'Breaking Bad' turns 10: Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, and Aaron Paul break down the pilot
Can you believe it’s been 10 years since Breaking Bad premiered? Can you believe how much story has been told — and continues to be told, thanks to the Better Call Saul prequel — in that time?
Neither can Vince Gilligan.
“You know, I couldn’t be happier or more proud of that,” the series’ creator tells Yahoo Entertainment. “I came from network television. I worked for seven years on The X-Files, and loved that job immensely and learned pretty much everything that I needed to know when it came to running my own show. We did 202 episodes total in nine years of that show. I’m not a great mathematician by nature, but I’m guessing we did what? Like 170, 180 episodes just in the time I was there?
I guess I’m just plain amazed that in only 62 episodes of Breaking Bad, and now I think we’ve aired 30 episodes of Better Call Saul, for a total of 92, that the number is that few for something that has caught people’s attention like it has. Coming from network TV, I’m used to a much bigger number of episodes, much more bulk involved in the storytelling, so to speak. As a show creator, I love this new era of television that we’re in, where these companies that we work for have figured out a way to monetize fewer episodes and make that work for their business models. Because in terms of being a writer, fewer is better. You have a chance to have a higher level of quality than when you’re slinging 24, 26 episodes a year.”
Gilligan dreamed up the idea for a dying chemistry teacher’s meth-cooking venture while discussing the woes of being an unemployed writer with his best friend and eventual Breaking Bad writer and co-executive producer, Thomas Schnauz. Then he wrote and directed the Breaking Bad pilot. In honor of the 10th anniversary of its Jan. 20, 2008 premiere, Gilligan took a trip down memory lane to share his favorite memories of Bad’s beginnings, along with stars Bryan Cranston (Walter White), Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman), Betsy Brandt (Marie Schrader), RJ Mitte (Walter White, Jr.), Max Arciniega (Krazy-8), and costume designer Kathleen Detoro.
IN THE BEGINNING…
Gilligan and Schnauz, friends since they met at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, joked that one way they could deal with the uncertainty of employment as writers would be to drive around the country in an RV that was also a mobile meth lab. Did that inspire the character of DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), whose drug bust in the pilot sparks the interest of his brother-in-law, Walter White, in making meth?
Vince Gilligan: You know, I remember when I was writing the pilot, I worried that it was a little too pat that Walt’s brother-in-law happened to be a DEA agent. I thought to myself, “There’s a way to go here [with] the story I’ve got going: There’s Skyler [Walter’s wife, played by Anna Gunn], and there’s Walt Jr., and there’s a baby on the way, but there doesn’t have to be a brother-in-law who’s a DEA agent. It could just be that Walt happens to be watching TV one day, and he sees a bust on the news.” You could do it all without that character of Hank Schrader.
I remember going back and forth on that when I was plotting out that first episode. I guess I thought to myself, “If there’s this extra element, if there was a real man’s man in this story, a character right from the first act who is everything that Walt appears not to be, then that might make for some interesting storytelling.” I think that’s really where the idea for Hank came from, that Walt is cerebral and a bit soft, or at least that’s what we think of him. We find out over the course of [the series] that he’s never a physically imposing guy, but his will is downright scary. He, in fact, becomes the scariest guy in that universe by the end of it all. I liked the idea from the beginning to array him against someone who was comfortable in his own skin, a “Hail, fellow, well met,” and boisterous, and gun-toting — just a real badass. It certainly helped, too, that it would help Walt realize just how much money could be made in this criminal enterprise of his.
One other thing I realized from the earliest days: I thought to myself, “You know, Walt’s gotta be doing this, even if it’s on an unconscious level, to stick it to his brother-in law. There’s gotta be some antipathy there somewhere.” He loves the guy, but on the other hand, as we see in that first episode at the birthday party, Hank essentially does the verbal equivalent of wrapping his arm around Walt’s head and giving him a noogie.
