From Walter White to Lyndon B. Johnson, Bryan Cranston has his own passage of power

Bryan Cranston’s breakout role as Walter White, the meth-cooking moral black hole at the center of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,’’ didn’t happen until he was 51, after almost 30 years as a working actor. Coming off his run as the culture’s most compelling and iconic antihero since Tony Soprano, why choose to play a mere president, in a three-hour play about how a bill gets passed?

Because as Lyndon Baines Johnson in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way,’’ in which Cranston will make his Broadway debut Thursday, he gets to play a man who lived and mattered and is by no means easy to understand. “You can’t pin him down,’’ Cranston says in an interview in his dressing room at the Neil Simon Theatre. “The right adjective to describe him is all of them; he’s gracious and giving and warm and kind, and then all of the not-lovely attributes, too. What Lyndon are you going to get? I think today we’d say he’s bipolar, no?”

There are no handlers around, in a backstage sitting room adorned with the Texas flag, some longhorns and LBJ memorabilia, such as a copy of Life magazine with the 36th president’s picture on the cover. “A touch of home,’’ drawls Cranston, slipping into character.

More than anything else, “All the Way” is about the way Johnson pushed for civil rights legislation in 1964. Or to put that in modern parlance, crammed it down our throats, knowing full well that his Democratic Party would lose the South for a generation as a result.

LBJ is so tough to figure that even after the show’s initial Boston run last fall, Cranston says, he was still trying to nail down why LBJ fought so hard for civil rights. Was it just to establish his legacy, or was he compelled by conscience? Had he earlier withheld his true feelings about social justice for political reasons, or had he “evolved,’’ as the current president says he has done on gay rights?

In the end, Cranston says, he found his own emotional key to LBJ in something his character says in the play about how hard it was for him to watch his father be frozen out by his mother after being ruined financially.

That’s what fueled Johnson’s panicked fear of humiliation and, in the end, caused him to suffer what he dreaded most: “That created a desperate desire,’’ says Cranston, who himself had parents he has described as “broken,” and who also wound up broke, losing the family home and sending Cranston to live with his grandparents.

“I relate to a lot of the qualities he has,’’ Cranston says of LBJ, “and some that are not so appealing. What got to me was what’s in his core.”

Historians will be arguing over that core for some time to come, but Cranston feels that, for all his slipperiness and even cruelty, LBJ, when it mattered, showed a kind of political courage that’s almost unthinkable today.

“At great risk, he went against his friends and swam against the current” on civil rights, “and that wasn’t political, and that tells me something about his character.’’ In fact, Cranston says, he was willing to trade the South — his South — to get legislation passed, “and that was a mighty big thing to do.”

A line in biographer Robert Caro’s latest volume on Johnson, “The Passage of Power,’’ holds that while power corrupts, it also reveals. What Schenkkan and Cranston reveal in “All the Way” is a Johnson who uses power to keep his fear of failure at bay. In their telling, he all too genuinely identifies with the downtrodden and wants to right wrongs for right as well as wrong reasons.

For all of his own share of power, at the top of his profession, Cranston himself could hardly be less pretentious, and he seems to have metabolized his hard times far differently from the man he plays, taking all the more pleasure in his success, he says, because it was so unexpected and late showing up.

“I’ve never been one to look forward to public attention,’’ he says. “I look forward to what I do. I’d rather go unnoticed.” And quite unlike Johnson, he loves being alone. But he also appreciates “generous words” from fans, even if fame for its own sake “doesn’t empower me.” He has been married to his second wife, Robin Dearden, for 25 years, and they have a daughter who’s an actor and also waits tables: “That’s what you’re supposed to do!”

There’s certainly no vanity in his anti-brag about how he has a head start playing the giant Johnson, thanks to his “squinty eyes, thin lips and road map of wrinkles.” He does have more hair — which he’s grown back since playing Walter White — and it’s still dark, “though I don’t know why.” He also gets an inch added to his earlobes for the role. At 5-foot-11, he’s five inches shorter than LBJ, so he gets a boost in that department, too, and sways his back to make his belly look bigger.

At 57, Cranston is just shy of the antiwar protest generation, and mostly remembers seeing Johnson as, of all things, dull: “Whenever I saw him he was always very measured and laconic, with no color to him, and to a child that’s boring. He did that because it was a more honorable depiction of the office.”

