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Interview

'Breaking Bad' Ensemble on Meth and Method

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'Breaking Bad' Ensemble on Meth and Method
Photo Source: Ben Leuner/AMC
When "Breaking Bad" premiered on AMC in January 2008, expectations weren't high. It was only the second original program the network had produced—although its first one, "Mad Men," was a critical and commercial hit. And it starred Bryan Cranston, best known as the doofus father from "Malcolm in the Middle," playing a high school teacher who turns methamphetamine manufacturer when he's diagnosed with lung cancer.

Four seasons and three Emmy wins for Cranston later, "Breaking Bad" has proved to be not only groundbreaking television but also a showcase for one of the best dramatic ensembles on TV. Along with Cranston as Walter White, the original cast consists of all-stars: Aaron Paul as Walter's boneheaded partner, Jesse; Anna Gunn as Walter's wife, Skyler; Betsy Brandt as Skyler's sister Marie; Dean Norris as Marie's DEA agent husband, Hank; and RJ Mitte as Walter and Skyler's son, Walt Jr. Over the years, great support has been lent by Bob Odenkirk as sleazy lawyer Saul, Giancarlo Esposito as meth distributor Gus, and Jonathan Banks as Gus' right-hand man Mike. Much credit goes to creator Vince Gilligan, who has crafted complex, distinctive characters and a story line that dares to go places never seen before on television. Back Stage spoke with some of the cast members of the innovative show, now gearing up for its fifth and final season.

Back Stage: How did your role on the show come about?

Bryan Cranston: Well, I was the first one cast. Almost 10 years earlier, I had done an "X-Files" episode, which Vince Gilligan wrote. The character I played was conflicted: He was really an awful person, and yet he was a human being. That kind of nuance was exactly what Vince does well. Flash-forward: After "Malcolm in the Middle," I get this call. Vince wants to see me for this role, Walter White, on "Breaking Bad." Then I read the script, and it was phenomenal. I went in for a scheduled 20-minute meeting, and an hour and a half later I left. After that meeting, Vince was my champion to get the role. And it wasn't easy. I became known for "Malcolm in the Middle," so AMC and Sony TV were saying, "Wait a minute. For Walter, you want that goofy dad from 'Malcolm in the Middle'? Are you kidding?" And Vince was like, "Yes. He's the guy." He sent over the tape from "X-Files," and they watched it and said, "Yeah, but we should still look at others." He said, "Well, you can, but he's the guy." I owe it all to the Vince, not only in writing this character but also in support of me to get the role. I was very fortunate they filled out the rest of the cast with fantastic actors to work with. All the drama is in the show and not around the show, which is great.

Anna Gunn: I had just had my second baby—she was about 3 or 4 months old—when my friend and casting director Sharon Bialy was trying to get me to come in and read for "Breaking Bad." At the time, I had a really bad flu, and I told her I couldn't come in, but then Sharon called and said, "I don't care how sick you are, you're coming in. You have to read for this." She sent me the script, and I went, "Oh my—okay, this is a brilliant script." They had already cast Bryan Cranston as Walt. I went in and read opposite him, and so did three other women. Bryan and I got along immediately. We had really good chemistry and just really enjoyed each other. Sharon said after the reading, "Okay, get ready to go to New Mexico." I said, "What?" because the script at the time was still set in the outskirts of L.A., but they decided to take it to New Mexico. I talked to Vince because I wanted to make sure that Skyler wasn't going to be just the long-suffering wife. There are a lot of those characters on TV. I had a conversation with him and asked, "What's your plan for her? What kind of journey is she going to go on?" He said, "Well, she's going to be kind of like Carmela Soprano, but in on the crime." He had a clear sense of where he wanted to take the characters. I said, "Okay. Sold."

Dean Norris: I auditioned for Vince Gilligan. It's funny because I met Betsy Brandt outside the room for the first time. I was looking at her, and I was going, "Man, this seems like a comedy to me, right?" She was like, "Yeah, I'm not sure; I think it's a comedy, too." "Right," I said. "But it's not all comedy. I think my part's the comedy part." So luckily, I made the right call on that and hit it off with Vince right away, and that was it. I think I pretty much had it from that moment on. Had to go through the test with the network, but they were all on board.

Betsy Brandt: Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas—two of my favorite casting directors; I love them professionally, and they are two of the best people that I know—brought me in for the role of Marie. I'm always excited when they bring me in for something, because they do such good work. I read the pilot and told my husband it was the best one that I had ever read, and then once I met Vince Gilligan, I really wanted to work on the show.

