'Breaking Bad': Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan Look back before the final season begins
How often have the star and creator disagreed about Walt? And how do they feel about the ending?
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Eight hours to go. Eight more hours until we find out exactly what fate “Breaking Bad” has in store for Walter White. Eight more hours until we find out if creator Vince Gilligan can stick the landing on one of the most daring, breathtaking, awe-inspiring feats of dramatic gymnastics in television history. Eight more hours of watching Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris and company make us laugh, make us cry, and make us curl up into a terrified little ball. Eight hours doesn’t feel like nearly enough for this great show, does it?
I’ve seen the AMC drama’s final season premiere, which airs Sunday night at 9. It’s fantastic, as you might expect, but the ways in which it’s fantastic are better left discovered as you’re watching. (I’ll have, as usual, an episode review posted as soon as it’s done airing on the East Coast.) But before this last batch of episodes begins, I sat down with Gilligan and Emmy-winning star Bryan Cranston to discuss the rare instances when they disagreed about what was going on with Walt, about what kind of actor Walt himself has become in the series’ final days, and about how each of them feels about walking away from the best work either of them is likely ever going to do.
Bryan, the last time we talked, you told me the story about filming the “Run” scene from “Half-Measures,” and how what you had in your head about how Walt was feeling about this was completely different from what Vince was thinking, and that the edited scene played out very differently from how you had played it. Can either of you think of other times where you found yourselves on different pages about where Walt was, and how did that play out?
Bryan Cranston: You can count 'em on one hand throughout the course of six years. There was one time when it bumped me, when he moves back into the house, and Skyler's saying, "Did you sign the papers? Did you sign the divorce papers? Did you sign them?" And I move back in the house, I'm in the nursery sleeping on the floor. And she invites me to join Junior and her at the table for dinner. She set a place for me it's like… Okay. And then there was a scene (that got cut) where she came by and collected my dirty laundry and did my laundry.And then the following scene was I signed the divorce papers and left them for her. And it threw me, to think, “Wait a minute, if I want to get back in the family and she invited me to the dinner table, did my laundry, it's working, why would I sign?” So I think what happened is that you cut the laundry scene.
Vince Gilligan: Yes.
Bryan Cranston: We cut out that she did my laundry. And I think you tweaked it to where Junior said, "Can dad join us?" And it forced her to not be the bad guy again in his eyes so she said, "All right." And so that then corrected the bump. It's just like a speed bump; you go, “Oh, what was that?” And you have to then spot 'em, iron 'em out, and move on from there.
And Vince, do you remember a time where Bryan wasn’t playing a scene the way you had it in your head?
Vince Gilligan: I'm trying to think of a time where it wasn't what I initially saw in my minds eye but it turned out better. I'm not blowing false smoke as it were. I'm trying to remember…
Bryan Cranston: To me, it's like this: Vince wasn't able to be with us a lot. So on the set, we're truly trying to filter through and understand sensibility, the beats, the tiny nuances and we try to go with it. And as I would suggest to the writers, to the director and producer I said, "I really feel strong this way. Let's go this way." And that's what reshoots are for. If we miss this beat we'll come back and reshoot that beat. Especially if it's in a confined area or something like that, we'll just do it.
Vince Gilligan: Which again you can count on one hand how many times we reshot anything.
Bryan Cranston: There what's something in a car, after the magnets or something like that?
Vince Gilligan: That's right. It was one of the last scene of episode 501 after the magnet caper with the big electro magnet. And it was one of the proudest moments in the writer's room on that episode 'cause we had the magnet gag, it went off with only a bit of a hitch, that they had to leave the vehicle behind. But for the longest time in the writers room we felt like something was missing and we couldn't put our finger on it because Walt and Jesse, by the skin of their teeth, they get away they leave their vehicle there and they run off into the night and the original end of the act was they jump in Mike's car and they go peeling off into the night. We're like, "What's missing? Something feels weirdly unsatisfying." And then we thought to ourselves, "You know what's missing is a whole new Walt."
Because we've seen their brilliant cockeyed capers go off with a hitch and yet nonetheless be successful. But the new thing, the planting of our flag for that whole season was, “The king is dead, long live the king.” Gus Fring is gone; Walt has assumed the throne. And we realized in that moment that what was far better and more important to us then the whole magnet gag, as fun as it was, was seeing Walt in the backseat of that car driving away having Mike the fixer in the front driving angry as hell. "You screwed up, you left the truck behind. We're all gonna get busted." And Walt in the backseat going, "No we're not." "What do you mean no we're not? Why not?" "Because I said so." And when we came with that, we were so proud of ourselves because it was perhaps the point of the whole goddamn episode, and we didn't even have it until like the 11th hour. That's better than anything that came before. As fun as the magnet caper, is having Walt be Gus Fring or better, you know, in the back seat. And I think that's what that reshoot was about.
Bryan Cranston: I think it was Michael Slovis who directed that, and I think we all came up with the idea that I perhaps was a bit too aggressive with my response to Mike. It was more, "We're no gonna get caught, just because I said so. Stop talking to me". It was maybe a little more aggressive. And the word came back to be a little more, “I'm at peace with this; I know exactly what I'm doing. And I'm not going to get into your energy.” So again it's like a little fine-tuned.
And even by Walt's standards, he's such an arrogant prick in those eight episodes from last summer starting at that point.
Bryan Cranston: (mock indignant) What the fuck are you talking about?
Vince Gilligan: You know what, it's funny, but I tell you there's unearned arrogance and earned arrogance. And if you can defeat a guy as smart as Gustavo Fring and if you can beat him at his own game, you’ve got a right to swagger a little bit. And in that season he earned it, I feel.
Bryan, you've played so many different iterations of this character over five seasons. Do you have either a favorite or one that was the most challenging for you to get inside of?
Bryan Cranston: It was a little easier in the beginning because he was easier to relate to. I enjoyed the scenes in the classroom because it gave Walt a moment of being in his element. I wanted to make sure those scenes were filled with a taste, a flavor of passion that the audience would see and go, “He's enjoying this. He does belong. He's a chemist. And he got waylaid to becoming a criminal but his true passion is chemistry.” So that was then, and now it goes on to this journey that devolves into this morass of pain and torture. I think there were some points when it would catch me when Bryan is reading the script and like I'm not quite into Walt's head at the time, and I think, “Wow, why would he do it?” And then you go and you read it a second time more subjective as the character and it's like, “All right, yeah. There's a turn.” Because your impulse when you read as yourself is, like you said, “What an asshole. Why would he do that?” So instead of judging it at the point and putting up a wall you have to go justify why would he be. Well obviously, he's down a track that allows him to make those moves, and it's not only justifiable to behave that way at that time, it's warranted. That's where he is at that moment. So I think those are the toughest times, when I was doing something that is abhorrent in any day-to-day behavior. And then you open up and say, “That's where Walt is, though.”
Vince, when did you tell him how the show was going to end?
Bryan Cranston: He didn't. He told me in script form.
Okay. So what's your reaction when you got to that point?
Bryan Cranston: Well, I thought I said…
Vince Gilligan: The sex change kind of threw you.
Bryan Cranston: The sex change operation, brilliant, well-couched. There's no way that anybody could have identified that coming.
Vince Gilligan: There's meaning in a lot of levels.
She is the one who knocks with knockers.
Bryan Cranston: Yeah, with knockers.
Vince Gilligan: He is the one who has knockers.
Bryan Cranston: And I took my old penis and I stubbed it so I can use it as a blackjack…
We're going down a bad road.
Vince Gilligan: Do you think there's anyone who's done that, by the way? Just kept it?
Bryan Cranston: Kept their penis in a jar?
Vince Gilligan: Or made it into like a Lucite paperweight?
Bryan Cranston: I sure hope so.
Vince Gilligan: Somebody out there must have.
Bryan Cranston: Yeah.
Vince Gilligan: It's a big world.
Bryan Cranston: What was the question?
How did you feel reading that final script and seeing, A)that this journey was going to be over for you and B)seeing how it ended?
Bryan Cranston: Vince has been the captain all along. I've been a first officer, but just that. And people would ask me, "Oh, last eight, you feel the pressure? Feel the that mounting?" And I said, "Honestly, no. But see that guy pacing and knocking himself in the room and pulling his hair out? He is. He had the burden. I'm getting the words, he is the script writer, and I read them." But the burden was all on him and he knows that and he felt it. And he needed to agonize through it in order to make sure that he got everything. You know, he cannot just be satisfied that it works. Is there something else (to do in addition to that)? We have this finite time to get it right. It was perfect. My response to the question, how do you want it to end, was "I want it to end exactly as Vince Gilligan wants it to end." Because I know he's gonna take the utmost care in crafting this and the only thing I can tell you is that he did. It ends in an unapologetic Breaking Bad manner that is going to be satisfying and rewarding to the fans.
Vince, when I talked to you and some of the early AMC executives for my book, I was told several times that there was a crazy original plan to end the first season before the writers strike happened, and you've said you didn't want to tell me about it because you might incorporate parts of it into the actual finale. Did you?
Vince Gilligan: I would say ultimately no. There were maybe a couple of roundabout elements that we might have touched upon but they were in that original season 1 ending but not in the series finale.
I want to get back to Walt's penis in a Lucite jar, because this is the sort of show would you might have done that. I’m thinking of Tortuga’s head on the exploding tortoise. Vince is a nice Southern gentleman who comes up with this sick twisted shit on a regular basis.
Bryan Cranston: This speaks to my point that everyone has the capacity of being evil. Whether or not you play it out in your mind, or whether you play it out physically in real-life, we have that capacity of dark thoughts. And I think people just need to own up to it and say, “Yeah, we do.” Given the right set of circumstances, education, parenting, loving, hugging, or lack thereof, you can become the best of who you're supposed to be or the worst of you're supposed to be.
Can you think of an example when you’re reading a script and said, “Oh my God, I can't believe we're actually doing this on a TV show”?
Bryan Cranston: That's like every episode. I'm not kidding; that's like every episode.
Do you have a favorite of those sort of scenes?
Bryan Cranston: Favorite? It's ridiculous, because the time that I ran over those two drug dealers totally surprised me. The time that he was able to use Tio with the bomb, I didn't see that coming. That he was able to use the Lily of the Valley and actually did poison Brock. When we shot the episode before and we shot a scene where he finds out that Brock was poisoned and Jesse comes and he's so distraught he wants to kill me. We shot that scene before I read the last episode.
Vince Gilligan: I didn't tell you that? That was mean of me.
Bryan Cranston: No, no. Because I didn't want to know because I'm legitimately saying, "Why would I do that?" You know.
Vince Gilligan: I'm not blowing smoke, I honestly had forgotten that, because you're a good enough actor and you're obviously just my 50-50 partner in this thing. I would have thought I would have told you, "By the way you, really did do it." Because then I’d say, "But Bryan, nonetheless play it like your absolute, play it like you didn't do it."
Bryan Cranston: Yeah. I never asked. I would only ask when I was directing. When I directed, in the second season and the teddy bear. I just didn't understand how to shoot that unless I had more of an understanding of the broad story of how we're going to use it. It was a teddy bear; he's under the water and missing an eye and it's scorched but how scorched? So I felt that I needed to know that in order to be able to understand how to direct that.
Other than that I didn't need to know, I didn't want to know. Because Walter White didn't have any predictability to his life. He didn't know he was gonna be alive tomorrow or next hour. He was twisting and turning. So to find out what happened in the next episode it didn't help me as an actor, because I'm twisting and turning. I'm so in the moment trying to figure out how to stay alive now that the idea of knowing down the road (doesn’t help). I didn't see the Lily of the Valley. I didn't see this happening in what we're gonna do in the last eight. And that's really good, when you can surprise me on this.
It does seem that Walt has become a better actor over time. There’s that (SCENE FROM THE FINAL PREMIERE REDACTED) where he’s very believably lying through his teeth. Has Walt become a better actor over time? Because obviously Bryan Cranston is a great actor.
Vince Gilligan: I think so. Absolutely. I won't tell you which episode or where, but there is a moment coming up that pretty much makes that explicit that Walt is a better actor than he used to be. And I think in that first episode you're referring to Walt's mendacious abilities…
Bryan Cranston: Mendacity.
Vince Gilligan: Mendacity. A stench of mendacity. Walt's mendacious abilities are at the top of their form.
Bryan Cranston: I think it was just a development of the skill set that he needed to learn. He's a smart guy. In science there's no place for hyperbole and projection — it’s all science. It's theoretical, and then you prove it or disprove it and there it is. But in this world where he becomes a drug dealer, he learned in season 2 or season 3, “I need to get up to speed on this or I'm not going to make it out of here alive.” So he learns how to manipulate. And he's dealing with other liars. I’ve got to turn around on them. You might even say I’m like a car salesman. A certain amount of sketchiness, are they lying? Maybe not completely being open on the truth of the history of that; it's like they learn how far they can get away with things as they're swimming. And that's what he's done.
Vince Gilligan: If you decide to play poker, you damn well better developed a poker face.
Are you done editing or do you still have post-production to do?
Vince Gilligan: I cannot even believe I'm saying this, but I wish that I still had editing left to do, because I miss it very much. It's done. It's completely done. Our offices are empty. For all I know a new tenant has been moved into them. It's very sad.
For each of you, how does it feel to be done with some of the best work you've ever done in your lives?
Vince Gilligan: And maybe for all I know the best I'll ever do. It's daunting and it's sad and it's bittersweet and I'm already nostalgic and sentimental for it. We're still spending plenty of time together because of all this publicity, which is fun, which is great seeing everybody. I haven't seen the lovely Betsy Brandt in quite a while 'cause she's off to her next job. Which by the way is the smartest thing you can do is to get on to the next job. And I think all these actors are doing that.
(Brandt, sitting at the next table, calls over to say, “And she’s so pretty, too. And smart!”)
Vince Gilligan: And she's so pretty, too. And smart! I haven't gone on to the next job yet and it'll be a good thing when I do. But the sooner the better, not because I want to leave this behind but because the longer you have to dwell on it, the sadder you get. But I tell you the blessing is that creatively speaking, I have not a single whiff of a doubt that we didn't end at the right time. We ended at the right time creatively. I don't have any second thoughts about that. It's just for personal reasons I don't want it to be over.
And Bryan you've have been doing 17 movies a year or something.
Bryan Cranston: Oh yeah, I moved on. After season 2, I was already thinking about other things. No, this experience will be the opening line of my obituary. And I welcome that when I'm 105.
Vince Gilligan: I would hope for 110.
Bryan Cranston: Yeah. Because I'm 105 going, “Not now. I'm feeling great!” You know, it’ll be, “’Breaking Bad’ actor explodes.” It's been the greatest professional experience of my life. And there's something interesting about it, because as much as I'll miss it, I to feel I'm proud that we brought it to an end. I would much rather hear the comments of, "’Breaking Bad.’ God I miss that show” than “’Breaking Bad,’ is that show still on? Oh my God, really?"
Vince Gilligan: Could not agree more.
Bryan Cranston: It's like, “Walk away.” We're in the Super Bowl, and then let's walk away with our heads up. There was talk about being able to extend it. Someone asked me a year ago after season 4, "How much longer can you go?" And I said, "It feels like two seasons to me," which would have equated to 26 episodes. And because we had to almost start over again after Gus Fring was vanquished then it's like well, now what? We have to begin anew. And it wound up being 16, so I was 10 shy. But there was a time then when Vince was saying, "I don't know how we can fill 16 episodes. I don't know how we can do it. I just don't. I don't want to dilute it just so we can fill (time), that's not good." And then all of a sudden you started working and it was like, "Oh we need more." And there was talk at one time about extending it for one more episode.
Vince Gilligan: That's true, there was. You know what, everyone at AMC and at Sony were very kind to us, because precise truth be told, we were about one act too long in these final 16. The last two episodes each, we're about six minutes overly long compared to regular run through time on a regular episode. So six minutes plus six minutes, 12 minutes that's about an act of television. So we missed it by about one act.
Bryan Cranston: Missed it by that much.
Vince Gilligan: But they let us have those overruns on those final two.
Bryan Cranston: That's huge.
Vince Gilligan: Which is a big thank you to them for that. And so I feel pretty good about time. It's not to this level, but I picture of the moon shot. It's like we wanted to land at the Sea of Tranquility, we missed it by two and a half miles. It's like, out of 250,000 miles, that's pretty good.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org