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'Breaking' into Character with Bryan Cranston

Actor Bryan Cranston — best known as the dad on Fox TV's Malcolm in the Middle talks to Terry Gross about his newest role. He plays a meth-cooking high-school chemistry teacher in Breaking Bad, a new series on AMC.

19:26

Other segments from the episode on February 6, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 6, 2008: Interview with Fred Kaplan; Interview with Bryan Cranston; Review of a new collection of director Ernst Lubitsch’s early films.

Transcript

DATE February 6, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Fred Kaplan offers scathing critique of the Bush
administration's foreign policy initiatives in his new book
"Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Nearly all of America's blunders in war and peace these past few years stem
from a few grand ideas about American power and how the world changed after
the Cold War and 9/11, ideas that proved to be false. That's the premise of
the new book "Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American
Power." It's about the misconceptions my guest Fred Kaplan says have guided
American policy and led us into Iraq, and about the men who came up with those
grand ideas.

Kaplan writes a column of military analysis called "War Stories" for the
online magazine Slate. His first book, "The Wizards of Armageddon," was about
the men who first developed America's nuclear weapons strategy. Kaplan
reported from Washington, DC, and Moscow for the Boston Globe and was part of
a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for a Boston Globe magazine story on the
US/Soviet nuclear arms race.

Fred Kaplan, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. FRED KAPLAN: Good to be here.

GROSS: Let's talk first about the grand ideas, the grand theories that you
write about in the book. The first is that everything changed after September
11th.

Mr. KAPLAN: Right.

GROSS: What's the theory?

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, the theory was that we had never experienced anything like
this and therefore the entire world has changed. You don't need to look at
history anymore. You know, if you think back all the times during the Bush
administration when people would try to look at the lessons of history when it
came to, say, dealing with insurgencies or dealing with, say, the North Korean
government or negotiating with adversaries, the attitude was always, `well,
that's in the past. That's old Europe. That's old thinking. We're in a new
era now.' And it gave them leave to just dismiss every lesson of history that
went against the kinds of policies that they were endorsing and advocating.

GROSS: Now, this dovetailed with another thing that you describe as a grand
theory, which is that America emerged from the Cold War as the sole
superpower.

Mr. KAPLAN: Right. This is a paradox that I think a lot of people didn't,
and still don't, understand. You know, the Cold War, I mean, it was a time of
horror and depravity, but it was also a system of international security. You
know, the world was basically divided into two spheres. And if you were a
member of one sphere or the other you went along with your superpower, at
least to some degree, sometimes even sacrificing your own national interests
in exchange for the security that was provided, or in the case of the eastern
bloc, the oppression that was foisted on you.

When the Soviet Union disappeared, just imploded in 1991, the common enemy,
the Western alliance's common enemy also disappeared. Suddenly a lot of
countries realized that they could go their own way, that they could follow
their own interests regardless of what Washington felt about the matter. The
main thing, though, is that, in the past, there was this Western coalition,
and sometimes various countries departed from it, but that was the default
mode of international relations in the West. Once the common enemy
disappeared, the default coalition also disappeared. If the United States
wanted to retain its pre-eminence, it would have to go seeking alliances and
coalitions issue by issue, point by point. Diplomacy became a harder thing
and a more vital thing.

The Bush people came into power thinking that they were all eminent, that the
United States was now practically an omnipotent power, that we didn't need
alliances, that, in fact, alliances just sort of got in the way. And so, you
know, forget about the ABM Treaty, forget about the Kyoto Treaty. After
September 11th--and I think one of the most moving moments in trans-Atlantic
history, the other nations of NATO got together and said `we want to invoke
Article Five of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.' That's the article
which says that if one country is attacked the others come to their defense.
This was designed for the United States to come to the defense of Europe in
the event of a Soviet attack. And here were now the European allies saying
`the United States is under attack and we want to come help you.' And Bush
just blew them off, said, `no, don't worry about, we don't need this.'

You know, there were NATO meetings planned, conferences where we would work
out a common approach toward terrorism. This was going to revitalize the
alliance. And the Bush administration used it as a vehicle for rallying
support for the Iraq war.

GROSS: OK. So let's just sum up some of the grand ideas you've mentioned so
far. One, the world changed after September 11th. Two, the United States
emerged from the Cold War as the only superpower which leads to, three, the
United States could go it alone and didn't really need alliances anymore. And
this connects to another grand idea that you discuss in your book "Daydream
Believers," and that is that there is an ongoing revolution in military
affairs.

Mr. KAPLAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: What is that revolution?

