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Bryan Cranston Talks ‘Malcolm in the Middle,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ and the Meaning of Underwear

Bryan Cranston Talks ‘Malcolm in the Middle,’ ‘Breaking Bad’ and the Meaning of Underwear (photo)

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While Bryan Cranston has risen to the ranks of super stardom for his three time Emmy Award-winning portrayal of chemistry teacher-turned-meth-maker Walter White on AMC’s hit series “Breaking Bad,” here at IFC we know him better as affable dad Hal on “Malcolm in the Middle.” We chatted with Bryan about what parenting tips he gleaned from his time on “Malcolm,” roller skating, and, of course, the true meaning of tighty whitey underwear.

Why should people tune in for Malcolm in the Middle?

It’s just good story telling. It’s funny, but it’s also poignant. It has heart, but then it goes absolutely insane. I truly believe that Malcolm is one of those rare shows that make people laugh and feel good. It’s honest. I have such pride connected to Malcolm I just feel so pleased and fortunate to have been on that show and I hope people really enjoy it.

When you first read the script for Malcolm, what did you find appealing about Hal?

I actually didn’t. When I read the pilot episode it was really all about Lois, the mom, and Malcolm, the son. So the show was really from Malcolm’s perspective and about the dynamo that Lois was. My character had four, maybe five, lines and I didn’t get a sense of him at all or where he was and I didn’t know what to do with it. But, I did know that the script was really well written and was a terrific story and I was curious to see what can I do. I sat with it for a while and it was really like five lines.

I talked to my wife about it and I finally said the only thing I can think of is to fulfill the place in the story that is not being told. That is, what would make a good mate to Lois? What is she lacking? What did she need because she is the Sergeant-at-Arms? She’s tough so why don’t I start doing the opposite. She’s not afraid of anything so Hal should be completely fearful. She’s insightful. So Hal is obtuse. I started drawing those opposites and the character started to come together.

One thing that was not working in the guy was that his children were coming in and he’s sitting there reading the paper and not listening to his wife or his children. But it won’t work if he doesn’t love his children and his wife. So how do you justify him not paying attention to them? The distinction with Hal is that he’s distracted, not disinterested. He is so harried at work that he would take these little mind vacations, but then he would snap out of his fog and be startled by what was going on. He didn’t purposefully ignore his family, but he can’t help but take his little brain vacations and then would snap out of it.

So Hal came a long way from what you read in the script.

He did. It wasn’t very clear and I had many ideas about what would be a good complement to Lois. I talked to [show creator] Linwood Boomer and I pitched him on the idea of a guy who absolutely adored his wife and loved her more than anything, because it just wouldn’t have worked otherwise. It was important to the characters and then later Lois was able to show that side and the wonderful loving marriage that they had. It was important for America to see that it wasn’t this kind of crass bitching-at-each-other relationship. They truly loved each other.

As a parent in real life, what parenting tips did you learn from Malcolm, if any?

I did. Malcolm in the Middle was a beacon of light to all parents across the world. You just had to do better than Hal and Lois and you were a good parent. You could just watch Malcolm and do the opposite of what they did and then you should be okay. But despite that — the underlying theme that wasn’t apparent, but was couched — was that no matter what, we had dinner together every night. We were around that table. As crazy as the family was, love was at the core of that family. They loved each other. That’s something that subliminally made an impact with our viewers. No matter what was going on, they were always tethered by love.

After spending hours a day on set with kids, did you start feeling parental towards them?

Very much so. They grew up with me as their “dad.” Christopher Masterson was the adult and he was only 18. Little Erik Per Sullivan was only 7 when we started. Spending that much time on the set we really started to feel like a family. We would goof around but we also had to get work done, so we would be goofing around and then I would crack the whip and would be, “Hey hey knock it off.” It was very much a parental-son relationship. I love them dearly.

After raising kids on a show, do you feel invested in their future endeavors?

I hope I get a percentage of their future endeavors. Because without me they wouldn’t be in a position to make any money. I’m joking, of course. It would be fun to see them all succeed. I really hope they do.

