Interview Date: 01/10/2011
Run Date: 01/24/2011
Chalk up another reason to love Bryan Cranston: even though the guy could just sit around and coast on his “Breaking Bad” Emmy wins between seasons of the AMC series, he so misses the chance to do comedy that, during his down time, he’s been working on a new web series for Atom.com called “The Handlers.” In the series, Cranston plays hapless politician Jack Power, who – along with his team of political consultants – is turned every which way but loose in an attempt to get elected, and new episodes of the series will continue to be rolled out for the next several Tuesdays.
When Cranston called to talk about “The Handlers,” he’d just returned to Albuquerque, where “Breaking Bad” was just beginning to start production of its fourth season. This was far from our first conversation, as not only did Bullz-Eye visit the “Breaking Bad” set just as the filming of Season 3 was wrapping up, but my wife and I also crossed paths with him this past August during the summer TCA tour. It felt somehow appropriate, then, for this phoner to take place while I was ensconced in the Langham Huntington Hotel & Spa for the winter TCA tour. Shame it couldn’t have taken place a little later in the day, but, hey, when it’s Bryan Cranston on the line, you take the call whenever it is.
Bryan Cranston: Will! How are ya?
BE: Bryan! How’s it going?
BC: Good! When are you coming back?
BE: (Laughs) Do you mean from the TCA tour or to the set?
BC: Back to the set! I just got here last night, back into Albuquerque.
BE: Hey, you tell me when I’m coming, and I’m there.
BC: All right, we’ll work it out again. We’ll have another caravan.
BE: Oh, I’d love it. But meanwhile I’m at the TCA tour, and you’re one of only about three people who would get me up at 6:30 AM to do a phoner.
BC: Oh, thank you, man! I appreciate that!
BE: Well, I checked out “The Handlers.” Very funny stuff.
BC: Yeah, we’re very happy with it. There are a couple of little bumps that a new production will have, and especially on the budget that we were able to manage to do it on, so we’ll iron those out. A couple of little sound issues and things like that, and we’ll just be, y’know, better prepared next time. Hopefully if we’ll get the chance to do some more, which we’d like to do.
BE: Of course, I’m partial because I actually live in Vagina. I mean Virginia.
BE: Thank you. I’ve waited all night to use that joke.
BC: I’ll bet you did. Yeah, a lot of that stuff just kind of evolved, and we shot all eight episodes in two days. Yeah, just for production necessity, to keep the cost down. So we were writing it and editing it all the way through the week, and, you know, if I can borrow any page from “Saturday Night Live,” it would be that. Their well-oiled machine knows how to do that kind of thing, and that’s basically…the budget constraints, Will, really necessitates us to be very judicial in how we progress with our schedule. So we’re going to see more of that, where we’ll hit the ground running on a Monday and start pitching, and…you know, the format is basically the same, where we have a celebrity who comes in and is the candidate for any given campaign across the country. In fact, in some cases…for instance, I’m sure we’ll use this at some point, but a coroner of a county is an elected official. And it’s, like, how would any layperson know the advocacy of a coroner? “I didn’t like the way he conducted that autopsy. I think he could do better. I do.” So we’ll have some fun with that. Hopefully, the celebrity will come in and do two days of shooting six or so episodes, and then we’ll be done. So come in like “Saturday Night Live” goes, we’ll listen to what the celebrity wants to do, pitch them some ideas, and then write it like crazy over the next two days, have a little reading of it, and then put it all together in practical locations and shoot it in two days.
BE: Wow. Like you’re not busy enough, you’ve pretty much created your own niche online with this and, of course, I know you also did “Sense of Smell” for FunnyOrDie.com.
BC: (Laughs) Yeah, the Funny or Die guys make me laugh, so I’m sure I’ll do some more of those with them when the right timing comes along. It’s just fun, you know, doing it. “Breaking Bad” is the best role of my career, and yet I do miss doing comedy. So that’s why I’m involved in this, and I enjoy it.
BE: Well, since you brought up “Saturday Night Live,” what was that experience like for you? Everything you’d hoped for?