Bryan Cranston (Walter White): When we first started this, it was very risky, because what Vince Gilligan was attempting to do had never been done on television: actually change a character over the course of the series. To this point, it had always been about things that could be depended on, whether that’s Thomas Magnum or Archie Bunker, or Ross and Rachel. We would watch because we liked those characters. “Oh, here’s a new situation, but we know how Ross and Rachel are going to feel about this.” And it was all them navigating their way through their lives, but they never really changed. Even Tony Soprano was who he was from beginning to end. Vic Mackie from The Shield — all these characters that came before Walter White were tried and true, and greatly drawn characters.
And then this came, and I read it, and when Vince told me what he wanted to do, I thought, “This has never been done.” He goes, “I know, I don’t even know if they’re going to let us do it, but I’d like to try.” “Well, OK.” And so, when we started 11 years ago shooting the show, we didn’t know anything was going to work. We knew we had a good script. All the actors, the whole crew, knew that this story was really, really special. But that doesn’t always equate to success. In fact, many times it does not.
So we just had to have faith, keep our heads down, do the work, and hope that it could find some kind of audience. But no one could ever have guessed the avalanche of attention that Breaking Bad eventually received, and then became this incredible story and revered television show. I’m very proud of that, obviously, but it just makes us dink our heads when we think about where we started. We had no idea that it could ever become what it became.
CREATING WALTER WHITE AND COMPANY
Both Matthew Broderick and John Cusack, AMC network executives’ first choices to play Walter White, passed on the part, which suited Gilligan just fine. He had Bryan Cranston in mind all along, having worked with the actor best known for comedies like Malcolm in the Middle and Seinfeld at that point, in a 1998 episode of The X-Files called “Drive.” Cranston played a dying racist, but managed to make the character sympathetic, something Gilligan never forgot. Cranston was equally impressed with the ambitious story Gilligan planned to unfold with Walter White.
Cranston: Everything became more clear to me about the subtext after I had my first meeting with Vince, and he told me what he wanted to do. In the pilot, we see the setup of what happened to Walter: He finds out about his cancer, he’s desperate to do something bold for his family before he dies. And so he makes that bold decision, and that creates the slippery slope. But beyond that, I didn’t know where he had intended on going until the meeting, and he told me he wanted to change a good person into a bad person and have him become this drug kingpin. I was mouth agape and listening to what he was saying, and I was thinking, “Oh, my God!” And I started thinking about it, like, “Is this possible? Would this work in television?”
And it just so happened that the timing of this was perfect, because I think our society was getting more sophisticated with its viewing. Cable was exploding, and there were far more options for viewers. And so we realized you can’t play it safe. You have to do something bold. [People] talk a lot about thinking outside the box and all those kind of things, but it was one of those rare occasions when it actually was just that. So I was just excited about being on board this new frontier.
Gilligan: I think people love an underdog because they identify with the underdog. It’s funny, even the winners of the world — the billionaires, the top athletes, the movie stars. I’m no psychologist, but there’s some basic human thing that we all have within us, [where] we all wanna think of ourselves as an underdog. Not as a loser, but as an underdog. An underdog is a winner who at the moment is losing, but who is not, in fact, a loser. I don’t think you can find that definition in Webster’s, but that’s the way I always thought of it.
Walt actually treads a fine line. When I look back on the pilot, he is somewhere between an underdog and a loser. You feel for him because you think to yourself, “This guy is doing everything right.” The first half of the pilot, this guy has done, as far as we can tell, everything right in life, and yet he keeps getting crapped on, right and left, by the vagaries of fate and by the people around him. He’s got a family who loves him very much, but his fear is, “How am I gonna support these folks, even on a good day?” Then, when he gets that cancer diagnosis, something just snaps in him. We identify with that underdog nature that he has in spades in that first hour.
Then, there’s Bryan Cranston… I did everything in my power as a writer to stack the deck for that particular character, so that the viewer would sympathize with Walter White. There are sympathize-able actors. There are actors who can be scary. There are actors who can be funny. Bryan really is the hat trick. He can do it all. I think a large part of the equation is Bryan himself and the humanity and the empathize-ability that he brought. He exuded it from every pore of his body. He brought that to the character and added so much likability to the character that the writing itself could never have attained on its own.
