'Breaking Bad' star bleeds Dodger blue
by Jim Wilkie - 4 March 2009 - ESPN.com
Portraying a dying high school chemistry teacher who cooks crystal meth in an attempt to leave his family with enough financial support once he's dead has helped veteran actor Bryan Cranston understand baseball's steroid users a little better.
Both scenarios raise questions of "what if?" that challenge a person's moral character. What if you had only a year or two left to live, how would you spend your final days? What if reaching your lifelong dream of a major league baseball career could be aided by a chemical boost?
Cranston, a lifelong Los Angeles Dodgers fan, has his own hypothetical questions about the direction of his life. He has carved out an impressive acting career that has included parts in movies "Saving Private Ryan" and "Little Miss Sunshine," roles on renowned TV shows such as "Seinfeld" and "The X Files" and perhaps his best-known character, Hal the eccentric dad, in "Malcolm in the Middle."
Now he has landed on the dark and riveting AMC series "Breaking Bad" (to air Sundays at 10 p.m.) and was rewarded with the Emmy award for outstanding lead actor in a drama series last year. Surely, hitting it out of the park as the troubled Walter White is greater than any feats on the baseball field Cranston might have achieved with more motivation, but he still can wonder.
Before Season 2 of "Breaking Bad" premieres March 8, Cranston spoke on the phone last month with ESPN.com's The Life about the series, his love of sports and more.
The Life: First off, congratulations on the Emmy.
Thanks, it was a great surprise and a fun night.
The Life: What was that feeling after being nominated before but never winning?
Yeah, I kinda got used to not winning [laughs]. ... It was one of ... you know, it was like, "Oh, OK, that's nice to be nominated and be invited to the dance. I didn't get to dance, but that's OK."
And then having your name actually read out is one of those moments when for a millisecond you go through three or four different emotions like, "That name sounds familiar. Whoa, oh my God, that's my name. No, it can't be my name. Was it my name?" And you're, "What? Ooh, ah, ah! ..."
And you're walking up to the stage to give a speech, and you realize "Oh my God, I'm woefully unprepared for this moment." And you just wish that you can put together a sentence that makes sense and that you don't come off looking like a total boob. And then you've always got to remember to thank your wife. That's the most important thing.
The Life: You must have been in the midst of filming the second season of "Breaking Bad," because you looked your best with your shaved head.
Yes, skinny bald man. That's an attractive look, isn't it?
The Life: But a good accessory with the statuette, anyway.
Yes, I became much better looking with an Emmy in my hands than without.
The Life: It's oftentimes such a dark show with graphic nature and subject matter. What's your wife think of this role?
When I got the script for "Breaking Bad." I read it cover to cover, and that's rare. Usually you get pilot scripts and you start reading and you go, "Ohhh, boy, all right, it's the doctor who's having his troubles keeping his staff in order. Oh, God."
You go get a cup of coffee, and then you come back and you read a little more. And then you make a phone call, then you read a little more. This one I started reading and just had me right from the top. The first episode, I don't know if you saw our pilot episode, it read just like that: "A middle-aged man wearing only tighty-whiteys and a respirator driving madly in the desert. Inside the RV behind him: two dead bodies sliding back and forth in a slosh of chemicals ..."
And I'm going, "What, what, what the hell is going on?" It had you from that moment all the way through. I finished it; I got on the phone right away and I said, 'Get me in to see him ["Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan].'"
And they said, "Yeah, he wants to meet you. He knows you from "X Files."
And I went, "He does?" ... And I didn't remember him. But he wrote an episode that I did in "X Files." And then I saw his face and I'm like, "Yeah, I do remember that face."
We sat down, we talked, and our 20-minute scheduled meeting turned out to be an hour and a half. And we just batted back and forth what we thought about the character, what we thought about the show. And we hit it off, and from that point on he was my champion to get the role.
I then gave the script to my wife and said, "Before you read this, know that it shoots in New Mexico."
She said "OK" [and read it]. She tossed it back and she said, "S---!"
So she knew it was something I had to do. It was a game-changer in the sense of my career. It allowed me an opportunity to not only start to erase my character, Hal of "Malcolm in the Middle," but explode it, blow it up into little pieces, because you know it completely forced people to see me in a different way. And I'm so grateful for that.
