From Walter White To LBJ, Bryan Cranston Is A Master Of Transformation

Aug 26, 2014

While Breaking Bad fans were watching him portray Walt in the series' final episodes, Cranston was already reinventing himself — playing Lyndon B. Johnson in the play All the Way.

Originally broadcast March 27.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

Today, we kick off a miniseries of interviews with some of last night's Emmy winners and maybe a couple of nominees. We begin with Bryan Cranston, who won the award for best lead actor in a drama series for his performance as Walter White in AMC's "Breaking Bad," which won the Emmy for best drama series.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

BRYAN CRANSTON: Chemistry is - well, technically chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.

GROSS: In the pilot of "Breaking Bad," high school teacher Walter White failed to interest his chemistry students in the study of change. But over the course of the series, Walt himself came to exemplify radical change using his knowledge of chemistry to become a master meth cook and transforming itself into a notorious outlaw, willing to kill when necessary to keep his operation running.

Acting is also about change and transformation, and Bryan Cranston is a master. While "Breaking Bad" fans were watching him portray Walter White in the final episodes of the series, Cranston was already undergoing another transformation, playing President Lyndon Johnson in the play "All The Way," for which he won a Tony this year. "Breaking Bad" concluded its fifth and final season in September of 2013. I spoke with him a few months later in March.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So I want to play what I think is one of the just best scenes (laughing)...

CRANSTON: OK.

GROSS: ...From "Breaking Bad." And this has become a kind of iconic scene, and it's the one who knocks scene.

CRANSTON: Oh.

GROSS: And just to set it up - Walt's wife, Skyler, at this point in season four, episode six, knows that Walt's cooking meth. And she knows that Walt's in danger, and she believes - she has no idea the evil acts that Walt has done. She doesn't know that in addition to cooking meth, that you've killed people, that you've done - you've done horrible things.

CRANSTON: Well, you know, horrible to one man is necessary to another.

GROSS: (Laughing) That's right. So anyway, she's thinking, you know, my husband - he's just, like, cooking meth. He did it for a reason - to help the family. So Walt, what you've got to do is just go to the police. So in this scene, she's trying to convince you that that's all you need to do - is, like, turn yourself in and explain what happened. So here is a very famous scene from "Breaking Bad" with Anna Gunn as Skyler and my guest Bryan Cranston as Walter White.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

ANNA GUNN: (As Skyler White) Walt, I've said it before. If you are in danger, we go to the police...

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Oh, no. I don't want to hear about the police.

GUNN: (As Skyler) I do not say that lightly. I know what it could do to this family. But if it's the only real choice we have - if it's either that or you getting shot when you open your front door...

CRANSTON: (As Walt) I don't want to hear about the police.

GUNN: (As Skyler) You're not some hardened criminal, Walt. You are in over your head. That's what we tell them, and that's the truth.

CRANSTON: (As Walt) That's not the truth.

GUNN: (As Skyler) Of course it is. Schoolteacher, cancer, desperate for money...

CRANSTON: (As Walt) OK, we're done here.

GUNN: (As Skyler) Roped into working for - unable to even quit. You told me that yourself, Walt. Jesus, what was I thinking? Walt, please, let's both of us stop trying to justify this whole thing and admit you're in danger.

CRANSTON: (As Walt) Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn't believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly-up - disappears. It ceases to exist without me. No. You clearly don't know who you're talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks.

GROSS: I just can't hear that scene too many times. (Laughing)

CRANSTON: Wow.

GROSS: That's so good.

CRANSTON: I haven't heard that in a while.

GROSS: Really?

CRANSTON: It's good to revisit that.

GROSS: It's such a great scene. So when you first read those lines, which are so terrific, did you know how you were going to read them? Like, did you try them all kinds of different ways before getting the version that we heard?

