Breaking Bad is a gold standard in television. This show highlighted the shortcomings of film as a medium. No matter what the calibre of the people behind a cinematic production is, they will always be constrained. There can never be a Breaking Bad or The Wire or The Sopranos on the big screen even if Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Alfred Hitchcock were to join hands to write and direct a film. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan knew this and exploited it fully whilst making the show.
He was also supported by a magnificent team of writers, directors, actors and cinematographers. This is why writing and direction were brilliant throughout. The pacing was always gradually increasing – slow at first, and super-quick towards the end – but the show was always meant to be thoughtful, not action-packed. The editing was great, and so were the visuals. But none of it had worked if Bryan Cranston was not there at the centre of it all, drunk on power, and manipulating everything and everyone. The actor turns 62 today and lets take a look at how he infused life into his character, Walter White.
The character of Walter White has been analysed so much over the years. So, I would refrain from repeating old-hat arguments. I would instead focus on why the character was so engaging, so relatable despite the terrible things he did. First, think about what makes for good acting. This is subjective, but usually most people think good acting is when the actor is not merely regurgitating lines written for him or her by the writers and is actually giving their own twists, expressions, and nuances to the lines. It should appear like that he or she actually believes what they are saying.
Sometimes, this getting-into-the-role thing is taken to an extreme. Heath Ledger’s Joker was ridiculously different from how Heath was as a person and how he spoke, at least in public. People were taken aback and a little frightened when they first heard his eerie laugh in the trailer of The Dark Knight. This clown is not played by Heath Ledger, they thought, certainly not. It cannot be.
Bryan Cranston’s character Walter White was nowhere near as charismatic. In fact, his way of talking was just like how Cranston talks in real life. In the beginning, anyway. In the first season, his role was to look abashed when with family and exasperated when with Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman. As the show went on, more was required of him. A lot more. And that is where a lesser actor would have failed. Cranston’s character changed. The persona altered. The mask of civilisation drops, but ever so subtle. As the Joker might have said, Cranston got ahead of the curve. He became ruthless. He begins to murder innocents. He begins manipulating others, lying and cheating.
During all this, Walter White is by turns sympathetic, cruel, Machiavellian, deadly, murderous and pitiful. Bryan Cranston nailed all of them. And the whole time, Walt remained human, relatable to us, the viewers (which is pretty frightening, come to think of it), despite the monster he was.