And to answer your question what my wife thinks of it, she -- like most women -- she's attracted to the emotional aspect of it. When my wife on the show, Anna Gunn, and the emotional connection that we make and her finding out about the lies and so ... they're very much sisters in that sense because she's interested in the same things.
The Life: You kind of touched on one of my next questions that after "Malcolm in the Middle," how did you happen into this role, and was it a conscious decision to make this dramatic shift in your next series?
The thing is, it's not that cut-and-dry. To get one series to be a success is a wonderful gift that very, very few actors ever get to enjoy. To get two, now I know what Lee Trevino feels like. Being struck by lightning twice. And that's what it feels like. It's like, "What? Are you kidding me? OK ..."
So I've never had -- and I hope I never will develop -- a sense of entitlement that I feel that I'm owed this, or that I deserve this. No one deserves [this]. It's like, "Are you kidding me?" This is such a gift, I am so lucky and blessed to be able to have these opportunities. And I know my fellow actors, that's all we really want is the opportunity to get in the door to show what you can do and to be allowed to perform. And I've been given it, so I'm very grateful.
The Life: You mentioned blowing up your character, Hal. Was there a fear you were going to be typecast as sort of a goofy dad?
Sure, oh yeah, absolutely. Not fear in the sense that it was up to me. I would then have to have the courage to reject any kind of goofy dad role. And I did.
So that's hard, because what happens is you've done something, and you've received some attention by it, meaning that you've done pretty well at it, then people are going to come at you with the same kind of thing. And they were. I was offered pilots. [They said] "Oh, it's perfect for him. It's just like the guy in 'Malcolm in the Middle.'" And I had the same reaction you did. I said, "Well ... thank you, but I did that. And I'm not interested."
And some are dumbfounded. "Why? He'd be perfect. No, it's just exactly right for him." And it's like, "No, no, no, he's done that, he doesn't want to do that anymore."
Quite frankly, it would just be redundant because I wouldn't know how to do a sweet, goofy dad any differently than what I did for seven years.
The Life: It's gut-wrenching to watch at times ...
The Life: No, but he got himself into some trouble, too. Could you see Hal's life spiraling to the point of cooking crystal meth?
His life spiraled out of control almost every episode emotionally, yeah.
The Life: "Breaking Bad" is so gut-wrenching and disturbing, but fortunately it tosses in a good amount of humor at times. But is it draining at the end of the day after going through what Walt goes through?
Oh, yeah. You know I'm older now. It's emotionally draining, physically. ... It's a very physically demanding show. I'm running all the time and hoisting people up and fighting, oh my God. ... Yeah, it is. And so that's just the logistics of shooting an hourlong drama. It's very demanding, and I have the lead role, which I'm grateful for, but it's more demanding on my time.
So you become very pragmatic in the sense that you protect your weekends. And my weekends become very, very important to me that it's not just a way to get away from shooting the character, but also I need the down time. I need to shut down and rest in order to be ready for Monday.
Because when we go to work, I'm there at least a minimum of 13 hours a day, you know, usually 14, but at least 13. And that's draining. You have to really know how to pace yourself and whatnot.
So you know, [I'm] grateful to do it, grateful I have it, but reasonable in the sense that I know myself and I know what I have to do to prepare for it physically.
The Life: Are there things you can relate to, as a father and a husband, in terms of what lengths Walter is going through for the sake of his family.
I think that's the universal question that "Breaking Bad" brings up. And I think it's one that we've been asked before. "If you had a year to live, how would you live it?"
Other people would travel and I would do this ... and Bryan would probably do that. He would just be with family, travel, see some friends, eat at the best restaurants, stay at the best hotels, just experience things and do it as long as you can. ... Travel to everywhere where my friends are and visit with them for periods of time and hopefully stay healthy as long as you can and kick out.
And that's what Walt is doing. Walt is doing what he feels is the best thing that he can do. And that, when given this set of circumstances that he has a year to two to live ... and who knows only a year of that or less is going to be healthy? And his wife is going to clean up after him and empty his bedpan and wipe his drool, but then he still dies and then on top of that, he leaves them penniless. It's just a legacy he doesn't want to leave. It's not something that anyone wants to be known by. And so, with that condition, he makes this desperate decision to use his chemistry background to do the only thing he thinks at the time he can do. And just, for the first time in his life, be selfish. Think of doing something for your family, and then check out.
