STYLING BY JENNY RICKER
GROOMING BY ROSIE JANE JOHNSTON
To some TV viewers, Bryan Cranston will always be Dr. Tim Whatley – Jerry’s Jewish-joke-cracking dentist on Seinfeld, others couldn’t pass him in the street without screeching “Hal!” but it’s his most recent televisual turn as Breaking Bad’s meth-making chemistry teacher Walter White that’s got fans and critics wagging their tongues like super-excited spaniels. Currently in its fourth season, Cranston’s against-type casting as a nerdy high-school teacher who learns he has advanced lung cancer and turns to drug dealing to secure his family’s financial future has earned him Emmy wins three years in a row (which just about makes up for his three misses for Malcolm in the Middle). With upcoming roles in this year’s Contagion, and 2012 flicks Total Recall and Rock of Ages, he’s also making himself at home on the big screen. Here he tells Terrence Howard – his co-star from World War Two movie Red Tails, which is being produced by George Lucas and is due out next year – about his happy marriage, his unexpected rise to the top, and how he leaves Walter White’s crazy life in the make-up chair.
TERRENCE HOWARD—I was a little taken aback that you wanted me to interview you.
BRYAN CRANSTON—Why would you say that?
TH—You’ve done a lot, man. I was honored.
BC—And I was honored you accepted. Have you heard anything about Red Tails?
TH—Yes I have. They actually sent me some trailers to look at – they were great. I think we’re about to have a great movie.
TH—I’m a little nervous now. I’ve never been in this position. I could ask you stuff that some reporter would ask, but that’s really not what I want to ask about. I want to ask about how you’ve maintained such a beautiful marriage for 22 years in this business.
BC—That’s a great inside question. It’s tough. Our work schedules are demanding and invasive to a relationship and you just have to make exceptions. When I shoot Breaking Bad for six months in New Mexico, we don’t go more than two weeks without seeing each other. We have our daughter at home, but she’s on her way to graduating and going off to USC next month, so it’ll be a little easier for Robin to come and visit me when I’m on location.
TH—My daughter’s heading off to college in a month also.
BC—No kidding! What major does she want to do?
TH—She wants to do something with medicine, but I think she’ll end up becoming a publicist. What does your little girl want to do?
BC—She wants to act. And she’s got it; she’s got that something. She’s very sincere about it, even though she’s been around the environment and Hollywood and the trappings of all that. That’s why she wanted to go to a liberal arts college as opposed to a conservatory so by the time she gets out she’ll have a well-rounded education and I’m thrilled.
TH—There are a lot of pitfalls associated with this business. Your daughter has watched you be successful in front of millions of people. How does she feel when she deals with you in public? Are you able to be Bryan, private Bryan, in comparison with having to be the public Bryan?
BC—No, not always. Sometimes she sees the public Bryan and I have to reconcile with that. She’s obviously in my life deeply and she’s going to see aspects of it that I don’t necessarily want her to see: the state of fandom and the superlatives that are thrown out easily. The attention is not a normal activity. And I think that’s why even though she showed an interest in acting I didn’t want her to be a child actor. Robin and I decided early on that that’s what school plays are for. I wanted to empower her choices by making that available to her and encouraging her but I never wanted to encourage it from a professional point of view. That being said, about a year ago in the last season [of Breaking Bad] I directed one of the episodes and there was a call for a 16-year-old girl and she was 16 at the time. I didn’t want her to resent that I bypassed her, so I brought her in to the conversation and she decided she wanted to audition. So I sent her off to the casting director and they sent tapes to our studio and our producers and they all came back saying she’s terrific, and so she won the job. I tried to teach her that if you did what you wanted to do in that character then that’s a success story. Own that, but don’t attach yourself to a result. You have to know that your job is to create an interesting character and present it to them and then your job is done and you walk away. If she learned anything, I hope it was that.
TH—I see you as an emotional engineer, if it’s alright for me to refer to you as that. And when I’ve watched the show I’ve watched the emotional engineer that appears to me to be feeling and living through everything that’s going on. In the line of walking away, how do you avoid those pieces of your character from invading and taking over your life? How do you avoid carrying those anxieties off the set?
BC—There’s a price that you pay for getting close to that flame. We can and often do exhaust ourselves. There’s that risk-taker in us that I think is a prerequisite to being an actor in the first place. You have to be willing to get close, to feel the anxiety, the paranoia or the threat of imminent demise as the case is with Walter White on Breaking Bad. You have to get close and just jump in and then you pay the emotional toll. I remember one time I was doing a very emotional scene, where I let my partner Jesse’s girlfriend die before my eyes. And going through that all of a sudden, unwillingly, I pictured my own daughter dying there and that made me jump. You allow it to take a piece of you, but for me it’s renewable. It’s a deciduous emotion. Through rest, and friendship and fresh air you can renew yourself and come back the next day and do it all over again. You go to those extremes and you hopefully have a caring partner in whoever you’re acting with and also your director to gently bring you back to an area that you can actually function. That’s the scary part about acting. It’s fun but it’s also emotionally exhausting.
TH—Do you ever feel you’re becoming a split personality? When you go out in public and you look into a fan’s eyes, and they see Walter, or they see Hal from Malcolm in the Middle, do you find you have to stop yourself from behaving like their expectation of you?
