Friday, March 06, 2009

Sepinwall on TV: Bryan Cranston talks 'Breaking Bad' season two

In today's column, I profile Bryan Cranston in advance of Sunday's second season premiere of "Breaking Bad." I didn't have time/space to do a proper advance review, but the three episodes I've seen are very strong, and continue the upward swing the show was on towards the end of its first season. I'll have a review of the premiere up and ready to go after it airs.

After the jump is a transcript of the two interviews I did for the column. The first, featuring both Cranston and "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan, took place in January while I was in LA for the Television Critics Association press tour. The second was a few weeks ago, just with Gilligan. Over the course of both, we talk about how Cranston came to star in the show, how Cranston and the crew came up with Walt's look, why Gilligan likes to spend so much time on what would be deleted scenes in most crime stories, and more. It's not short (as Gilligan notes at one point, he tends to be long-winded), but if you're a fan of the show, I think you'll find it interesting.

PART ONE: CRANSTON & GILLIGAN

Since the strike was on when season one premiered, there wasn't an opportunity to do a lot of traditional publicity, so I want to go back to the beginning of this. Was this written for Bryan? How did the two of you come together?

Vince Gilligan: When I start writing something, I'm not necessarily thinking of an actor. But this project, very early on, when I was conceiving this character, I suddenly thought to myself, 'Bryan Cranston, he's the guy.' So very early on. Perhaps not moment of conception, but very shortly after.

Bryan Cranston: So you weren't thinking of me at the moment of conception. That should be your headline. But very soon after, dot-dot-dot... And that's where you left the money on the table? And discreetly walked out of the room.

VG: See, I don't think of sex in terms of with another person.

BC: But you still leave yourself some money?

Bryan obviously had a body of dramatic work, but at the time he was known for Malcolm and Seinfeld. What was it that made you think he was the guy?

VG: I hate to say it, but if I'd only known him from Malcolm, I never would have thought of him. As great as he is on Malcolm, you don't think in terms of drama when you're watching a comedy, and vice versa. I was very fortunate to have worked with him on 'The X-Files,' about 18 months before Malcolm went on the air.

He was in an episode called "Drive," in which it was Bryan and David Duchovny in a car for pretty much 45 minutes straight. It was two guys in a car, and they had to be two really good actors. We already had the one in David Duchovny, and we needed a guy who could go toe to toe with a TV star and kick ass and take names and be a wonderful actor. There's a lot of good actors out there, but the thing we needed, furthermore, for the part, was that the guy starts out being a real racist jackass, and you don't like him. But as the episode progresses, his humanity shines through. He doesn't suddenly become a good guy, he doesn't have some deathbed transformation, and yet he has to have a basic humanity so that you respond to him by the end of the hour.

We read a lot of people, a lot of good actors, a lot of people almost had it, and we went, 'Oh, man, we're in trouble.' And then our casting director brought in Bryan, who walked in, I didn't know who he was at that point, and he just blew us away. He nailed the part. We knew he had it before he left the room.

And we had a great time working with him, he's a gentleman and a fun guy. I spent a little time on the set, and I know the whole crew loved you. Eighteen months later when Malcolm went on the air, I went, 'Holy shit! He doesn't have the long hair! He doesn't have the beard! But that's Bryan! I didn't know he could do comedy! I didn't know he was funny!' I worked with a lot of great people on 'The X-Files,' but one of the absolute highlights was Bryan, and I knew I wanted to work with him again. So when this character came along, I knew he had the chops.

And furthermore -- the key to my long-winded story -- I knew he had the humanity. I knew he could be funny, I knew he could play the part. But the key to it is we're dealing with a guy who's making a terrible decision as a drug dealer. He's cooking crystal meth. God knows, his product is probably eventually trickling down to school kids somewhere. He's doing a terrible thing to ostensibly help his family, but you've gotta have a guy who you're going to travel on that journey with. You're going to see that underlying humanity, even when he's making the most devious, terrible decisions, and you need someone who has that humanity -- deep down, bedrock humanity -- so you say, watching this show, 'Alright, I'll go for this ride. I don't like what he's doing, I don't respect his decisions, but I understand, and I'll go with it for as far as it goes.' If you don't have a guy who gives you that, despite the greatest acting chops in the world, the show is not going to succeed.

