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Chemistry goes bad

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TV Bryan Cranston of American television drama series Breaking Bad on his experiences

B reaking Bad is the story of Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston. He’s a struggling high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He turns to a life of crime, with the aim of securing his family’s financial future before he dies.

A chat with Bryan Cranston:

What drew you to the role? 

I’ve said this many times before but it’s so true and I feel compelled to reiterate it, and that’s that I remember seeing Paul Newman win an Oscar and he said “Oscar-winning roles aren’t acted, they’re written”. And that struck me. I was a young actor watching with wide eyes and I thought, “What does he mean by that? He acted it. It was him. Why would he say it’s written?” Then over the years I realized that you’re only as good as the material. So I believe the best actor in the world, say Meryl Streep, if she was handed C-level material, she could bring that up to a solid B. But that’s it. When I read  Breaking Bad  cover to cover and I read it because my agent says “You worked with him on X-Files  many years ago, he remembers you and wants to see you for this.” Okay. Usually the majority of pilot scripts are pretty predictable. But with Breaking Bad , it was immediate.

And when something is well-written it’s not dissimilar from reading a great novel. You know how you can’t wait to get back to bed that night because you can’t wait to see what happens in the next chapter and see how far you can go.

You supplied the backstory?

I always do. I free-hand write a backstory. I never give it a limit, a minimum or maximum. I stop and if I come to a stop, Oftentimes I’ll go back and say “How does this backstory support where it’s going to take us?”

Did you spend time with cancer patients? At schools?

He’s a chemist, so my biggest concern was the chemistry aspect since I haven’t had it since high school. I didn’t appreciate it then. I was a confused kid. At a critical time I was dealing with my parents’ divorce, trying to figure out things, looking for the shortcut. I thought, “How much work do I actually have to do to get a C?” I was just unmotivated and on shaky ground. I was just trying to figure out what life was for me. I contacted the Head of the Chemistry Department at USC for a few days.

What did you learn?  

I learned how incredibly important chemistry is to our lives. And now I’m fascinated by it. Literally every single element that we deal with has a chemical component to it. It’s exacting. We know that a chemical mixed with something else could become a bond, a gas, a liquid, toxic, inert, any number of things. I realized there’s fascination in that. Then there was the nomenclature. I needed to touch things. “How would you handle that? How would you pick that up? How do you turn on the Bunsen burner? How do you light that so you look like an expert?” We’re basically magicians pulling off a trick. In order to make the trick believable, the more we believe it and the more confidence we exude when we perform, the more an audience will be entertained.

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