Little did little Bryan know, of course, that in private, LBJ could hardly have been more colorful, using both just the right words and his own big frame to intimidate or charm just about anyone, anywhere, at any time.

“You and I are sitting at a respectful distance,’’ Cranston says, “close enough that we can hear each other comfortably.” Morphing into LBJ, he zooms in close, suddenly, for effect. “But he would be, ‘Oh, I like those boots; I need some of those,’ ” he says, slapping the ones I’m wearing on this side and that, “to put you off your game.”

On stage, some of the most moving moments are the smaller, not-so-history-making ones, between Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird, played by Betsy Aidem, who sees it as her job in life to absorb his toxic runoff. “Fix your lipstick,’’ LBJ tells her at one point, never too busy with Martin Luther King Jr., Sen. Dick Russell or J. Edgar Hoover to offer a corrective to his wife, or even the women who work in his office.

“Oh, he was cagey,’’ says his portrayer. “He’d call the hairdresser — ‘I like the way you make them look’ — and he’d plead poverty” to get their bouffants comped. Or he’d tell a secretary to get herself a new dress on him — “in whatever size you really want to be,” meaning that she needed to drop a few pounds first.

His own clothing mattered as well, more than you might think, right down to asking his tailor for an inch of extra room in his pockets “and an extra inch for my bumhole,’’ laughs Cranston. “Who does that, getting so specific?” Yet, obsessive as he was about both daily details and his legacy, he blew the latter for at least a generation because he so feared looking weak on Vietnam.

When I say to Cranston that his legacy is certainly being revised now, in favor of Johnson’s civil rights successes in this anniversary year, the actor corrects my word choice: “There’s a difference between revisiting and revising,” he says, and after 50 years, it’s high time we revisited LBJ. He is a little bit defensive of the man he turns into every night, “not as an apology to him and his foreign policy, but just to be fair.”

“Mistakes were made,” the actor continues, just for a minute sounding more like Johnson’s successor, Richard Nixon. But so much was also achieved half a century ago. “They bled and maybe lost an election,” but they got things accomplished, even when, Cranston says, that meant to Johnson, “I may have to swallow my pride and do something I said I wouldn’t do.”

As a kid in Los Angeles, Cranston remembers watching on TV the race riots in the city’s Watts neighborhood, not that far away, but only being dimly aware of what they were all about. “You can only oppress people so long before it blows up,’’ he says, loudly smacking his fist against his palm. “But at the time, I’ll admit I didn’t know why black people were doing that’’ — taking to the streets, being set upon with dogs and hit with fire hoses.

His own politics are maybe not exactly what you’d expect: “I’m a registered Democrat, but I don’t like the us-versus-them’’ mentality, and he has at times voted Republican — “when they used to stand for fiscal responsibility and independence.”

Unlike in LBJ’s day, he says, “now, if someone comes up with a good idea, the other party can’t support it, and that’s absurd. Mitch McConnell said his number one priority” was making sure Obama was a one-term president. “Just the fact that you’d say that,’’ he says, leaning forward just a little like his character, “your priorities are screwed up — and that works the other way, too.” Among Democrats, he means.

The Democrats also need to shape up, he says, and realize that you can’t spend your way out of problems. It’s sort of like his experience since achieving fame, he says: “I’ve become a celebrity and get approached by every charity, yet I can’t give my time” to every one of them, “because it would kill me; I would need a charity. So I have to learn to say no, and the Democrats need to do that.”

Before I go, I ask how Walter White used power — for the fun of it, his character tells us in the last episode — compares with how Johnson did.

Both were “very, very good at what they do,’’ Cranston answers, and both had an ego and a frailty that ended up killing them — but, maybe, letting them live fully first. Before White’s cancer diagnosis, the mild-mannered chemistry teacher “didn’t know what he felt, and in a way, Johnson had the same thing” before he realized that he had a heart problem. “He didn’t live long, but he used his heart up.”

Cranston’s secret goal, he says before walking me out — secret until now, anyway — is that the current president will come to see the show and be reminded of an era when politicians knew you had to give to get, and acted like it.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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