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کتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 51

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Unemployed Actor

Sitting at a bowling alley, cheering on my daughter, I noticed my cell phone ringing. As the ball traced its glacial trajectory, I picked up. It was Peter Liguori, the president of the Fox Television Network at the time. I knew Peter well from my time on Malcolm in the Middle. He was smart, a nice guy. I liked him.

At the end of our seventh season on Malcolm, Fox told us not to break down the sets, not yet, a strong indication they were contemplating picking us up for another season. I loved the idea of one more year of hijinks as Hal. We knew word could come down at any moment. Then it did.

So now I found myself in a very familiar spot for an actor. I was without a job.

I had recently been offered two comedy pilots—both were for goofy dads. But I had just done seven years of goofy dad.

Taylor’s ball completed its journey, nudging down several pins with a quiet clunk. After pleasantries, Peter said he wanted me to rejoin the Fox family. He was offering me a role in a pilot for the upcoming development year. The series was called Nurses.

Nurses was a sexed-up version of Grey’s Anatomy—as if that show needed to be sexed up. Peter was offering the role of the head doctor of the emergency room at a Philadelphia hospital. To conveniently complicate things, my character’s daughter was one of the main nurses on the floor. Drama ensued! The show, as far as the pilot script indicated, would follow the trials and tribulations of nurses balancing work and personal life. Oh, and apparently everyone—including my doctor character—had sex in this hospital. A lot of it.

After playing the hapless dad on Malcolm, the guy who, while shaving his chest hair with an electric razor, notices his pudgy stomach and breaks into song (I’m so full of BACON, my body’s made for SHAKIN’, and when I start to WIGGLE, my nipples they will JIGGLE), I wasn’t exactly a sex symbol.

And now I was being asked to play a skilled doctor, a leader of men and women, a saver of lives, who happened, in the first episode, to have sex with an attractive associate on the desk in his office? At fifty years old, I was offered a role where I got the girl?

I was flattered.

Sadly, the Nurses script was, how should I put this? Shallow?

Over the years, I’d developed a philosophy, a way of choosing projects: Follow the well-written word and it will not fail you. Good writing is everything to an actor. Give Meryl Streep C-level material, and even at the top of her game, the best you can hope for is she elevates it to a B. Mere mortals might be able to stretch it to a C+.

As much as I appreciated the offer, I knew immediately Nurses was not for me. What I really wanted to do was a show called Breaking Bad.

My agent had called me about it a week before. He’d asked, “You remember Vince Gilligan?”

“No,” I said.

“The X-Files?”

“Oh, yeah. I think. I’m not sure.”

“He wrote this pilot script.”

It had been eight years since my stint as Patrick Crump, but apparently Vince remembered me, and for some reason he felt I had the right ingredients to inhabit the main character of his new show.

I read the pilot script in one sitting. I was astonished. A-level doesn’t do it justice.

You meet Walt on his birthday. He rises listlessly at dawn, exercises without enthusiasm on some sad little mail-order machine, chokes down the limp veggie bacon his pregnant wife has arranged in the shape of a “50” on top of his eggs. He goes to work. High school chemistry teacher. People once called him a brilliant scientist. Now he tries in vain to find one kid who might show interest, who might be semi-open to understanding what he’s trying to convey. Chemistry is the study of change. That’s all of life. It’s the constant. It’s the cycle. It’s solution and then dissolution over and over and over. Transformation. Reformation.

No one gives a shit.

Walt goes to his second job at the car wash. He took it to pay for physical therapy for his son’s cerebral palsy, which his insurance won’t cover. Bogdan, his boss, treats him like a simpleton. Walt finds himself applying Armor All to the tires of one of his students. “Hey, Mr. White! Make those tires shine.” On the way home, the glove box in the Walt mobile—a Pontiac Aztek painted impossibly flat avocado—won’t stay shut.

He grimaces his way through a lackluster surprise party. Hello, hello, how are you? Boxed wine, passive-aggressive sister-in-law, dickish, emasculating brother-in-law bragging about his exploits as a DEA agent.

