Having hidden in plain sight for over three-and-a-half decades, honing his craft quietly and doggedly in B-list shows like Airwolf and Murder She Wrote, Bryan Cranston finally got the credit – and the killer role – he deserved in Breaking Bad. Nobody plays an average Joe-turned-sociopathic drug baron quite like he can.

Now starring in The Infiltrator, hot on the heels of his convincing turn in 1960s political piece Trumbo, Cranston plays another ordinary man thrown into exceptional circumstances – except this time, he’s on the right side of the law. Based on the book of the same name, The Infiltrator tells the true story of undercover customs special agent Robert Mazur who, using his alias Bob Musella, penetrates the terrifying criminal hierarchy of Columbia’s infamous drug cartels.

Flying in private jets, partying in hotel suites and sipping Cristal with some of Pablo Escobar’s closest associates, Mazur/Musella appeared to be living the life, but in reality was only ever one – no doubt fatal – mistake away from being discovered as his spy gadget briefcase whirred and clicked, recording every conversation. Also starring Diane Kruger as Musella’s super-hot fiancée, rocking fur coats and jewels with nonchalance, The Infiltrator is all danger-fuelled glamour. However, for the real Mazur it was just a day job – a really bloody scary one, but a day job nonetheless. In private, he was a doting husband, father and upstanding citizen, but to his mob ‘family’ he was a wealthy and seriously connected big shot. Sound familiar?

“The element that I really want to bring out is Bob Mazur the man, the husband, the father, because that’s what really fascinated me,” Cranston says. “As an actor, slipping into a character and playing a character is commonplace; I’ve been doing it for almost 40 years. For him, if he makes a mistake, there aren’t any do-overs. He could be killed. With that kind of tension coming home every night, how does that guy become Bob Mazur the dad and [adjust to the reality of] ‘Oh, would you help her with the maths homework?’ How does he then get to, ‘Oh yeah, honey, carry that one’? Or making sandwiches for the kids’ lunches. Imagine him sitting down, having a glass of wine with his wife, who asks ‘How was your day?’ ‘Oh, it was fine.’ That’s all he can say, even if it wasn’t. He’s constantly taking in information, stress, tension and not able to release it.”

Unlike Walter White’s long-suffering spouse Skyler in Breaking Bad, Mazur’s wife was at least aware of her husband’s double life. Of course, comparisons come easy, given the narcotic nature of both Breaking Bad and The Infiltrator, but the question is: who is the better man? The cancer-stricken, cash-strapped teacher who is backed so far into a corner he reluctantly immerses himself into a life of crime to support his wife and kids, or the one who willingly befriends corrupt politicians, tax cheats and terrorists, knowing he will betray them in the name of the law?

For Cranston, it was this contradiction that drew him to the role. As an actor he is driven to reveal “the fragility of a human being” by exploring the dichotomy of what can be justified intellectually but not emotionally. In order to get in the right headspace, Cranston accessed hours of secret recordings Mazur used to indict the criminals, which amounted to more than 80 men and women worldwide, in what was arguably one of the most successful undercover operations in the history of US law enforcement.

“The tapes were fascinating,” he says. “They’re not always the best quality, so you’re leaning in, desperately trying to listen because the mic was always shrouded in a suitcase or in a planter,” he says. “What I noticed is the depth of informality that the two, Roberto Alcaino [a jeweller and cocaine trafficker] and Bob Mazur/Musella had. Ribbing each other and acting like friends. Bob will tell you, he never lost sight of what he was going to do. He’s eventually going to arrest this guy, and so he’s acting like the friend.”

I’m 19, second year in college and suddenly I realise girls are available, and they outnumber boys, like eight to one.

Forty years ago, if you had asked a young Cranston, Los Angeles Valley College police science graduate, where he imagined his life going, he probably would have said something about detective work. However, primal urges overtook his desire to defend the letter of the law, because he had one inevitable weakness…

“Girls. Girls in theatre class,” he sighs, before panting like a dog. “It was like… I’m 19, second year in college and suddenly I realise girls are available, and they outnumber boys, like eight to one. Take one of my first scenes in my first acting class, which required a boy and a girl on a bench making out. I read it. Then read it again. It was like, ‘So my job is to make out with a girl? Oh my God. This is possible!’”

One particularly inimitable ABC drama later, and Cranston has proved beyond doubt that with a little luck and a lot of dedication you can become one of the greatest actors of your generation – an iconic face on a million T-shirts, bumper stickers and fridge magnets. It may seem like a serendipitous turn of events for a man who once said he ‘looks like everyone’, but therein lies his mercurial charm. Not many actors could go from a loveable, goofy dad in Malcolm in the Middle to a crystal meth-cooking sociopath in one channel change. But let’s not get too carried away here: Cranston is an actor, not a gangster, and his life features none of the drama he whips up on-screen.

