52-والتکتاب: زندگی در چند بخش / فصل 52
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They had an assortment of tighty-whities laid out for me in wardrobe. For seven years on Malcolm, I wore tighty-whities. I was determined not to wear tighty-whities on Breaking Bad. I didn’t want to have a shtick.
I voiced my concerns to the costume designer Kathleen Detoro. Tighty-whities were in the script, but sure, no problem, they could get me some boxers, she said.
Then I paused. Vince wrote it for a reason. I called him. “Vince, do you remember why you wrote Walt in tighty-whities?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I just thought it was a funny image: a man driving an RV in tighty-whities. Tighty-whities are funnier than boxer shorts.”
Tighty-whities are funnier. That’s why I’d chosen to wear tighty-whities in Malcolm. I happened to follow some of the boys’ wardrobe calls, and they had kids’ tighty-whities laid out, and Hal was just an overgrown boy after all, so it made sense that he’d wear boys’ underpants.
I chose them for Hal. But Walt wasn’t Hal. So why would I wear the same underwear?
Choices—even seemingly minor choices—matter. Details matter. Now I thought about Walt, and I realized tighty-whities were the right detail, the right choice, but for a different reason than for Hal. A grown man in tighty-whities can be funny; it can also be pathetic.
Building a character is like building a house. Without a solid foundation, a base, you’re screwed. You’re going to collapse. An actor needs a core quality or essence for a character. Everything rises from there.
I had a hard time figuring Walt out at first. I couldn’t find a way in. It was frustrating. Sometimes that happens when I first approach a role. A character is outside of me. And then I go to my actor’s palette—which is comprised of personal experience, research, talent, and imagination—and the base begins.
Pretty immediately, I had Hal’s base. It was fear. Oh, he’s everything Lois is not. He’s afraid of being fired, spiders, heights. When something was wrong, Hal would show you what was wrong. He was easier to get. Once I had his core, the floodgates opened. Everything else came to me.
Walt was tougher. Walt was laconic. So it took longer.
I started to ask more questions of Vince. “Why is he a teacher?” Vince responded: “I don’t know. My mother was a teacher. My girlfriend is a teacher. I just thought it would be the right thing for him.”
I thought about it. Walt was brilliant. He was raised with everyone around him telling him: Sky’s the limit. Straight As. Well liked. His teachers, his parents, his fellow students all said you’re going to go far. You can write your ticket. You’re going to be making seven figures. You could discover the cure for cancer.
Why didn’t he? Why did he quit Gray Matter Technologies, the company he cofounded with his friend Elliot Schwartz, a company that could have made him rich? Did he fear failure? What if everyone you knew growing up said you were destined for greatness, you couldn’t miss, and then you missed? That’s not just failure. It’s collapse. It’s catastrophe. Maybe Walt was afraid of that. Maybe he just got cold feet. Maybe he got the yips.
And then I thought: How sly of him to teach. Why? That profession is unassailable. He could get away with saying: “I didn’t want the corporate world. I wanted to give my passion to the next generation. I had a calling.” Teaching is a calling for many people. But not Walt. He was hiding out. Had he become a truck driver, people would have criticized him. But a teacher? Untouchable.
What you’re not given as an actor you must provide. So I started filling in blanks, and that led me to the why of it all, Walt’s foundation. He was depressed. That’s why I had trouble finding his emotional core. He had shut it down. He wasn’t fearful. He wasn’t filled with anxiety. He wasn’t anything. Walt’s foundation was that he was numb. His depression had deadened his feeling.
Of course there is a massive amount of literature on depression. I wasn’t going to become an expert. I’m an actor, not a psychologist. But based on some research and thought and observation—I believe both my parents probably suffered from depression—it seemed to me that there are generally two ways depression can manifest.
One is externally. Your emotions spew everywhere. In the form of apathy: I don’t give a shit. Or anger: My ex-wife screwed up my life. Or anxiety: My boss is going to fire me.
The second way is to go inward. You go silent or become antisocial or self-medicate. Or you implode. That’s what happened to Walt. He imploded and then, poof, he became invisible. He was living a traceless life.
Once the character appears to me, everything else can blossom. Everything else becomes clear. The character is no longer outside. He’s within. When wardrobe asks me questions—“What about this jacket? These sunglasses? These shoes?”—I know all the answers. Hand me a Ralph Lauren shirt? No. No labels. This guy is Kmart all the way. Target is a treat. So let’s get that sensibility.
Most costume designers want to work with nice materials. They want their actors to look good. I imagine there are a lot of actors who want to look sharp, not knowing or realizing that’s not who their character is. But it’s ridiculous to have a middle-class character walking around in Louis Vuitton. Fortunately, our costume designer, Kathleen, was right with me on that.
