The AMC series Breaking Bad, where you play a meth dealer, is now in its fourth season. At this point, are you experienced enough to build your own meth lab?
I probably could, yeah. We have a DEA chemist on the [Breaking Bad] set. He taught us how to make methamphetamine, which is a very detailed process. I still have my notes. But I didn’t want to learn about the back alley process. I wanted to know how to make it perfectly, the absolute purest meth, and what equipment and chemicals to use. Because that’s what [my character] Walter White does. So if I had to, I can make more than just meth. I can make really, really good meth. [Laughs.] It’s created a very healthy sideline for me if this acting thing ever stops working.
Have you ever tried recreational drugs, meth or otherwise?
Never meth, but I’ve had several drug experiences. Pot always just made me sleepy. As a teenager, I had friends who wanted to get high and go to concerts. But if I smoked a joint, I would be passed out before the first song. I just didn’t understand the point of it. I’d wake up and go, “Aw no, I missed everything!” As I’ve gotten older, I don’t even like drinking anymore. I had a big birthday not long ago, double nickels, and the metabolism of your body changes when you get to this age. And interestingly, it’s the exact opposite problem I had with pot. If I have more than just one glass of wine with dinner, I’ll wake up in the middle of the night. Not to pee, but because of the sugars in the wine. And then I’m not well rested and the rest of the day is ruined. It’s just not worth it.
Walter White, your character on Breaking Bad, is a former chemistry teacher. Do you have a favorite element on the periodic table?
Californium is my favorite. It just sounds fun. [Sings] “I came from Californium with a banjo on my knee.” In high school, I remember being really morally indignant that the symbol for Iron was Fe. I was like, “You’re just trying to fool us! You’re trying to make it difficult!” I never appreciated chemistry in high school. My attitude was, just teach me enough so that I can get a C. That was my philosophy on education, and especially chemistry. But now, as an adult, I see that chemicals and chemistry are involved in every aspect of our lives. When two chemicals are separated, they’re inert. But put them together and there’s change. It could turn into a gas, a solid, it could become lethal, it could become benign. It’s endlessly fascinating to me.
The show is shot on location in Albuquerque, New Mexico, which is pretty much in the middle of a desert. How do you entertain yourself when you’re not working?
One of the best parts about spending any time in this state is getting acclimated with the culture. The biggest question you get when you come here is “Red or green?” That would be chilies, the red and green chilies that are indigenous to this area. I have a fondness for the green. They’re hot, really spicy and they go on everything. I put ‘em on my ice cream.
Does playing a character with terminal cancer make you more paranoid about your own health?
No, I’m not hypochondriacal at all. That being said, I’m also not stupid. I get my checkups every five years. I’m due for another colonoscopy, which is just a wonderful experience. But for the most part, I’ve led a healthy lifestyle. I smoked a bit when I was a teenager. Even now, I’ll pick up a cigarette every few months, especially when I try to write. There’s just something alluring about it. When I was growing up, it seemed like all the cool writers had a cigarette in their hand, and a little glass of scotch or bourbon next to their typewriter.
Breaking Bad deals with some pretty intense themes. How do you keep the mood light on the set?
We play a lot of practical jokes on each other. I’m always looking for opportunities to goof off. There was one heavy scene where I said to [his meth-dealing business partner] Jesse, “If there’s a problem, I need you to handle it,” and then I put a gun down in front of him on the counter. But instead, I pulled out this penis-shaped squirt gun. “I need you to handle it, okay?” Just last week, I was doing a love scene with Anna Gunn, who plays my wife. We are in bed and we’re making out and I’m naked. There’s a moment in the scene where I get up and walk to the bathroom, and you see my ass. Without telling her, I put on these big adult diapers. After we made love, I got out of bed, and I can hear her laughing behind me. I finally turn around and say to her, “Next time can we try one of my fantasies?”
Speaking of sex scenes, you had a memorable sex scene with Julia Roberts in Larry Crowne. Was that thrilling or intimidating?
