BY JONATHAN VALANIA FOR THE PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER Bryan Cranston is arguably one of the greatest actors of the modern era. 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. He drew equally swooning critic’s notices for his indelible performance as Dalton Trumbo, a gifted screenwriter whose life and career was destroyed by the House Unamerican Activities Committee. In 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 winning blend of charm, cunning and intimidation. He’s just published his must-read memoir, A Life In Parts, which brought him to the Free Library earlier this month for a sold out reading and book signing.
PHAWKER: 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. Your childhood was not easy but somehow you managed to come through the fire largely unscathed, or somehow it made you stronger. Your father was an aspiring actor who never quite made it. That drove him to drink and other destructive behaviors and he eventually abandoned the family. As a result, your mother sank into alcoholism and retreated emotionally from you and your brother, never to return. 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?
BRYAN CRANSTON: 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.
PHAWKER: 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 and 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?
BRYAN CRANSTON: 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 and 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.
PHAWKER: I will spare you the Breaking Bad questions you’ve no doubt had to answer a million times. You were great in Trumbo, what drew you to that story?
BRYAN CRANSTON: 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.
PHAWKER: You turned in another incredible performance as Lyndon Johnson in All The Way. What drew you to the role?
BRYAN CRANSTON: 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.
PHAWKER: As you say, Johnson is a very complicated figure, with both good and bad attributes, like everyone. But there’s a scene in one of the [LBJ biographer] Robert Caro books that I think kind of sums up who he is and that’s where, as a young man, he is teaching English to poor little Mexican children in Cotullo, Texas. And before class, he would come early and teach the janitor, who was also a Mexican immigrant, to speak English. They sat on the steps of the school at the break of dawn when there’s no one around, there’s nothing to be gained by him doing that, there’s no one to see him doing this and give him credit for it but that was obviously very important to him. I thought that really represented the measure of the man in a lot of ways.
BRYAN CRANSTON: 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 and without that experience, 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. MORE