From Walter White to Dalton Trumbo, Bryan Cranston looks back on his seven key roles
The former Heisenberg on his greatest roles. He is the one who reminisces.
AS ANY BREAKING Bad fan knows, Bryan Cranston doesn’t shy away from exploring the darker recesses of the human soul. For his latest film, Robin Swicord’s E.L. Doctorow-adapting
Wakefield, Cranston tackles arguably his least likeable lead character yet: a family man who not only abandons his wife and daughters, but cynically watches them from his nearby hidey-hole. But, Cranston tells Empire, “It’s the actor’s job to find the humanity in every character you play.” Something he’s consistently achieved throughout his career. Here he talks us through how he does it. PATRICK CRUMP __ THE X-FILES, ‘DRIVE’, 1998 The Vince Gilligan-written role that paved the way to Cranston’s casting in Breaking Bad: Patrick Crump, an anti-semitic jerk who can’t stop driving for fear his head will explode. “When you’re playing the antagonist, you can’t play it as if you’re evil and mean, unless you’re playing farce, or a child’s story. It’s Vince’s writing that enabled me to conjure that man and bring that sense of playing his humanity. Every actor knows that the hardest work you ever have to do is on poorly written material. The easiest work is when the material is so well written that it just seeps into your psyche immediately.”
HAL __ MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE, 2000-’06 Malcolm’s inept and sometimes infantile father, Hal, was Cranston’s biggest TV role pre-walter White… “Doing Malcolm In The Middle was a joy. Seven years, 151 episodes, the exploration of which was thorough and beautiful, so well-crafted, and grounded. In that show, the family loved each other. But we didn’t pound you over the head with it. We just let you know that we loved each other, and because you felt that as an audience, we were able to go crazy. Because they knew that, at the end of the day, they’re gonna stay together. That was comforting to people.” WALTER WHITE __ BREAKING BAD, 2008-’13 The role of his lifetime: the cancer-suffering chemistry teacher who becomes a crystal meth manufacturer to support his family, but soon evolves into a notorious villain. “The most harrowing experience I had on
Breaking Bad was during the scene when Jane [Krysten Ritter] was dying and I saw the face of my real daughter dying before me. And that shook me, of course. It was almost like an out-of-body experience; your body and your emotional core doesn’t really know the difference between acting and not-acting. You feel the jolt of that. There are those experiences you have that are not completely safe. That’s an emotional risk that an actor needs to accept.” SHANNON __ DRIVE, 2011 Mechanic and manager for Ryan Gosling’s getaway artist in Nicolas Winding Refn’s neo-noir, who gets a disturbing death scene at the hands of Albert Brooks’ gang boss. “I came up with that death scene. Originally in the script I think Shannon was garroted, and there was something that bothered me about that. What we’d established was Albert Brooks’ character really liked me. So one rehearsal I said, ‘What if he offers me his hand, the symbol of friendship? We’re looking at each other as friends and I shake his hand and he quickly twists my hand and with an unforeseen knife he slices my wrist. And then immediately starts to comfort me.’ It’s just a horrific thing to see, but from Albert’s character’s standpoint it was him honouring a friendship.” DALTON TRUMBO __ TRUMBO, 2015 His performance as the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter earned Cranston a Best Actor Oscar nomination. “Trumbo was someone I knew about, but didn’t know that much about. So I contacted the people who wrote things about him, read a biography on him, saw the documentary about him and talked to both of his daughters, who were extremely helpful. This is how you create your character: you gather evidence and try to decipher what it means to you. It’s almost like doing an investigation on a case. And I learned that Trumbo was not only bright and prolific but stubborn, irascible, fun-loving. A dedicated humanist and enlightened being who truly enjoyed his wordsmithing ability.” LYNDON B. JOHNSON __ ALL THE WAY, 2016 Playing JFK’S controversial successor on stage won Cranston a Tony Award in 2014, and he reprised the role for Trumbo director Jay Roach’s HBO movie last year, in which we memorably observe LBJ sitting down for a crap, mid-conversation… “Oh yeah, he was not a man who was raised with any kind of high-end social grace. So when he needed to go to the bathroom, he would bring people with him. And he’d drop his drawers and defecate and continue talking as if it was no big deal. But some people speculated that he did it to put his guests on their heels, so he could manipulate them.” HOWARD WAKEFIELD __ WAKEFIELD, 2016 A husband and father who stages his own disappearance, camping out in his garage while he obsessively spies on his wife and daughters. “A very challenging character. I believe he’s plausible to some degree, and ultimately relatable, when you think about it. Who wouldn’t want to take a snow day for themselves? But I’m a husband and a father, and my father abandoned my family, so I looked at this and thought, ‘How can I play a person who abandons his family?’ Because it happens. Because people do that. So, I can’t just push it aside because it’s a repugnant thought. I kept thinking about it and coming back to the script, and realised that if I’m doing that it’s a great sign. It’s getting embedded in my psyche.” WAKEFIELD IS OUT NOW ON DVD AND DOWNLOAD
Left: Achieving legend status as Breaking Bad’s morally complex, magnetic Walter White. Above, top to bottom: As Wakefield’s title character, another family man with issues; With Ryan Gosling in Drive; As Trumbo’s controversial Hollywood screenwriter; Dysfunctional — if comedic — family life again in TV’S Malcolm In The Middle.