So (Bryan), how did you then find out about the part?

BC: It came to me in the natural progression of things. I got a stack of scripts from my agency, each one had a little memo: "This one's going soon." "This one's going last -- read it later." "This one's kind of cute." And this one had a note: "Vince Gilligan, who wrote this, knows you from 'X-Files' and would like to see you on this." And I go, "Vince Gilligan? I don't remember who that is.' I didn't remember you, I'm sorry.

But I just picked it up because -- most pilot scripts are very difficult to get through. You want them to be great, and they're not. And most scripts, by the time they get to actors, it's gone through several processes and it should be smoother and more compelling. So you put 'em down, you make some coffee, you make some phone calls.

But with Vince's script, I picked it up and read, "A guy in tighty-whitey underwear, he's got a respirator on, he's driving a Winnebago. Two dead bodies are sliding back and forth," and I'm like, "What the fuck? What? What?" And I had to catch up! I had to catch up! And that was his lure. He was just fishing. And before you know it, you're engrossed, and I read it cover to cover without stopping.

I got on the phone, and said, 'Get me in to see Vince as soon as possible.' Because I'm also pragmatic, and I knew that the more actors who had time to read this, would be throwing their hat in the ring, and the more that happens, the less chance I have of getting in there. We scheduled an appointment right away. Every 20 minutes they were seeing actors, and I went in, and we talked for, like, an hour. And I could see the casting director going, 'We've got people waiting…'

But there's just something that happens. An interesting thing is, the more well-written material is, the less work an actor has to do. It's like a sponge. I started daydreaming about this guy. I had a dream at night about how he would look, and how he would walk. It just starts coming to you when it's so good. And it was, and everybody knows that. So it was easier for me to say, 'Oh, and what about if this happens?' And the two of us were bandying about these ideas. It was really, really refreshing to hit a chord like that, that was so clear.

We kept in touch through e-mail, a lot through the process, and AMC and Sony were looking for other people, as they should. Some of the comments were, 'Vince Gilligan wants the goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle? How's that going to work? That's going to be a disaster!' What I have to thank for this is his pushing, and one stroke of luck.

What would that be?

BC: I'm bowling with my daughter after school, and Peter Liguori calls me and says, 'We want you back at Fox. I'm going to send you a script, and it's yours. It's called "Nurses," or "Philadelphia General," we're not sure. You have the role of the chief of staff, and father of the head nurse. Read it, let me know what you think, if you want to do it, it's yours.' Meanwhile, AMC and Sony are talking about testing. Would I come in and test for the role with four other actors? And I said I would. But, of course, you take the risk that you go in there to test, and there's five people and you may not be the guy they ultimately select. But I was willing to fight for this role. After I hung up, I'm still bowling with my daughter, and I get an idea. I get on the phone with my agent and ask, 'Is there a way...?' (to Vince) Did I ever tell you this?

VG: (laughing) No, no.

BC: I said, 'Is there a way to disperse this information about this offer without dispersing the information?' He says, 'I know what you're talking about, we've got it.'

VG: Devious bastard!

BC: Meanwhile, the days are going by, and we did it, the next day, they told someone who told someone, and then the Fox people needed to know by end of business Tuesday. Monday comes along, 'Did anybody call?' The agent says, 'Not yet.' It was Tuesday morning! At 11 o'clock, I got a call: 'It's yours. You don't have to test.'

VG: That's so funny. No one even told me you were willing to test. At that point, all the AMC people, the way I remember it, they were a little concerned. But then I showed them that X-Files episode, and they said, 'Okay, he's got range.' But they said, 'He's gotta test.' And then the 'Nurses' thing came along, and I said, 'Don't fuck this up by pissing this guy off, telling him to come in and test.' It's part of the time-honored tradition of getting a part, but at a certain point, you don't have to do it anymore.

