This feature ran in the September 2012 issue of Men’s Journal
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. 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.”
For ‘Breaking Bad,’ Cranston says, “they wanted to take a sweet guy and make him bad. I knew exactly how it would go — at one time, I had broken bad, too.”
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.”
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.”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!”Later in the evening, he returns to his home. The inside of it is wife Robin’s domain, traditional and comfortable. The big backyard mainly belongs to him, with every stress-relieving activity you care to mention in evidence—croquet, football, baseball, badminton, basketball, a pool with a slide (“and I like to slide!”)—and when you’ve tuckered yourself out, you can wobble over to the hammock, flop down, and doze off.
He’s sitting on the front porch now, with a glass of wine in hand, telling a little more about himself. No, he doesn’t do drugs, cheat on his wife, chew his fingernails, or pick his nose with regularity, although, yes, he does fall asleep quickly (“10 seconds, 15 seconds, I’m out”), and he does gladly pee in the shower (“Anyone who says they don’t is either a liar or an idiot”). Without prompting, he says that he and his wife once tried some role playing in the bedroom, but it didn’t pan out. “We started critiquing each other on our performances, like she’d say, ‘Oh, honey, it wasn’t bad, except when you said you wanted to lick the inside of my thigh, I just didn’t believe you,'” he says, concluding that “it’s not good for two actors to attempt that kind of, you know, sexual encounter.”
He’s an open guy trying to navigate new waters. He says the reason he doesn’t like to go to parties anymore is because of all the people, friends and strangers, tugging on his ear, sapping his energy, trying to give him their scripts. “I work, and then I’m home,” he says. “That’s what I do.”
Robin comes out. She’s pretty in a low-key way. She apologizes for the fuzzy slippers on her feet. She says that, no, she can’t think of anything about her husband that might irritate her, except for his perfectionist tendencies. “He likes things done a certain way,” she says. “Like with the dishes in the dishwasher. But that’s about it.”
After she goes inside, Cranston stretches out a little. “I’m not crazy about being out of control, and I get emotional when things are unclean. When things are out of order. When things are messy. Because I lived in a mess as a child. When things started going bad. When everything started to unravel. The garage you couldn’t put a car in, it was filled with so much stuff. I vowed one day I’d be able to put my car in a garage.
Now I can put two cars in my garage.” He shrugs. “All that childhood stuff, I don’t know that it ever leaves, and the way it informs your life, you can become the best of what your potential is, or the worst, or something in between.” He says, “I’m not a very relaxed person, I wouldn’t think. I’m restless, you know?”