Bryan Cranston on El Camino's secret reunion, Robert Forster, and if he'll play Walt again
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie was a project about the whereabouts of Jesse Pinkman that was so deeply shrouded in mystery, writer-director Vince Gilligan kept the intel on which other characters from his beloved meth drama would return under tighter wraps than the location of Walt’s money barrel.
As speculation grew over the last year, we could say with 99.1 percent purity that a Breaking Bad movie would simply have to contain at least an appearance by the One Who Knocks, a.k.a. the Danger, a.k.a. Heisenberg, a.k.a. Walter White. The wildly misguided high school chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) who teamed up with aimless punk Jesse (Aaron Paul) to create (and then destroy) a meth-making empire was inextricably adjoined to his partner. Given that Walt succumbed to a mortal wound in the series finale — splayed out next to the machinery that made him both a fortune and a monster — the most logical return for him was not in as a ghost, nodding approvingly as Jesse drove off into the Alaskan wilderness, but rather in flashback form. It arrived near the end of the two-hour thriller: a scene that took place circa season 2’s “Four Days Out,” as Walt and Jesse celebrated a massive meth haul. The duo were first seen striding down the motel hallway on their way to breakfast at a diner, where they discussed the future in the wake of their newfound fortune, but with Walt still facing a terminal diagnosis. (He would go into remission weeks later, only to see the cancer come roaring back later.)
Cranston managed to shoot that sequence by sneaking off during his Tony-winning run in Network for a tactical and stealth operation in January. Today, he’s busy filming the upcoming Showtime legal thriller Your Honor in New Orleans, playing a judge whose son is involved in a hit-and-run accident. “It’s another story about a morality question and decisions that are made that will alter your course forever,” he says. “I seem to love to play damaged men, whether it’s Howard Beale or Walter White or whomever.” During a free moment, Cranston called EW to talk about the man who inflicted maximum damage — a role that netted him four Emmys — and his joy ride in El Camino.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You get a call from Vince saying that he wants you to reprise your role as one of TV’s most memorable, megalomaniacal characters in El Camino. What was your response? “You’re goddamn right”? Maybe command him to say your name a few times before signing on?
BRYAN CRANSTON: I don’t have an answer better than yours. When Vince Gilligan calls, you just know it’s going to be something juicy. And I, too, have received a lot of questions: “What happened to Jesse? Did he get away?” And I go, “What do you think?,” and just put it back on them. It’s all pretty apparent what happened to Walter White. I’m glad that this story wasn’t about, “Hey, Walter is still alive!” Because it wasn’t created that way, it wasn’t intended that way, and there was such a beautiful ending that I didn’t want to pretend it all didn’t happen or say it was a dream or anything stupid. So, the idea of pursuing the next chapter in Jesse Pinkman’s world was interesting to me.
When he told me that he had this idea and he said he wanted me in it, I said, “Okay, I’m going to be curious as to how that happens, but I’ll wait until I read it.” And he goes, “Yeah, good, good, good! But you’re interested, right? You would do it?” I go, “Yeah, of course I’ll do it!” I mean, Vince helped change my life. I was very excited to read it. And I’m honest when I tell you this: I was reading it and my character doesn’t appear until late in the story. And I’ve completely forgot that I was in it. I’m reading and reading and reading and involved — “Oh my God, he goes there, he’s gotta get the money, oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! — and then Jesse exits a motel room and knocks on the room next to him. And lo and behold, the door answers and there’s Walter White. I went, “Oh! Right!” [Laughs] It was so much fun because Vince has an ability to be able to fool you and to mask it — and it was delicious.
Breaking Bad ended so well and it ended definitively, and the rest of the adventure was left in our head. Vince indicated that curiosity got the best of him over the years, though. How surprised were you that he decided to reopen what many considered to be a masterpiece of television?
Well, the good thing about it is that he’s explored everything around it, but he hasn’t touched the actual Breaking Bad canon. He’s gone before and explored this crazy lawyer that we have in Better Call Saul and me and now he’s gone after it in exploring what happened to Jesse Pinkman. I think he’s going to leave it there. He’s touched upon two areas that did bring curiosity and fan interest, but I think as a proud storyteller, he’ll leave well enough alone.
You were playing Howard Beale in Network at the time. Vince said it was a tactical mission to get you across the country in a 36-hour turnaround — and also without any of this leaking out. Did it feel like a surgical strike and an undercover operation at once?
