With the last eight episodes of Breaking Bad scheduled to start airing on August 11, GQ recently unveiled an in-depth and insightful look at the career of Bryan Cranston. Noting his ability to do anything the writers could fathom – from his time spent playing Hal on Malcolm in the Middle when he was draped in bees, to his turn as Walter White and his constant state of undress in his tighty whities – Cranston reveals the darkness he used to channel and execute the meteoric and ultimately deadly fall of a mild-mannered chemistry teacher. While a choice excerpt appears below, head over here to read the editorial in its entirety.
Years ago, in another lifetime—long before the hat, the goatee, the shaved head, before He, the Unholy Ghost, came into Bryan Cranston’s life—the writers on the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle used to play a game in which they invented increasingly violent, absurd, and physically humiliating stunts for Cranston’s character, Hal, to enact. They called it “What won’t Bryan do?” When the game culminated in Hal covered by thousands of live bees, with no protest from Cranston forthcoming, it was deemed unwise to continue.
Instead, a second, corollary game sprang up: “What can’t Bryan do?” Here, too, the writers’ imaginative powers proved inadequate to the task, whether the challenge was roller-dancing or using his body as an enormous nude paintbrush. Even they, though, might have been surprised to know what we now know about what Bryan can do: how he’s transformed himself into Him.
He, of course, is Walter White, whose journey from depressed, terminally ill chemistry teacher to murderous meth manufacturer on Breaking Bad begins its final chapter this month. In an era rife with seductive antiheroes, Walt White’s transformation from, as creator Vince Gilligan likes to say, “Mr. Chips to Scarface” has arguably been the most harrowing—in part because we’ve watched the creation of Heisenberg, as White is known on the street, step by mostly well-calibrated step. “When I first read the script, that’s what struck me: I thought, ‘Tony Soprano, Dexter, Vic Mackey. When we were introduced to them, they were already that kind of person,’” says Cranston. “But I’m not sure this has happened before: Where we take one kind of person—bright, depressed, just turned 50, dying of cancer—and say, ‘For the next two years, he’s going to go on the greatest roller-coaster ride of his life.’”
He smiles wryly and adds, quite unnecessarily, “Greatest meaning biggest. Not necessarily good.”
Indeed, Breaking Bad’s most impressive accomplishment has been the ruthless commitment with which its creators, Cranston included, have stuck to prosecuting the series’ original mission. One by one, Gilligan and his fellow writers have taken away Walt’s justifications, starting with the cancer, which went into remission, while also giving him something Tony Soprano never had: an adversary and victims you care about with equal depth and fervor. The former is White’s DEA-agent brother-in-law, Hank, with whom White appears to be locked in a zero-sum game; the latter, his family, including his partner and former student, Jesse Pinkman, to whom he plays a poisonous surrogate father. White has emerged as a monstrous distortion of the American fetish for self-actualization, a natural answer to Oprah’s demand to “Live your best life.” What, Breaking Bad asks, if your best life happens to be as a drug kingpin?
We’re all sophisticated people here. We understand the profession of acting, the concept of make-believe. And yet eyes are eyes. Visual data is visual data. And sometimes the eyes are more powerful than the brain. People who do Cranston’s job count on that; it’s part of what makes acting work. So one hopes it’s forgivable to sit here in the living room of Cranston’s Los Angeles house, across from the intimately familiar face that is also Walter White’s, and to look for signs. To stare and to wonder: Does it leave a mark?