Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and Vince Gilligan break down everything Breaking Bad
“Man, that thing is a beast,” marvels Aaron Paul.
“I can’t believe this thing still runs,” seconds Vince Gilligan.
“It’s like a talisman,” offers Bryan Cranston. “There are so many things that start coming back to you just looking at it. Sweat and toil and pain…. We spent so many hours just dealing with this machine.”
“It really is a home away from home,” says Paul. “I haven’t been in there in such a long time. Should we go in?”
The two stars and the creator of Breaking Bad — AMC’s 2008-2013 series about a terminally ill chemistry teacher (Cranston) who pairs up with a wastoid ex-student (Paul) to create an unlikely drug empire — climb into the raggedy RV that hosted many lucrative cooks in Albuquerque and now rests on the Sony lot in L.A. Cruising down meth memory lane, the trio riff nostalgic on the bullet holes in the door, the Funyuns left on the floor, how Paul stole the ignition from the junkyard-flattened RV replica, and that painful last day of shooting.
“I was sitting right here,” says Paul, near a well-worn seat. “Rian Johnson was directing the final moments, but he asked Vince to call ‘Cut!’ on the very last take we ever did. Bryan and I were just looking at each other like, ‘Is this it? Are we going to do another take?’ Because I wanted to keep going…”
“There was such apprehension coming up to knowing ‘It’s the last day! The last scene! The last setup! The last take!'” agrees Cranston. “You’re just like, ‘Ugghhh!!! No!!!’ You didn’t want it to end.”
Alas, after 62 harrowing episodes, the neo-Western crime drama rode off into the night, leaving behind a 99.1 percent pure legacy of white-knuckled, blackhearted transformation. The low-rated cult gem mesmerized critics, eventually exploded into a zeitgeist sensation, and claimed back-to-back drama-series Emmys. (Cranston won four Emmys for his role, while Paul snagged three for his.) Fans still utter those lethal lines (“I am the one who knocks!” “Maybe your best course… would be to tread lightly“) and dissect the revolutionary series that tracked the radical metamorphosis of its main character, as Walter White devolved from a flaccid family man into the hideous Heisenberg.
But it was truly time to exclaim, “Yeah, bitch!” when the cast reunited earlier this year for an EW cover — and to celebrate the 10th anniversary and relive those good ol’ Bad days. (The group then re-reconvened in July at a Comic-Con panel, alongside prequel Better Call Saul.) Let’s get cooking with an extended version of the roundtable discussion featuring Cranston (who recently filmed the live-action/CG hybrid fantasy film The One and Only Ivan and will head back to Broadway with Network), Paul (who’s filming the Apple true-crime drama series Are You Sleeping and just joined the cast of Westworld), and their creative kingpin, Gilligan (who serves as co-creator/executive producer of Better Call Saul and is developing an HBO limited series about Jonestown). Here, the trio open up about how it all started, how it all ended (the finale aired five years ago this week), and whether Saul will call Walt and Jesse.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When was the last time the three of you were gathered in a room together?
AARON PAUL: God, the last time? It’s been a minute.
VINCE GILLIGAN: The last time I saw Bryan was in London [this spring] watching his amazing play Network and playing Howard Beale. And then Aaron, when was the last time? I’ve been talking to you on the phone and emailing with you, but could it have been… God, how time flies. It couldn’t possibly have been the final…
PAUL: No, no, no.
BRYAN CRANSTON: That was five years ago.
PAUL: Was it the final Emmys?
GILLIGAN: Oh, I know when it was. These guys are so wonderful because it’s all part of the family, it was a probably a Better Call Saul premiere screening. These guys are so supportive and wonderful to come to them whenever they can.
PAUL: A couple of years ago.
CRANSTON: I think what we’ve learned is that it’s not enough.
PAUL: I just saw Bryan yesterday. I saw Vince not that long ago, so we see each other it’s just bringing us all…
GILLIGAN: Not necessarily all three at once.
CRANSTON: The restraining order…
PAUL: Yeah, it’s very complicated.
CRANSTON: Who’s allowed to be where.
The series has been decorated with so much praise, it’s easy to forget the odds stacked against a show about a terminally ill middle-aged man cooking meth… How aware were you that what you were attempting to do — having your protagonist dramatically change — was radical for TV?
GILLIGAN: Being a student of television, I realized that in most shows, the characters maintained their characteristics throughout the life of the series. I was very desirous of creating a show where the main character changed. I didn’t think of it in terms of being groundbreaking; I mainly worried that because it was a different take on the structure of a show, it would make it harder to get made…. The meth thing was the elephant in the parlor. I remember thinking, “This thing’s never going to fly because the main character cooks meth and we’re supposed to root for him to some degree. We’re going to get all kinds of static from folks who think this is a bad message to be putting out to the world.” These guys [points at Cranston and Paul] and AMC and Sony seemed less overtly worried about it than I was. Everyone else was a bit more courageous than I was, so we went ahead and did it.
PAUL: I remember reading things: “Shame on Sony, shame on AMC for greenlighting a show that’s glamorizing the cooking and selling of meth.” All of that quickly went away the moment we hit the air.
GILLIGAN: It’s pretty impossible to glamorize meth. We didn’t tilt it one way — we just showed it the way it is.
BRYAN CRANSTON: I remember having discussions when we were ready to promote it. “When they’re talking about the glorifying drug abuse and manufacturing, what should we say?” We all came to an idea: “We’ll talk about what the show is really about. It’s about this man’s decision-making.” But we never had to use it. It just dissipated because the critics and fans saw what the show was about and were sympathetic to these characters.
The pilot was filmed 11 years ago. What’s the first memory that pops into your head about shooting it?
PAUL: Bryan in his underwear, holding the gun out, standing in the middle of a dirty road in the desert.
CRANSTON: I had the green shirt on, and it looks like I’m naked with the shirt out if I don’t tuck it a little bit. So we tucked the shirt slightly so that you can see the tighty-whities…. The thing that I remember most is how sick he was [from the flu]. [Points at Gilligan]
PAUL: Violently ill.
CRANSTON: We shut down production for several days.
GILLIGAN: It was not a reaction to the acting. [All laugh] One of the [Bernalillo County] firefighters was an extra. He walks over to me — and at that point I was out of it — and I feel someone take my hand and he’s checking my pulse, and he says, “All right, you’re going home.” It was probably the first time in history that an extra kicked the director off the set.
Bryan and Aaron, what was that initial spark between you two that made you feel like, “There’s like something combustible here”?
PAUL: When we were all hired to do this job, we get this invite from Bryan to meet him for lunch. The entire cast. He wanted everyone to get together and sit down. And the moment you meet Bryan, you hate the guy. [All laugh.] You fall instantly in love with the man. I had an old buddy who did Malcolm, and he heard that I got this job and he’s like, “I pray that it gets picked up because he is the reason that we all ran to work. You are going to have the best time of your life on that show.” And we did. So it was before we even started shooting. It was really just Bryan that created this chemistry between us. I might’ve had something to do with it, but I don’t know.
