As for Cranston, his ego is firmly in check as he recalls having to fight hard for the role of Walter White after AMC and Sony executives wanted to make sure the goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle would make a convincing drug lord. Directing his agent to get him an audition as fast as possible, Cranston showed up in producer Vince Gilligan’s office with a clear composite of Walt.
“I had a feeling he should be about 15 pounds overweight, he should be pasty white, he should have no color, he should have a silly mustache I call impotent, he should wear colors like camel and beige and ocher and things that blend into the walls. He’s unremarkable in every way, and that’s how he felt.”
The 15-minute meeting lasted an hour and a half and eventually Gilligan, who had once cast Cranston as the world’s worst person in an episode of The X-Files, became his champion. After Cranston was offered a part in the Fox pilot Nurses, AMC acquiesced to Gilligan and hired Cranston to play Walt, whose diagnosis of cancer and inability to pay for treatment without leaving his pregnant wife and teenage son destitute compel him down a treacherous path.
In order to channel his character, the actor allowed himself to embrace Walt’s darker aspects. One not-so-dark instance when Cranston recalls breaking bad in real life occurred when he was 7 and stole a candy bar. His mother caught him and made him go back to the store and pay for it. He’s never shoplifted since, but he does know how to cook high-grade crystal meth, if only theoretically.
To get into character, Cranston and Aaron Paul, who played Walt’s sidekick and former student, Jesse Pinkman, spent hours and hours with the head of chemistry at the University of Southern California, a University of Central Arkansas chemistry professor and a Drug Enforcement Administration chemist to gain a feel for the process. “The last time I had chemistry was in high school,” says Cranston, who got a “C” in the class. “I needed to learn the nomenclature and how to handle the equipment and what was for what. That took awhile because it was like learning a new language.”
It was necessary to bring that level of authenticity to the role, Cranston says. So, too, was deciding what type of skivvies Walt would sport in the pilot when he drives an RV pell-mell through the Albuquerque, N.M., desert while wearing little more than a respirator. The script called for tighty-whities, but Cranston had worn them on Malcolm in the Middle to signify that his character was still a boy. “Vince said to go ahead and change that, so I fully expected to wear something else, but I kept thinking he wrote tighty-whities for a reason,” he says. “Why, why, why? Then I finally thought, ‘I’m going to do it again, but for a different reason.’ It’s for a guy who doesn’t care anymore. That helped me figure out his emotional core.”
To draw such meaning from a single detail is pure Cranston. And for him, it’s always about the script. “When I consider a project, that’s what I look for: good writing,” he says. “It’s more important than the character.”
And he’s played some doozies, appearing in guest roles on The King of Queens, 30 Rock, How I Met Your Mother and a raft of others. His film credits are equally extensive, including Saving Private Ryan, Little Miss Sunshine, Total Recall and, most recently, 2012 Best Picture winner Argo, in which he played a CIA officer.