Born in Hollywood to actor parents, he grew up acutely aware of not only the glamorous side of cinema, but the dangers of it. His father Joe, an aspiring movie star, grew weary of the realities of the job – the instability and the unavoidable frustration. This weariness soon ebbed into his marriage and, age 12, Cranston found himself fatherless, Joe having absconded, leaving his son with his grandparents. Those years of poverty and disappointment – cars bought then repossessed, a swimming pool built then left to languish as the chemicals proved too expensive – instilled in Cranston a strong work ethic. Yes, he would follow his heart and become an actor, but he wouldn’t get caught in the trappings of fame, he’d take whatever work came his way even if it wasn’t exactly Oscar-worthy.

While he may not have lit the screen on fire in those formative career years, he never let up, working consistently. In fact, if you owned a TV during the 1980s and 1990s you will have seen Cranston in something: playing an aviator-wearing douchebag in Baywatch; a magical lawyer in Sabrina the Teenage Witch; or Jerry Seinfeld’s sleazy dentist. He was as ubiquitous as Bisto ads. In the late 1990s, just before his breakthrough as man-child Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, Cranston landed the role that would change his life forever – even though he had no idea at the time.

Playing a bigoted hillbilly whose head explodes in the back of Agent Mulder’s car in an episode of The X-Files, Cranston left quite the impression on the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan; so much so that when Gilligan began developing Breaking Bad, Cranston was already in the back of his mind to play lead character Walt. He says he was drawn to the actor’s ability to create sympathy for the dislikeable hick, even if it went against the audience’s natural instinct. In other words: classic Heisenberg. Long after the demise of everyone’s favourite teacher-turned-drug lord, Cranston notes that he and Gilligan are still great friends who stay in touch. The question on everyone’s lips, though, is whether he’ll be making an appearance in Breaking Bad spin-off Better Call Saul.

“It’s possible. I would do anything for Vince, so if he called it would certainly be something I would say ‘yes’ to before the conversation was over,” he reveals. Proving that it’s more often a case of ‘who you know’, Cranston admits that his involvement in The Infiltrator came about because he and director Brad Furman met years ago on the set of The Lincoln Lawyer and had been planning to do something together ever since. But even Cranston was cynical when his friend told him he had a great script but that it was written by his own mother who was, in Furman’s words, ‘a good writer’. “That was almost like, ‘My mother’s got a barn and my sister has costumes,’” jokes Cranston. “I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, what are we doing?’ But I read it and I went, ‘Hey, you’re right. She is good.’”

With all this success, doesn’t Cranston ever feel the urge to, you know, break bad? Apparently not. He has even managed to balance a stellar career and a stable marriage. “I have a spouse [actress Robin Dearden] who I’ve been with for 30 years and we met on a TV show,” he smiles. “She was an actress at one time. She tells me, if I’m full of myself, ‘Oh, wow. Look at you. You’re kind of a jerk.’ She has no gumption.”

Bryan Cranston

Making good

After decades in the business the actor has much to laugh about

Cranston’s secret weapon may just be a woman who takes no shit. Considering the fact that he cemented his legend at the age of 52 – when, let’s be honest, many actors are considered washed-up – Cranston might be forgiven for indulging in all the trappings that come with being globally adored. But true to his practical ethos, he insists that, even now, he is rarely extravagant.

“I don’t really think in those terms,” he shrugs. “When I decided to become an actor, at 22-years-old, I knew that that decision meant I was in for the long haul. This is my life. Like a lot of young actors, they’re not even actors, there are people who want to be in the limelight, they like to be on television or movies or they crave the fame or fortune. That’s not an actor. An actor is someone who enjoys the empowerment of telling stories.”

Yet Cranston’s elevated status has afforded him at least one luxury – having first dibs on some of Hollywood’s finest roles. From being viciously murdered in his own auto shop in Drive to being crushed by an oversized lizard in the overhyped remake of Godzilla, Cranston has become a serious blockbuster contender. In fact, many of his fans were left disappointed by how little screen time he commanded in Godzilla and felt his over-exposure in the trailer was a ploy to get bums on seats. He has proved time and again that he is no one-trick pony, and his captivating performance as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo even earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination, which he may have won were it not for the unfortunate timing of Leonardo DiCaprio’s magnificent turn in The Revenant.

And still more surprising roles come along: next year we’ll see Cranston in the long-awaited big screen Power Rangers reboot, playing the plucky teen transformers’ mentor Zordon – aka a floating head in a tube. Cranston wistfully recalls dubbing voices for the original, but insists his decision wasn’t based on nostalgia and the movie, in his opinion, is just as worthy as some of cinema’s most celebrated touchpoints. Indeed, he told The Huffington Post that the film would be as different to the original as the Dark Knight franchise is to the terrifically camp Batman show of the 1960s. And it’s hard not to believe him, such is his sincerity towards his craft.

“I would not have accepted that role if the script wasn’t good,” he says. “There’s no loyalty to something that I did 35 years ago. They completely changed the tone; it is not the television series at all. It is a fully realised, updated, reimagined approach to telling this superhero story and I hadn’t really done a superhero thing, so I was kind of intrigued.” So are we. Perhaps he’ll win the first Oscar for playing a hologram? Probably not. But if anyone can, Cranston can.

The Infiltrator is in cinemas from 16 September 2016.