Bryan Cranston is one of the most admired stage and screen actors of his generation. He won best actor in a play Tony awards for the Broadway shows All the Way in 2014 and Network in 2019. He received a best actor Oscar nomination for his turn in 2015’s Trumbo, while also stealing scenes in films like 1998’s Saving Private Ryan, 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine, 2011’s Drive, 2012’s Argo and 2017’s The Upside. But he is best known for his work on television, having excelled in comedy series, most famously as the hapless father Hal on Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle from 2000 through 2006, for which he received three best supporting actor in a comedy series Emmy nominations; in drama series, giving one of the all-time great TV performances as science teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad from 2008 through 2013, for which he received six best actor in a drama series Emmy nominations, four of which resulted in wins; and most recently, in limited series, winning raves for his portrayal of a judge whose son is involved in a hit and run accident that results in the death of the son of a local mob boss on one of 2020’s most watched and acclaimed limited series Showtime’s Your Honor.
On a recent episode of THR’s Awards Chatter podcast, the 65-year-old reflected on how he almost became a policeman instead of an actor; his many years of commercial work and guest spots — most famously as Dr. Tim Whatley on Seinfeld — before he became famous at the age of 43; the series of happy accidents that led to Vince Gilligan casting him on Breaking Bad and to that show’s phenomenal success; and what it was like to return to TV seven years after Breaking Bad went off the air and to work in the limited series format with Your Honor.
* * *
You can listen to the episode here. Highlights — lightly edited for clarity/brevity — appear lower on the page.
Past guests include Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, Lorne Michaels, Meryl Streep, George Clooney, Barbra Streisand, Robert De Niro, Angelina Jolie, Eddie Murphy, Gal Gadot, Warren Beatty, Jennifer Lawrence, Snoop Dogg, Julia Roberts, Stephen Colbert, Reese Witherspoon, Aaron Sorkin, Margot Robbie, Ryan Reynolds, Nicole Kidman, Denzel Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, Jimmy Kimmel, Natalie Portman, Kevin Hart, Jennifer Lopez, Elton John, Judi Dench, Quincy Jones, Jane Fonda, Tom Hanks, Michelle Pfeiffer, Justin Timberlake, Elisabeth Moss, RuPaul, Cate Blanchett, Jimmy Fallon, Renee Zellweger, Michael Moore, Emilia Clarke, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Helen Mirren, Tyler Perry, Sally Field, Spike Lee, Lady Gaga, J.J. Abrams, Emma Stone, Al Pacino, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Jerry Seinfeld, Dolly Parton, Will Smith, Kerry Washington, Sacha Baron Cohen, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, Keira Knightley, David Letterman, Sophia Loren, Hugh Jackman, Melissa McCarthy, Ken Burns, Jodie Foster, Conan O’Brien, Amy Adams, Ben Affleck, Zendaya, Will Ferrell, Glenn Close, Michael B. Jordan, Jessica Chastain, Jay Leno, Saoirse Ronan, Billy Porter, Brie Larson, Kevin Feige and Tina Fey.
Where were you born and raised? And what did your folks do for a living?
I was born in Hollywood and raised in the San Fernando Valley, in Canoga Park, for the most part. My parents were actors. They met in an acting class in 1948 and had the typical kind of actor’s life.
There was a time when your dad was getting a good amount of work — but then that stopped.
Yeah. My dad was a pretty darn good actor. Unfortunately, though, my father, from all accounts, really had his sights set on becoming a ‘star,’ whatever that means. When he was 40 years old and he wasn’t a star, he hit kind of an midlife crisis and couldn’t handle it. It fractured the family — he went off and had an affair and married another woman and just disrupted everything. I didn’t see my father for about 11 years.
You participated and excelled in a youth program that set you on the path to becoming a police officer. How did acting derail that plan?
Second year in college, my counselor says, “You’ve got to take some elective courses. You’re only taking your major.” And so I get into this acting class, just for fun, and I get to do this scene with this really beautiful girl — our job is to kiss each other, make out. I was blown away. I’m thinking, “Oh my God, this is what I’ve been trying to do anyway!” She was all over me. We did the scene, and I asked her out at the break, and she said, “No, I have a boyfriend.” I was stunned because I thought, “She was really kissing me!” My head was spinning at 19 years old. And that’s when I realized I don’t know what I want to do. My brother was in the same position, and we had motorcycles at the time, and we hopped on our motorcycles and left the State of California for two years, just to find ourselves. It was two young boys running away from home.
You and he traveled across multiple states, getting odd jobs, including some acting and directing gigs, and then you had an epiphany when you got caught in a massive rainstorm while riding through Virginia, and wound up having to pull over and seek cover for five days.
I was reading Hedda Gabler, and I read it straight through. When I started that book it was day, and now it was night. It blew me away that I missed the transition from day to night. I thought, “What could make a person do that? The transformative power of storytelling.” I sat there for a moment looking out at the rain and I thought, “Okay, I’m going to do this. I’m going to attempt to do something that I’m falling in love with, and hopefully become good at it, as opposed to something I was good at, police work, but was not in love with.”
So you wind up back in L.A., took some acting classes and pretty quickly, it seems, were working regularly, not in stuff that was going to set the world on fire, but in commercials, which pay nicely, and guest spots on shows like Matlock, Murder She Wrote, Baywatch—
All the great ones. [laughs]
If things had continued at that level forever, would you have been content, or were you now like your father, in terms of hoping for bigger things?
