"I look to have an experience. That's the whole point of doing it. The two plays on Broadway that I've done have both been pretty demanding time-wise and energy-wise. When I do theater, I want to feel everything, and I want to be onstage as much as possible.
"It starts with the projects that I pick because I guess I'm just attracted to characters that are very damaged," he says with a snicker. "But I start with the story. Does the story move me? It's not the character. It's the story that that character is in because I've seen productions of really compelling, interesting characters, but I'm not attracted to the story I'm being told. Or that the text that is trying to support that story is just insignificant or insufficient, and I lose interest. So to me it's always been—whatever the medium—the story. The story always comes first. Is it compelling? Is it rewarding? Is it challenging? Does it make you think? All the things that I then want to have as an experience if I'm to tell that story.
"I don't think it's dissimilar to when you read a good novel, and you can't wait to get to the next chapter. You're invested in these characters, and you root for them or root against them. That's the same thing that I look for, and I've gotten that out of playing Howard Beale for a year now. It's been fun and exhausting.
"I'm going to take a couple of months off, but in that time I'm going to start working on another character which I'm going to be shooting down in New Orleans. It's a one season mini-series for Showtime. It's called Your Honor, and I'm really excited about it. It's a character-driven story about a father and a son and a great moral dilemma that they face, and they need to save each other."
While Cranston is prepping for his next television project, his latest one, the Amazon-streamed Sneaky Pete has just been cancelled. Titled after his childhood nickname, Cranston co-created the show about a con man that gets in over his head trying to assume a double life.
"We're looking at other outlets possibly seeing if there is any interest in giving us a fourth season. We got three seasons from Amazon. We're very grateful for that. Sneaky Pete is worth it. It's a good show. I created it with another writer, and we had a very good run. If it ends now, I'll be sad but proud.
"We really enjoyed our creative discussions with the Amazon execs. Talented, good people. I have nothing bad to say about them. It's just the differences of opinion. They have data that we're not privy to. Maybe they're looking at some drop off in attention or something. I'm not sure, but I think in general that the television industry is now more susceptible to what has been apparent in the movie industry for many decades, and that is 'opening weekend.' There's so much pressure on getting that opening when it drops, in the TV lingo. Opening is critical. In fact, vital.
"It's unfortunate because sometimes stories need to ferment and the word of mouth needs to develop and people need to take the time to get to it. Breaking Bad is a very good example of that. We weren't a big hit coming out of the gate. Neither was Seinfeld. Sometimes you just need to say, 'I believe in this show. I'm sticking with this show, and we'll give it a chance for an audience to find it.' Because there are so many distractions now in not just the product that we're looking at, but You Tube and Instagram and Facebook and everywhere you can turn to draw your attention away from scripted entertainment.
"I truly believe that the new business model for television is really geared towards three years. We are really starting to see that, and that came out in a statement within the industry saying with so much product coming out because there is so much competition, you have to have new product coming out to catch the attention of the viewer. In order to do that, I'm presenting you with a choice. You can either start watching this brand new show that's coming out, or you can watch season four of another show that's been out there. You might think, 'I'll start with the new one because otherwise I would have to go back and watch thirty hours of television before the fourth season.'"
TH: Now since you mentioned it, it's time for some full disclosure. (slides down a bit away from him) I really don't like Breaking Bad. (pretends to cover up)
BC: (mimes playing organ chords) Dun-dun-dunnn! (laughs) You're entitled.
TH: It is an excellent show though. I'm making myself watch it now.
TH: Because I want to see the whole thing, and-
BC: Why would you force yourself to watch something you don't like?
TH: Because I'm interviewing you, and it's part of my research.
BC: That's a terrible idea.
TH: (laughs) No, it's not. I can't interview you without having seen the most significant role you've played so far.
TH: It's funny though because I saw the first episode all those years ago, and I did like it. But I thought, "Do I really want to watch a show about people making drugs?" And as much as I like you, I thought, "Nah." Then over the years, I heard so much about it because it became a hit. So when it got to the last episode, I figured I should watch that. (laughs) So I watched the first episode and the last episode.
BC: (looks astonished) Why would you do that?!