Oh, definitely intimidating. Before we shot the movie, I went on a diet and bleached my teeth and got one of those spray tans. I wanted it to seem like we were at least viable as a couple. So we’re doing the scene, and right away I’m laying on top of her. I only met her maybe a month before, and now I’m laying on top of her. Our noses are touching, and we’re waiting, and we hear (director) Tom (Hanks) say, “Okay, we need to make an adjustment on the camera. Hang on.” So there I am, laying on top of Julia Roberts. And we’re making small talk. “So… how are you? You have kids, right?” We’re talking about family, whatever. Just passing the time. It was probably more awkward for me. Because under the sheets, she’s wearing sweatpants and a sweatshirt. Tom keeps tugging on her shirt. “Aw, Julia, Julia. Come on, we’ve got to show something. We got to show a little skin.” And me, I’m just wearing a cock sock.
A cock sock? And what is that exactly?
It’s a sock that goes over your junk. Literally, you stuff your junk into this sock that’s attached to a string, which you tie around your waist with a little bow. I’ve always been like, “And this protects me how?” I don’t understand how it’s less embarrassing than if I just didn’t have on anything at all. In the scene, I get out of bed and saunter towards the bathroom. Julia tried to avert her eyes, but she accidentally looked during one of the takes and she saw the cock sock, and she yelped like a wounded dog. “Aieeeeee! No, I can’t look at that! I can’t! Oh my god, oh my god!” I tried to overcome my own embarrassment by making it a joke. I’m strutting and smirking, saying things like “That’s right, a little treat for the crew. Feast your eyes, boys.”
Your wife and Tom Hank’s wife, Rita Wilson, are old friends. Has that made for some awkward dinner parties? How do you not feel like you’re auditioning?
It’s never been like that for us. It’s always been very normal and comfortable. I don’t want anything from Tom, and he doesn’t want anything from me. [My wife] Robin and Rita have been friends since college. She was a bridesmaid in Tom and Rita’s wedding, so I was there too. I think actors just have a tendency to want to hang out with other actors, and there’s a reason for that. When you’re out there with civilians, you get the same kind of questions again and again. “How do you memorize all those words?” Or “have you ever met so-and-so?” You try to be courteous to people, but sometimes you just want to wear a hat and sunglasses and pray that nobody notices you. But when you’re around other actors, you can talk about other things. Nobody’s asking, “What’s it like to be in movies?” Because we all already know.
You’ve won three consecutive Emmy Awards for Lead Actor in a Drama Series. Have you kept all three, or have you sold one of them on eBay yet?
Oh no, I’d never get rid of them. They mean a lot to me. All three are in my office. I walk by sometime and the glistening gold catches my eye and I think, “I cannot believe that happened!” Our show isn’t eligible for an Emmy this year, because AMC decided to push the premiere of our fourth season till the summer. So now people have been coming up to me and saying, “Oh my god, you can’t be nominated for an Emmy! You must be freaked out! That’s horrible!” And I’m thinking, are you kidding me? Not being nominated is a relief to me in many ways.
A relief because last year Jon Hamm told the press that he planned to “beat the shit” out of you if you won any more Emmies?
That’s part of it, sure. Jon’s a younger man, and I’m pretty sure he could kick my ass. Unless I had something on him, like if he came and spit in my wife’s face. Then I could kick his ass. If there was some motivating factor that gives me the edge, I think I could take him. Otherwise, probably not. Somebody asked me if AMC delayed the airing of Breaking Bad so that it would give Jon Hamm a chance to win an Emmy. That’s such a hilarious conspiracy theory. I can just imagine that secret board meeting. “We’ll take care of Cranston. Tell Jon Hamm to prepare his speech!”
Now that you’re so critically acclaimed and award-winning, does that mean you can demand an A-lister’s salary?
I have no idea. Honestly, I don’t have a clue how much money I make. It really doesn’t matter to me. My agents know, and sometimes they ask me, “You want to know how much you make?” I don’t care. I’m sure it’s fine. I mean, I don’t want to sound glib. I know money is important. But ever since I stopped worrying about finances, I’ve made more money than I ever thought I’d make in my life. I grew up in a lower middle class family, with no expectations of ever becoming financially secure. So the fact that I make a dependable income at all is just amazing to me. It’s as much as I could’ve dreamed for.
