Bryan Cranston, Breaking Badass
Credit: Jason LaVeris / Getty Images

Bryan Cranston has spent the past 30 years perfecting a kind of telegenic anonymity. Anyone who watched television for more than 20 minutes in the 1980s and '90s will have almost certainly seen him in something: Baywatch, Falcon Crest, 3rd Rock from the Sun. He was a recurring character on Seinfeld and spent seven seasons playing Hal, the father in the mildly subversive sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, but few would have been able to put a name to his face. His gift is that, unlike most leading men, he was born with the kind of face you see every day. "I look like everyone," he explains. So he can play almost anyone – even, for example, a high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking crystal meth after he is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Over the past three years on Breaking Bad, Cranston has charted the tortured evolution of Walter White from timid family man to ruthless criminal. We've watched him garrote a man with a bicycle lock, dispatch two more by running over them in his ridiculous Pontiac Aztek, and, in the darkest of many bleak episodes, sit silently by while his partner's unconscious girlfriend chokes to death on her own vomit. Breaking Bad is compelling not merely because this transformation has taken such an unlikely direction, but also because it's one that seems far from inevitable. Walt is frequently given the opportunity to turn away from crime, yet he repeatedly presses further down the path toward worse situations, and more monstrous deeds. To sell these as the actions of a sympathetic character to whom audiences will return week after week is difficult enough, but somehow Cranston has even managed to make Walt seem, occasionally, heroic. "I think we created an everyman who is relatable," he tells me over dinner in Albuquerque, where he lives while filming Breaking Bad. "You either know a Walter White in your life, or maybe it's you – the guy who's just trying to get through."

The boundaries of Bryan Cranston's world have been defined by professional acting since he was a child. His parents were both actors. Cranston was the second of their three children, born in the hospital that has since been converted into the West Coast headquarters of Scientology. His father, Joe, who had been a Navy pilot during WWII, was soon disappointed by the realities of the industry. "I think he wanted to be a movie star," Cranston says. "And, you know, that position is not open to everyone." There was no stable income, and the ebb and flow of Joe Cranston's acting fortunes were cruelly reflected at home: One year, he bought a brand-new car; the next, it was replaced by a used model. They had a swimming pool installed, but 12 months later it was drained because they couldn't afford the chemicals. Gradually, the marriage fell apart, and Joe left for good when Bryan was 12. The family did what they could to keep up with the mortgage payments – Cranston's mother collected bric-a-brac to sell at swap meets – but the house was foreclosed on anyway, and the children were sent to live with their grandparents.

As teenagers, Cranston and his brother decided to run away. They found two used motorcycles – Bryan's a tricked-out Honda 550 with only 17 miles on it – and set out across the country for two years. When they returned, both of them were determined to become actors.

Committed not to make the mistake his father had, Bryan had no desire to be a star: He was happy just to earn a living. "I've done more crap than I care to remember. I really have. Airwolf. Murder, She Wrote. Amazon Women on the Moon. But you learn from all these bad shows," he says. "What you don't want to do and what you don't want to be involved with." He also achieved some memorable highs: as dentist Tim Whatley, a recurring character on Seinfeld; as Buzz Aldrin in Tom Hanks's moon-landing saga From the Earth to the Moon; and as a one-armed Army colonel in Saving Private Ryan. Finally, in 2000, he signed on for Malcolm in the Middle.

Cranston received the Breaking Bad script while he was looking for a new role after Malcolm in the Middle. Once he started reading, he says, he knew this was a role that would "change someone's life."

Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan had thought of Cranston very early in the process of creating Walter White. Back in 1998, Gilligan had been looking for someone for an episode of The X-Files in which Mulder is trapped in a car with a bigoted hillbilly – the victim of a Navy experiment who lies in the backseat spouting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories until, finally, his head explodes. "The character is this scary, racist, awful bastard," Gilligan remembers. "Nonetheless, if it works right, by the end of the hour you should feel sorry that he's dead." Gilligan cast Cranston, who, he says, "just nailed it."

So when he began considering who could take on the part he had written of a mild-mannered chemistry teacher who slowly becomes a drug kingpin – and make viewers empathize with him as he did so – Cranston was an obvious choice. "He can play a character who makes terrible decisions and chooses to do awful things, and nonetheless the audience finds themselves rooting for him. And I knew that anyone who played Walter White would have to have that ability."

Cranston began developing the character of Walt even before his first meeting with Gilligan. "Who is Walter White? What does he look like? How does he carry himself? He felt older than his real age; he's a nobody – invisible to society and to himself… he blends into the wall." So Cranston did his best to make himself disappear into White's non-personality, having the makeup department color his hair a uniform, flat brown, and washing out his naturally ruddy complexion. He grew a mustache, but found it too masculine. So he had it thinned and lightened, and trimmed the ends above the corners of his mouth. "I discovered," he says, "how to make an impotent mustache."

There was little about Walt about which Cranston was not obsessively specific: He told Gilligan that he wanted him to have a pudgy, gone-to-seed body. "I think Walt should weigh about 187," Gilligan recalls Cranston saying. Gilligan didn't think anything more about it, until months later, when Cranston arrived on the set for the first day of shooting. "And he said, 'I hit it,'" Gilligan tells me. "'I'm 187.' He hit it to the pound."

The final step was for Cranston to change his posture, adopting a rigid stoop. "Walter White has the world on his shoulders – he feels like he's carrying a lot of weight, like his pockets are full of rocks."

The physical transformation was so complete that when Cranston first saw the pilot episode of Breaking Bad, he was horrified; he simply wasn't ready to see himself reincarnated as this desperate, broken figure first glimpsed wearing only white underpants, Wallabees, and a gas mask. "I didn't recognize that guy," he says. "Talk about checking your ego at the door.… It was like, Oh, my God – that's an old, old man."

Late one morning Cranston and I take a trip out to an abandoned power station on the outskirts of Albuquerque, where the Breaking Bad crew is shooting; as Cranston's white BMW cruises through the dust storm gradually enveloping the city, I ask him when he first realized that the life that would be changed by the show might be his own. "When the reviews came out," he says. "I told the PR people, 'Thank you for sending me the reviews – it's flattering. But I want to see all of them – even the negative ones.' And they said, 'There are no negative ones.'"

The success of Breaking Bad and Cranston's part in it – three consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series is a feat unmatched by anyone else since Bill Cosby won his third for I Spy in 1968 – means that he no longer has to audition for parts if he doesn't want to. Indeed, if he felt the need to retire tomorrow, he could. But he continues to seek out work: In the romantic comedy Larry Crowne, he plays the feckless husband Julia Roberts leaves for Tom Hanks, and he's got a role in the remake of Total Recall.

Despite his success, he says he's still careful with money. The most extravagant thing he's ever bought was just a few years ago: To celebrate turning 50, he got a Harley-Davidson Softtail, and he and his brother-in-law took a road trip out along Route 66, from California to Chicago. He's currently building a beach house in Ventura County, which he designed himself, and has recently taken up playing the drums. But when I ask what he does with his spare time, his answer is swift and succinct: "I don't have spare time."

At some point, probably soon, Breaking Bad will come to an end. Cranston hopes there will be two more seasons after this one, but he knows that Walt must eventually die. "In the beginning, there was a man who was given two years to live because of cancer, and we don't want to break that promise."

But even then, Cranston seems unlikely to begin slowing down. "There's no porch swing for me," he says. "I'll drop dead doing something. That's exactly what's going to happen."