TH: Because I already knew what had happened basically, so why not? It was a fantastic ending. Way better than most shows that I watched from the beginning.
BC: Well, it's not for everyone. It's like wine or a good meal. A meal can be prepared beautifully, but if it doesn't appeal to any particular person, it doesn't mean that they're wrong. It just means that it doesn't appeal to them.
TH: But the thing that bothers me about the show is all this time people are looking for this bald guy with a goatee, and they've got police sketches of him wearing the hat. Why didn't somebody ever say, "He's got a mole on his left cheek!"?!
BC: (laughs out loud)
TH: Bingo! He's caught. (claps hands together) End of series.
BC: (still laughing) There you go!
TH: I'm glad you're not mad about that.
BC: (brushes his hand and smiles) Nah!
As any Bryan Cranston admirer knows, you can't call yourself a true fan unless you have read his autobiography, A Life in Parts, an entertaining and revelatory series of essays about every person and incident that has helped to shape the man he is today. Cranston explains how he went from mild-mannered, critically-acclaimed actor to New York Times best-selling author.
"It was opportunity and challenge. From the zeitgeist of Breaking Bad and being able to parlay that into doing a Broadway show, and then doing some movies and being very fortunate, I was asked if I wanted to write a book. Then I talked to a book agent about what kind of memoir, and I thought that I would like to write it in short story form and one chapter is not dependent upon the previous chapter to be understood. I wanted to be able to make each one have its own beginning, middle and end, and yet have some threads that can continue on.
"So I wrote three or four sample stories on my own, and I wrote them at various lengths without any attention on how long each one was going to be and edited it myself and went back over and made some changes and submitted it. Out of that, there were about thirteen publishers that wanted to put a bid in on getting the book, so I met with all of them and chose Scribner. I was very happy with the way they presented the deal, and how they saw it, knowing that I wanted to continue to write in this short story format and my need to be able to have final say on content. I was assigned an editor named Shannon Welch. She helped very much and came up with the title, A Life in Parts, which I thought was very clever because it was about the parts we play in our real life—husband, father, son, neighbor, citizen—and also the parts onstage or in film.
"It's funny because I started writing, and when you're writing, you're in your own little bubble. Only you and your computer know what you're talking about, and there's some kind of intimacy that is falsely presented. I was having these intimate storytelling moments with my computer and myself reliving these experiences and putting it all out there. It wasn't until I was finished and presented it that I realized, 'Oh! Now it's not a secret!'" he exclaims with a laugh. "Everything that I said is now known to anyone who is interested.
"The other thing is that it was very rewarding. I so enjoyed it. I really did. I enjoyed the process, even the agony of breaking through on some stories that were sticking and having to go to my sister or my brother or my wife or friends and say, 'Remember when this happened?' to get clarity on certain things. It was fun to be able to put it all out there. I've never been a fan of the memoir that says everything was rosy, and it's just a chronology of what you did in life. I'm not interested, and the idea of not writing what you're saying you're writing is just so foreign to me. It would be like winning an award that you didn't deserve. It's fraud."
In addition to acting, writing, producing and directing, Bryan Cranston also takes time out of his busy schedule to visit with acting students to impart his wisdom. But unlike some other famous stars, who will spend the session stroking their own ego or discouraging the impressionable minds seated before them, Cranston makes sure he leaves them with the knowledge that, above all else, you must have a passion for acting.
"When I talk to kids now in high schools and colleges and acting schools, I say to them, 'You need to be in love.' Not infatuated. Not lusting. Not for money or fame. Not in the ego in your head. You have to be in love. Because only love will sustain you, and if you find, 'Oh, I guess I'm not in love,' that's okay. Because what you learned in being able to get up onstage and present yourself is going to serve you. Somewhere in life you are going to need to stand up in front of a group and state a point of view, and be able to do it believably, no matter what business you get into. But in order to sustain a career for the long haul as an actor, I don't see any other way but to be in love.
"I say that because I also include the need to be happy. There are abundantly talented people who are unhappy. They do what they do because they're incredibly talented, but there's nothing that's going to make them happy. Some are clinically unhappy and some are just dour kind of people. They're just cynical, and I'm not. I don't want to be a part of their lives.
