A stupid little moustache “that always looks like, you know, what’s the point?” Hair that looks like it “always needs to be trimmed” and absolutely “no colour” in his face. This was the brief that American actor Bryan Cranston and writer Vince Gilligan came up with for the central character Walter White of the award-winning series Breaking Bad. The idea was to make him “the most ordinary, almost invisible”; someone who would blend in to the background and whom you could easily miss in a crowd. This, in fact, is the most terrifying thing about Walter. The 50-year-old chemistry professor, who on knowing that he is suffering from terminal lung cancer decides to get into drug dealing in order to leave a fortune for his family, does not flaunt a larger than life persona. He could be anyone; you, me or just about anyone who loves his family dearly and is at a hopeless juncture in life.With the sudden explosion of English shows on Indian TV, Breaking Bad, telecast on FX channel with its final season to be aired in January, has found many an ardent follower among the youth. Cranston, who plays Walter aka Walt, has now become a household name. One of this year’s hit films Mardaani had its antagonist modelled after him. The young kingpin of the sex trafficking gang in the film calls himself Walt and just like his namesake, his ordinariness is what hits you; what scares you.
The series, that entered the Guinness World Records last year for being the highest rated TV show, follows the transformation of Walt from being a timid chemistry professor to a ruthless drug lord who works under the alias Heisenberg. It was one of those scripts “that seeps into you, making you have daydreams about the character and make you wake up in the middle of the night with ideas,” says Cranston, on email to THE WEEK. For the 58-year-old actor, who was earlier known for his role as Hal, the father of the dysfunctional family, in the comedy series Malcolm in the Middle, it was undoubtedly a career-defining role. However, when Gilligan narrated the script to him, Cranston had no hopes of any network wanting to pick up something as dark and daring as Breaking Bad. “I was thrilled to have this opportunity,” he says. “But I was quite sure that there was no way the network is going to pick up a show where the hero is dying and he decides to start cooking and selling crystal meth.” He went on to win the Golden Globe and the Emmy for outstanding leading actor in a drama series not once, but four times, and that, too, with a stylish hatrick.
Having worked with Gilligan 10 years ago on a season of the famous series X-Files, Cranston was the writer’s first choice for playing Walt. But the network officials weren’t convinced enough that “the goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle” would be able to pull this off. It was like the part was always in Cranston’s destiny because actors like John Cussack and Matthew Broderick, whom the network approached later, rejected it. Cranston, however, was not worried how his sudden transformation–from Mr Chips to Scarface, as Gilligan puts it–would be accepted by the audience. “I gave up thinking about other people’s decisions long ago, and I only focus on the things that I control,” he says. “And we can’t control whether something is going to be successful. We have no idea. You know if it could be good because it’s well written. It has a chance to be good. But success is a whole different thing. So I was hopeful, but not worried.”
A lot has been written about the moral debate that the plot of Breaking Bad is centred around. Is the protagonist and his actions being glorified? Does it translate violence to “cool”? Does it mean you can afford to “break bad” when you know you have nothing to lose and you have no time left? According to Chuck Klosterman of the popular pop-culture blog Grantland: “the central question on Breaking Bad is this: What makes a man “bad” — his actions, his motives, or his conscious decision to be a bad person?” The audience, he says, is placed in a curious position of wanting to root for an individual who is no longer good. “The main character actively becomes evil, but we still want him to succeed,” he writes.
With every passing episode of the series, Walt loses a bit of his goodness. But Cranston says he doesn’t read so much into it. “I really believe that everybody is capable of good or bad,” he says. “We are all human beings. We are all given this spectrum of emotions, as complex as they are, and depending on your influences and your DNA and your parenting and your education and your social environment, the best of you can come out or the worst of you can come out.” If faced with dire situations, he says, any one of us can become dangerous.
Much like the audience, Cranston, too, had no clue where the series and his character was headed. “I never asked. I never wanted to know. The twist and turns of my character were so sharp that it wouldn’t help me to know,” he says. Even for the series finale, which was aired late last year in the west, Cranston read the script only six days before the shoot. “So I was just holding on, much like the audience was, almost week to week,” he says.
What Walt turns into, as Breaking Bad progresses, is a complete departure from what he is when the series kicks off. The same can be said about Cranston’s life and career, which, too, has transformed drastically. Fortunately for him, it has been a good break. Along with all the fanfare and accolades–he gets mobbed now and it is a new feeling, he says–better work offers are also coming his way. The actor, who will be seen as a scientist in the upcoming version of Godzilla, is getting ready to star in an HBO adaptation of his hit play All The Way, in which since last September has been playing U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson.
Although late, Cranston is starting to experience that special feeling called fame. The feeling that eluded his dad Joe Cranston, a failed actor. His father, depressed and defeated, walked out on the family when Cranston was 11 and it took another decade for them to meet again. Surprisingly, the first person that came to his mind, Cranston says, while he read the script was his father. He somehow found bits of his father in Walt. The slight stoop that Cranston devised for Walter in his initial days was drawn from his father’s body language. The success of Breaking Bad has just cemented in his head the lesson that his father’s life taught him. “In this business, it is not being good or looking good,” he says. “It is not about having patience, being persistent or being talented. All these do not make you successful. What you really need is that elusive thing called luck.”