CRANSTON: No. But, you know, listening to that again is just a testament to the writing staff of "Breaking Bad," led by Vince Gilligan. And in that one scene, you have two opposing viewpoints that are equally valid from their point of view. Skyler is worried about her family. She makes a very pragmatic pitch - just confess. Stop it now. Don't do this. You're going to put yourself and us in danger.

But Walt, by then, is too far along in his journey. His ego has been opened, and he is fully realizing his sense of power, and he likes it. And he is not about to, you know, go back into the shell that he originally came out of. And he's taking her comments as demeaning, as pejorative - that you're not who you say you are. You're not a powerful person. You're a little schoolteacher. Just go back to that.

And it's - and all I'm hearing is you're not a man. You're not this powerful, great Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. You're just Walter White - this little man, you know. And he's so far beyond that at that moment, he now has to express himself with his full range of hubris, and that's what comes out.

GROSS: And that scene is a great example of how your voice changed while playing Walter White 'cause it starts off kind of similar in the voice that you're talking in now, and it ends up in that much deeper, huskier voice.

CRANSTON: You know, a lower voice is always a little more intimidating, isn't it? You know, it's a little - it's a little - has a little more gravitas to it. And so I wanted to drop it just - maybe not a full register, but, you know, something noticeable.

GROSS: Walt saw himself as bland, and others saw him that way, too, until he turned into Heisenberg, the meth-cooking genius. Had you felt that casting directors saw you that way - saw you as bland, as an actor, or, you know - or physically bland, you know, if not like in terms of like your talent?

CRANSTON: Yes - no. Well, I have - I have a very fortunate look for an actor. I - you can't really categorize me. I don't - my looks aren't striking, and so therefore I am more capable of sliding into looking like other people - more chameleon-like - as opposed to, let's say, Jon Hamm, who is this handsome, striking, black-haired, you know, chiseled kind of looking guy. Well, you know, that's great for Jon. He's a friend, and I love him, but I don't know that you would buy him as Walter White. He would have to fight against his looks in order to do that. So there's a larger range of roles that are available to me than are available to Jon Hamm simply because of physicality, and I love that.

GROSS: What did you have in your life to draw on to create Walt's insecurity, his anger, his greed, his ability to lie, his ability to lose his conscience and be able to kill people with a pretty minimal amount of remorse? And I know that's too many traits...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: ...To answer in full, but, you know, these are not admirable traits. So where did you go to find that?

CRANSTON: I understood where Walter White was at the beginning. I couldn't understand where he was at the end because I didn't know exactly where he was going to go, how deep he was going to go. So at the beginning was the only quest for me to find. Initially, I had a very difficult time in finding the emotional core of him, which is where I go. That's what I seek when I take on a character.

For Hal in "Malcolm in the Middle," it was fear. He was afraid of everything. And that leant itself to good humor, but it was also very honest. It's that he was afraid of everything - of being a bad father, losing his job, not pleasing his wife, you know, and everything - spiders, heights.

In Lyndon Johnson, it's seeking love. He needs, craves - he must be fed love. He's - he feels he's unloved at his core, and so he's constantly doing things out of wanting to be approved and loved. With Walt, it was more difficult because I kept looking and kept looking, and I couldn't find it.

And it was frustrating me until it dawned on me that he didn't even know how he felt because of depression. The depression he was feeling over missed opportunities in his life created sort of a calloused cocoon of his emotions. He couldn't tap into his emotions. He was numb, and therefore -once I found that, that spoke volumes. It was like oh, got it. I got it. He's given up. He's gone to seed, and therefore - that's where taking the color out of my hair and my face - I didn't want any color in his life.

The way he walked, the way he - he was overweight. He had pudginess. He was very pale. And then the diagnosis of terminal lung cancer came and, ironically, gave him new life because it exploded. It was a like a dynamite exploded that cocoon. And all of the sudden, his emotions were spewed everywhere, and that's why he became sloppy.

