Over the course of my time at Bullz-Eye and, by extension, Premium Hollywood, I’ve slowly but surely reached a point where I do so many one-on-one interviews almost never sign up to do conference-call interviews anymore, but when you’re pitched a “Breaking Bad” call that features Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and series creator Vince Gilligan…hey, there are some offers that you just can’t refuse. It was a packed house, but I managed to sneak onto the call twice during the course of the hour that these three gentlemen held court. Here’s some of the wisdom that they imparted upon me…
First of all, I’m curious what percentage of the “Breaking Bad” budget goes to replacing the windshields of Walt’s vehicles.
Vince Gilligan: (Laughs) That is a good question. It has to be a huge percentage. That has turned into a running gag, hasn’t it? We didn’t intend for that to happen at the beginning. There was no long-term plan to keep breaking Walt’s windshield. But it sure does happen a lot. We keep the tape on there to remind everybody.
Aaron Paul: You love the tape.
This has been a fantastic season, especially for Jesse. Aaron, you really soared with the character, trying to go clean, going at it alone, finding out that your new girlfriend’s brother killed one of his associates. Can you talk about adapting your performance to meet each of Jesse’s challenges in life?
Aaron Paul: I thought I had a grasp of who this kid was by the second season. I had an idea about where he was going before we started the third season. But as always is the case, we went in the complete opposite direction. It was a little tough. Now Jesse is convinced that he is officially the bad guy. He has all of this guilt on his shoulders. He is making a valiant effort to stay on a clean and sober path. It’s like playing a different character within the character itself. Which presents a different challenge. But its so much fun to play.
Talking about character transformation, Skyler went through a major transformation over the course of the season, first making decisions in desperation, then becoming empowered. Was that development planned way, way in advance, or was it something that came about as a result of you guys deciding to have her discover Walt’s secret at the beginning of the season?
Vince Gilligan: Good question! You know, I guess…there’s always an exception to every rule, and this going to the lie slightly to some stuff I was saying earlier, but we try very hard to keep our storytelling organic and to let the characters let us know where they intend to head. Having said that, Anna Gunn is such an integral part of our show, and the character of Skyler is such an integral part of our show and is a character that I would surely hate to lose from our series, and there was a crossroads early on this season when we realized that she had to find out about her husband’s illicit activities. We couldn’t keep that lie going very much longer, because she’s a very smart character and she knows he’s up to something. So we’re at a crossroads at a moment like that, storywise, my writers and I, because she has three very believable routes or forks in the road to take. She could call the police, and that’d be very believable, and it’s definitely an option when you find out that your significant other is dealing large quantities of meth and putting your whole family at risk that way. Or she could divorce him, definitely, or she could take the kids and flee and get the hell out of Dodge.
I mean, these are all possibilities, but we wanted to keep her around, so in kind of a moment of wanting the character to tell us where she wanted to go but… (Starts to laugh) …trying to steer her a little bit into sticking around and not leaving the show entirely, we decided at that point that we want her to go through sort of a process this season. If it’s not coming to sort of a sympathy for Walt throughout the course of the season, at least she comes to some sort of an understanding whereby she doesn’t side with him necessarily, she doesn’t think that he did the right thing here, but she gets to kind of a pragmatic place where she says to herself, “Well, there is this money, and we’re going to need it for Hanks’ rehabilitation and recovery, now that he’s been shot four times. Let’s be pragmatic about this. Let’s make the best out of a very bad situation.” And that’s sort of what we’re working toward with Skyler all season: the idea of her slowly, as organically as possible, as believably as possible, getting her head around a very big concept, which is that her husband is a criminal. And it took 13 solid episodes to get there, and it will perhaps continue in Season 4 because she’s a wonderful character… (Laughs) …and, on a very mercenary level, I want to keep her around, because she’s a great actress and a great character. So that’s my long-winded way of saying, “Yes, that was intentional.”
Obviously, Walt is no longer Mr. Chips, but nor is he quite Scarface yet. Where are we on the sliding scale, and will the final transformation into Scarface take place in Season 4?
Vince Gilligan: You want to take that one, Brian? That’s a good question.
Bryan Cranston: Oh, you’re dishing off, and I’m going to put it back to you, because I’m kind of along for the ride, just like Walt is. Walt has no idea that this transition is happening to him. He’s just experiencing it as it goes, and that’s what so much for me as an actor to play this, because it’s so immediate. It’s so in the now. He has very little thought on the future because he doesn’t have much of a future. The past has completely destroyed him. All he has is the now, so he’s living right here and now. So as an actor approaching that, I like to do the same thing. I knew the larger picture, just as all you had, from Vince’s very colorful way of explaining what he wanted to do four years ago, when we first started talking about this journey, and that fascinated me, because I knew it had never been done in the history of television.
But with that being said, as the actor, I don’t want to know. I don’t want to know what’s in the back of Vince’s brain. It’s dark and ugly… (Laughs) …and I would rather have him delight me with his story as we go along, because in this case, it just couldn’t help me. And, y’know, to me, it’s like someone telling you the ending of a movie, and then saying, “Oh, let’s go see the movie,” and you’re, like, “Well, it’s kind of blown for me now!” In that sense, I like not knowing, and wherever that line is, we don’t know. I think it’s safe to say that this is not a series that was constructed to last like “Gunsmoke.” It’s not going to be, “Wow you’re in remission!” “Yeah, it’s been 20 years now!” (Laughs) Nor do we want it to be. I think we’re all very proud of this show and proud of the collective work that goes into it from all fields, but like the prideful athletes that we see, I think that Vince and I and Aaron and everyone else connected would rather have an amalgam of years that make sense and end it at the right time, as opposed to going and extending our welcome and having people wonder when we’re going to die already. I think we’d like to wrap it up in a… (Hesitates) It’s hard to say, because it’s kind of a moving target, but in the right amount of episodes to tell the story and to do it justice, and then go home.
Vince Gilligan: That’s a great answer. And to add to that…and I’m not being coy here… it is very well described by Bryan as a moving target. I don’t quite know where we are on the spectrum of Mr. Chips and Scarface myself, and, again, I’m not being coy. I don’t know how much farther we can take it. In some sense, we’ve already taken it farther than I would’ve thought possible way back when I was writing the pilot, and it’s a credit to our actors and certainly first and foremost to Bryan…when we’re speaking about Walt, it’s a credit to Bryan’s ability to continue to let an audience sympathize with his character, despite his character’s terrible behavior. You still sense the underlying humanity. You realize he’s not a monster, even though he very often does monstrous, cold, evil things. He behaves that way, and yet he is not necessarily that person. He hasn’t lost completely his moral compass yet. He continues to remain…his character continues to remain interesting and relatable, or at least understandable, if not sympathizable, and so much of that credit goes to Bryan.
It is very much a moving target. If you held my feet to the fire right now, I can’t really see beyond one or two more seasons, but having said that, there was a time way back when when I thought that three would probably be the total amount we could do, and I think we easily could do another season, if not more. But as Bryan says, this will not be “Gunsmoke,” and I can’t forsee it… (Trails off) It’s better to leave the party early than late. You’d rather leave people wanting more from you than saying, “Jesus, is that show still on the air?” So it’s a tricky equation and one I hope we will get right, as far as, “When’s the time to take the final bow with a show like this?”