‘Breaking Bad’ Showrunner Vince Gilligan Recalls Casting Bryan Cranston in ‘The X-Files’ — ‘OTW, Off to Wardrobe’
Not all fans realize it but Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan was well-acquainted with the show’s star Bryan Cranston long before he became Walter White.
The duo first met when Cranston got cast on The X-Files and blew Gilligan away with his talent. In fact, that single episode is the reason Cranston got to play Walter White at all.
AMC network execs didn’t want Cranston for the part because of his previous comedic work. However, Gilligan recalled the moment he knew the actor had the very rare skill of being able to make audiences feel sympathy for a terrible character.
AMC execs didn’t want Cranston as Walter White on ‘Breaking Bad’
Once Breaking Bad got the green light with AMC, the difficult work of casting the lead began. Gilligan knew he needed an actor who could convincingly play both sides of the role: both a nerdy high school chemistry teacher and a terrifying drug kingpin. And recalling his time working with Cranston, he knew the perfect person for it.
But casting agents were not so convinced. Despite Cranston’s extensive career ranging from Seinfeld to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, all they saw was the silliness of him playing family patriarch Hal on Malcolm in the Middle.
“We all still had the image of Bryan shaving his body in Malcolm in the Middle. We were like, ‘Really? Isn’t there anybody else?’” one former exec told The Hollywood Reporter.
He needed an actor who could be both sympathetic and repulsive
The showrunner recalled casting Cranston in one tricky episode of The X-Files during a Foundations interview.
He explained how the part in “Drive” required a villain, but also someone who could elicit sympathetic feelings from the audience. Just when he was starting to get worried that type of range didn’t exist, Cranston came in and nailed the audition.
Describing his vision for the part, Gilligan said, “I don’t want him to just be some nice poor schmuck who I’m gonna feel sorry for when he dies at the end. I want him to be an a**hole. I want him to be a creep. And kind of a racist, and unpleasant, and anti-Semite, kind of a creep. And yet I still want to feel for him when he dies at the end of the hour.”
Vince Gilligan was impressed by Cranston while casting ‘The X-Files’
Finding someone to be “mean and nasty and scary” wasn’t that difficult, but asking that person to also be likeable was almost impossible.
“Every actor who came in was kind of lacking something,” Gilligan continued. “And it took me and the other producers a while to figure out what it was, and it was like, you gotta like this guy. You gotta sympathize with him… you gotta empathize and feel sorrow at the end of the hour.”
That’s when Cranston walked in and they realized he had that thing they were looking for. “Bryan comes in and he just nails it. As soon as he’s done, as soon as he walks out, we’re shaking his hand and I looked at the other guys and said, ‘OTW,’ which [means] off to wardrobe, it’s what you say when you essentially you’re like, ‘That was the guy. Stop looking now.’”
Later in his career, Gilligan remembered Cranston and knew he’d be perfect to pull off turning “Mr. Chips into Scarface” on Breaking Bad. Sixteen Emmy wins later it’s clear he was absolutely correct.