Mr. KAPLAN: The idea is that we now have technology that substitutes for
mass. If you have weapons that can be targeted to particular targets with
extreme accuracy, if you have computers and surveillance systems that can get
a complete picture of the battlefield, you can defeat armies with a very small
force. And so you don't need large armies. You don't need allies going into
military interventions with you. It can all be done with, you know, from the
air. Some people thought you didn't need armies at all. It could all be done
with these wonder weapons fired from the air.

GROSS: And so wars could be short and swift?

Mr. KAPLAN: Short, swift, light. The whole idea of this--some of these
weapons were designed at a time to overwhelm growing Soviet strength. After
the Soviet Union disappeared, it was recognized, well, maybe this can be used
as a tool to preserve American pre-eminence around the world.

And the idea--the reason why Donald Rumsfeld, for example, wanted to go into
Iraq with a very light force--remember, his generals were telling him he
needed 300,000 soldiers. He said `we pared it down, pared it down, pared it
down.' It was really a question that applied not just to Iraq, he wanted the
Iraq war to be seen as a demonstration of American power, that even after the
end of the Cold War, with a much smaller army, with no allies behind it, the
United States could still work its will, could still change regimes that we
don't like practically with one hand tied behind our backs. And it was the
revolution in military affairs that would allow us to do this.

GROSS: And this was an idea that was also tested in '91 in the Gulf War.

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, it started in the Gulf War. You know, the smart bombs as
they called them, were still a very small percentage. You know, of all the
bombs that were dropped in the '91 war, only 9 percent of them were smart
bombs. And a lot of them weren't that smart. They were still guided by
lasers, and lasers could get defracted by moisture and smoke and fog and dust.
Now they had--by the time Afghanistan happened, they have these new kinds of
weapons that were guided by GPS satellites. So all you had to have was the
longitude and the latitude and it would land right on the spot.

And Afghanistan was sort of the turning point. You know, there were times
when these weapons would just come right in on their targets. Donald Rumsfeld
took that as a redemption of transformation. Well, before Afghanistan, when
the Army was estimating that we would need to send two divisions, two armored
divisions in through Pakistan to overthrow the Taliban. Well, it turned out
we did it with a handful of special ops forces and the smart bombs. So this
had a significant effect when it came to Iraq planning. When the Army came in
and said, `OK, we're going to need 300,000 troops to defeat Iraq and to occupy
it afterwards,' Rumsfeld was thinking, `well, you were way off on Afghanistan
and I have no reason to think that you're not still way off on Iraq.'

There was one thing, though. He forgot something about Afghanistan. You
know, the northern alliance, with the help of US support, was able to
overthrow the Taliban government quite easily. But what he didn't realize was
that--and now, of course, as we know, that the Taliban and al-Qaeda kept
fighting, the war was not over. He made the mistake that many people who have
forgotten the cause of it make and that is that, you know, war is politics by
other means, and the war is not over until you've accomplished the political
objectives. It's one thing to destroy targets or even win battles. It's
another thing to win a war. And, you know, people say that, both in
Afghanistan and in Iraq, they won the war but lost the peace. I don't view it
that way. They didn't even win the war. They forgot what the objective of
the war was.

GROSS: Well, Rumsfeld has been out for a while, so where does this theory of
a revolution in military affairs stand now? Does Robert Gates believe in
that? Do current military commanders military commanders believe in that?

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, I think there's a more realistic appreciation of its
limits. I mean, I think Rumsfeld was right and the generals were wrong in
terms of how many troops you need to simply defeat an army and overthrow a
government. But what is now being appreciated is that's really the start of
things. Unless you just want to leave the society in shambles, you have to
impose order afterwards or you have to create a situation where order can be
imposed afterwards. And that's led to this renewed appreciation for the
techniques of counterinsurgency, which is basically involving having a lot of
troops, well trained troops on the ground for a long, long time.

GROSS: One of the technologies that was part of this idea of a revolution in
military affairs was a missile defense, an impermeable defense that would
prevent enemy missiles from penetrating the United States. In the Reagan era
that was the Star Wars technology.

Mr. KAPLAN: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How hard has President Bush tried to keep the idea of missile defense
alive?

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, you know, it's funny. When he first came into power, that
was his number one priority. He had said this all through the campaign, that
his number one priority was to junk the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and to
get a missile defense system going. This was another case--and maybe the most
profound case--of the people coming into power not being familiar with
history. If they'd been familiar with the history of missile defense, they
would have seen that this story went back, I mean, not just to Reagan, it goes
back to the mid '50s. I mean, it's a noble quest. It's a legitimate aim.
But for technological reasons that have not changed and are not likely to
change, this has just proven to be impossible. And it happens each time.
About every decade a president comes in saying, `wow, this is really some new
promising technology, let's get rid of this nuclear danger.' And then they
start to work on it and they realize, oh, it has obstacles that are really
insuperable.

