Bryan Cranston: from Breaking Bad to LBJ
The Financial Times Magazine
March 8, 2014
“I wanted to show Walter could slice someone up, put them in a vat of chemicals, and go home and genuinely love his little baby – that’s the complexity of human beings.”
“So many things can go wrong in the kitchen. It’s like baking a soufflé: it can go flat and you have no idea why.” Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston reflects, “could not have been successful, but it became this mushroom cloud of the underground, lauded and rightly so. I would look at my castmates and we’d shake our heads. In the first season no one cared who we were, we were just these guys in the middle of the desert.”
Those “guys in the middle of the desert”, shooting Vince Gilligan’s brilliantly perverse tale of a chemistry teacher turned crystal meth dealer in Albuquerque, New Mexico, are now all famous; Cranston, as the anti-hero Walter White, chief among their unplanned celebrity. AMC’s five series of Breaking Bad concluded last year but “BB” lives on in the cultish adoration bestowed on it by fans and critics worldwide. If it is, as many believe, the best television show ever made, then everything that Cranston does following – as he himself recognises – has high stakes attached.
Cranston is currently playing former US president Lyndon Baines Johnson in Robert Schenkkan’s All the Way, a portrayal of Johnson’s fight to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and then to get re-elected. In his dressing room at Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre, a Texas state flag is pinned above the sofa; on the opposite wall hangs a pair of longhorn bull horns. “Kinda gets you in the mood, derrrnnit?” Cranston says, his voice suddenly a perfect drawling imitation of LBJ’s menace and charm.
Cranston plays the president mercurially on stage, cajoling, wheedling and bullying as he parlays and negotiates with wily Southern senators, and with black civil rights figures such as Martin Luther King and Stokely Carmichael. It’s a play of blurred lines and frustrated ambitions, capitulation set against idealism, blatant injustice and inequality smacking into legislative compromise.
The 58-year-old actor – lean, clean-shaven, with slicked salt-and-pepper hair, dressed in cardigan and jeans – knows that most, if not all, of the audience is there to see the actor they know and love as Walter White. “Both [LBJ and Walt] are very determined men, excellent in their chosen field, aggressive when necessary, whose downfall was their ego.” When playing Walt, who becomes a “cook” and supplier of crystal meth after he is diagnosed with cancer, Cranston says his character’s emotional core “was that he was depressed, he was all callused over. He didn’t know how he felt. His ailment, his cancer, broke that open. In a way he became more alive in the last two years of his life than in the last 20 years.”
Playing Johnson on stage, and soon a nuclear physicist in the forthcoming Godzilla movie, is Cranston’s way of emphasising – much as he loved the role – that he is more than Walter White. He was eight when John F Kennedy was shot, and recalls both he and his older brother Kyle were ill at home that day: “all the adults in the neighbourhood weeping. It was a profound experience.” He remembers the announcement on the television – “We interrupt this programme to bring you a special report” – and “When I hear that today, I still feel a little tightening.” Johnson’s public image of strength as the de facto president was a deviation from his off-camera Texan cajoler and backslapper, says Cranston. “He knew what every member of Congress wanted, made sure they had it, so he could later get what he needed from them. As a president, he had the greatest political acumen since Roosevelt.”
Acting was a vocation for Cranston but an inevitable one. His parents, Joseph Cranston and Audrey Sell, were both actors. Growing up in California, Cranston appeared in a commercial directed by his father, observing the cameras and people gathering to see what the fuss was about and thinking, “I’m not one of them. They’re thinking, ‘Who’s that kid?’ It was all about getting attention.” His father took him to the sets of shows like I Love Lucy and Hogan’s Heroes, and left the family when Cranston was 12.
“He went temporarily crazy, he would say it too,” says Cranston. “He wanted acting success more than anything, and it eluded him.”
Cranston Senior turns 90 in July. “He has changed dramatically,” Cranston says. “He used to be the tough guy, a pugilist in some regard.” As a boy, Cranston saw him hit people, which he’d never evaluated until a therapist he saw as an adult said: “You were exposed to violence as a child.”
