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Malcolm in the Middle at 20: ‘Everybody calls them dysfunctional – but it was a realistic family’

As the beloved sitcom turns 20, Simon Bland speaks to its stars Bryan Cranston, Frankie Muniz and Jane Kaczmarek and series mastermind Linwood Boomer to discuss the show’s creation, long-standing legacy and possible future

Thursday 03 September 2020 16:01 BST
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Frankie Muniz, Jane Kaczmarek, and Bryan Cranston in 'Malcolm In the Middle'.
Frankie Muniz, Jane Kaczmarek, and Bryan Cranston in 'Malcolm In the Middle'. (Rex)

Back in the late Nineties, family sitcoms were dominated by laugh tracks and niceties – but all that changed with the arrival of Malcolm in the Middle. Created by former actor Linwood Boomer, the show followed the trials and tribulations of Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), an average kid with a higher than average IQ – which didn’t seem to help him much when it came to dealing with his riotous family and constant high school woes. Inspired by Boomer’s own experiences as a childhood misfit, it featured a pre-Breaking Bad Bryan Cranston tickling funny bones as hapless dad Hal, alongside perhaps the most accurate telly representation of modern matriarchy in Jane Kaczmarek’s fearless mum Lois.

Despite 20 years having passed since its 2000 debut, its cast – which also featured Christopher Masterson as Hal and Lois’s rebellious eldest Frances, Justin Berfield as Malcolm’s troublemaking older brother Reece, and Erik Per Sullivan as wide-eyed youngster Dewey – remain remarkably close. To celebrate the show’s two-decade anniversary, we caught up with stars Bryan Cranston, Jane Kaczmarek and Frankie Muniz and series mastermind Linwood Boomer to discuss the creation, long-standing legacy and possible future of Malcolm in the Middle – the modern-family comedy that changed the way audiences viewed modern families.

Following its US debut on 9 January 2000, ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ finally arrived on Sky 1 on 3 September, introducing UK audiences to a new kind of family unit...

Frankie Muniz (Malcolm): I was 12 or 13 and in New York City doing five or six auditions a day. I was supposed to be filming a Pizza Hut commercial and had to be on set at 12 o’clock – but my audition [for Malcolm in the Middle] was at 12 o’clock. I was like, ‘There’s no way we can go to the audition. We’re going to be late.’ My mum said, ‘Let’s go early and maybe they can squeeze you in.’ We turned up and I leapt through it. I barely tried – I was just anxious to get out the door to this Pizza Hut commercial because that was my big break. Lucky we did go, because it ended up being my lucky forever after.

Linwood Boomer (creator): It was easy to write because I knew the material. I’d been thinking about it for a very long time and a lot of those pieces in the pilot were pieces of my life. I’d spent a lot of time telling them as anecdotes – they were polished.

Jane Kaczmarek (Lois): [The pilot] was so funny and so good, I was sure it’d never get made. It was like something I’d never read before and I just couldn’t imagine anything of this calibre going ahead. It was a different time. I didn’t even want to audition for it. Finally my agent brought me to the casting director who was so set in knowing this was the part for me and it was like falling off a log. I don’t think I ever did anything as Lois that I couldn’t see doing in real life.

Parental guidance: Jane Kaczmarek, Frankie Muniz, Erik Per Sullivan, and Christopher Masterson (Rex)

Bryan Cranston (Hal): My character in the pilot had maybe five lines. He was the kind of guy who was absent from his family – he kept to himself and was always looking for ways to escape. If brought into focus, he could go ‘Oh no, we need to do the right thing,’ and protect his children – but otherwise, Hal just sort of went off into his own comfort space.

LB: We cast Bryan late. I didn’t write [the role] correctly. Bryan’s take was so much better. I originally envisioned this incredibly remote, almost ghostly presence. Bryan’s take was someone who was always building a rocket ship in his head. Instead of being this actively disengaged person, he was just busy thinking of other things. It was completely different and so much funnier, while still functioning the same way. He was cast the day before we started shooting and in his first scene, he had to show up naked, covered in fake hair in front of little eight- and 10-year-old boys. It was a real baptism by fire.

BC: They put me in positions where I was seeking refuge in the garage or having a little project. It was fun to do. I try to look for the emotional core of every character and if I can find that, it can go to so many different places. For Hal, it was fear – and once I got hold of that, I was off and running. He was afraid of being a bad parent, afraid of losing his job, afraid that his wife may leave him… then he was afraid of heights, afraid of spiders, afraid of loud noises. It gave me a lot of room to create comedy from a legitimate place because people are afraid of things.

