NEW YORK — On a night long ago in Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains, while waiting out six straight days of rain under the soggy roof of a spartan picnic stop, Bryan Cranston was curled up in a sleeping bag when it came to him — what he should do with the rest of his life.
He was 21, on a cross-country motorcycle trip with his older brother, and among the few items he had with him — besides the bouillon cubes and packages of Ry-Krisps they were surviving on — was an anthology of plays. To ease the boredom, he dug into Henrik Ibsen’s “Hedda Gabler,” and the next time he looked up, day had turned to evening and he was completely in the play’s thrall.
“And then I had this idea, as I sat there looking at the rain in the dark, that instead of pursuing something I was good at, police work, and hoped that I would fall in love with, my path should be to pursue something that I loved and hopefully could become good at. And that’s what I did.”
It is hard to imagine, sitting across from the gregarious Cranston, utterly at ease in his own skin and talking about his career over lunch in a midtown Manhattan restaurant, that there could seriously ever have been any other life for him but an actor’s. Cranston, a cop? Okay, maybe as Officer Krupke in a production of “West Side Story.” (He says he does, by the way, want to tackle a musical.) Still, this is a guy who has been able to put an original stamp on every big role he has played, whether as clownishly manic Hal on “Malcolm in the Middle” or his recent Oscar-nominated turn as blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo or, most indelibly, diabolical Walter White on “Breaking Bad.” He even got to do Ibsen onstage, in “A Doll’s House.”
On the basis of these and other portrayals, he would be judged, in any other walk of life, wildly miscast.
Another facet of this born-to-perform skill set is about to be revealed to TV viewers, as Cranston reprises his Tony-winning portrayal of the nation’s 36th president, Lyndon Baines Johnson, in HBO’s film version of playwright Robert Schenkkan’s “All the Way.” Premiering May 21, the movie, directed by Jay Roach from a screenplay also written by Schenkkan, has an impressive supporting cast that includes Anthony Mackie as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Bradley Whitford as Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Melissa Leo as first lady Lady Bird Johnson and Frank Langella as a wily Southern Democrat, Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia.
The movie, like the stage version, which won the 2014 Tony Award for best play and is now receiving its Washington premiere at Arena Stage, drills deeply into a Capitol Hill subject rarely excavated in popular entertainment: the passage of a bill. In this case, the legislation would have a profound impact on U.S. society, its champion an unlikely proponent placed in power by dint of a national tragedy. Johnson would in the year after the assassination of John F. Kennedy tirelessly pound tables, pester allies and prod opponents in a quest to win approval of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a gigantic governmental leap forward in eradicating the nation’s Jim Crow laws and racial discrimination.
The 60-year-old Cranston segued from AMC’s obsessively watchable “Breaking Bad” in 2013 to Broadway in 2014 — putting the show’s teacher turned Albuquerque meth king as far behind him as possible. “Heisenberg and ‘Breaking Bad’ became this avalanche,” he says of the role that won him four Emmys. “And I had to step away from it so I didn’t get swallowed up by Walter White.” Two weeks after he instructed his agents at United Talent Agency to find him a play, they did.
His impression of Johnson at the time was that history had not been kind to him. “When I first started this, my recall of his legacy was that of failure,” Cranston says. “It was most people’s recall of the history.” Having declined to seek reelection to a second full term in 1968 in the aftermath of his disastrously divisive decision to escalate the Vietnam War, LBJ tends to be viewed through a prism of dashed promise. This in spite of the Texan’s abundant political gifts and a Senate career that included his tough-minded rule as majority leader.
“All the Way” restores some luster to his legacy, by illuminating his tenacity both on behalf of the Civil Rights Act, and his victorious campaign for his own full term, against Republican Barry Goldwater in the landslide election of 1964. It comes, of course, courtesy of Texas native Schenkkan, whose father knew Johnson, and of Cranston, who on screen bears an even more uncanny physical resemblance to LBJ than he did playing him for five months on Broadway in 2014.
“There are two features that I share with Johnson: thin lips and beady eyes,” the actor says, suddenly squinting — in a convincingly beady-eyed manner — across the table. “Two qualities,” he jokes, “that any man would love to have.”
Each morning during the 45 days of filming, makeup artists spent 2½ hours adding a prosthetic chin, nose and cheeks to Cranston’s face. His ears were made more pronounced, and he wore 2½ -inch lifts in his shoes to bring his 5-foot-11-inch frame more in sync with Johnson, who at 6-foot-3½ was the second-tallest president, after Abraham Lincoln. But the essence of the character Cranston creates goes far beyond physical stature. As many of his fellow actors remark about the performance, Cranston is able to master something far more nuanced: the charisma mixed with insecurity and pain of a leader who defied expectations about what as a Southern Democrat he could achieve.
“He’s a very integrated creative person,” Whitford says of Cranston, whom he’s known for years: His then-wife, Jane Kaczmarek, played Cranston’s wife, Lois, on all seven seasons of “Malcolm in the Middle.” “He’s thinking about the script, he’s thinking about how it’s shot, he’s thinking about the whole range. He’s not just at the mercy of this material.”