Because the show planned to take high school chemistry teacher Walt from “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” as Gilligan explained early on, was there any concern that Walt would be too likable, too sympathetic, as he was introduced as a major underdog, so that it would be impossible for viewers to eventually turn on him?
Cranston: The thing the pilot does, and that was the master plan, is that despite your better judgment, you’re saying, “Oh, but the poor bastard, he got a raw deal. … OK, just this once.” If he does this one thing, then you can look the other way and forgive him for this, because you might have done the same thing if it was you, and you were on your way out and you wanted to do something.
Here’s a man who missed opportunities in his life, and he needs to leave something for his family, because it’s going to be devastating and they’ll be left penniless. So you justify your approval of what Walter White is doing. And by doing so, what Vince Gilligan was actually doing to the audience was baiting the hook. And in the pilot, the audience swallowed that bait. They felt compassion, concern for Walt, and rooted for him. Throughout all the danger and his decision making and his indecision and his doubt and his insecurities, we rooted for him, and that was by design.
Because once that bait was taken, and in the second and third episodes, and fourth episode and fifth episode, the bait is now dissolved, what’s left in the audience? Just the hook, and at a certain point, the audience witnessing the evil deeds that Walter White was now doing. And it was beyond need now. He’d already made his money, as he said, and he didn’t really need to do more. Then it’s, “I don’t know if I like him anymore, and he and Jesse are now arguing, and I’m more on Jesse’s side.” And the audience will try to spit the hook out, and what happens is that it gets caught. So Vince, in all of his wisdom, would allow the audience to take the line out. I’ll continue with the fishing analogy. Episode after episode, he’s letting the audience run with the line. Out it goes, out it goes, out it goes. At a certain point — and it was different for everyone — where did your allegiance for Walt turn?
Some say it was early on. Some say it was when he let Jane die. Some say it was when he killed so-and-so or killed Mike. It differs. But whenever that was for any particular audience member and they wanted to spit the hook, it got caught, as we knew it would. And that’s when he clicked that reel and started pulling you in. And you know you didn’t want to. It’s like, “Oh, God. Oh, I can’t. What an a**hole he’s become, and what’s going on, and why is he…?” And we’re reeling you in. And it was just a brilliant manipulation that you didn’t see coming, because you didn’t see the hook when you ate the bait. It just wasn’t present. We thought we were feeling compassion and sorrow for a man, and what we were actually doing is buying a ticket for his trip to hell.
And then there’s Jesse, Walt’s former student, who is introduced when Walt witnesses him climbing out the bedroom window of a naked woman, falling off the roof, and then quickly driving away from the scene of a DEA drug bust. Jesse doesn’t say a word, but the look he and Walt exchange says they know each other, they’re surprised to see other, and it’s not a happy surprise.
Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman): You can tell, there’s obviously such history there. To be honest, before shooting the pilot, we didn’t have any lengthy conversations about where this kid was from. I think it was pretty much on the page, and then my own interpretation, and, long story short, I think that’s why I ended up landing the role because [of] my take on this kid. All I knew was within those 60 pages of that script, and the backstory I could kind of come up with.
This guy obviously wasn’t very focused in school, he kind of got mixed up with the wrong crowd, and he is now cooking and selling crystal meth for a living. But, I didn’t want to just make him the quintessential kind of druggie, burnt-out, bad guy. I wanted to give him some layers. And that’s what really helped me out, because after we shot the pilot and got picked up, the whole journey for Jesse was changing, unbeknownst to me. The original plan was to kind of use Jesse Pinkman as a tool to bring Walter White into this world, and then he was gonna meet his demise toward the end of the first season, and then Walt would go out and have some sort of revenge. But, I had no idea that was the original plan. So these characters and these stories just kept evolving. Each time I received a new script, more layers of the onion were revealed to me.
Gilligan: Jesse Pinkman’s character … that was something that tickled me, that I was looking forward to writing when I came up with the idea that this guy’s a former student who failed Walt’s chemistry class, but would wind up being his partner, and that these two guys basically hate each other. One thing that Bryan early on said to me was, “The way these buddy stories always go, these mismatched buddies, like Riggs and Murtaugh from Lethal Weapon, they hate each other at the beginning. They wind up at the end, they love each other. The one guy invites the other over for Christmas dinner after the end of the two-hour thing.”