What kind of conversations did you two have once Bryan had the part about what you did and didn't want the character to be?

VG: You brought so much to it. It was Bryan's idea of Walt's look -- as you put it, the little caterpillar on your lip.

BC: One critic called it, 'A dead caterpillar,' that was my favorite. But once I signed the contract and was doing the show, I had visions of how this guy (should look). I thought he should be a little chunky. This guy went to seed a bit emotionally, and it should manifest itself physically. He should be pale. And I thought that his invisibility to himself, because of his lost opportunities and depression, should kind of form a mask.

So I thought a mustache -- but I wanted the mustache to be impotent. I wanted the mustache to have people, subconsciously go, 'What's the point of that mustache? It doesn't make any sense. Why would you bother if that's all you can grow?' And I thought the glasses should be important, since he's always hiding behind things. His hair was my hair color, but we took the color out of it. I normally have red highlights in my hair -- all gone. I wanted my face to be a cream color, with no ruddiness. He's without color in his life, so let's desaturate his whole body.

This is just random ideas that I took to Kathleen Detoro, our costume designer, and I would ask, 'Do you know what I mean?' And she said she did, and 'Here's what we do.' And she got color palettes and showed Vince, 'Here's what we're thinking,' and it seemed to fit. The colors on my clothes would be the colors you see on walls. I disappear. I don't make a statement.

VG: And the doughiness, too. Bryan had a specific he thought he should hit.

BC: For my frame, 170-175 is right. I thought I should be at least 10, 11 pounds over that. I had love handles, and it was right for the character. One of the scenes in the first season has Dean Norris going, 'There's a new drug kingpin. He's a badass!' And he's telling his guys in the DEA about him, and it keeps cutting back to me brushing my teeth. I thought that was brilliant, but it only works if I'm willing to show myself like that.

A lot of the time, showrunners hear that an actor is coming to them with lots of suggestions for the character, and they run screaming. This obviously worked out.

VG: Honestly, you're nervous when you're working long-term with someone in a pretty new situation. It's a bit of a forced marriage in a sense. You wonder how you're going to work together. And we had a bit of nerves. And a typical showrunner might dread that, wondering, 'What notes are we getting?' But I welcome them from Bryan, because he is very smart about the show. He's thinking about his own character, but he's also thinking about how his character fits in with the other characters, and he's thinking about the other characters, too, and the overarching story. That's why he did such a good job directing the first episode of season two. He's able to look at it from some meta level, removing himself from the character he's playing and looking at the whole universe. A lot of the best ideas about Walt's look and Walt's mien -- his personality, his outlook on life -- come from Bryan. That mustache, I would have never thought of that, but it's great. And you took some of the color out of that, too.

BC: What happened was, Frieda Valenzuela, I went to her, she's our makeup artist, and I had a full beard when I got to the pilot. I told her what I'm thinking, and she said, 'The first thing we have to do is take the color out. The darker the color, the more menacing. We have to soften him.' So we took the color out, and she said, 'Now it's too thick.' So she got the clippers out and she thinned it, thinned it, thinned it so you can see skin underneath. And the third thing, we're looking at it and looking at it, and something wasn't quite right, and she goes, 'I know what it is! It bends down.' She took her clippers, and took the corners off, and that did it. She said, 'Anytime a mustache bends down, it's bandito.'

VG: And that just goes to show what a group effort TV is. Movies, too. You hear all the bullshit about movie directors being the auteur, and it's always a group effort. There's always people giving value added.

The scene that, by far, I loved the most in the first season is the party at the house, Walt's wandering through, the camcorder's on, and they tell him to say something to the baby. Walt realizes the implications of this, but he's in a room full of people and does not want to show emotion in this setting. That would be real awards show bait -- and, obviously, you won a big showbiz award -- but it's the sort of thing where a lot of actors would be inclined to overplay it, and you dialed it way back.