To Roach, who also directed him in last year’s “Trumbo,” Cranston embodied what was most important for “All the Way” to convey: “I felt like this is a man who believes in what government can do to right the injustices and improve the quality of people’s lives,” he says. For his part, Schenkkan, a Pulitzer Prize winner for his earlier drama, “The Kentucky Cycle,” found in Cranston an affable collaborator with little patience for star treatment.
“There’s none of this pretentiousness,” Schenkkan says in a phone interview. “Bryan is just a normal guy, interested in everything. And then he walks on the set, and boom! — it’s all there. I don’t know what the magic juju is.”
Cranston’s juju seems all the more unlikely because he comes across as completely normal. Anyone remember his occasional appearances on “Seinfield,” on which he convincingly played a dentist? The ordinary-guy quality was manipulated to such winning effect on “Breaking Bad” that one passed through all the permeable moral layers of Walter White’s character with him willingly. You actually found yourself rooting for the meth dealer.
In person, Cranston is just as disarming. A long lunch with him feels more like a leisurely meet-up with an old acquaintance than a tense struggle to accommodate an egocentric star.
“I resisted the label of ‘star’ because I felt it was boasting, and I wasn’t raised that way,” Cranston says. “But then I realized, I was also resisting praise. I was spending more energy trying to downplay a performance of mine, or praise, than just saying thank you.” Now, he says, “thank you” comes easily, even if he still takes far more pride in the continuity of his career than in any single performance. He claims, in fact, that money takes such a back seat to getting enjoyable work that he pays scant attention to what he earns. He even asserts that for “Breaking Bad,” he left it to his agents to figure out how much he should be paid.
“Are you happy with the contract?” Cranston says he’d ask them at negotiation time. “They say, ‘Well we think we can do better,’ so I say, ‘Well, try to. Go ahead, you have my permission. But I’m not losing this job. I am not going to take a stand on money or anything — that’s not going to happen.’ ”
Could the material aspect really mean that little to him? Doubtless, Cranston is well compensated. The income for him seems chiefly to be of the psychic variety.
“To date my greatest accomplishment professionally,” he asserts, “is that from the age of 25, I became a working actor and never looked back.”
Cranston says his father, Joe Cranston, a journeyman Hollywood actor, left the family when Bryan was 11; he wouldn’t see him again for another decade. This required his mother, Audrey, to raise him, his brother and younger sister while working in the camera department of J.C. Penney and taking boarders into their Los Angeles home. (The bank foreclosed on their first house, he says.) Cranston was the aimless kind of teenager, he says, “who did everything to avoid responsibility.” That changed after he enrolled at 16 in a police explorer’s program and discovered an aptitude: He finished first out of 111 cadets.
But it wasn’t until after junior college in California and a few acting elective courses — and then that fateful motorcycle trip — that the path became clear, and Cranston switched out of police science to pursue acting. He focused his ambition on just getting jobs. The ethos of his father, with whom he eventually reconciled, had always been, in Cranston’s words, “to go for the home run,” a goal in movies and TV he fell far short of. “And I never dreamt about the home run,” Cranston says, invoking a term from his beloved baseball. “I just wanted to get on base, just get on base somehow, some way.”
Hitting singles professionally was what happened to him fairly regularly, before a really successful at-bat came his way, with Fox’s “Malcolm.” Just before that, in 1999, a TV writer named Vince Gilligan was looking for an actor to play a guest role on an episode of “The X-Files” that he had written and was to direct. Titled “Drive,” it had a part for a completely despicable character, and Cranston got it.
Nine years later, after “Malcolm” ended, Cranston was reading scripts again — eager not to repeat himself in situation comedy, the switch-hitting strategy he would adopt again, with “All the Way” and Broadway.
“My agent says, ‘There’s a script called “Breaking Bad” with a guy named Vince Gilligan — you know Vince.’ I go ‘I do?’ ‘Yeah, he wrote your “X-Files” episode.’ I go, ‘Oh, okay.’ I read it and immediately I thought, ‘Oh, my God,’ and said to my agent, ‘Get me in there right away.’ ‘Well, you’re set up for next week.’ ‘No, this week — get me in this week! This week! I needed to see him right away!’ ”
“When something resonates that much with me and I know it is a special piece of material, I want to own it!” Cranston says, his eyes alight. “I want to go in and lift my leg on that thing so that he can only think of me for that role. Because that’s mine. I wanted it. And I went after it. But only because of the depth of his writing.”
And suddenly, you can see the side of Cranston that Walter White came from.
A view of yet another side is offered by Anthony Mackie, who in “All the Way” plays King, the civil rights leader with whom Johnson frequently butted heads. Cranston was supposed to be off doing publicity for “Trumbo” when Mackie had a scene to shoot, in which King is on the phone with LBJ. Although it’s of course easier when there’s an actor on the other end of the phone, there was no mandate for Cranston to hang around for Mackie’s sake.
“He changed his flight just so that he could do the coverage for my scene,” Mackie says. “That’s the kind of artist I strive to be.”
Mackie calls this “the quintessential Bryan Cranston story.” And it does sound as if it fits the bill for an actor who never seems to settle for half the way.