From Heisenberg to Ned: A Conversation with Oscar Nominated Actor Bryan Cranston
Bryan Cranston is an Academy Award nominee, a four time Emmy Award winner, and a Golden Globe and Tony Award winner.
Bryan recently starred as the title character in Jay Roach’s TRUMBO. His performance garnered him nominations for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a SAG Award, a BAFTA Award, and a Critics’ Choice Award in 2016 for “Best Actor.”
Next, Bryan stars in John Hamburg’s WHY HIM? alongside James Franco, which will be released nationwide on December 23, 2016. Later, he will appear as the title role in Robin Swicord’s independent feature, WAKEFIELD. Bryan was also last seen in Brad Furman’s THE INFILTRATOR.
On stage, Cranston made his Broadway debut as President Lyndon B. Johnson in ALL THE WAY by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan. Bryan won the 2014 Tony® Award for his performance, as well as a Drama Desk Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, and Theater World Award for “Outstanding Actor in a Play.” Bryan went on to produce the film adaption of the play through his production company, Moonshot Entertainment, along with Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Television and Tale Told Productions. It premiered on HBO in May 2016.
Moonshot Entertainment has also developed the drama series SNEAKY PETE for Amazon and the animated series SUPERMANSION for Crackle.
Bryan’s other feature film credits include: Gareth Edwards’ GODZILLA, Ben Affleck’s ARGO, Len Wiseman’s remake of TOTAL RECALL, Nicholas Winding Refn’s DRIVE, Steven Soderbergh’s CONTAGION, Brad Furman’s THE LINCOLN LAWYER, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris’ LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, and Tom Hanks’ LARRY CROWN and THAT THING YOU DO!, among others. Bryan has also lent his voice to DreamWorks Animation films KUNG FU PANDA 3 and MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE’S MOST WANTED.
On television, Bryan’s portrayal of Walter White on AMC’s BREAKING BAD garnered him four Emmy® Awards, four SAG Awards and a Golden Globe Award. Bryan holds the honor of being the first actor in a cable series and the second lead actor in the history of the Emmy® Awards to receive three consecutive wins.
As a producer on BREAKING BAD, Bryan won two Emmy® Awards and a Producers Guild of America (PGA) Award for “Outstanding Drama Series.”
Behind the camera, Bryan was nominated for the Directors Guild of America (DGA) Award for BREAKING BAD (in 2014) and MODERN FAMILY (in 2013 and 2014). Cranston also wrote, directed, and acted in the original romantic drama LAST CHANCE as a birthday gift for his wife and star of the film, Robin Dearden.
Bryan’s career began with a role on the television movie LOVE WITHOUT END, which led to him being signed as an original cast member of ABC’s LOVING. He went on to appear as Hal on FOX’s MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, which ran for seven seasons and for which Cranston was nominated for a Golden Globe Award and three Emmy® Awards.
Cranston is also a spokesperson and longtime supporter of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC). NCMEC is the leading non-profit organization in the U.S. working with law enforcement, families and professionals on issues related to missing and sexually exploited children.
Given the extreme darkness of the last few seasons of BREAKING BAD, how did it feel to return to comedy?
Great! That’s been part of the reason that I decided to do this, because I’ve been doing a lot of dramas lately, and I love doing them. You’re playing important characters and it’s good storytelling. But I missed just having silly fun on the set. Just the intrinsic value of laughter. I thought about this as a challenge. This feels like it’s a challenge to be able, at my age, to do a lead in a comedy for a studio. “Yeah, let’s do that. That sounds like fun.” Talking with John Hamburg a lot about the development of it, and wanting to make sure that the comedy is based in a foundational sense, and then you can go silly from there, that has been really rewarding.
How much did the script develop when you were brought on board?
I think good writers are able to adapt and be flexible to casting. They write to the strengths of people who are going to be playing those roles. We had several meetings with James and myself and John, each expressing our interest in a direction. In fact, this scene we’re shooting today, where it culminates in a boiling over point for these two men who are so aggressive to each other, wasn’t necessarily to this extent in the script, and we both felt that it should get to the point where it just gets out of control and everything breaks apart. Once that happens, the physical breakage and carnage that’s left behind matches the emotional carnage that’s left behind, and then repair work has to be done. To me, that’s a more satisfying storytelling process.
There are moments when you agree with Ned. Your loyalties as an audience member go back and forth, because neither of these people is “the antagonist”, in the traditional sense.
Yeah, because again, it’s steeped in an honest experience. I think men my age will look at this and go, “I’d feel the same way.” If my daughter had this lunatic as a boyfriend, it would drive me crazy. I have a 23-year-old daughter, so it wasn’t a stretch for me to tap into that fear, and that worry or concern that that’s going to happen. It’s all steeped in reality. Ned just has this feeling about Laird. He is off his rocker. He’s crazy. Then Ned goes a little obsessive himself, and the obsession then overlaps into competition with each other, and then it’s game on. As men, we have full capability of being idiots, and that’s what happens here.
How has that competitiveness been to play with James?
