Bryan Cranston, Breaking Big
Credit: Photograph by Robert Trachtenberg

Sometimes, Bryan Cranston just has to swing the bat. He's got to hop in his Mercedes, drive at approximately the speed limit from his home in a leafy part of Sherman Oaks to the Castle Batting Cages on Sepulveda, grab his bats from the trunk, fork over $3 for a token worth 25 pitches, amble into the 70-mph cage, swing two of the bats around to limber up, plop on a helmet, insert token in machine, assume the position, put on a beady-eyed game face, jaw down on his chewing gum, and whiff 12 times in a row. Nothing but air. Then he connects, pop up. And connects again, line drive.

"All right," he says, happily.

It makes him feel good to come do this. It's like when he sits behind the drum set at his house and just wails. Or like when he runs and suddenly, for no reason, opens his mouth and yells, "Grrraaaah, motherfucker!" It relaxes him. It lessens the stress of being him.

He's 56 now. For the past four years, he's been cooking meth in Albuquerque, poisoning children, blowing up old guys, speed-bumping over enemies in his sad-sack Pontiac Aztek, dissolving bodies in acid, and all the vile similar, in AMC's 'Breaking Bad,' as Walter White, the nebbishy, cancer-riddled chemistry teacher who jumps into the meth trade to provide for his family's future and sticks with it, even after his cancer goes into remission, because he's good at it, and he's never been that good at anything in his life. Cranston's perfect for the part. He's got the right face for it – creased and furrowed – like he's been through some shit and is still in the shit. And the voice: Even when he uses it to threaten, you can hear the urge to panic hiding among the diphthongs. And that's been Cranston's great trick: the ability to manage Walt's transformation over five seasons into a ruthless meth kingpin without losing the Ned Flanders core.

For his part in the show, Cranston has won three Emmys, with a fourth nomination still up in the air. This has opened doors that his only other big gig – he was the humorously hapless dad in 'Malcolm in the Middle' for 151 episodes – never could. He's seen differently now, as an actor of depth and nuance who can do serious stuff. He was Ryan Gosling's doomed mechanic buddy in 2011's 'Drive'; that same year, he hooked up with Julia Roberts in 'Larry Crowne'; and in the upcoming 'Argo', he gets very pissed off in a big, scene-stealing way as the career CIA functionary who champions Ben Affleck's kooky Hollywood-movie-as-cover plan to rescue U.S. embassy workers during the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. "He's the only guy I wanted for the part," says Affleck, who also directed the film, "because I think he's the only actor around his age who can project gravitas and empathy and also play humor." For the first time in his life, Cranston is major-league high profile, and it has taken some getting used to: All the parties he's invited to ("and I don't like parties"), all the free swag coming his way (the Mercedes is a loaner), all the girls asking to take a picture with him and then pressing their breasts into his chest ("It's not the most comfortable thing for me").

He's at the ready now, legs spread, butt down, arms up – and thwack, he knocks another solid hit, then lines up again, for a pitch that never comes. He gets another token, hits 12 balls as a lefty, the rest in his natural stance as a righty – proving that, if nothing else, he's a pretty talented switch hitter – and then gets back in his Mercedes and takes off, windows down, sunroof open, feeling good. After a while, he says, "Yup, things are coming fast and furiously to me now, but I was a working actor for a long time, and that's how I still see myself, as a blue-collar guy. In fact, there were times when things were working out and the energy around me was, 'Do you want to be a star?' But I never did. Nope. Didn't want it. I was always, 'No, no, no. Not me, not me. I don't want to do that. I don't wanna be a star. I don't wanna. I'm just a worker bee!'"

He pulls into an underground garage at a mall, parks, walks up into the sunlight, slips on sunglasses, hides from the glare. Fifty pitches, 50 swings. He's a little hungry now. Let's go get something to eat.