He said, “I don’t wanna do that. I think Walt should never like or respect Jesse. I think he should hate this guy just as much at the end as he does at the start, and vice versa.” We took that and ran with it as long as we could, although it felt, at a certain point, these guys gotta have some kind of a grudging respect for one another. But I respected what Bryan was saying. He was basically saying, “Let’s not soften these characters.” Because that is a natural tendency that happens in a lot of these kind of stories. “Let’s try to go a different way.” That was good advice.
Paul: To be completely transparent, I was just so happy to be getting these scripts week to week, and there was really nothing I could say to make this show any better. So I was just happy that my character didn’t die in a first-season episode. But it’s true, everything was just so much more complicated and just honest with this show. And so it’s good that Walt and Jesse didn’t have that sort of best friend, “Aha!’ moment. The waters were definitely a little muddy between those two throughout the series, which was, I think, very smart.
And then there’s Marie, Skyler White’s sister, a quirky X-ray technician played by Betsy Brandt. Brandt also auditioned for the role of Skyler (and a woman named Linda, who was cut from the storyline) before she landed the role of Marie Schrader. Brandt was motivated by one word Gilligan said to her for creating her character.
Betsy Brandt: One of the things that I love and respect about Vince so much as a writer is that he’s so clear in his vision and so specific, and yet he’s so open to where it goes. I just wanted to know everything that he thought about Marie. I remember he kept using the word “needle” with her. He kept saying, “She needles Skyler. She needles her sister.” He would always say, “She’s not a bitch. It’s just, she’s not easy.” To me, she’s complicated, and that’s what was so interesting about her. And I thought it would be just a fun ride to take.
One of my favorite things about the show is when you look at the pilot and the episodes in Season 1, you can then look at who these characters were in the last season of the show, and you see that’s who they are in the beginning. We’ve gotten to know them so much more, and the stakes are higher, and everything becomes more complicated, but I feel like you see who Marie is with her husband, her sister, her brother-in-law, her nephew. The roots of these people and the relationships to one another are, I just think, evident right out of the gate. And I always loved that about the show.
THE PILOT HIGHLIGHTS
1. The White family breakfast on Walt’s 50th birthday, including fake bacon (which Walt Jr. insists smells like a Band-Aid); playful banter about a janky hot water heater and how Walt is now old; and a sweet chemistry that made breakfast on Breaking Bad, especially Walt Jr.’s love of the morning meal, a meme.
RJ Mitte (Walter “Flynn” White, Jr.): You know what I remember most about pretty much most of the scenes, but that one in particular, was everyone’s camaraderie. I miss the show, not just because of the show’s content and what we did, but I miss working with the people that I had the privilege to work with, and the camaraderie that we had on the set. It really made the characters what they are. As I’ve gotten older and filmed more and worked more, I really appreciate the professionalism that they brought to that. That was so crucial to the show.
I think people gravitated towards [breakfast as a meme] because it was the only time in the series where there was no chaos. They were a normal family that sits down and eats with each other and talks, and those were big moments of happiness. I really think that’s why people gravitated to those moments of innocence. And you’re rooting for Walt. That evolution of doing what was right and doing what we want is something that we all struggle with. It’s these transitions of: What do I need and what do I want, and what weighs more, my needs or my wants? For the most part, you were still [hoping] that Walt would come back to his family, that he would make all this money and find a cure for himself. In actuality, that didn’t happen, but we were all hoping that it was going to be OK.
But they did eat a lot of fake bacon while filming the pilot, right?
Mitte: I did not. If you notice, my character doesn’t really eat bacon in that shot, because he had smelled it. So that day, I didn’t have bacon, but we did eat plenty at breakfast.
2. The scene in the clothing store, when Walt stands up to some bullies who are making cruel remarks about Walt Jr. and his cerebral palsy. It’s one of Walt’s most heroic moments, and goes a long way toward establishing the audience’s allegiance to him in the pilot.
