven productive years on the show, and also co-created The Lone Gunman, a failed spinoff. His career stalled out again – though he always had Sony executives anxious to hear his next idea – and it's hard not to see autobiography in the unfulfilled promise of Walter White, who went from Nobel Prize-level work to teaching high school.

But he still can't believe that anyone bought the idea for Breaking Bad in the first place. "A show about a middle-aged man dying of cancer, cooking crystal meth – I keep thinking about The Producers, and Springtime for Hitler. In hindsight I don't know if you could come up with a worse idea on paper for a TV show than Breaking Bad, unless you're actually trying to fail."

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