'Breaking Bad' Q&A: Bryan Cranston on Walter White's Morality

'To me, character in a person is judged by the decisions that are made under pressure. Walt failed that test.'

Bryan Cranston as Walter White on 'Breaking Bad.'
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC
Bryan Cranston as Walter White on 'Breaking Bad.'
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In anticipation of the Breaking Bad series finale on Sunday, September 29, Rolling Stone will publish an exclusive interview with a new cast member every day, Monday through Friday. Yesterday, Dean Norris went to great lengths to explain Hank's moral character. On Monday, Aaron Paul will weigh in on the differences between Jesse and Heisenberg, among other topics.

What Were Walter White's Lowest Lows on Breaking Bad?

Does it disturb you that people are still rooting for Walt?
We have a history with Walt. It's like if you had an uncle you loved, and you found out he was a pedophile. He's on trial now and you're conflicted. "I knew the guy, and he never touched me!" Yet he may have done this horrible thing. You don't know how to feel. That's Walter White. That's the hook or the bait for the audience: Walt's humanity, his humiliation as he was scrubbing cars at the car wash, trying to make extra money for his special-needs son; or his passion in the classroom, his desperation to see an interested pair of eyes.

He has very, very low hope, and his own missed opportunities, and cancer. He's gonna die. He doesn't have money. He has an intellect and so it became a perfect storm. He knew how to make meth. He was introduced to it because of his brother-in-law. The stacks of money, the pressure, dying, his family taken care of the rest of his life. Gah! Snapped!

Do you think about death?
No. I don't want to have a horrible, long, prolonged, painful death, but I don't think about it. The only thing I realized is that I'm capable of dying at any moment. The fragility of human life, we're witness to that all the time. I want to continue to take in experiences, and that includes seeing my daughter grow up, maybe have the luxury of being a grandfather, to grow old with my wife and see how that changes us. So I have to take care of myself and take measured risks, calculated risks. I ride my motorcycle, that's a calculated risk. I've skydived. But I'm not, on a dare, gonna walk on the edge of a rooftop.

If you had cancer and only a few years left to live, what would you do?
What I've learned from living in Walt's shoes is that you truly don't know. A lot of people have asked that hypothetical question at dinner parties. "What would you do if you had a year left? What would you do if you had a million dollars?" Well, Walter is living that. It's not hypothetical for him, and what he's realized is that it's day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute sometimes. He made a decision to do something bold, and now the chickens have come home to roost.

Here's the bigger question from Walter's perspective: Is it ever worth it to compromise your morality and your ethics to try to become someone else for financial gain. That's the crux of character.  To me, character in a person is judged by the decisions that are made under pressure. Walt failed that test. I understand why he did it; temptation, humiliation, the lack of financial security – all those elements were carefully designed by Vince to put Walt in that dilemma, but he failed to rise above the pressures. When you look at it, you realize that's the downfall of other people – when you fail that test.

Walt and Skyler are the only pair of parents we see in Breaking Bad. What were your parents like?
I didn't have tremendous parental oversight. Some kids would go, "Oh, that would be great." But not really. Parents teach you, whether it's what to do, or what not to do. My mom and dad were both broken people, and because of that, they were incapacitated as far as parenting. They weren't capable, and we lost the house in a foreclosure. We were kicked out. That's when my brother and I went to live with my grandparents, and my sister and mother lived with my father's mother, which was bizarre. But they had to go someplace.

There was some embarrassment on my part. When the family was fragmenting, and my dad was staying away more and more, my friends would say, "Where's your dad?" And I would lie. I'd say, "Oh, he comes home from work late at night."

So I had to figure it out on my own. With each step, take a look and see: Is that a mine field? No? Okay, take another step. Oh, that guy blew up? I'm not gonna go that way.

On my mother's side of the family, it was all about getting a job and holding onto it. Does it pay well? Then it's a good job. Living with my grandfather helped me and my brother develop a work ethic. I did hard, physical labor, like loading trucks, walking in steel-toed shoes on a cold cement floor that's a quarter-mile long, all night long on the graveyard shift, while the foreman yelling, "Cranston. Let's go. Move it, Cranston." It was awful. I was 23 years old, married to my first wife, and I kept day-dreaming of a time when I'd make my living as an actor. "Oh boy, is that gonna be a time!" I'd shut out everything else. I gave them my body, but I wouldn't give them my spirit.

