“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