His wife is kind of neutral to his depression. She gives him the least sexy hand job in the history of mankind. She’s multitasking, absently stroking while reminding Walt to paint the back bedroom and monitoring an e-Bay auction. Later she scrutinizes the credit card statement and scolds: Did you spend $15.88 at Staples last month?

Oh God, could it get any worse? It could. It does. Walt collapses at the car wash. Cut to the hospital, where the doctor asks accusingly, Are you a smoker?

No.

You have cancer. Inoperable. Best-case scenario—with chemo—a couple years.

He can’t bring himself to tell his wife. He sits in his backyard and lights one match at a time, tossing each one into his filthy swimming pool. There’s a chemical reaction that takes place when a match is lit: red phosphorous, sulfur, potassium chlorate. All of life is chemistry. He tosses another match into the water.

(I thought of the mossy green swimming pool of my youth. Mine. Bryan’s.)

He goes on a ride-along with his brother-in-law Hank and sees a former student fleeing a busted meth lab. Jesse Pinkman? Huh— easy money in meth. Making drugs is really just chemistry. He could generate enough money to cover his medical bills, perhaps leave a little money for his family. He wants to leave something behind. We all do.

That was the first episode of Breaking Bad.

I’m not sure I knew what that title meant then, but the script was oh-my-God superb, the best hour-long drama I’d ever read. Great characterizations, complex plots, nuanced story elements, surprises that left you thinking: What on earth is going to happen next?

By virtue of the writing, I began dreaming about this character, this Walter White. I was waking up in the middle of the night with him on my mind. I recalled being back on the Blue Ridge Parkway, marooned by rain. I got so lost in an Ibsen play, the story and the characters, that I forgot about the rain. I can’t describe how rare that is to find in script form. I can’t explain how an actor longs for that richness and depth and humor and humanity to work with. To build on. This was it. I had no idea where the story was going, but I knew it was gold.

I had a meeting set with Vince the following week. I told my agents: “Make it sooner.” I went into the AMC offices in West LA, knowing I was scheduled for twenty minutes, and ended up staying an hour and a half.

“Do you know how he should look?” I asked.

“Uh, kinda,” Vince answered, smiling.

I ventured some of the ideas that had come to me since I’d read the script. “He’s missed so many opportunities in life,” I said. “You can see that in every part of him. He has a mustache that isn’t manly. That isn’t anything. You look at him and say: Why bother? His skin and his hair are the same bland hue. He wears pale yellow and sand and taupe. He blends into the background. Invisible. To society. To himself. I’m thinking he’s doughy. One hundred eighty-six pounds.”

I saw this character, this man, so clearly. I knew how he carried himself. Burdened. His shoulders were slumped like those of a much older man. I was imagining a man who carried himself a lot like my dad.

When I asked about his plans for the arc of the show, Vince told me in his genteel Virginia drawl, “I want to take this character from Mr. Chips to Scarface.”

“So you’re going to take this guy from good to bad?” I said.

He nodded and smiled slyly. “If they’ll let me.”

I couldn’t believe it.

All television, to that point, had been based on stasis, characters you come to know and love. The prevailing thought for most of the history of television had been that viewers want someone they can count on. Archie Bunker. In every episode of All in the Family, he’s consistently Archie. Jerry Seinfeld, same. Ross and Rachel, you see them in different situations—will they or won’t they?—but they’re invariably Ross and Rachel. Even the characters we’ve known to break new ground, like Tony Soprano. As genius and game-changing as that show and performance were, you didn’t see Tony change a whole lot from the beginning to the end. Tony Soprano is Tony Soprano. Don Draper may change a little, but he basically remains Don Draper until the show’s meditative finale, and even that’s debatable. Some argue the workaholic adman was meditating not on the here and now, but on the creative for a Coke commercial. Classic Don.

Vince was proposing to blow up the model of a successful show. Walt would truly change. By the time the series ended, he’d be unrecognizable to viewers, to himself.

“You’re really going to do that?” I asked again.

“That’s the plan,” he said, laughing.

“Do you realize that no one’s ever done that in the history of television?”