BC: That was written. It was written to be that way, that he's sitting on all this emotion. When it's well-written, I don't have to search for the guideposts. It's like monkey bars -- right there. Actors often need handles to hold onto something during some scenes. When you're given handles that are clearly marked, you feel more confident. That part was, you're sitting on it, and you simplify it. You have a volume of things you want to say, and this is what comes out.

VG: We are so lucky at -- not just Bryan, but our entire cast is so good at saying a lot with so little, with a look, with a glance. It's so wonderful to get to underwrite things and have these wonderful actors pull it off in spades, by giving you less instead of more.

PART TWO: GILLIGAN

I've watched the first three episodes of season two, and there were a lot of those distinctly "Breaking Bad" scenes of Walt and Jesse arguing about the nuts and bolts of being a criminal. Jesse will say they need to kill Tuco, and Walt will say, "Yes, but how would you do that?" and makes him go through his plan step-by-step. That doesn't feel like something you get from your average crime show. Is that just to illustrate that it's an ordinary guy getting involved in this?

That's exactly what it is. We've all seen so many TV shows and movies over our lifetimes where the murder is kind of a given, and the aftermath is kind of clean and pain-free and kind of skipped over, and it's on to the next plot point. There's plenty of movies that follow that pattern that I love, but I, as a viewer have found my mind wandering and find myself thinking as I'm watching a crime movie, 'How would you go about killing someone?' The mechanics of it, or the minutiae of it, is oddly interesting to a lay-person, to a non-criminal, as is the minutiae of just about any interesting job. What's it like to be a space shuttle pilot, a brain surgeon, a criminal? These are all interesting fields. Hopefully none of us aspire to be criminals, we instead aspire to be space shuttle astronauts. But the minutiae is interesting nonetheless.

Those kind of scenes are fun to write, because I think we idly wonder, from time to time, 'If I had to commit the perfect crime, how would I pull it off?" Talking through it, A to B to C, step-by-step, is interesting to me personally, and I figured it might be interesting to an audience.

And the third episode is entirely about something that other crime shows would deal with in about two minutes: (Walt comes up with what seems like a simple alibi for something), and he has to spend hours and days dealing with the unexpected complications of that.

It's a reaction on my part -- in a lot of crime movies and TV shows, there's a lot of stuff that gets skipped over that I know could be fascinating...

Now, I'm guessing just from having seen other things Bryan has done, and things he's done previously on this show, that he had no problems going nude.

Bryan, god bless him, is one of the most courageous actors I've ever even heard of, let alone worked with. I have to say, back in the pilot, I was directing it, and I had a moment where I wimped out, and I could have really done damage to our show, in the very early stage, we were set to film the scene where he's in his underpants. I said, 'Gee, are you comfortable in underpants, wouldn't you rather be in sweatpants?' And he said, 'Why?' I said, 'I don't know, are you comfortable?' And he said, 'No, I'm not comfortable, but that's the whole point. What's important for the story here?' I said, 'Well, underpants, I guess,' and I asked him what kind of underpants he was comfortable with. He said, 'What kind of underpants are more pathetic?' And I said, 'Well, saggy jockey shorts,' and he said, 'That's right. That's what I should wear.' God bless him.

And then in this scene, we're not trying to find creative ways to get him naked, but he goes for it. He gives 110 percent.

Well, he does get involved in a lot of extreme stuff on this show, like some of the sexual stuff between Walt and his wife in the season premiere. Does he ever get antsy about any of it, or at least have to ask you questions about your motivation behind it?

Oh, sure. That's a process any showrunner goes through with any lead actor. We're always talking, and he's always giving really smart input. And in the case of our season premiere, he was wearing two hats, directing as well as starring in it. We spent hours talking through every beat of the episode: 'How do you want this done, do you want extra coverage of this?' Scenes like that are certainly uncomfortable to watch, and intentionally so, and uncomfortable to be on the set for and, I imagine, uncomfortable to portray as an actor. But Bryan Cranston and Anna Gunn, who did a wonderful job in that scene, didn't have really have any major qualms about it. They just went for it.

