WALTER WHITE IS STARING AT ME. He doesn’t like what he sees. It’s just before midnight, and we’re facing off in the dusty shadows of an Albuquerque, New Mexico, parking lot, between rows of white trailers. “You chicken?” he asks, freshly razored scalp gleaming under a distant streetlight. “You a scaredy-cat?” He’s not even Walter now – he’s his alter ego, meth kingpin Heisenberg, and in his pitiless blue eyes, I’m everything weak and human and in the way: I might as well be Jesse Pinkman, yo.
The moment passes, and he smiles under his sinister goatee. His eyes defrost. The spell breaks. He’s just Bryan Cranston, an avuncular 56-year-old actor at the end of another 13-hour day of playing what he calls “the role of my life,” the one that’s won him three Emmys and counting. He emerged a couple of minutes ago from one of the production trailers, where he changed from Walter’s unstylish khakis, button-down and Clark Wallabee shoes into his own slim-fit dark jeans, leather high-top PF Flyers sneakers and polo shirt.
We’re heading to a bar about a mile away, and he’s trying to goad me into taking a helmetless ride on the back of his Quadrophenia-ready silver Vespa scooter (a gift from the show’s producers) – and in the process, giving me a taste of Walter White’s persuasive powers. “It’s started to rub off on me,” he says, in his calming, actorly baritone. “You know, it’s great to see how much you can intimidate just by lowering your voice and giving a stare. And it’s like, mostly people back off.”
Breaking Bad is, at its core, a story of transformation – unlike nearly every character in the history of television, Walter White is changing beyond recognition over the show’s 62 episodes. It’s less a character arc than a plunge down a moral elevator shaft. As show creator Vince Gilligan routinely puts it, Walt is going from Mr. Chips to Scarface – from a meek, defeated high school chemistry teacher to a vicious criminal: Last season, he went so far as to poison a child. “Bryan can pull off anything,” says Aaron Paul, who plays White’s unlikely partner, the wounded-eyed hip-hop-damaged slacker Jesse Pinkman (the show is also an extended, bizarre buddy-movie riff). “I mean, he does so many horrible things and yet the fans are still like, ‘Yeah, Walt! F***ing poison that kid! You’re dying of cancer. I understand!’ ”
Adds Gilligan, “You can have a main character like Walter White or Tony Soprano or Don Draper, someone who does questionable things, but since they are the protagonist you can’t help but see the world of the show more or less through their eyes. Sometimes I liken it almost to a Stockholm syndrome, where you as the viewer start to see things as they do, which is a danger when you’re talking about a guy as warped as Walter White.”
After Cranston accepted the role, he started asking people if there was a prior example of such a radical TV-character change – and one friend came up with the only known example: “Fonzie started out as a badass,” says Cranston. “And he became, like, ‘Hey, Mrs. C.’ So this is the reverse Fonzie.”
With its endless paranoia, Breaking Bad is like the frantic final minutes of Goodfellas stretched over six seasons of television. It’s a desert fever dream about a doomed America – though few nightmares have such clockworklike plot construction. Its tone is distinctly less naturalistic and its situations less plausible than other greatest-show-ever contenders (The Sopranos, Mad Men, The Wire). “We’re obsessed with coming up with moments that people won’t soon forget,” says Gilligan, who spent seven years as a writer for The X-Files. “And sometimes they border on the operatic or perhaps on the hyperreal, if not surreal. It’s all about showmanship.”
He’s referring, presumably, to the image of Walt’s nemesis Gus Fring calmly adjusting his tie with half of his face blown off, or a purple, one-eyed stuffed animal diving into Walt’s swimming pool from a crashed plane, or a decapitated head strapped to a tortoise and rigged with explosives. It’s the show’s pulpy DNA – and Gilligan’s twisted sense of humor – that makes Breaking Bad so much deranged fun. “The two shows share something,” says X-Files creator Chris Carter, who had Gilligan write some of that show’s funniest and weirdest episodes. “They both start with outrageous concepts: an FBI agent chasing aliens and a high school chemistry teacher who becomes a meth dealer? Both outrageous.” The meth is out there.
In any case, if Walter White – or even his closest nonfictional analog – wants you to get on a scooter without a helmet, you just do it. We chug along, and everything we pass feels like it could be on the show, probably because much of it is: We cruise Ron Peterson Firearms, Ace Cash Express, De Anza Motor Lodge (where Walter found out about the birth of his daughter) and Octopus Carwash (Walter and his wife, Skyler, bought a nearby franchise – given a different name on the show – to launder their drug money). Cranston takes a deep breath as we approach a traffic light. The blazing sun is long gone, and the air is cool and clean. “It’s a beautiful night,” he says. The light turns green, and Cranston, who spent two years of the Seventies on an Easy Rider-style motorcycle trip, hits the gas. “What could go wrong?” he says, chuckling, as the pavement speeds by at an alarming rate.
Before this trip, Gilligan had offered some safety tips for Albuquerque, though he failed to account for this particular scenario: “Put your sunscreen on. You’ll get the hell burnt out of you there, and if you haven’t been out in high altitude in a while, you’ll wake up at night and gasp. Any time someone offers you a bottle of water, drink it. There’s no worse headache in the world than a dehydrated headache.” He paused, and looked at me seriously: “You could die out there!” Then he laughed for a long time.
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