And the interesting thing is, for all the emphasis that Bush put on missile
defense when he first came into power, by 2004 he's hardly said a word about
missile defense ever since. Even though some interceptors have actually been
deployed, he doesn't say anything about it, even though we continue to spend
about $12 billion a year on it. You know, it's a great corporate boon. It's
a technology boon. People still have hope in it, and therefore we spend--in
the current budget which Bush just released this week he's asking for $12 1/2
billion, which is way more than for any single weapon system.

GROSS: While we're talking about the perceived revolution in military
technology, let me ask you about President Bush's new budget. He's proposing
increasing military spending to its highest level since World War II, a $515.4
billion budget just for the military. And that doesn't include spending on
the war in Iraq or the cost of nuclear weapons.

Mr. KAPLAN: Right.

GROSS: And this is apparently 30 percent higher than when President Bush took
office.

Mr. KAPLAN: Yeah. If you add it all up, if you add in the cost of the
nuclear weapons, the supplementals for the war, it really comes to about $713
billion.

GROSS: What's it going toward? Like, what insights can you give us into the
budget?

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, the funny thing about the budget is that if you took
somebody who fell asleep 20 years ago and woke them up now and--you know, when
the Cold War was still going on and you woke him up now and showed him the
military budget, he wouldn't be surprised by anything. This is a budget
that--again, except for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan--is dominated by
aircraft carriers, submarines, fighter jets, missile defense. For all the
talk about transformation, good or bad or indifferent, the budget is one thing
that has not been transformed at all.

GROSS: Does that mean that they don't believe in the revolution anymore, that
they're just funding all the old weapons systems anyways?

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, you know, a lot of the generals and admirals who really
run the permanent Army, Air Force and Navy never got off on this stuff to
begin with. They saw it as an attack on their mainstream systems. You know,
when you talk about `we want to build an Army that is light, that is easily
deployable, rapidly deployable,' then you're talking about an Army that
doesn't have heavy tanks. And that's still the mainstay of the mainstream
Army. So they've stuck it out, they've survived in terms of what we're
buying, what we're spending money on. Although this is changing a fair
amount, but still what the soldiers and crewmen and so forth, airmen are being
trained on, it's still very much a military geared up to fight the Cold War.

GROSS: My guest is Fred Kaplan. His new book is called "Daydream Believers:
How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power." We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Fred Kaplan. His new book is called "Daydream Believers:
How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power."

And we've talked about some of the grand ideas that you write about in your
book. There's a blurb on the back of your book from Tom Ricks, the Washington
Post military correspondent who wrote the book about the post invasion of Iraq
called "Fiasco." And he writes in this blurb that "the story is told by an
author who knows where the secrets are kept and also that the most powerful
and dangerous weapon in Washington, DC, is a new idea." How do you think that
fits into what you're trying to do, the idea of a new idea being a powerful
and dangerous weapon in Washington?

Mr. KAPLAN: Yeah. New ideas--if it's an idea with potency it shakes things
up. I mean, when Rumsfeld put out these ideas, some of which were very
interesting and some of which were complete nonsense, but he did it
deliberately to shake things up. Bureaucracies are made of power centers.
World politics is made up of power centers. And the last part of my book goes
into this. The idea that President Bush tried to put out there, especially
starting with his second inaugural address in 2004, was this idea that the
centerpiece of the United States foreign policy will be toppling tyrannies and
making the world democratic--you know, the freedom agenda.

And this, to me, was maybe the most disastrous idea that the United States has
put out in the last several years. I mean, the idea, of course, is a
beautiful idea. People should be free. But he had an interesting conception.
He said, "I believe that freedom is a gift from God." Now, the assumption of
that--if you take that idea seriously and not just as a nice little
bromide--and I think that he does take it seriously, it's that freedom is the
default mode of humanity, that, you know, if you blow up the manhole cover
that is a tyranny, freedom will gush forth like a geyser. The implication of
that is that you don't have to do anything to make it gush forth. You just
knock off the bad guy and the rest happens automatically.

GROSS: Give us an example of what you mean about toppling the bad guy isn't
good enough, you have to work to have freedom.

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, for example, the elections in Iraq. President Bush seemed
to think that once you held elections that showed that democracy was in
action. And you remember that the first elections in Iraq, I mean, they truly
were inspiring. Activities, you know, these shots of the women coming out of
the voting booths with their purple-stained thumbs--I mean, this was
incredibly moving. But it didn't mean the beginning of democracy. As it
turned out, all the Shiites voted for religious Shiite parties, the Sunnis
voted for Sunni parties, and the Kurds, you know, voted in a referendum to
secede from the government. Those elections, in fact, politicized social
divisions that had gone back decades and even centuries.