It is a lot of fun. What resonated with all three of us – the men who were in these meetings – was that it felt honest. It felt that, yeah, my guy would feel this way, and Laird would feel the other way. The one thing that we wanted to carefully maintain with this is the integrity of Laird, that he doesn’t have the gear to lie. Sure, he’s clumsy socially, and he can hurt feelings and he gives out too much information, and he doesn’t have several filters, but he is not a liar. That’s what Ned comes to realize, that he hasn’t lied once throughout this entire experience, and yet Ned has lied over and over and over again. Who’s the better man?
What we wanted to make sure, out of all this chaos, comes a lesson for both men. We each taught each other something we didn’t even know we needed to learn. We’re better people by the end of it. We can go to the theater, have fun, laugh, get a little crude, get a little silly. But if it’s not steeped in some sense of reality, it’s not as rich an experience.
You and James seem to come from very different schools of comedy, too. Do you think, in the collaboration, that can make the comedy stronger; that it comes from different directions?
It could be. No two people have an exact combination lock that unleashes their comedic ability, and we have on the set now, Keegan-Michael Key, who is sharp-witted and full of energy. High energy. Megan Mullally, who is deeply rooted in fun, and from great, great comic stock. Then the two young kids, Griffin Gluck and Zoey Deutch, who are really supremely talented. Don’t ever say that I told them that, because that would be the end of it. [laughs] We have a lot of fun. The experience of doing this movie has been what I would hope it was going to be.
Also, John Hamburg is very open. He’s enthusiastic, having fun himself, and he sets a good tone for the crew. It’s a very light set. Nobody’s worried about losing their job or walking on eggshells because someone’s going to scream bloody murder. It’s nice.
I wonder if you have to watch out for shades of Hal from MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE?
No, admittedly, there are moments when Hal escapes, almost like gas escaping. Not from me, but from a deep well. It bubbles to the surface and I… [laughs] That sounded a little bit like Hal, right there. When you live with a character for so long, it becomes like slipping on a very comfortable pair of shoes. What I want to make sure I do here is wear a different pair of shoes.
It’s still me. I’m still the guy in there. Unless you are doing a specific character piece, like Dalton Trumbo or like Lyndon B. Johnson, or something like that, where you can really be hyper-focused on the mannerisms and characteristics and the agenda of that person. That helps you a lot. It gives you a lot of handles to hold on to. This, not so much, because he’s my age, and he has kids who are dating age, like me. There’s a lot of similarities. You have to be careful, you have to watch it, and a lot of times, you’re not even aware of it. I will look for that in the edit. When I take a look at the cuts, and give my suggestions to John, backed with some salient points about why I think certain things should be adjusted. Then he will either make those adjustments or not. It’s a good process. It’s a very collaborative process that way.
You do want to establish a different point of view. You want to be unique and not derivative of your own self. Let alone someone else. Those are the things that I look for and hope to be able to avoid a little bit. Trappings. I don’t have total control of that. I’m not even aware of it sometimes. Certain noises that I’m making that is like, “That reminded me of him. Wow.”
You have had huge success playing Lyndon B. Johnson in ALL THE WAY this year. You talked about the tools you use to play real characters, but do they come with a sense of responsibility, too?
There is a huge sense of responsibility. It’s really interesting. I like going back and forth. That’s another reason why I wanted to do this, because I could create him, this fictional character to whatever specifications I wanted. There is a little more responsibility when you’re taking on a non-fictional character, because the person lived. In my case, in those two instances, Dalton Trumbo or Lyndon Johnson, they lived relatively recently. There is source material that I can obtain. Pictures, people who are still alive who knew him personally. Coincidentally, the daughters of Lyndon Johnson are alive and the daughters of Dalton Trumbo are alive as well. I’ve spoken to all of them. They’ve helped tremendously. Audiotape, videotape, that sort of thing. Biographies. You do have a responsibility knowing that this man did something to achieve notoriety to the point where they’re making a story about him. There’s a sense of responsibility that goes with that, and I accept that.
On the other hand, in some ways, it’s a little easier because there are boundaries of these characters. He doesn’t go out there, he’s right in here. Now with both of those men, the boundaries were big, but still boundaries. A character that you play that may be non-fictional, but has tighter boundaries is probably a little more difficult to play, or not as much to hold on to.
Do you get to a point of being able to think like the person you’re playing?
It’s almost impossible not to. You develop an affinity for that person, and you find yourself speaking in first person. I think a lot about… “I wouldn’t do that.” You take it home, whether it’s the accent or something else. “I wouldn’t get on there. I don’t give a shit about what that guy thinks.” You’re channeling that guy. Those are valid points that should be paid attention to. When each actor really buys into their character and knows their character well, and comes well-prepared, then each one has a specific point of view when it comes to a note. “No, no, I don’t feel comfortable.” We as the characters have to talk about: “We need to get to that door. How can we make that happen? That works for me. I can do that. OK, let’s try it. Hey, that works, good.” You work on an issue until you work out a problem.
Why Him? is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Monday May 1, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment