For its 100 Most Creative People In Business issue, Fast Company spoke at length with Bryan Cranston, digging into how the actor created the indelible Walter White in Breaking Bad and how he’ll move beyond that groundbreaking role.
Cranston also talked about another critical element that made Breaking Bad work: collaboration between creator Vince Gilligan, the actors, and all the creative contributors to the show. Here, Cranston breaks it down:
Fast Company: How do you work with a rotating cast of collaborators?
Bryan Cranston: It’s a weird setup in television because the director of an episode is often a guest. They come in and say hello. They don’t know anyone. They do it and they leave. That’s why most show runners like to develop a few directors they want to return on a regular basis so the learning curve is reduced. But we are creatures of habit.
Is there a trick to working with new people on the team?
My thing is to be the honesty police and help out these directors by saying, "My side of the bed is over there. We have to adjust your shots in order to keep honesty to the character. What married couple switches sides of the bed randomly?" Same thing with the kitchen table. You sit at your seat. We’ve made sure that we sit at the same seats for the entire run of the show. Those are little things that if you didn’t do that, it would be what I call a pinch of poison. You give the audience a tiny pinch of poison. They can take that. They can take two or three or four pinches. But they might not feel great. They might not be able to articulate why they’re not attaching themselves to the show. But they might say, "Why did that happen?" Because we lied to you. Sometimes it’s a necessary evil, theatrical license where you have to truncate a story, leap over logic at times. But if at all possible, work hard to make sure that there isn’t illogic.
How do you tactfully correct that mistake before it happens?
We just shot one scene. We’re in a bar. I have a huge parka and I’m making a phone call. But they don’t want me wearing the parka. I don’t want to carry it, it’s a huge parka. Why don’t we put it over a stool and leave it there? The bartender says, "What can I get for you?" If my parka’s there, he’s already said that to me. So let’s trace it back, and I said, "Here’s my pitch, let’s put the parka over the bar chair. I come to there, and instead of "What can I get for you?" he says "Ready for that drink now?" Boom, we instantly know he’s been there. He probably said "What can I get for you?" Nothing, I need to make a phone call, "Oh, it’s right over there." We as thinking human beings accept that logical pattern. That was a quick fix to a little bump, not a big bump. But why give any poison if you don’t have to? Cover yourself. It takes that collaboration. That’s the part of it that excites me.
How do you and the writers keep things flowing as the show progresses?
It’s about the writing. I will stop in the writers’ room and say hello and bring donuts and just see how we’re doing. Things like that. Good writers will watch actors and pick up little innuendos, sensibility, tidbits that trigger something in their psyche and will start writing that in. Little things like that. But television is really a writer’s medium. The quantity of product necessary requires empowerment of the writer. In our case, it’s a really, really good thing.
There’s a trust exercise done in every first-year acting class. You pair up with someone else. "Okay, turn around. She’s going to fall back and you’ll catch her and gently place her down on the floor." It’s the first moment of saying, "In order for me to be up here, I need you to be up here with me and know that I can trust you." You fall, I do catch you and lay you down. And it’s a little weird because you’re voluntarily leaning back, knowing if I don’t catch you, you’re going to hit the ground hard. It’s weird, but huge. Then I turn around and now I’m thinking, "You’re a thin woman." I fall into your arms. Then we start working together. It’s the same relationships with actors, writers, directors—that triumvirate of creativity—we have to rely on and trust each other to be able to get the final product. It’s no one dictator over the other. It’s truly a collaboration . . . when it’s working well.
How do you handle really serious disagreements then?
I have enough time to point out an issue. And there always will be. An actor looks at themselves from a self-centered point of view. It’s what we’re trained to do. Our job is to fulfill our character’s quest. What do I want? How do I get what I want? Who’s in my way of getting what I want? It’s always me, me, me. When actors take that perfectly appropriate behavior in their work and take it into their personal life, that’s where there’s trouble. But it’s absolutely necessary in your working life so that you have a drive, an agenda. You don’t just show up on the set and go "Where do you want me to stand? What do you want me to do?"