Bryan had to do double duty in that scene, to direct it and then he had to portray it. I'm still amazed. You sit in a little room and you write this stuff up, the old story about (a screenwriter typing), 'Then cut to 100 elephants galloping over the crest of the mountain,' and someone has to go off and make it real. Sometimes, as a writer, I tend to forget how hard it is to make this stuff happen. It's easy to forget sometimes, because these guys make it look effortless, my actors.

I want to get back to the digressions, going into the material that other series don't show. Doing it that way allows you to tell the story slower, though some might argue that it just slows down the story.

To me, that is the story. To me, this is the story about the in-between moments. I think we've all seen the big moments in any crime story. You can't top a movie like 'The Godfather.' So what can I do as a filmmaker? At least I can show the stuff that nobody else bothers to show. The in-between moments really are the story in 'Breaking Bad' -- the moments of metamorphosis, of a guy transforming from a good, law-abiding citizen to a drug kingpin. It is the story of metamorphosis, and metamorphosis in real life is slow. It's the way stalactites grow, you stare at it and there's nothing, but you come back 100 years later and there's growth. I don't know if that's such a good analogy.

Yeah, I don't think you're getting 100 seasons out of this.

That was some wishful thinking on my part. Let me word it a better way. Growth for humans is slow, it happens in tiny little increments. To me, if we can find the drama in those little teeny moments, we're doing something different. And I tell you, different is good. At least in my mind.

Well, this is the second time we've spoken where you've said you envision Walt one day becoming a drug kingpin. And, obviously, at the stage that I've seen up through, he is a very long way away from that. And, again, you're telling the story at a very measured pace. What do you see as the arc of how long it's going to take for us to see Walt the kingpin?

It's a good question, because we are finding our way, episode by episode, and hour by hour. Having said that, you've seen the first three episodes, and we have episodes of very slow growth, and episodes where we have more of an explosive evolution kind of moment. In other words, we've got some big stuff coming up in season two, and it ends with a big bang. Not to say anything more about it than that. As far as how long things go, I'd love to see three or four seasons out of this show. I can't imagine much past that. But I'd love to think at the end of season two, we're halfway through, I hope.

Does Skyler's pregnancy and the baby allow you to set up a timeline?

Anna Gunn has been playing a character who's been pregnant for quite a number of episodes, and I could tell she was ready to stop playing pregnant, just like a woman is ready to stop being pregnant. It does help keep the audience realizing that the show is taking place in a relatively short period of time, a matter

How did Bryan directing the season premiere come about? I know he has directorial experience, but did you have to be talked into it in any way?

No. Bryan came to me, and early on had evinced an interest in directing. I had seen a movie he directed called 'Last Chance,' that he produced and paid for personally and directed, and his wife Robin (Dearden) stars in it and does a wonderful job. I knew he could direct and had the chops, and he'd done a bunch of "Malcolm in the Middle"s. There was no trepidation on my part, because I had seen his work.

I have to say, we've had a lot of wonderful directors on this show, but he was one of the most prepared. This sounds like the stuff you always say in an interview, but the truth is, I don't think I've seen anyone prepare harder. We've had other directors who, comparatively, didn't seem as prepared, although they did wonderful jobs. This guy, he was running all the angles and doing all his homework and planning it out in great, great detail. He was calling me up, going, 'What about this? What if I tried that? What do you think of this?' I wish they all worked as hard as Bryan did.

Well, when I talked to both of you at TCA and he went into the process behind little things like getting the mustache just right, it does seem like he's very detail-oriented.

Very much so, which is what you need in a director. We seem to be in an era now of directors identifying themselves as having Attention-Deficit Disorder. And I always think, when I hear that, 'How did you get to be a director?' You've got to be the opposite of that. You have to be obsessive about detail to be a good director, and Bryan has that element to him. He's really obsessive about dotting the i's and crossing the t's.

