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Bryan Cranston plays Jack O'Donnell in "Argo" a presentation of Warner Bros. Pictures in association with GK Films, to be distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures. (Claire Folger/MCT)

Bryan Cranston has a knack for getting under our skin.

First the Emmy-winning actor played everybody's favorite dad, Hal, in the heartwarming Fox sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle," and now he's simply terrifying as chemistry teacher-turned-druglord Walter White in the hit AMC drama series "Breaking Bad" (the final episodes of the series will air on AMC starting in July).

White is a high school chemistry teacher struggling to support his family. On the eve of his 50th birthday, with a new baby on the way, he learns he has cancer. He has only months to live and no money to leave his wife and children. So he decides to do whatever it takes to make a fortune. Fast. That means using his scientific expertise to make meth -- and lots of it. His plan goes awry, resulting in one of the most insanely absorbing television series ever.

The 56-year-old character actor recently took a few minutes away from publicizing his new spy thriller "Argo" to chat about what makes "Breaking Bad" so habit-forming.

Q What makes "Breaking Bad" such addictive television?

A The structure of it has never been done before in television and that is, we are introduced to Walter White and led to believe that he is a certain kind of person, and then he changes. That has never happened before. TV historically makes you tune in because you can count on the characters being the same, whether it's Thomas Magnum or Chandler or whoever. It's comforting because they are always the same.

Q That is so true. You used to feel so much sympathy for Walter, and now he's simply terrifying. And yet you can't stop watching.


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A You have to accept certain consequences, and one of them is that certain people have lost sympathy for him. When we first met him, he was depressed, he was a forgotten man. Now he has become someone else.

For the first time in his life, he has power. He has exploded all over everyone in his life, and it's messy and he can't control it. He's got money in his pocket. He can intimidate people.

All of a sudden his deeds demand that you stop sympathizing, and so it's really challenging the audience to break the status of television and allow themselves to not like someone they once liked. It doesn't happen too often where a character betrays you. It's not the same guy as when you first tuned in.

Q What about Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey?

A Those guys were already who they are. And with Soprano, the fact that he was going to therapy gave you a note of hope that he could change. There's no hope for Walter White. He is not seeking redemption. He is not asking for forgiveness. He has turned. Gone to the dark side. And he's fine with that because for the first time in his adult life, he's powerful -- and that is very seductive. He was seduced by power and money and ego, and that was an aphrodisiac to him. Now he wants more. He's pounding his chest in an almost animalistic way. It's just a fantastic thing to play.

Q Sounds a little like Macbeth?

A It is. It has that quality about it. That tragic sense of it.

Q Is it harder for you to play a character that you can't empathize with?

A No, you have to just dive in, have faith and allow it to be what it is. In truth, though, from playing Walter, I have come to realize that everyone is capable of exploding and becoming very dangerous, given the right set of circumstances.

For Walter White, it was a perfect storm. He had nothing to lose. I believe that (of) anyone who found themselves in dire circumstance. If you lost people you love. If you became destitute.

Without work, without hope, if the right amount of elements came together, you would explode because you would have nothing left to risk. Anyone could pop.

Contact Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772.

'argo'

Rating: R (for language and some violent images)
Cast: Ben Affleck, Bryan Cranston, John Goodman and Alan Arkin
Director: Ben Affleck
Running time: 2 hours