Bryan Cranston is arguably one of the greatest actors of our time. He will forever be known for his electrifying performance as Walter White, the mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher turned murderous, Machiavellian meth lord, on Breaking Bad, a show that many argue represents the pinnacle of television as an art form. Here is a mash-up of some of the show's highpoints:
In the film Trumbo, he drew equally high praise for his indelible performance as Dalton Trumbo, a gifted screenwriter whose life and career was destroyed by the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Here is the trailer:
In the HBO bio-drama All The Way, Cranston uncannily channeled President Lyndon Johnson, who dragged Congress, and by extension the nation, kicking and screaming out of the darkness of the pre-civil-Rights era with a blend of charm, cunning, and intimidation. Here is a taste:
Cranston has just published his must-read memoir, A Life In Parts, which brings him to the Free Library on Oct. 12 for a sold-out reading and book signing.
I'll spare you the 'Breaking Bad' questions. You were great in 'Trumbo.' What drew you to that story?
It is a story about a prolific and excellent writer who found himself in a battle that I don't think he wanted to fight but he was prepared to fight. He was an assertive man to begin with and, you know, a wordsmith, and someone was threatening, in this case, an entity, a government body, was threatening to take away his freedom and his First Amendment rights because of his belief system. It is no right of anyone to ask what religion I practice or who am I in love with, what is my party affiliation. Those are private matters. There were long and arduous battles fought for freedom of speech, assembly, and association. People shed blood to obtain those rights for all of us. Trumbo is a cautionary tale, not just in Hollywood history but in American history.
What drew you to the role of Johnson in "All the Way"?
It was the same as Trumbo: A man with a phenomenal responsibility, thrown into this position of power and expectation. A man who was built on a multiple of characteristics - good and bad - and tremendous ambition, tremendous ego, and so the combination of the story - the historical importance of that - and the character itself.
There's a scene in "The Path to Power" by LBJ biographer Robert Caro that kind of sums up who Johnson is. As a young man, he is teaching English to poor little Mexican children in Cotulla, Texas. And before class, he would come early and teach the janitor, who was also a Mexican immigrant, to speak English. There's no one to see him doing this and give him credit for it, but it is obviously very important to him. I thought that really represented the measure of the man in a lot of ways.
Good call. That was defining for me, too. Without that experience - not just with the janitor, helping him with his English, but also with those children; it was the first time that, as a white man in Texas, he experienced kids being brutalized on a regular basis, innocent little children, because of the color of their skin . . . I don't think he would have had the gumption, the guts, to put his political career on the line and push for The Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Congratulations on the book. It's a great read. You've led a very interesting life, and much of what's really so interesting happened before you even started acting. And early on in your acting career you dealt with a lot of rejection which is, of course, a staple of your profession. But somehow, you've managed to not let it warp you. You write in the book about how, at one point, you just detached from these auditions after they were over, and if you got the part, fine. But if you didn't, you weren't emotionally invested. Can you speak a little bit to that - how you managed to compartmentalize these things?
Well, I think it took a while for me to get into it and realize how I was making a mistake before I could figure out how to get out of the mistake. I think most actors and most people going into an audition process look at it as a job interview. It's an audition; you're going there to try to get an acting job. So, OK, you think about it in those terms. And if you stay in those terms, you realize that this is going to start eating away at your soul because there's never going to be a shortage of actors. There's always going to be many, many more actors than there are roles for those actors. So, if you buy into that aspect that "I'm there to get a job," you also do something else that's detrimental, and that is, you give up your power.
We know that, in life, when we want something from someone else, we are not in control. But if you are in a position where you're actually giving someone something - if you got someone, a friend of yours, a gift - it's a powerful feeling to feel like, "Oh, they're going to love this sweater that they talked about. I know she loves this or is going to need it," or whatever the case may be. You're looking forward to being in that position to give to your friend a present. It's a very powerful feeling to do. And we feel it, also, when we donate our time to a charity, we feel empowered by it. And all of a sudden it kind of dawned on me, that I was going about this audition thing the wrong way. Because I was going there thinking that I was there to get something from these people, that they had something I wanted, and I need to get it. That put me in a position where I wasn't in control. I wasn't in the power position. And I was also kind of then performing to try to please someone else and you can never do that in the arts. You have to have a high standard to please yourself and that unquenchable desire to continue to find deeper meaning to your work. And I realized, with a simple turn of phrase, what I was doing wrong. And that was, I needed to realize and accept that I wasn't going on an audition to get a job, I was going there to do a job. My job was to act, to create a compelling, complex character. Something interesting, something that was appropriate for the text. And present it to them as an acting exercise, present it to these people. And then my job was done.