CRANSTON: I lobbied hard for him to get fired off the show as it was originally intended, but I didn’t have the clout. He stayed. [All laugh.] It was the scene where we were discussing the equipment that he was able to obtain, what he cooks with, and it’s like, “You don’t cook in a round-bottom flask — no, that’s insane!”
GILLIGAN: “This is an Erlenmeyer flask!”
CRANSTON: [to Paul] What was the ingredient you put in there?
CRANSTON: The chili powder!
PAUL: It’s my signature.
CRANSTON: We were at odds immediately, and not only was it great for the dramatic structure of things to have two characters who have to be together for one reason or another — who are so completely different that they’re constantly bumping up against each other — everything about us was the opposite. From what we want, to our experience, our education, our age, our likes, our marital status. Everything was so completely different, it was a perfect construct, and initially you didn’t see that this guy — Jesse Pinkman — would have been that natural person to continue on. It was Aaron’s ability. It changed everything.
GILLIGAN: He bought himself six years and beyond of work because he was so wonderful. And what Bryan just said is absolutely true. Structurally, the idea was for this former high school student to get Walter White all trained into the business, and then he would’ve served his purpose and then we wouldn’t need him anymore. I had that in mind before I met Aaron.
PAUL: When I was hired, I had no idea. This was my six or seventh pilot. First pilot that ever went to series. I’m like, “Finally, I’m on a show.” I didn’t know I was going to get killed off at the end of that first season. I mean, you know how fragile I am. I would’ve been devastated for obvious reasons. But they kept me around.
At what point did it wash over you that you could lean into these opposite forces attracting and repelling for some of the show’s key comedic moments?
GILLIGAN: Money in the bank, these two together. It goes back to Laurel and Hardy.
CRANSTON: Hey, am I the fat one?
GILLIGAN: The distinguished one. The one with gravitas.
PAUL: It was just two of the Three Stooges kind of thing. Him and I together during a lot of these scenes, it was just hilarious. I remember this scene where we’re really getting into a physical fight inside of Pinkman’s house and it was just so messy and aggressive.
GILLIGAN: Yeah, that was rough.
PAUL: It took us two days to shoot it. It was one day [of] all the dialogue leading up to the fight and then a solid full day of shooting directed at this fight. I mean, we got cuts and bruises all over the place. It was just so messy — I mean, we were having so much fun.
GILLIGAN: Was it fun to do that? Because it was hard for us to watch.
PAUL: I loved it.
[Jonathan Banks, who was getting ready downstairs for the cast reunion shoot, violently pounds on the door and enters the room, wearing a pink dress. Everyone laughs.]
CRANSTON: Oh my God! [clapping] Oh, look at you. You are just in time! Please make the beds, clean up around here.
BANKS: Oh, Christ on a crutch! [to Gilligan] How are you, boss? [He hugs everyone.]
PAUL: This is a nice look for you. I love it!
CRANSTON: Only Banks.
BANKS: Good to see you.
PAUL: Wow. That’s perfect. It wasn’t just Banks who was banging on the door — it was Banks in a dress.
GILLIGAN: Weird, because we’re more used to seeing him in sort of a blouse-y pantsuit.
NEXT PAGE: Cranston, Paul, and Gilligan on “Four Days Out,” “Fly,” and Skyler backlash
How would you describe your relationship now? How have the bonds that you established on the show endured?
CRANSTON: When I met him, he was young and single, and now he’s old and married, and now he’s a father. He didn’t have any of those things, but what he did have was a natural appreciation for his good fortune, and I don’t think he realized the depth of how talented he was. And that I think was a good thing. He didn’t realize all he was doing. He had a good ethic, just keep his head down and keep working. And that’s the thing that I appreciated most about it from the work end of it. But he’s an even better person than he is an actor. He’s a good-hearted, good-spirited person. You’re naturally attracted to that, to see if there’s any sustainability. Vince doesn’t have any of that. [All laugh.]
GILLIGAN: That is true.
PAUL: [To Cranston] I love you, man.
CRANSTON: I love you too. We’re very lucky.
PAUL: He’ll be in my life forever.
CRANSTON: It’s not imperative that you even like the people you work with. It’s not. But you still have to do your job. It makes things easier when you like them, and if it develops into a genuine love, you are so lucky. And that’s what happened.
Breaking Bad was one of the first binge shows. When Netflix began streaming the first few seasons, it led to massive growth in viewership. I’m hard-pressed to think of another show that had been around that long that spiked up so violently toward the end of its run. What was that like to be in the middle of the tornado?
PAUL: It felt extremely exciting to say the least. But truth is, we knew we were doing something special. We knew we were doing something that was different. We also were confused that we didn’t have a bigger audience at the beginning. Because we saw how people were reacting. We read what critics were saying. Bryan winning best actor at the Emmys for our first season with only seven episodes under our belt. We knew all of this was saying something, but our audience still was very small. But they were so loud and so passionate. People want to consume large quantities of television and that was proven when Breaking Bad landed on Netflix. It just kicked open the doors so wide and allowed people easier access to this show to dive in in a bigger way. But that tornado was definitely a crazy ride for us all. It was if someone pulled my mask off in a way. It wasn’t as if people slowly started watching the show. That’s when the paparazzi really started, [I was] being followed, people showing up at my house….. I remember the first time we were a question on Jeopardy!. That was a big moment for everybody.
CRANSTON: It was Netflix that really changed the dynamic for us. I really don’t know if we could have created the maelstrom of interest without it. It came around at just the right time for us. Time, Rolling Stone, Esquire, GQ — once they started calling it was like, “Wow! I’m not exactly the GQ, Esquire prototype. Well, something’s afoot.”
GILLIGAN: When I heard Warren Buffett was a fan, that was a big one for me. Seriously. Also, when I heard on the same day that Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh were both fans of Breaking Bad, I just thought, “Man, if we can pull this many disparate fans together on one TV show, maybe we can bring Israel and Palestine together, maybe we can get world peace.”
Two episodes spring to mind as stand-out episodes, a pair of narrow-focused two-handers: season 2’s “4 Days Out,” and season 3’s “Fly.” What resonates to you about those two episodes, and which memories come to mind?
CRANSTON: I think both of those were very restrictive as far as movement, as far as ability for expansion in story, and sometimes in its simplistic form, if you can find characters, you can get more out of it. “4 Days Out” was just a great experiment in that kind of restrictive nature and how different it can be in storytelling.
GILLIGAN: It’s funny you mention two episodes that were essentially designed as bottle shows.
CRANSTON: “4 Days Out” was, as well?
GILLIGAN: It kind of was because we were way over budget, which we often were, and “4 Days Out” was designed to be something of a bottle show, because the vast endless prairie that these guys are shooting on in that episode was in reality maybe a third of a mile from our soundstage.
PAUL: Right behind the soundstage, so if you just turned the camera 180, there’s ABQ Studios!
GILLIGAN: And it’s funny because all that area now looks like Valencia, California. It’s just covered with townhomes.
CRANSTON: Even where we shot in the back there?
GILLIGAN: Well, you can go further out now, but back when we started, it was just Q Studios and nothing across the street… But what I remember about “4 Days Out” is that it was the first episode that the great Michelle MacLaren directed, who wound up directing more episodes of Breaking Bad than any other director. I had worked with her a great deal on X-Files when she was a producer of that show, but she and I had only worked together one other her time with her directing. I just thought it would be fun to have my friend Michelle direct one. I knew she was a good director. I don’t think I honestly understood how good she was, and my biggest delight about “4 Days Out” is about how brilliantly it’s directed. A lot of it takes place in an RV, or out on this plain that’s just endlessly flat and looks the same in all four directions. And the shots she found, the stories she told visually, the added value that she gave to a very good script and turned it into something truly great, to this day tickles me. She really put her mark on the show from that day forward.
PAUL: It was a two-man play. I have such fond memories of the Winnebago and of the meth lab.
CRANSTON: I remember the antenna. With the spoil.
PAUL: I mean, Pinkman was full of pretty ingenious ideas.
GILLIGAN: I think so! I like how he put a little knob on the top of it.
PAUL: “This is going to help!”
CRANSTON: Both [“4 Days Out” and “Fly”] were slow. We’re stuck. We might be stuck forever. The heat was building. We’re out of fuel, the battery is dead, we finished our cook. But we are out in the middle of the desert, and we could die out here. And that kind of slow realization is one of the hallmarks of our show. God bless him, Vince took the time to just say, “No, let’s just sit with this for a while.” What would that be like to look at success on one end? “We made this great cook, and we’re ready to go, “Yeah, we’re good — oh, we’re not good. We did an unbelievable cook, we’re exhausted, we’ve made a tremendous amount of potential money, and we might die out here. And if we die out here, everyone is going to know our story.” And he used every ounce of his ingenuity, and history, and intelligence, to be able to solve the problem because he knew he couldn’t rely on Jesse Pinkman. That boy was not gonna get us out of that trouble.
PAUL: Literally the only person I worked with on that particular episode was Bryan. It was the essence of the show. It was two men in the desert in a Winnebago, cooking meth trying to survive. And it really just paints the whole show — the odd-couple dynamic between Walt and Jessie was just pitch-perfect in that particular episode.
CRANSTON: And then the “Fly.”
PAUL: Rian Johnson. This was his first one [directing].
GILLIGAN: Whatever happened to that guy, Rian Johnson?
CRANSTON: He’s doing industrial films.
PAUL: The “Fly” gets talked about all the time.
CRANSTON: It’s polarizing.
PAUL: People either love it or they’re like, “Ah. What was up with that? I don’t get it.” It’s so interesting because I watched it and I’m like, “God, this is f—ing brilliant.” I mean, maybe I’m biased but I don’t see the argument of, “Well, I don’t understand it.” Maybe it was just too quiet for them, I don’t know?… It’s rare that you get an internal Breaking Bad episode, and “Fly” gives you that — you’re really inside of this man’s head a little bit.
GILLIGAN: It might be quiet for some folks who want to see more run and jump and whatnot. And that’s cool. There’s a lot of different things to hold one’s interest. That is one of my favorite episodes ever, written by Sam Catlin and Moira Walley-Beckett, and that was one of the hardest ones to break. It usually takes us one corkboard per episode. This one took two corkboards, and we were freaking out. But it was very much a Waiting for Godot structure. Good acting was assured, and then when we had a script that we were proud of we thought to ourselves, “Okay, we’ve got two out of three here, but if this thing gets directed in a visually uninteresting manner — because we’re all in one room for the entire thing — we’re going to be screwed.” And then Rian Johnson just hit it out of the park. He found places to put that camera in that super lab set — which had been shot quite a bit by that point — that I never would’ve thought to if you’d give me 100 years.
CRANSTON: The “Fly” slowed down to a point where it was a man against fly. That was the whole show. [“Fly”] slowed it down. Instead of turning off the audience, it made them lean in. And then Aaron came in as Jesse and was trying to be the Greek chorus. By the time Jesse came into that story, the audience was going, “What is he doing?,” and so Jesse comes in and goes, “What are you doing?,” and was on the side of the audience, and helped them understand that they’re not crazy, that Walter White was crazy… Also the fact that Walter White had to cave in. At that moment, he was dealing with so many things that broke open his mind like a melon. Everything started flooding into his psyche, and into his world, that he was not prepared for. And I think he subconsciously felt like he needed to slow things down, to an understandable, controllable object goal, and apply the effort to achieve that goal. And that was: eliminate the possibility of this contamination. It was an expression of needing to control things. Because things were spinning out of his control.
Which were the most fun eras of your characters to play — and which were the most challenging? Bryan, you go from the meek chemistry teacher to the say-my-name Heisenberg to the desperate Walt at the end, while Aaron, you’re the baggy-clothed burnout kid who becomes this numbed-out nihilist and then ultimately a meth slave…
CRANSTON: Most fun were the moments where there was room for comedic involvement. Mostly early on.
PAUL: Earlier on, for sure.
CRANSTON: When I’m trying to teach him things and he’s only getting so far as the first word I said. [All laugh.] And trying to teach him a little bit about chemistry or science. Or saying, “Make sure you get a particular type of plastic for the bathtub.”
PAUL: He’s like, “I have a great idea! And I have a perfectly good bathtub to use. Why do I need some plastic?”
CRANSTON: Those are fun moments. As the tension started to mount, as the seasons went on, obviously there was a sacrifice. Some of the humor had to go because it was twisting so tightly. It kept ratcheting up, and there were times when we were naturally together. When Gus Fring [Giancarlo Esposito] first came into the picture, we were natural allies then. We had to stick together and try to figure things out as he was calling the shots.
PAUL: This show is arguably one of the most intense pieces of television ever, and it was grueling at times, but I look back and it was all so… fun. Bryan and I, from day 1 we shared a double-banger trailer, so he was on one side, and there was a wall that separated the other end of the trailer, I was on the other. And him and I would just run lines together inside the hair-and-makeup trailer or run lines outside of our trailer. Even the heaviest of moments after just a brutal scene, I would say, “Oh my God, that was so much fun.” But one of the most intense things that I had to go through as an actor with this character, was watching Andrea [Emily Rios] die, or waking up next to Jane and trying to revive her. I remember watching that episode with my whole family in Idaho — my grandmother was there. It opens up, and you just hear the sounds of the bedsprings going off and you hear some grunting. And there’s laughter in the room, and they’re like “Oh no, Grandma, close your eyes,” because they thought, “Oh, there’s going to be a sex scene.” And then it cuts to one of the most tragic things you could see.
CRANSTON: In retrospect, when you look at it, [pointing at Paul] he had to do more depth-of-emotion, tearing-you-apart kind of things, and Walt had an opportunity to rise from the milquetoast character to become the power. [to Paul] So I think just how it affected your body and your emotions, had the harder job, because he was more often than not just ripped apart by utter torment and pain, whereas Walt was often the cause of some of that pain.
PAUL: I remember when Jesse’s house is invaded with just crackheads, and he’s so alone, and he makes this desperate plea to Mr. White to go Go-Karting with him. And he says, “No”; he has plans. And just this sad moment of him — it’s so funny, I’ve had screenshots sent my way when the closed caption is on screen and it said, “Sadly Go-Karts.” [All laugh.]
GILLIGAN: I can’t pick a favorite, but at that moment when you were banging your head inside that car and the Nazis are holding you captive and you’re forced to watch Andrea get murdered, it was just like watching a wild animal or something. It was so hard to watch. It’s so amazing. When you went home that night, how quick is it to go away?
PAUL: Well, [pointing at Cranston] he taught me very early on, “Aaron, it is okay to wash the makeup off and leave it at work. It’s healthy, actually.” The first couple seasons I was so excited about this opportunity and I just didn’t want to f— it up. It was like going to work in a master acting class opposite him, performing the greatest writing possible, so we knew we were incredibly spoiled from day 1. So I have to stay in that moment. And you think it’s happening. You’re forcing yourself to believe that you’re watching a loved one get murdered, over and over and over again, and then when it’s done you’re like, “Thank God.” You’re vibrating. That was my last scene of the night. I remember getting in the van. I was crying so much in that car. I kind of just broke down a little bit on the way back to the hair-and-makeup trailer to wash everything off, just quietly in the back.
There are many iconic pivotal moments on the series, from Walt watching Jane die to Hank confronting Walt to Jesse killing Gale [David Constabile]. What’s one that people don’t talk about enough?
CRANSTON: What strikes me first is the death of innocents. Whenever there was an innocent that was taken—the kid on the motorcycle, the street-corner kid — anytime that there is collateral damage to what we were doing, that’s what was really painful. Like [with] Andrea, it’s like, “Oh my gosh.” And then the moments that were built in to help lighten and brighten the moment, with [Marie, played by Betsy Brandt] and her obsession with purple, and the braggadocio, demonstrative way that Dean had his character. And then the simplicity of just being a father to [Walt Jr., played by R.J. Mitte], and his attempt in trying to get his parents back together. The innocence of that and the damage that Walter White was causing him indirectly and directly. I think those are the little threads that don’t get the attention because they’re not the big splash, but they’re part of the foundation of it. And without that, it wouldn’t have as great a meaning.
PAUL: For me, all that. Sympathy for Skyler.
GILLIGAN: That’s got to be my answer, too.
PAUL: Why did our audience not sympathize with this poor woman? Granted, she is the thorn in Walter’s side, and everyone’s rooting for Walter to succeed, but my God. You wake up one day, you find out your husband is a meth kingpin, you’re going to have something to say about that. I really felt for Anna [Gunn], because she’s just such a beautiful human inside and out, and played Skyler in such a fierce way, and people just dragged her character the most.
CRANSTON: [to Gilligan] Now, what happened in the writers’ room with that? “Okay, if we create sympathy for Walter White, who’s doing this questionable thing, then does she by de facto become the antagonist to this?”
GILLIGAN: The pilot episode, I was worried about Walter White being sympathetic, because I thought if people don’t sign on to watch this guy cook meth and learn the meth business, then no one’s going to watch the show. I got less and less worried about characters being sympathetic after that point. I never worried about any of the characters being particularly sympathetic, just because I assumed they would be. Except for Walt. I figured Walt would be the one that’d be hard for people to sympathize with. Suddenly we’re hearing this animus toward Skyler. To this day, it confounds me. Anna Gunn gave such a brilliant performance. We never tried for sympathy or lack of sympathy; we let the chips fall where they may. I would change that if I had a magic wand.
She ultimately won two Emmys for this role, and she wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times about the vitriol that was directed at her. What conversations do you remember having with her about that? Did you think fans would keep rooting for Walt even after he turned into Heisenberg?
CRANSTON: It was confusing to all of us. We didn’t see this coming, and as Aaron said, if you look at the elements that were involved in this — husband she finds out is lying, husband is doing something illegal, is doing something that puts her family in lethal danger, and she’s being chastised for it? It’s like, “Wait a minute.” It baffled me from an objective standpoint. I don’t think anyone could’ve predicted that, but it affected her deeply. She’s a very emotional person, and lovely, and brought that emotion into her work, and was being hammered by that. It affected her. I think it finally came around, and people started realizing the more that Heisenberg started to become this despicable person, allegiances toward Heisenberg were being strained and rightfully so.
PAUL: With all of us. I remember there was definitely a couple of seasons where people absolutely hated Jesse.
PAUL: I got it all the time! Yes.
GILLIGAN: Really? I’ve never heard that, ever. I only heard about Skyler.
PAUL: I have no idea why.
CRANSTON: But what could you have done?
PAUL: [to Cranston] Thank you! People would literally come up and be like, “I hate you!” I’m like, “Oh, great.” Maybe they just hate me in real life, I don’t know…
CRANSTON: That’s probably more accurate.
PAUL: And then it came back a little bit towards the end there. The diehard Heisenberg fans were like, “You f—ing rat.” Really.
GILLIGAN: People are saying this s— to you?
PAUL: Oh, yeah.
CRANSTON: [mock-menacing] Good. My posse. [All laugh.]
GILLIGAN: I could never be an actor — aside from lacking all talent for it. I don’t know how you put up with that stuff.
CRANSTON: No, I am surprised by that.
GILLIGAN: That’s insane. That’s so crazy.
CRANSTON: Eventually I think people had to realize, “Oh, I’ve hooked my wagon to the wrong person. I was sympathetic towards Walter White and he betrayed me.” If you’re a viewer, you have to come to that conclusion, and go, “Oh, my God, I was invested in this person and rooting for him, and he became this evil monster.” That’s why at the end [of the show] I was so happy when he says, “Skyler, I have to tell you why I did this all.” “Please! Don’t you dare tell me that you did this for your family!” “And he goes, “No. [“I did it for myself.”] At least you saw that he came to terms with who he was, and he realized who he was. Maybe it was always there and it just became active like chemistry itself, going back to the very first episode. It’s the study of change, and that’s so brilliantly laid in there — and it came to full fruition at the end.”
NEXT PAGE: The trio on the one story they never got to tell — making “Ozymandias”
What is one area that the show never got around to exploring but you always wished you had the opportunity to do so?
CRANSTON: It was just all in my fantasy. I thought “Well, if we’re exploring not just his transformation occupationally, emotionally, why not have him go a little off? There was a thought: What if he has this wild affair with Wendy [the prostitute, played by Julia Minesci] or someone?
PAUL: [shaking his head] You and Wendy.
CRANSTON: He goes off the rails because he loses himself. I thought that would be interesting in the exploration of losing himself. There was that scene when [Jesse goes] to that drug den and we are walking though and everybody is messed up — that kind of sensibility where you go so deep. My character might display it in a different [way].”
PAUL: I was waiting for the time that Jesse was going to meet Walt Jr. I remember that scene was so heartbreaking, when Walt is in a sleep deprived state, exhausted, falling asleep and he calls Flynn by Jesse’s name. That was just so heartbreaking and Flynn was confused, but he had no idea what that really meant at that time.
