Bryan Cranston has lived a lot of lives. Of course, that’s the nature of the acting profession, but it’s also a recurring theme in Cranston’s own life. Before turning to screen and stage, he began his career as a policeman, as a way to fulfil his search for a father figure after his own left years before. This seems, on the surface, worlds removed from the success and fame Cranston now experiences every day, but we could never have had Breaking Bad’s Walter White without the influence of this absent parent, whose posture – slumped, as though he had ‘the weight of the world on his shoulders’ – directly informed Cranston’s portrayal of a man sunken in the depths of depression, inertia, and unhappiness.
Finding the emotional core of a character like Walter White is something that few actors could do as well as Cranston, over the course of five seasons, on a show like Breaking Bad, which turns its sympathetically downtrodden protagonist into a terrifying antihero. Cranston won multiple Emmys for his portrayal of this terminally ill teacher-turned-crystal-meth-cooker, the role that elevated his status from known actor to celebrity with a capital C. ‘It happened late for me,’ he says of his rise to fame, and credits the decades he spent prior to Breaking Bad as a jobbing actor with a home and family as the reason why he handled the attention well, though adding, ‘they don’t train everyone for how to handle celebrity'.
While this is certainly true, it seems Cranston deals with it better than most, most likely because acting has been his ‘relationship for a lifetime.’ He first took an acting class in college and promptly ‘took off for a couple of years on a motorcycle to try and find [himself]’, telling the assembled students at the Cambridge Union that the only way to truly succeed in your profession is to find ‘something that makes you happy, as opposed to something you’re just good at,’ and most importantly, to throw away any plan B.
Of course, it’s easy to level that advice at people when you’re an award-winning actor, writer, director and producer, but the idea of letting everything go in pursuit of an ambition is daunting at the best of times. And, admittedly, Cranston acknowledges that there is no career for you as an actor without ‘a healthy dose of luck.’ Even Breaking Bad’s ascent to the top of the TV hall of fame was founded largely on luck, because of ‘the timing of the antihero story’ – arriving at a period when stasis was the hallmark of television and characters were sitcom tropes who never deviated in their actions and reactions.
Now, though, the world of TV and film looks quite different. In Cranston’s view, our new generation ‘has a demand for a higher level of storytelling,’ though this is most likely because we live in a post-Breaking Bad world where the precedent for complex storytelling has been set. It’s not just the actual entertainment itself that is changing, either: the atmosphere in Hollywood is one that is tentatively looking to a newer horizon. ‘It’s beyond time to have men behave properly,’ Cranston says of the #MeToo movement against sexual abuse in the industry. ‘We are at the precipice of some really fundamental change in our society … it’s not about sex, it’s about power and control.’
In fact, Cranston’s exhaustion at the state of the industry is something he shares with his character Howard Beale in the West End stage adaptation of 1976’s Network, which will complete its run in March this year. Of the theatre, Cranston says, ‘working on stage feeds me more,’ because of the ‘different level of intimacy’ you achieve in front of a live audience. Playing a character like Beale, too, who among other things must deliver the iconic ‘I’m as mad as hell’ speech, effects him on a physical level, and he will likely take some time off after the play finishes to recuperate.
It’s just as well, too, considering how much of a busy future Cranston already has planned for himself. Later this year, premiering at the Berlin Film Festival, comes Wes Anderson’s much-anticipated new animated feature Isle of Dogs, the voice acting for which Cranston recorded last year (‘Wes is a beautiful man, and you don’t always know where he’s gonna go’), and he continues to produce Sneaky Pete, the series named after his own childhood nickname. You might think this is enough to be getting on with, but Cranston also has plans to venture into playwriting, enthusing, ‘I love all aspects of storytelling. I don’t even know if I’m any good at it, but that doesn’t matter. I like to challenge myself.’ He’s not really a man who seems to find enjoyment in too much rest, it seems, if we can gather anything from his belief that ‘actors, writers and directors should never be bored – if you are, you’re not working hard enough.’ And with a mantra like that, it’s up to us to wait to see where he goes with his considerable creative talent next, in the years to come. Maybe a Malcolm in the Middle reunion movie? Watch this space.