It’s not easy for ShortList to shake hands with Bryan Cranston. This isn’t down to clammy palms or a finger-crushing grip. No, it’s because, like a growing army of box set-devouring UK fans, we’re slightly obsessed with Breaking Bad.
And his terrifyingly plausible performance as a terminally ill chemistry teacher-turned-murderous meth druglord is hard to shake. Who’s to say he won’t violently garrote us if he takes issue with a question? Or discreetly slip some home-made poison into our cup when we’re not looking? Thankfully, we’re not alone in blurring fact and fiction.
“When people knew me from Malcolm In The Middle, they were like, ‘Hi! May I have your picture?’” grins Cranston, impersonating a cheerful fan of the family sitcom. “Now it’s a little more like, ‘Is it all right if I… um?’ They’re a little more trepidatious when they approach me. And I like that.”
It’s not just wary autograph-hunters that have been affected by the 56-year-old’s mesmerising, triple Emmy-winning turn as Walter White. Since disappearing from UK screens in 2009 it’s earned a cult following and scored Cranston roles in films including Drive and Total Recall. It’s a long way from playing a homeless bloke in an episode of Diagnosis Murder. With the fifth and final series (available via legitimate means on Netflix UK) arriving to swallow entire weekends, we took a tentative sip of our tea and asked him about his slow-burn career.
Despite starting in 2008, Breaking Bad seems to have only become a phenomenon recently. Why do you think this is?
It’s always been the underdog. It’s never been and never will be a massively attractive product because the subject matter is too dark. I say that it’s a pungent show. It’s sharp, like a sharp cheese that makes you go, “Ooh, hmm.” It takes a bit of bravery to [get] through the shows but when you get into it you love it. We take you on a ride. It’s the story of this man who starts off as a good person and winds up as a bad person. How do you get from one point to the other? It’s about that horrible route.
How much research did you have to do into the world of crystal meth?
We were taught how to make it by Drug Enforcement Agency chemists, with the level of purity that the character Walter White insists on. It’s so detailed that you have to really be very careful about how you do it. And we left stages out so it wasn’t instructional. But it’s a dangerous thing. That’s why you see these people that blow themselves up. But I’ve forgotten completely how to do it. The research I did on Breaking Bad was primarily to do with the chemistry, refamiliarising myself with that as opposed to the drug world because Walter White didn’t know that world. I wanted to find out about it as he was.
We presume it isn’t actual crystal meth on screen…
It’s rock candy. Aaron [Paul who plays fellow dealer Jesse Pinkman] started us eating it. Once we were in the 13th hour [of filming], wearing those Tyvek suits that don’t breathe, so we’re sweating underneath and we’re tired. Then he just starts dipping his hand in. I go, “What are you doing?” “I’m eating the product.” Then I try it and the crew starts eating it. It’s sugar, so it wakes you up. It’s cotton-candy flavoured.
Is it true that you like to lighten the mood with pranks while filming?
I try to get a read on the energy on the set. When you’re working for 14 or 15 hours and it’s Friday, you get a little weary. Everything slows down, energy, mental sharpness... And sometimes doing a practical joke will spark everybody. You have a laugh and finish the day strong.
Any particularly memorable ones?
I used to put a bunch of fruit in my underwear and walk into the scene. Also, [in] one episode I go over to Jesse’s house and I tell him to “handle it”, then I hand him a gun. One time, I took out a dildo-shaped squirt gun [laughs]. And I just go, “I want you to handle it.” Then I squirted him [laughs]. Any chance I can get I make him laugh.
You’ve just worked with notorious on-set prankster Ben Affleck on Argo. Did you do battle?
On Argo he had so much to do, so there wasn’t much of that. But after he liked a take he’d say, “Let’s claim victory and move on.” It made it feel like a military mission.
It’s one of many recent film roles – do you worry about audiences getting sick of you?
I do. Being ubiquitous is not necessarily a good thing, but I can’t control when [these films] come out. It’d be nice if I could pace them. When you’re first starting you accept any role that they offer you because you’re flattered that they are. Now I’m turning down more offers than I’m accepting.
Drive was one of the first films to come in the wake of Breaking Bad. What was it like working with Ryan Gosling and Nicolas Winding Refn?
Ryan and I had a relationship. I mean, who can help themselves? [Laughs] And Nicolas is a great director. He was very courageous because he told me I could say whatever I want and do whatever I want. He gathered us all in his living room for meetings [before filming] and we’d just have our shoes off, talking about what to do. Ryan rightfully said, “Look, my character’s name is Driver, we don’t even know his name. He shouldn’t be much of a talker. It should all be through his actions.” And I said, “I should talk.” Because my guy is a schemer, putting people together and figuring out things. So we kind of [devised the film] that way. I was very happy when I woke up one morning and realised how my character should die, so I pitched that.
How do you feel about the rumours of either a prequel or sequel?
I hope there’s a prequel because then I can be in it. If it’s a sequel then no, I think they should leave it alone. Nobody wants to see that [laughs].
Going back to Breaking Bad, what’s the strangest thing you’ve been sent by fans as its popularity has grown?
I got sent a letter from a very educated woman. She said, “I’ve never been diagnosed with any mental disorder and have a masters in psychology. But I’ve watched Breaking Bad and right now I’m having a fantasy of having sex… with Aaron Paul.” [Laughs] So I was thinking: What is she telling me this for? I read on: “I want you there. I don’t know what you’re doing exactly but I want you there watching.” Oh, great. I pull in the octogenarians. If they’re 75 and older they send their giant underwear to me... [laughs].
Lovely stuff. Have you heard any stories of it influencing real dealers?
There have been science teachers who have made meth. Then there was a report about the tinted blue crystal meth, which is a fabrication of our desire. I saw a news article of a meth lab being busted where the reporter said, “This meth is tinted blue, which is universally known as a much higher quality of meth.” We made it up. I’m sure the meth makers out there are putting blue food colouring in their product.
You’re yet to film the final eight episodes [set to air in 2013], but do you feel the pressure of the finale? Even The Sopranos couldn’t please everyone.
To me, The Sopranos seemed like it could have gone on and you see that in the ‘life is normal’ ending. I don’t think that’s going to happen for Breaking Bad [laughs]. I think it’s going to end badly. It’ll be an ugly, horrific mess and I think the audience knows that. I don’t know how it ends and I never ask. Plus, there’s no pressure on me to do this, I’m not the captain of the ship. [Series creator] Vince Gilligan has the burden to create the ending he’s always wanted.
Finally, things are going great now, but you’ve been acting for 30 years. Any memorably bad early auditions?
I auditioned for a TV show where I was interrogated. There was a two-way mirror and I knew the police were on the other side so I was supposed to bang on the wall and say, “Hey, I know you’re back there.” My fist went through the wall and I pulled out insulation. I knew the moment that happened that I wouldn’t get the role. I even went to a home repair store, bought a little wall patching kit and sent it to the casting director. Didn’t work.
Breaking Bad Season 5 is available on Netflix UK from 1 November. Seasons 1-4 are on DVD and Netflix UK now
(Image: All Star, Rex Features)