(This post contains spoilers for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, which Netflix released last week.)
Since El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie was announced, one question has been at the forefront of every Breaking Bad fan’s imagination: Would Bryan Cranston reprise his role as Walter White?
Walt dies at the end of Breaking Bad, and El Camino mostly takes place in the immediate aftermath of the series finale, as Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman tries to get out of Albuquerque before he’s caught or killed. But Breaking Bad and its spinoff, Better Call Saul, have both been known to play around with time, so it wasn’t impossible to consider that Walt might appear in a flashback, or a dream, or some other method.
And sure enough, after the film’s plot has largely wrapped up, the story rewinds to a scene set during the events of Season Two’s “4 Days Out,” and there are Walt and Jesse walking side by side down a hotel hallway, and then chatting over breakfast.
Here, the four-time Emmy winner talks about why he wanted to return, how his cameo was kept secret, and what it felt like to play Walt after so many years.
How did you feel when Vince Gilligan told you he wanted you to play Walt again for this?
It was wonderful. I was really grateful that he thought of me to be a part of this. At the same time, I was wondering, “How the hell is that going to work?” I guessed it only could be retrospective, in flashback, and said, “OK, whatever he has to do.” And basically, that’s it. If Vince Gilligan called me and said, “I need you to wash my car,” I’d say, “How about this Saturday?” I would do anything for him, because I know he is so devoted to the integrity of the characters. He wouldn’t do this if it didn’t have a germane place in the storytelling.
Did you have any pause at all about returning to this role?
I would say that yes, if he came to me and said, “Let’s do the series again. Walter White didn’t die. Let’s just say that, and then we’ll see if we can get two or three more years out of it,” that’s when I would have to say, “I don’t think we should.” What he wrote for the conclusion of the series is, to me, perfect. So I think that would be a problem if he wanted to. But I know he doesn’t. This [movie] was strictly created by the open-ended question of what happened to Jesse. We know he escaped the compound, but what happened? So many people were asking me that, and I would say, “I don’t know. What do you think happened? Do you think he got caught?” There was enough interest that I think Vince realized that he was such a beloved character, beautifully played by Aaron Paul, that the story wasn’t complete, and he wanted to complete the story. So he did. And I think it’s wonderful.
Did it take you long to get back into character after six years away?
It really didn’t. There are so many talismans I was using on a day-to-day basis during the shooting: his glasses, his shirt, the Wallabees. I immediately popped back into that character. Being in Albuquerque, being around a lot of the same crew, having Aaron there, and Vince, and [producer] Melissa Bernstein, I tweaked a little bit, because it’s like, “Oh my god, six years, and we’re back!” It felt a little eerie. In a good way.
You’re not only revisiting a character you haven’t played in years, but an early version of that character who’s very different from the last time you played him. Did you go back to rewatch “4 Days Out,” the Season Two episode that El Camino flashes back to?
I did. I hadn’t seen it since it aired, so I did want to go back and get a sense of what my relationship with Jesse Pinkman was at that moment, what we had gone through. Just to get my head straight about how I felt at that time, and the level of despair and anxiety that the character was involved with. It was literally 10 years ago that I had last seen that episode, so it was extremely helpful.
You didn’t have time to shave your head for this, so you had to wear a bald cap. Was it strange playing Walter White under those conditions?
No. As a matter of fact, when we put the bald cap on and glued on the facial hair, it was like, “Wow.” I look in the mirror, and it’s so helpful as an actor to say, “This is what I’m presenting.” This look represented so much to me back then, and it just transports you to that time and your ability to drop into that character.
Vince said this felt more like closure to him than when you and Aaron filmed your last scene of the series, because he was so tired at the end of producing that season. How did filming this cameo feel to you compared to the last time you and Aaron were in the RV together?
This was a reunion to me. We actually shot the last scenes of the show on the very last day, which I remember very well: April 3rd of 2013, over six years ago. You have a rush of emotions. Not only is your character saying goodbye in the storyline, but personally, I’m saying goodbye to these actors and this crew who I’ve become so intimately involved with. Knowing that the history of working in this business is one of separation, you gain such depth emotionally with people you’re working with. You’re telling a story, and when it’s over, you walk away. It’s almost like a high school graduation, where you look at people and wonder, “I don’t know if and when I’m going to see them again.” Although you’re happy to come to a good conclusion, you’re also a bit sad, because of the fact that you’re saying goodbye.
This time, Aaron is still a friend, we’ve got the mezcal business together, we celebrate birthdays and other things together. He’s a dear friend. And Vince is also a dear friend, and a lot of the other people I’ve reacquainted with, we exchange emails and see each other whenever possible. So the goodbye of 2013 had a time to settle, and [to allow] the new relationship to develop. And that’s what we have, a new relationship that is great. A large part of the reason that Aaron and I started the mezcal business is because we missed each other on a day-to-day basis. We knew that we probably won’t get a chance to work together again for a while, with the exception of El Camino.
Production went to great lengths to keep your presence a secret. What did you have to do as part of that?
First of all, keep my mouth shut. Literally, I had two days off, and we shot it this year, the first Monday and Tuesday of January, when my play [Network on Broadway] switched from eight shows a week, and having only one day off, Monday, to seven days, and having Monday and Tuesday off. We looked at that months and months before and said, “That’s my target date.” So I finished my matinee at 5 o’clock in the evening on Sunday and was whisked away to Teterboro [Airport, in New Jersey], put on a private jet, wheels up, land in Albuquerque with my wife, our transportation captain Dennis Milliken picked me up at the airport, no one saw me. I went right from the plane to the car to an Airbnb house they secured for me, almost like a Witness Protection situation. And there I stayed. I did not go out for the two days. But I did prod Aaron into opening his house for a party on Monday night, which was a beautiful night together. That was Monday, after we shot the restaurant scene, and then on Tuesday, I had just a bit of work to do in a hotel corridor, and that was it, I was back on a plane. No one saw me. In fact, going from my dressing room to makeup and makeup to the car, I was cloaked. I mean completely cloaked. I looked like someone from The Handmaid’s Tale. I couldn’t even see myself! It was all very secretive. And I’m glad. I think it’s nice for this to be a surprise for the fans of Breaking Bad.
Vince says the scene in the movie where Jesse hears the radio report about Walt and Lydia dying is in there mainly because people still ask him if Walt is dead. Do you get that a lot, too?
Constantly. I got it so much that I would even tease them. My answer was always, “Yeah, he’s dead he’s dead he’s dead.” And I would get more questions about it, and then I thought, “Well, this doesn’t seem to be going away.” So [then if] they would say, “Well, Walt died,” I would go, “Did he?” [laughs] and just leave it there. And they’d freak out: “Oh my god, what’s he saying?!?” So it stimulated more conversation. It really is great that we got under the skin of fans and became part of the zeitgeist of storytelling in this sense. And I’m so extremely proud of Breaking Bad, and what it represented for me both from an artist standpoint and as a person. It changed my life. And I’m forever grateful. It will be the opening line of my obituary, and I’m absolutely proud to have it be so.
Since you last played Walt, Vince and Peter Gould went and made Better Call Saul, and now Vince has made this movie. How has it felt to see the world you were once the center of go on largely without you?
I love it. I look at this business in the same [way I did athletes] when I was in my youth. I was happy to see athletes retire before it got embarrassing. When they stayed too long, I understood why, but their skills diminished, their physicality diminished, and it was sad. Willie Mays going back to the Mets, it was like, “Oh, no no no! Don’t!” When Peyton Manning retired after winning the Super Bowl, I was cheering, because now our impression of Peyton Manning is of this champion. Could he have gone another year? Yeah, absolutely. But you know what? This is a good ending. Don’t try to put two cherries on the top of a sundae. So I look at it that way. We had the most perfect beginning, middle, and end to the story of Breaking Bad. And we retired, and I was happy to retire. I don’t miss the character, because I got to play him so well, so deep, for six years. And the ending was enormously satisfying to me personally and professionally. I look at Better Call Saul and smile when I see familiar faces and familiar locations. But I don’t have an attachment of, “Oh, I wish I was in this! I wish I was doing this!” That being said, I would certainly consider doing it if it was asked, if it was time for Walter White to make an appearance. I could see that happening for fun, to assist in telling their story. It’s not my story anymore. It would almost be like I came back as a coach. “Yeah, I’ll help any way I can. What do you want me to do?” And then do my thing, and, “See ya!”