On the Cover: Bryan Cranston Breaks Big

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Photograph by Robert Trachtenberg

On camera, Bryan Cranston cooks meth, plots assassinations, and poisons children. Off camera, he spends his time organizing pantry shelves and relaxing with his family. It’s the kind of duality that governs every actor’s life, but it holds particularly strong resonance with Cranston – the ‘Breaking Bad’ star who, at the age of 56, has finally found Hollywood stardom after a long and winding trip through the world of C-list movies and short-lived sitcoms. His career began in the early 1980s, but didn’t gain steam until 2000, when he landed a leading role on ‘Malcolm in the Middle.’ Things took a sharp turn for the dramatic when ‘Breaking Bad’ creator Vince Gilligan cast Cranston as Walter White – a soft-spoken high school chemistry teacher who, upon being diagnosed with cancer, begins cooking meth to support his family. Since debuting in 2009, ‘Breaking Bad’ has garnered wide popular and critical acclaim, making Cranston a bona fide celebrity. He’s already won three Emmy awards and has a starring role in the upcoming film ‘Argo,’ all while maintaining a surprisingly normal, well-adjusted family life with his daughter and wife of 23 years. But as Cranston explains to Erik Hedegaard in the October 2012 issue of ‘Men’s Journal,’ behind this seemingly content actor lies a turbulent – and often dark – history. Some highlights from the magazine story:

• Cranston says he understands how ordinarily placid or harmless people can be capable of dark deeds from his own experience with an obsessive, drug-addled ex-girlfriend. After repeated attempts to break up with the woman, Cranston suddenly had what he described as an “out of body experience,” where he envisioned himself brutally killing her with his bare hands. “At that moment, I realized that, given the right circumstances, I was capable of doing very bad things,” he said. “Everyone is. It was the most amazing, uncomfortable experience of my life.”

• Strange as it may seem, Cranston owes much of his stardom to ‘X-Files.’ In 1998, he auditioned for a small role as a bigoted conspiracy theorist. Cranston nailed the audition and left a strong impression on ‘X-Files’ producer Vince Gilligan, who was enamored with his ability to convey both rage and vulnerability. When Gilligan began casting for ‘Breaking Bad’ 10 years later, he insisted on Cranston for the role of Walter White, despite protests from studio execs who wanted John Cusack or Steve Zahn for the part. Gilligan, however, held firm, telling the studio, “Cranston’s our guy, he’s the guy, he’s an actor.”

• Cranston’s childhood was marred by alcoholism, turbulence, and loneliness. His father, a struggling actor and abusive alcoholic, left his wife when Cranston was 12, leaving the family in disarray. Cranston’s mother also struggled with alcoholism and eventually decided to send her children to live on their grandfather’s farm, where Cranston spent his days gathering eggs and learning how to slaughter chickens. “Every morning, you’re collecting eggs, washing eggs, stacking eggs, putting eggs in the cooler,” he recalled with a smile. “It was so much fun.”

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