Yes, it's a very irrational decision for a very rational man. But I believed it, given the set of circumstances, and then what he doesn't realize is the world he's entering into he doesn't have the skill set for this. He's a scientist. Everything is black-and-white, everything is orderly, you put this amount with this, and you have this reaction. ... Well, now he's in a world that has no rules that is filled with people, not of scientists, but people of greed and ego. And they will literally kill you and ... he's woefully underestimated what he has done, and now he has to deal with it.
I think dramatically, that is very appealing. And so you see this fish out of water, this man who is just trying to do something for his family. He knows it's bad. He keeps the blinders on because he knows what he is doing is wrong. He just feels if he can just do it for a little bit, it won't have that much damage. He's fooling himself, of course, but he's hoping that's the case. And then just get out and hopefully his family won't have the hardships that he suffered.
The Life: There are some searing images in "Breaking Bad" -- Walt wearing the tighty-whiteys standing in the desert from the pilot, and [spoiler alert] the supermarket scene early in Season 2. So, will you be upping the ante by Season 3? Are viewers prepared for what's next?
How much more revealing can I be? (Laughs.) Literally and figuratively. You know, Jim, it's an interesting thing. When they pitched that, they said, "Well, we can try to ... We'll have a cover, we'll have this. ..."
And I said, "You know what, let's just do it." All I cared about, let's just make sure nobody has their cell phone cameras out and that sort of thing, because we don't want stuff like that to get out.
So once you buy into it and you say, "You know what, this is what the character had to do to try to mask that he lost his mind temporarily, he had to go to that extreme, it made sense. And so OK, I'm willing to do that. And it's a risqué show, so let's do that." So it really wasn't that difficult a decision to make because it just seemed to make sense. So I was willing to do it.
The Life: Switching gears a bit; I've read that before acting, you would have preferred a career in baseball. How far did you get with that?
I could have become a professional baseball player, but I fell short in one area, and that hurt greatly.
The Life: What area?
Uh, talent. ... Yeah, just didn't have the talent. But I loved baseball and I loved football, too. I went to Canoga Park High School and I had enough physical athletic ability to be able to be out there, but I didn't get the association of the work ethic at the time. Of the need to work hard during practice. I was just kind of going through the paces. I never really applied myself, and in retrospect, I have a regret in that I missed out on a lot of opportunities because I was going through a difficult time: My parents were getting divorced and that sort of thing. It was like, "I don't quite know what's going on, I don't know what to do. ..." It was just kind of a period where life really slowed down for me and I was confused, and so I regret that, I regret not having that experience of being able to see what I could do.
I'm not saying that even if I applied myself I would have been a varsity star or something, but it would have been interesting for me now to see if I had really put an effort together how far could I have gotten. I don't know. I don't think that I had the talent that a lot of other friends of mine at school had, but I think I would have enjoyed it more.
The Life: That's interesting you said you still regret it, considering the success you've had as an actor.
Well, I think there are areas you look at like, you know, we could look at the way we handled breaking up with an old girlfriend with regret, right? You go, "Yeah, I was kind of a d--- doing that; I just said, 'Yeah, you know, I'm over this.' Ohhh, that's kind of an awful way to put something." ... I mean, if we've matured, I think we can then be honest with ourselves and say "Yeah, I do have some regrets in some areas of the way I behaved or the way I handled myself or the way I didn't apply myself or that sort of thing."
And I think, interestingly enough, my persona non grata in high school -- and, I mean, nobody knew me in high school. I was like a wallflower. I was introverted; I was shy; I didn't apply myself; I did what I could to get a C; I didn't work any harder than that. I mean, so, I wasn't into it.
And so, in retrospect, I look at that and I go ... I was even left out of the yearbook. Not because I didn't pay the fee and we took the picture and everything ... they just forgot me. That was the explanation. "Oh, I see your application, I see you paid, I see your picture. ... We just ... it fell through the cracks."
And I was devastated at the time because I thought, "Oh my God, it's like I was never here." Then I thought, "No, this is perfect, I never was here really."