"In forty years I've probably worked with three people I wouldn't want to work with again, and two of those people have already died. Not by my hand!" he jokes. "But they have gone on. So I think that's a remarkable number because if you're working in the arts, you know you're lucky. There's never going to be a shortage of people wanting to work in the arts. It's the love that drives you."
With that love for acting firmly in place, Cranston says you then have to learn how to be in control of both your talent and your career.
"It's magic. Acting is magic. You're not supposed to know how the trick is done. If you're in a stage fight, for example, it's not an all-out brawl. You cannot do real. You can't survive and come back the next day. You could feel the realness of the anger or the rage that you go into, but it has to be measured. It has to be in control. You're just supposed to feel the effects of what you're experiencing, and how ever any actor gets there is fair. Some work from the outside in, some from the inside out, and both are effective. It doesn't matter. 'Did it work?' is the only thing that matters. If they're good, they're good.
"I will even say to the kids—in front of their teacher—'If this teacher or any teacher or acting coach tells you, "This is the only way to achieve. You must do it this way and only this way," be very wary about where you are.' It's the arts. It is not math. There's no question to that. Art is not an equation. There is no one map in order to get to where you want to go, so use those teachers to your benefit. Take in everything that they have to offer. Be a sponge. Don't be resistant. Don't try to edit before it comes in. Let it come in and trust yourself that it will find its place if it means something to you. If not, it will leave you. You don't have to begin sulking to the teacher, or hear something and then immediately reject it because you might just be rejecting it out of fear."
Cranston shrugs, "It's all a learning process. I have the same attitude when I look back at my work from when I first started forty years ago. I look at it without judgment. 'Oh. That was fun.' Would I do it differently now? Sure. Because I am different now, so you would naturally do something differently. You're older. Perhaps you're more experienced and maybe even wiser.
"But there were no major mistakes like, 'Oh, my God. I shouldn't have done that.' It's just a learning experience. Like, look at publicity. I think it's foolish for actors to think that it's not part of their job," he states, irritated at the notion. "It's ridiculous! You go and do all the effort to make a product, and then put no effort into promoting that product? So people know it's available? It's asinine!
"Also, I knew instinctively from doing seven years of Malcolm in the Middle playing a sweet, goofy dad that I can't do another sweet, goofy dad, so I turned those down. You just guide yourself. It is what it is."
If his life had taken a different turn, and he had followed his initial career path, we may never have had the pleasure of seeing Cranston play Hal in Malcolm in the Middle or Walter White in Breaking Bad or Howard Beale in Network or any of his other great characterizations. Somewhere in an alternate universe, many Los Angeles-area criminals have been arrested and interrogated by Detective Bryan Cranston.
"It came out of a completely blindsided discovery. My brother joined the Police Explorers out of Los Angeles LAPD West Valley Division. It was a career day event at the high school, and I don't even know why he joined. I'll have to ask him if he remembers. When he joined, he was part of a group that had to study police training, and this group traveled to Hawaii for two weeks. The second year, they went to Japan, and for cheap!" he exclaims. "Being a poor kid, the idea of traveling was just not in the realm of reality, and yet my brother did.
"So as soon as I was 16, I thought, 'Oh, man! I'm joining that group,' and I did. Then I discovered I had some aptitude in police work. All by total surprise! I thought, 'Well, this is probably what I should be because I'm pretty good at this. And after college, I'll go into the LAPD, spend my 20, 25 years and retire.' Like many of the people that I knew in that group did. They're all retired now. I'm the only one still working!" Cranston smiles and jokes, "And pretending to be a cop on TV at times."
As a result of playing these iconic characters, but especially because of the cultural phenomenon of Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston has become something he never expected to be—a world famous star. It is all the more surprising because it has happened to him after the age of 50, a time when most actors begin to resign themselves to the fate of spending the rest of their careers playing grandfathers and supporting roles. The gratitude for the opportunity is never lost on him, but he still has to deal with the reality of folks walking around with his face tattooed on their bodies.