In what you just played - that scene - his ego wouldn't allow him to just let her talk logically about giving himself up. He needed to tell her how important I am. Do you know how much money I make? Do you have any idea? You know, so he had to give it back to her. Like anything...

GROSS: He wants credit. He wants credit for what he's done.

CRANSTON: He wants credit.

GROSS: He's a genius cooking meth, and he wants credit for it. And he's figured out how to run an illegal business. Of course, he can't take the credit, but, you know, he wants Hank to know, and he wants his wife to know.

CRANSTON: That's right.

GROSS: Fans of "Breaking Bad," like me, really miss Walter White, your character. What's it like for you to no longer be thinking about what Walt might do in a situation, how he'd react - to no longer have him in your head?

CRANSTON: Well, it's bittersweet because it was an extraordinary time in my life. It changed my life, and I'll forever be grateful for that. I'm also happy that it ended when it did because the effect that that had was so wonderful that everybody comes up to me and says, I wish there were more. I want more. I want more. And that's always a much better position to be in than having people say, I want less. I want less of you. When are...

GROSS: Stop schlepping it out.

CRANSTON: You know, is that show - is that show still on the air? Oh, my God. You know. And so you want to be able to go out on your terms. And I - and our man who created the show, who I'll be eternally grateful to, Vince Gilligan, felt that this was the right amount of hours to tell the story.

GROSS: As Walter White, you became physically transformed. Walter White starts as a kind of blending-in-the-background chemistry high school teacher. And over time, as he cooks more meth and starts doing some very evil deeds, he becomes physically transformed. I mean, part of it's the cancer. Your head is bald. You have this, like - what - how do you describe the kind of beard that he has?

CRANSTON: It's actually called a Van Dyke, which - a goatee is just the hair on the chin, a la a goat. But the combination of the moustache connecting in with the hair on the chin is called a Van Dyke. So it started off as this - what I called an impotent moustache, which - I wanted Walter White at the very beginning to look impotent and weak. And I wanted people to look at the moustache and think to themselves, why bother? Shave it or grow it. Do something. But - and I wanted that kind of ambiguity to his look and to make him feel confused and un-noteworthy and as he grew in power, that the look would also grow in power. And we discovered that the most powerful look that a man can have - the most aggressive look - is no hair on the head and facial hair.

GROSS: So you had to live with that version of Walt in your regular life. You couldn't grow that beard every week or grow hair every week. So you looked like evil Walt, you know, in your personal life.

CRANSTON: (Laughing).

GROSS: It wasn't a prosthetic you could take off or anything that you could change.

CRANSTON: Right.

GROSS: I'm assuming the beard was really yours.

CRANSTON: The beard was real. Yeah.

GROSS: So I'm wondering what it was like to look in the mirror and see some of Walt in there because that was Walt's look and not Bryan Cranston's.

CRANSTON: Yes, but unlike other actors, (laughing) I don't look in the mirror that often, quite frankly.

GROSS: (Laughing).

CRANSTON: Most of our day is looking out from our own eyes, so we're not seeing ourselves and others - as others do. And yes, yes, it was a look that became rather iconic, I suppose. And at first, it was very pragmatic. I knew that the character was going to go through chemotherapy. And we discussed losing the hair, and it was brought up by Vince. He says, well, do you want to do a bald cap? I said, no, I'm going - I'm going to shave it. Let's do it. And so I just shaved my head.

GROSS: My guest is Bryan Cranston, who won an Emmy last night for his starring role in "Breaking Bad." We'll hear more of this interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're featuring an interview from last March with Bryan Cranston. Last night, he won the Emmy for outstanding actor in a drama series for his performance as Walter White in "Breaking Bad."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: Let's hear the scene that helped you get your starring role in "Breaking Bad." You were in "The X-Files," which Vince Gilligan, the creator of "Breaking Bad," had been working on. And in this episode, which apparently made a really big impression on Vince Gilligan, you guest starred as Patrick Crump, who's a racist anti-Semite, seemingly deranged and...

