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Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston on Last Night’s Episode

Bryan Cranston

Staring into a mirror on last night’s Breaking Bad, Walter White attempted to convince a black-market gun dealer (and himself) that the serial-numberless pistol he was negotiating to buy would be used only for legally permissible purposes: “It’s for defense,” he stammered. “Defense.” We didn’t believe him, and we’re pretty sure he didn’t either. For insight, we called three-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston and asked him a few questions. As always, if you haven’t seen last night’s episode, beware of spoilers.

Last night, Walt bought a gun with plans to kill Gus. Do you think he’s really considered the consequences of such a hit, or is he panicking?
When Walt gets a moment in some kind of relative calm, he’s very lucid and smart and able to think things through like a chess match. When things are happening quickly, it’s just a matter of staying alive for another hour. When he’s in that mode, everyone else is behind the eight ball.

Walt is on the offensive now, isn’t he? Gus killing Victor on last week’s episode seemed to indicate that Walt is safe, at least for a little while. If he kills Gus now, it might be a stretch to claim self-defense, despite what he said to the mirror.
We bought ourselves some time in [last week’s] episode, but Walt has no idea if Gus has another chemist in the pipeline. If he does, we’re dead. We know he’s going to be looking. So Walt believes Gus is coming after him, and the idea of being the mouse is terrifying. I think most men would rather take an offensive stance than be defensive, looking over your shoulder and being paranoid. So Walt realizes he’s got to take the fight to Gus. He’s to the point where he’s able to justify the killings. Further into the season, you’ll see, he continues to go on a bit of a rampage. Smart criminals only kill when they need to. And I think Walt still fancies himself as an intelligent man.

Even by Breaking Bad standards, last week’s big throat-cutting scene was pretty jarring. What was it like to shoot it?
It was horrifying. It took an entire day because any time we wanted to do another take, we had to clean up and put a new prosthetic on Victor’s neck. It took a lot of patience and energy to maintain that level of fear and anxiety, take after take after take. In one way, it’s great — by the time you go home, you sleep like a baby because you’re just exhausted.

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has said that he has an endpoint in mind for Walt. Has he ever told you what it is?
No. And I’ve never asked. I don’t really want to know. All I know is that it can’t be good. What I knew from the beginning was he wants to change a man completely — as he fondly says, “from Mr. Chips to Scarface.” And I’m well on my way — way past the middle of that journey. I think it’s possible we can go two more seasons. Maybe three, if there’s a logical way to pace it. Like the producers of Lost, we hope that we get that same advantage of knowing our end date, so we can write to that ending.

As an actor, do you feel like you have to hold anything back now, to give yourself some extra headspace for when Walt really becomes evil? Are you saving up any tics?
No. If you find that character in the beginning, and feel secure in what you’re portraying, then that part is in you just as much as the evil side of a person already exists in that person. It could be dormant, but under the right set of circumstances, anyone could become dangerous. With that said, as he digresses to this hardened drug kingpin, there should be traces of the old Walt in him, because he just doesn’t die. We never flip a switch like: good guy — flip a switch — bad guy. I like that there’s ambiguity there, that it mixes in and you feel ambivalence to the character as he’s on his transformation.

So you don’t think there was ever one scene in the series where Walt passed the point of no return?
Well, everyone’s sense of morality is not the same. One person might say, “He crossed the line when he decided to make drugs. Clearly. He crossed the line there.” Other people say, “I don’t think so. He’s desperate. He does what he needs to do to survive.” We just want to let the audience decide where he crossed the moral boundary for them. Let them all say, “Are you kidding? It was absolutely when he allowed [Jane] to die.” And then someone will say, “No way. She was blackmailing him. She would have killed Jesse, introducing him to heroin, so he was actually saving Jesse and letting her die. And besides, he didn’t kill her, he just didn’t save her.” So there’s that argument, too. That’s fantastic.

You had a long break between the third and fourth seasons during which you shot a bunch of movies. Is it hard for you to jump immediately from something as dark as Breaking Bad into a light comedy, like Larry Crowne?
When you’re used to struggling and coming up the ladder, you take work as you can get it. That mentality held for me for the longest time. Now it’s changing, so I need to be more judicious in what I’m selecting, but everything I’m choosing is because of the people involved and the strength of the story. I want to keep it that way. If that means I keep busy, great. If that means I have to turn things down and not work, then that’s fine, too.

The Emmy nominations were announced a couple of weeks ago. Breaking Bad‘s fourth season premiered late too late to be eligible, so your fourth Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama will have to wait until next year. Who would you like to see win in your place?
I can’t say that I would be disappointed with anyone. You look at that field, and it’s so terrific. But Jon Hamm is a friend, and I’d love to see him win it. I talked to Jason Alexander, who’s a friend of mine, and I said, “You had such a great run on Seinfeld, and it was so solid, and you got nominated but you never won, because Michael Richards had a bigger, broader, splashier role.” That’s the way I look at it with Jon Hamm compared to Bryan Cranston. My role is a splashier one. He has the harder role. Don Draper is harder to play than Walter White.