It's only fitting that Bryan Cranston would appear on the Tribeca Innovation Week panel devoted to "Psychos We Love," because, after all, who makes a more lovable psycho than "Breaking Bad's" Walter White as personified by Cranston?
Playing White was "catnip...You get a character like this once in a career, if you're lucky," said Cranston, who thinks that audiences were drawn to the chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin because he's "relatable. The more complex a character is and the more honestly a character is depicted, it touches people and it resonates through them."
Walter is much more nuanced and even sympathetic than your typical archetypical bad guy. "It was done very craftily so a psychopath is more interesting to watch in a drama because they are just more interesting," said Cranston. "In days gone by, there were the bad guys of poorly written material who were just bad -- no reason, no rhyme. It's easy for the audience to cast them aside...but a more interesting complex character is someone who -- I'm not sure if he's good or bad. I'm uncertain. That I think is what strikes the heart of Nucky and Tony Soprano and my character (Walter White). There's a mixture. That's what human beings are."
The panel also featured Academy-Award nominated screenwriter Terence Winter ("The Wolf of Wall Street," "Boardwalk Empire," "The Sopranos") who has crafted and written dialogue for his share of psychos including Nucky Thompson, the mob boss played by Steve Buscemi on "Boardwalk Empire," Tony Soprano and Jordan Belfort.
The appeal of these characters is that though we may call them psychopaths, they are all nuanced and occasionally sympathetic, especially as they are portrayed by skillful actors such as Cranston, James Gandolfini, Steve Buscemi and Leonardo DiCaprio. It's no surprise that the so-called second golden age of television is largely populated by these antiheroes. The appeal is undeniable as audiences get to live vicariously through these dark characters.
"You get to spend time with a Walter White and be inside that world and be inside that head, or a Tony Soprano or a Nucky or a Jordan Belfort. It's a way to spend time in that world without paying any kind of price. you get to live vicariously through that character for that moment," said Winter. "If you show any human being in their full range of colors and emotions, you're going to find moments of relatability, empathy."
Here are a few other highlights from the talk:
Bryan Cranston thought the grossest scene on "Breaking Bad" was in the second episode of season one, "Cat's in the Bag...."
"Early on, there was a scene where I instructed my young protege to buy a particular kind of plastic container to dissolve a body and he said, 'Why do we have to do that when we have a perfectly good bath tub upstairs?' But this particular chemical eats away at porcelain, so the whole ceiling came down with all the liquified body parts and we had to clean it up. Even though it wasn't real, I found myself gagging."
LBJ wasn't so different than Walter White.
Cranston, who is playing President Lyndon B. Johnson in the play "All the Way," which recently opened on Broadway, said he could see similarities between the former president and Walter White in that they both justified their actions. "[LBJ] was certainly a man who damned the means justifying the ends. He would do anything in his arsenal to be able to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish. He would throw someone under the bus who was an innocent if need be...If he was not that type of a person, would he have been able to accomplish these things? It's a sad statement on humanity."
Winter purposely didn't show us Adriana's death on "The Sopranos."
"I wrote the scene in "The Sopranos" where Adriana (Drea De Matteo) got killed, where she was murdered. When I wrote the scene, I wrote that she crawls off the camera and we hear gunshot...At the time, it felt like the artful choice, but I realized I didn't want to see her. I didn't want to see her get killed. I liked Drea, who was playing the character. I just didn't want to see it."
You can listen to a podcast of the event at WNYC.