Interview: Bryan Cranston on flying the flag after Breaking Bad
Bryan Cranston's voice rolls in waves of warm gravel down the phone from Los Angeles where he's been taking a Christmas break before heading to the UK to resume his stint as a TV anchorman turned crazed celebrity in the National Theatre's production of Network.
His new film, Last Flag Flying, from director Richard Linklater is also on release this week and Cranston is as sunny as California. He’s polite and courteous, but when he asks how I am by way of a conversation opener, an image of his Walter White/Heisenberg intensity flashes into my mind and it’s all I can do to stammer, “a bit cold”.
“How cold is it?” he asks, with the attention of a man sitting in a beach house watching the surf crash on the shore, yet preparing to head for a rain-lashed island shivering in the North Sea.
“Minus one or two.”
“Wooh!” he exclaims. “It’s 75 degrees here in Los Angeles.” As well as basking in the Californian sun, Cranston could be soaking up the positive reviews for his play back in London – if he read them, that is.
“I don’t read them,” he says, “but my wife does, and I hear from other people that it’s been well received, so that’s very nice,” he says. “I think reading reviews has more possibility of doing damage than good, because if people hate you, it hurts and if people love you too much, you get an inflated idea of yourself. So I just stay away from it. I’m curious how people are enjoying it and I’m grateful it’s well received, but I haven’t read any. I’ll just go about my business.”
Cranston’s business is acting, something he’s done from the age of seven when he was in a TV commercial, before forgetting about it for a few years while he considered a career in the police. But by 25 he’d trained as an actor and was making a healthy living with TV roles. Bigger parts followed, in Malcolm in the Middle and as a deranged dentist in Seinfeld, interspersed with theatre roles, voiceovers and ads until it all went stratospheric with Breaking Bad in 2008. His mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned crystal meth baron reigned for five seasons and attracted 500 million viewers in 159 countries, winning Cranston a shelf full of awards. At 61, he now has his pick of roles.
“I was a working actor since I was 25 years old and very happy,” he says, “But opportunity brings a better level of material and talent as far as directors and castmates go, so that’s the great benefit of having some notoriety or achievement, or some would call it stardom – you have more opportunities to do good work.
“Nobody knows that anything is going to be a success, but if you are able to identify well-written material and attach yourself to it, then you have a higher possibility of success. It all rests on the shoulders of the well-written word.”
Born in 1956 in Hollywood, California, one of three children of Audrey, a radio actress, and Joe, an actor, Cranston has Scottish, Irish, Austrian, German and Jewish roots (TV genealogy show Who Do You Think You Are traced his family to County Clare and Armagh). Raised in the San Fernando Valley, after studying political science at university he planned to become a policeman but an acting class changed his path.
Cranston’s father was a Second World War navy pilot who went into acting and appeared in TV shows in the 1950s and 1960s, but failed to realise his ambitions and left the family when Cranston was 12. Unlike his father, however, Cranston was satisfied with his living, until Breaking Bad made life sweet.
Since the success of the acclaimed series Cranston has been notching up film roles and nominations including Trumbo, a 2015 biopic about the blacklisted screenwriter, and four parts in 2016: Lyndon B Johnson biopic All the Way (his stage version won him a Tony), The Infiltrator where he was a customs agent who derailed Pablo Escobar’s money-laundering, comedy Why Him? with James Franco, and Wakefield, a thoughtful adaptation of E L Doctorow’s short story about a man who disappears from his life for a while.
The production rate continues with Network, plus three films out this year, the first being Last Flag Flying, a road “dramedy” about three Vietnam vets reuniting to bury a son killed in the Iraq War. Then he’s voicing a dog in Wes Anderson’s The Isle of Dogs, which premieres at the Glasgow Film Festival next month before going on general release, and stars in The Upside, a bittersweet comedy about a wealthy paraplegic dependent on his carer in the remake of French hit The Intouchables. Oh, and just to keep his comic timing ticking over, he’s in the new series of Larry David’s TV show Curb Your Enthusiasm.
“That’s a lot of fun because the whole thing is improvisation. There are no lines, just an outline, and you’re on your own. Larry David is just genius. The Wes Anderson is an animated movie, very interesting and compelling as Wes always is, and The Upside with comedian Kevin Hart and Nicole Kidman, that’s a beautiful film, funny and heartfelt and meaningful.
“I play a character who is exceedingly wealthy but doesn’t have use of his limbs. He can speak but can’t take care of himself. It’s a fascinating exploration for a man because we are beings that like to feel we are in control of our own selves – we don’t even like to ask directions, so it’s tough.
“It’s very difficult for a man to accept that he’s immobile, can’t feed himself, use the toilet by himself. It’s very depressing, so that kind of role is very interesting for me, what does that do to you psychologically?
“I think I’m attracted to characters that are a little damaged because there’s more meat on the bone to play than someone who’s got all the right answers.”
In The Isle of Dogs, Cranston plays the leader of a pack of exiled dogs.
“I’m a mutt,” he says. “It’s a story of oppression, an allegory of xenophobia and all the things that the world is actually feeling right now. I think it’s great to show through entertainment the injustice of categorising and demonising any group.”
What all of the productions have, says Cranston, is a great story, and as a versatile actor he regards it as his job to interpret that story whatever the medium.