GILLIGAN: We talked about Walt having an affair. We talked about Jesse meeting Flynn. We talked about everything. The other thing we talked about was: Should Walter White ever try his own product? He’s so proud of the product. What would happen if he tried it? Would he like it? Would he get hooked on it? Somehow it just never seemed right. It seemed like the thing he’s hooked on was the power and the chemical process. I read stories of former meth cooks. A lot of the recovering ones we talked to or read about said that they became hooked on the process of cooking, as some heroin addicts become hooked on the process of getting a needle ready. It would’ve muddied the waters if he started using the drug, because this was a man who never had control in his life, and suddenly he’s got control. Why mess up a good thing?
In the final rounds of negotiations, AMC was thinking of doing one shorter final season, while Sony [which produces the show] wanted two full seasons. When everyone finally asked what you wanted to do, Vince, you said somewhere between 13 and 20 episodes, and you ended up at 16. What do you remember about that?
GILLIGAN: There was no good arithmetic to it. Basically I was picking a number, and at least it would start between what AMC wanted, what Sony wanted. One of the AMC executives had come to us, and said, “What do you think? You think you could finish it up in about five more episodes?
GILLIGAN: It was just horrible.
GILLIGAN: It’s always been tricky because a studio and a network, not just in the case of Breaking Bad, always have very different economics. The business models work very differently for a studio and a network, so sometimes it turns into a zero sum game. Everyone involved, all of the network people, all of the studio people, were always very supportive of the show and loved the show creatively. I have no complaints at all about the studio or the network ever, but at a certain point, economically, what’s good for one is not necessarily good for the other. Toward the end of the whole process, for very meat and potatoes financial reasons, the network didn’t desire as many episodes as the studio did, so I figured out a number somewhere in the middle.
CRANSTON: I do love the story of you talking about getting in and thinking, “I don’t know how we’re going to fill out 16 episodes.” And then once the writers got in and got energized and started talking, it was the reverse, “We have too much! We need more episodes!”
GILLIGAN: “We’ve got too much stuff, we can’t fit it all in!” Yeah, I was freaking out. I was freaking out constantly for the last year and a half on the show.
CRANSTON: The bottom line, and I think I can speak for Aaron for this, we wanted it to be as long as he felt he needed it, and that’s it. Really, it is. We wanted to go longer because…
PAUL: We were having a good time.
GILLIGAN: And we did too. We all did. The writers, too.
PAUL: He never wanted to be — I’m quoting Vince here — the last person at the party. He didn’t want to water down an episode.
GILLIGAN: You’re right. And I’ll tell you the biggest thing was that damn machine gun. That damn machine gun almost broke us. And I would say that anyone reading this who is getting their own TV show or wants to be a writer: Don’t put something in your story just because it’s cool, without knowing where the hell it’s going to go. At the beginning of the final 16-episode run we said, “How do we open this with a bang? How do we open this with something really cool? Oh, I know, Walt buys an M60 machine gun in the parking lot of a Denny’s.” We’re like, “What are we going to do with it?” “Who the f— knows? We’ll figure it out later.” I literally had conversations where I would bang my head — not super hard, but slowly against the wall for a half-hour on end in the writer’s room. Everybody is sitting there watching me thinking, “Oh man, we better call somebody.” I would say over and over again, “What in the hell? Why did we do this? What is this machine gun? Do we have to pay it off?”
CRANSTON: Yes, you do have to pay it off.
GILLIGAN: Of course you have to pay it off.
CRANSTON: Aaron and I were talking about this. You guys did that year after year. You put yourselves into a corner and then had to write yourself out.
GILLIGAN: That was the worst of that, though.
CRANSTON: But because you had that dilemma it created an inspiring solution to it that was germane to the story.
GILLIGAN: Thank you. We had no choice. It was desperation as a mother of invention in this case. We had to do it. And it took us months.
PAUL: What were some of the other ideas?
GILLIGAN: Anything and everything we talked about. We threw out any kind of idea we could think of. But the one that stuck with us for a while is that we were going to have Walt try to break Jesse out of [jail]. “What do you need a machine gun for?” is the first question. And then we thought, “Jesse gets away from the Nazis, and now he goes to the cops and he’s going to turn state’s evidence against the Nazis.” But they were going to kill him in jail, because very vividly we saw that they have control of all these prisons, so he’s going to get murdered tonight unless Walt busts him out of jail. But then we thought, “Well, what do you need a machine gun outside of jail for?” And then we thought, “Maybe he’s being transferred on a prison bus and once he gets to the prison, he’s going to be murdered. So the prison bus comes over a rise and there’s Walt like Rambo [imitates machine-gun firing] And then we’re thinking, “Well, how the hell does he not kill Jesse doing that?”
GILLIGAN: And the whole time my chest is tightening more and more. And the other thing was Walter White is not Rambo. Only Rambo is Rambo, and Rambo is like a cartoon. Walt is not going to stand there, slow-motion, going [imitates machine-gun firing]. The way he’s got to do it is to use science and use his brain. So when we finally came up with it, I can’t even tell you the relief. It was like the clouds parted and golden sunshine came down.
CRANSTON: Now in retrospect, it looks even more genius, because the first episode of the last season he buys the machine gun. And then the last episode. we think back and we go, “Oh my God, the character knew what he was going to do way back when. He knew what he was going to do with that machine gun. You didn’t, but Walter White did!”
GILLIGAN: The thing I’m proudest of from a writer’s point of view is that we, the writers, made it look like we knew what we were doing every step of the way, and I don’t feel the least bit shy about saying we didn’t have a freakin’ clue. But we stuck at it, blood-sweat-and-teared it for long enough. And that was the other magic ingredient of time. I know from working on network for seven years, I worked on The X-Files, which was a close second for greatest jobs I’ll ever have, but you never have enough time on network. If you want to have the time to make these kind of Swiss watch intricately plotted storylines, you’ve got to have time to game them out. We had time and I’m forever grateful.
“Ozymandias” is considered by many fans to be the show’s best episode, yet it’s one in which Walt and Jesse don’t share a lot of screen time. But when they do, it’s electric and tragic as Walt gives up Jesse to the neo-Nazis. He then says “Wait!” and you think he’s having a change of heart but then levels him by saying: “I watched Jane die.” Where does that rank among the show’s gut-punch moments?
PAUL: That’s in the top five, for sure. It’s just an evil stab in the back…. That moment of Jesse finding out what Walt did was a moment that I really wanted to happen. I felt that Jesse deserved to know what happened, how evil this man truly can be. But the moment I read it, my heart was ripped out, and I thought to myself, “God. No, maybe he doesn’t need to know this. Why does he need to know this?” I was really surprised by my reaction to it. Because I always thought I wanted it. But then I realized I did not want it. [Laughs.]
CRANSTON: Walt telling Jesse felt unnecessary. It was difficult to reconcile that. I had to figure out a way to make that make sense for Walt to be able to do it. He’s transformed into a man who is much more impulsive, ego-driven, and emotionally susceptible than when we first met him…. It wasn’t just a transformation of intent and agenda that this man — a man of science — was all of a sudden going to become impulsive, driven by ego. And, as we saw, this was pure ego. He wanted to drive that into him for what he felt was betrayal.
