How Breaking Bad turned jobbing actor Bryan Cranston into a rising star

Bryan Cranston has won plaudits for his performances in Breaking Bad
Bryan Cranston has won plaudits for his performances in Breaking Bad
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“WITHOUT Breaking Bad I wouldn’t be sitting here,” announces Bryan Cranston. The “here” in question is the London hotel room where Cranston has been sequestered to promote his role as a CIA agent in Ben Affleck’s Iranian hostage drama Argo.

Like his brilliant turn in last year’s Drive, it’s another noticeable step up the Hollywood ladder, so it’s no real surprise that after a 30-year career as a jobbing TV and film actor (most noticeably on sitcoms such as Malcolm in the Middle and Seinfeld), he’s upfront about owing his sudden visibility to his triple Emmy award-winning performance in the TV drama.

With Breaking Bad currently halfway through its fifth and final season in the US (UK fans can watch it via Netflix from today), it isn’t difficult to see why this particular role has struck a chord with audiences, critics and filmmakers alike. As Walter White – a cash-strapped chemistry teacher who begins manufacturing methamphetamine to secure his family’s financial future after being diagnosed with cancer – Cranston has found himself at 56 playing a lead character that boasts the kind of richness and moral complexity that has made Tony Soprano and Don Draper among the most celebrated and talked-about American TV characters of recent years.

It’s really just down to the quality of the storytelling,” says Cranston modestly. “That’s what attracts us to anything. If an actor develops a talent it should be that: recognising good material and attaching yourself to it as quickly as possible.”

Breaking Bad’s success is about more than just great writing, though. The pressure-cooker-like drama that comes from witnessing a middle-aged family man gradually transform into a soul-stained criminal is also down to Cranston’s ability to credibly and sympathetically show how someone good might change for the worse in reaction to an increasingly volatile and uncertain situation – especially one that he keeps mistakenly thinking he can control.

Given the precarious, uncertain nature of an actor’s career, and the potential financial rewards involved, it’s tempting to look for parallels, but Cranston says that chasing good material rather than box-office or ratings success has always been the cornerstone for him, and that his current standing is a testament to the way that this sometimes works out for the best.

His prominence in Argo – he plays an amalgam of several CIA agents who helped mastermind the incredible real-life rescue of six US Embassy workers from Tehran by posing as a film crew – is also proof that he’s now finally entered an arena where he’s not just in a position to be considered for better parts, but can take more control over what he says “yes” and “no” to.

Which is also why he’s philosophical about the imminent end of Breaking Bad. “It has been a great adventure for me and saying goodbye is going to be very sorrowful. But I think like an athlete we have to have the same sensibility: you go out strong and look back proudly.”

•  Series 5 of Breaking Bad is on Netflix from today. Argo is in cinemas nationwide from 7 November.