TV: Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bad’s Dark Side

bb article TV: Bryan Cranston on Breaking Bads Dark SideBryan Cranston woke up on the morning of Wednesday, March 24, and went for a long run over the Williamsburg Bridge and back. Then he ate lunch, did some writing for a new children’s show he’s working on for Nickelodeon and popped into the bar at Soho’s Crosby Street Hotel, where he was staying, for a late-afternoon beer.

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“I like darker beer,” said the actor, just before ordering an Ithaca Nut Brown Ale and a bowl of nuts to go with it. He sat beneath an elaborate wall fixture consisting of nine black rotary telephones, dressed in a blue, pinstriped button-down tucked into tailored gray pants. His hair was close-cropped, his sideburns neat and his face delicately creased with age.

“I took a tour of the Guinness factory in Dublin,” Mr. Cranston continued. “They give you a little eyedrop of Guinness encased in, uh, like a plastic — almost like a paperweight. And you can keep it as a souvenir on your desk. It’s really fun.”

Mr. Cranston, who recently turned 54, was in town on an epic press junket to promote Breaking Bad, AMC’s twisted black comedy, which has earned him two Emmy Awards for his leading role as Walter White, a terminally ill, midlife-crisising high-school chemistry teacher-turned-meth manufacturer living in Albuquerque. The show was created by Vince Gilligan, formerly a producer on The X-Files.

Breaking Bad, the third season of which premiered on March 21, is disturbing, hilarious, touching, taboo, nauseating, edifying, awkward, anxiety-filled and, above all, masterfully written and directed, as is evidenced by the various awards and critical acclaim it has received. It is not, however, nearly as massive a hit as many of its peers (at least not yet) — zeitgeisty, water-cooler-chatter shows like The Sopranos, Lost, True Blood and, of course, Mad Men, Breaking Bad‘s extraordinarily popular network-mate (widely perceived as the reason AMC has become relevant). Walter White is no Don Draper, and Mr. Cranston himself is perhaps still more well known as the fumbling father from Malcolm in the Middle, the Fox sitcom in which he appeared in 151 episodes between 2000 and 2006.

Breaking Bad is not a sexy show,” said Mr. Cranston. “It’s a gritty show. It’s not going to be on the cover of Vogue. Mad Men, you have the dashing Jon Hamm and all these beautiful women. The Sopranos, we’re enthralled with mobsters. You know, the goombah, the goodfellas, the godfather. That’s totally magazine-cover-sexy. A guy in his underwear [cooking meth] out in the middle of the desert in an RV? Not sexy.”

In the season-three opener, which begins after Walter has just confessed his secret profession to his wife, Skyler, who subsequently leaves him, we first see Mr. Cranston slouched on some patio furniture in his backyard, wearing a brown robe over tighty-whities, slowly flicking lit matches into his swimming pool. With one match left in the book, he gets up, strikes it and tosses it onto a charcoal grille with the intention of burning the $500,000 in cash he’d just made off a recent meth sale — money he needed only so that Skyler, his newborn baby and his handicapped teenage son wouldn’t be left penniless when he eventually succumbed to lung cancer. As Walter gazes at the burning bills, he suddenly thrusts himself onto the flames, catches on fire, and jumps into the pool, with the grill, to salvage his fortune. You just don’t know whether to feel bad or call him an asshole.

For Mr. Cranston, the most intense moment of the entire series thus far occurred in season two, when Walter lets his young business partner’s girlfriend die in her sleep, watching idly as she chokes on her own vomit during a heroin overdose. Good times!

“What we’re doing on the show has never been done in the history of television, and that’s not hyperbole,” said Mr. Cranston. “[Vince] told me, he wants to do a series where, at the beginning, the guy is Mr. Chips. Good guy. Smart guy. Provides for his family. Never got a ticket in his life. And by the end of the series, he’s Scarface. He’s a killer. And that’s never been done before. I mean, gone are the days of Magnum P.I. He was great-looking, great car, never drank too much, never cheated on his girlfriend. It’s like, ‘What a guy!’ We don’t have that. Those days are over. So we’re in uncharted waters here, and that’s what so exciting about this era of television. It’s going places that really haven’t been discovered. I think it’s, dare I say, another golden age of television.”

Whether Breaking Bad ever gets to Mad Men proportions, Mr. Cranston is not concerned. “That’s not what I do this for anyway,” he said. But: “I think we could easily do two more years, to do a total of five seasons. We might be able to do six. I hope we’re on for as long as it takes to thoroughly examine this journey, and no longer.”

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jpompeo@observer.com