Bryan Cranston, Breaking Big
Credit: Photograph by Robert Trachtenberg
Until he turned 12, Cranston was a happy, outgoing kid, a good student, popular, active in school plays and elections, pleased to have a mother, Peggy, who was deeply involved in his life, a den mom, a Little League mom, that kind of woman. They lived in a small ranch home on the west side of the San Fernando Valley, in middle-class Canoga Park. His father, Joe, a former University of Miami boxer who still settled disputes with his fists ("I witnessed it at least three times," says Cranston. "He was a hothead"), was a struggling actor. Some years he did well, winning small parts on shows like 'Father Knows Best' and 'My Three Sons', which sometimes might afford the family a new car; other times, well, the car had to be sold. He dreamed of making it big. He wanted to be a star. And when it became clear that it wouldn't happen, he started drinking, his wife started drinking, and the fights started getting bigger, until one day he left, not to be seen again for 10 years. In the aftermath, Cranston's mother tried to make ends meet by selling stuff at flea markets – Bryan, his younger sister Amy, and his older brother Kyle all pitched in to help – only to lose the family house in a foreclosure and have to send her boys to live with their grandfather on his gentleman's farm up north in Yucaipa, where, working at the egg farm next door, they learned all about eggs.

"Every morning, you're collecting eggs, washing eggs, stacking eggs, putting eggs in the cooler," Cranston recalls, leaning forward and making cheerful egg-collecting noises. "You're in little Cushman electric carts, zzzzzzzt, collecting eggs, bom, bom, bom, putting them pointy-part down in the crate, bom, bom, bom. And then you'd put them through, like, a little egg car wash, ssssh. After that, a really powerful light would be shined through them, and if you saw a fertile egg, it's like, 'Ay-yup!' and out that one comes. It was so much fun."

He's really into this story, eyes gleaming with the memory of it. Then he's telling about how his grandfather tried to teach him the art of chicken killing, how he messed it up the first time, lost his grip on its wings after chopping off its head, and the wings started flapping, shooting out gouts of blood – "and this is hot, smelly chicken blood" – drenching him red, the bloody, headless chicken stumbling around, and his tough-love German grandfather yelling, "What the hell? You hold it too low! What's the matter with you? Hold it above!"

He liked it on the farm ("It was great. It was fantastic"), but within a year, he and his brother were back in Canoga Park with their mom and sister, in a rental with four boarders already there and one bathroom for them all. She was not the same good mother. "She wasn't schizophrenic, but it's like she was," says Cranston. "She took to cheap jug wine and became a person I didn't recognize. Whenever I'd ask her a question, she'd say, 'Go look it up in the 'World Book''. 'It was never, 'Let's go look it up together.' It was, 'Go. Go look it up.' It was dismissive. I was disregarded. She was telling me to get lost."

He retreated into himself. "I became very quiet," he says. "I started reaching only for mediocrity. I'd find out what was needed to get a C in a class and do only that much work. I didn't want to do better. I didn't want to do worse. In baseball, I was good enough to make the team but not good enough to play. I was always looking for a shortcut." He drifted. He was passive. His last two years at Canoga Park High, he had a girlfriend, but only because she pursued him. "To cap it off, my senior year, I paid for my yearbook photos, but I accidentally got left out. As it was, I was completely forgotten anyway. I never made a ripple."

For a long time, he was happy just following in his big brother's footsteps. When Kyle joined the LAPD Explorers, an organization for teenagers hoping to become cops, Bryan did the same. He was 16. Mainly, he wanted to travel with the group, which he did, at one point losing his virginity to an Amsterdam hooker. Back home, however, he attended a compulsory eight-week-long weekend training program and discovered that he had a knack for police work, learning police codes, doing jumping jacks, and the like: Out of 111 cadets in his class, he graduated first. To him, this meant he was destined to become a cop, so he enrolled in Los Angeles Valley College as a police-science major.

He eventually drifted into a theater class, where he had to act out a kissing scene with a tube-top-wearing girl who proceeded to swirl her tongue around inside his mouth in such a hot and lovely way that, almost upon the instant, he decided the cop life wasn't for him. He was going to become an actor. Only, he wasn't really sure. So when his brother took off on a motorcycle to tour the country, he joined him. He was gone for two years, worked some carnivals, slung hash, sold suntan lotion, wound up in Daytona Beach, started acting in local theater, married his Florida girlfriend ("She wanted to get married, and I was like, OK") and took her back to L.A., divorced her, and set about doing what he loved to do, in the only way that worked for him. He stayed small, he stayed sensible, he stayed sane. For years after, he drifted along as an actor, never doing what his father did, never making the mistake of dreaming of more, not even fulfilling, he says, "my own modest expectations."

In the early Eighties, though, he attended a self-help seminar for actors that changed his life. "The guy started talking about how to aggressively pursue your career without having an attachment to the outcome. I had an epiphany that got me out of neutral. Before, I'd been going to auditions thinking my job is to get the job. That's not it. My job is to create the most compelling character I can and make it come to life. Once I've done that, my job is over. My philosophy has become, establish your foundation well, then go insane in your work, be willing to do anything and go anywhere." Case in point: his audition for that awful 1994 film 'Erotique,' which called for him to simulate jerking off while talking to a sex-trade worker on the phone. Every other actor did the scene rubbing the outside of his pants. Not Cranston. "I went into my pants, because that's what the character is doing," he says sunnily. "And that's how I got the job. Because I was willing to grab my dick in the audition."