And then I think maybe in some way, that started me on a path of saying, "Is this going to be my life? Or am I going to make something out of myself?" And I think that's when it started to happen for me, that I started to really work towards doing something and going after something. And I was very fortunate to find acting as that path and what I discovered is that I wanted to pursue something that I loved to do and hopefully become good at as opposed to pursuing something I'm good at and hopefully fall in love with.
So that was the distinction, and it wasn't until after two years of junior college and thinking I was going to be a policeman and, "No, I'm not going to do that and what else am I going to do?" And just traveling around the country for a couple of years that I finally was able to get to the point at age 22, 23 of what I wanted to do.
And I'm now in my 30th year as a professional actor, and I'm very grateful that I found that.
The Life: So, growing up in Southern California, are you a big Dodgers fan?
Huge. Huge Dodgers fan. Yes.
The Life: As a kid, what are your favorite memories of the Dodgers?
I remember going to, actually, the Coliseum before Dodger Stadium was built in 1962. I'll be 53 in another couple of weeks, so I remember that when I was very young.
And then I grew up with Dodger Stadium. It was my home, and I knew certain things, even when times were rough or things not going well in school or my parents splitting up or whatever the case may be. I could always depend on the smell of the grass, listening to Vin Scully's voice to bring back a sense of calm and safety. And it was that to me. It represented something, a touchstone, that was always there that I could always go to in times of trouble, and it was there for me.
I really grew to passionately love the game for those reasons, for what it meant to me, not just physically but emotionally. It's that important. And when Vin Scully finally retires, it will be a very sad day for me.
The Life: Who were your favorite players growing up?
I was a big Sandy Koufax fan, for style and grace. And I was a big Don Drysdale fan for just brute aggression. So those two pitchers growing up in the most influential time of my life in the '60s, they were the best one-two punch that I could imagine.
It represented both sides of who I felt I was. There was a certain amount of decorum and honor that you display and sportsmanship, and that's what I felt Sandy represented. And then there was the fierce competitor and just bulldog mentality that Don Drysdale brought forward. And each were successful. So it's like, maybe if you can combine the two ... so I guess those were my big heroes.
But it was really fun because the '60s had that group and you know with Wes Parker and others and Lou Johnson coming in in the '70s. And then later in the late '70s you had, of course, [Bill] Russell, [Davey] Lopes, [Steve] Garvey and [Ron] Cey and all that group. And then later you had [Fernando] Valenzuela and now we have more kids, you know. So it's like every decade we have a new group of Dodgers that I can get behind, and these kids are exciting to watch now, too.
The Life: The big question is, should they bring Manny Ramirez back or not? What do you think?
If you come to accept the economics, how can you deny what this man has done? I mean for two months he just crushed everything. And he's a Hall of Famer. I think, absolutely, I do. And I think the only delay has been more of the economic condition that our country finds ourself in. I think [agent] Scott Boras was like, "Wow!" He didn't expect this. I think Scott Boras would say later on, "I had no idea that even with a talent like Manny Ramirez we would have such limited opportunities."
But the economic environment is such that it's affected everything, even America's pastime. But personally, yeah, I think they should bring him back.
The Life: It certainly would give the team a better identity.
A better identity, but also I think it's infectious. I think the younger hitters, they start watching him. They go, "What makes him so much better than me? What is it?" You know, and they start watching or talk to him and get an idea and perhaps make an adjustment here and there.
It's like the same thing what they said if you had Greg Maddux on your pitching staff. You maybe only get eight or 10 wins out of him, but what he does for the young pitchers, you can't pay enough for that, bringing confidence or style or sense of history, experience, you know, it's fantastic. So I was sorry to see him retire.
The Life: It's still early with spring training just starting, but what are your expectations for this year after making it to the National League Championship Series last year?
I'm dubious about this year. I mean, pitching is everything, and I just don't think they have it this year. Unless they make some quick changes, I don't see them doing that. I think Arizona is going to win the West because of their pitching. Another year for their young hitting talent to mature, so I think they're going to make their move and win that.
Colorado seems to be an anomaly now, an apparition, their World Series appearance. Because I don't think they have the pitching either. As much boppers as they had, I don't think that's gonna do it.
San Diego is in a complete rebuilding.
San Francisco, I don't know. If you're old, come to San Francisco. Randy Johnson, come to San Francisco. You know it's like, what? I don't understand that. I don't get that. So I don't think they're going to be in the picture, either.
