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."
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.'"
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