Bryan Cranston: from ‘Breaking Bad’ to playing ‘Trumbo’
Fame came late for the actor, now up for an Oscar – and he’s happy it did
Bryan Cranston has had time to prepare for fame. Now 59, the craggy Everyman has been a professional actor since the mid 1980s. But he was middle-aged before he gained proper recognition in the admired sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. He was over 50 when he achieved cult stardom in Breaking Bad. There are worse ways of running a career. Cranston had several decades of relative peace before, as a responsible grown-up, the fans started to chase him down the aisles of his local supermarket.
“I was very fortunate that it worked out that way,” he says calmly. “I worked a lot of crappy jobs as a young man. The worst was loading trucks in the cold. I was non-union. I remember thinking: I’ll give them my body, but I’ll keep my soul. I was just dreaming of the day when I could be a working actor. That happened at 25 and I have never looked back.”
Cranston, even after TV fame, has usually found himself shuffled into smaller character roles on film, but in the upcoming Trumbo he gets a chance to own the screen. Jay Roach’s movie follows the travails of Dalton Trumbo, the legendary screenwriter who, during the anti-communist witch-hunts of the 1950s, was driven to the sidelines of the movie business. He now finds himself with an Oscar nomination for best actor. Few would begrudge him a win.
“Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party, but he was really a socialist,” Cranston muses. “At the same time, he loved being rich. But he was terrible at rich. He just couldn’t hold on to money. He had compassion for the working man. He was an organiser and that made him a ‘trouble maker’ in those days.”
Trumbo eventually fought his way back into the limelight when, after working under aliases for a decade, he saw his name appear on the credits for Exodus and Spartacus. But it wasn’t until 2011 that the words “Dalton Trumbo” finally appeared in the opening titles for Roman Holiday. The writer worked in the business until his death in 1976 and is fondly remembered as a full-on eccentric: he wrote in the bath, with whiskey and cigarettes to hand. Two surviving daughters keep the flame alive.
“You do have a different responsibility when the character is non-fictional,” Cranston says. “There are people still alive who know him. There is archival footage. You have to get somewhat close to that. If you don’t, the family would say: ‘I don’t know what you’re doing here.’ His flamboyant nature can’t be ignored. In doing the research you want the character’s essence to come into you. And sometimes it comes in and tells you what it wants to do. It leads you. It’s like those writers who say that, after a while, it’s as if they are just reporting the conversation.”
Bryan Cranston likes to meander in his conversation. A warm man with a square, comforting face, he uses questions as a jumping-off point for digressions on life, politics and the state of the world. As I’m sitting down he points out that he’s just done the TV show Who Do You Think You Are? and discovered that his ancestors are from Armagh. So are mine. “Is that right? I didn’t find much else to toot my horn about. But they were Catholics from Armagh. Yes, yes. Very interesting.”
Cranston has been quite frank about the fact that he had a troubled childhood. His father left. His mother never quite recovered. The family seems to have slid over a metaphorical ravine.
“My father left when I was 11 and I didn’t see him for another 10 years,” he says. “My mother became an alcoholic after he left. When I think of my parents I do have a sense of sadness. Before that happened they were both very involved in our upbringing. Dad coached sport. My mother was in the PTA and made Halloween costumes. It was very hands-on until it wasn’t.
“When you’re 11, everything you knew and thought was safe just stops. That had a profound affect on me. I became quiet, insecure, shy. I was not the person I thought I was supposed to be.”
Yet he still had the courage to thrust himself into acting. This is all the more surprising when you consider that his dad struggled all his life to make a living in the business. That can’t have been an encouraging example.
“Kids are always learning from their parents,” he says. “Sometimes you learn what to do. Sometimes you learn what not to do. I look at what he wanted. He wanted to be a star. That’s all he thought of. He didn’t see the joy of being a regular working actor. He was that. But he never reached the level he wanted to. That took its toll. When mid-life hit, it was unbearable for him.”
That really is a fascinating comparison. As Cranston tells it, he would have been quite happy to continue as a steady, reliable character actor for the rest of his life. He has guest starred in dozens of hit shows: Matlock, Hill Street Blues, Baywatch, Murder, She Wrote. Pay attention and you’ll see him in Saving Private Ryan and Little Miss Sunshine. Then Malcolm in the Middle brought him three Emmy nominations. His role as Walter White – AKA Heisenberg – in Breaking Bad did something much more desirable: it made Cranston cool. He’s on T-shirts and mugs throughout the world.
“I’ll tell you when I knew it had become a real hit,” he laughs. “When we started, they used to put these signs up in Albuquerque pointing to the shoot, saying ‘Breaking Bad’. A few series in, they were getting stolen. They changed it to just ‘BB’. By the end, we had to pretend it was a mayonnaise commercial or something.”
A small show on an obscure cable station had turned into a phenomenon of the age. When cultural historians look back at the turn of the last decade, they will surely take Breaking Bad as a reflection of the era: economic uncertainty; middle-aged alienation; disillusion with conventional politics. What an unlikely hero of the age Walter White was: a chemistry teacher, who after a cancer diagnosis, takes to methamphetamine production.
“The show was turned down by nearly everyone,” Cranston remembers. “Then the station AMC, which was ramping up first-run series, decided they wanted it. They knew if they didn’t try something bold there would be a problem. We were just this little show. We had no designs. We had no thoughts of grandeur or that it would create this avalanche.”
So what was it about Breaking Bad that clicked with audiences? The final episode in 2013 garnered the sort of attention that earlier attended the demise of M*A*S*H and Seinfeld.
“It resonated because it was a comment on the American education system,” he says. “On the lack of wages for teachers. It was a commentary on the health system. Here was a man who knew cancer treatment would ruin him. The final thing was this parlour game. What would you do if you had two years to live? How would you live your life? Would you break the law to a big degree? There are a lot of people who would say: ‘Yeah.’ ”
It’s a dilemma that Dalton Trumbo would have enjoyed.
Trumbo opens next week