CRANSTON: But otherwise sweet guy.

GROSS: (Laughing) Nice guy. And he's trapped FBI Agent Mulder - David Duchovny - in a car and has him driving at high speed. And so your character thinks that he's a victim of some kind of weird conspiracy that's gotten deep into his head - that's like embedded into his head.

CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And what we don't know yet is that he actually is.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Actually is a victim of the government.

CRANSTON: Yeah.

GROSS: So anyway - so here you are in the car in the back seat. David Duchovny is driving. and David Duchovny, as Agent Mulder, speaks first, 'cause you wife has already died of this - whatever it is that you think is trapped in your head and was also trapped in hers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE X-FILES")

DAVID DUCHOVNY: (As Agent Mulder) I'm sorry about your wife.

CRANSTON: (As Patrick Garland Crump) Sure you are. You and the rest of your Jew FBI.

DAVID DUCHOVNY: (As Agent Mulder) Crump...

CRANSTON: (As Patrick Garland Crump) Oh, yeah. You think I don't know, huh? You think I'm just some ignorant pudknocker, don't you? But I get it, man. I see what this is. I am not sick, and I do not have the flu. Vicky and me were just some kind of government guinea pigs.

DUCHOVNY: (As Agent Mulder) You think the government did this to you?

CRANSTON: (As Patrick Garland Crump) Hell, yeah. Who else? You see it all the time on the TV. They're dropping Agent Orange. They're putting radiation in little retarded kids' gonads. Oh, yeah. You sons of bitches, sneaking around my woods at night. I seen you. You think I don't know?

(SOUNDBITE OF OCHESTRAL MUSIC)

DUCHOVNY: (As Agent Mulder) Well, on behalf of the international Jewish conspiracy, I just need to inform you that we're almost out of gas.

CRANSTON: (Laughing).

GROSS: David Duchovny and my guest, Bryan Cranston, in a scene from "The X-Files" from 1998. Was that unusual part for you at the time -this racist extremist tormented on the verge of hysteria kind of guy - where you're paranoid and threatening?

CRANSTON: No. No, I made the rounds of guest starring roles on many, many television series and usually playing the bad guy of the week, which is basically the role that men had in, you know, in series television, as opposed to women playing usual victim of the week kind of thing.

(LAUGHTER)

CRANSTON: And that's, you know - and that's another reason why "Breaking Bad" broke the mold. And - but there, you find another example in the writing that Vince was able to do - is that he went another level deeper than what you would expect. And that's why "X-Files" became the show that it did, with that kind of sensibility behind it. Where an average show would've written Crump to be a nice guy, a sweet guy - therefore, the audience would want David Duchovny to save this man. He's a nice man. But the audience wouldn't be invested in that.

It would just be an automatic - you know, he's a nice guy. But because he wrote me as this despicable character, saying awful things, it put the emotional dilemma in his central character. It gave the power to Duchovny, which is absolutely right. Do I save this man simply because he's a human being? When what he really wants to do is pull over, stop and say, Crump, see you. Go ahead and die 'cause you're an awful person and no one's going to miss you. But he can't because he's human. And he - and despite the actions of this man, he is still worth saving. So that's the germ of "Breaking Bad." That was the seed - that he felt that I would be right for this role because Crump was a character that was doing despicable things and still was able to convey a sense of vulnerability and to receive sympathy. And that's what he felt that Walter White needed.

GROSS: We'll hear more of the interview I recorded in March with Bryan Cranston in the second half of the show. He won an Emmy last night for his performance in "Breaking Bad." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OUT OF TIME MAN")

MIKE HARVEY: (Singing) I'm walking out really down - really cool breeze. I'm going to be late again. Driver, wait for me, please. I'm running all in vain, trying to catch this train. Time don't fool me no more. I throw my watch to the floor. It's gone crazy. Time, don't do it again. Now I'm stressed and strained - anger and pain in the subway train. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.