Bryan Cranston is in a very Bad place. On the Albuquerque set of the AMC drama Breaking Bad (Sundays, 10 p.m.), his chemistry teacher-cum-meth man Walt White stares at two passed-out users, needles and pipes lying nearby. When one suffers a disturbing reaction, Walt reacts in a way that leaves him quivering and observers dazzled by Cranston’s delicate performance. Afterward, Cranston waves over a visitor. Eyes sad and red, he leans in and deadpans, ”Wanna shoot up?”
The guy nails jokes, too? Oh, right. For those watching Cranston inhabit a terminally ill sad sack who starts cooking/dealing meth to leave his family a nest egg, it’s easy to forget that he hilariously hammed it up for seven seasons as Malcolm in the Middle‘s jumpy patriarch Hal. His thorough reinvention as a much darker family man has led to raves and an Emmy, and last week’s season 2 premiere nabbed 1.7 million viewers, a 42 percent jump from last season’s average. ”It broke the mold,” says Cranston, 52. ”If I got the response ‘That’s the guy from Malcolm?’ that’s worth more than almost anything. I prefer not to be stuck in one thing. I want the tasty pupu platter of acting jobs.”
He had worked gigs greasy (CHiPS, Baywatch) and savory (Seinfeld, From the Earth to the Moon) before landing on Malcolm, where he fearlessly went for the funny: Roller disco. Back shaving. Being covered with 30,000 bees (and taking a stinger in the scrotum). He earned his ”underrated” label and three Emmy noms. ”That’s icing,” he demurs. ”That’s not your cake.”
When Malcolm ended in 2006, he could’ve had a Hal of a time losing the alter ego. Luckily, Vince Gilligan, an X-Files producer who admired his turn as a bigot in a 1998 episode, was writing Bad‘s edgy pilot with him in mind. Cranston was smitten, plotting Walt down to the love handles and ”impotent” ‘stache. ”Once it seeps into you like a virus,” he says, ”you can’t get it out.” Still, the network and studio needed some persuading (Hal as Walt?). Gilligan, who noted Cranston’s ”chameleonlike” gift for disappearing into roles, sent along the X-Files episode: ”They watched and said, ‘Oooh! Did not see that one coming!”’
The casting curveball resulted in his underdog Emmy win. ”I’m so used to not hearing my name that I didn’t recognize it,” says Cranston. ”That’s not Jeremy Piven’s name… What? Who?” He takes nothing for granted, even penning thank-you notes to critics. ”To have one good show is like being hit by lightning,” he says. ”Two is ridiculous.” Yet Cranston is always hunting for more cool projects. (He next shoots George Lucas’ WWII drama Red Tails.) ”I’d love to see if I can catch any little wave of a leading man before the last train to Character Town takes off,” he quips. ”Gotta do it now.” Wherever he’s headed, we’re in for the ride.