BC: It was really was. It didn’t disappoint. They work so hard, and Lorne Michaels and his two co-writers, Seth Meyers and Steven Higgins, they have it down. They know how to do it. And as Steven told me, “This is a lot of fun unless you’re a perfectionist. Then you’re going to be frustrated.” And I realized what he meant. I mean, they’re putting together something that really should take three weeks to a month to produce and prepare for, and they do it in less than a week. And it’s ridiculous. But the energy is so great and so high, and you’re working without a net, and it’s live. It’s not, like, “Wait, wait, can we take that back? Let’s do that again. Let’s try that again.” You’re going! You just go! A slip of the tongue or not, whatever happens, happens. Whether you miss your cue or not. That’s a very exciting and dangerous feeling. And, you know, I don’t think we can have that aspect of it (on ‘The Handlers’) because we’re not live, of course, but because of my experience on that show, I realized how well it really does work. When you think about it, you go, “This shouldn’t work.” “Saturday Night Live,” the way it’s structured, they really shouldn’t be this successful, but they manage to pull it together under the keen eye of Lorne, and they pull it off. And that’s not easy. You’re doing improv, untested comic material. Just think about that. You know, comics hone their material for years. They’re doing untested comic material every week, flying by the seat of their pants, and hopefully it works. And some sketches don’t. But I was amazed at how hard and how much time they work. It just was an affirmation for me, as I’ve always known and has been my experience in show business, that there are no short cuts. There is no alternative to putting in the time and energy and hard work.
BE: Was there any sketch that didn’t make it past dress that you’d really hoped would?
BC: There are some, yeah. On Wednesday of that week, at a table read, we read 50 sketches. 50! And that night, about 10 PM, it goes down from 50 to 12 for various reasons, some logistical. The construction people are there, the stage manager is there, and says, “That’s a great sketch, but, you know, we have to harness them, and we don’t really have the space for it,” so they say, “Okay, well, we’ll have to do that some other time.” It’s not easy in anyone’s area of expertise, and so you have to…it’s, like, “Oh, that’s funny, too, but it also shows the cast playing children, and we’ve already got this one that we like, and we don’t want to have two sketches that are too similar.” So sometimes you have to make these cuts, and they’re painful, and you go, “Oh, but it’s so funny, I hate to lose that!” But you just go with your gut. And I deferred, of course, to Lorne and the writers because they know their realm. “You make the call. Let’s see what you think.”
BE: So was there a “Breaking Bad” sketch that got cut? Because I kept waiting for one.
BC: Yeah, there were a couple that were pitched. But, like anything else, it just didn’t pop off the page. It didn’t really go anywhere. And then there was a “Malcolm in the Middle” kind of hybrid, but it didn’t go anywhere, either. So instead of saying, “Oh, we have to have one, even though it didn’t turn out to be as great as we’d hoped,” you lose it. You can’t have a sense that everything is precious. If it works, it works. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Let it go.
BE: So you’re there in Albuquerque now. I know Vince (Gilligan) plays things pretty close to the vest, but how many scripts into Season 4 have you been allowed to get?
BC: I’ve only read the first one so far. I have the second one ready to read. And I like to keep it like that, where it doesn’t get too far ahead of me. You know, Walt is on this journey, and I like the fact that he doesn’t know where he’s going. And, so, why should Bryan know where it’s going? Do you know what I mean? It doesn’t help me…and, in fact, if it’s any kind of subliminal preparation, then it could hurt the character. So I kind of want to keep it as fresh as possible for as long as possible, so that I can feel that one-foot-in-front-of-the-other tension that Walt has. Just try to make it through, try to make it through, try to get through the day, let alone what I’m doing next week.
BE: So I’m guessing you’re not in much of a position to even offer hints as far as what to expect.
BC: I can’t! I don’t even know! Except the first episode, it picks up right where the last episode left off.
BE: Hey, that’s something!
BC: And the tension was wound pretty tight… (Laughs) …so we just have to wind ourselves back up to that level, and away we go, and it keeps spinning like a top.
BE: Oh, well, guess I have to watch Season 3 again.
BC: Dang! (Laughs)
BE: So have you gotten to see anybody yet? Or is anyone else even there yet?
BC: No, I literally just got back in last night and opened up my townhouse again, and I’m putting things away. So that’s what today’s all about. I go in for a fitting soon, and I’ll do that, pick up some paperwork, and see everybody. That sort of thing. That’ll be my day.
BE: Head shaved yet, or is that yet to come?
BC: No, actually, what’s going to happen is…here’s an exclusive! Do you know the guy who plays Gomez on the show? Steven Michael Quesada…?
