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On ‘Breaking Bad’ Panel, Bryan Cranston Says Playing Tortured Characters ‘Should Be Difficult’

Bryan Cranston on Heinseberg's Aggression, Walter's Impotence

If you’re a Breaking Bad fan in New York City, this week has been a cornucopia. Every day, there’s a screening or an onstage interview with the show’s cast and creator, and an ongoing exhibit at the Museum of the Moving Image features artifacts from the show’s history to explore how it uses costume and production design to convey and foreshadow Walter White’s transformation from mild-manner chemistry professor to murderous methamphetamine kingpin. (Pink teddy bear, check. Leaves of Grass, check.) 

But even if you’re one of those tragic unfortunates who lives elsewhere in the country, you can eavesdrop from afar. You can watch a 90-minute interview with Bryan Cranston,Vince Gilligan, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, R.J. Mitte, Betsy Brandt and Bob Odenkirk, conducted by the New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff, here, and last night, the Film Society of Lincoln Center staged the first of two evenings featuring episode screenings and Q&As. The trio of Gunn, Mitte and Odenkirk and then Cranston took the stage for questions with critic Matt Zoller Seitz, with the proceedings streamed live on YouTube. (Tune tonight for Emily Nussbaum’s interviews with Gilligan, Norris and Brandt.) We’ve culled a few highlights.

Cranston was a fascinating stage presence as well as a generous one, extending the allotted time to take more questions from the audience. While he showed no sign of Walter White’s violent temper, it was astonishing how quickly he could summon it simply to illustrate a point. Seitz, whose second-season overview focuses on the question of when Walter White gave way to his ruthless alter ego, Heisenberg, asked Cranston how he differentiated between the two. Cranston slumped his shoulders and craned his neck to show Walter’s subservient stoop, then jumped to his feet and puffed out his chest to show how animal intimidation manifests on the human plan. When he screamed, “You wanna go?” it was, for just an instant, easy to believe someone was about to get their ass kicked. 

Cranston talked about the importance of zeroing in on a character’s core, which for his anxiety-riddled dad on Malcolm in the Middle was fear. As for Walter White:

I hard the hardest time finding where Walter lived…. I was in a conversation at dinner once and someone was talking about depression, and I went, “There it is — that’s what happened to him.”  He was a depressed man from missed opportunities. Over the years, his entire adult life, missed opportunities, he would just gloss over, just keep squishing it down. In some of the research I did about depression — broad strokes — it manifests in two main ways: One, you explode and blame everyone for your misfortune… or you implode, and that’s what happened to Walter White. He just became invisible, to himself, to society. Once I caught onto that, that informed everything. Then, I went to Vince and I said, “He should be 10, 12, 14 pounds overweight, he should have no color in his hair or his face. We want to have clothes that match the wall, so that he’s unremarkable in every way. He should have a mustache that people look at and go [quizzical look] ‘Either grow it or shave it!'” An impotent mustache….

What I realized is that as show went on, what happened to Walter White is he stick of dynamite to that calloused-over core of emotion, and it’s blew up. As the series went on, he became very clumsy with his emotion, and became very careless and impulsive. He completely changed from that measured, methodical scientist he was to this man who has taken over his life.

That transformation, Cranston added, explained the controversial plot twist that closed the fifth season’s first half, which hinged on what seemed like uncharacteristic careless on Walter’s part. “It’s very simple,” Cranston said. “He became impulsive. He became a different person.”

The highlight of the first panel was Anna Gunn’s discussion of Skyler White, whom she described in terms that brought her closer to her husband than many viewers may have suspected.

What I knew about her was that he intellect matched Walt’s. Bryan and I decided that was the thing that really drew them together. When she finds out that he is involved in this whole thing and she decides not to turn him in… and she decides to get involved, she thinks that her intellect can actually fix things.

Although Gilligan often stresses Breaking Bad‘s improvisational writing style, especially when asked about plot developments that seem to have been prepared for years in advance, Gunn gave credence to theory that the show has always had a master plan when she revealed how Gilligan initially described her character: “She’ll be Carmela Soprano, but she’ll be in on the crime.”

Seitz asked Gunn if it was difficult to leave Skyler White on the set, especially on days when the the writing took her to dark places. She answered:

She’s a heavy person to play, and I realized when we wrapped, when I had my final day, there was a lot of sadness with saying goodbye to this experience, but I drove home and it felt like an enormous weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It was a very, very painful character to play, and a very painful story to tell. But as an actor, you wait for a story like this to tell.

Seitz took up the same subject with Cranston, and his answer was more succint: “It should be difficult. Actors have to pay that price.”

Watch the complete panel discussions below:

Anna Gunn, Bob Odenkirk and R.J. Mitte


Bryan Cranston

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