I’ll shave my head, I’ll be naked, it doesn’t matter. It’s far more important for me to be honest in the character I’m playing than to preen.
So I sank into Walt. I dressed badly. I gained weight. Every aspect of Walt was an expression of the fact that he’d given up. The chinos, the Members Only jacket, the Wallabees, the pathetic hair and mustache. Tighty-whities fit into all that. As the series progressed and Walt gained confidence, we went into other underwear and darker clothes in general. But at the outset, tighty-whities was it.
Though I knew the contours of Walt’s journey, good to bad, Mr. Chips to Scarface, I never dreamed how riveting, how majestically compelling the show would be as it unfolded over the next six seasons, how it would change—everything.
And I never dreamed how hooked people would get on the show, how obsessed. But looking back, that was part of Vince’s grand design.
The hook was set at the very beginning. Walt had gone to seed, but he was a family man, doing his best, living paycheck to paycheck like so many people in the world. At the outset, he was no more a murderer than you or me. He just wanted to do something for his family before succumbing to the cancer. He wanted to go out on his terms.
You were rooting for him to succeed. And then all of a sudden rooting for him to succeed meant you were rooting for him to make and sell crystal meth and get away with it. And then—oh God—he killed that guy. But that other guy was going to kill him. Of course he defended himself. You’d do the same.
By the time he let Jesse’s girlfriend, Jane, die, you were fighting to spit that hook, but it was too late, it was set too deep. You were making excuses for him. You were equivocating, saying: “What else could he do? Kill or be killed.” You were headed toward the abyss.
It’s easy to take the high road when it’s hypothetical, but Walt was dealing with excruciating questions in real time, and you the viewer were privy to his predicaments. You were inside. So you felt for him. You forgave him—even as he crossed the line, even as he was overtaken by a lust for money and power. Even as it became clear that he was being driven not by concern for his family’s future but by ego.
Sometimes we were giving you more line, making you feel more sympathetic toward him. Other times? We were just reeling you in. By the time Walt poisoned a little kid, the moral gray area was gone, a dim memory, and the audience, had they been in their right minds, should have said: “Fuck this guy. He’s nuts. He’s evil.” But it was too late. The allegiance had been built.
I heard so many people say—I still hear them—“I love you, but I hate you.” Or: “I hated you. But I couldn’t stop rooting for you.”
Keeping the audience off balance, rooting and hating, required meticulous thought, discussion, and design. That scene where Walt lets Jane die? That was not how Vince Gilligan first conceived it. He originally thought of Walt as a more active, aggressive murderer. John Shiban wrote the episode, and Vince sent it to the studio and network. Walt looked with pure contempt at Jane for getting Jesse hooked on heroin.
BREAKING BAD #212
“Title TBD” WRITER’S DRAFT 9/17/08
EXT. JESSE’S DUPLEX - NIGHT (LATER)
Walt pulls up in front. Donald helped him change his mind; he’s come back to talk some sense into Jesse. He knocks on the front door: Open up, I want to talk to you! No answer.
Walt goes around back and peers through the bedroom window - Jesse and Jane, lying on the bed, back to back on their sides, passed out high. So much for “positively no more drugs.” Walt shakes his head, Of course.
INT. JESSE’S DUPLEX - BEDROOM - CONTINUOUS
Walt reaches in through the hole he made when he busted in at the end of episode 211. He opens up the door and comes inside. He sits down on the edge of the bed. He looks over at the duffel bag of money.
Now what? Take the money back? What if this girl’s crazy enough to call the cops on me? Or do I just leave the money and go once and for all?
Next to him, Jane starts to cough, COUGH-COUGH, spitting up some vomitus onto the bedspread. (NOTE: she will remain unconscious.) Walt looks down at Jane. His face clouds as he realizes: there is a third way. He reaches over and softly touches her shoulder. A tender gesture, we might assume that he’s comforting her. That is, until he ever so gently . . . pushes Jane onto her back.
Walt stands and steps away. Gravity does the rest as Jane’s vomit spills back into her trachea.
Guck-guck- GACK . . . guck-gack. . . . GACK! GACK! . . . GACK!
As she continues to suffocate, we RACK TO:
WALT THE MURDERER, backed up against the bedroom’s farthest wall, looking on.
END OF EPISODE
When I first read the script, I was shocked. There would be no turning back after this. Walt had killed in the past, but his brushes with violence could always be ascribed to self-preservation. Killing Jane would make him a murderer. Worse. Jesse was more than Walt’s partner, he was something like a son. And Jesse loves Jane. If Walt pushes Jane onto her back, to her death? That would be the most diabolical betrayal. I worried we’d lose the audience. It would be hard to continue to root for the kind of man who’d do that.