I was doing a show and finished it at five o’clock on a Sunday in January, and I was whisked away in a black sedan. Taken to Teterboro airport in New Jersey and got on a private plane, and off we go to Albuquerque. We land in a private section of the Albuquerque airport. And right at the plane is Dennis Milliken, who is the transportation captain of Breaking Bad, of Better Call Saul, and, of course, of El Camino. He’s there in his black sedan. I get out, I come down the stairs of the private plane, took maybe six steps on terra firma, and then into the car. The bags were tossed in the back. My wife, my assistant Nora is with me, and off we go. Dennis drops us off at an Airbnb, a modest house. And this apartment was in the back of a house. It’s pitch dark. We enter through the back. It’s January, it’s cold. And there’s no one there, not a soul. We get inside and there’s a gift basket of fruit and coffee, and there’s milk in the refrigerator, the basic things you need to survive. My wife and I are dropped off and Dennis says, “Of course you can’t leave.” [Laughs] And I said, “This is amazing!”
I don’t know if you saw, but Badger and Skinny Pete also had lasers trained on you.
I wouldn’t doubt it.…. We were involved in the clandestine operation just as much as anyone and intrigued by it. And so we didn’t leave; we were there for the night. In the early morning, Dennis was there to pick us up in the back, no one’s around, we’re in the back of the sedan, we go to the location, and out I go, and directly into a dressing room. And there was a codename for our characters. It was so funny. You should know the code name. … Bert and Ernie. [Laughs] Isn’t that fun? Aaron was one name and I was the other, and that’s what they called us on the call sheet. Under the heading Greenbrier. Yeah. It was all so secretive that when I went from my dressing room to the makeup and hair trailer, I was asked to wear a cloak…
Aaron said it was a “Star Wars cloak.”
Yeah. You wear the cloak like Obi-Wan, and I go inside the hair-and-makeup trailer and there we had the bald cap and everything, you plaster down my hair, put on the bald cap, [they] did a great job with that. I come to learn later on that the bald cap on top of my hair made my head look like I had swollen brain matter [laughs] and they had to do some CGI correction. It looked good to me in the movie! But we were sequestered there the entire time. There were huge black drops blocking everything at the Owl Cafe where we were working that first day. Everything was blocked off, and I was wearing the cloak going in, but I was able to see some great friends. Everybody who was an extra in that were family members, friends of crew — I mean, a tight, tight unit, and everyone signed an NDA.
We did our café scene that day and then again, back in the cloak. Aaron rented a really nice house that was behind a gate. He and I planned host a party — because I was only there for the one night, let’s have a get-together a dinner with all our closest people there. So we did. Even the caterers had to sign NDAs. The people who were bringing the food and serving it that night had to sign NDAs! It was very, very tightly knit. And I worked the next morning, just did that scene in the hallway of the motel. And then off I went. The cloak goes back on, into Dennis’ car, whisked to the airport, back in in the plane, and foooom! The next thing you know, we’re landing at Teterboro and I’m back in Manhattan Tuesday late afternoon. And it was like, “Did that really happen? Did that just happen? Did we do that or was that a dream?” [Laughs]
That is crazy. Your scene with Aaron was a flashback in the time of “Four Days Out,” following that lucrative cook. What did you think of that scene choice, which came at a much earlier, friendlier, less toxic time in their relationship?
I had to go back and see it again because it had been such a long time, and it was beautifully done. It was a seminal moment in those characters’ lives. It was a bonding moment and in Breaking Bad, we know that bonding moments never happened cleanly; they’re always filled with despair and anxiety and finally some measure of triumph. And they learned a lot. And this was just a little continuation. What I loved about the film is that Vince used moments in Jesse Pinkman’s experience to teach him how to behave at that moment once he escaped the compound to be able to save himself. What he learned, those beats, where he was going to go, what he was going to do and how he was going to survive. And that was so beautifully done.
What was that like to put that skin on — literally, with the bald cap — and sit across the table from Aaron in these roles again? I know that sense memory has always been key for you, with his wardrobe.
It was. Anytime you put on a costume, it helps get you to that character. And over time when I wore the wallabies and the khakis and the pale green shirts and the glasses that Walter White wore — or eventually Heisenberg with pork pie hat and the glasses — it helps like a talisman, just a touchstone back into that character. So every morning when I would put that on, it was like slipping into the character that I was so comfortable with. And at the end of each day, I would go through a specific effort to get rid of that character so that I did not take him home.
