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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)

The tighty whiteys mean something.

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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