At 60, Bryan Cranston has won four Emmys, a Tony, and created one of the most indelible characters in TV history — Walter White from “Breaking Bad,” of course. And now, he’s a first-time author. His autobiography, “A Life in Parts” (Scribner), arrives Oct. 11. For Cranston fans, it’s a literary cup that runneth over: A candid portrait of a great actor who could have just as easily ended up doing something entirely different (a cop with the LAPD, for example). In his telling, luck and serendipity played their parts. Drive did as well.
There are many parts to “A Life in Parts.” He came from a badly broken home. His father, Joe (who died in 2014), “wanted to be a star. No doubt. No compromise,” Cranston writes. Instead, he became a TV producer, then dabbler, whose “failures mounted and ate at him.” He abandoned his wife and three children, who fell into poverty. Cranston scrambled his way out, becoming: a paperboy, farmhand, security guard, dating consultant, dock loader. He got on a soap (“Loving”), then a classic (“Seinfeld,” as Tim Whatley, “dentist to the stars”), followed by another (Hal, “Malcolm in the Middle.”) Finally “Bad.”
We spoke recently about the book, and the future. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation:
Why did you want to write a book?
I wanted to write about my life as opposed to write short stories of events. That was the initial interest for me. There were a bunch of publishers who read two or three of my stories and I had the privilege of being able to select whomever I wanted. It was great. I’m new to that experience. I wanted to go with someone who was excited about my voice, and who would support that. I wanted it to be myself. I didn’t want a ghostwriter and didn’t want to have a specific mandate from the publisher. I just wanted the real experience of my life and hoped that the oddities of those experiences would be interesting.
To what extent was this cathartic — or did it end up taking the place of a therapist?
It is cathartic to a great degree to take what’s inside you and purge those feelings and thoughts. It’s when you focus, when you’re charged with the responsibility of writing a story about it, then you start to focus on the specifics of that, and you contemplate it. I’m not one to write a journal, so this is all from memory and often I’d get to my sister or brother or friends or my wife [Robin] and say, “I remember it this way. How do you remember it?” then have them make comments. I’d known I’d gone from point a to point c, but where was the b? That connector that I don’t recall. Then my memory would be jogged.
A lot has been said and written that your father, Joe, was Walter White. You don’t address that much in the book, however. Was Walter your dad?
It was more physicality. I just felt Walter was probably in his body older than his years. I was working on the overall look from the beginning, and throughout the first couple of months to where the story picks up. I just felt the weight of the world was on him — the man weighed down by disappointments, buffeted by missed opportunities. That resonated with me. I could see how rounded my father’s shoulders had become, how he began to slump, how he got shorter. It’s funny how we look up to our parents — how they are huge — and as we grow, they shrink. Sometimes, as in my case, both my parents shrank, in not just physical appearance, but in their emotional stature. They became smaller people to me.
Did the writing of the book help deal with those unresolved feelings?
We’re all searching for answers if we’re responsible conscious adults and looking for the betterment of ourselves. It’s a never-ending discovery process when you’re trying to make sense of where you are. And now at the age of 60, looking back on my life . . . the things that left an indelible mark on you, and you have to look for lessons in those situations. When I’m thinking of my mother and father and the disconnect we had separately — and then the sweet irony of my mother’s [Alzheimer’s] condition, which didn’t allow her to hold onto resentment and anger.
There’s some humor in the book in surprising places . . .
I think for me what makes a good story of fiction or nonfiction is the conflict in the story — that what happened wasn’t planned, what happened was in direct opposition of the intention. Just like any narrative, you look for that when you’re writing a story. In retrospect, I wouldn’t want or wish my experience on anyone as far as growing up and the turmoil it all created. However, there is a silver lining when it comes to wanting to write about it, and it gave me a lot of fodder. If you have a person who has two loving parents and the lessons in that person’s life were learned smoothly as opposed to abruptly — no crazy boyfriend or girlfriend — and everything falls into place for this person, they’re not going to have a lot to write about. They’re just not. So the strange irony there, is that it helped me in the end.
How does that apply to you as an actor?