So just because you have an election, that doesn't mean that everybody has
decided to settle down. You need to have democratic institutions which are
able to mediate differences and settle disputes in ways that don't inspire
rancorous violence. And that is what these places don't have. And this was
what was just not understood as being a necessary pre-condition for true
democracy.

GROSS: Now, you say the next president has to rebuild alliances. How
difficult do you think that will be to do?

Mr. KAPLAN: Well, it's actually going to be a lot harder than people who say
they favor building up alliances think it is, I think. It can't be done just
by piecemeal. You know, the other countries of the world have now had a taste
of going out on their own, pursuing their own interests quite apart from any
consideration for how it affects Washington, how it affects international
politics as somebody else sees it. China has risen. You know, you have India
is a factor. And so alliances can't just be something that you pay lip
service to. There's actually going to have to be compromises.

In other words, if Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama or the next president, and,
you know, the world rejoices--as I think they will--but you can't just go pay
them a call say, `OK, it's the year 2000 again, it's the year 1990 again,
we're going to be setting the policies just like we always did, but don't
worry we're going to be consulting, you can tell us what you think about it.'
No, it's not going to be like that anymore. We have different interests. I
mean, sometimes they coincide, sometimes they converge. But on some things
they differ, and if we want to create coalitions for whatever purpose, if we
want to create alliances, they have to be truly common alliances. And on some
things we are going to have to compromise.

The United States is going to be in a position that we've never been in. In
all the years that we were an actor on the global stage--you know, since World
War II, an explicit, active, persistent actor--we have always been the ones in
charge. I'm not suggesting that we are in decline. I mean, the United States
is still the only country with truly global reach politically, economically
and militarily. However, that's not the basis of power. You translate these
raw materials into influence, into creating scenarios, into setting up
agendas. And we are not the only powers in the world right now. And it's
going to be very hard to create some of these alliances. It's going to be
very frustrating.

However, the alternative is increasing isolation and persistent defeat. If
America is not to be a declining power then we are going to have to make
compromises and make our way in a world that we don't really control
everything in. And that is going to be very difficult.

GROSS: Fred Kaplan, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. KAPLAN: Oh, well, thank you, Terry. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Fred Kaplan is the author of the new book "Daydream Believers: How a
Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power." He also writes the "War Stories"
column for the online magazine Slate. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Bryan Cranston talks about his new TV show "Breaking
Bad"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The actor Bryan Cranston is best known as Hal, the childlike father on
"Malcolm in the Middle." But you might also recognize him as Jerry's dentist
on "Seinfeld," as agent Stan Grossman in "Little Miss Sunshine" or as a guy
with a severe headache problem on "The X-Files." This year Bryan Cranston got
his first dramatic series lead in "Breaking Bad," which was created by Vince
Gilligan and presents its third episode Sunday night on AMC.

This drama series has lots of funny moments. Cranston stars as Walter White,
a shy high school chemistry teacher who's not quite making ends meet, trying
to provide for his teenage son who has cerebral palsy and his pregnant wife.
When he learns he has inoperable lung cancer, something in him snaps and he
decides to provide for his family the best way he knows how. He teams up with
a former student to make and sell crystal meth. Our TV critic David Bianculli
talked with Cranston.

DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:

Bryan Cranston, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. BRYAN CRANSTON: Thank you, David. Good to be here.

BIANCULLI: I want to start with a clip from "Breaking Bad."

Mr. CRANSTON: All right.

BIANCULLI: Because for people who haven't seen the show yet this will give
them a sense of what you're doing and how you're doing it. I'm fascinated by
your acting as Walter White because for most of the show you say so little but
convey so much. This is a scene from an upcoming episode where you're going
to come downstairs and walk in on your wife, who's played by Anna Gunn from
"Deadwood," when she's on the phone making an appointment for you with a
cancer specialist.

(Soundbite from "Breaking Bad")

Ms. ANNA GUNN: (As Skyler White) Yeah, I any time on Friday is absolutely
fine. Thank you so much for working us in.

Can I just put that on a credit card? Great. Perfect.

(Soundbite of door slamming)

Ms. GUNN: (As Skyler White) OK, so we will see you at 10:45 on Friday
morning. Thank you so much. OK.

(Soundbite of beep, thump)

Ms. GUNN: (As Skyler White) Oh, yes. Honey, the best oncologist, I mean,
not even just in New Mexico but one of the top 10 in the entire nation--his
name is Dr. Delcavoli and we see him on Friday.

Mr. CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Huh.

Ms. GUNN: (As Skyler White) I mean, Marie really came through for us. She
had her boss call and--OK. This is good. From here on out, I mean, things
are going to...

Mr. CRANSTON: (As Walter White) What's--what's that we're putting on a
credit card?