Vince shrugged. “We’ll see if it works.”

I didn’t know if it would work, either. But I knew I wanted in. I had to have it.

At home, I handed the script to Robin and I said, “Before you read this, know that it shoots in New Mexico.” Whenever I really consider a role, if it’s going to change our lives, Robin is a part of the decision-making process. If the show moved forward, I’d be away from home a significant portion of the year.

Robin read the pilot and saw what I saw. “Shit,” she said. “You have to do this.”

The network wanted to bring in five or six guys to test for the role. I was one, thanks to Vince. I heard the list also included Matthew Broderick and Steve Zahn. Walter White was a Jekyll and Hyde character. As talented as Matthew Broderick is, I’m just not sure that he has a Mr. Hyde within him. Steve Zahn? Yes, I can see that.

Vince was convinced I was the one. The network and studio said: “Bryan Cranston? The goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle? I don’t think that’s what we’re going for. Let’s keep talking.”

Vince said: “He’s an actor. He can do different roles. That’s what actors do.” He sent the execs the Crump episode of The X-Files, and they saw I could be a different guy. I don’t know if they fell in love with me, but at least they saw I wasn’t a one-trick pony. They opened up to the idea of me.

Nevertheless, they implored Vince to please be reasonable and allow them to conduct a proper test, march a half dozen actors through auditions for a room of twenty-five people. They would certainly include me in that test, but also most likely they’d include Steve and Matthew, along with possibly Christian Slater, Paul McCrane, Adam Godley, John Carroll Lynch, and Henry Thomas.

If necessary, of course I’d do the test and try to earn the role. But it was a risk. Even if you knock a test out of the park, you never know who might come in there and hit it harder and farther. Or who might already have the edge because of past relationships. And then the role just slips out of your hands. It happens.

The actors I was up against were very good; any one of us could have gotten the part. I allowed myself to fantasize: God, wouldn’t it be great if they just offered me Breaking Bad? No test. No competition.

And then I had a crazy idea.

I called for a meeting with my key agents at UTA, Brett Hansen and Kevin Stolper, and I said, “Is it possible to somehow float the information out into the Hollywood rumor mill that I have been offered the Fox pilot—Nurses?”

My thinking was that maybe, just maybe, if Sony/AMC heard that I had an offer on the table for another pilot, they would launch a preemptive strike and immediately offer me Breaking Bad. Maybe they would scramble to keep Vince Gilligan’s first-choice actor. It was worth a try, right?

Brett and Kevin pondered for a few seconds and then said they knew a few people they could leak this to—in confidence. Wink. Wink.

That was on a Thursday. The casting director for the Nurses pilot informed UTA that I had until Tuesday to give them an answer. If I said no, they would need time to pursue another actor. A very reasonable request. I had five days before time ran out, but that included a weekend, so the clock was ticking. Friday came and went. No word. Was I too optimistic thinking gossip could travel that fast? This was before the explosion of Twitter and Facebook. Monday came. Silence. Damn. Tuesday arrived, and still nothing. Oh well.

I asked Brett and Kevin to call Fox at the end of the day and politely decline the Nurses offer. As nice as it was having my ego stroked by the offer to play a stud, Nurses just wasn’t something I could look forward to getting up for every day at 5:00 a.m. It was a pass.

I turned toward preparing for the impending test for Breaking Bad.

And then, late Tuesday afternoon, Dawn Steinberg, the head of casting at Sony, called and offered me the role. No test. Breaking Bad, thankfully, unbelievably, was mine.

I never found out what happened, why they decided to forgo the test, whether my ploy had worked. I didn’t really want to know. The role was mine. That’s all that mattered.

I thought back to my movie Last Chance. Had I pushed the shoot even one more week, I wouldn’t have been in town to audition for The X-Files. Had my character in Last Chance not looked pretty close to what they wanted for Crump, who knows? Had Malcolm been renewed for an eighth season, someone else would have played Walter White.

So many twists of fate and accidents of timing that seemed, in the moment, insignificant or unfortunate or even like rotten luck, and they all led me to this part.

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