In Depth

He’s Not ‘Bad,’ Just Written That Way

AMC Series Gives ‘Malcolm’ Dad a Chance to Show His Range

The guy was already at his breaking point. He has a pregnant wife and a son with cerebral palsy who’s also a teenage wiseacre; he settled for teaching chemistry when he wanted to change the world; and, try as he might, he cannot find a way to motivate his high school students. Straining under the yoke of the family’s financial problems, he took a second job at a car wash to make ends meet. It already felt like a dead-end life for Walter White—and then he found out he had terminal lung cancer.

It’s the end of the line. How will he manage the oncoming mudslide of medical bills and provide posthumously for his family on a chemistry teacher’s salary?

If you were Walter White, emerging from the fertile brain of “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan (“The X-Files”), you might take a hard look at your chemistry background. You might even run into a ne’er-do-well former student and open a crystal meth lab with him, to try to score some big bucks to ensure your family’s financial future. Because, hey, if you’re Walter White, you’ve got nothing to lose.

A Sony Pictures Television production, executive produced by Mr. Gilligan and Mark Johnson and produced by Karen Moore and Patty Lin, the AMC series premiered in January to critical acclaim. Much of the praise was reserved for former “Malcolm in the Middle” wacko dad Bryan Cranston as the desperate and mostly low-key Walter White, a man who has seen his future, and there isn’t one.

What was it that attracted Mr. Cranston to the darkly funny but inevitably determinate series? “Any actor will tell you it’s all about the writing,” he said. “If it’s well-constructed, if it’s compelling—it’s exciting to do a project that’s so well-written.”

When he read the pilot script, he said, “I got it. A person like Walter White is a result of self-oppression or opportunity that was lost.”

Regret “falls into two categories,” Mr. Cranston said. “You can become calloused and hard and put down other people, or you can become like Walter and implode with the weight of regret, which made him soft in body and mind.

“So he decided to teach—which is a good thing unless you desire something different, and you settled. And after facing a class of apathetic students day after day, putting one foot in front of the other and trimming his useless mustache, he doesn’t care anymore.”

Understandably, when Walter is diagnosed with lung cancer, “It changes him. His world has always been exact, and he enters into a world that is out of order and chaotic and dangerous—but it’s also the first time he’s had this kind of excitement. Even when he’s dying, there are those moments where he gets that adrenaline rush, and he feels really alive.”

Mr. Cranston said he loves experiencing the “highs and lows of Walter’s roller-coaster ride,” but admits that in his own life he keeps things pretty down-to-earth. He tries to live “as sensibly and normally as possible,” he said, “in order to tether myself. People tend to float when they’re off-base.”

His only research for the role, he said, “was for the chemistry background. I followed a USC chemistry professor around and handled the equipment and asked a lot of questions.”
“People ask me, ‘What about learning about crystal meth?’ ‘What about learning about cancer?’—but I wanted to learn about those things as the character learns them.”

Take It as It Comes

As for the choices Walter has made on the show, Mr. Cranston said, “I did not find another way [for the character] to handle the problems life threw at him. It’s always circumstantial. If he were a math teacher, he would have chosen counting cards, going to Vegas to make money. He’s using what he knows. It’s not titillation about drug dealing. He’s cornered; he puts on blinders, becomes selfish and focuses on the task at hand. He enters this world having no idea what the rules are.”

Sidestep Into Success

Mr. Cranston’s training as an actor started at a junior college. He had intended to be a cop and enrolled to study police science, planning to transfer to a four-year school after he finished the two-year program.

He took acting as an elective, he said, and “that totally messed me up. The girls were prettier in acting than in police science. So my whole career was decided based on the hormones of a 19-year-old.”

Like Walter White, Mr. Cranston did his share of settling: Being a policeman, it turns out, was already his second choice for a career.

He had first intended to be a professional athlete, but realized early on that he was “missing the one important element,” which was athletic talent.

“If I had had that,” he said, “who knows how far I would’ve gone?”