You were raised in the San Fernando Valley and still live there. The Valley has a reputation for being hot and smoggy and filled with mini-malls. From your experience, does it live up to the stereotype?
Absolutely. It’s exactly what everybody thinks it is. I grew up in Canoga Park, which is in the west end of the Valley. On the East Coast, people had snow days, but we had smog days. I’m not kidding. Every so often there’d be a smog advisory, and parents would get warnings like, “Don’t let your kid go outside!” That’s a weird thing to hear from your parents. Don’t go outside because there’s too much smog. But sometimes we’d go out anyway. We’d put on our big smog shoes and go traipsing through the smog. We’d throw smog balls and have smog fights. Or we’d build smog men, using carrots for their noses. It was great fun.
Your parents were both actors. Did that make them more supportive of your acting aspirations or less?
They were both very supportive. As a kid, I used to visit my dad all the time on the sets of TV shows or movies. It was always very exciting. There were men racing around me, carrying cameras and equipment and people putting makeup on. In those days, there were no video cameras, so you never saw yourself or anybody you knew on TV. So whenever my dad was on TV, it was an amazing event. “There he is, there he is, it’s coming up!” My dad usually got roles where he died. He was the one who got an arrow in his chest as he shouted, “the Indians are over there!” [Grabs chest and drops to the floor.] He was in this movie in the late 1950s called Beginning of the End, which was about enormous grasshoppers that attack Chicago. I still remember everything about his scene. He’s an army guy on the roof with binoculars, looking out for the grasshoppers, and we see these gigantic antlers rising slowly behind him. And then it’s got him, and he’s, “Argggggggh, arrgggghhh!!” And we’re like, “Yep, dad’s dead again.” That’s how I fell in love with acting.
Did you ever get to do a death scene that made your dad proud?
Not a death scene, but a near death scene. When I was eight, I did a PSA for the United Way that my dad directed. It was the story of a kid playing baseball— I was the kid — and a foul ball rolls into the street, and I go running after it and bam, I get hit by a car. I’m in an ambulance, pretty badly broken up, and there’s a voice-over talking grimly about the United Way and rehabilitation. I’m in a body cast from my neck to my toes, lying in bed like a vegetable. And then they used this really frightening-looking table saw to cut off the cast. I’m walking on parallel bars, pretending that I can’t walk. And then I’m in the pool, splashing around, rehabilitating. The last shot is me holding some woman’s hand and walking out of the hospital. And then I immediately get run over by a bus. [Laughs.] No, that last part is a joke. They let me live. If it had been one of my dad’s roles, he would’ve been dead. But you can’t kill a kid in a TV commercial.
You studied police science in college. How close did you come to being a cop?
Shockingly close. When I was 16, I joined the LAPD Police Explorers in the West Valley, just because I wanted to travel. They took you on all these amazing field trips, not just around the country but to parts of Europe. There’s also a lot of intensive training, and I ended up being pretty good at it. I graduated first in my class. Then I went to LA Valley College to study police science, and my counselor told me I needed to take some elective courses. So in my second year, I took classes in acting and stagecraft. On my very first day, I walked into class, and there was this 17 year old girl sitting on the floor, wearing only a tube top and hot pants. And I was like, “Oh… my… god.”
So what you’re telling us is, you became an actor for the girls?
Yes. From that moment on, I was done with police work. The girls in theater arts were so much prettier. I changed the course of an entire life based on the libido of an 18 year old boy. During my first acting class, I did a scene with a girl, a girl I’d never met before, and we’re supposed to be making out on a park bench. I was really hesitant about it, but she attacked me. She wasn’t just kissing me, she was deeply tonguing me, arms and hands everywhere. I was so flummoxed, I forgot my lines. Afterwards, I’m thinking, “I need to ask this girl out. She’s obviously really into me.” So during the break, I ask her if maybe she wants to go out sometime, get some lunch or dinner. And she looked at me like I was a puppy. She was like, “Ooooh, sweetie, no, no, I have a boyfriend.” I was devastated. But at the same time, I was like, “What a great actress!” She totally had me fooled.