I had a different frame of mind. The cautionary tale of my father was certainly there. When my father left and we lost our home, I was 11 years old, and we lived with our grandparents. My grandparents were both German immigrants, hardworking, blue collar, tough as nails. Through my mother and my grandparents, I learned a strong work ethic. And part of that is lack of entitlement. And so my goal in starting my acting career was not to become a star. It’s never been about becoming a star. It was about improving and earning a living: “If I can say that the only thing I do to pay my bills is act, that’s my achievement.” That happened when I was 25, and that is still my proudest achievement professionally. I started professionally when I was 23 and it took two years, but at 25 I’d worked enough in the industry to be able to say, “I’m a working actor. This is what I do for my living.”
Even if it wasn’t your objective, your profile obviously did grow in the ’90s with things like a recurring part on Seinfeld and a role in Saving Private Ryan. But it seems like the most important thing that happened, in the big picture, was landing a guest spot on a single episode of The X-Files which aired on Nov. 15, 1998.
I wrote a movie called Last Chance for my wife as a present, and she said, “When are we going to make it?” It took me several years to wrap my head around the idea of having the courage and audacity to make your own film. I kept delaying it because I was trying to raise $300,000 to make it. I finally said, “I’ve got to just do it. I could keep delaying it week after week after week and it may not ever happen. So we’re just going to do it on these dates.” I stuck to that and hoped that money would somehow find its way, and it did. Four days after I returned to Los Angeles, I’m starting the editing process and I get a call from my agent, “I know you just got back into town. There’s an audition if you want to go.” I go, “Well, you know what? If I can get a job, that would be fantastic, because I’m broke.” I had a wife and a little baby, and we had a little house. He said, “Okay, it’s for X-Files.” I happened to look the part — I had this nasty Fu Manchu mustache and mutton chops and scraggly dirty hair. Anyway, it was just by luck that I got the job. And I go to work and I meet this guy named Vince Gilligan who wrote it and was producing also.
You played a bad guy who people nevertheless sympathized with, and obviously made an impression on Vince.
I did that episode, and then I go off and I do Malcolm in the Middle for seven years. I had done some series before that and they never lasted — they’d get three, five, six airings, and then they’d get canceled. Anyway, at the end of seven years of Malcolm in the Middle, we were supposed to pick up an eighth year. Fox said, “Keep the sets up. Don’t take them down. Because we might pick it up.” Our fingers were crossed, but we got the call at the end of April, “We’re going to let the show go.” We were crying. It was like, “Oh, no.” That was April of 2006. I did a play at the Geffen with Jason Alexander, who I met and became friends with from Seinfeld, and near the end of that, it was beginning of fall, I get a call from my agent, “Do you remember a man named Vince Gilligan?” I said, “No.” She said, “He wrote and produced the episode of X-Files that you were in.” I went, “Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.” “Well, anyway, he wrote a pilot named Breaking Bad.” I go, “What does that mean?” She goes, “I don’t know.” “But it’s really good. You should read it. He wants to meet with you.” I said, “Okay.” So I read it and it blew me away.
You get hired to do the pilot. Did you immediately realize how revolutionary a character Walter White could be?
Vince told me, “I want to make this character go from Mr. Chips to Scarface. I just wanted to see if I can do it. They’re not going to let me do it.” I said, “You’re attempting to do something that’s never been done in the history of television, to change a character from one to the other. It hasn’t been done.” I was so excited. We did the pilot in February and March of 2007. If Malcolm in the Middle had been picked up for an eighth season, I would have been working on Malcolm in the Middle until the end of March in ’07 and would not have been available for this pilot. Once again, when something looks bad initially or on the surface, it may turn out to be the best move in your career.
It seems to me like a lot of things had to happen to enable Breaking Bad to become what it did. AMC had to decide to get into original programming. Netflix had to begin streaming prior seasons of Breaking Bad, which, more than AMC, is how a lot of people discovered the show. And things like the Great Recession, Bernie Madoff and the Obamacare debate had to be in the zeitgeist. Could this show have been what it was at any other moment in history?
That’s a great question. I think you’re right. I think a confluence of many things happened. Thank God for Netflix. I think that was instrumental in keeping us on the air and really heralding this unique show and allowing people to find it. And yes, I think it touched people’s lives because of the debate of universal healthcare and “should a teacher have to have a second job to pay for his or her bills?” and the recession and men and women struggling to just keep their head above water. And so all those things came into play. And we had a person at the helm, Vince Gilligan, who had the audacity to tell this kind of risky story. As I joke, but I say it proudly, it’s going to be the opening headline of my eventual obituary, and I’m more than fine with that.
Post-Breaking Bad, there was the moment where, as much as ever, you could pretty much do whatever you wanted. What you did do was two Broadway shows within five years and won Tonys for both.
I was a working actor since I was 25. I was 40 when I got Malcolm in the Middle, 50 when I got Breaking Bad. I was eased into celebrity and fame. I think that helped me tremendously. I still am very conscious of money and I don’t spend a lot because of my upbringing. But my focus has always been on the storytelling. When Breaking Bad was ending, I thought, “Oh, this is going to be tough to figure out what to do next.” One thing I did do was I said, “I’m not going to be on TV for three years.” I don’t know why I said three years, but I gave myself that moratorium. I needed to go hide out. I needed to do something that was different. And that’s why I focused on doing theater.
In 2020, you starred on Your Honor, a 10-episode show that attracted the largest premiere audience for a Showtime limited series ever, with a consistently large viewership after that. You played Michael Desiato, a New Orleans judge whose son kills a local mob boss’ son in a hit-and-run accident.
This was a really good story. The concept of Your Honor was, “How far would you go to save the life of your child? What would you do?” It’s a morality tale that shows someone struggling with trying to make the right decision. I think it may have been the best-watched series in Showtime’s history because at the time that we’re suffering through the pandemic and all that brings, there is some relief in seeing someone else go through something that’s worse.