"The greatness of what has happened to me far outweighs it, but celebrity has changed my personality. That's the X factor that every actor wonders about, but most never experience. The person who is an actor who wants to perform in projects that have the best writers and the best directors and the best content and the best other actors, if you're fortunate enough to get to that other place, that's called stardom. If you hit stardom, what also comes along with that is celebrity, which is different because celebrity is the perception from civilians to you. Not you to you, or not your peers to you. It is how the fans see you, and they see you in a totally different way.
"It could be all consuming if you allow it to be, so you need to protect yourself. That's what I have discovered, and I realize that I am not like everybody else. I have a face that creates double takes from many people I walk past," Cranston chuckles. "So it's important for me to protect myself from an abundance of attention, which is not helpful to me to get through my day. Then how to manage fans' enthusiasm and what they want and what you are able to give to a fan in show of appreciation to them, but not giving up a piece of who you are in order to satisfy them. There will be people who are kind and understanding and appreciative, and then there are those who are demanding and brusque and uncivilized.
"A lot of times the place has to do with it. The time has to do with it. I've figured out that my curfew is 10:30 at night. If I'm out anywhere, by the time it hits 10:30, I could feel the energy change where it's like, 'Okay, I have to start making my way out.' I have to be in control of how I leave someplace, so I can get somewhere else. You just have to be mindful of those things, which is something that no one can teach you. You are completely unaware of how to deal with it.
"There are certain places I won't go. There are certain places that I can go at particular times when it's less busy. Then there are places that are surprisingly good for me to go. You wouldn't think, but I can go to museums most of the time because the attention is always on the walls. You feel people moving in front of you and besides you, but you don't really pay attention to them. There's more anonymity for me at a museum than a ballgame or a theater. When I go to the theater, I'll go to my seat quickly. If I'm sitting next to my wife, I won't do this-" Cranston turns his head directly at me and says, "I won't actually turn and show the profile of my face to people behind me. I will just lean and talk like this-" He swings his head back around to face forward and leans all the way over to me. "Because I've found that the more private I can make my environment, the more I control that moment. That's the point. You have to seek control of your life."
With his multiple award-winning successes in television, film and theater, Cranston has also reached another point in his career that few actors achieve—financial freedom. While he never has to worry about his next paycheck, it is almost shocking to learn that he does not care about how much money he makes. That is, until you hear his reason why.
"I'm not motivated by it. My agents and managers, they're obligated to go over the deal with you, but I basically just say, 'Are you happy with it?' and they say, 'No, we think we can get better.' And I'm like, 'Well, then go ahead and do as best you can,'" Cranston shrugs. "But my lifelong, dear friend is my business manager. We were literally raised together. So we know each other very, very well, and I trust him. He laughs because he knows that I don't know, and he goes, 'Do you have any idea? Go ahead. Take a guess what you made last year.' I'll make a guess, and he'll go, 'No! You're way off!' like The Price Is Right, then he shows me the figure.
"I was poor when I was a kid. So I want to stress that it's not like taking an elitist kind of 'I'll live on art. I don't need money.' No. I've been poor, and I've been wealthy, and wealthy is much better. But at a certain point, it's not. I'm not trying to achieve any certain number. I absolutely have no concept of that drive. That's not the ladder I want to climb. I don't even know what anybody else makes. I don't care what anybody else makes. I really don't. It doesn't matter to me. I hope they make a lot. Good for them," he sincerely claps. "To be honest with you, I don't tend to pay too much attention to what other people think. I really don't. I don't know who's dating who. I don't know a lot of pop culture. I don't read rag newspapers. I don't watch titillation entertainment shows. I'm just not interested. I've got so many other things that are far more interesting to me to do and to work on and to be—or to just be silent—than to fill my head with garbage.
"I don't talk to other actors about why they took what they did. I don't begrudge anyone for taking anything. If someone takes a job for money, okay. That's your business. I've certainly taken a job for money. You want to pay me more than I would make in three years of doing theater? Okay, I'll take it. Then I can do three years of theater," he states with a satisfied smile. "There's nothing wrong with that. The only thing I would say is when young actors hit something is to now guard it because this doesn't necessarily continue. Sock that money away. Set yourself up so that you don't have to make creative decisions based on financial need. That's the key to it."
