Bryan Cranston sounds a bit tired when he answers the phone—it’s the second-to-last day of shooting. “One more day,” he says, and he’ll wrap the first half of the final season of Breaking Bad, in which Cranston plays high-school chemistry teacher turned meth drug-lord Walter White. The 56-year-old actor is packing up his Albuquerque home; in five months, he’ll return to shoot the last eight episodes. In the meantime, he’ll have two movies out: the Total Recall remake, in which he plays the villain, and Argo, Ben Affleck’s film about the 1979–81 Iran hostage crisis that Cranston calls “an important movie.”
How’d the new season’s shoot go?
It was more physical this year than it has been. Of the 65 shooting days, I had maybe five days off.
More physical…because Walt’s killing more people?
Oh, nice fishing expedition there. Niiice. As the last 16 episodes wind down, the story has to wind up, so they’re tying up loose ends, and where Walt goes after [his nemesis] Gus Fring is dead.
Is it trickier to access Walt the darker he gets?
Trickier is a good word for it. The journey we took the audience on allowed for conflict and drama within the viewer—they were actually rooting for this man to be successful cooking crystal meth [Laughs]—and justifying the killings: “Well, she was gonna expose him, so she had to go.” And it’s like, “Wait a minute, what am I saying?”
What’s it like living with a character like that long-term?
Every human being has a light side and a dark side, and it’s just your willingness to expose that darkness. We always put on a good face. We’ve been trained since kindergarten: Be nice, be kind, share, put on a smile. So we’re conditioned to squash our natural selfish instincts, and that’s the right thing for society. As an actor, you want to be able to dip back into that darkness. You just have to be given a platform to be able to do that, and Breaking Bad was that for me.
You had success before, but nothing on this order. Do you identify with Walt as a man coming into his own, into power, midlife?
Yeah, midlife has certainly been very kind to me. I’ve been working steadily as an actor since 24 years old. I said, “I’m going to do this for the rest of my life, and wherever it takes me, it takes me.” And I’m still saying it.
Have you found yourself asking what you’d do if you had this character’s fate: facing a terminal illness, leaving behind family?
We’ve all asked ourselves that at some dinner party: What would you do if you had a year to live?
And what would you do?
Nothing great. I probably would spend time with friends, doing what I’m doing at that dinner party, have more dinner parties, travel a little bit. And then when it’s time, it’s time. Cash in.
Are you curious at all to try meth, just to see what all the fuss is about?
[Laughs] That’s hilarious. “What’s all the fuss about?” I have no desire at all. None.
Just to complete your research.
Yeah, none. I mean, you complete your research if you’re playing a rapist, it’s like, “Well, your honor, I was doing research, and I had to select someone. You understand.” An actor’s palette is from life experience. When you don’t have life experience, you use your imagination.
Any drugs to help you imagine?
[Laughs] Not that I know of. I’m too much of a guy who—I like to be in control.
It’s funny, journalists say you’re really different from this character. But that sense of needing control is very much like Walt.
If I was content with being an air-condition repairman, when I’m not working I’d want to alter my life because it might get monotonous. My life is not like that. It’s mind-altering when you slip into someone else’s shoes. That’s psychedelic, man.
You said that, unlike other famous actors, you can blend in. But you said that three years ago.
Yeah, that’s changed. In the first season of Breaking Bad, I shaved my head and nobody recognized me from Malcolm or Seinfeld. It was cool to just walk around and be unknown. And now it’s the reverse. Now when my head is shaved, they know me more than they did when I had hair.
And what do they say: “Got some meth?”
Oh, yeah. “Let’s go party together.” And I come back at them in character: [With Walt’s dead-serious tone] “You obviously don’t know me.” And they freak out: “Whoooa!” But I don’t usually like being recognized. I will pick a chair in a restaurant where my back’s to the greatest number of people. It used to be where I would be able to do my homework as an actor, which is observation. But when you’re being observed yourself, human behavior changes. It’s not as usable as it used to be.
Breaking Bad’s fifth season premieres July 15 at 9pm on AMC.