And then I would assess: Did I do what I wanted to do in that room? Did I do all those beats, the things I worked so hard on? And then I assess it on my way home and I go, "Yeah, yeah, good, OK, that felt good." And that was my victory, every single time. This happened about 25 years ago that I made this switch in my head, this change of perception, and it changed my life. And this is the one thing - if I can only tell one thing to any young artist, whether they're actors or musicians or painters or whatever, if I could tell them one thing, that would be it. Go there to do your work, not there to get something from someone else.
The book opens with you shooting a scene in Breaking Bad where, to make a long story short, Jessie's junkie girlfriend is blackmailing Walter White and has threatened to turn you into authorities. High on heroin, she's nodded off and is asphyxiating on her own vomit, and you have the choice between rolling her over so she doesn't choke to death or letting her die. If you save her life, you will surely go to jail for the rest of your life; if you don't save her life, you may not ever be able to live with yourself again. You write in the book that as you were doing the scene you thought, "This is someone's daughter; what if it were my daughter?" and that triggered a very powerful emotional response in front of the cameras that really took the scene to the next level. Can you elaborate on your process for using emotional memories from real life to trigger certain emotions on camera?
As an actor you, one of the tools that you need to have is the ability to unlock the reservoir of your emotions, what you've experienced in your life. The insecurities, the fear, the anger, the resentment, as well as the positive things. And you have to be willing to expose them to the world in order to truly be authentic. And while I was there, doing that scene, I was imagining all the reasons I should let her die and all the reasons I should let her live. And one of the reasons that came into my head was: "This is someone's daughter, this is just a little girl, this was someone's baby at one point - do something." And I guess, because I allowed myself to feel that, the manifestation of that, emotionally, came to me, and all of a sudden, for a flash, I saw my daughter's face in place of Krysten Ritter's face, and it just took my breath away, because that's really what I was thinking. What if she were my daughter? Would I save her? And I hope that a stranger would attempt to save my daughter, though I'm in that position now, what should I do? And it's a horrifying place to be. And one of the costs of being an actor is emotional stress and strain, and you've got to be willing to go there.
What can you tell us about your next film, "Wakefield"?
It's a story of a man who, like most people in America, feels like he's on a hamster wheel, where you're constantly spinning that wheel, and doing work, work, work, work, work. We have a very work-oriented society. So here's a man who is a successful Manhattan attorney, Howard Wakefield, and he's on the train going home from Manhattan to his beautiful home in Westchester County, and the train breaks down, he has a little walk home, he had a fight with his wife, she's called a couple times, he just doesn't want to deal with it.
When he gets to his compound, he sees a raccoon and he shoos it away, but instead of it running into the forest behind him, it runs up the stairs of a detached garage and into the attic. He goes up there and gets rid of the raccoon, but while he's up there he notices that he can see into his house. He sees his wife and his two children, they're eating dinner, and he's fascinated by the idea that he can see into his life without him in it. His wife calls again, angrily, and he doesn't answer. And he realizes, "You know what? I'm going to deal with this later. In two hours they'll be sleeping. I'll deal with it in the morning." Sits down in a chair, and he wakes up the next morning. Now he's in trouble.
Through a set of circumstances, he's increasingly unable to find the ability to confront this, and he puts it off and he puts it off, and he ends up staying in the attic. So a change, a metamorphosis happens to this man, perhaps predisposed to isolationism or a desire to just leave everything he's built. I think that's also relatable. What would happen if I just disappeared? Would I be missed? Would my job be replaced? Would they soon forget me? Did I leave a mark? Was I important? These are very existential questions, and Howard goes through this existential crisis, and he ends up staying in the attic for an extended period of time. I think that's all I'm going to say. You'll have to experience it. It's quite a journey. Here is the film on YouTube:
Acting is such an immersive experience. When you so fully inhabit these characters, how are you able to look in the mirror every day and know where Bryan Cranston ends and Walter White begins or vice versa? How do you not lose yourself over time?
I don't know that I lose myself. There is Walter White inside me, there is Lyndon Johnson, there is Dalton Trumbo, and Howard Wakefield. I think the best way to explain it is that you put on a mask, you attach it to your face, your body, and your soul. You let it come in, you let this person's idiosyncrasies and characteristics and nuances seep into you and the more you allow of that to get inside you, the more that you can take charge of that character. The more you believe it, the more you buy into it, the more likely an audience will, too. And it's just an amazing agreement that we have with an audience - and I'm an audience member as well. We're willing to sit in a dark room with a bunch of other strangers and pay money to be told a story. And we know darn well that these people on the screen are not the real people, they're actors. But we don't care: we want to be taken away, we want to have that suspension of belief and to be told a story. It's one of the things that makes human beings so incredibly vulnerable and wonderful at the same time.