The cast of Malcolm comes across as a big group of pranksters, did you play jokes on set?

All the time. It was that kind of show and that kind of temperament. The show was about jokes and pranks and gags and the trouble that kids would get into. So on set, we were always getting into trouble and it was either on purpose or accidental. We would have things like food fights that were written into the show and you would get carried away with it. I feel so lucky to have been a part of that.

Did you do all the skating in Malcolm or did you have a stunt double?

I did most of it. There were just two parts that I didn’t do, which is when I left my feet. There was a cartwheel and a handstand, which I did not do, but everything else I did. It was fun we had a week and a half to learn the routine and start skating. It’s fantastic what you can do with practice.

After Malcolm in the Middle ended, did you find you were being typecast as a silly dad? How long did it take to break free from that mold?

I could have been, but it’s up to the actor not to let that happen. It’s human nature to see someone do something and say oh he was fun and great as a silly dad so let’s offer him this role as a silly dad. So I had a couple offers to do silly dad comedies, but I turned them down. I just had to have faith that something would come along. I just didn’t want to be redundant

Do you see similarities between Walt and Hal other than both wear tighty whitey underwear?

Well the tighty whitey reigns supreme. It still lives on. When I saw that in the script in Breaking Bad, I brought it to Vince Gilligan and pointed out that I wore it for seven years on Malcolm and he said, “Oh forget it go find something else.” So I started going through wardrobe and while I was doing that, I realized that when he had Walt in tighty whitey, he did it for a reason. It meant something and I wanted to get to that root of that. I chose tighty whitey’s on Malcolm because Hal …

…You chose to wear it?

I did, because it’s funny. A grown man in tighty whiteys, wearing them is funny. You put him in boxers and it’s just not funny. So that was an easy choice. But for Breaking Bad it was harder. I had to ask, why would a grown man wear a boy’s underwear? Hal wore them because he always wore them and it never occurred to him to wear anything else. Hes still a boy. Walter White wore them because he stopped growing. The underwear became indicative of Walter White’s stunted growth. He just stopped caring. Hal wouldn’t think of wearing any thing else. With Walt it’s an I-don’t-care thing. An I’m-too-depressed-to-think-beyond-that thing. Too depressed to think about what I’m more comfortable wearing. He’s given up.

Does season 4 Walt still wear tighty whiteys?

Now it’s such an iconic thing, but he might change. We might see him go a different route …but then again we may not. You know, if we drew a Venn Diagram, the tighty whiteys might be the thing in the middle that connects the two shows.

Who would you rather have as a dad, Walt or Hal?

Hal, definitely Hal. I wouldn’t want to be put in danger, which is what Walt has done. If that happened in Malcolm it would have been by accident. That did happen occasionally, but Hal had a sweet nature and he was a sensitive loving caring man and I had sympathy for him.

Do you think moving on from Walter White will be as challenging as it was moving on from Malcolm?

I haven’t really thought about that yet, but like the decision-making after Malcolm, I too have to keep that in mind when leaving Breaking Bad. It’s up to the actor to make sure they don’t get typecast.

Would you consider returning to comedy after such a successful turn in drama?

I hope so. Every actor wants opportunities. I want to look at what’s available be it comedy on stage or in comedic films, I definitely have my eye out for it.

I understand you’re going to be the voice of Commissioner Gordon, on the upcoming animated film “Batman: Year One.” Are you prepared for legions of comic fans to critique your performance?

That’s the nature of what we do. If you don’t have the stomach for that then you need to consider changing careers. That being said, I don’t really listen to criticisms. I do these things to please myself and if it passes muster for me then that’s enough. I’m only disappointed if I fail myself. I like to hear that its affected people and I’m not adverse to reading criticism, but I don’t pay to much to it, because I’m not doing it for them.

Finally, Portlandia star Fred Armisen had one question for you: Did you get the bottle of sparkling apple juice?

No! I’m still waiting. Did you get it?

Back-to-back episodes of “Malcolm in the Middle” air on IFC weeknights at 6 p.m. ET

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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.