Cranston: I think that was an awakening scene when we were trying jeans on in a store and some bullies were picking on my son. And before the cancer diagnosis, Walt would have handled it completely different. He would have backed down and just gotten his wife to leave the store, or try to tell the security guard to have these boys stop picking on us, or something of that nature. And the new Walt felt empowered by his decision-making that no one else knew about except him. And that struck me as very honest, that it infuses you with a new energy whenever you make bold choices. And it doesn’t mean they’re good choices; it means that it becomes very bold, but not always beneficial. And that’s basically a taste of the direction that Walter White was going to take in his new life.
Mitte: To me that scene was very impactful because, one, it was one of my very first days being on set. It wasn’t my first day, but it was one of those big days where it was like everyone’s there. I had real [lines of] dialogue, [was] working and improving. … That really altered my perception of the industry. I also think that was that moment when you first saw [the] Heisenberg [persona], and that was so impactful in the story.
It definitely helped toward the bond [between Bryan and me]. [Walt] was standing up for Walt Jr., and that was one of those really special moments where you can connect with an individual you are working with, and you can have that moment with them, and it’s fun. It’s cool to be able to create that real family, because we really are a family. I can go and call anyone [in the cast] and have a chat. We don’t do that all the time, but we have the ability to do that with each other, and that is something that is hard to find. There’s not many people that I’ve had that with.
3. Jesse visits his drug-dealing cohort Krazy-8, who’s training a scary-looking attack dog (who turned out to be quite a pussycat).
Max Arciniega (Krazy-8): The funny part about it was that we did our first take, and the dog started biting on the dummy. As soon as we cut, the dog was literally exhausted. And so the dog trainer came over and grabbed this supposedly vicious Rottweiler, and took him over to get some water. He was panting like he was out of shape. So he’s there, panting and panting, and Vince was like, “Oh, OK. So, is the dog ready?” And the trainer was like, “No. He’s going to need a break.” And Vince was like, “What are we thinking, like how long?” The trainer was like, “Probably about 25 minutes.” Vince was like, “Twenty-five minutes? Oh, OK.” So this vicious Rottweiler was literally just this out-of-shape teddy bear. That was one of the cool memories about that experience there. You could go up and pet him. He was such a sweet dog. He was a good actor, right?
Paul: I remember loving that dog. The dog was great. I think he just was very happy to bark for some treats.
As would continue throughout the series, the Breaking Bad pilot was full of memorably funny dialogue, situations, and physical moments, from Jesse describing “cow houses” to Skyler’s bemusement at Marie’s offer to critique her writing, to, in one of the enduringly iconic images of the series, Walt in the desert in his tighty-whities. Many viewers were used to seeing Cranston in the white briefs from his time on Malcolm in the Middle, which is exactly why Walt almost wore sweatpants instead.
Gilligan: I love Malcolm in the Middle, but I have to admit that I certainly didn’t see every episode, and I had, in fact, forgotten that Bryan’s character of Hal had spent so much time, not just in his underpants, but in his tighty-whities. I had written the tighty-whities stuff right from the get-go, before I even had an actor in mind. I had an image of a guy in tighty-whities, in the desert, with the gas mask and all that stuff.
Cranston: I brought it to his attention because it was in the script. And he didn’t know that that was sort of a signature piece of Hal. So if he had, then I would have thought, “Oh, maybe just subliminally he put that in there.” But because he didn’t know, I went, “Oh, OK. Well…” Then that’s when I was objective; when I was looking at the choice of wardrobe and things, and I’m saying, “Well, I don’t want to repeat that. That wouldn’t be smart.”
Gilligan: I kinda wimped out on the morning of filming, and I said, “Are you OK with the tighty-whities?” He said, “Versus what?” I said, “Well… I guess [Walt] could’ve brought a pair of sweatpants or something he could be wearing. He doesn’t have to be in his underpants.”