Of all the perks there are to being an A-list actor like Bryan Cranston, the best of all is the ability to develop your own material and work with the best artists to bring out the best in you. It doesn't get any better than his collaboration with Ivo Van Hove on Network, and Cranston explains the importance of having a great director in your corner.
"The best thing that a director can do for you is instill inspiration to keep looking for deeper meaning, and use words that allow you yourself to make the discoveries. That goes along with the worst thing, which is the opposite of that. The worst thing a director can do is to tell you how you feel and tell you what he or she wants you to do. 'I want you to pick up the phone on this line and turn back when he-'" Cranston brushes off the rest of whatever he was going to mimic. "In television, you have to have an idea of that blocking. You don't have the time, but you want to work with a director that is inspiring to bring out the best of your talent.
"In the theater here, Ivo Van Hove requires everyone off book the first day of rehearsal. That's the way he works. If you're going to work with Ivo, you have to do that. I liked it a lot. I'm going to do it from now on because it gave me tremendous freedom. You learn lines, and as you're learning lines, you're not looking into how you are going to deliver them. You are giving yourself options, so that when you come in you can try them."
TH: I love that. I liken it to reading the lyrics in the liner notes of an album before you listen to the song.
BC: Oh, yeah. That's a good analogy. Yeah. It doesn't ruin it.
TH: It gives you a better sense of what the song is about.
BC: It gives you some insight to it.
TH: Then you put it on and hear-
BC: (thinks out loud) Does anyone read liner notes anymore?
TH: I do.
BC: You don't read the liner notes.
TH: Yes, I do.
BC: You don't do that.
TH: How are you gonna sit there and tell me what I don't do?
BC: (laughing) No one does that anymore!
TH: I still do! I read the lyrics first, and then I listen to the music.
BC: (still laughing) You're a unicorn!
TH: Okay. (lets out a beaming smile and swoons a bit because there is something very appealing about the sound of Bryan Cranston's voice calling you a "unicorn") Then that's what I am.
BC: Well, kids don't do that.
TH: Kids don't even listen to an entire album.
BC: They don't know what liner notes are! And there are no CDs anymore. Remember? They had 8 tracks, then cassettes, then CDs.
TH: I still collect CDs.
BC: Man, oh man. It's gone. (shakes his head) And the artwork that connected and was the entrance into the music. The invitation to come in.
TH: Yep. The great cover art.
BC: If it was a heavy metal band, it was something that you looked at and went- (holds up an imaginary record album) "Whoa!" (cringes and holds the "album" away from himself) "What is that?! Wow! That's freaky!"
TH: (laughs) And the more terrifying and bloody that cover was, the more you wanted to buy it!
BC: Yeah! Just for that!
BC + TH: (both laugh)
BC: Or Sgt. Pepper's was like- (holds the album again and speaks in a tripped out voice) "What is going on here?"
TH: (laughs) And you stared at it for the entire time you listened to it trying to decipher each face.
BC: Yeah. (sighs) Well, kids are missing an experience.
TH: They are. Now it's all about putting out that single. There's a big corner billboard when you come out of Port Authority for a Cardi B single on Spotify. One song!
BC: One song? Wow.
TH: I'm like, "Where's the album?" (stops and realizes) Wait. How did we get on music?
TH: I'm sorry. Let's get back to acting.
BC: That's all right. No worries.
After a little over an hour of conversation, I ask Bryan Cranston my last question about what he loves about his life. Without the slightest hesitation, he says, "My wife and daughter; and the fact that I get to play for a living never escapes me. That I have good health and good friends, and that life is very challenging." Here's hoping that those challenges will lead to more great work from this delightful man whose talent to play is enjoyed by audiences everywhere. AAA
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The first thing that popped in my head reading this is how down to earth Mr. Cranston came across. It's like he is oblivious to the fact he is a cult hero (Breaking Bad).
I started Sneaky Pete and it takes sometime to marinate and deserved more time to get people interested.
I watched Finney and Dunaway in the original Network and would have loved to have seen the play in person.
I am really excited to taste his tequila mainly because I love Casamigos so I am sure if Clooney can do it so can he.
I was surprised to read you had to watch breaking bad so you could have more in-depth discussion. Smart and something not too many interviewers would divulge. Great Article and look forward to reading future ones.