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Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston on the Show’s Explosive New Season: ‘The Chickens Have Come Home to Roost’

Each week on AMC's Breaking Bad, which premieres its third season on Sunday night, Bryan Cranston undergoes a complete and fascinating transformation into Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned methamphetamine manufacturer who's quickly turning into a hardened criminal. Cranston both acted in and directed Sunday night's episode, which is pretty impressive, considering he's in the majority of the scenes. And trust us, it turned out well. We spoke with Cranston yesterday about what it's like to open up a Breaking Bad script, what's going on with Walt's cancer, and where season three will take us.

You directed both last year's premiere and this season's. Why only the first episode of each?
Years ago, I had directed an independent feature called Last Chance, and then I directed nine episodes of Malcolm in the Middle, so it was a continuation of that to be a director on Breaking Bad. The reason I've only done first episodes of seasons is really just logistical. I’m an actor on the show, so I need to be available during production, and during production is when the next episode to shoot is in prep. So I can only really direct when the show is not yet in production, because that prep time is so important.

What did you think when you opened up the script?
It’s always an experience to open up a Breaking Bad script. I always think it’s going to go one way, but then it takes a turn on me and goes somewhere I didn’t see. And I’m like, "Wow, this is crazy!" The beginning part of this first episode encompasses an environment that I was totally unfamiliar with, called a Santa Muerte. It required me to go do some research to figure out what was going on — it’s a bizarre experience in ritual, and yet it’s real and does happen. I love directing this show, because you learn something new in a short period of time, and you have to tell that visually to an audience so that they get it. In that whole scene, there’s no dialogue spoken, so it was a unique challenge to direct.

How much longer can the show actually go without Skyler finding out about Walt's drug scheme?
The whole conceit of the first two seasons was that if my family found out what I was doing, game over. I’d lost. And so the writers have come up against a dilemma: The longer Skyler doesn’t know what’s going on, the more a disservice we’re doing to her character and overall to the show. Because a bright person would need to catch up at some point; you can only lie to them so much. It's sad for me, playing him in love with her, because she keeps pushing him away. But the entire season is not that way; there are moments when we make a connection.

As the audience, we side with Walt, so sometimes Skyler gets the the short shrift in terms of sympathy. It's somewhat unfair, since Walt is lying to her. And is also, you know, a drug dealer.
I know, isn’t that funny? You have these arguments about her.

I've heard people call her character a bitch.
And I hear that, too, from men, a lot. And then women will defend her, saying, "Walt does nothing but lie to her! Of course she should walk out." That’s exactly what you want. You want that water-cooler moment where people are discussing and dissecting the story, choosing sides, and being emotional about it. We couldn’t get any greater compliment.

Walt's cancer is now in remission. How large a part will that play in the plot?
It's certainly not going to take a frontal position for the overall viewer, but for Walt, it’s always there, it’s on the frontal lobe. He doesn’t have any time to waste. But for the audience, a lot of what we’ll see this year are the repercussions from the decisions he’s made. He stepped on a lot of toes that he’s not even aware of. He’s working inside this little bubble, but he’s actually affecting sales in a lot of different areas, and the drug cartel is not happy about this. The chickens are coming home to roost.

There's a scene in the premiere when Walt wakes up in his underwear after a drunken night. What was that like?
I was totally bombed during that scene. I’m kidding. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been really drunk, so I pulled from the frustration that he felt at that time. He wakes up and he’s in his underwear, which is already sad underwear; tighty-whities are sad underwear, that’s the way it struck me.

That's what he's wearing in the opening scene of the pilot, also.
When I read that opening page, I brought it to the attention of [creator] Vince Gilligan, saying, "You know, I was in tighty-whities for seven years in Malcom in the Middle, and so can I have permission to change that?" Vince said sure, so I started looking at Jockeys, boxers, all the rest, but I kept coming back to the tighty-whities. I thought, It’s just sad that somewhere along the way Walt stopped growing and stopped caring. And that’s why I wanted to keep it with those; it represents his sadness to me.

Photo: Patrick McMullan