Until about six years — and a dozen trophies ago, including a Tony, Golden Globe, and several Emmys — you’d be forgiven for mistaking Bryan Cranston for. . .well, for just about anyone. Anyone who wasn’t famous, anyway, like maybe a guy who’d had a hardscrabble decade or two (as Cranston had), a couple spurts of tough luck (ditto), a few bad sunburns (yep), maybe seen a dream or 12 crushed right before him (who’s counting?), some of the grit and tumble etched into his face, some of it scooped from the light in his eyes, but his fearsome, unexpected physicality and roughhewn matinee idol looks diminished not at all.
Not a bad trick for a guy who’d already been nominated for three Emmy Awards over seven seasons of a much-loved situation comedy, Malcolm in the Middle, with a handful of guest appearances on the most famous sit-com of all time, Seinfeld.
In an age where being a cinematic chameleon is an indulgence reserved almost exclusively for Daniel Day-Lewis and Johnny Depp, Cranston spent the first four decades of his life safe from the spotlight’s hot glare and less a shapeshifter than a disappearing man. Even today, after searing a tortured version of his visage into the cultural collective via his performance as Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad, after the plum roles in Drive, Argo, Godzilla, and his Oscar-nominated turn in the zippy biopic, Trumbo, after magazine cover duplications of his photograph have claimed full forests of printing paper, the 59-year old Cranston has an uncanny ability to vanish at will.
Onscreen, Cranston can play “Buster Keaton meets Macbeth,” as he did on Breaking Bad or “game and gummy” (according to The Guardian) as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, but when “cut” is called, he disappears in a way that would make DB Cooper tap out. Now that’s acting.
Barely a decade ago, television leads were a pretty vanilla crop. We’d get The Keatons on Family Ties or Thomas Magnum on Magnum, P.I. Along with guys like James Gandolfini and Michael Chiklis, you helped shred the rulebook. Even two years after Breaking Bad ended, that book hasn’t been rewritten. Why do you think audiences are so taken with characters like Walter White?
It’s the sophistication of the viewer and the desire of creators of TV programs to do something avant-garde and unusual, I think. You used to have the Thomas Magnums of the world — the leading man who was always handsome, usually polite, never cheated on his wife or his girlfriend, always drank in moderation, always had the right answer and, at the end of the hour, came out smelling like a rose and probably having collared the bad guy. We all know that that’s a fantasy. There never was a Thomas Magnum in real life, and if there were, he would make a dull television show, don’t you think?
It's unlikely you’ll be playing any terribly dull “Thomas Magnums.” Dalton Trumbo is another vivid, imperfect character on your resume, played to perfection.
Thank you so much. It was a fun movie to do. It was an important movie to do, historically. It has a message. It's a small movie, but it has a big thought behind it, and that is that fighting for civil rights is important. The First Amendment of our Constitution is important. We shouldn't even put it on pause. It should always be part of the equation in deciding what laws should be enacted and the behavior of the government. That's basically what Trumbo talks about. It’s how Dalton Trumbo lived.
On so many levels, he was a fascinating, extraordinary human being.
Certainly! He's a fighter. He was always a fighter. Dalton Trumbo wrote. It’s what he did. It’s who he was. He loved to write and he was prolific at it. He would write letters to the electric company and the phone company. "Well, how dare you charge these prices for the service that you provide?" And to the school board. He was always in there, aggressively fighting. When this fight came to him (via the McCarthy hearings and Hollywood Blacklist), he was ready for it. I think he thinks he was ready for it. I mean, it took its toll and his family paid a price and his friends paid a price. It was an extremely damaging experience. That's why he says at the end of the film, "There were no heroes. There were only victims." It's a humbling experience, I would imagine, that he was literally stripped of everything and became a basic person, which is all right, but to be deprived of your dignity and your civil rights . . .Then, after prison he was denied the right to earn a living. He was blackballed. Further punishment. Punitive punishment. It's wrong. It's just wrong. It was so un-American for the House Un-American Activities Committee, dubious title, to demand under the penalty of incarceration that you answer these questions (about political affiliation). What affiliation, what unions do you belong to? As it is, what religion do you practice? Who did you vote for in the last election? These are private matters that have nothing to do with you.
But in a loose parallel to Walter White, Trumbo refuses to accept his “death sentence.”
