Interview: Bryan Cranston Talks Walter White’s Journey and Breaking Bad’s Mirror to Society

By  · Published on September 1st, 2011

The evolution of Walter White is, without a doubt, one of the most engaging character arcs ever to grace the small screen. Once the unassuming school teacher turned meth dealer, very few characters transform that heavily. Per usual on Breaking Bad, that transformation has been done with patience and care.

Walter White is a character that has garnered many fans over the years, and star Bryan Cranston is on that fan list as well.

The Emmy-winning actor was kind enough to make time for a phone interview, and early on in our chat, Cranston’s passion and love for the character was clear. And for good reason. Walter White travels to new and interesting places that most actors never get the chance to explore. Thankfully, we’ll be going along with Cranston on White’s journey for another 16 episodes.

Cranston and I started off discussing the collaborative process on the well-deserved critical darling, Drive, then soon moved on to discussing how Walter has changed over the course of the show, and if there’s any chance of hope for our favorite meth maker.

To start off, let me say congratulations on Drive. I actually just saw that for the second time the other night.

It’s a cool movie, isn’t it?

[Laughs] It is. I just talked to Nicolas the other day for it, too.

[Laughs] I love Nicolas.

[Laughs] One of the things I took away from speaking with him is that he has got a real respect for actors.

He really does. It’s not just what he says. It’s truly his actions. He has proved that. He invited us to his house in LA, primarily because he doesn’t drive a car, which was very interesting; how a guy who directs a movie about driving a car doesn’t drive a car [Laughs].

We all would gather at his house ‐ Ryan [Gosling], Albert Brooks, Ron Perlman, and myself and Carey [Mulligan], and Oscar [Isaac], the writer, and we would just hash things out and talk about things. [Spoiler Alert] And I pitched how I would die. I said, “I’ve got an idea.” I kept thinking about this dilemma, it was about Albert’s character, about having to reluctantly kill a friend of his who he really enjoys being around and likes. But he’s gotta do what he’s gotta do. I said, “How would you do that?”

So I said, “Why doesn’t he do something that…” You know, it’s like once you make the initial cut after the shock, and if you can do it by surprise as opposed to brandishing it and creating fear, he holds out his hand, and even the handshake was devised centuries ago as a method of showing that you’re not carrying a weapon; that’s where the handshake came from. [Spoiler Over]

Do you get to have that level of input on Breaking Bad?

I do. You know, it’s a little different with an ongoing series, where the content is so great and the writers, I don’t have tremendous access to because of logistics ‐ I’m in New Mexico and they’re in Burbank, California. We have phone conversations.

In that, they have a writer’s room, and they do the same thing that we did on Drive. We basically made our own writer’s room with the actors pitching out ideas. So they do that in their own room. They’ve really fleshed out the beef very well on our show. There are very few things that I can count on one hand, over the course of 50 episodes, when I’ve said a tracking problem or logical problem that I’ve brought up that was corrected. Sometimes it’s what writers call a “relic” in our business, where in an earlier draft it worked, and then they changed one component, a draft, and they didn’t go back and completely change every little element that led up to that component. So it now doesn’t make sense why it would be in there, that type of thing. So you scan for those things, but you don’t always catch them.

Each season Walter transforms more, for better and worse. Do you think he’s pretty close to fully becoming Heisenberg?

From the beginning, Vince [Gilligan] has always talked about making this transformation from Walter White to Heisenberg and making him go from good to bad. Once he does that, I think it’s over. As it turns out, we have 16 more episodes that likely will go over the course of, as far as airing, probably be an eight episode 5th season and an eight episode 6th season. And then that’s it; we’re done.

At the beginning of the show, it was always funny seeing Walter and Jesse trying to be these macho men. Do you see them at the point now where they are almost those men they were once pretending to be, at least for Walter?

I’m not so sure about that. That’s more of an objective comment. Basically, from the subjective point of view of a guy who’s really trying to just create a plan and follow it. He wanted it to be simple. It seemed relatively simple from his point of view, a one-man operation; basically, a division of responsibility. He would make it, Jesse would sell it; that the profits were fairly cut and dry. But he was very naïve, because he didn’t realize he would be stepping on the toes of other manufacturers, distributors, drug dealers, and all this. So, therein lies the jeopardy that he finds himself in. And the simple plan is made ridiculous now because it’s anything but.

He recognizes that now, though.

Oh, very much. He knows it’s a dangerous plan. He knows that this is who he is. I think what’s triggered it for me in playing this is that I realized, because of the earnestness that we approached this in tackling those hypothetical questions that pretty much everybody has done at a dinner table if you are an adult, and that is, “What would you do for a million dollars and what would you do if you had two years to live?”