This was very much the same thing. It had been six years since we had finished production on Breaking Bad when we were shooting this. And all of a sudden I’m looking that way and I’m looking across and I’m seeing Jesse Pinkman, and and then there’s the familiar faces of all the crew members, ad it was just bizarre to me. It was like, “ We did finish the show, didn’t we? Are we back? Did I have a sleep?” [Laughs] It was like, Wow. Yeah, it’s really, really cool.
Were you and Aaron taken out of the moment at times, just talking about how surreal that it was to be back in these roles together in Albuquerque?
Yeah, we just started smiling a lot. And realizing our great good fortune.
You deliver one of the most powerful lines in the movie. “You’re really lucky, you know that? That you didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.” It’s sad and twisted that this man — who has children, who helped found what would become a big technology company — considered this meth haul to be special. And you’re seeing his Heisenberg alter ego in its nascent stages. How did that line hit you?
I’m glad you pointed that out because that resonated with me greatly and really helped me understand the frame of mind that Walter White was in at the time. When I read that script and read that line, I went, “Oh, wow. That’s where he is. That’s right.” He was so filled with ennui when he was teaching to a classroom full of students who didn’t care, and he lost his spark, he lost his fire, his purpose. He lost his way. That was Walter White when we first met him. And then, out of this extraordinary set of circumstances of his own impending demise, he makes this decision to do what he does and ironically finds greatness in it, finds fulfillment in it, even though he knew very well what he was doing was poisoning the world. It’s such an odd juxtaposition to imagine him reconciling that. But I do believe that every person on this planet is looking for their own personal empowerment. And that’s where Walter White found his — in the simple beauty and mathematical equation of chemistry.
Was there another small moment in that scene that grabbed you in a way maybe you weren’t expecting?
I do think it was poignant because it did set up the potential relationship. And every time there was a potential relationship for these father-son figures, it just went sideways. Perhaps it was because they didn’t have the history with each other. They’re coming into it certainly at the end of one man’s life and at a place in the young man’s life of stagnation. He wasn’t going anywhere. So for him to find a purpose, even as nefarious as it was, was actually an accomplishment for him. That’s why Walter was saying, “Okay, you’ve done this. You’ve got enough money. Now what are you going to do? Where are you going to go?” And the fact that he forgot that he graduated from high school was perfect! [Laughs]
If your schedule had been more flexible, would you have liked to have done more with Aaron in El Camino and had maybe another flashback? Or did it feel like the right amount given that Walt’s story was over and this was now Jesse’s story?
It is Jesse’s story. It is Aaron’s movie. And I liked that it was his movie. It’s his story. And then I was able to be a supporting player in that. That’s what was the appropriate amount. I would only say that I would have, of course, loved to have in it more if it was germane to that character’s growth. If there was another scene where he needed one more piece to the puzzle of how he can escape the condition he’s in and flee to safety, then yeah, great. But if not, then no, I’m good!
You and Aaron have such a strong friendship and now a business partnership with Dos Hombres as well. How much have you talked about teaming up for another TV project or a movie down the road?
No, we haven’t at all. I think we both looked at it and said, “We need to give those characters a rest and we need to step away.” This was a unique situation for El Camino, because of the conditions and situation. That’s different. But we can’t work together. I think it would be a mistake for us to act together again in something so soon. I think there has to be a period of time — the statute of limitations may wear off at some point and we go, “Hey! I think it’s time!” If we find the right material, that we feel there’s been enough years past that we can legitimately be different characters and not bump the audience and that sort of thing. Other than that, we have satisfied our desire to be together by doing Dos Hombres. We’re having a great time. It’s flying off the shelves. We’re excited about that. And we keep expanding and who knows where it all can go.
You all have talked about for years in interviews how you imagined that Jesse escaped to Alaska. It’s been said on the show. The ending was hiding in plain sight! Were you surprised that the movie actually delivered on that?
No. I think that he even brought Jonathan Banks [who plays Mike Ehrmantraut] in to reiterate and say to the audience, “Okay, we’re not coming out of left field with this! In the very beginning of the movie, come on, here it is! We’re saying ‘Alaska,’ we’re telling you!” And then when he ends up there, it’s like, “See? We kind of told you that’s where it was going!” [Laughs] I think it’s very appropriate….