Ms. GUNN: (As Skyler White) Uh, it's just a deposit kind of thing.

Mr. CRANSTON: (As Walter White) How much of a deposit?

Ms. GUN: (As Skyler White) It's $5,000.

Mr. CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Five thousand? Jesus. And what's that,
just the start? I mean, just to tell me what I already know?

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: I have to be honest, Bryan, when I heard the premise for the
series, I didn't think I'd like the character or the show very much...

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: ...because we're talking about crystal meth, we're talking about
cancer. But you really pulled me in. I still wasn't sure when the hour was
over what to think of this guy. And I'm wondering is that the only script
that you saw when you had to decide whether to accept the part or not?

Mr. CRANSTON: Yes, the only thing I saw was the pilot script. And as an
actor, you know if it starts to seep into your soul and you start daydreaming
about the character and having nighttime dreams about the character, then it's
becoming you--or you're becoming it, one way or the other. And when I had my
first meeting with Vince a year and a half ago, I couldn't help but start
saying exactly what I felt about him. This is, I think he should be a little
pudgy. I think he should be pale. I think he should be colorless. I think
his clothes should be this way. I think he should have this silly moustache
that doesn't really convey anything, except that it conveys impotence to me.
It was unnecessary. And it sort of was a manifestation of what I thought his
life was like at that time, basically unnecessary, that he felt useless,
invisible to the world, to society, even to himself.

BIANCULLI: A question about a very dramatic scene in an upcoming episode,
which is where you're deciding, or confronted with the decision of whether or
not to undergo chemotherapy treatments. And your wife stages this sort of
intervention, and everyone's around, and you take turns talking by holding a
talking pillow which gives you the right to speak. And it's a funny idea in a
very dramatic scene. And you're the last to speak, and finally you get the
talking pillow and I thought, this is the first time you've had the talking
pillow in four or five episodes. And how hard a scene was that for you to do?
Because you were quite, quite strong in it.

Mr. CRANSTON: The thing about an actor approaching a scene like that is you
can't for a second think that what you're doing is funny because if you do
then there's a slight wink, wink, nod, nod to the audience, `oh, isn't this
cute? We're using this talking pillow.' And all of us just took this idea
that this gave us the right to speak at that time and to speak uninterrupted.
And it's very respectful of the audience, I think.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: We don't have a laugh track to it. And if the audience finds
that piece funny, as you did, David, then I think you can smile or laugh if
that strikes you that way or not. And ultimately that is just so juicy to
play because there's a whole wide range of reactions that an audience can have
at any particular time, and none is wrong.

BIANCULLI: We're talking to Bryan Cranston, star of the AMC drama series
"Breaking Bad."

Your resume fascinates me. You seemed to have been, in the '70s and '80s, in
one episode of almost everything.

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm.

BIANCULLI: Not several episodes, just one.

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: But I mean great shows, like "Chicago Hope" and "LA Law" and
"Thirtysomething" and "Hill Street." And then you're in "Walker: Texas
Ranger," "Touched By an Angel," "Jake and the Fat Man" and "Baywatch."

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm. Wide range of good programs and crappy ones.

BIANCULLI: That's sort of my question.

Mr. CRANSTON: Yeah.

BIANCULLI: But, I mean...

Mr. CRANSTON: Oh, don't be embarrassed.

BIANCULLI: ...clearly a working actor, but how--and your first job is like on
"CHIPs," bless your soul.

Mr. CRANSTON: Uh-huh.

BIANCULLI: So first of all how do you get started on "CHIPs," and then how do
you balance this career?

Mr. CRANSTON: Well, when an actor first starts out, you're looking to work,
any work. You need money to pay your rent and money to pay for your eight by
10 pictures and your resumes and your acting classes. And you need some film
on yourself, and that's--you're willing to take just about anything. And
remember, in those days--I started in 1979--there was no record, no permanent
record for anyone to keep track of the stuff. So you accept a terrible show
because you needed the money. And I did a movie called "Amazon Women from the
Moon."

BIANCULLI: Well, that was John Landis.

Mr. CRANSTON: Did you see that?

BIANCULLI: Wasn't that John Landis?

Mr. CRANSTON: John Landis did it, but a terrible film. But you don't care
because you're not going to put it on your resume. It's like, it comes and
goes. But there's several things that I've done that I've removed from the
resume. But now in this world of IMBD you can't hide. There's...

BIANCULLI: That's really funny.

Mr. CRANSTON: ...all the schlock that I used to do is now coming back and
it's all right there. So it's a piece of humble pie.

BIANCULLI: See I always thought--I know of writers and producers who have,
say, taken "MASH" off of their resume because they don't want to seem older,
which I think is a sin because it's such an incredibly good show.