GILLIGAN: It’s funny what Aaron was saying. It was unpleasant for us too… That one was a subject of a lot of debate, because we said to ourselves, “Does he need to know?” And “Does Hank Schrader need to know?” We had that discussion, too, that his brother-in-law is Heisenberg. There’s an alternate universe of Breaking Bad where Hank [Dean Norris] never finds out and where Jesse never finds out about Jane, and it could work. It just felt wrong to us that they never have that knowledge—as awful, as hurtful, as it is. Actually, what we thought for the longest time was: there’s got to be a way for Jesse to figure it out on his own. Maybe with the help of Mike Ehrmantraut, who seems puzzled the very first time we see him; he pokes at this broken pane in the window. We thought, “Well, maybe Mike will tell Jesse. Maybe Jesse will figure it out on his own.” Then we realized there was no earthly way for that to happen. It had to be a moment where Walter White told him out of anger, and a lust for revenge, and a desire to lash out. But we just felt like as unpleasant as it was, we didn’t like the alternative.
NEXT PAGE: Cranston, Paul, and Gilligan go deep on the series finale
Walt built this empire of meth that was almost rivaled by his empire of lies. It was hard to know what he believed about himself, but in his final conversation with Skyler, he shows some self-awareness: “I did it for me. I liked it, and I was good at it.” Did he even partially redeem himself in the end with his plan to get the money to his family or was it really just another act of selfishness? He goes against his family’s wishes, who told him that they didn’t want this money, and through more lies and manipulation with Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) and Elliott (Adam Godley), he attempts to justify his whole criminal operation.
CRANSTON: Ill-gotten gains are not redemptive. I think when he came up with that plan, the way it reconciled within me to be able to play that was that this is really my only option here. I think it’s more of the latter of your premise there. If they knew where it was coming from, they might reject it. So, it had to be anonymous. That’s why he went to Elliott and Gretchen, and he had to make that threat severe enough and believable enough, even though it was a paper tiger….. And even Junior, who he knew didn’t want to see him because of that last phone call — at least if I could get to see him, yeah, it’s one-sided. It’s unrequited, but at least it’s some measure of comfort and closure. I was just saying my private and silent goodbyes — “I love you, son” — for my own benefit. And then with the daughter. And then I took the chance of seeing Skyler in person. That’s when it all came to fruition. The thing that Vince and I disagreed on early on was that as he was going on with his life, why was he doing this? And Vince said, “You’re doing it because you love it and you’re fully empowered by it and your ego is driven,” and I said, “That may be subconsciously true, but on the conscious mind, the justifiable mind, is that I’m doing it for my family.” That was our ongoing debate with each other. I said, “Vince, you’re right! But for me to play it, Walt has to be driven by his self-righteousness — what he believes to be true — even if it’s not true to the outside viewer. This is how I need to play this, so it’s true to me.” He goes, “I got it. We got it.” So we went back and forth on that, back and forth on that; we realized we could coexist with different approaches to the agenda. And so much so that he put it in the last scene! He put the argument that we had in the very last scene with Skyler, when I said, “You know why I did this?” “Oh, please, don’t tell me that you did it for your family!” And it was absolutely appropriate. When I read that, I went, “Oh, my God, you are a super genius to be able to take our conversation and put it at this point where Walt truly has to come clean with his own reality — and he does.” And it’s just brilliant.
GILLIGAN: That’s the great thing about the show, is it contains multitudes. To quote Walt Whitman, “It was, in a sense, both things.” It’s really in the eye of the viewer. Me personally, I think it was probably as much of a selfish act as but it’s the kind of selfishness I could get behind. That I can sympathize with…. We knew he had to pay with his life, because the promise that’s made in the first episode of the story. Although we did talk about every possibility under the sun, including the idea that ironically everyone is dead. The family, everyone. He’s the only one who survives — but then we thought, “That’s anarchic and too ironic.” But we knew he had to win on some level in the final episode; otherwise the audience wouldn’t feel as satisfied. Because, as he would say himself, to Skyler on several occasions, “If you don’t let me do this, all the things that I did truly were for nothing.” And we couldn’t do that to him and we couldn’t do that to Skyler, and Walter Jr., and baby Holly, so we knew, more important than killing all the Nazis, emotionally speaking, was Walt following through on his promise to give that money to his family. We knew if we didn’t do that we wouldn’t have much of an ending at all. Bringing Gretchen and Elliot through mechanism of them being seen on The Charlie Rose Show at his lowest moment, we were so proud of ourselves. But let me tell you, it did not come easy. But let me tell you, it took eight smart people — well, it took seven and then me — months and months and months.
At the end of the finale, Jesse has a gun on Walt and notices that he’s mortally wounded. He ultimately denies Walt’s request to shoot him: “Do it yourself.” How much of that was a final eff-you to Walt, and how much was Jesse not wanting any more blood on his hands?
GILLIGAN: As the first fan of the series, I didn’t want to see Jesse shoot Walt. So all of us writers got together and said, “Why doesn’t he shoot the son of a bitch? He’s got a million good reasons to do it.” Then we thought, “If Walt’s wounded, I could believe that Jesse would rather him suffer.” But Jesse, at heart, is not a murderer. One of the terrible things about the story is that he became a killer on several occasions to save his partner, in order to do the right thing…. Also, he’s done taking orders from Walter White. He’s not taking any more requests here. That’s probably as important as anything. If a viewer likes to think it’s sad: “Well, there’s some residual feeling between these two, so he’s not gonna murder the guy,” so be it. I wouldn’t argue with him.
PAUL: We read that scene together for the first time, and it was almost like a beacon on our desk that we made forbidden. It was very hard for me not to pick it up, but also on the same note, I didn’t want to pick it up, I didn’t want to know how it all [ended]. We always talked about that: Who is going to survive this? Jesse? Walt? Who’s going to kill the other? I don’t think, deep down, Jesse is a ruthless killer. I mean, he just murdered someone the moment before this moment — he strangled Todd with his chains, but… I don’t think he wanted anything to do with this. He just wants to get as far away from Walt, as far away from all of this bloodshed, as possible.
CRANSTON: It was so interesting. From Walt’s point of view, he calls on the Nazis to bring Jesse here. And they’re like, “Oh yeah, this is going to be fun. Oh, I can’t wait. You guys hate each other.” There is that point where I think I’m going to kill him too.
PAUL: “Yeah, bring him here. Bloodshed. Let’s do this.”
CRANSTON: “Bring him here and we’re all going to go. Bang, bang, bang, bang!” And then for me it was that last moment. “When I see that person, this is what I’m going to tell them,” and then you’re in the presence of that person and all of a sudden you change. And that’s what happened. I saw saw the state that he was in, which surprised me, and whatever sense of parental love, or familial caring, or compassion came out, and it was like “Well, it’s going to be this way. We’re going to do it in a little different way.” And then it got to the point where I hope that maybe he could survive.
GILLIGAN: Steal from the best, they always tell writers in writer school, and we were stealing from The Searchers. It was a bit of an homage to The Searchers in that John Wayne throughout all the years that he and Jeffery Hunter searched for Natalie Wood, he says the whole time, “I’m going to kill her when we find her,” and they find her and he just can’t do it. And you’re thinking when you watch the movie, “How’s she going to get saved? What plot machination is going to…?” And when you see it it’s so devastatingly simple that you almost feel like, “Wait a minute,” and your chest tightens up and tears well up in your eyes and you see he sweeps her up in his arms and protects her. Figuratively that’s what was happening at the end in that final episode.