Cranston: And so I’m looking at all different kinds of boxers and things like that, and something was kind of gnawing at me. The choice was, “Yeah, I guess we could go with boxers.” And I kept going, “Why did he write that? Why was that image in his head when he wrote that? Because he didn’t have an association with Malcolm in the Middle, so what was it?” And I asked him, and he didn’t know. He just thought the image was funny. And it is. Tighty-whities on a grown man is funny, and that’s primarily why I wasn’t going to do that again, because I had done that for seven years.
And so I was convinced that I was not going to do that. And then as I’m working on the character, I always try to find the emotional core, and that’s where the seed is, to be able to then nurture that character and have it grow out of that. And with Walt, it was depression.
A lot of what Walt was doing was out of depression, not out of emotion, because his emotional core was calloused over by years of indifference and disappointment. And I thought, this is kind of indicative of a halting maturity. Walt gave up at some point 20 years ago, when he became a teacher. He gave up maybe his own destiny, maybe something, but he didn’t care anymore. And so, that then informed a lot of decisions. That created the mustache that was so transparent that it looked silly. It wasn’t full, it didn’t really make any statement, the hair was muted brown. We took any color highlights out of my hair and deadened the color. We chose clothes that were the colors of walls: taupe, sand, beige, eggshell white. He blended [in], he became invisible to society and to himself.
And then I went back to the underwear situation and I went, “Well, you know what? I think this kind of tells our story, that he doesn’t care.” His growth as an adult, as a human being, stunted at a certain point. When I looked at Hal, it was funny in that context that he was just the biggest boy of the family. Whereas in this context, it was even more depressing. And so I thought, wouldn’t that be interesting, to take the same exact underwear in a comedy to make [the character] funny and in a drama to make it depressing or sad?
Kathleen Detoro (costume designer): They came from JCPenney, because they did not have a logo on them. I don’t really like having any logos on stuff. I don’t want to be advertising anything in particular. If there is a logo, I would take it off. But, with men’s underwear, it is usually stitched into the waistband. And I had to figure out a way for him to be able to stick a gun in his underwear. It would usually go in the back of the waistband of their pants. So we figured out a way to do that so the gun would be OK.
And he came out, and he took a bow in his underwear in front of everyone. We would just acknowledge the underwear scene, and he could focus on it. And that scene is so amazing. The whole thing is brilliant. And it was a billboard. I think it was on Sunset Boulevard. When I saw it, I just laughed so much, because I think it was of him in his underwear in the green shirt on the road in the desert. And I was like, “Oh, wow. Who would have thought, back when I had that meeting about the [underwear], that this would be above the Chateau Marmont?
Paul: Bryan really knows how to wear his tighty-whities, you know? I haven’t worn tighty-whities since I was a young little boy. But, Bryan … that’s his underwear of choice. I don’t know if he told you that, but he loves those things. Actually, that could be a lie. I have no idea.
Gilligan: The guy was so absolutely fearless.
Because the underpants are associated with two of his signature characters, has Cranston ever been approached about being a spokesman for the briefs?
Cranston: No. [Laughs] That’s the first time I’ve ever been asked about that. With Hal, unless they did it tongue in cheek. … Hal did not make tighty-whities sexy. And Walter White just kind of gave it a nastiness that I don’t think wholesome underwear companies would want to be a part of.
THE COLOR PURPLE
Color played a huge role in Breaking Bad, from the colors of the Albuquerque sky and desert to the characters’ clothing and cars to, of course, Walt and Jesse’s famous blue crystal meth. Blogs were devoted to dissecting the color schemes of the characters’ wardrobes, and what the evolution of those colors meant. One character who made a statement by never changing her color: Marie, who loved anything and everything purple, from both outfits we see her wearing in the pilot to, eventually, even her kitchen appliances (who knew you could buy a purple toaster?).
Brandt: In the beginning, Marie only had a few scenes. I just wanted to be as specific about her as I could and know as much about her as I could. Just because there wasn’t a lot of material, I was kind of looking for stuff. I always said Kathleen Detoro’s superpower is color — we all had colors. I just said, “You know what? I think Marie is that person.”