So I think it's going to be Arizona. If the Dodgers can stay close, they might have a run near the end. But again there are talented teams in the East. And I think you're gonna see your wild card come out of there again.
And Chicago looks stronger this year as far as the Central. So I think you're going to see Chicago and the Mets might bounce back because, quite frankly, I didn't think that Philadelphia was all that solid up and down the lineup, and their pitching. So I think you're going to see the Mets come back and win it. Chicago in the Midwest. Arizona in the West. That's my guess.
In the American League, how can you go against the Yankees? They've just clobbered everybody in the free-agent world. With the nucleus, not to mention who they already had, I don't see them not winning this thing. I think they will win the East. And it's going to be a dogfight to see if Tampa Bay can do what they did last year. Boston's always going to be there. So you're going to see those three teams battle for the wild card.
The Life: With your schedule, do you make it out to as many games as you'd like?
Well, my schedule has it where I leave late June and I get to Albuquerque. Last year I saw the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Triple-A farm club for the Marlins, play several games. Because it's baseball. If you love baseball; I just want to see baseball.
Minor leagues are great because these kids have a dream they're still working toward. And they're playing their hearts out. So it's great to see that.
What's really good is that Albuquerque has become the home of the Triple-A Dodgers affiliate again. So the Isotopes will now be a Dodger affiliate once again. Years ago they were the Albuquerque Dukes, and so now they are going to be a Dodger affiliate, so I'll get to see young Dodgers. I'm so thrilled. I'll be out at the stadium on any night I can.
The Life: So you'll be there from late June until when?
Late June, and I'll be there through the middle of December. I'll miss everything after the first two months of the season.
The Life: Not working for Fox anymore, you can't use those perks of prime playoff seats?
I still have some friends. I still have some friends who say hey. ... But it would mean that I'd have to get out of ... but I'm working. So I'd have to fly out quickly for a weekend and see the game. Of course I would do that for a World Series and stuff like that.
So, yeah, I'll sniff around, of course. Absolutely.
The Life: Is it true your wife threw a surprise 40th birthday party for you at Dodger Stadium?
It was great. She blindfolded me, so I knew that I was either going to be shot and killed and left dumped in the desert or a nice surprise place. And so I was fortunate that it was the latter.
It was great. And to be at this place that has meant so much to me growing up and then having all my friends there, it was just fantastic. It was really, really a great surprise.
The Life: How did she pull that one off?
I think it was easy, because I was out of town for a few weeks working and so she had free reign to be able to plan it without me knowing anything. And then I got back just in time two days before the birthday party, and boom! Then it happened, and I was like "What? Whoo!"
The Life: Has your celebrity status allowed you any other perks in regards to the Dodgers?
Yeah, we did the Hollywood Stars games. I would go onto the field and actually play. Now they do softball, but when I first started doing the Hollywood Stars, it was like, oh, it's hardball, you're out there playing. It was fun.
I have a picture of myself, I'm looking at it right now, a big panoramic view, I'm playing third base. Jonathan Silverman is the shortstop, and he's a very good ballplayer. And, yeah, it was great times.
The Life: So what are your thoughts about steroids and baseball?
I use steroids when I act, it just makes me act better.
It's a shame. And I do believe that it was just part of the norm that you know if you can get an edge. There's so much pressure on these kids. I can't say I don't fault them, but I understand.
You know, much like my character, you think of Walt White. Why is he doing what he's doing? Well, it's reprehensible, yes, but I kind of understand it, right?
The feeling you have of what he's doing. And I feel the same thing about A-Rod or whoever it might be, where I can't condone it, but I get it. I see that they have, "This is all I wanted to do ever in my life. I have a window of opportunity."
Especially, I see it more from the guys who are on the fringe. If you are a good ballplayer and a professional and you're in the minor leagues and you think that taking a steroid for a year would get you to the major leagues and you might not get there otherwise. How can that not be the biggest temptation of your life?
And, remember, you're only 20 years old. You're very young. So you're just desperate to fulfill your dream. And I can understand it. And so I think if you understand it, then there needs to be a place for sympathies that you can get why they're doing it.