CRANSTON: What was surprising to me is that I still don’t know what this was. Because he was still upset with [Jesse]. Walt was broken, but when he saw him broken we’re now on the same plane, like when we met. And I saw what they did to him, and it’s like, “Okay, if he can be saved….” I knew I still had to push that button and if he doesn’t get hit, it’s going to be a miracle, but it’s the only thing I can do right now.
What did you want to convey in their very final exchange, with only that look?
CRANSTON: It was saying goodbye as actors and as characters, and it’s that profound. It was perfect the way [Vince] ended it—
CRANSTON: —and that Walt died in the arms of the things that he loved, his chemistry, and that you got away. [Gestures to Paul] You’re happy, but you’re also distraught. It was such a beautiful image to see three, four, five different emotions just vomiting out of you! We saw the goodness of that character, and that’s what the audience was left with. While my character came to a justifiable end, an honest end, what we were also left with, in a very delicate way, is a sense of hope. We’ve had a lot of heartache. A righteous character, Hank, just trying to do the right thing. Miserable death. The innocent people who died along the way. The destruction of [Marie]. Her husband was shot and killed. The destruction of the family. Everything. Leave us with something, just one grain, and that was it. When he breaks through that chain link fence and is driving away, we are left with that one little grain of hope, and I think the whole audience is going, “Drive fast, man. Get out. Get out. Get out. Do something. Go somewhere.”
PAUL: Just that release. I remember Bryan said to me, “That’s the last moment on screen that you have.” It’s the last time the audience sees Jesse, and, for some reason just the driving away, this pain I have from him, from everything, but finally just being free and just screaming and crying and just laughing all at once, was just such an honest, real way to end it. For this man.
GILLIGAN: Directing the scene where Walt and Jesse say their goodbyes, so to speak, it was moving. And that look is more important than a thousand words from Jesse. The good news is they’re two of the best actors who ever lived, face-to-face with each other, and I can tell you for a fact I wasn’t sitting there, doing take after take, saying, “Oh, I’m not quite getting it. Can you think about dead babies?” It’s a complicated stew of feelings. “Okay, I got it, boss.” And then they do it. And then you [ask them to] do it again, not because you need a second take, but just because you enjoyed watching it in person so much that you figure, “Well, I want to see it one more time because I’m never gonna see this in person again. I’ll watch it on TV, but I’ll never see it in person again, so greedily I’m gonna do another take.”
What do you like to think happened to Jesse — and what actually happened to Jesse? Because those might be two different questions.
CRANSTON: I think he got away, and maybe that’s just the hopefulness in me thinking that from an objective standpoint.
PAUL: I think he got away as well, and again that’s maybe the hopefulness on my part as well. But I think he ran as far as he could as quickly as he could and just went into hiding. I’ve painted a very detailed picture of where I would like him to be. I think the idea of him just driving Northwest.
PAUL: Yeah, just straight up into Alaska, a mountain town in the middle of nowhere, and just started building things with his hands.
CRANSTON: That’s the same kind of image I have. He goes to someplace where he has to purge himself of the dirt on his soul. He has to cleanse himself somehow, and the way to do that is to accept nothing and build up from that nothing in a completely different way.
PAUL: And to get there is going to take him time, but he needs to have some time to somewhat recover from the hell that he’s been dragged through.
GILLIGAN: The short answer is, I’d like to think he got away. I think Jesse has suffered enough. But again, until we hear otherwise — something else is added to the canon — It’s really in the eye of the beholder. It’s funny, people do ask me from time to time, “What happened to Jesse?” As if my opinion gives it some sort of a imprimatur of authenticity. I guess I understand why people would think that, but unless and until we do it for real, anyone’s opinion is every bit as valid as mine. Personally, I’d like to think he got away. I don’t know how he got away exactly, and maybe he got to Alaska. I’d like to believe that he did because I think most folks can agree he’s suffered enough.
What did you love about the final moment of the series, as Walt admires Jesse’s meth lab set-up before keeling over? He died with his true love, with chemistry; he was always at home with his machines.
GILLIGAN: At the end he was Gollum with his Precious. The true love of his life was the chemistry, was the science, and the knowledge that he had created something very special. it’s a terrible shame that, that thing he created that was so special was crystal meth. It’s another terrible irony, but he was the best at it. And it’s something to be the best in the world at a thing, no matter what that thing is. And one of my favorite episodes of the original Twilight Zone was I believe it was called “A Game Of Pool,” and it was a pool match between Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters. And Jonathan Winters’ character, who has come back from beyond as the world’s best pool player to play Jack Klugman, says, “I’m just a pool player. There’s probably nothing less important in the world, but mark this, I’m the best.” I was probably thinking of that episode of The Twilight Zone, my favorite show, when I was writing that scene. Because there’s something about being the best, and it’s a wonderful feeling. But what a terrible shame that it has to be crystal meth that you’re the best at.
PAUL: Leave it to Vince and the rest of our incredible writers to truly nail this f—ing landing. The pressure was on. We were all standing in our corner waiting for it to happen. Shows can be perfect and then at the end of the day, it’s very hard to nail that landing, that ending, because a lot of people just didn’t want it to end. So you’re not going to please everybody. But with this show, Walt having his hand on his true love as he’s dying is just so perfect. It’s perfect, it’s beautiful, it’s poetic. And it’s sad.
CRANSTON: The last scene for Walt was just perfect because it didn’t need words. We saw the level of the appreciation and love he had for chemistry, which he never lost. It was always deeply embedded in him. And the interesting thing for me too, it was the journey. This was exactly two years. We start the pilot and he’s 50 years old. The last day of his life, he’s at that Denny’s again and he arranges the bacon in 52. He dies on his birthday, and that was it. Those last two years of his life were filled with emotion, a journey — in retrospect, even though he knows he’ll die, it was worth it. That it was better to risk everything and to live life to its fullest in those last two years than the alternative, [which] would’ve been to just wither away. That’s why he was able to calmly, adoringly look at his children in various states and shapes and appreciate the private relationship that he had with it.
NEXT PAGE: The trio on life after Bad — and whether Walt and Jesse will pop up on Saul
How difficult was it to say goodbye to this experience and move on? And how did it impact your choices for roles after Breaking Bad, knowing this was a once-in-a-career kind of show?
PAUL: We were all blessed that it happened. It was hard to emotionally say goodbye to the people on the show, the crew, and the character that you zipped on every day. It’s crazy to think I’ve hung up those cleats and I won’t be playing that guy again. But you can’t just hold on to the past, otherwise you’re not going to be able to move forward. We were lucky enough to be a part of a show where the writing was the best writing you could possibly be a part of. So it’s just about trying to chase after similar material in terms of quality. I mean, you can’t really do something like this and then go back to — trust me, I’ve done my fair share of s—ty projects, you know what I mean? Just because I’m an actor and it’s a tough business and I wanted to work. I had to pay my dues. But you can’t hold on to the past. You’ve got to have that in your back pocket, but you’ve got to march forward and try to continue to challenge yourself. What Vince Gilligan did for me, he gave me a career. I had ups and downs, highs and lows — probably more lows than highs — but the highs outweighed the lows in such a dramatic way that I never really felt the true struggle. And I look back and I realize, “Wow, there were moments where I was definitely struggling.” But now it’s just a whole different game for me. And I owe it all to Vince.