I also just want to take a moment to talk about and appreciate Robert Forster’s involvement with the production and how important his character [of Ed the disappearer] was, not just to Walter White, but then again, to Jesse Pinkman at the end. And what a fitting way to say goodbye to a guy who was such a lovely man….
I wrote about him in my book [2016’s A Life in Parts]. I was working as a production assistant on Alligator 40 years ago, and he just happened to hop into a van that we were being transported somewhere. I was sitting next to him and I knew he was the star and I just kinda kept my mouth shut and he looked at me and asked me what my name was and what I did and talked to me and said, “I’m glad you’re here. You having a good time?” I was just overtaken by his reach to someone unknown, an underling, to help and to welcome someone into the world that he was the no. 1 on the call sheet. And I know that I took that kind of energy with me to where I am now. That’s the thing that I like to do, too, is to introduce myself, welcome people to the show, whatever I happen to be doing. And I know that Robert Forster was at the foundation of learning those lessons.
Vince talked about the little things that Robert can do so effortlessly, like the way his stoic face microscopically changes when he reads Jesse’s letter. In your opinion, what made him special as an actor?
Bob was great at not forcing anything. He was comfortable in just being. As I talk to a lot of young actors, the camera will not lie. It cannot lie. It will see through to your soul. So if you’re trying to do something, it will recognize that. Conversely, if you’re just thinking about something or feeling something, it will also see that. And the mistake that a lot of young actors make often is to try to do something as opposed to feeling it, thinking it and trusting that that’s enough. And that’s what Bob did so well. He just slipped into a comfort zone of what he was thinking and feeling as that character and allowed that to be expressed through his eyes.
What resonates with you about your experience working with him on “Granite State”?
I haven’t seen it in so long. I asked his character to stay with me because Walt was so lonely and I was going to give him some money [$10,000 to spend two more hours with him]. And just the fact that he very nonchalantly looks at me, considers it and in a very inscrutable way — and I know that’s what Vince loved about him because he loves that word “inscrutable” — and instead of saying, “Okay,” or “no,” he ups the ante [by countering with one hour]. And you just don’t see it coming. It’s like you don’t even know if he’s considering it. You’re kind of left alone, which made Walter even more lonely. When you can’t read the emotions of the person you’re with, you’re almost alone anyway. And that’s the irony of it — that even though Ed stayed and played poker, I was feeling still alone because he wasn’t giving of himself emotionally to Walter. And it was sad. It was very sad.
The other thing that happened is that as he was shuffling the cards and dealing, quite by accident, he turns up a king for me and a king for him. And he went, “Hmm. Two kings.” Like that. It’s almost a pale comparison to these two lonely men who are in an isolated environment — not kings at all, but just two men. It was so weird and so beautifully done. And without effort, just acknowledging just what happened. Just a beautiful experience. I also played poker with Bob at Norby Walters’ place — it was kind of a famous poker game on Wednesday nights in Hollywood. Just a silly one-dollar, two-dollar game that all these old actors get together [for]. He had the greatest games and you’re just telling stories and jokes and it’s just a lot of fun. Bob would come as a semi-regular as I am, and I remember being with him on a couple occasions there as well. He’s just a good guy. I miss him already as does the industry as you saw; so many people with the outpouring of what a lovely man he was and what a great actor.
Does the fact that you played Walt again in El Camino make it more likely that you might play him now in Better Call Saul, if this was fun and maybe now some of the mystique has been removed? Or is it less likely because whatever curiosity you had about revisiting this character has been sated?
Well, I don’t think about it at all. The only time I think about Walter White in Better Call Saul is when I get asked that question, and I get asked that question all the time. But I know that that [Better Call Saul co-creator] Vince and [co-creator] Peter Gould, who runs the show, are so protective of their characters and their story that they don’t want to do something that feels like a stunt like, “Oh, hey, we got Sweeps coming up! Look who’s gonna show up on Better Call Saul!” It’s like, “Ewww.” It’s not going to be that. If and when I do — of course I would because for the same reasons of El Camino — it feels appropriate and it’s in the milieu of that storytelling. I would do it because I love those guys and Bob and everybody on that show who I’m a fan of. It would [have to be] very soon according to the story line that I would show up as Walt. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, I’m okay.