So if collaboration is like a dance, what are your signature moves?
I’ve adopted this: Even if you have a disagreement, it’s always put in the form of a preface. And the preface is, "I have a pitch." I’m not telling you you’re wrong. We’re dealing with a subjective point of view. Who’s wrong and who’s right? You and I watch a movie together and you’re "meh" and I’m weeping. You can’t dare tell me I can’t be weeping to what I saw. I had a personal experience. It didn’t connect for you. You’re not wrong either. That’s what’s so great about this. No one can be wrong.
Can you describe one of the tougher ones and how you got through it?
There was one where I moved back to the house and my goal is to get back with my family. My wife accepts my brutish force but banishes me to the baby’s room to sleep on the floor. She won’t cook my meals. I’m trying to get my way back in with the help of my son—he wants me back in the family. She’s passing by the baby’s room one day and sees my things piled there and has a laundry basket. She thinks about it for a second, goes in, takes my laundry. She’s been wanting me to sign the divorce papers. I won’t do it. She sees my laundry and she goes in and does my laundry. Then she tells my son the next night there’s a place setting for three. "Do you want to ask your father to join dinner?" So then the next scene is that I’ve signed the divorce papers and left them for her. I went, "Wait a minute. The one thing I want is to get back with the family. She’s showing signs of slowly accepting me back into the family. Why would I sign divorce papers?" You call it a bump. I bumped on this. Whenever anything doesn’t quite sit well, you just call it a "bump," which is a more palatable way of saying "I have a problem with this." But if you start a sentence with "I have a problem with what you wrote, and here’s how we’re gonna fix it." as opposed to, "Something bumped me, and I have a pitch." It’s not saying, "I’m right, you’re wrong, and here’s what we’re gonna do." It’s saying, "This is a problem for me and if you’re invested in this storytelling, you want to smooth out the rough edges." You want to be able to satisfy because I’m not coming as an empty vessel to work. I’m coming because I’m passionately involved in this and I have something to offer. So do you as the writer and you as the director. Together we’re stronger. We do a dance.
And how’d they react to that one?
Favorably. They cut the laundry business and actually turned it around. Instead of her saying to her son, "Do you want to ask your father to join us?" they gave the line to him. "Mom, can dad join us for dinner?" Now she either has to disappoint her son or give in. She takes a moment and says "Alright." So it came from my son. I realized she was still not doing this. I had to sign the divorce papers for the plot to continue. We just had to go back and find the elements that would justify me doing that. That’s fine. I enjoy solving those problems.
How deep into the crew does this collaboration go?
I go to the wardrobe, costume designer, Kathleen DeToro, all the time to say, "This is what I want: sand, taupe, beige, everything that makes him blend into the walls. I want him invisible." I went to Frieda Valenzuela, our makeup artist, and said, "I want an impotent mustache." We had to experiment. There are three steps to an impotent mustache. I can offer assistance. First, any mustache that drops below the creases of the mouth, gone. You cannot have any hair below the creases. Muy macho—it stays up. Then you have to thin it out. It can’t be so thick. You want to be able to see skin through it. Then lighten it up. We did those three. Then there it is. It’s a "Why Bother?" mustache.
How would you describe the goatee?
He grew the goatee; that was Vince’s idea. He’s experimenting. He’s already bald now. And as is the case in chemo patients, you may lose your head hair, but you don’t necessarily lose your eyebrows or your beard. That came out and that’s when we discovered it’s a pretty badass look. Then when I take on that persona—you can become intimidating. Here’s a man who was never in his life intimidating. That’s what happened to Walter White—not that he had this agenda, but he was developing a sense of power. For a man to be able to intimidate another man as ugly as that character is to his, it’s powerful. He was seduced by that, for the first time having a pocket full of money. By grabbing his wife and forcefully having his way with her. It’s animalistic, but it’s powerful. This man was milquetoast. A scientist cutting off the crust of his PB&J.
A version of this story appears in the June 2013 issue of Fast Company.
[Photo by Casey Rodgers; grooming: Janine Maloney; styling: Barbara Lee Brice; illustration by Justin Mezzell]