The many lives of Bryan

Mon, Sep 26, 2011, 01:00

From relative obscurity – via a stint as the hapless dad on ‘Malcolm in the Middle’– to roles in two of this week’s blockbuster movies, the lead in a top TV drama, and acclaim from directors and fellow actors, Bryan Cranston tells TARA BRADYabout ‘suddenly’ hitting the big time in his 50s

GEORGE CLOONEY and Meryl Streep may figure among the bookies’ premature favourites for next year’s Academy Awards but neither player could claim to be Hollywood’s most keenly sought after pentagenarian.

That honour falls to character actor made-good Bryan Cranston who, suddenly at 55, has all of Tinseltown beating a path to his door.

Lately at the picture house, keen Cranston-watchers have witnessed their hero hound Matthew McConaughey in legal thriller The Lincoln Lawyerand annoy onscreen wife Julia Roberts in recession comedy Larry Crowne. On the small screen, he’s the star of arguably the most compelling drama on TV, Breaking Bad.

Last week, as if to trumpet his belated elevation to the big leagues, the veteran actor featured in two of the top three movies at the US box office: Steven Soderbergh’s outbreak drama Contagionand Nicolas Winding Refn’s superb cerebral heist flick, Drive. The latter received a 10-minute standing ovation when it played at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.

“It’s certainly a nice experience to be afforded to a guy in his middle age,” laughs Cranston. “I’m very busy. It’s a good time.”

Meanwhile, the rave notices just keep on coming. Steven Spielberg, who directed the actor in Saving Private Ryan, is a fan, as is mogul Jerry Bruckheimer and actor Tom Hanks. Filmmakers, both low-falutin’ and high, simply cannot say enough nice things.

“There’s going to be a movie,” Drive director Nicolas Winding Refn suggested recently. “And it’s basically going to be a shot of Bryan reading the phone book from A to Z. Because he’s the greatest actor, he’s going to make that the most suspenseful film ever made.” Breaking Badcreator Vince Gilligan is similarly effusive: “He’s an actor who comes along every 100 years or so,” says the TV auteur.

For these folks and for Cranston’s burgeoning fanbase, it’s no surprise that the dad from Malcolm in the Middle has made it; it’s just baffling that it took so long.

“I did think when Malcolm in the Middleended that it might be the lead line in my obituary,” says Cranston. “But that was okay. As actors, we have to embrace the insecurity of the business. You can’t know when the work is coming, so we have to learn to just go with the flow.”

LONG BEFORE CRANSTON was “that guy from Malcolm in the Middle”, he was “oh, that guy”. Born in Los Angeles to actors Peggy Sell and Joe Cranston in 1956, a life of treading the boards was likely written in the stars.

Having made the transition from college drama to regional theatre and comedy improv, young Bryan soon found a way to supplement his income with commercials for Coffee Mate and Honda. In his late 20s, a series of guest gigs on CHiPs, Murder, She Wrote, Hill Street Blues, Falcon Crestand Baywatchkept him busy.

A stint on Airwolf as villain of the week introduced Cranston to Robin Dearden, the actor playing his kidnap victim. It was not quite Stockholm Syndrome at first sight.

“At the time, she had a boyfriend and I had a girlfriend and that turned out to be a real blessing,” recalls Cranston. “We had months of uncomplicated flirting and fun at comedy improv. So a year later we found each other and it was delightful. And that was 25 years ago.”

Cult status beckoned not long after when Seinfeld provided him with the recurring role of Dr Tim Whatley, a Catholic dentist who converts to Judaism, thereby earning what Jerry calls “total joke immunity”.

“That show had such a tremendous impact,” recalls Cranston. “It was a great launch pad and opportunity for me. Every job you do, if you do it well enough, should create another opening.”

Sure enough, steadier work soon followed. A returning character on The King of Queensraised awareness of Cranston but it was Hal, the hapless patriarch from Malcolm in the Middle, who became a regular fixture in homes across 57 countries. The show, which kicked off in 2000, garnered a Peabody, seven Emmys and a Grammy over seven seasons.

