You may have first encountered him as Tim Whatley on Seinfeld or as Hal on Malcolm in the Middle but it was Bryan Cranston’s Emmy-award winning portrayal of Walter White in Breaking Bad that burned an indelible mark on the pop culture map. As White, a lung cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned meth maker and drug kingpin, Cranston took the audience on one of the most chilling character transformations in TV history over the course of five thrilling seasons. He’s now published A Life in Parts, a memoir that traces all the roles he’s played in life as well as on-screen over the course of his 60 years. Here’s five things we learned after burning through his book:
1. Cranston’s nickname growing up was Sneaky Pete due to his mischief-making ways. This propensity intensified in his adolescent years, with Cranston procuring an extra student I.D. in case he got into trouble so he could throw authorities off his trail. During a lifeguard job, he would collect abandoned half empty sunscreen and tanning oils, then dump the remaining contents into a bucket and use it to re-fill bottles that he would sell the next day.
2. He once rushed to the aid of a man who Cranston thought had been hit by a car. He comforted the stranger, assuring him he’d be OK and that the ambulance was on the way. After the injured man was taken away by paramedics, Cranston found out the man had jumped out of his apartment building to kill himself. Looking at the blood stained asphalt hours later, he had a revelation. “I felt how limited our span is, and how easily squandered. And I felt the need to embrace life. Put my arms around it.” (page 125)
3. As a struggling actor constantly on the audition circuit, Cranston took the disappointment and introspection of rejection and turned into something else by shifting his focus to the process instead of the outcome. Rather than thinking about landing a job, he was there to do a job, which was to give a performance. “Once I made the switch, I was no longer a supplicant. I had power in any room I walked into. Which meant I could relax. I was free.” (page 175)
4. Cranston was determined NOT to wear tighty-whities on Breaking Bad because of his history of wearing them on Malcolm in the Middle; he didn’t want to have a shtick. But then he realized that choices matter; that though on Hal they were funny, on Walt they’d underscore how pathetic he was. “Building a character is like building a house. Without a solid foundation, a base, you’re screwed. You’re going to collapse. An actor needs a core quality or essence for a character. Everything rises from there.” (page 199). And so, the tighty-whities stayed, and were paired with chinos, a Members Only jacket, and Wallabees.
5. He argued with the writer and director of the episode “Say My Name” over the fact that after Walt shoots Mike Ehrmantraut, he says “I just realized that Lydia has the names. I can get them from her,” believing that it made Walt look like an asshole. They couldn’t come to an agreement, they were losing daylight and actor Jonathan Banks was getting angry that he wasn’t going to have time to do his final scene properly. So Cranston agreed to say it, but adjusted the delivery so that it came from a place of anxiety. Yet to this day it still pains him to hear the line. “It’s such a subjective business. In a collaborative process, sometimes there are differences. Sometimes there are battles. Sometimes you lose.” (page 219).
Want to hear more revelations like these from Cranston in the flesh? Win two tickets to In Conversation with Bryan Cranston, happening this Thursday, October 27 at Toronto’s Isabel Bader Theatre at 8PM. You’ll also receive a copy of his book, as well as the audiobook. Enter here.
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