A version of this story about Bryan Cranston, “Your Honor” and “Better Call Saul” was first published in TheWrap Awards magazine’s drama series issue.
The last time Bryan Cranston was nominated for an Emmy for Lead Actor in a Drama Series was in 2014, for the final season of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” in which he played high school chemistry teacher turned meth dealer Walter White. He won that year (as well as three times before) and now he’s back in contention with Showtime’s “Your Honor,” another series that explores the darker impulses of human beings. He plays Michael Desiato, an upright judge who turns to corruption and crime to protect his son from the mob, only to see him die in his arms.
Cranston has been busy. He’s also in the running for his guest appearance on “Better Call Saul,” the critically beloved “Breaking Bad.” prequel that tells the origin story of Walt’s crooked lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). To the delight of fans of both series, Cranston returned to being Walt’s no-nonsense Clarks and, along with Aaron Paul as Walt’s sidekick Jesse, stepped into Saul’s world. (Yes, Cranston and Odenkirk will be competing in the same category, should they both earn nominations.)
“Both Aaron and I feel the same way,” Cranston said. “When [executive producers] Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan called, I said, ‘Look guys, if you’re busy, you don’t really have to sell us this. We’re in, whatever you want us to do.
If I understand correctly, he wasn’t sure he would do a second season of “Your Honor.” What made you decide to do it?
Well, to be fair, [executive producer] Peter Moffat always thought of it as a two season story. He came up to me and said, “Not to say you’re in season 2, but what would you say would happen to the character?” And I said, “Well, it’s one of two things. After losing everything—his wife of a year before, his child, his position, his principles, his soul, his integrity, his friends—he would kill himself. Or he would be jailed for the crimes he committed. Peter came back to me and told me that he is indeed in prison and that there was a series of circumstances that got him out and on the road to redemption. And I thought, “He’s fine, you sly bastard. You got me. That is a good one.” [Laughs]
You undergo quite a radical physical transformation in the second season: You lost a lot of weight, your hair is longer, you have a bushy beard.
Once I realized what had happened to the character and his lack of interest in life, well the ripple effect of that is lack of interest in grooming, lack of interest in food, lack of interest in exercise, lack of interest in intellectual activity. His circuits began to shut down. Michael wanted his physical body to reach his spirit, who had died. So how does a person who feels emotionally dead yet physically present face the new day?
Rosie Perez joined the cast in season 2, playing a federal prosecutor who wants Michael to help her take down the Baxter crime family. She is a great addition to the mix.
We needed a character who was formidable, who could go toe to toe with anyone. When someone suggested it, I was like, “Oh my gosh.” We hired her for a weekend. She didn’t have time to [prepare]. And I said, “I’ll be with you every step of the way.” It seems dramatically unfair because his character has to drive the scenes: my character, who doesn’t even want to live, isn’t going to talk. He doesn’t cooperate. So he requires that person to shred it. And she has to keep taking it off. She just came in and did a great job.
Michael Desiato and Walter White are men whose lives ended in dark places, for Different reasons. What would Michael think of Walt?
I think I would say that he would not have taken those steps that Walter White knowingly and deliberately chose. He became a criminal in order to achieve a financial goal. Michael Desiato didn’t have the luxury of time to make his decision. He was impulsive; he had to do well in there. I can understand both men. Part of the reason I signed them is because they are very human decisions and originally very altruistic. Even Walter White made his decision for his family’s sake after his departure. And then he got caught up in the ego of who he was. I guess I’m drawn to damaged characters. [Laughs]
When you have a damaged character who is trying to do the right thing, or seems to be, at least at first, that’s when you get empathy from an audience, and when you get empathy from an audience, it offers them an opportunity to invest in the character and invest in that history. As with Walter White, once we had them on my side, then [“Breaking Bad” creator] Vince Gilligan took them on a ride to challenge that loyalty, saying, “Oh, okay, do you think you’re in this character’s camp? Well, what if I did this? But they are on it. We’ve got them. And that’s the purpose of good storytelling: to keep the audience interested.
Speaking of Vince Gilligan, how did he and [executive producer] Did Peter Gould ask you and Aaron to appear on “Better Call Saul”?
Aaron Paul and I left [after “Breaking Bad” ended] and we started our own business, Dos Hombres mezcal and we are focused on that. But we said to Vince and Peter Gould right away, “Listen, do you ever want to come on the show? Absolutely. We definitely will.” And then both Aaron and I became fans of [“Better Call Saul”]. and i never asked [about a guest appearance] because he knew that if he was going to do it, it would be for some specific reason in the future, maybe. There were other “Breaking Bad” guest stars who attended the show. Some became important parts of the show and some did not. And then it was like, whatever happens, happens.