“Someone asked me once in an interview if I would do a movie reunion and I absolutely would,” says Cranston. “I’d love to see all those people again. You become family. It’s a little upsetting when you have to say goodbye. And I’d love to slip back into that character that I enjoyed playing for seven years. But that’s life. Experience it. Embrace it. Be in the moment. Be appreciative of whatever fortunes come your way.”

Malcolm was a blessing but Breaking Badwas something else. A complex, compelling drama about a terminally ill chemistry teacher who turns to a life of crime and methamphetamine production in order to secure his family’s financial future, creator Vince Gilligan’s portrait of masculinity in crisis was an immediate critical smash when it premiered in 2008. It has been at the vanguard of new post-Sopranos, post-Wire drama ever since.

“I’m so fortunate to go from Hal on Malcolm to Walter on Breaking Badand have people say that it’s astonishing it’s the same guy in both roles. That’s such a huge, huge compliment. I knew as soon as I read the script for the pilot episode of Breaking Badfour years ago that Walter White would change the life of whatever guy was lucky enough to play him. It has been a fantastic ride.”

The actor’s edgy, fragmented depiction of fraught, downtrodden Walter and his crystal-meth kingpin alter ego, Heisenberg, has earned six Emmy Awards, including three consecutive wins for Lead Actor in a Drama Series for Cranston.

“If you have any instinct for acting you start to understand over time that you really need a foundation for each character that’s real and tangible,” says Cranston. “Then you get excited about it. Once you do all that homework, ideas flow. But on a series, you have the additional luxury of playing a character over and over again. Now when I start Breaking Badagain, it’s like slipping into a comfortable pair of shoes. There’s a shortcut because of all the work that’s gone in before.”

The show, whose creators played hardball to stop the networks changing Walter’s criminal career to marijuana farming, has just been renewed for a fifth and final season, consisting of 16 episodes that may be split, Harry Potter-style, into two chunks.

“There’s a renaissance going on in television right now,” notes Cranston. “The studios aren’t making or picking up independent pictures anymore. So independent, cinematic storytelling has migrated to television. When I heard we were only doing 16 more episodes there was a lot of sadness.”

EVEN WITHOUT Breaking Bad, Cranston’s dance card is looking pretty full. Next year, he’ll take on John Carter in an adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Martian saga. The film is Pixar Studio’s first foray into live-action cinema. He’ll also feature alongside Tom Cruise, Russell Brand and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the big-screen transfer of jukebox musical Rock of Agesand test his negotiation skills in Ben Affleck’s Argo, a drama based on the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis.

As we speak, he’s just wrapped on Total Recall, a remake of the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle inspired by a Philip K. Dick short story. In director Len Wiseman’s update, Cranston’s nefarious extra terrestrial coloniser will grapple with a popular Irishman.

“I have so enjoyed working on Total Recallwith one of your countrymen, Colin Farrell,” gushes Cranston, whose great-grandmother came from Co Clare. “The last couple of weeks we’ve been in hand-to-hand combat and it’s been a blast. He’s a tremendous amount of fun and a terrific actor. I’ve always been proud of my little slice of Irish ancestry. Now I’m even prouder.”

Cranston, an actor who seems to exude a Zen-like calm, plainly loves the work, though he’s rather less enamoured by all the attention.

“It’s not something I’ve sought,” he says. “It’s a by-product of success within the business. I appreciate it. It’s interesting. I love that people respond to the product we’re working on. But one of the primary tools an actor has is observation. You need to stay unnoticed to observe human behaviour. When people recognise you, that dynamic changes. I find myself wearing a hat and dark glasses and aiming for the lowest profile possible.”

Between disguises and increasingly starry roles, there are parental duties to attend to. His 18-year-old daughter Taylor is currently enrolled as a theatre major in the University of Southern California.

She wants to be in the family business, says Cranston, but that doesn’t mean she wants to follow in anyone’s footsteps. “I’m going there tonight to give a seminar,” says Dad. “But she’s skipping to go for dinner with Mom. I’m allowed to say she goes there, but I can’t use her name. At 18, she doesn’t want to be living in anyone’s shadow. So I have my directives. And I know how to take directions.”