The actor Bryan Cranston smiles a lot, but when he isn't doing so, his craggy features settle into a default expression of unyielding menace. "My face, in repose, is mean," he tells the Guardian's photographer, apologetically, at the Manhattan photo studio where we meet. "I scare people. You know how some people have a built-in smile? I look like I'm going to eat children." Cranston, 58, is currently appearing on Broadway as Lyndon Johnson in All the Way, a three-hour play that taxes his vocal cords – on Mondays, when there's no performance, he obeys a vow of silence. If he needs to communicate, he uses a pen and paper. You wonder what it must be like to be a barista on the Monday shift at Starbucks, taking an order from the murderous-looking man who won't talk. Assuming you are familiar with Breaking Bad – in which Cranston played a colourless chemistry teacher turned crystal meth kingpin – you might be forgiven for wondering if reality and fiction had somehow entwined. You would probably fear for your life.
For Cranston himself, the fictional world of Breaking Bad remains intensely real. (The show ended last year; plenty of spoilers follow.) "I miss him. I do, very much," he says of his character, Walter White, last seen expiring from a self-inflicted gunshot wound on the floor of a meth lab owned by neo-nazis on the outskirts of Albuquerque, New Mexico. "I had this done on the last day of shooting – look." He shows me a tiny tattoo of the Breaking Bad logo, the periodic table symbols for bromine and barium, on the side of his right ring finger, hidden from view unless he flexes a knuckle. "Someone asked me: 'Why do you want it there, where no one will see it?' I said: 'I'll see it.' It catches my eye, and it reminds me: any opportunities I have now are because of that show." It's a characteristically Cranstonian comment – the outlook of an actor who found acclaim in his 50s, not his 20s, and is acutely aware that things might have gone differently. (Videos of Cranston advertising haemorrhoid creams on TV in the 1980s are easy to find on YouTube.)
Walter White lives on, too, among the crowds packing the Neil Simon Theatre for All The Way: the play is full of behind-the-scenes Washington technicalities, and it's safe to assume that the main draw wasn't three hours of cloture motions and filibusters, subcommittee reports and second readings. So it's a testament to Cranston's ability to completely inhabit a character that All the Way is so gripping. It follows one year of LBJ's accidental presidency – from the Kennedy assassination to Johnson's own landslide election victory in 1964 – and shows him manoeuvring, manipulating and (often literally) arm-twisting to force the Civil Rights Act through Congress, ending the Jim Crow era of racial segregation. In platform shoes to emulate Johnson's height, and with the aid of prosthetic earlobes, Cranston becomes the 36th president: he bullies and cajoles, flatters and snarls and barks, tells dirty jokes or glows with idealism as required, and delivers the famous "Johnson treatment" to everyone from Martin Luther King to the racist Alabama governor George Wallace.
LBJ "knew everyone, and he had a fantastic memory for what they wanted", says Cranston, whose research for the role included reading all 3,000-plus pages of Robert Caro's epic multi-volume biography. "What was their pet project, the thing they wanted for their own state? He kept a mental file. So when it came time to get what he wanted, he'd work hard first to get what they wanted: the freeway, the dam, whatever it was. Then he'd say," – here Cranston slips into Johnson's Texas twang – "'Nah, you need to he'p me! Nah, c'mon!' It was all about a trade: you had to give something to get something. You're gonna cut off my leg, but it'll save my life." The end justified the means. "This isn't about principles," Cranston's LBJ declares, after tricking another politician into pledging his support. "It's about votes!"
Against the backdrop of America's present political paralysis, the horse-trading opportunism of the 1960s looks positively saintly. Johnson may have passed the Civil Rights Act, 50 years ago, by removing key provisions and purchasing votes – but he passed it. "Modern American politics is a bastardisation of what it was all meant to be," says Cranston. "A couple of years into Obama's first term, Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, said: our priority, as the Republican party, is to make sure Obama is a one-term president. He blatantly let it out! You've got to be kidding me! Whatever side you're on, if you focus on stopping someone, as opposed to working with someone … oh, God, it's just awful. Everybody's entrenched, with their arms folded: either I win, or you win. Let's fight."
It has taken a long time for history to start to consider Johnson a hero as well as a villain – you can blame the Vietnam war for that – but in All The Way, for all his faults, he emerges as an admirable figure. "Constantly working, constantly trying to make the deal: we gotta give this up, we gotta get that," is how Cranston characterises his approach. "People close to him would say they weren't fond of him, but they loved him. I found that fascinating: 'I didn't like him, but I loved him.' They didn't like how he mistreated people. But his heart? His intentions were honorable. For the most part."
Villains who are also heroes, amoral manipulators whose goals may ultimately be honourable: it's hard to talk of such things with Cranston for long without circling back to Walter White, possibly the darkest and most morally ambiguous protagonist in television history. Much of Breaking Bad's appeal arose from the fact that Walt's transformation – "from Mr Chips to Scarface", as the show's creator Vince Gilligan famously put it – unfolded from noble motives. The lifeless chemistry teacher, diagnosed with terminal lung cancer in episode one, initially only wants to leave a nest egg for his family. That's why he teams up with a former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), to make and sell meth. Despite the nature of their business, he's Everyman, a victim of American economic insecurity and midlife crisis, following capitalism's rules by exploiting his most marketable skill.
The New Yorker magazine calculated that by the start of season five, White – in his guise as the drug lord Heisenberg – had caused 195 deaths, from small-time dealer Krazy-8, whom he strangles with a bike lock, to the top dog Gus Fring, his face blown off by a pipe bomb. (The figure includes 167 victims of a plane crash, caused indirectly by Walt's callousness.) Yet the audience feels complicit, since every fresh act of violence seems a rational response to events, reaching back all the way to that first somewhat reasonable intention. A question at Breaking Bad's core is whether, by the end, White remains in any sense a good person.