Aaron Paul: I read the pilot, and I loved it instantly, but I actually found out later on that Jesse was supposed to have died in the first season. They still make a joke out of it on set. But they loved the sort of "Odd Couple" pairing Walt and Jesse made and, thankfully, decided to keep him on. I'm so grateful, and just feel so blessed, because it's been such an amazing journey.

Back Stage: Did you do any special research or preparation for the part?

Cranston: I went to USC, and I followed around the head of the chemistry department for two days—really just sucked up all his brain matter on the subject. In fact, I had my script with me, and I showed it to him. And for a few things, he said, "Oh, that's not correct. That kind of round-bottom boiling flask is only for boiling, not for mixing." So I called Vince right away. We do the best we can to make it as accurate as possible, so that chemists watching the show will go, "That's pretty damn good."

Gunn: Research was very minimal for Skyler at the start because, being from New Mexico and a mother of two, I understand how she felt as a housewife who is pregnant and has another kid. She and her husband are in dire financial straits, and she's trying to keep her head above water as she runs that household, but she's always trying to find a clever way to pay the endless pile of bills. I felt like I knew who Skyler was up-front, but we had to do some shading with her. I asked Vince, "Why is Skyler not working if Walt has to work two jobs to keep the family afloat?" He said, "Well, she's pregnant." I said, "I know, but pregnant women do work as well, so is there something we can give her to do to help the family?" Early on, he and I talked about her being a short-story writer—artistically that was her dream, and that was something we felt she could do while being at home taking care of the kids. That was in the show in the first season here and there. Then she went back to being Ted Beneke's [played by Christopher Cousins] accountant. I thought from the beginning that [she] would have something to do with the cooking the books, possibly.

Norris: I did [research] after I got [the role], because the material of the audition didn't actually make it into the pilot. It was all kind of his personality and his being, who he was. So the research came after I got the role, because I needed to know more about the DEA and how they worked and their guns and all that kind of stuff. We had a lot of DEA guys, and they would take me out in Albuquerque to their top-secret training locations, and we got to shoot a lot of guns and just talk about the process and things they do. Also, at the same time, I was getting to meet the guys and get an eye on them and see what they are like and learn about them, in addition to getting the actual information about what the DEA does and how they do it.

Brandt: I didn't do any special research for Marie in the beginning. I did talk to some friends in New Mexico—he's a DEA agent, and she's lived through all the things you live through when you're married to an agent. That was really helpful to me, and they've become close friends of ours.

Paul: Yeah, it's really been a combination of things. I've watched a lot of YouTube videos of people—you can pretty much find anything on the Internet now—and I also spoke one-on-one with some recovering addicts, and they shared their journeys with me. I also had some personal experience watching a friend that had gone through that and watching that path. It was a very dark experience.

Back Stage: What has been your most challenging moment on the show? Or favorite scene?

Cranston: I enjoyed the classroom scenes early on when Walt was still teaching, because I was able to allow the character to be comfortable, sharing his knowledge of a subject he was very fond of. Now that's gone, and it spun off into this deteriorating kind of lifestyle that this man has because of his poor choices. The most important element for me was when he made the initial decision to become someone he's not. A lot of people will have different opinions on when he went from good to bad. I say it was the very first episode, when he allowed his morality to lapse and make a decision, and consequently, make more decisions that supported that lack of morality and dance with the devil.

Gunn: I really loved in Season 3 when Skyler starts a relationship with Ted. She gets there because they did have a friendship and obviously some sort of chemistry between them beforehand. At that point in the show, she's in a position where Walt won't tell her anything when she finds out what he's doing and she's trapped. She doesn't have a way to deal with it. She could take the kids away and run, or she could turn Walt in to the police, which she knows she can't do because that would devastate her 16-year-old. She's in a situation where she has to say, "I'm going to stay here and make the best of it." But her anger and the feeling of being trapped makes Skyler—in terms of her own—break bad. And leads to her involvement with Ted, which was really a slap in the face to Walt. I really liked the scene where she comes into the kitchen and says, "I f---ed Ted," because nobody knew that was coming and nobody knew that Skyler had it in her to do that. That was a really great moment because that was when she really started to break bad herself.

In Season 4, Ted comes to Skyler and basically says, "The IRS is going  to come and look at the books. They are going to look into me and you." She knows if they look into her, that's very bad. I love the scene where she went into the IRS office and pretends to be a bubble-headed blond to explain the errors in the books. Skyler has been a moral center for the show, and I love that she was willing to tart herself up and act like a bimbo because it was her only way to save the family.