Mr. CRANSTON: Right.

BIANCULLI: I never thought of just intentionally keeping something off just
because it was bad and maybe nobody will notice.

Mr. CRANSTON: Dreck. Yeah. Yeah.

BIANCULLI: But what do you remember about "CHIPs"?

Mr. CRANSTON: I remember I had this terrible Southern accent. (talking with
Southern accent) I think I was talking like this. I was talking like a
special needs person relative of Gomer Pyle. I'll tell you I was talking
like--you know. And it was an interesting experience. I had a wife on the
show named Kathy Shower, who was apparently--and I didn't really know at the
time, she was a very pretty woman.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: And she was a Playboy playmate and it was like, wow, Erik
Estrada, that's all he had to find out, a Playboy playmate and, you know, he
was after her like nobody's business. And it's like--you know, it's
interesting because I heard nothing but bad things about Erik, things saying,
`oh, he does this, he's, you know'--and he was nice to me on the show, I must
say.

BIANCULLI: Well, another bad TV--I mean, I've been a TV critic since '75 so I
can say this. Another bad show you were on, but it had a good result for you,
was "Airwolf." Wasn't that Jan-Michael Vincent in a helicopter? Is that the
one I'm thinking of or am I confusing that?

Mr. CRANSTON: No, that's the one. Jan-Michael Vincent on his descent into
his personal hell, which was horrible. This guy was, you know, had so much
promise and he was late every day and he had, you know, his drinking problem
and his drug problem. And there was a scene where we're in a helicopter and
they're shooting what's called a poor man's process which is the helicopter is
not actually in the air, but if you shoot from a low angle up all you see is
sky behind you and there's a couple grips in the back moving the rotor and it
looks like the whole thing is in the air.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: And there was our first AD, would say `OK, roll sound. Sound
speed, there we go. Slate it, and Bryan'--and he would shake his fists for
me, that would be my que to wake up Jan. And to have--no, seriously, to wake
up Jan and have him, you know, act in the scene. And it was such a shame.
And I was like, God, this is so horrible. Especially for a beginning actor
when I was pretty new there and wanting more than anything to be able to be a
part of the acting community and to have the gift that has eventually came to
me, to become a good working actor. And I don't take it lightly. And I don't
have any expectations of what the business owes me. I have no sense of
entitlement. I just work.

GROSS: We're listening to actor Bryan Cranston talking with out TV critic
David Bianculli. Cranston stars in the new AMC series "Breaking Bad." They'll
be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Let's get back to the interview our TV critic David Bianculli recorded
with Bryan Cranston, the star of the new AMC series "Breaking Bad." Cranston
also played the father in the family sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle."

BIANCULLI: One thing that I find in common between your part of Hal in
"Malcolm in the Middle" and your new part as Walter in "Breaking Bad"--and
there isn't that much that they have in common--but it's, as an actor, a total
lack of vanity when it comes to attacking the characters as you see them. And
I'd like to play the first scene from "Malcolm in the Middle" where we meet
your character.

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm.

BIANCULLI: You're the husband and the kids are at the breakfast table,
they're trying to eat. You're nude reading a newspaper that's strategically
open to cover things while you're reading it.

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: And your wife, Jane Kaczmarek, is shaving your back hair...

Mr. CRANSTON: Mm-hmm.

BIANCULLI: ...with some hair trimmers.

(Soundbite from "Malcolm in the Middle")

(Soundbite of buzzing)

Mr. CRANSTON: (As Hal) Huh. Look at this. They're sending an unmanned
probe to Venus and letting a bunch of school children name it. Well, that's
going to end badly.

Ms. JANE KACZMAREK: (As Lois) These clippers are dull already. Honestly,
Hal, you're like a monkey.

Mr. FRANKIE MUNIZ: (As Malcolm) They do this every month. He has sensitive
skin. The hair gets itchy under his clothes.

Ms. KACZMAREK: (As Lois) It always seems like such a shame to just dump this
in the trash. Maybe birds would like to make nests with it or, I don't know,
maybe you boys could use it for school projects.

(Soundbite of quick exhalation)

Ms. KACZMAREK: (As Lois) Arms up.

(End of soundbite)

BIANCULLI: So that's--what memories does that bring back to you? And is it
true that you had to have, for your first scene in a sitcom, or the first
scene--maybe they were shot out of sequence--but you had to have yak hair
glued all over you to make that scene work?

Mr. CRANSTON: Yes. I have nothing but fond memories of "Malcolm in the
Middle." It was a fantastic period of my life. Brilliantly written by Linwood
Boomer. That was the first scene. The first scene I ever shot in the pilot
was the scene where I'm naked in front of all these children. And the person
who's in charge of kids, you know, in taking care of them from the Coogan Law
and they have all these rights which is fantastic now...