The 10 Most Memorable Murders on Breaking Bad

And soap operas saved you from that awfulness. Your role on Loving must have seemed like a good job to you.
When I was twenty-four years old, I got an acting job that required me to move to New York. I lived in New York for five years in the '80s and did industrial films and commercials and a soap opera, and dated beautiful women. Boy, it was an eye-opener for me. I've been working as an actor, exclusively, since I was 24. I never did anything else as an adult. Prior to Breaking Bad, I was perfectly happy with the way my life was. [Laughs] Again, when you have low expectations, everything's a banquet.

And you were 51 years old by the time Breaking Bad premiered in 2008. It's not a case of too much, too soon, is it?
No. I was 40 when I did Malcolm In The Middle. If you come from an uninspired, aimless youth, with no money and a tremendous amount of misdirection, it's nearly impossible to feel elitist or entitled. Anything that comes to me is a gift. I certainly wasn't prepared to have financial security in my life. I never have to work another day in my life, because I'm very frugal.

It's funny, my wife will ask what my salary was on Total Recall or Argo, and I go, "Uhmmmmm. . ." I don't know. I don't remember. I don't want to pretend that money means nothing! But it's not important when I'm choosing a project.

You and your second wife, Robin, have been together for 25 years. How is this marriage different from your first one?
We met at the right age, when we were both mature. She was an actor and we were guest stars on a series called Airwolf with Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernie Borgnine. I was the bad guy and she was the victim of the week I had a girlfriend at the time. She had a boyfriend. The sexual tension was interesting but nothing was gonna happen. And a year later, she joined a comedy improv class I was in.

I don't believe there's just one person for you. And quite frankly, love among adults is conditional. "We're in love, right now. Oops, you killed someone? Ok, wait a minute, that's kind of a problem for me." It's all conditional.

Given the rough way you grew up, do you think you could have broken bad at some point?
Never. I'm not a goody two-shoes. But the limited police training I had made me realize, you either design the perfect crime for one big score and get out, or it's a losing proposition. That's the upside of being someone who likes to be in control, you don't put yourself in a position to be shamed.

Have you talked a therapist about your family?
I see a guy in L.A. from time to time, when I'm feeling edgy or anxiety-ridden. And my wife and I go to a couples therapist. Our agreement is, if either of us feels like we want to go, the other can't object. For my father's generation, as he literally said, "I'd rather stick needles in my eyes than go to a therapist." When I was a kid, if you heard of someone who went to a psychiatrist, it meant they were crazy. That's the kind of labeling and judgment I was raised with. And I had to get rid of that.

Do you have dreams about the show?
It doesn't consume me as much as it did in the past, when it was so fresh. It's like a roller coaster – I got used to anticipating the sudden turns. I take off those Wallabees, the glasses, and the chinos, and he stays there. I wipe him off with my makeup and some warm towels at night.  

Before you saw the scripts for the final season, how did you expect it to end?
I honestly didn't know what would happen, or how. Aaron and I constantly teased each other: "I bet I kill you." And he'd go, "No, no, no, I kill you."

My guess would have been that Walt survives. The one person who should die, because of the toxicity he's created, who almost wishes he would die – "Enough already! Let me out of here" – it wouldn't get past me, if that's the guy who survives. And the innocents – the Jessies, the Skylers – I think they go. That was my guess.

Vince Gilligan says he's lost all sympathy for Walt. Does he ever think about the misery he's caused, not only by murder, but by making pounds and pounds of crystal meth?
I mean he's a bright man, so if he slowed down and had time to reflect, he'd probably talk himself out of what he's doing. And he doesn't want that. He doesn't want to know who's being damaged. "I'm going to follow through with this. I started it. There's no reason I can't finish this." But even he knows he's not doing it for his family. This is who he is.