I imagine those questions are asked among friends and have been for centuries. As long as it stays in that hypothetical, you could take the high road. You could say, “Oh, I would dedicate myself to a charity and I would do this…” But until you are truly in that condition, you don’t know what you would do. You really don’t know.

What I found is that Walt chose this path that he certainly regrets, completely regrets, this whole time, and yet, there’s a dichotomous part of it that he appreciates the boldness in which it was spun from that bold decision a year ago.

I find it interesting how you say he regrets it, because he’s starting to get a little full of himself. Like, how he discredited the idea of Gale being a “genius.”

Yeah. I think what’s interesting about the show and what was necessary, and Vince and I talked about this, was that to do this honestly, it seems we have to explore everything of a human being ‐ all the good qualities that someone possesses and all the bad qualities that someone possesses.

So it’s not just this progressive, overt badness of having to kill someone, or order a killing, or making this horrible drug, doing this scale and all that stuff. It’s also exploring what’s happened to the soul of the man that he has gotten into a place that he’s tapped into emotions that he’s never ever felt before. That is extremely compelling to look at, where you have his averse nature.

Well, if you are poor, averse doesn’t even come into context. It doesn’t apply. But if you have a chance to be around money and have it available to you, then that’s when you see it rear its ugly head.

I think that’s what people respond to so well on the show: you and Walt both discover these new sides to him.

Yes, that’s right. In a way, he’s…I was going to say respectful of them, and, ultimately, it is, because he’s not in denial anymore. In the first few seasons, he was, “Oh no, I’m just doing this for my family. It’s all for my family. That’s what I’m doing it for.” He probably still holds on to that as the cause for his actions.

Now it’s changed. He knows that he wants the attention. He wants to be respected. He wants to be feared. He wants to be admired for the quality of his work. All the shortcomings that he had in his own professional life, he wants it now.

I think he learned that he needs to embrace all of what it means to be a human being, the ugly warts, as well. So, what does this mean? Theologically, I think it puts up a mirror to society that, given the right set of circumstances, I think anyone and everyone has a little darkness inside them; that little person who is greedy, ego driven, selfish, and all those things. Given the right set of circumstances, that little person in you can come alive and thrive and live within you.

We’re taught from a very early age by society, by our parents, by teachers to edit things we think, feel, and do. We live a life of editing and abiding by the rules, a red light. You know, common courtesy, hold the door open for someone. I mean these things, those are learned experiences, not innate.

I’d say the one character who’s managed not to break bad completely is Hank.

Whereas, I’ve heard Vince talk before, saying that Jesse is the moral center of the show. I find that curious, because my thought would be Hank is the moral bellwether of our show, of a man who still has his issues in the way he behaves in lustiness and misogyny with his wife at times. All in all, I think he is the man, a good person, trying to do the right thing.

Walter is more the man now, while Hank has become slightly “emasculated” in his view. [Laughs] Seeing Walk take advantage of his vulnerability, when Hank said he can talk to him about anything was…

You see two characters who are operating on two different planes. If you are racing because you just got a call that someone you love is in the hospital, you are flying on a different level. And if you cut in line, someone’s going, “Hey jerk! What are you doing?” You dismiss them. You are not going to stand there, turn around and say, “Listen, I’m sorry, but there’s someone in the hospital I really care about.” It’s like you don’t care at that moment.

Right at that moment Walter, it was just rocked, and he saw Gale Boetticher, right? So there’s no way that he can just, “Hey, you want to talk about things? Talk about your gambling. Yeah, is that very bad?” He doesn’t have time for that. He’s a dying man. Just forget all that. It is what it is, let it go.

The clock is ticking on this guy. He’s got to get things done and get them done and try to stay alive. There’s no time for small talk.

Is there hope for Walter?

What do you mean by hope?

Do you feel like after all of what he’s done or is going to do that things could still end well for him?

[Laughs] Well, you know, there is that thing no bad deed will go unpunished. I just don’t see how someone can survive that long burning the candles at both ends on borrowed time. But mostly, it’s a theory that I have subscribed to, and that’s you need to be who you are in life. There are lifetime criminals who are destined for that. Perhaps they are incarcerated or perhaps they are killed, and that’s their destiny too. Perhaps while they are operating, that’s who they are and then they do it well, quite possibly.

The thing about Walter White is that he’s not who this person is. He’s living outside of himself. It’s a foreign territory. Whenever you do that, live outside of who you normally are, you don’t do things well and you will get caught doing them. So that’s Walter White. I think his ego has grown to the point where he thinks he can handle this, he can manage this; he’s got a grip on it. But in truth, I don’t think he does. That’s the paper tiger.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.