Absolutely! Trumbo gets out of jail and he's not allowed to write under his own name. Who will hire him? Nobody. Nobody in their right mind, except Frank and Hymie King, who are the King Brothers, who make schlock. They just make movies, terrible ones. They're tough as nails, so when the people started to put the lean on them, "Don't hire Dalton Trumbo." He says, "Who are you?" He didn't care if Dalton Trumbo was Dalton Trumbo or some circus clown. He puts different names on the screenplays and hires Dalton Trumbo, pays him, and that was the start that Dalton Trumbo realized he can start a network of these and give assignments to all his friends. "Let's keep working. Let's do what they tell us we can't do.” I really love that spirit.
On a very different level, you’re playing a very furry, huggable Papa in Kung Fu Panda 3. What was it like, doing animation?
I loved it! In most every animation project, and definitely on Kung Fu Panda, they videotape the actor while he’s recording his lines. It helps the animators with the facial construct because they see the actors going through the physical movements. I don't think an actor can actually read these lines and just say them with a blank face. The dialogue is just too good. You have to act it out. You have to commit completely to these characters. It's really no different from doing a live action project. You're committing to these characters, but you have to convey the message only using your voice, because that's all the audience will ever “see.” So I love the challenge as an actor, and the fun of doing something so sweet and funny. But its also really exciting to see the finished product – to see the magic the animators have done when left alone with their talents. I love that.
And poor old Walter White. Do you miss him?
You know something, I do, but I think our story was told. The story and the characters continued to spiral more and more out of control, that I think everyone – and I mean the audience too – needed the release of conclusion, of an ending. But sure I miss him. Playing a man whose life is going so quickly downhill is more fun than any man should have. And they gave me trophies for it.
It’s fascinating, observing your career. Despite being in some landmark projects and having a fairly iconic visage, there’s something of the chameleon about you. You’re able to just dissolve into obscurity when you like. How’s that possible?
I don’t know, except I had a lot of years to practice! (Laughs) I’ve never sought fame or fortune; I enjoy the art and craft of being an actor. The ability to look like an Everyman and hide out inside a character is really the best thing in the world to me. There are a lot of actors who are more striking looking than I am for sure, but it often limits what they can do. The other thing is, I’m still able to walk through an airport without being noticed, and that’s really a blessing. The foundation of an actor’s work is observation, which is a real art form. You take in human behavior and file it away, knowing that at some future point you’ll pull it out and use that experience. If you become famous, then the observer becomes the observed. That deprives an actor. It really does. I don’t have that problem. And I don’t know why! (Laughs)
You’re a boy from the San Fernando Valley, a lifelong Dodgers fan. The cherished Vin Scully will be setting down his microphone in the broadcasting booth at the end of the season. What are your thoughts about that?
From season to season in Los Angeles, you start to wonder about the baseball and how its being played or being managed, but you can never, ever doubt Vin Scully. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, that’s the voice of everything for me. It’s a touchstone. Chaos, turmoil, problems, and then you hear Vin Scully’s voice and its calm and assured and everything is okay. If you really listen to Vin Scully, he’s not merely speaking baseball, its poetry and art and philosophy, and in a way that makes everyone feel smart. He’s a great professor. And he will be irreplaceably missed.
Rumor has it that you almost became a cop because the local Police Academy is basically next door to Dodger Stadium.
Well, that’s a great story, but it’s not exactly right. I went to college to become a policeman because I found I was good at that kind of thing. Boy Scouts taught me that I had a knack for that stuff. For training, we went to the LA Police Academy, like you said, right next to Dodger Stadium, and I remember looking out at the stadium a few times, going, “Wow, I’d really rather be there.” But Dodger Stadium had led me there. It’s funny because what I really wanted as a young man was to be a baseball player. I found it very ironic that I was training to be a policeman within eyeshot of Dodger Stadium. When I look back on all of that now, I see what it taught me, how it prepared me for what I do now. Actors need to be open to mistakes. If you’re making mistakes, you’re venturing out and trying new things. Especially now that I’m almost 60, people have set aside what it is they do and what it is they don’t do. It takes a lot of courage at my age to be a beginner at something. But that’s what keeps you going – not the fear of failing, but the fear of not taking risks. I’ll be taking risks as long as God keeps me on this Earth. But I don’t think I’ll ever play shortstop.
Valentine’s Day is nearly here, and you’ve got a terrific story about meeting your wife, Robin. Care to share it?
I was an out of work actor, a nobody, so I was blessed, I knew I was blessed even to be on a bad TV show (Airwolf) – a silly show about a helicopter that allowed me to pay the rent and buy groceries like anyone else. I was villain of the week on this episode, on set at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, and Robin had a small part on that episode too. I had to take her at gunpoint and threaten to kill her at one point. Between takes, I said, “I could kill you. Or. . .I could date you.” I’m very glad she chose wisely. (Laughs) We’ve been married more than 25 years!