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: ...insisted that in between scenes I stand behind this black
curtain. So apparently while we're shooting it my nudity was OK and didn't
hurt the retinas of their little eyes. But in between I had to go stand
behind this curtain.

But, yes, it's true. I was--except for a modesty patch--and believe me, it
was very modest, I had nothing else on. It took three makeup artists four
hours to apply yak hair to my body. And they said it was yak hair and they
told me why. Yak hair most resembles human hair, but it's longer. So they
were able to use part of it for the glue and still have part of it that is
unmatted and standing out. But that meant I couldn't sit down. So for the
entire day that we're shooting this, I never sat down. And I had my arms out
most of the time so everything wouldn't get matted.

But when it came time to actually shaving this hair off my body, the glue
would get stuck in the razor and it would start to pull on my skin. So we had
to have a casting call for hairy-backed people. And they brought in all kinds
of people. It looked like a carpeteria store, where there was shag and there
was low pile and there was, you know, berber. And they picked the body type
they felt was most like mine, which is very unfortunate.

BIANCULLI: Mm-hmm.

Mr. CRANSTON: And they had a body double. And it turned out to be one of
our teamster guys. It turned out to be one of the guys that we actually
shaved through and did the close-up shot of the hair cutting through the--or
the razor cutting through the hair, rather.

BIANCULLI: We're talking with Bryan Cranston, star of the AMC drama series
"Breaking Bad."

One of the things I learned reading about you for this is that your parents
were actors, Joe and Peggy Cranston. Would I know them from anything?

Mr. CRANSTON: You wouldn't know my mom. And my dad might be hard to
remember. I remember when my dad was, you know--he had the real actor's life.
His life was up and down and up and down. And I remember him mostly dying in
everything that I saw him do. Whether he was a soldier on top of the roof, in
"The Day the"--where the, not "The End of the World." I forget what the name
of the movie is, the sci-fi movie with the large grasshoppers that took over
the city. He was in that saying, you know, `sector eight is all fine here.'
(Screams) And we'd see him die, you know. Or else he was in infantry man or
he was, you know, in the cavalry and he'd get shot with an arrow. He was
always dying. `Hey, dad's dying tonight,' you know, so we'd watch him.

But he met my mother in the late '40s in an acting class in Hollywood, and he
was--they were all in the same class with Anne Bancroft and David Janssen at
the time. And it was kind of a, you know, a good time for them and post-war,
and everything was kind of on the upswing. And they married and decided to
have children, and that's when my mom decided, `well, I'll either have a
career or be a mother.' And those were the choices for women in those days.
And she always regretted that. She always wished that she had pursued both.

BIANCULLI: One last "Breaking Bad" question. Do you have friends or family
members who have gone through the process of chemotherapy and cancer, and if
so, what did that do to your acting approach?

Mr. CRANSTON: Yes, I do. In fact, recently my sister-in-law went through
breast cancer. And we'd go with her to her chemotherapy sessions and her
radiation sessions, and it's very traumatic. You can feel the energy. It's a
palpable trepidation. And you wonder, you know, you wonder, `is this now the
beginning of the end of my life?' And as positive as you want to remain, it's
difficult. And I took that information with me.

But when I weighed it against what my character Walter White was going
through, it was almost a fair trade-off because he was just living a life of
existence before. And the irony to this is that, ever since this death
sentence of a lung cancer that is inoperable, he's been more alive and more
awake than he has in the past 25 years. So in an odd way he's accepting it
and willing to deal with that set of circumstances.

BIANCULLI: Bryan Cranston, it was a joy having you on FRESH AIR. Thanks very
much.

Mr. CRANSTON: Thank you, David. I appreciate it.

GROSS: Bryan Cranston stars in the new series "Breaking Bad," which is shown
Sunday nights on AMC. He spoke to FRESH AIR's TV critic David Bianculli.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: Lloyd Schwartz reviews the new collection of director
Ernst Lubitsch's films on DVD
TERRY GROSS, host:

Director Ernst Lubitsch was famous for his sly sense of humor, which was
called the Lubitsch touch. When he came to Hollywood in the 1920s from
Berlin, the early films he worked on were musicals. These almost forgotten
films have now been released on DVD. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz
has a review.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) I would love one hour with you

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I'm thinking of the same thing as you

Woman: (Singing) Then why delay?

Man: (Singing) Just one reason

Woman: (Singing) What's the reason?

Man: (Spoken) It's my wife.

(End of soundbite)

Mr. LLOYD SCHWARTZ: Ernst Lubitsch's best films are the most sophisticated
comedies made in Hollywood between 1929 and the early 1940s, even after the
stultifying production code went into effect in 1934.

