Cranston Reflects on ‘Recall,’ ‘Breaking Bad’

Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in “Breaking Bad.” ©Frank Ockenfels/AMC


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of desperate drug lord Walter White in “Breaking Bad” has won him three consecutive Best Actor Emmys, and he is disturbingly believable as the murderous Chancellor Cohaagen in the new “Total Recall” remake. In person, though, the actor is as playfully funny as the offbeat dad he played for seven seasons on TV’s “Malcolm in the Middle.”

About “Total Recall” director Len Wiseman, Cranston deadpans, “He’s a tyrant. He screams. I happen to know first-hand he’s sleeping with one of the actresses, which I think is appalling, actually. I’m not going to say who it was.” (Wiseman is married to Kate Beckinsale, who plays Cranston’s very trigger-happy second-in-command in the film.)

Discussing the fact that the season five premiere of the critically acclaimed “Breaking Bad” had only half the ratings of a certain other series, Cranston says, “I was curious to see what ‘Swamp People’ was all about. So I TIVOed it, and watched ‘Swamp People.’ And I thought, ‘Well, no wonder six million people watch ‘Swamp People,’ because these are grown men in the south who catch fish with their hands. And I thought, ‘that’s pretty badass.’ I don’t know how many fish you need to catch with your hands in order to garner six million people, but that’s pretty impressive.”

About his latest big-screen role, Cranston says he did not want his Cohaagen to be derivative of Ronny Cox’s performance as the character in the first “Total Recall.” What made that easier was the different tone of the remake, which stars Colin Farrell as the identity-confused secret agent played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the first film.

“The script was not at all the same as Arnold’s movie. Because we have Colin, it’s going to be darker, it’s going to be deeper, it’s going to be a different sensibility,” he says. “I wanted to see what Ronny did so that I wouldn’t just duplicate a performance. What he did was great, but I wanted to see if you could bring something new. When you’re developing a character that has been done before, that’s the only thing I look for, to find a different avenue.”

Part of that process involved improvising. When Cranston’s character expresses disappointment with the agent played by Beckinsale, he punctuates the line by dismissively chucking her chin. The actress’ startled reaction suggests that bit of business was not expected. “It wasn’t,” Cranston says. “I wanted to wait until the camera was on her, and I wanted to just give her a little shot because she disobeyed my orders. And I’m glad she reacted that way, with a mixture of embarrassment and also disdain for my authority…it was really nice.”

He adds that, “There are certain things that you hope for. You need to see some spontaneity and extemporaneous behavior.” A scene in which Farrell’s character is being restrained by guards offered a similar opportunity. “In one take, Colin just leaped out at me, and that wasn’t in the script either. He just came at me, and my guards had to hold him back.” That in-the-moment lunge spurred an enthusiastic response from Cranston. He notes that director Wiseman was secure enough to give his actors those kinds of chances to play. “A little moment like that makes it alive and fresh,” he says. “And you feel it.”

Asked about the sometimes brutal physicality of his “Total Recall” role, Cranston says, “We knew there was going to be a combat sequence in the show, so you couldn’t have an antagonist that was not up to the challenge. You didn’t want to hire Wilford Brimley, or you’d go, ‘Colin Farrell’s gonna kick his ass really fast.’ So I wanted to make sure that I was in decent shape.”

Cranston remembers that the worst injury he suffered was a case of pinkeye acquired during an extended fight scene in standing water. “They warmed the water, and the rain that was constantly dropping was warm, so that’s very sweet. Except for the fact that everybody in the crew had to step in there…and the warm water became like a petri dish. Everything was alive —you saw bacteria leaping like flying fish.”

Discussing his feelings about the upcoming end of “Breaking Bad,” which will air a final eight episodes beginning next July, Cranston says, “Right now, I feel fine. I would probably have a different answer later on.”

Cranston says he doesn’t know how “Breaking Bad” will conclude. “Since the first season, I’ve never asked our show creator, Vince Gilligan, what’s going to happen. He keeps asking me if I want to know, and I go, ‘No, I’ll find out.’ So I read the scripts about a week before we start shooting, and then I find out what’s going to happen.” He adds, “Because it’s his show, he’s been our captain the entire way. He’s like the brilliant songwriter, and I happen to sing the songs…and I want the show to end exactly how he wants it to end.”

Reflecting on his years making the series, Cranston says, “You create such tight bonds with people, you work intimately with each other and the crew, and you’re going to miss that family. But what takes priority is the storytelling. And by the end of next season, 62 episodes will be complete, and we’ll have told our story and it’s time to move on. I would always rather leave a year or two early than a year or two late.”

About his demeanor as a sometime director himself, Cranston says he runs a tight set. “The older I get, the less patience I have with people who misbehave. I just don’t get it…you’re the luckiest person in the world. Look at what you get to do for a living. Shut up! Be on time, know your lines, work on the scene. If you’re miserable now that you’re working, what kind of life do you have?”

As for the question of what “Total Recall”-type implanted-memory experience he would choose, he says, “Actors are lucky. We have fantastic adventures all the time. We crawl into the skin of a bunch of different people…that’s our life. So I think if I were to have an experience, it would be to go back in history.”