How much time were you on the set for his episode, and what was the atmosphere like? Was it different from the average show directed by a non-castmember?

It was very similar to all the other shows. The crew loves Bryan, because he really is a leader. He's like a dad on the set. But having said that, our set is a pretty tension-free place, usually. We've had moments, but usually people just enjoy each other's company and all work hard together shoulder-to-shoulder. Unfortunately, I was not there on the set that much this season. I was here in Burbank with the writers breaking stories, but what little I was there, it seemed like having any other director.

The lack of tension, often times the leading man will set the tone about that.

I think that's what we've got going for us. I'd love to take credit for that myself, but I think the tone on our set is set by Bryan Cranston and the rest of the cast, who all get along very well. I'd love to say it was set by me, but I'm there so seldom some days that it's definitely set by Bryan.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at asepinwall@starledger.com.

7 comments:

dvlman said...

For people like me who missed season one of Breaking Bad, AMC is playing all seven episodes back to back starting tonight at 8.

Dijonase said...

I'm very excited for the premiere of the second season (and a little bit disappointed to see only one comment here so far...though maybe that's due to comment moderation slowing things down).

Cranston's portrayal of Walter White is magnificent. Even if the show around him were no good I would be compelled to watch. The fact the everything else (the cast, the direction, the writing) is just as fantastic makes for one hell of a show.

Undercover Asian Man said...

Wow, great, great series of interviews. Thanks so much, Alan, once again you've shown why your blog is such an important source of information for fans of television.

I found Part One particularly fascinating, as it was a very insider look at the process of getting someone cast and getting a show made. I think everyone who reads this blog should read that section just to see how fickle TV can be, and how much luck is involved in getting a Bryan Cranston cast. It seemed more than the run-of-the-mill publicity interview, as both Cranston and Gilligan were willing to talk at length in such detail and honesty. Bryan's description on how he envisioned the character, and how other artists' work helped the look come about, was just great reading and makes me glad to be watching a show with such a dedicated, thinking lead actor.

I've been waiting for the season premiere of this show with more anticipation than I've had for any show in a long while. I love how Gilligan describes the in-between moments as being the heart of the show.

I know there was some complaints last year about the hour-by-hour pacing, but I think it is what makes this show so exceptional. I too want to see and explore what it means to do what Walt is doing, and not just jump ahead to the next "big moment". How they handled both the murder in the basement, and the aftermath, was some of the best television I've seen this decade.

Cranston's acting is really top-shelf, soulful, and as stunningly honest as possible. I can't wait for this debut this weekend, especially if Cranston's directing really is as detailed and thought out as his acting.

I think television has been in sort of a rut, with not much good on to praise and get excited about. I hope this show continues to exemplify what good TV is all about. I can't wait to see it.

Once again, excellent job Alan on this interview. You should consider moving off blogger.com and starting up your own website as a security blanket against newspapers' contractions and tough economic times. Your effort has generated enough critical mass with the viewing public, and you deserve some bonus rewards.

belinda said...

Yay! Thanks for the interview! I never knew that's how BC got the job as Walt. It's hard to imagine now, even after just 7 episodes, someone else playing the role, so yay for network tactics.

How long is the new season going to be? Can't wait.

Jennifer J. said...

Those interviews were fascinating. Thank you so much, Alan. I found this show on my own and was mesmerized by it. I've always felt Bryan Cranston was underrated...maybe even that word doesn't do it justice. So when he beat out everyone for the lead actor Emmy award I was just absolutely thrilled. :)

I cannot wait for the new season to start. Now knowing that BC directed the first ep as well has me even more excited.

I loved all those details about the mustache and the colors of him and his clothes making him lifeless/recede into any background. Heartbreaking but brilliant!

renton said...

Loved the interviews -- thanks for what had to be a long process of typing them out.

I've been SO looking forward to this show coming back. Glad to hear it starts off well.

Janie said...

Thanks for this interview! I just love this show. I don't think I've ever been so happy to see someone win an award for something as I was for Bryan Cranston. It was so deserved.