His parents’ marriage ended, he says, “awfully”, with his late mother becoming extremely depressed. “She lost the love of her life and never really fully recovered. We were dealing with a broken bird from that moment on.” She was pleased to see some of her son’s success but also resented having given up her own career to raise a family. She married four times – “She was like Blanche DuBois, always looking for the kindness of strangers.”
Cranston studied police science after college: “I was in a tailspin and had some aptitude for it.” He planned to go to police academy but, at 19, took an elective course in stagecraft. “It was 1975,” he says, smiling. “There were three boys to 17 girls. The girls were all wearing hot-pants. I thought, ‘Gosh.’” He had to kiss a girl while playing a scene, and the kiss was so good he forgot his line. Smitten, he asked her out afterwards, but she told him she had a boyfriend. “And I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I truly thought she was into me.’ She was a good actor.”
Police science was jettisoned. He and Kyle took off on their motorbikes for an Easy Rider-ish two years of travel around America. “We got odd jobs, like selling suntan lotion on pool decks. There was lots of indiscriminate sex. It was the 1970s. That’s what you did. If you got clap or crabs, it was a badge of honour. Fortunately, I never got the clap.” He never got into drugs either, just like Walter White. “Walt made it, he never got into it, that’s the genius of him.”
Cranston loaded trucks, among all kinds of odd jobs, “which gave me the focus on my goal” – to make his living solely as an actor by the time he was 25. Cranston achieved that: he had a role on an American daytime soap, Loving. “I never understood the pejorative term of ‘Oh, he’s a soap opera actor.’ All actors are looking for work and a chance to act.” He did commercials, episodes of Murder, She Wrote and The X-Files. Later he became established in Seinfeld , before becoming known as Hal Wilkerson, the dad in the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. Breaking Bad, which began in 2008, brought things to an altogether headier level.
“I knew it was a compelling, well-written story when I read it. None of us knew it would be so big,” Cranston says.
For good or bad, the show’s ultimate theme, he says, was “the infinite capabilities of the human being. Walt was a middle-aged, sweet family man, depressed, gave up. He was dealt a bad hand and he made a bad decision based on that, and he became someone completely different. He became dangerous to himself and others. I think that scenario is possible in every living person on this planet.
“Playing bad guys is sometimes the best. It’s not mutually exclusive: to do something abhorrent and not love your family. I wanted to show he could slice someone up, put them in a vat of chemicals, and go home and genuinely love his little baby – that’s the complexity of human beings.”
Cranston is as candid about his private life as he is about his professional one. In his early twenties he married his first wife, Mickey Middleton. “The problem was we weren’t in love with each other. She wanted more than anything a house, baby and to be in the church choir, and by the time I was courageous enough to face that we were already married. We realised we loved each other as people but weren’t in love with each other.” An amicable divorce followed in 1982.
He met his second wife, Robin Dearden, at 29, while both were with other people, “so we could both flirt and have fun without sexual tension because I’m a faithful guy. Nothing was going to happen.” They got together a year and a half later. He told her he would only get married (which they did when he turned 33) if they were also definitely going to have children. Their daughter Taylor was born in 1993, and wants to be an actress. Cranston is careful to give her only “general advice”.
Cranston and Dearden attended marriage guidance counselling before they were married. “It really helped us. I look at it as a tune-up. If your car starts running rough, are you going to open the hood and fix it?” They have been together for 25 years and Cranston says it has been an “easy, good marriage”. He came up with the idea of going to marriage guidance to prevent “problems festering like a sore”.
Therapy has been important to Cranston since he started it in his thirties. “At some point, self-reflection is important in one’s life, so I started in therapy. If your relationships are not going well, you ask, ‘Am I doing this right?’ When I was growing up, anyone seeing a therapist was crazy. That stigma was awful. It kept people away who could have really used therapy to work through their problems but didn’t want to be labelled as crazy.”