I just kept thinking about what Vince said about her needling [people]. I felt like she’s so tightly wound. In my head, I said, “I don’t think she does anything half-assed.” So I think if purple is her color, purple is her color. And Vince thought that was great. Then that first season, he and the writers, they just went with it, really so much more than I ever could have imagined. And I just loved that for her. I mean, her entire house. She doesn’t live alone. [Hank] is like, “It’s fine.” It’s so much easier just to accept everything is purple than to fight her on it. That tells us so much about her.
I was like, “OK, so she’s not easy in other ways, too.” And [before] the pilot, I asked Vince, “What do you think she does for a living?” He said, “Well, what do you think?” I said, “I think that she is an X-ray technician, or maybe an insurance adjuster.” He said, “OK, I like that. Let’s do that.” I wanted her to have some foot in the door in the medical field, but I didn’t want her to be a doctor. I didn’t want her to be a nurse. I wanted her to not have too much power. I wanted her to be able to have a chip on her shoulder.
Fans must have sent all kinds of purple gifts. Did Brandt ever get sick of the color?
Oh, my god, there is no purple in my house. Except for my daughter’s bedroom, because she doesn’t have to pay for my creative choices. Since then, when I do any other project, not to tell anybody how to do their job, but I say, “Please, very limited purple, or no purple.” It’s just a different person to me. And yes, I still get all sorts of purple stuff. When we did our premiere, I can’t remember which season it was, at [San Diego] Comic-Con, there were all these women who showed up in purple. It was just beyond touching. To me, those are the amazing meetings that you have with people that are fans of the show, because they have lived it with you. It’s those experiences that are a privilege. It’s a privilege to be in someone’s living room.
Aaron Paul’s favorite memory from filming the pilot?
Paul: This is the perfect point to segue back to Bryan in his underwear. Bryan walking around in his tighty-whities. … He really just owned them. He was very confident. He would just be walking around set in the middle of the desert, with an umbrella kind of shading his body and his face from the sun, just in his loafers and in his tighty-whities, a beautiful sight. I just remember Bryan having all of us in tears from laughter. And, it was that way through the entire series. He was truly the anchor that culled us all together.
We’re celebrating the pilot here, but fans continue to debate the series’ ending. Does Paul think Jesse is alive?
Paul: I hope so. But if you really look at the evidence, his fingerprints are all over the place. He has a record. So, they’re definitely gonna be searching for him. He is on the run, you know? He did murder someone, probably the nicest person on Breaking Bad, poor Gale. And he did get punished and abused for some time. So, I don’t know. I like to think that he kind of ran off, [is] maybe hiding out in Alaska somewhere, maybe building things with his hands, I don’t know. But, he’s definitely in hiding somewhere, for sure.
Would he ever want that question answered definitively, by Gilligan and the Breaking Bad writers?
Paul: Oh God, I have no idea, but all I will say is, if for some reason Vince decides to have Pinkman pop up anywhere … whatever Vince asks me to do, I’m just gonna smile at him and nod my head yes. I owe him so much, and I know that he would never do anything to harm or jeopardize what he had created in the first place and what we all were very much a huge part of creating. So yeah, if that did happen, I can say with confidence that it would be done in a very delicate, delicate way.
Breaking Bad was originally going to be set in Riverside, Calif., but execs asked Gilligan to consider filming in New Mexico for budget purposes. He does not regret his decision to say yes.
Gilligan: The Sony production executives called me up one day as we were plotting out the pilot and said, “What do you think about Albuquerque?” I don’t know if they said Albuquerque, to be fair. I think they said, “What do you think about shooting in New Mexico?” They said, “You could put license plates on the cars that say California. What’s the difference? California kinda looks like New Mexico.” I said, “Why would we do this again?” And, they said, “Because you’ll have a lot more money to play with. You’ll have a lot more money with which to make the show, because New Mexico is offering quite a good inducement in terms of a rebate package.” One of the things I’m proudest of is that I said, “Yes, but we’re not gonna put California license plates on, and we’re not gonna never look East to avoid seeing the Sandia Mountains. Let’s just call it Albuquerque, N.M. Let’s call it what it is.”