Norris: It would be the episode "One Minute." Actually, any of my scenes in "One Minute" I'll take, but particularly the scene where Hank's on the bed talking to his wife and admits that he's no longer the man that he thought he was. I thought that was really, really a great, well-written scene and amazing for a guy like Hank to have to admit that. Admit to the whole PTSD thing to his wife and all that stuff. Immediately followed by him almost getting shot to death. For me, the biggest challenge was Season 4, having to be in a really bad mood and stuck in bed. We were in real time on that show, and there was only so much recovery they could have Hank do believably, because I think in the whole show we've only gone six months or something from day one, you know? It's not long. A year at the most. So they needed to keep him in bed. He was frustrated, and all that frustration oddly enough just bled over. After having had such interesting stuff to do in Season 3—I mean, as an actor I find it more fun to play a character breaking down than a character slowly recovering. Now that he's recovered, we'll see what Season 5 brings in terms of him being able to get back into the fray of things. I mean, I'm hoping that they're going to. I don't see how they cannot not focus on the Hank-Walt confrontation because it's been building for four seasons. One would think that would have to be one of the focuses of the next season.

Brandt: To this day, I would say that the intervention scene in Season 1 was a big moment for me. It was such a great ensemble piece, and I felt as if who all of these people were—in their own right and to each other—became crystal clear in that scene. Don't get me wrong: I love the material that I get, especially in Seasons 3 and 4, but shooting that scene in the first season was a watershed moment for me.

Paul: In the second-to-last episode of this season, the scene with Walt and Jesse where Jesse accuses Walt in his house of poisoning Brock—that scene took an entire day to do, and we just did it over and over all day. Our writers, they're just so amazing. The words they write are just so compelling—the way that scene unfolds has such an emotional arc. The writers really did an amazing job with this season; they just keep raising the stakes every episode.

Back Stage: Are you surprised such a dark and unique show has found such critical acclaim and an audience? Was there a moment you realized the show was having such an impact on people?

Brandt: No, not at all. It's just so good. I also felt that when we were shooting the pilot, that I could really see this going over extremely well. It seems kind of addictive. I love the moments that the show takes. A lot of shows, or films even, don't do that, and I just live for that stuff.

Paul: Yes, every day when people come up to me on the street asking me to say, "Yo, bitch!" But in all seriousness, I kind of am surprised, but not really, how the show has found such an audience. There's a flavor in the market for material that pushes past normal television's limits. Vince and his team of writers have been so great at pushing the boundaries, and I'm so blessed to be a part of it.

Cranston: I felt all along that this was a show that would make an impact if it was lucky enough to stay on the air. There are several shows that have been taken off the air before it was their time and are now forgotten. This show was pitched about six years ago. If it was pitched 10 years ago, it would never have been made. So timing is an essential part of success in this ephemeral television business. The audiences were demanding sophisticated storytelling. Cable was looking for product that was not like anything that was on broadcast. All of these elements came into place in a perfect storm.

Gunn: Yeah, I think [the attention] really started to happen this season. Wherever I went, basically somebody said, "Oh, my God, you're Skyler," or "I love the show." It's such a broad and diverse group of people that say that, so it's always surprising to me. I noticed during our fourth-season premiere the number of fans outside grew exponentially from that of previous years. I thought, "Oh, my gosh, we're really on the map now." I'm doing a play over at the Geffen Playhouse currently and went out for a drink with some of my co-stars at a bar. It was right before Halloween. There was a guy with a sort of a fedora-type hat, and his eyes lit up when I walked in. He came over and said, "Are you Skyler?" I said, "I am." He said, "Oh, my God, I'm dressed as Heisenberg [Walter White's alter ego]." He pulled out crystal blue rock candy, which was supposed to be blue meth in a baggie. He asked, "Can I take a picture with you? If I take a picture with Skyler, it will make my entire night." So I took a picture with him. It was so funny, but it happens a lot now. We've seen [the audience] really grow. It's been great.

Norris: There was a moment when I realized it was great, and that's when we all sat down and screened the pilot. We were just left speechless. Like, "Wow, it's like a feature film." I was a little nervous because it was so good I was like, how could it continue to be that good? Then there was a moment when Bryan won the Emmy the first year, because nobody, I mean you couldn't even bet on him, I mean there were no odds. Then when he did, we were like, "Oh wow, some people are watching. People are noticing." After that, it was just kind of slow and steady. Certainly after Season 3, any place I would go in public I would run into people who were big fans. They would stop me, and they don't just go, "Hey, I like your show." They grab me by my shirt and go, "Man, that's the best f---ing show I've ever seen." They are very vocal about it. Which is cool. And I'm up here in Alaska doing a movie ["The Frozen Ground"], and literally everybody in any bar or restaurant I go out at, there's any number of people who will come up and talk about the show.

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