The pain and the payoff

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Producers tend to be worried, and today a producer is worried about this story.

“You’re not going to write about the flies, are you?”

It is August in Albuquerque, filming home to that other critically acclaimed AMC series, “Breaking Bad,” which begins its second season today. And inside Stage 5 of this film studio -- on an otherwise seamless day of shooting -- there is the constant annoyance of the fly.

They’ve gotten into the building somehow, buzzing by ears, landing on heads, flying through scenes and even messing with the audio when burning up into a light fixture, the faint crackle picked up by the microphones.

Between scenes, a hairstylist wearing out the soles of her Chuck Taylor sneakers says, “I’ve never put bug spray in someone’s hair before.” She’s been spraying Anna Gunn, who plays wife to Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, who’s gone from chemistry teacher to drug dealer to secure his family’s financial future. Walter has been given two years to live because of terminal lung cancer, which was “Breaking Bad’s” starting point (and why Walter is bald this season). This isn’t a Hollywood set, but things look much the same: lots of cargo shorts, tired eyes, tool belts, walkie-talkies, fanny packs. The craft-service table is hugely popular. There is coffee on the breath.


And then there is Cranston -- a little taller than most everyone else, skinnier, balder. He’s lost 17 pounds for this role, and he begins his day with coffee at 6:30 a.m., followed by a four-mile jog to help keep the weight off. Then he slips into a makeup chair, where a woman takes his “very Irish, red freckly face” and covers it in a dull beige while coloring in the lines of his face, accentuating the wrinkles. His “impotent” mustache is thinned and dyed.

“And this is what we have left,” he says, pointing to his face. “And what we have left is, ‘Why bother?’ He hasn’t felt emotion in about 25 years. When I look at myself in the mirror, it doesn’t take long to get into character. It’s like, ‘You poor son of a gun.’ ”

The unflattering physical traits, by the way, were completely Cranston’s idea. He wanted to blend into walls. Off screen, you might say, that’s the opposite of both Cranston and the series. On this particular summer day, he is an Emmy nominee for lead actor, and “Bad” has become a fly of sorts on the TV landscape: buzzing around, heard by many, unseen by most. It’s an intruder of sorts with perhaps a short life span, but while here, it will make some noise and take its bites.

“I would love to win,” Cranston admits during a break, “especially because [the Emmys] are voted on by your peers, and the role is so extraordinary. But I have made a very good living as an actor and only as an actor my entire adult life, and I think that in itself is the biggest gift I’ve ever gotten. The industry, the world, owes me nothing.”

The following month, though, Cranston is the stunner of Emmy Awards night, taking gold over names like James Spader of “Boston Legal” and Jon Hamm of AMC’s more talked-about (and awarded) series, “Mad Men.” It will be Cranston’s first win in four trips to the ball.

“Our cast and crew, fantastic in New Mexico, watching tonight -- love you guys,” Cranston will say on TV, clutching the statuette. “We’ll adorn it with red and green chiles later.”


But that will be then, and this is now: Cranston is summoned back to the stage. On the way, his bald head bumps a plastic bag filled with water, hanging from a light fixture.

“What is that?” Cranston asks of the clear balloon.

“To keep the flies away,” someone says.

“How does that work?”

“They see their reflection in the bag and are scared by what looks like a huge fly.”

A fly then settles right onto the bag, staying there.

“This fly is really vain,” Cranston says, before imitating the bug -- and maybe, in a weird way, his TV charac- ter too. “ ‘I may be dead in two days, but, damn, I look good.’ ”