Creator and star look back on four seasons — and ahead to the last one
Bryan Cranston is mock-berating his boss, and it’s fun to watch. He takes a sheaf of script pages and flings them at "Breaking Bad" showrunner Vince Gilligan, sputtering angrily all the while: "You could turn it over and use it as scratch paper, because all this stuff…Nada! I was hoping for some improvement! Ridiculous! Aren’t you embarrassed?"
Floating sheets of script settle slowly to the floor as Gilligan, aiming for a deadpan expression rather than trying to match acting chops with his much-honored leading man, ends up looking credibly agog.
TheWrap spoke to Cranston and Gilligan weeks before Sunday's season 5 premiere of "Breaking Bad," their viciously addictive AMC drama. In a photo session at our West Los Angeles office, they proved to be the friendliest of colleagues. And why not? The first four seasons of the show culminated in a jaw-dropping season finale in October. The fifth season picks up Sunday right where it left off – after a maddening opening sequence that will unnerve fans as much as anything the show has done.
The show landed 16 Emmy nominations and six wins in its first three seasons, before the vicissitudes of network scheduling made it ineligible for last year’s race. Its cast and crew will find out soon after Sunday's return how their fourth season fared – the Emmy nominations will be announced next Thursday.
The fifth and final season's sixteen episodes will be split across this summer and next. It will complete a story that began in 2008 with a grim setup: a high-school chemistry teacher, Walter White (Cranston), decides that the most lucrative way to provide for his family in the face of a fatal cancer diagnosis is to begin making and selling methamphetamine.
Cranston leaves little doubt where it’s all heading. "We are going to discover that if you lie down with dogs you are gonna get fleas, and you can’t be surprised by that," he says, ominously. "Things are gonna turn darker and uglier."
Darker than the arc of arch-villain Gus Fring? Darker than a certain deception involving our principals and a poisonous plant? Darker than rubbing out people who get in the way of Walter White’s steadily metastasizing meth-cooking and distribution scheme?
With no slight intended toward his fellow actors on "Breaking Bad," including Aaron Paul as Walt’s weirdly capable partner (except when he’s not) Jesse, Anna Gunn as wife Skyler and Giancarlo Esposito as smooth criminal Fring, Cranston is the endlessly fascinating center of the drama, as surely as James Gandolfini’s Tony was at the heart of the "The Sopranos."
Before the one-year break, Cranston won three consecutive Emmys as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series. Paul won for supporting dramatic actor. Cranston says awards and recognition are merely byproducts of what he found when he first stepped onto a stage: “It was empowering to affect a large group of people emotionally.”
When it’s suggested to Gilligan that a hugely dominant and irreplaceable lead actor can occasionally create almost as many problems as opportunities, the daring, inventive storyteller grins. "Yes, sometimes it really goes south," Gilligan says in his soft-toned Virginia accent, thankful that’s not his problem. "The quality that made our show work was Bryan, and I’d say that whether he was standing here or not.
"Our main character is a guy who decides to become a criminal, a bad guy. And as you would expect, during that process he becomes less and less likeable. If you had someone in the role who at base was less than sympathetic, less than likeable, you’d be off on very poor footing from the git-go."
Indeed, Cranston knew how to do likeable: He’d spent seven seasons and earned three Emmy nominations as the dad on the ‘90s sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle."
"Aside from just immense reservoirs of talent as an actor, Bryan is one of the most sympathetic and likeable and human — as in full of humanity — people I ever met," Gilligan adds. "I don’t know how he keeps the audience on his side as much as he does, with some of the reprehensible things that his character does."
Cranston’s immersion in the saga is all the more impressive given his antipathy for the path Walter has chosen. Does he give the character any slack for trying to provide for his family in the face of a prognosis of death in two years? "His family really doesn’t need saving," says Cranston. "He feels that he wants to leave a legacy. He wants to leave them with something quantitative, so that after he dies they can look back and say, 'Well, we’ll miss him, but at least he provided for us,' and 'Thank you dad, I can go to college' and all that. So he compromised his moral integrity, but whenever you do that for financial gain you’ve lost your soul. You've sold out in the truest sense of the word."
Cranston adds that he understands some of the character’s impulse, but only to a point. "It’s not so hard for me as a man to get into that survival instinct, or protecting your family," he says. "Most men take on that responsibility. But the thing that is difficult for me to accept is his whole ego. His hubris and greed and avaricious nature are foreign to me. I have to allow myself to go there and have him become the peacock that he is."
Indeed, the space occupied by Walter White is one rife with threats and held together by dark secrets. "People live double standards all the time, and I believe that’s possible," he says. "In fiction, it used to be that in order for audiences to believe that someone could be vicious, the character had to be vicious all the time. But human beings are much more capable of showing a wider variety and a deeper expression of their emotions. That vicious guy could, in an act of complete dispassion, execute someone, and then go home and pick up his little baby girl and be gentle and soft and loving and complete. It is within us as human beings to show that kind of range."
You might think that after playing the character for three years, Cranston might have some ideas about where things should go from here. But he insists that's not the case, that in Vince he trusts. "This is his baby," he says. "I’m the surrogate father, but he is the sperm donor, and he fathered this. He is the master and commander, and there is no discussion of where it’s going. I don’t even ask him."
As for the show’s finale, which will have the enormous pressure of ending an iconic series in a satisfying manner, "I honestly don’t know what’s gonna happen," Cranston says. "I think it’s safe to say that the stories will break bad before they’ll break good, and that was the promise we made at the beginning: that this is all about change, about this man’s ill-conceived ideas that forced him to become something he’s not."
At any rate, he seems completely at ease with whatever dark fictional events will come along via his remarkable collaboration with Gilligan. "There’s no way there’s gonna be any cop-out here," he promises. "The outcome’s never gonna be 100 percent pleasing to everyone. But if you truly think about it, whatever Vince comes up with, you’ll end up saying, 'That’s vintage 'Breaking Bad' – of course it ended that way.'"
He’s then called to enact one more charade for the camera with Gilligan, and again he gleefully berates the showrunner, flinging the pages tantrum-style. "You’ve had four or five chances and failed every one!" he barks convincingly. "What’s the matter with you? If I was paying you, I’d fire you."
The fifth and final season of "Breaking Bad" premieres Sunday 10/9c on AMC.
Office photo credit: J.R. Mankoff. Other photos from AMC.