"Trouble in Paradise" was about two jewel thieves who fall in love while
picking each other's pockets. In "The Shop Around the Corner" James Stewart
and Margaret Sullivan are a couple of bickering clerks who don't know they are
writing each other love letters. It's infinitely more delicate and humane
than any of its remakes like "You've Got Mail."

"To Be Or Not To Be," with Jack Benny as the leading Polish Hamlet, is the
most daring political satire to appear during World War II. And there's Greta
Garbo playing a Russian commissar who is seduced by Paris in "Ninotchka," her
first comedy. "Garbo laughs," read the ads, and so did everyone else.

But Lubitsch's very first American films were pre-code musicals, and they
already had the Lubitsch touch. Airy trifles filled with naughty double
entendres that were too charming and funny to be offensive. The stars were
mainly Maurice Chevalier and the very young and glamorous Jeanette MacDonald,
who was an expert comedienne before her famous syrupy screen partnership with
tenor Nelson Eddy. These early Lubitsch films are operettas about mythical
European kingdoms with high born but down-at-the-heels ladies yearning for
both money and romance, or married couples faced with extramarital temptation.

In "Monte Carlo," MacDonald abandons at the altar a ridiculous but wealthy
fiance and falls in love with a duke posing as her hairdresser. It's silly,
but delicious. And it has some very good songs.

(Soundbite of "Beyond the Blue Horizon")

Ms. JEANETTE MacDONALD: (Singing) Beyond the blue horizon
Waits a beautiful day
Goodbye to things that bore me
Joy is waiting for me

I see a blue horizon
My life has only begun
Beyond the blue horizon lies a rising sun

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: "One Hour with You" is a remake of a Lubitsch silent film
called "The Marriage Circle." In it, MacDonald's best friend is making a play
for Chevalier, MacDonald's reluctant--though tempted--husband. But MacDonald
thinks he's interested in someone else. So to keep him away from the
imaginary other woman, she keeps throwing him together with her trusted
friend.

"The Smiling Lieutenant" has a more darkly emotional side that foreshadows
Lubitsch's later, edgier films. Here Chevalier, as a randy officer, meets a
fresh-faced young violinist played by Claudette Colbert. Guess what happens
after this bit of dialogue?

(Soundbite from "The Smiling Lieutenant")

Ms. CLAUDETTE COLBERT: (As Franzi) So you play the piano?

Mr. MAURICE CHEVALIER: (As Niki) Mm-hmm.

Ms. COLBERT: (As Franzi) Some day we may have a duet?

Mr. CHEVALIER: (As Niki) I love chamber music.

(End of soundbite)

SCHWARTZ: But when Chevalier, on duty, winks at Colbert, Miriam Hopkins, as a
dowdy visiting princess, thinks he's flirting with her. An international
scandal is avoided when Chevalier is forced to marry Hopkins, even though he's
still in love with Colbert and continues to sleep with her. When Colbert and
Hopkins finally meet, Colbert feels so sorry for Hopkins she teaches her how
to dress and undress in style, sadly relinquishing her own hold on Chevalier.

(Soundbite of "Jazz up Your Lingerie")

Ms. COLBERT and Ms. MIRIAM HOPKINS: (Singing) Jazz up your lingerie
Just like a melody
There's music with every ribbon and the flowing rhythm
Wear lace in harmony
A silken symphony
It's music and just the right note for you

Colors should be seen, let your step-ins
Have no dull or gray tones
Wear your...(unintelligible)...with something up to date
Hey, hey, tones!
Jazz up your lingerie
Just like a melody
Be happy
Choose snappy music to wear

Jazz up your teddy bear
I wonder if I dare
Jazz up!
I'll try to
Jazz!
I'd like to
Come on
I mean to

Wake up, try something new
That's what I've got to do
Wake up
I'll show them
Great
I'll teach them
Get hot!
I'll try tra la la la

That's not so hot
It sounds like 1850
Oh, da da da
You've got it now
That's nifty!

Jazz up your lingerie
Just like a melody
Be happy
Just choose snappy music to wear

(End of soundbite)

Mr. SCHWARTZ: Lubitsch's most dazzling musical, and the one with the best
score, is "The Merry Widow" also with MacDonald and Chevalier. That hasn't
yet been released on DVD, though you can catch it every now and then on Turner
Classic Movies. But if you enjoy ultra-sophisticated romantic fluff, skillful
acting, deft writing and buoyant direction, these earlier films are sheer
pleasure.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classic music editor of The Boston Phoenix and
co-editor of the Library of America's new volume of Elizabeth Bishop's "Poems,
Prose and Letters." He reviewed four early Ernst Lubitsch musicals just
released on DVD.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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