Bryan Cranston charmed audiences on Malcolm in the Middle, but it’s his surprisingly sober turn on AMC’s Breaking Bad that is wowing critics.

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UNTIL TWO YEARS AND AS MANY EMMYS AGO, you’d be forgiven for mistaking Bryan Cranston for a TV laugh machine. On Fox’s long-running Malcolm in the Middle, he owned the role of the deliriously puckish father determined to care for his family, however feeblemindedly.

Today, Cranston plays Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who takes paternal devotion to a whole new level. When White — the lead character on AMC’s critically adored Breaking Bad, which began its third season last month — is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he employs his knowledge of chemistry to become his small town’s crystal-meth kingpin. White is Buster Keaton meets Macbeth: a character we love, understand and feel for, even as his vaulting ambition and shredded soul lead him down increasingly dark pathways.

American Way spoke with the sharp and affable Cranston about the show that has earned him back-to-back Emmys.

A quick survey of the television landscape today turns up a lot of antiheroes like Walter. We used to adore Cliff Huxtable of The Cosby Show and Magnum, P.I.’s Thomas Magnum. What’s changed?
It’s the sophistication of the viewer and the desire of creators of TV programs to do something avant-garde and unusual. You used to have the Thomas Magnums of the world — the leading man who was always handsome, fit, never cheated on his wife or his girlfriend, always drank in moderation, always had the right answer and, at the end of the hour, came out smelling like a rose and probably having collared the bad guy. We all know that that’s a fantasy. There never was a Thomas Magnum in real life, and if there were, he would make a dull television show.

If you were in Walter’s situation, as a father and a husband yourself, what would you do?
Well, I certainly wouldn’t do what he did. This is a character who, under duress and in a difficult condition, decides to do something that he thinks is related to his knowledge of chemistry. But what he’s decided to do is like saying, “I’m a skilled fisherman in the stream behind my house, so I think I’ll go off to a crab boat in Alaska and I’ll be fine.” One has nothing to do with the other. For a smart guy, Walter has made a severe mistake, and he continues to back it up with more bad mistakes. It’s hubris and ignorance.

But no matter how horrible the things that Walter does are, we still always feel his despair and his humanity.
That’s true, because Walter is always a human being. He’s always struggling to do the most right thing he can in a world that’s all wrong. As an actor, I couldn’t ask for better work. Wait until you see some of the stuff in season three. All of the seeds that Walter has planted will all be coming to bloom in this giant garden full of poisonous fruit, and he is so unequipped to deal with any of it.

The television academy is probably already preparing a third consecutive Emmy with your name on it.
It’s been such a wonderful gift to win two Emmys with such a great show. I’m so grateful, but I’m no different than most actors you talk to: I didn’t become an actor to win awards. I just thought it would be the greatest life in the world if I could make a living doing this thing I love to do. And that’s what happened. Anything else occurs while my head is down and I’m doing my work the best I can.

Between seasons of Malcolm in the Middle, you used to grow a beard and mustache. since you’re bald and mustachioed on Breaking Bad, what do you do between seasons now?
My ritual now is to grow hair on my head and probably go clean-shaven. I like to look different. The whole point of doing my hair and beard like that between seasons is so that I can look different when a new character comes up in a play or a film. If I have a beard, I can always shave it off; if I don’t, I can’t grow one in a week. Heck, if I have a beard, I could have a Fu Manchu or muttonchops or anything I want. Hair is just options, really.