"I would love to be on 'Breaking Bad,'" says Jaleel White, best known for playing teen nerd Steve Urkel on nine seasons of the sitcom "Family Matters." He repeats for emphasis: "I would love to be on "Breaking Bad."
Hahaha, you may say. "Breaking Bad"? The incredibly gritty and intense AMC drama about a chemisty teacher turned methamphetamine kingpin? Steve Urkel, he of the high-waisted pants and nasal catchphrase, on "Breaking Bad"? That, you laugh, would be like the dad on "Malcolm in the Middle" starring on "Breaking Bad."
Also read: Urkel Writes a Movie
Except that Malcolm's dad — Bryan Cranston — does star on "Breaking Bad." And has won three consective Emmys for it.
Cranston's success in breaking his "Malcolm" typecasting has been one model for White as he continues to establish himself outside the role that made him famous. Now a writer as well as an actor, the 35-year-old has worked steadily since "Family Matters" wrapped in 1997, logging recent turns "Psych," "House," and "NCIS."
We talked with him at the Television Critics Association winter press tour, where he is promoting his upcoming SyFy series, "Total Blackout," in which contestants have to undergo a series of frightening challenges in total darkness. (They may have to reach into a tank, for example, with no idea what's inside. In the dark, an eel and a teddy bear can be equally frightening.) White hosts the show.
Now a sharp-dressed, deep-voiced man who bears no resemblance to Urkel, he talked with us about his own fears, why he sympathizes with Bristol Palin, and his respect for both Cranston and Giancarlo Esposito, who played "Breaking Bad" villain Gustavo "Chicken Man" Fring.
"Total Blackout" is all about facing the things that scare you. What scares you, whether it's a big-picture fear or something like hating snakes?
I probably used to have a fear of failure, personally. But I think I've definitely overcome that. I'm a father now so I have a two-year-old daughter. The second you get that child in this world to help you realize it's not about you. But other than that, I don't like possums.
Why a fear of failure? You were a huge success right out of the gate.
That's the reason why. Because you know how it happened. You know that there's a lot of happenstance, a lot of moon, stars and dust that add up to create success. And you can't control all of that.
You don't look at all like you did when you were a kid. Which is maybe deliberate: You grow a beard and you won't be recognized? Do you still get recognized?
Oh, I get recognized everywhere I go. I take plenty of pictures with flight attendants.
Was there a time when it annoyed you to be recognized so much for one thing? You've worked a lot and done a lot of roles.
It's funny. When it comes to the whole getting recognized thing, you can never control how a fan is going to choose to recognize you. I heard a story recently about Bristol Palin I guess quitting show business and moving back to Alaska. I guess she was at [Hollywood saloon] Saddle Ranch riding a mechanical bull and some jackass thought it would be funny to yell out, "Is that how you were riding Levi?" That's a prime example of how celebrity can take on a life of its own. Trust me, when she went on "Dancing With the Stars" or her mother became what her mother became, she never in a million years thought that she would have to endure a snarky comment like that while just riding a mechanical bull with her friends. I don't know the girl. I'm just giving you an example.
Also read: Bristol Palin Gets in a Bar Fight
So obviously I'm a part of that as well. I've had people that have come up to me and said some very rude things. I've had people that have come up to me and said some amazingly sweet things: You got my mother through cancer, just watching your show put a smile on her face every day after the doctors told her something horrible. You can't focus on the bullshit — pardon me for not tempering my words. There's too much good out here. I made a lot of people laugh. I was on one of the longest running African-American shows that has been viewed across the globe. I step off a plane in Sweden, I step off a plane in Brazil, I step off a plane in London, Paris, wherever, and people know me. That's a pretty cool thing when I'm trying to get a reservation at a restaurant.
But what bad thing can someone yell at you? The character is a nerd. You're not the character. If I see Anthony Hopkins and yell that he's a cannibal, I'm the idiot, not him.
Exactly. I hope that you'll write that. Because there's certain parts of the Midwest where people just don't think like that. … I'm never going to see Mike Myers in the room and think that it's cool to go to his table for two and say, "Oh, you make me randy!" But there are guys out there who would do that and think that it's cool.
I understand "Breaking Bad" is your favorite show. Mine too.
That's my favorite show right now. It's the best show on TV.
Is it something you would want to do?
Someone asked me to pick a character I would love to play and I said Chicken Man. Giancarlo obviously did such an amazing job. You go look at that guy's Twitter page, and he may not have 500,000 followers, but damn, he ripped that role. Celebrity and pop culture, image and talent, those things don't necessarily intersect. But I really hope that people understand. I know what I've done. I've studied what I've done. I've gotten better over the years and I want to continue to share how I've gotten better… to create characters. And that show has created some awesome characters.
Actors so often get roles by a star or a producer saying in the media how much they like or respect someone else's work. Are you putting your name out there?
I would love to be on Breaking Bad. I would love to be on "Breaking Bad." But one of the things about it also is Walter White, for a generation, he is Malcolm's dad. So when people want to talk to me about typecasting, I'm like, don't talk to me about typecasting before you give me the opportunity to work with some of the finest writing there is out there. He's a terrific actor. Gosh, he's a terrific actor. But before the show aired, let's just be honest: Not too many movie studios would have considered putting him opposite George Clooney. Because he was Malcolm's dad. I don't play those kinds of games.
I worked for Bill Condon on "Dreamgirls" and for me that was a really wonderful turning point because he had no concept of who I was. He just saw a guy who had come in and done my audition tape. … That's a guy who's powerful enough, astute enough, academic enough about talent that it was a big honor [to have him say] "I like you and I want you in my movie."
Cranston's a great example of what you're saying – he's a sitcom actor who went from being not just a sitcom actor to a dramatic actor – arguably the most respected dramatic actor on TV.
Tops in the game right now.
So would you ever want to reach out to 'Breaking Bad'?
I would love to be on the show if the opportunity on the show if the opportunity ever presented itself, but a creator is a creator. Because I'm also a writer I respect what it is to craft your stories and seek the actors that will complement your story. It's a pain in the ass for a creator to ever have to write a creator into their storyline, as opposed to manage their storyline and then just get the appropriate actor.
Well, they do need a new villain.
Hey man, like I said. You're putting it out there, I'm a fan – let’s do something.