Until Breaking Bad became big, Cranston had not been jealous of friends who had made it, nor had he overweeningly desired fame. He wanted to make a living, and was extremely frugal. “For a long time, I resisted the term ‘star’. I didn’t want to separate from my friends or have them think differently of me. It seemed so egotistical. Then I realised I was putting a lot of energy into resisting it, and got out of my own way. The best thing about fame is opportunity. We wouldn’t be sitting here if Breaking Bad hadn’t happened. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to play LBJ on Broadway. That’s what stardom means to me: opportunity. I have the choice of what to do and what not to do. The flipside of that is all the attention on the street.” He grimaces. “That’s not what I do. You cope with it. I appreciate it when people say they liked me on Malcolm in the Middle or Breaking Bad. I hope there’s a new generation who say ‘I loved you as LBJ.’”
Albeit extremely grateful to Walt, Cranston doesn’t want to “ride on any laurels from the past. I work in the here and now. I have no interest in phoning a performance in. I don’t want to do a Walter White-type character for a while. I don’t want to shoot myself in the foot that way: ‘Oh, that’s what he does.’ I want to keep changing, which is good for audiences to accept me in different ways but also good for me and my soul to try something new.” Besides Godzilla, he is also starring in a movie as Dalton Trumbo, one of the “Hollywood Ten” group of writers blacklisted after refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947, which investigated those suspected of having links to communism.
Approaching 60 is “fine”, Cranston says equably. He would love to do a musical – “I can sing at ‘shower-level’ right now” – and play Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman if it came up. He runs and lives as healthily as possible. He snorts when I mention plastic surgery and jokes he wants “big double-D tits like Pamela Anderson” to head into his sixties with. “Challenging myself is important. The problem with getting older is the tendency to stop exploring: this is what I do, what I eat, where I go. With something new, you allow yourself to be a beginner again. It’s really humbling, and important you don’t think there’s nothing new for you to learn.”
Is there a pressure to find a role that will obliterate Walter White? Cranston laughs. “It’s one of the reasons I took Godzilla. Not the main reason. It was a surprisingly good script. It’s a character-driven monster movie, which is a nice combination. It was the first thing I was offered after Breaking Bad, and I turned it down. I was thinking I wanted to do something that couldn’t possibly be compared to Breaking Bad. But it’s good, it’s fun, and I don’t want to,” he puts on a fruity British accent, “develop a prudish nature, ‘Oh, only highbrow material for me.’ It was a lot of fun to shoot, a lot of green screens, and that Godzilla is a hell of an actor.” He laughs, as he imagines his CGI co-star. “I mean, he’s an asshole, but once the camera rolls he’s there.”
It’s time for Cranston to prepare for another day as LBJ. Physically, he couldn’t look more different from the former president but Cranston only wears something to make his ear lobes droop a little more, draws some lines on his face and plasters his hair back. To get Johnson’s accent right, he listened to recordings and went to his presidential library. He also read many books, including Robert Caro’s much-praised and still-evolving multi-volume biography of Johnson. “I put out a feeler to meet him,” says Cranston, “but he didn’t want to meet me. He says he won’t see the play. He has to stay focused on his project and his concern is that if he comes to see the play, it might skew something unhelpfully. And he would be sitting there, thinking, ‘He didn’t say that,’ ‘They weren’t there.’”
Johnson used his 6ft 3in body to get in people’s faces, “so I do that,” says Cranston, rising up from the sofa. “I gave him a stiff lower back after finding out a Russian masseur would come in and whack him around almost every night. He was also much heavier than me, so I round my shoulders and push my stomach out. His gastroenterologist told me he had all kinds of stomach problems. I try to show that discomfort.” He clenches his face, holds his stomach, adopts a pained expression and there, suddenly, is the LBJ one sees on stage. Cranston smiles at my astonishment at this blink-fast transformation. Walter White has definitely left the room.