Bryan Cranston is sitting at a table at the W Hotel, flipping through the sports pages, reading glasses perched low on his nose. He looks like a regular dad or, more specifically, the goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle. His face is craggy but friendly—comforting. He certainly doesn’t look like a low-level drug dealer, which is precisely what makes his latest performance profoundly jolting.
Breaking Bad—just beginning its second season on AMC—is beyond dark. It can make The Shield look like a romp. The hour-long drama follows Cranston’s Walter White, a high-school chemistry teacher with a genius for making a purer, and thus exceedingly potent, crystal methamphetamine. This comes in handy when White is diagnosed with terminal cancer, just as his wife has become unexpectedly pregnant with their second child. To insure their future, White teams up with a former student to sell drugs to local kids.
“It’s not for everyone,” says Cranston with some understatement. “Our viewers have to accept that it’s for a very specific palate, and it isn’t washed down like some network shows. Our viewers have to accept that this man is desperate, he’s unhappy, and he’s making a bold move because he doesn’t want to leave his family destitute when he shrivels up and dies from a horrible disease.”
Cranston, physically unchanged from his Malcolm days, pulls off the unassuming White with flawless subtlety: a waxy pallor, a slump of the shoulders, and a sense of doom that is palpable. “As an actor, I’m an Everyman. I can blend in,” says Cranston, who began his career in regional theater and made a living off supporting TV roles until he hit the Malcolm jackpot, in 2000. “I can be a plumber, a contractor. I can be a teacher. I can be a politician. Jon Hamm [of AMC’s more glamorous Mad Men] can’t be a plumber. If he and I were walking down the street, they would notice him; I would be like a shadow. I like that. Give him the attention. I’ll watch people.”
So Hamm gets the worship, but it was Cranston who walked away with last year’s Best Actor Emmy (“I was onstage thinking, Just don’t go ‘Um, uh, oh, man, um.’ You don’t want to waste that moment on ums,” he says). And yet, in typically nearsighted network fashion, AMC initially hesitated when his name came up. As the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, tells it, “There was concern originally: ‘This is the father from Malcolm in the Middle, which is night and day from Breaking Bad. Why do you think this is the guy?’ ” A longtime X-Files producer and writer, Gilligan had cast Cranston as a menacing racist in a 1998 X-Files episode. “We needed a guy who could be scary and kind of loathsome but at the same time had a deep, resounding humanity. When Malcolm went on the air, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t realize he could be so funny!’ ” To convince AMC, Gilligan distributed copies of Cranston’s X-Files appearance: “That was all it took.”
Breaking Bad got off to a good start (critical praise, decent ratings) only to be cut short by the 2007 writers’ strike. In all, seven episodes ran in the first season. Since then, the real world has become nearly as desperate as White’s. Will viewers return to a show as bleak as dust? “In the previous Great Depression, there were two kinds of movies: escapist, and very realistic film noirs,” Gilligan says hopefully. “Some people still want a mirror held up to the realities that we face.”