BC: He’s a local guy, and he’s very popular here. He’s a stand-up comedian, and he has a variety show on The CW (“The After After Party”) that airs in New Mexico once a week, and so they tape on Tuesday. So tomorrow night I’m going to be on his show, I’m going to do a little stand-up, and then we do an interview session. And what the audience doesn’t know is that, y’know, we’re going to talk about it, and Steven’s going to say something to the effect of, “Well, you know, you look so different in person than you do as Walter White the character. How do you make that transition?” And then I’ll say something like, “Well, it takes a team of professionals, and we…well, let me show you!” And then out comes my makeup artist, my wardrobe head, and hairdresser, and they start going to work on me. And I’ll just keep talking to Steven, taking off my clothes, putting on the wardrobe, the make-up goes on, the goatee goes on – because I don’t have one right now – and the goatee will be slapped on, and then they’ll shave my head live on TV.
BC: And then I put the glasses on, and it’s, like, “Voila!”
BE: I certainly hope they get a clip of that onto YouTube sooner than later.
BC: Maybe we will. We’ll YouTube it…maybe we can have it as early as Wednesday.
BE: That would be awesome.
BC: Yeah, that’ll be fun!
BE: Well, I know we’re coming up on my 15 minutes here…
BC: No worries!
BE: You know, I think I may have asked you this in the past, but maybe it’s changed: what’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
BC: Let’s see… (Long pause) I’ve been very lucky. I really have. When I look back on it, things that I’ve been really proud of...honestly, I think that it was pretty much…well, you know, I’ll tell you, the only thing that really pops into my mind is Tom Hanks’ “That Thing You Do,” which was sweet and funny and clever, and you sang that song. I just thought it was really a terrific film, and I don’t think it was received as well as I thought it should have been. So I would say to your readers, “Go back and check out ‘That Thing You Do.’” No, it’s not going to change your opinion on anything. It’s just a nice little bit of escapism that’s sweet and funny, and I don’t really think it got its just rewards.
BE: Hmmm. Now, would you say that they should also go back and check out the reissue of “Dead Space” that just came out on Shout Factory?
BC: No! You are kidding!
BE: I am not, sir.
BC: You are pulling my leg. Look, Will, you’re pulling that out of thin air. Oh, my God, I haven’t seen that in ages. “Dead Space.” Wow! (Laughs) That was with Marc Singer, right?
BE: Absolutely. Yeah, Shout Factory is doing a series of Roger Corman reissues, and that was one of them.
BC: Oh, cool! I don’t know, I haven’t seen that in ages, but…I liked working for Roger. One of the great things about working for Roger is that, you know, when he hires you, he trusts that you know what you’re doing. Now, that’s a fault of his as well as a strength of his, but I found terrific autonomy and the ability to create a character and not have someone come down and say, “No, you can’t do that, you’ve got to do this.” You know, within the context of what was available. You can’t say, “Now we’re going to go in a car…” Uh, no, we’re in space. (Laughs) We had to do it inside the stages that we were confined to. But we had that kind of freedom, and…I did two or three Roger Corman movies, and they all had the same feeling, so I credit him with creating that environment.
BE: Let me jump back to “Breaking Bad” to close. My understanding is that you’re not directing the season premiere this year.
BC: That’s right. I’m not.
BE: Just taking a break?
BC: Yeah, you know, part of the joy of directing is editing, and that’s when you’re actually in the room with your editor, and you get a feel for each other and…perhaps you’ve worked together before, and so you can develop a shorthand, and you get so much accomplished in a shorter period of time. I, unfortunately, didn’t have that. I’m here in Albuquerque, the editor and edit bays are in Burbank, so after working on the second episode as an actor for 14 hours, I’d come home, try to eat something, and get onto the computer and look at my dailies and make my notes, writing them up for four hours, and then maybe get four or five hours of sleep before I have to get up the next morning to go to work again. I just got exhausted. And, also, it’s not anywhere close to the experience of being in the room, so you lose that fun. You lose that kind of creative energy in the room, and it’s not as efficient, so you’re not able to convey what you mean as clearly in an E-mail as you are in person, obviously. So I was doing three times the work, having three times less the enjoyment, and I was exhausted. So I said, “You know what? I need to back away from this.” And I’ll opportunities to direct again in other areas. Maybe at some point I can have the editors come out and work out here. I just asked to be off of the list this time. Now, next year, if I want to direct a “Breaking Bad” again, I think I’ll ask if the editor can come out while I’m here.
BE: Well, that’s it. Like I say, if you’ll have me out there, I’m ready to roll, so just keep me posted!
BE: Good talking to you again, Bryan.BC: Good to talk to you, Will, and we’ll see you again soon. Take care!