Bryan Cranston is no longer simply the guy who played Hal, the goofy dad on Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006). Thanks to his fearless performance as high-school teacher turned drug lord Walter H. White on Breaking Bad, which has earned him back-to-back Emmy Awards as Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama, Cranston is a star.
A star in demand too: As AMC kicks off its third season of Breaking Bad on March 21, Cranston also has a quartet of film projects on the way. There's Taylor Hackford's drama Love Ranch, with Helen Mirren and Joe Pesci, and the thriller Leave, which co-stars Ron Livingston and Vinessa Shaw. There's the Tuskegee Airmen drama Red Tails, produced by George Lucas, and Cranston is currently flying back and forth between Los Angeles and London to shoot scenes for the big-budget film version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' classic sci-fi pulp series John Carter of Mars, which stars Willem Dafoe, James Purefoy, Mark Strong, and, as the title character, Taylor Kitsch.
"The game has changed, no question," Cranston says. "One of the problems that a successful actor has is that you are typed as the character you last played, so we're always trying to reinvent ourselves. I knew, after seven years of Malcolm, that it was time for me to do something more serious or, if it was a comedy, something that was a big change.
"I was offered two pilots when Malcolm ended," he continues, "and both of them were goofy, silly dads. And I turned them both down with thank-yous because, if I help to perpetuate that, then I have only myself to blame. So you have to just say no and think, 'I have faith that something will come along and I'll work, but I don't want to be redundant.' I just wouldn't have known how to do a different silly, goofy dad than what I did for seven years on Malcolm.
"So that was that," Cranston says. "It was seven great years. I have terrific memories and I'm very proud of the show, but it was time to move on. And that's how I look at Breaking Bad too, actually. I'm in the moment. I'm enjoying it, I appreciate the compelling storytelling. Let's do this until it's done and, whenever that is, it will be time to move on to something else that's as different from Breaking Bad as Breaking Bad was from Malcolm.
When we last saw Walt, in the second-season finale, his world was falling apart - and simply falling, because a plane had crashed over his house, scattering body parts and plane debris all over the neighborhood. Walt's wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), had left him and taken their baby with her. His brother-in-law, DEA agent Schrader (Dean Norris), was on his trail. And Walt was slipping more and more into his persona as "Heisenberg," the powerful leader of a much-feared drug cartel.
If it seems as if they're making this up as they go along, that's not the case. Cranston recalls meeting with series creator/executive producer Vince Gilligan, more than three years ago, to discuss Gilligan's ideas for the proposed series.
"Over the course of this series, and this is what Vince said, we are going to metamorphose a character from one type of person to another," Cranston says. "He wants to completely change this guy from what I started out as, which was a milquetoast, mild-mannered, depressed, 50-year-old high school chemistry teacher who has missed most of the opportunities in his life, into a guy who, through a set of circumstances that are justifiable, sets himself on a course of destruction and is on a whirlwind roller coaster.
"From that experience Walt will change, just because he needs to in order to survive, in order to protect himself," Cranston says. "And he's not entirely there yet, but he'll become this whole other person with a completely new set of moral values. "
So how does that translate into the events of the third season?
"We'll be making big leaps in terms of getting to that point where he's completely this whole other person," says Cranston, who directed the season opener. "He knows what adjustments he needs to make in order to survive. There's no way he can turn back.... What we don't know yet is how fast it will happen, when he'll get there fully and how long we'll stay with him in that world, as that person, once he gets there," Cranston says.
"There are so many questions," he acknowledges. "Every time we come to the conclusion of an episode, we resolve something but also ask two more questions. That's compelling for me to play, as well. That keeps it exciting."