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JK: Two of my children were born during Malcolm In The Middle, so I always remember covering the pregnancy on the show [laughs]. The favourite trick was laundry baskets. They’d cut a hole in a laundry basket and put it over my stomach. It’d look like I was holding the laundry in front of me but it was hollowed out to accommodate my girth.

FM: I never thought of [being the lead] as pressure. That’s a good factor of being a child actor: children are fearless. You’re just happy to show up and do it – I was excited to be there. I’d go through things with Linwood. I don’t want to say I just said the words – but the writing was good; I didn’t have to do much [laughs]. I just had to remember the lines and it worked.

LB: I was having trouble writing it honestly and still making it funny because the stuff I went through as a kid didn’t feel very funny to me when I was a kid. Like having a family that didn’t understand anything about you. Having Malcolm talk to the camera freed me up emotionally and gave him a friend he could complain to who would be sympathetic.

Hitting the right note: Per Sullivan and Kaczmarek (Rex)

FM: Having a part for the camera was different but something I really enjoyed. It was pretty cool that my character was the only one that got to do that – I liked that it was Malcolm’s thing. It was an insight into his mind and exactly what he was thinking.

Before long, critics commented on the chaotic nature of Malcolm’s family, quickly labelling them dysfunctional. Fans meanwhile found Lois, Hal and co all too relatable...

JK: I’ve always said the most under-utilised weapon in a mother’s tool chest is just saying no. Say no to your kids! Don’t think about what your body is telling you, listen to what the mother of the house is telling you. I don’t suffer fools – and there are many, many times in my life where I’ve come close to doing something that Lois did and realised, ‘Oh, wait a minute… remember what happened in that episode? They took her away!’

BC: We were doing some crazy things [with Hal] and Linwood said to me, ‘I won’t ask you to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.’ It was only when I was covered in bees he said, ‘I have to tell you: honestly, I would not do this’ [laughs]. They came up with the image of me in bees, then reverse-engineered the story to fit that ending. [Over the years] I was covered in blue paint, strapped to the front of a moving bus – all kinds of things. I’d read the script and go, ‘Oh my God, look what they’re having Hal do this week.’ It was so much fun.

LB: We quickly realised we’d really got lucky with everybody. We found Bryan and Jane’s takes on the characters led to a lot of good stories. The personal part of the show for me was really the validation over things I’d felt for a long time and hadn’t got any traction on, like how you could do things where people weren’t perfect or show families that weren’t perfect.

BC: Jane and I hit it off right away. We enjoyed each other’s humour and saw things the same way. We were right around the same age and both parents, so there were a lot of things we had in common. We’d be telling the kids as actors, ‘Come on guys, settle down, we gotta do this...’ the way any parent would talk to their kids – and they would listen to us like any parent and roll their eyes. The roles were very well fit.

FM: It really did feel like a family, especially with us kids [Justin Berfeild as Reece, Erik Per Sullivan as Dewey]. We spent more time together than we did with our real families. We’d be outside playing kick ball and sports and we’d be arguing, fighting, bickering and playing pranks on each other just like brothers would – so in that sense you really do become like a family.

JK: People would say, ‘They’re such a dysfunctional family’, and I would think, ‘Are you kidding me? They sit down for dinner together every night! Those kids don’t get away with anything. This is a highly functioning family. They’re mean, loud and aggressive – but they’re highly functioning.’

Malcolm in the Middle trailer

BC: What Linwood did was expose the love this family has for each other. Once an audience feels secure with that, you can go anywhere, because that’s every family. Everyone knows if push comes to shove, you’d support your family, but there’s no other people that can make you madder or you could argue or yell with more than your family members.

FM: I have so many people come up to me, even still to this day, and say, ‘Your mum was my mum. That’s exactly how my family was.’ Everybody calls them this dysfunctional family but I think it was a realistic family.

BC: [In the pilot], when Jane comes to the door without her top on and the teacher is there saying, ‘I need to talk to you about Malcolm,’ she fiercely defends her son. She’s like a lioness ready to protect her cubs – and that resonates. What’s so genius about Linwood’s script is you don’t feel that right away. What you feel is the ferocity she displays as she yells at her boys who are rolling around – and what family hasn’t experienced that? It’s the way families are.

Over the show’s seven series, its cast forged deeply rooted bonds, as child actors became young adults and co-workers became surrogate families...