“If I’m affected by the story, I’m interested in being a part of it, whether it’s stage or screen. Trumbo was one of those stories that had social impact and importance, and it had to do with my own industry and its history, and American history, about fear mongering and demagoguery. It was important to do it, and entertaining. I don’t look for box office, or special effects.”
Cranston is in reflective mood when he talks about Network and Last Flag Flying, both of them born of the 1970s yet touching a nerve with contemporary audiences. Ivo Van Hove’s Network, originally a 1976 film, explores what happens when opinion replaces news and has sold out for the entire run. Van Hove’s savage satire could not be more timely.
“It’s very prescient and important in this world of fake news – how valuable or important is the truth? We are facing that now,” says Cranston.
If futuristic satire has become contemporary tragedy, how does Cranston feel about the way his country is right now?
“There is such a thing, to see it from an optimistic standpoint, that sometimes a person, or country, needs to go through a breakdown in order to have a breakthrough and perhaps that’s what’s happening now, that we have this turmoil, a leader this is… how can I encapsulate Donald Trump, uh… other than a troubled man who is looking for affirmation at every turn, and through the turmoil of the average citizen became the president, because they were looking for change.
“It’s a little disconcerting to go through a daily discovery of what’s been said today and shake our heads because it belies common sense, often, belies human decency, often, and belies who we feel we are as human beings, often. I think we’re in a storm, we just have to batten down the hatches and hold on, try to mitigate as much damage and come out as unscathed as possible.”
Due to fly back to London after we spoke, Cranston was to be joined by his wife of 27 years Robin (Dearden, also an actor, known for Magnum, PI, Breaking Bad and the film Chicanery) while he finished the play’s run.
“I’ve been doing a bit of back-and-forward, but we have a flat in London and she’ll stay with me there until we finish, so it’ll be a nice little holiday,” he says.
They might even make it to the cinema to see Last Flag Flying. Directed by Richard Linklater it stars Cranston, Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne as three Vietnam vets and explores the idea that every generation has its war. Would Cranston describe it as an anti-war movie?
“Em… I don’t know if that was the category, but it certainly points out the fragility of decision-making and the nobility, or lack thereof, of war,” he says. “My father’s war, World War Two, there was no doubt as to what had to happen, but Vietnam was not like that; there were a lot of questions and concerns and it turned out to be just a terrible waste of humankind. Nothing came of it. We thought that would be the arbiter of decision-making in times to come, but alack it was the same thing again.
“Humans have a desire to fight for a righteous cause, be proud of what they’ve done, to have their life mean something. And with Vietnam or Iraq, you lament the loss of life because it seemed so senseless.
“What attracted me to the film was the brotherhood of man, how men bond and develop friendships. Also how they handle their trauma and deal with pain and post-traumatic stress. It was interesting to see a movie about men and war and yet very vulnerable and sensitive and heartfelt and funny at the same time.”
It is funny at times, and Cranston looks like he’s having a laugh on screen with his buddies, something that’s confirmed when he tells me that much of this script too was ad libbed.
“We bonded very well and did a lot of improvisation. Every scene was improvised to some extent, so you go down an avenue and explore it. Actors are trained to do that until we hear the word ‘cut’!” He laughs.
“These men were friends when they were at their prime and now realise their lives are more in their rear view mirror. Every man has to come to terms with that, the virility and relevance every man is looking to hold on to, their importance in the world, when you start to see that go, it’s not an easy transition to make.”
At 61, is he talking from personal experience?
“Yeah, certainly there are things your body won’t do that you ask it to do, many times.” He laughs. “It’s like – aaaahhh!” He laughs again. “You get more tired, your temperament is different, your energy level is different. And some things you’re just less tolerable about. You don’t wanna be in discomfort, you know. When you’re young and ambitious you could sleep on someone’s sofa, but when you’re old, it’s just sad, terrible!”
Linklater’s films are often about the passage of time, and there’s a sense of that too in Wakefield, where a banker steps out of his life and into the garage opposite his home. There he watches his family for several months as they move on with their lives. Has he ever thought about stepping out of his own life, as his father did?
“I think many people have a curiosity about what would it be like if you were able to observe your life without you in it, and a pause to reflect on it. You think they would miss you and that feels good and then… humans are adaptable, we have to be in order to survive, so they move on. His family assume he has died, he knows he hasn’t, so there were two different realities and that was fascinating to me.
“Age has a tendency to offer you some wisdom of experience and hopefully you gain some perspective, and along with that comes forgiveness and understanding of your parents’ generation. We soften a little bit and become more accepting of people who tried their best.”
Cranston has written about this candidly about his own life and upbringing in his book A Life in Parts. Did he hold back at all, writing it?
“It was actually easy for me to be honest, very revealing. I enjoyed writing the book because as an actor, one of the components is the willingness to open up the emotional treasure chest of who you are, and I’ve been doing it so long that it’s not a difficult task for me to expose myself and my doubts or weaknesses or vulnerabilities. It’s what I do for a living. I was very happy writing it and thrilled that it’s been so well received.”
There’s a third generation following in the family footsteps with an acting career for his daughter Taylor, 24, who is in the TV show Sweet/Vicious and for whom Cranston has the following advice.
“Just love what you do. Don’t get into anything unless you love it. If you love your work, it’s just the greatest gift.”
• Last Flag Flying is released in cinemas on Friday.