CRANSTON: I probably mentioned this before, but I think it still holds true, and I think it’ll always hold true, and you know what? I like it. It will be the opening line of my obituary. I’m absolutely happy about that. Our lives are filled with peaks and valleys, and that was certainly the peak of my career. Now, there are other mountaintops and other peaks, but will it ever ascend to a higher plateau? I don’t know. I can’t imagine. But what Breaking Bad did is that it gave me an entrée to a higher level of writing talent and directing talent, and there truly is an enormous difference. I have been aware of and offered and available to do work that is incredibly well-told, and that’s because of Breaking Bad. It opened up the doors for me. At first, it was difficult because I was kind of snooty about it. In the sense that, I thought that, “Well, I’ve been given this great gift of this brilliant show and, from here on, I can only do material that is as good.” What I realized is that it’s unfair to every writer I come in contact with, every producer. It’s unfair to myself to think that anything I do after Breaking Bad has to reach or exceed that bar. It’s not tenable. So, I discarded that, and the first thing I did after Breaking Bad was Godzilla. I went in the total other direction and I said, “Just embrace the fun. Just let go. Don’t try to hold on with any kind of rigidity about some kind of dogmatic belief that it has to reach a certain quality level…” So, I let go, and I had a blast doing Godzilla. I like to keep moving around. I like to challenge myself and Breaking Bad has given me that opportunity to work for the rest of my life, which I’m eternally grateful for, and I will always feel like I owe Vince Gilligan. He’s a dear friend now and I’m just thrilled. I’d love to see if there was a way to work with him again somewhere, somehow down the road.
Vince, you didn’t say goodbye — you chose to stay in this world.
GILLIGAN: We knew we needed to end Breaking Bad. We didn’t want to overstay our welcome, but we also knew there was more to the world, and honestly, I wanted to keep the band together. I wanted to keep the writers, as many as the actor as possible, and the crew together. We loved Albuquerque, New Mexico. But if I’m being honest, not even as much for storytelling reasons, that we just liked all those people. I wanted us to have a reason to stick together. We’re so lucky that Better Call Saul was turned in to what its turned into, and I couldn’t be more proud of the show. Just as I never thought Breaking Bad would be a hit, I never in my wildest dreams thought Better Call Saul would be talked about in the same breath in terms of quality. Really, all I hoped for was that it wouldn’t be AfterMASH. I wanted to not be an embarrassment that left a bad taste in everyone’s mouth after Breaking Bad, and thank God, it turned into so much more.
The show lives on not just through Netflix and fans, but through its prequel. Was it at the Saul premiere that the two of you found out that you weren’t in Better Call Saul?
PAUL: I remember going [to the premiere party for] the first season of Better Call Saul. You and I kind of ducked behind the red carpet — it was their night. I remember watching it and seeing all of my old friends all together, and then a lot of them onscreen as well, and thinking quite a lot that I was not up there with them.
CRANSTON: Yeah, it was weird.
PAUL: It’s odd. I’m a huge fan of Better Call Saul and now, this previous season, just more and more characters are revealing themselves.
CRANSTON: Have you visited the set yet?
CRANSTON: I have.
PAUL: I absolutely do plan [to].
CRANSTON: It’s so emotional. Because everywhere you turn you’re seeing someone you know.
PAUL: It’s the same people.
CRANSTON: And we love the show too. There’s something about watching Saul that has a sense of familiarity to it, and thematically the milieu of it, and yet it’s completely different. It’s almost like going to your high school reunion after 20 years. You go, “Oh, I think I know them! But they’re in different positions and things are happening that’s very different!” It’s really cool.
GILLIGAN: [to Paul] You’ve got to come visit us. It was awesome when Bryan was there. I was lucky enough to be directing when that happened. Oh, God, everyone went nuts. You could hear the buzz go through the building.
PAUL: Did you just walk into the [scene]? Because my idea, I would love to, as you’re rolling, just kind of come in on screen.
CRANSTON: And just kind of f— up a take? [All laugh.]
You’ve both said you’d be open to appearing on Better Call Saul. As the show inches closer to the Bad timeline, is that something you’re more inclined to do?
PAUL: My attitude towards it is the same I had from when Better Call Saul first started. If Vince decided to put Jesse in Better Call Saul, it’s going to be for a reason, and that reason’s going to be very satisfying for me. I trust in Vince. It would have to have a purpose, and whether he decides to find that purpose, I don’t know. If he does, I’m happy to jump on board.
CRANSTON: He takes such meticulous care of his characters and story—and he changed our lives. “Yes” is the answer. Even if it’s just a brush-by. In real life we’ve come to know people who we’ve seen before, but we don’t know that we’ve seen them before, because we were in the store and we just passed by them. Or we might even have a word or two. “Oh no, please go ahead.” “Thank you for holding the door.” And then five years later you would never remember that. Something as minuscule as that could be very interesting in the fabric of the whole thing.
GILLIGAN: I desperately want to see both of them on Better Call Saul. Peter [Gould, co-creator] wants it, the writers do, the actors do. But it wouldn’t feel as satisfying if it was just a cameo or an Alfred Hitchcock walk-through. I think we waited long enough. We damn well better have a good reason for them to show up…. I just hope we figure it out, because I’ve got to hear “Yeah, bitch!” one more time.
Breaking Bad was revolutionary in terms of how it evolved its main character, and notable in that it was low-rated but given the time to explode into a phenomenon. What lessons would you hope the TV industry takes away from this show?
GILLIGAN: Don’t be afraid to try something new. The golden age of television, quote-unquote, that was ushered in by The Sopranos, The Shield — and I’d love to include Breaking Bad in there as well — those shows were as exciting as they were because they were new, they felt like something different, they felt like something people hadn’t seen before. The lesson I would hope people who run the business wouldn’t take away is, “Okay, now we gotta go back to the well, and we gotta bring back a bunch of old TV shows, or find ways to turn old movies into TV shows.”This crutch of pre-existing IP that everyone seems to want to lean on now is not going to advance this golden age of television.
CRANSTON: I’ve begun producing television now too, and there’s the frustration of that there seems to be a borrowed dogmatic belief from the feature world that if we don’t “open” — in the world of Hulu, and Amazon, and Netflix, it drops and here’s the show — if the opening weekend doesn’t hit, it’s not what we thought it was going to be… A good story has shelf life, but you people in the studio and the network to be able to support that and support the vision of the people who are creating the show, [have] to have patience. If Sony and AMC didn’t have patience with Vince Gilligan, we wouldn’t have been here.
PAUL: If it’s a dangerous idea, yes it’s a dangerous idea, but don’t be afraid to be dangerous.
CRANSTON: I am the danger.
Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.