So how do you go from Breaking Bad to Godzilla?
When I was first asked if I’d be interested in this role, I said no, because I thought, I have to do something lofty, something that has some gravitas. So I turned it down. But one of my agents said, “Read the script. It’s actually quite good.” It was, and I realized this was probably the best thing to do. It’s a completely different direction, and it can’t be compared to Breaking Bad. It’s a Godzilla movie!
Who do you play?
I’m a scientist at a nuclear power plant. I’m married to Juliette Binoche, and I was very pleased when she was cast in that role. The movie is about family and how we cope with the potential life-ending problem of the monster. It’s also about how we as a people may be messing with Mother Nature when it comes to nuclear power.
Yeah, but it’s also about a giant lizard terrorizing the planet.
Exactly! The number one responsibility when making a film is to entertain, and that’s certainly what Godzilla does. It’s a damn fine piece of entertainment.
You’re also on Broadway as President Lyndon B. Johnson in the play All the Way. Again, a far cry from a chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin…
I took another left turn. I think the play is historically important, especially considering anyone my age or older lived through the civil rights era. My mother took my brother and me on a trip to New Braunfels, Texas when I was seven. She pulled us aside and said, “Listen, if you boys see a drinking fountain that says COLORED ONLY, don’t drink out of it.” I was looking for colored water fountains everywhere, because I wanted to see what color they were. Rainbow? Grape? Of course I didn’t get it. The ’60s were the most intense decade of American life—rock’n’roll, the pill, LSD, hippies, landing on the moon—it’s insane, all the changes that happened.
There’s a scene in the play in which LBJ is in his underwear. Gotta say, it was a little disappointing to see you in boxers instead of briefs.
I thought that would be too much. I don’t think the president is a tighty-whities guy. That said, I’m still waiting for Fruit of the Loom to contact me for a promotional deal! I would have all the older guys dressed in tighty-whities. What’s wrong with that?
Even before Walt’s skivvies became an iconic image, TV fans knew you from Malcolm in the Middle and Seinfeld.
It’s funny. I feel like I’ve had to rebel against the idea that, “Oh, he’s a theater actor,” or, “Oh, he’s a soap opera actor.” The truth is, if you’re acting, you’re an actor. But you need to do it! I always say to young actors, “Oh, you’re acting?” “Yeah.” “Well, what are you working on?” “Um, right now we’re not really doing anything.” “You mean, you didn’t even do a class?” You need to do stuff: student films, plays, something, anything!
What about getting typecast as a goofball, like the dad in Malcolm or Jerry’s dentist on Seinfeld?
I so enjoyed my five episodes on Seinfeld, and it really helped my career. Just working with guys like Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld was like going to a master class, the way they were able to construct scenes, seeing what was working and what wasn’t. They’re truly comedic geniuses, and that’s probably the best comedy ever, for my taste.
You’ve also directed shows like The Office and Modern Family. Did your work on Seinfeld and Malcolm creep in?
I think we’re all influenced by the shows we work on. I mean, I don’t think you can take a joke that someone else has written and pass it along as your own, but if you’re influenced by a movie or a show and you add your own sensibility to it, that’s fair.
You famously played a meth cook on TV. So how are you in the kitchen?
I actually prefer baking to cooking, because my career involves a lot of trial and error, so there’s something calming about baking and having to be exact. You can’t say a cup and a half and just put two cups. Two eggs? Oh, forget the eggs. You have to be exact, and my life is the opposite of that.
In a spoof Breaking Bad ending you woke up as Hal from Malcolm, having dreamed the whole thing. What’s the strangest place you’ve woken up?
I would have to say the Star of Hope Mission in Houston. My brother and I were riding our motorcycles across the country, and we were broke when it started to rain. Now, let me note that this was a mission for the homeless, and sure enough there’s this huge hall full of bunk beds, and we had to endure all the belching and vomiting and farting from all these people. I slept with my covers over my head it was so bad. One funny thing was that they didn’t want anyone escaping during the night, so everybody had to strip down naked and stand in line to take a shower with a pull chain while they threw all our clothes together in one big pile. By the time we got our clothes back, they smelled like everyone else’s, so we went straight to the laundry, stripped down again, and washed our clothes. God, that was awful.
Do you ever get the sense that people are scared of you because of Walt?
People are trepidatious at times meeting me, and I go, “You look a little nervous. Are you OK?” Most often they say, “I just finished watching all the episodes.” It’s too fresh in their minds, and they can’t shake the idea that I’m this monstrous person. In playing Walter White, I realized that there’s a Walter White in all of us. Each and every person on this planet is capable of becoming dangerous, given the right set of circumstances.
Photographed by Adam Fedderly
That’s a little frightening.
It is, but I think it’s honest. What really made Breaking Bad work is that the world got to get to know this man and his plight and his bad decision-making. As [creator] Vince Gilligan brilliantly wrote in the last episode, when Walter was talking to his wife: “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it.” It was a moment of raw honesty, and that’s what resonated with fans. They believed this could happen.
What do you think happened to Jesse after he escaped in the finale?
I don’t know. I kind of like to say, “Go, man! Run, run, run!” Like other fans of the story, I hope he got away. He was a sweet innocent who needed to escape, and Walter needed to die. And Walt actually welcomed it. In the end he really killed himself.
What line do fans say to you the most?
All different ones: “Tread lightly.” “I am the one who knocks.” “I am the danger.” There are all types of buzzwords from that show, and I couldn’t be prouder of it. We followed the age-old tradition of, “Leave ’em wanting more.” We didn’t want to be that show that’s like, “God, is that still on the air?”
So if Walter White, Tony Soprano, and Don Draper were pitted against each other, who would survive?
I don’t think it’s any contest. Walter White would appear to be the underdog, because he doesn’t have the brawn of Tony Soprano and he doesn’t have the presentation and the attraction of Don Draper. He’s just got the smarts. He would create something that would foil his opponents, that they wouldn’t see coming. Oh, he’d get beat up and bashed around, but when the dust settled, coming out of that cloud would be Walter White.
Godzilla is in theaters now.