You and your brother spent two years riding motorcycles around the country. Were you just young and bored, or were you on some kind of Jack Kerouac-esque quest?
It was just two confused boys running away. My brother was on the verge of becoming a deputy sheriff, and I was grappling with whether I wanted to be a police officer or an actor. So we got on our motorcycles and just left California with no plan. I had $70 in my pocket, and that soon ran out. We got odd jobs wherever we could. We worked at cafes, in carnivals, at beach front hotels selling suntan lotion, earning just enough to get back on the road. We hit almost every state except for the Pacific Northwest. We camped everywhere, the cheaper the better. Just a patch of grass is all we needed. But sometimes we had to find shelter. If it was during the week, we’d look for a church or a synagogue, and if it was a weekend, we’d look for a school. That’s where we slept. A few times we stayed at midnight missions, in Texas and Louisiana, and those were always scary. They were like prison.
Are you being hyperbolic? How was sleeping in a mission like prison?
Well, I’ve never been to prison, so it’s just a guess. First of all, they’d take all your clothes, because they don’t want you leaving before the sermon. You’re standing naked with all of these alcoholics, getting a cold shower with a bar of soap the size of a quarter. Then you’re given a blanket and a bunk, and you try to get some sleep in a room full of people with the worst gas in the world. All night, they’re farting and belching and coughing up blood. The next morning, you get your clothes back, but they all smell like booze and shit. And then you listen to proselytizing while choking back melba toast and canned orange juice. Honestly, after sleeping in a mission, I bet prison would be a breeze.
This may be unrelated, but you’re also an ordained minister. Please explain.
When I was in my late teens, I spent my summers on Catalina Island. It was like Sodom and Gomorrah. Everyone was having sex with each other. “Did you tell me your name? Did you? I don’t think you did.” I met this guy named Reverend Bob, an older guy in his 40s who made a living doing wedding ceremonies. One time he said to me, “Brian, I messed up. I booked two weddings on the same day. Would you help me out?” I jokingly said okay, and he typed up a certificate, sent it to the Secretary of State, and just like that, I’m a minister. I went out to the Van Nuys airport, and I officiated a wedding in a piper airplane, as we’re flying over Hollywood. I’m sitting next to the pilot in the front seat, the bride and groom are in the middle seat, and the best man and the maid of honor are in the back seat. They can’t even hear me over the engines. I’m screaming, “You may kiss the bride!!” We landed and drank some champagne, and then I got the number of the maid of honor. Since then, I’ve married maybe a dozen couples.
You played a dentist, Dr. Tim Whatley, for several seasons on Seinfeld. Which cast member had the best set of teeth?
Jerry had very nice teeth. I looked into his mouth quite a few times, and I don’t think I ever saw a cavity. And Michael Richards, he had some stellar teeth. Really impressive dental work. I don’t think I ever examined Julia Louis-Dreyfus, but I did kiss her on the show several times, so I was very close to her mouth. The only one I didn’t get a good look at was Jason [Alexander], so I can’t vouch for him. A few years later, he directed me in a play and we became really close. Just not close enough that he ever let me look inside his mouth.
Probably your most iconic scene in the Fox sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, where you played the father for six and a half years, was when your character danced in his underwear in front of a mirror, pinching his flab and celebrating his middle-aged body. Have you personally experienced a moment like that, where you caught a glimpse of yourself and thought, “What the hell happened to me?
Oh yeah, all the time. Yesterday, on Breaking Bad, we were shooting a dangerous driving sequence, and I met my stunt double. I was like, “That guy looks way too old to be playing me. He’s like somebody’s grandfather.” And then all day, people were coming up to me and saying, “Oh my god, Brian. Your stunt double looks exactly like you! He’s a perfect match!” Talk about a slap in the face. So then I looked at the stunt guy again and it was like, “Wow, okay. That’s what people see when they look at me. They see this old bald guy. Oh my god, that’s who I am!” It was a very existential moment of self-realization. It was a very similar experience to being your underwear, accepting who you are and who you’ve become.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the August 2011 issue of Playboy.)