I wasn’t the only one shocked. The studio and network viewed the scene as a critical turning point in the devolution of Walter White, and they were concerned that at so early a stage in the central character’s transformation—we were only in the second season—this murderous act would turn the audience against him prematurely and jeopardize the show. Too much too soon. They expressed their concerns to Vince, and he listened and came to agree. He devised a slightly less damning way for Walt to be involved in Jane’s death.
Studios and networks have a reputation for diluting the creative process with their notes. Decision by committee. Conservatism rules. But extra eyes on a story line can actually be useful and generative, and throughout the run of Breaking Bad our studio and our network helped us make the story better.
Walt wasn’t a cold-blooded killer—yet. He was a bystander. He had the chance to save Jane, but he didn’t act. He hesitated. And he was shattered. That moment I saw my daughter’s dying face.
One of the things that made the show so compelling was this lack of bright moral lines. No indisputable turning points. No easy answers. We put the moral burden as much on the audience as it was on Walt, implicitly asking: What would you do if you had two years to live? How would you do your life?
I’d been introduced to Vince’s nuanced understanding of morality back on The X-Files. Breaking Bad, however, was a whole new level. Viewers had to decide for themselves what was understandable, given the circumstance, and what was flat-out reprehensible. And most likely it wasn’t a specific moment but rather a series of moments that shifted allegiances and sympathies.
For me? Walter’s moral decay doesn’t begin when he watches Jane die. Killing Mike, Walter’s onetime partner, doesn’t mark a turning point, either. For me, the seed is sown in the very first episode.
Walter is dealt a bad hand. He’s been living inside a kind of emotional dead zone, and, faced with a definitive prognosis—two years to live—he lets it all burst from his core: pity, anger, desperation. As time wears on, those initial feelings burn off and leave a toxic residue, a sludgy fuel that allows him to act with recklessness and hubris, to compromise everything he holds dear, to endanger the people he loves most: his family.
Character is both formed and revealed when we are tested, when we are forced to make decisions under pressure. That test can either make us stronger or it can highlight our weaknesses and crack us into pieces. Walt fails the test. I understand why—temptation, humiliation, wanting to feel like he’d really lived, like he’d really been a man, a desire to go out on his own terms, to control his own destiny.
But whatever the reasons, he fails.
The question for the show and the challenge for me as an actor was: How could we legitimize Walt’s trajectory, make it believable and relatable? Walt couldn’t suddenly go from meek depressive to heartless bastard who happened to poison a little boy.
The answer was to go slowly. We had to move with consideration; we had to sequence carefully. We had to take baby steps.
That’s why serialized TV was the perfect format for the show. In a movie, we would have been forced to take great leaps, compress time, and truncate story lines. That cramming would have strained credulity. The audience would have rejected it.
The pace of Breaking Bad was deliberate. We incrementally pushed and tested you more and more. Did we lose some people? Maybe. You can’t keep all of your viewers over the course of six seasons. But so many people were with us the whole way through. The show’s numbers grew exponentially over the years, and they grew all over the world. Brazil and Germany and Australia. When we started, we were a cult favorite; at the end we were a juggernaut. They were selling Heisenberg hats, the uniform of Walt’s dark alter ego, in stalls of souks in Morocco. They were hawking throw pillows stamped with his silhouette in São Paulo. In New York City you could buy rock candy dyed a lovely shade of aquamarine to resemble Walt’s signature product, blue meth. In Albuquerque someone started a successful business touring Breaking Bad locations. For a long time, fans went by the “White household” in Albuquerque to throw pizzas on the roof, as Walt had done in one episode. Vince actually had to issue a public statement asking people to stop bothering Fran and Louis, the poor couple (who’d been so kind and accommodating to the whole cast and crew) who lived there. “There is nothing funny or original or cool about throwing pizzas on this lady’s roof. It is just not funny. It’s been done before. You’re not the first.”
The mania the show inspired was unlike anything I’d seen. The show wasn’t for everyone, but I’ve rarely heard of anyone who watched casually, intermittently. Fans binged. The advent of streaming services like Netflix created the opportunity for people to shoot Breaking Bad right into their veins. Each episode seamlessly flowed into the next, and before people knew it they’d watched an entire season of the show in a few days. At a certain point, it felt like a whole Breaking Bad nation was wide awake at three in the morning, saying to themselves: JUST ONE MORE. People spent weeks glutting, gorging, and many, sleep-deprived, went a little crazy. The show put the audience in an almost Heisenbergian state. Out of control.
When Vince told me he was going to take the central character from good to bad, to be honest, I wondered whether audiences would go for it. In the end, they didn’t just go for it. They were addicted.
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