When we first met Walter White, he was about 50. As was Bryan Cranston. One of the finest actors of our time, Cranston landed his breakthrough role and the performance he will forever be remembered for almost 30 years after he first decided to act for a living.
But then drama has always been an intrinsic part of his life. In his memoir A Life in Parts, Cranston talks about experiences just as thrilling, hilarious and riveting as his many onscreen characters have been.
The book starts with an anecdote from the sets of Breaking Bad. Cranston, as Walter White, remembers what he felt while filming one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the entire series, which is Jane’s death. He claims that at the moment he was as much Walter White as he was Bryan Cranston. The beginning grips you instantly.
This book is a look back at every step along the journey – every hit, miss, struggle, pain and pleasure that led to Cranston becoming White and then his alias Heisenberg. Unlike most celebrity memoirs, A Life is Parts is not sanitised to create a favourable history of a public personality. It does not attempt to dilute the brutal stories of Cranston’s life. The book lays out for all to see a life packed with struggle, pain, regret, anger, love, loss, shame and despair. Each of these emotions added to Cranston’s learning curve and have helped him play the countless parts he has had to – on and off the screen.
Cranston had an unhappy childhood. His father, an aspiring boxer, abandoned the family – Bryan, his mother, his older brother and a younger sister. As the mother picked up a drinking problem, the boys found themselves in a series of odd jobs.
The Breaking Bad star’s resume lists an assortment of jobs – farmhand slaughtering chickens, newspaper boy, dock loader, security guard who was lucky enough to be yelled at by Alfred Hitchcock, dating consultant, minister at the Universal Life Church officiating weddings in California, and a waiter.
After completing a degree in Police Sciences, Bryan and his brother took a road trip across America, and he carried a book of modern American plays with him. He left for the gruelling, yet rewarding, journey with a mind divided between a future in policing or on the stage (he had dabbled in acting throughout school and college). He returned with the determination to become an actor.
Cranston gives priceless behind-the-scene details from his long and rewarding acting career.
From bluffing his way into commercials to playing his first major role in the soap opera Loving, from the goofy Dad in Malcom in the Middle to the unforgettable dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfeld – Cranston was always working. Even after coming this far, he still refers to his first role in Loving as the proudest moment of his life – he was 25, an actor and someone was paying him for it.
Cranston almost missed his chance on The X-files, as he was busy producing a movie, Last Chance. But luckily, film production needs money, and as Cranston joined the series for two episodes, he met Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad. Gilligan later remembered Cranston when casting for the role of Walter White, and while the producers couldn’t see the ridiculous Hal from Malcolm in the Middle play an intense and layered character, Gilligan’s insistence helped Cranston land the job.
Breaking Bad is frequently invoked in the same breath as such classic TV shows as The Sopranos and The Wire. A lot of what made the story of a chemistry-teacher turned meth-kingpin in arid Albuquerque incredible was down to the performance of a stellar cast. Writing is crucial to a great show. No actor can turn a horrible script around, but given the right script, the right actors can create something unforgettable and untouchable.
Such was the case with Breaking Bad. Walter White’s final goodbye to his children, Jane’s death, and Skylar’s seething rage – all of this affected the cast and the crew in the most profound ways.
In one of the final episodes, Walter takes stock of the damage his greed has caused his family. He tries to reach out to his son for a final goodbye. Cranston remembers this sequence as one that was emotionally taxing for all involved. It was a perfect scene, unlike many others for which the cast often requested retakes. But it wasn’t the one that was used in the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad.
Cranston writes: “I lay eyes on the box of Ensure meal replacement drinks Ed brought me to help to keep my weight up. I empty it and fill it with as much money as it will hold. I trudge through the thick snow, holding the box tight to my chest. I find a dive bar. I find a payphone. I call my son at school. I try to tell him: Everything. I was doing it for you, I tell him. I’m sending you the money so the Feds can’t trace it.
“I tell him once: I love you.
“I never want to see you again, he says. I want you to die.
“I weep. I feel the waste of my life. My good intentions got derailed by greed and hubris and rage and resentment. I was the danger, all right. A danger to myself. To everyone around me. So much pain and loss. I haven’t left a mark. I have left a stain. I am… nothing.
“I wept as we filmed that scene. When we finished, I was spent. Exhausted and bit traumatized. It was also my birthday.
“We shot Breaking Bad on thirty-five-millimeter film. Few shows, if any, do that anymore because of the expense. And the technology has improved so much that you can get similar quality on digital. We shipped the film to the lab back in LA as we shot it. Each day, we knew exactly when the flight that was carrying the film was leaving, and we’d have to “break” the film, box it up, and get it to the airport. A courier then picked it up at LAX at took it to the lab, so that the next day the digital copies were ready…
“While the film of that wrenching scene with my son was being shipped from Albuquerque to LA, it fell off the back of a luggage cart. Then one of those tank like tows that push and pull airplanes to the gates ran over the film cans. The film didn’t just get exposed. It got pulverized. Ruined. The insurance company covered it, but we would have to go back and shoot the scene again.
“When I first heard that some film got ruined, I thought: Oh please, let it be something like the scene where I walk into a store and put the milk down on the counter. Or a scene where I’m driving my Aztek. Not the scene where I hear from my son that he wishes I were dead.
“But of course.
“The day I had to reshoot that scene was challenging. I felt myself reenacting, rather than acting. I remembered what I did the last time and tried to extinguish that from my mind, but it was hard. I needed to find a new path back to those depths, and I couldn’t.
“But it had to be done. So we did it again. And again and again.”
A Life in Parts is an extremely readable memoir told in a conversational, plainspoken way. It is a must read whether you are a fan of Breaking Bad or not – all you have to be is a fan of a great life story.