BC—When I’m out in the public promoting my work or if someone wants to talk about the character then it’s not hard to stay in that character a little bit. I think that’s fun and I think that’s fair. But as you know we don’t want to stay in character all the time; we have our own lives to lead and our own issues to deal with. Perhaps, as a young actor you’re more likely to take it home with you but the older I get the more I allow it to go away; I leave it in the dressing room. I go into the hair and make-up trailer after work every day and I take the make-up remover and I put it on my bald head and my face and I take two hot moist towels and I just wrap myself up like a mummy. I sit in the chair for a while and the heat and the moisture bucks all that energy out that may be unwanted or unnecessary. And then I wipe that all off and take the clothes off that represent that character, put on my own clothes and I go home as Bryan. I don’t want to take the character home.
TH—For me, I’ll always keep an instrument somewhere near me at home, and the moment I start playing I remember Terry. I don’t remember Terrence Howard or the character, I just remember Terry because Terry always loves to play music. Do you have anything like that, that you do?
BC—I picked up the drums so I’m starting to play for my absolute private satisfaction. I’ll put on the music and get into a rhythm. Sometimes it’s just a jazz riff, if I’m in the mood for jazz, and a lot of the time it’s classic rock. I bang away and purge any kind of residual energy that might be hanging around. The other thing I do is run – for exercise and also as a mind opener. If I’m troubled by a thought I’ll run and some kind of clarity will come to me.
TH—How have you managed to stay the course of the craft and not get caught up into the ego of “I want to be a movie star?”
BC—Deciding to be an actor 32 years ago, if you’d told me then you’re going to be able to make a living as an actor for the rest of your life, I would be overjoyed. Nobody has those assurances going into any job let alone one that so many people want to do. I was raised very humbly. I remember some tough times when we didn’t have a lot of money. One time in the late sixties we couldn’t pay the mortgage and our house was foreclosed on – it split the family and there was a divorce – so I think coming from that kind of instability you cannot develop a sense of entitlement and I’ve kept that with me. And it served me well for many years to the point where when I started working more and getting more opportunities I realized that I was putting so much energy into refusing stardom for no good reason. So I put my hands down and allowed whatever was going to happen, happen. I stopped trying to make money and focused on the work involved and once I did that the money started coming, more money than I ever made in my life and the first thing I did is put it in the bank and secured my family’s financial future. I think it’s important to keep your nose clean and live well and set your foundation with your family and know they’re usually right and to always come home. When I was doing Malcolm we went to the Emmy awards and when we got home my wife Robin walks into the kitchen and smells something foul in the garbage. She ties up the bag, hands it to me and I take it out to the garbage can, wearing my tuxedo, holding the bag at arm’s length so nothing drops on my patent leather shoes. And I thought this is the way life should be with both sides. Don’t take one too seriously and don’t take the other too seriously – somewhere in the middle is where you should live your life.
TH—I call that being extra medium.
BC—Extra medium! That’s good. You hope those things would come up and slap you in the face a little bit if you start feeling a bit high and mighty. I don’t crave attention. The reason I became an actor is because it empowers me. That in itself makes me feel strong and useful but the other element of it – the fan attention and fame – is something I’m still getting used to.
TH—When I look in the mirror I’m reminded that I’m 42, but before I look in the mirror, on my happiest days, I walk around like an exuberant 15-year-old kid. And that’s who Terry is. How old is the Bryan before you look in the mirror?
BC—Bryan is 11. He’s boy all the way through. He likes girls but he’s afraid of them. Bryan at 11 was so crazy about this girl Carolyn that he couldn’t tell her so he did mean things to her. That was a good time for me. It was before my parents split, I was the lead in the school play, and I was popular in elementary school. But how a year changes somebody… The next year my parents split up, we lost that house, I went to live with my grandparents and this mad rush of insecurity flooded into me for the next several years through high school. I was an uncomfortable shell of who I am now. But the last little boy I really remember having fun and enjoying doing cannonballs in the pool was when I was 11.
TH—At 42, I would fight 50 men if I was forced to but I’m still a little bit afraid of the dark. What are you afraid of?
BC—I think the easy answer, and the more universal answer is since becoming a parent I’m afraid of being out of control with something happening to my child or my wife. That’s the biggest fear I have. It makes your wishes and your hopes much easier, though. When I go to a wishing well I take two seconds to make my wish – health and safety for my friends and family. Thank you. Ding! I never ever wish for anything materialistic or to achieve something. Because you know what, that’s up to you, you make your own happiness, but health and safety seems to me kind of luck of the draw. If there’s a God listening that’s all I’ll ever ask for. That and, if I were truly honest, I have a fear I might be a fraud, and I’ll be found out. I don’t have a formal acting education, mostly just a period of classes and books that I’ve read and experiences in theaters and movie theaters that I picked up. Sometimes younger actors or students might ask me a question and I’ll start giving an answer and I’ll hear myself talking and something in the back of my head says, “Shut up. Just tell them, ‘Good luck and work hard.’” I think as an actor you’re just kind of guessing. Like kids at play, we’re just diving in and playing and not judging ourselves.
TH—Most people don’t have a full warning before the curtain comes down. If you had full warning and knew you had a minute to talk with God before you said goodbye to everything earthly, what would that conversation be like? What would you be most thankful for and what would be your last wish on your way out?
BC—God, is there a screening room in Heaven? That would be my question. I would thank her for all the blessings and as one last shot I’d ask for health and happiness for all my friends.
TH—While I’m having this conversation with you, even though it might be beneficial for the readers to gain some sort of insight about you, it’s been more so for me to be able to ask the questions of someone I consider to be a true, humble beacon of how I would be successful. What would be the best advice you could give a young, 42-year-old actor?
BC—I think we have a tendency to forget that acting is that kind of playfulness and willingness to jump into a character without judging it, just like children. And that is fun, and we remember it being fun, but our adult selves sometimes talk us out of that. Remember, acting is fun, enjoy life, and when it’s time to stop, you stop. If it’s not, get back out there.