JK: I cannot impress enough what a real paternal influence Bryan was. He was always there when situations got tough. I was always pregnant and wanting to be home. Sometimes I think the dispatch at which I yelled at those children was because I really just wanted to go home – I had kids at home to yell at [laughs]. Bryan would do impersonations of everybody on set and talk people down from the ledge. He knows the lyrics to every song ever written. He’d start singing and we’d play ‘Name That Tune’.

BC: If we were having a particularly tough or long day, I’d look for something to throw a wrench into things to change it up and surprise people. When you’re dragging and just kind of sinking, you get a little sugar in your system and you’re awake and that’ll carry you for another half hour – then you’ll crash. That’s what having humour on set does.

FM: Bryan was always so fatherly. He cared about us so much and we really felt that. Even to this day, he will still reach out, send me an email or give me a call once a month and check in. He’s one of the busiest working actors on the planet right now and the fact he finds time for us 20 years later means a lot. He’s amazing, Jane’s amazing – we’re all really close. It was sad when the show ended.

LB: I directed the last episode and it was one of the things I’ll always remember. The last scene we shot was the final scene in the episode. Malcolm was graduating and Reece [Justin Berfield] had tried some idiotic thing to secure his high school janitor job, so they all end up covered in this possibly poisonous goo and they’re in the backyard hosing each other off. As we’re shooting, people from accounting came in, then wardrobe, then design. By the time we finished, the entire crew – including network executives, business affairs and transport guys – were there. We had 250 people gathered round to see the last shot. It was so much fun – and very emotional for me.

JK: Something was brought up during the last couple of days where we might be picked up for an eighth season. I remember the scene at Malcolm’s graduation. He was giving a speech on stage and Lois was saying he should quote a Beatles song. It was probably the most still Lois ever was on that show. I remember sitting there looking at Frankie and the lyrics from the song were so bittersweet. The final shot was us in the backyard spraying each other with hoses, and just before the last shot my agent said this was it, they’re not doing an eighth season. Afterwards, we all just stood there. You don’t know what to do. It starts going down your whole body, then you make eye contact with people, hug each other and just weep.

BC: It was very emotional. Our line producer was able to manipulate the shoot to make sure our last scene was the last scene we shot and allow us to have that moment. All of us were crying. Frankie was 12 or 13 when he first started and spent seven years on it – that’s more than half his life. It was really important to be able to embrace and appreciate that.

FM: We were going through the same thing. Justin and I are the same age, and Erik – our lives changed at the same time. It was something we experienced together. Going through those years – 13 to literally 19 or 20 when the show ended – they’re the most important years of your life. You learn so much about yourself and who you want to be. Getting to do that on a show with Jane, Bryan and everyone was an amazing experience. We were very lucky.

After 151 episodes, ‘Malcolm in The Middle’ came to a close on 14 May 2006. But its cast and creator still remain close and talk of a reunion is never far away...

LB: When the show first aired, I was buried with very odd letters that were all similar. ‘This show is very funny but my kids saw your kids pour paint over a car or make a giant slingshot out of surgical tubing…’ I had to set aside an hour every week to write apologies for parents.

JK: One of the wonderful things about the show is that it’s had such a life. It’s timeless. It was about some really clever, naughty boys who had an eagle-eyed mother so they had to be so good at plotting to get away with stuff so their mother wouldn’t catch them – and she always did. It was great storytelling. I get kids who come up to me and say, ‘You were just like my mum.’ My standard thing I always say is: ‘Obey your mother.’ That’s what Lois would tell people to do.

FM: We’ve talked about how fun it’d be to do a reunion show, season or a movie and I don’t think anything excites me more. I’d love it because I had such a great time doing the show and the whole cast was amazing. I feel like we have more story to tell, especially 20 years later. There are so many possibilities about what the family could be up to. As a fan of the show, I want to know what happened.

JK: Bryan is really keen on a reunion show and I would love to – but I said to him, ‘What would we be doing?’ Then I remembered one of the final things in that final episode in 2006: Hal and I are rejoicing that we’ve got two kids out of the house and I come out with a pregnancy stick and you hear us both screaming because I’m pregnant again. If that was true, we’d have a 14-year-old. We’d have another Malcolm at home because when the show started, Malcolm was 14.

BC: I told Linwood this thing still resonates. I want to pull him out of retirement and have him write a reunion movie. If we were to produce a Malcolm in the Middle 20 years later show, we’d absolutely contact every single crew member to come back because that’s the family. I’m going to keep working on him. I think I can convince him. Like a good wine, it endures. It passes the test of time. It’s a classic story and series and I couldn’t be prouder.

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