My toolbox as an actor is to be able to reach in and pull out a variety of emotions and be willing to expose them and be vulnerable, and have them witnessed and be witnessed by everyone or anyone. It’s emotionally exhausting and often physically exhausting, but it’s rewarding when you’ve put yourself in a position to accomplish something. Fatigue and exhaustion can be expected but also elation. That’s what I feel when I work — it creates an empowered life.
You also in the book confide that you believe you are — or at least were — capable of murder, at least in that instance when a crazed girlfriend, Ava, was pounding on your apartment door, and she may have been about to kill you. You still feel that your are capable of that?
I mentioned in the book that crimes of passion come from the old saying, seeing red. There is a flash that happens — when your intellect takes a back seat to your emotion, whatever that emotion is. You do something crazy for love, or something crazy in anger. But you do something that is without thought. That experience was out of fear — from extenuating circumstances. I felt like an animal cornered, and even a normally nonaggressive animal can be aggressive when they feel their life is threatened. That’s what happened. It was so much more frightening, so much more real to me, that at that moment it was clear I was having an out of body experience. That’s what frightened me — that I saw myself as capable of killing someone else.
How does that apply to Walter?
I know what it was like. I know the feeling of what it would have been like, felt like to take someone’s life. I also think that in some odd way, the experience of killing chickens [at his grandparents’ chicken farm as a child] it was taking a life and I was determined to do it.
Agnes Nixon died recently, and she pretty much gave you your start in the soap “Loving.” Thoughts on her and that big break?
She was a lovely person, very kind and talented. I appreciated [the show]. It really was my start in 1983, and really gave me a sense of belonging and a sense that I could make a living in this business, and that this is not a fluke anymore, but the real deal.
The book is a tell-all, but is it a tell-all? Did you leave out anything?
There were a few things — and one story completely left out, and several things that were said or done in the course of a few stories that I purposely omitted because it could bring hardship to people, or insulted or embarrassed people. That wasn’t my aim. I don’t want to be vindictive, or anything like that, although there were certain kinds of behavior, certain patterns that I thought deserved to be exposed. But “Ava” is not the real name. That was a request from the legal department of Simon & Schuster. I also considered changing it because the real person’s mother and sister may still be alive and I don’t want to upset them.
OK, have to ask the obligatory “Breaking Bad” question. What was your favorite episode?
I guess collectively because I saw it from a different perspective, when I think from the collection of the 62 episodes, certainly the book ending of the first one because it set the foundation of what was to become the foundation of the show, and the last one, because he was more honest than at any other time in the show, confessing he liked what he did, and that he was good at it, and did it for himself.
Would you do a cameo on “Better Call Saul”?
I am a fan of the show, and when I talk to Vince [Gilligan] or Peter [Gould, the show co-creators], I always qualify by saying, “don’t tell me anything! Don’t let anything slip! I don’t want to know . . .” I didn’t know what was going to happen to Walter White until about five days before I had the script. I didn’t want to get too far ahead of myself. . . . He was on a road that was twisting and turning so quickly, that it was better to stay in the moment and know only what I needed to know right at that moment. But as far as “Saul,” I think it’s a great show, wonderfully creative, and has the tonality of “Breaking Bad,” and yet the characters are all different, and it’s unpredictable and you don’t know where or how it’s moving. It’s just fun. All that being said, I am eternally grateful to Vince and if he got on the phone and said, I have an idea for “Saul,” I’d say “I’m in,” and we’ll figure out the details later.
Your career has headed to the big screen and theater. Is there another TV series in your future?
I love storytelling and if I read something really compelling that would put me in a series again, then yeah. But since I did two long-running series, I’m good. I’m enjoying the shorter storytelling across movies or plays, and I want to do another play sometime soon. So it’s all just working out the logistics of everything. We’ll see what happens. But in fact I did have a series I co-created, for Amazon Prime, called “Sneaky Pete,” with Giovanni Ribisi, coming in January. [Sneaky Pete is also Cranston’s name for his alter ego, in his book — the part of him that’s not unlike his father]. It’s a cool, light show about a guy who was navigating through a negligent, abusive childhood, and he figured out a pathway to survival, being a young artist. Fortunately for him — and fortunately for me — I changed my ways and didn’t become a con artist or a thief. But the character is 35 and still doing what he does best.