Cranston spent decades as a character actor, the sort whose face you recognize but whose name you can never quite remember and whose past roles you couldn't name beyond that fact that you just know you've seen him before. He appeared in small roles all over the place, on television in projects such as The X-Files, From the Earth to the Moon and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to films like Saving Private Ryan and Little Miss Sunshine. Up until 2008, though, it seemed likely that Cranston would forever be best known as Malcolm's dad Hal on the Fox show Malcolm in the Middle, a role for which he was nominated for three Emmy Awards.
That's when Breaking Bad came along. In the series created by Vince Gilligan, protagonist Walter White starts out as a meek, resigned high school chemistry teacher. When's he's diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, however, Mr. White must find a way to provide for his family once he's gone, and he surreptitiously embarks on an ill-conceived career as a meth cook.
The fourth season is now just two episodes from closing out, and Cranston is not only the show's central figure, but a producer and occasional director. Over those four seasons, he has believably charted a complete change in Walter White, taking him from milquetoast dad and husband to a criminal of frequently horrifying moral flexibility. Cranston justifiably won three consecutive Emmy Awards for his ongoing performance in 2008, 2009, and 2010. It's a testament to both his acting and the show's writing that viewers go into every new episode expecting the very best hour on television.
Though Breaking Bad is often cited from all corners as the best show currently running, Cranston has been a driving force in ensuring that it doesn't overstay its welcome, preferring to finish the story properly. Just last month, AMC announced that the 16-episode fifth season will definitely be the last for the show.
Since going to "Malcolm's Dad" to "The One Who Knocks," Cranston has made some fascinating choices. His sudden rise to universal acclaim almost certainly brought with it many an opportunity for huge paychecks with minimal energy, but the actor has remained committed to being just one component in well-told stories. This month is the perfect example, as he appeared in two separate films, each in supporting roles. First, in Contagion, he plays Admiral Lyle Haggerty, and second, in Drive, he plays perpetual hard-luck case Shannon.
They're wildly different parts, as demonstrated by their physical bearing; in the former, he's a straightlaced military man with perfect posture, and in the latter, he's a mechanic whose hip, broken years before to settle a gambling debt, makes him lurch endearingly. He phones it in neither, but instead works his ass off in service of the story. In both, he's one part of an eclectic ensemble working under directors who aren't guns-for-hire, but are examples of an auteur. In Contagion, it's Steven Soderbergh, and in Drive, it's Nicolas Winding Refn.
2012 will be no less busy for Cranston, who will appear in the WWII drama Red Tails, the Disney science fiction epic John Carter, the high-profile musical Rock of Ages, Ben Affleck's next directorial effort, Argo, and as the Cohaagen in Len Wiseman's Total Recall remake. It's that last one that seems most out of character for Cranston, since it's a big budget action movie where he won't be a secondary player, but will instead be front and center as the primary villain. Still, since it's Bryan Cranston playing the part, we as an audience can rest assured that it'll be played with downright superheroic skill.