Because, unfortunately, as we all know, there’s not one state that has a lock on the meth problem. It’s pretty much all 50 of them. I figured New Mexico’s as good as any place. It turned out to be one of the greatest boons to the show and what people love about the show. In other words, Southern California, it’s a lot of tract homes, and it’s a lot of people, millions and millions of people — it would have to be a show set in a city, really, which is a very different feel. I only realized how different it was in hindsight, once we started shooting in Albuquerque.
In Albuquerque, you’re surrounded by plains, and deserts, and mountains, and a landscape that is, on the one hand, beautiful, but on the other hand, is dead set on killing you if you let it. You wander just a few miles from your house in some places in Albuquerque without water on a hot day, and you will die. It is a deadly landscape. That comes across so wonderfully onscreen. It becomes, in essence, a contemporary Western. I didn’t even realize how much I was gonna love that until we actually started seeing it on film. The best thing we really got from shooting in Albuquerque was shooting in Albuquerque.
When Marie met Hank…
Brandt: I met [Dean Norris] the first time when I came into meet with Vince. Dean was in the waiting room. There were other actors in there, too. Not many. It wasn’t a large group, but I just started talking to Dean. We just started chatting. And I remember, I asked him what network it was on. Then I said, “I think this is funny. Is this funny?” Because it’s an hour [drama]. And he’s like, “Oh, yeah. Yeah.” He said, “I’m going in there reading this as funny.” I said, “OK, good, because I am, too.” We both said afterwards, “Oh, I went in and definitely played the comedy more because of our conversation.” Everything just came together on this for me. I can’t speak for everybody else, but I feel like this show is full of those stories, that everything just fell into place. I think it is the definition of lightning in a bottle.
We still want to know more about Marie and Skyler’s background, their childhoods. Wouldn’t it make a great story, or a book, or a prequel season or series?
Brandt: If you get that show produced, I will do it. I will do a season of Skyler and Marie. It’s funny, Anna and I would talk about how, “God, don’t you want to meet their parents?” We had talked about that with Vince. Vince was like, “Oh!” He had ideas about it. But it’s cable. You never get to explore as much as you want, because you just don’t have the episodes.
What does Max Arciniega think about the fact that his name was used for a pivotal Breaking Bad character, Max Arciniega, Gustavo Fring’s best friend and original partner in Los Pollos Hermanos? Max the character was murdered by the Mexican cartel, sparking Gus’s quest for revenge against Don Eladio and Hector Salamanca.
Arciniega: I was aware that Vince Gilligan tends to name characters after people that he knows and likes. So I got a call from Vince, and he’s like, “Hey, listen. I was thinking about naming one of the characters after you, and just wanted to know if that was OK?” And I was like, “Absolutely. I would be honored. That’s amazing.” And so it was as simple as that. I remember, I had some family members who were big fans of the show. They didn’t know, and no one else knew about it. I had never said anything. I started getting phone calls, and they’re like, “They named a character after you!” It was an honor.
All five seasons of Breaking Bad are now streaming on Netflix.
Vince Gilligan is currently in production on the fourth season of the Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul.
Bryan Cranston is currently starring in a stage adaptation of the 1976 film Network at the National Theater in London, and in the Amazon Prime series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. The second season of Sneaky Pete, another Amazon series he co-created and stars in, premieres later this year, and his big-screen dramedy The Upside, in which he stars with Nicole Kidman and Kevin Hart, is scheduled to be released in 2018.
Aaron Paul is currently starring in the third season of The Path on Hulu, and is in production on the fifth season of Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, in which he stars and is an executive producer.
Betsy Brandt currently stars on the CBS comedy Life in Pieces.
RJ Mitte stars in the big-screen drama Time Share, which is premiering at the Sundance Film Festival, and continues to work as a model, producer, and an advocate for accurate diversity and accurate equality for disabled actors.
Max Arciniega has reprised his Breaking Bad role on Better Call Saul, where he is unfolding the backstory of Krazy-8, known as Domingo in the prequel.
Kathleen Detoro is working as the costume designer on the ABC sci-fi drama The Crossing, which premieres in April.
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