Still, you can't condone it and you can't permit it, but you understand it. So I don't think that the initial punishments should be as harsh. I read in the paper where Big Papi says you should be banned for a year. And you know from his point of view I can see why because, "Man, I'm playing clean. Why should I be penalized by a pitcher who's taking it, firing BB's 98 miles an hour when without it he'd probably throw a 90-mile-an-hour fastball, and I'd hit it out of the park?"
And I get that, too. He's diminishing my numbers and my legacy because he's juiced up. And so it's a tough, tough thing and I can see both sides. And I just hope they get it to where it's not a choice. It's banned, it's checked, everybody is on the same level playing field, and it's not possible to be available anymore.
The Life: You touched on where I was leading to in equating it with Walter in that, although obviously he's compromised far bigger moral issues, but he justifies it in his own mind, and he has good reasons for it.
Yes, exactly. And it didn't even dawn on me to make that analogy, but I think it's the same thing. You root for the man, Walt. He means well. He's a good man who's making bad decisions, so you can find yourself rooting for him. But you root for him to make good decisions. "Come on, get it together, dumbass." And you want to smack him in the head and say, "You're gonna get caught! Don't you realize that. Stop, get out. Get out now."
But he feels that he's at a point where he can't turn around and just go back the other way. But we'll see.
The Life: How about the Lakers, do they come close to the Dodgers?
I'm a baseball fan first and a basketball fan second. It's fun to watch these kids now, and I was just ooohhhh, Andrew Bynum, what a great player he's going to be and unfortunately he's hurt again now.
This last road trip that they took where they were 6-0 and they went against an up-and-coming, tough Toronto team, [then] Milwaukee, but then they beat Boston, they beat Cleveland, they beat New York, which is a much-improved team, and to go 6-0 when your starting center is on the DL and you have to make huge adjustments, that's enormous. And what a boost of confidence.
And I've just become a huge Kobe Bryant fan. Yeah, he's had problems in the past. I think he's matured greatly. I think he's matured greatly and become the man that I think that he's always wanted to be and the leader he always envisioned himself to become. And he's done that for the Lakers.
And he sets the tone much like Magic Johnson set a tone when he was playing. That if you come play for the Lakers, I expect you -- not hope that you -- play at a level, I expect you to play at a level. And if you don't, you're gone.
And I think his presence there, just like Magic Johnson, his presence there raises everybody else. You've got to play at a higher level, or you're going to hear it from him. And because he has tremendous pride, and that works well in sports.
The Life: Obviously, they're a title contender and one of the West's best. Are there any missing pieces needed for a championship?
They're a stronger team than they were last year, and they went to six [games] last year.
I think balance-wise, I don't think the Celtics are balanced. They have a great starting staff, but you've got to have a strong bench, and I think the Lakers have a much stronger bench. Trevor Ariza, who's come into his own, is a terrific defensive player and will give you 10 points a game. And you get that off the bench, that's fantastic.
Jordan Farmar coming back from an injury, who is a terrific defensive player as well, will give you eight to 10 points. Then you've got [Pau] Gasol, who is consistently going to give you 16 to 24 points and Kobe who's going to go 24, 34 or 40 points a night. So you have those kind of weapons and you can pop it out to anywhere.
The triangle offense seems to work well for the Lakers -- it has for a long, long time -- and is very tough to defend against.
The Life: You made your prediction for the Dodgers, what do you see for the Lakers' playoff hopes?
I think it would be a disappointment if they didn't go to the finals. And everything being equal, meaning that if they stay healthy and if Bynum comes back, there's a lot of ifs, there's always ifs. Bynum's got to come back and be healthy. And if he can come back and be healthy, I think they'll win it. I think they'll win it all.
The Life: Finally, what's your connection to the "Power Rangers" kids show?
What happened is that I've never done voices for the "Power Rangers," but I did a lot of voice-over work for the company that did it. And this was prior to the "Power Rangers" coming in, so I did all these voices for different movies and Japanese anime and this and that coming in for several years. ...
And so, and then I left to do other things. And they just got the "Power Rangers" in, and they said, "Well we've got to give these guys names, American names, and so I'm told that they ... 'Well, how about Bryan Cranston? We'll give Cranston the name. We can't give him Bryan Cranston, but we can use his last name.'" And so they assigned names from people that they worked with over the years, and apparently I was the blue Power Ranger person.
The Life: Is that a Dodger Blue connection or just a coincidence?
Subliminally? Absolutely ... Absolutely.