Cranston defends him. (After all, he lived with him for seven years.) "Do anyone's motives have purity?" he wonders. "Mother Theresa, maybe. But people like that are saints who walk the earth, and very few. Breaking Bad resonated because there's a Walter White in every person in the world. We're all capable of it. It's never realised in most of us. But given the right circumstances, anyone could be threatened enough, fearful enough, desirous enough. Walt was a man who was depressed; his emotions were cocooned. He didn't know how he felt. And then the terminal diagnosis frees him: 'Fuck it! If I do one bold thing in my life, this is it. And it's for my family. And then I die.' Of course, a simple plan goes awry."
He learned of White's ultimate fate only five days before shooting began for the finale; that's how it always worked, with the exception of the handful of episodes that Cranston directed himself. "It didn't serve me, as an actor, to know too far in advance what was going to happen," he says. On the other hand, he took an unusually proactive role in making White who he was. Gilligan's pilot script was so vivid and stimulating, he says, "that when I went into my first meeting with Vince, I told him how Walter White should look: how he should walk, how much he should weigh, that he should have a silly moustache, that he should blend into the walls, that he should be invisible to society."
Unsurprisingly, in the years since Heisenberg's killing sprees started attracting national attention and winning awards, including three Emmys and a Golden Globe for Cranston personally, the actor has been deluged with offers of work. He filters these using an "assessment scale", a self-devised point-scoring system in which good writing and a good story account for the most potential points, with director and cast following behind. He'll only take a job if it scores highly enough – as did 2012's Argo, and the forthcoming Godzilla movie, by British director Gareth Edwards. "Nowhere on that assessment scale is money," he says, when I ask. "Money can only cloud your judgment. I'm not an enemy to money: I've had none and I've had much, and much is preferable." For the right price, he'll do a voiceover for any old ad, "because that's not an artistic decision: you wanna pay me that much? You got it! But no amount of money is going to make a bad script better."
The job offers aren't the only thing that's changed. Walter White's path from invisibility to extreme visibility has been paralleled by Cranston's own. After spending decades as part of the background – even as the father in the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle, his previous biggest role, he didn't impose on one's mind – he's now recognised everywhere he goes. "I used to be able to work all the time: in a coffee house, in a doctor's office, in an airport, just watching human behaviour," he says. "But then what happens – David Duchovny told me this, after his career mushroomed with the X-Files – is that when the observer becomes the observed, you can't observe any more." These days, "I keep my head down lower. I find myself watching my surroundings more. Not to avoid contact, but …" He pauses, seeming worried that he might be sounding ungrateful for good fortune. "Well, if I'm truly honest, it is to avoid contact." At last year's ComicCon in San Diego, he strolled among the crowds disguised in a Walter White mask, posing for photographs with Breaking Bad fans who had no idea it was him.
Before Malcolm in the Middle, and aside from his other notable role as "dentist to the stars" Dr Tim Whatley, on Seinfeld, Cranston was no celebrity, but nor was he often out of work. His long list of credits includes roles on Baywatch, LA Law, Murder She Wrote, The X-Files and the cold war helicopter drama Airwolf, where he met his wife, the actor Robin Dearden. (They have a 21-year-old daughter.) Yet he nearly became a police officer instead. Raised in suburban Los Angeles by two struggling actors, his childhood was rarely stable: the family was evicted from their home; his parents divorced when he was 12, and for a while, he and his mother and brother subsisted on food stamps. The LAPD's youth training programme promised structure, dependable income and travel opportunities – "a chance to get out of my little world of Canoga Park, California". Cranston graduated top of his police-training class. But an experience in a drama course he was taking on the side prompted an abrupt change of plan.
The way Cranston tells it – in a long, circuitous anecdote, punctuated by hand gestures and bouncing eyebrows – he arrived in the class to be handed a sheet of paper describing an acting exercise, that required him to smooch passionately with his (beautiful, female) acting partner for that day. "I asked the teacher: 'Should we kiss, or just pretend?' He was disgusted by my question. So I thought, OK, I hope she's not offended, but I'm really gonna kiss her. And it starts – and before I can even begin, she is on me. Open mouth, tongue, hands everywhere. It's very exciting."
Afterwards, emboldened by her passion, Cranston asked her: "'Would you like to get lunch sometime?' And she looked at me like I was a lost little puppy: 'Oh, no, no, I have a boyfriend.' And I thought: Oh, my God, that was acting! My head was spinning. That's when it clicked. She was just doing her job. And I realised this could be my work: to kiss girls! So I said: 'So long, police work.'"
Four decades later, Cranston's role on set has changed from randy youth to paternal team coach and morale-booster. On Breaking Bad, he organised bowling trips for the cast and crew; even at the Guardian's photo session, he pauses proceedings to interrogate the hairstylist about her new baby, demanding to see phone pictures. "One benefit of being an actor for a long time and hitting a higher measure of success at 40, with Malcolm in the Middle, and 50 with Breaking Bad, is that I know what kind of set I don't want to work on," Cranston says. "You want to be in an environment where everyone's respected – where the drama's in the show, not around the show. I've worked on sets that are angry, nervous, uncertain, and it just permeates everything.
"I had a policy on Breaking Bad: I wouldn't allow any bitching or complaining. And if you're going to say it's not allowed, you have to not do it yourself." Of course, one might object that for an actor with Cranston's capacity to terrify, that's easy enough to say. In a pinch, if niceness failed, he could presumably instil order on set by fixing the wrongdoers with an unsmiling stare.