In Breaking Bad, the show that made Bryan Cranston’s name, he created one of the greatest performances of the modern era as Walter White, a chemistry teacher who turns into a meth mastermind.
Turns out in life Cranston is pretty good at achieving transformations as well.
To coincide with the publication of his new memoir A Life in Parts, Cranston spoke to the Hudson Union Society in Manhattan about life and work. What followed was a masterclass in how to get ahead as an actor while remaining true to yourself. Here are the creative commandments he lives by:
Survive a Tough Childhood—You’ll End Up Getting a TV Series Out of It:
“My family didn’t have money so you have to work and I developed a really strong work ethic. At first I was just trying to navigate through a childhood that was very challenging. There was abandonment, there was alcoholism, detachment and resentment. I had to grow up probably a little quicker than anyone would like to. But it’s what was dealt to me…you just have to figure out how you’re going to manage. There’s one chapter [in the book] that I call Sneaky Pete that was a story but is now a TV series that I’m producing.
“It came out of my life as a kid trying to figure out things and I became a little sneaky. I was trying to circumvent responsibility and accountability, trying to get by and look for the shortcuts. That was me…but once you become an adult you need to change or else that will cannibalize you as a human being. It’s something I think we see in Donald Trump…we see a man who has half-eaten himself, and I didn’t want that to happen. You want to live a nice fulfilled life so I had to realize at a certain point if I just put the effort into the work as opposed to trying to figure out the shortcut, I might get somewhere.”
Cranston discussed how he landed the role of Walter White. It involved some very canny maneuvering:
“The studio and network [Sony and AMC] were saying, ‘The silly guy from Malcolm in the Middle you want as Walter White?’ Vince Gilligan [Breaking Bad creator] said, ‘Yeah, he’s an actor.’ I had an hour-and-a-half meeting with Vince and I told him what he should be like because I knew I wanted to go after this role. For want of a better term, I was lifting my leg under Vince and marking him with my scent … We finish Malcolm in the Middle and I get a call from the head of Fox, who says, ‘I have a pilot for you. I want you to come back and do a show on Fox. It’s a drama, you’re a doctor and it’s called Nurses and your daughter is one of the head nurses in the hospital.’
“I read the script, and it was, shall we say, not so good. It was like a sexed-up version of Grey’s Anatomy. As if that show needs to be sexed up. Everyone [on the show] is having sex, including my doctor character on his desk in his office, which I was very flattered about because I was 50. My ego was stroked, but what I really wanted was Breaking Bad. But I’m gonna have test for it because the studio network said we should make sure. They were talking to Matthew Broderick and other people who were going to come in to read for Walter White.
“Knowing I was going to do the test, I had this thought and went to my agents at UTA and I said, ‘Is there a chance that we can get the word out that I’ve been offered this role on Fox for this pilot and have it get back to Sony and AMC? Is it possible?’ My agent said, ‘Yeah. We can talk to people.’ They started telling people, ‘Don’t say anything. but Brian has an offer here,’ and we went through three or four days and I thought, ‘It didn’t work.’ Then we get a call saying, ‘It’s off the table. If Bryan wants the role of Walter White, it’s his.’ I was like, ‘Oh, Thank God!’
Never Get Ahead of Yourself:
“You want to create an environment where you can even be a surprise to yourself…you don’t necessarily know what you’re going to feel at any given time and if you try to push that, it will be felt not only by you but the audience, who will feel like you’re trying to impose an emotion as opposed to feeling it.
“There was a scene in one of the last seasons where I poisoned a little boy [Brock] and I didn’t read the script until about a week before we performed that because the twists and turns that Walter White was on were so sharp that it didn’t help me as an actor to know too far down the road what was going to happen.
“I tried to stay a little bit ahead, just enough to know that if there was a question I had, I could address it to the producers or writers and be able to understand what it was. We were shooting an episode where Jesse thinks I poisoned the boy and comes to me and puts the gun on my head and I tell him, ‘Go ahead, why would I poison this kid? Who else would do this? Who stands to gain from this?’ I truly thought I was speaking the truth. It wasn’t until the next episode that I realized, ‘I did do it! Oops!’ This where I think, ‘Don’t go too far ahead because if I knew I did it, then I would have had to hide that fact.”
— BreakingBad Reaction (@bbreactions1102) March 14, 2015
Theater Is the Hardest Stage of All:
“I found doing a play a couple of years ago was harder work than doing TV because of the timing of it. All day long even if you don’t have to be at the theater until an hour and a half before the curtain comes up, I would think, ‘What should I eat? At what time? Maybe I could get a nap because I didn’t sleep that well before.’
“You’re constantly trying to work it out. Then there are those times when you drank too much tea and you’re on stage going ‘My God!’ My character wasn’t off-stage very often so I was thinking, ‘My God! This is unbearably painful.’ But you learn from those experiences. I found doing a three-hour play was great but it’s afterwards that was tough, the people, all the crowds. I’m vibrating until 2:30 in the morning and you go to bed at 3, 3:30 in the morning because you can’t relax until then. When you wake up, you hope that you see a 9 as the first digit on the clock.If not, you think, ‘Oh no. I’m going to be really tired today.’ It’s really tough…I didn’t realize that until I was doing it for five straight months.”
Do a Job Rather than Get a Job:
“A change of perception can change everything. I had this sensibility that I was going to audition to try and get a job. In my gut I flipped it and realized I’m not going to get a job, I’m going to do a job. I just became myopic to that, ‘just go do your job and walk away.’ It doesn’t belong to you. Just walk away, nothing other than doing your job and what is my work. I had a lot of friends who were in the same audition and when a friend would get that job, I was genuinely happy for them because I didn’t own it. It wasn’t mine anyway.
“Besides something else is in line for me. It freed me up, there was no resentment, there was no hostility. It’s the way I wanna live. I was able to be happy for other people and what they do because it’s theirs. It’s not mine. I’m going somewhere else, I don’t know where that is but I guess I’m going somewhere else.”