Bryan Cranston, Breaking Big
Credit: Photograph by Robert Trachtenberg
You know that expression about luck, that you make your own luck? Cranston has never really had to do that. In various ways, at various times, even when he was drifting, it has come to him, and he's run with it, even though, as with the psycho girlfriend, it sometimes seemed to be running with him.

Another of his lucky moments occurred in 1998. His agent called him, wanting to know if he wanted an 'X-Files' gig. He's a worker-bee actor, he values stability in his life more than anything, he's got a wife and a five-year-old daughter to care for, under no circumstances can he be like his own parents, so of course he wanted the job, he could really use the $3,000. He went to meet the producer with a look he figured would suit the part of a bigoted conspiracy nut, the product of some kind of military experiment gone horribly wrong, with a bug crawling around in his head, his head about to explode. "I had a nasty Fu Manchu, a little dirty thing," he recalls. "My hair was kind of long. I had backwoods mutton chops down to here. And, boom, I got the job." And the producer, Vince Gilligan, loved what he did, how he was able to display both rage and vulnerability. Then, about 10 years go by. 'Malcolm in the Middle' has just finished its run, and Cranston is looking for what to do next. He reads a script for something called 'Breaking Bad'. He calls his agent. "Get me in there as soon as possible!" "Well, you're scheduled for next week." "This week! This week!" He goes in, and the director-creator-writer of the show happens to be Vince Gilligan, the same guy who hired him for that 1998 'X-Files' episode, loved his work then, and now thought he'd be equally great on 'Breaking Bad'. Only, the studio wanted a known name, maybe Steve Zahn or John Cusack, not that goofy dad from 'Malcolm in the Middle.' But Gilligan was adamant. "Cranston's the guy, he's the guy, he's an actor," he told the studio. And so Cranston became Walt, the schlubby teacher with cancer, and so Cranston turned Walt into the murderous meth dealer known to the Feds as Heisenberg, and so the critics raved about how brilliantly Cranston had managed the transformation.

And so, since then, Cranston has undergone a transformation of his own. "When you talk to him about his life," says Ben Affleck, "he's one of those guys you want to listen to, because you get the sense that he's figured it out pretty well." He's a star now, too, not a leading-man-in-the-movies star yet, but the quality of the work being offered to him is right up there, and that's the direction he's heading, toward the very thing his father so desperately wanted but could never achieve, the kind of star offered a Mercedes on loan and much-reduced bills for meals at P.F. Chang's, just because of who he is and had never asked to become.

His father is 88 years old now and living in Studio City. Cranston sees him fairly often. "We've reacquainted," he says, awkwardly. "He says that what happened back then, it was a psychotic time in his life. He was abusing. I don't know if drugs were involved, but I know alcohol was. He wasn't thinking clearly." His mother, suffering from Alzheimer's, died six years ago – "six years ago this week, actually," he says. He says he wishes she were still around, that she'd probably regret her earlier behavior, and that thinking of her chokes him up, notwithstanding that when his friends complain about having to go out and buy cards for Mother's Day, he likes to say, black humorously, "Ha, ha, suckers! My mom died!"