Bryan Cranston, Breaking Big
Credit: Photograph by Robert Trachtenberg
Seriously, before 'Breaking Bad' and before 'Malcolm in the Middle,' Cranston made more appearances in more Hollywood crap than maybe anyone in the history of Hollywood. He set the tone in 1982, playing an outlaw drag racer on the squareball motorcycle-cop TV show 'CHiPs'. Then came a two-year stint on a soap called 'Loving,' after which he more or less went full time into the business of taking parts that few people would ever see or ever want to see twice. As a representative year, take 1994. That year, you could catch his strong chin and thin lips in 'The Companion' (a TV movie), 'Clean Slate' (a theatrical movie), 'Walker, Texas Ranger' (TV), 'Viper' (TV), 'Days Like This' (TV movie), 'Erotique' (movie, an especially bad movie – 'The Washington Post' called it "venereal"), 'Teknoman' (TV), and 'Men Who Hate Women & the Women Who Love Them' (TV movie). If all he wanted was to be a worker bee, he had a real talent for it. That same year, however, he slipped up and accepted a recurring role on 'Seinfeld', playing Jerry's Judaism-converting, schtickle-of-fluoride-dispensing, regifting dentist, which caused the industry to stomp its feet in laughter, and squash the bee, killing it for good, which eventually led to 'Malcolm'.

And yet, to a large degree, Cranston's still the same guy he once was. He's the kind of guy who has been married to the same woman, actress Robin Dearden, for 23 years; says he has no plans to trade her in for some Hollywood boob job; and was so committed to their union that he started them off on couples therapy even before the wedding, and they still go, as he does himself, by himself. He might play crazy on TV, but off the air, he is nothing if not some kind of sensible, maybe the most sensible man in his profession, which isn't saying much, of course, but still. He's never been in a fight or in jail, never showed up in the gossip press for anything untoward. He lives in a modest (by L.A. standards) colonial home in a modest suburban neighborhood, where he knows the name of his mailman ("Jim. We call him Slim Jim, though he's not so slim anymore"). He believes in order. He likes order in his dishwasher and has claimed for himself sole loading rights. He likes order in his pantry, which has its shelves labeled with what must go where. It seems silly to his wife, but to Cranston, it just makes sense.

He's at P.F. Chang's now, where the waiter – "I'll be your server tonight. My name is Kurt. Huge fan. Thank you for what you do. This is on me" – has just delivered the chain's signature chicken appetizer. "Oh, thanks, man," Cranston says. After Kurt leaves, Cranston takes note of how strange it is that when he had no money for food, no one would give him any, but now that he's got more money than he ever dreamed of, everyone wants to give him everything for free. He shakes his head in wonder. He says he's been very lucky.

Given all this graciousness, luck, and sanity, however, you might wonder how it is he's able to play Walt with such ferocious, seemingly authentic, murderous intent. He's got an answer for that, and over the next really, really, really long time – through the chicken app and nearly up to the main course, with one pee break intervening – he tells the story of a psychotic, hotsy-totsy, drug-addled girl he once knew. "Her name was Erica," he says, "and when I heard she was dead, it did not surprise me at all."

He met her in the early Eighties. He was a struggling L.A. actor, when at an audition this girl took one look at him and said, "Who are you? We need to see more of each other. What are you doing tonight?" And he said, "Nothing." And she said, "OK, here's where I live. Swing by." He swung by, and they didn't leave her apartment for three days. Two days later, she was introducing him as her boyfriend.

"She was cute and aggressive, and I succumbed to that," he says, shaking his head. "I acquiesced to any wish she had. I bowed to her like a whimpering little mouse. It was awful. She was doing drugs and had profuse sweating bouts, and I knew I had to get out. I had her come over to my place to tell her, 'I think we need to break up.' I thought of every possible response she could have, except the one she used. She simply said, in all calmness, 'No.' I said, 'What do you mean, no?' She said, 'No. We're not breaking up.' And we didn't. I completely lost any identity of who I was and how I wanted to live my life."

He soon got a job in New York, on the soap 'Loving', and he moved, thinking he'd gotten his life back, only to have Erica follow him, rent an apartment, entice him over, refuse to let him leave, seduce him once more. When he came to his senses, he tried to break up with her yet again, after which she marched onto the 'Loving' set, screaming, "Who do you think you are? I will fucking get you!" as security hauled her away.

"She was screaming like a banshee, and she began leaving messages like that on my answering machine, four or five of them a day," he says, acting out her lines, hissing and frothing and screaming like a banshee himself, much to the unamused startlement of several other P.F. Chang's diners.

Then one day he made the mistake of threatening to play the tapes for her mother if she didn't cut it out. Ten minutes later, she was at his door, banging on it, shouting, "Open up the motherfucking door, you cocksucker!" A neighbor peeked out and asked her to leave. Erica hissed, "Shut the fuck up, you cunt."

Cranston pauses here, puts down his fork, frowns, all the many creases in his face shriveling and collapsing on themselves, his eyes almost disappearing. He says that by this point, he was curled up in a tight little ball on the floor inside his apartment. "I'd become this small, frightened animal." He goes on, "And then I had an out-of-body experience that was as clear as I'm seeing you. I got up, opened the front door, dragged her by the hair into the apartment. I took her head, and I smashed her head into the brick wall over and over and over and over until I saw brain matter and blood spewed all over the wall. I murdered her."

He stops talking for a moment, gathering himself, because he hasn't told this story from a distance. He didn't really kill the girl, obviously, but he has told the story as if he did, the way his face contorted, his hands pounding the girl's head into the wall, him watching stunned as her brains spew out. But now he's here again, inside P.F. Chang's. "And you know what?" he says. "At that moment, I realized that, given the right circumstances, I was capable of doing very bad things. Everyone is. It was the most amazing, uncomfortable experience of my life. And then when I first met with Vince Gilligan about 'Breaking Bad', and he said, 'I want to take a sweet, good-natured guy, and I want to make him bad,' I knew exactly how it was going to go, because, at one time, I had broken bad, too."