Interview: Bryan Cranston (Drive, Breaking Bad)

Interview: Bryan Cranston (Drive, Breaking Bad). By Simon Miraudo.

Bryan Cranston is enjoying something of a career renaissance, thanks to his iconic turn in TV’s Breaking Bad (it may be a little early to describe his performance as ‘iconic’, but hey, we’re calling it). As chemistry-teacher-turned-drug-kingpin Walter White, Cranston has earned three consecutive Emmys as well as a new legion of fans, successfully shaking off the shadow of Malcolm in the Middle’s Hal in the process. The show has turned out to be the gift that keeps on giving: not only has it led to the inscription of Cranston’s name in the history books beside one of the all-time great small-screen characters, it has established him as one of the most sought-after character actors in Hollywood. This year alone, he’s popped up as a supporting player in The Lincoln Lawyer, Contagion, Larry Crowne, and most memorably, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. In the latter, he stars opposite Ryan Gosling’s unnamed driver/stuntman as a mechanic who makes the unwise decision of borrowing $300,000 from a mobster (Albert Brooks). Needless to say, it is a decision that will have disastrous ramifications.

Check out our review of Drive here!

Also, check out our interview with Albert Brooks!

We spoke to Cranston about playing characters with good intentions and bad methods, developing the film’s script with Refn, Gosling and Brooks, the imminent end of Breaking Bad and following Walter White “right to hell”. Listen to our chat, our read the transcript below!

SM: I always like to begin with this question; I hope you’ll indulge me. Were there any films or TV shows that you remember watching growing up that inspired you – that planted the seed – that made you want to get into acting?

BC: Oh, many. Some that were just fantasies and some that were movies. Certainly The Wizard of Oz we watched every year and because there were no tapes or DVDs – the thought of owning a movie was ridiculous –it forced everyone to gather around the television set and watch it, you know? You got involved in the whole festive nature of that. Television shows like The Dick Van Dyke Show and Mayberry and The Andy Griffiths Show and many, many others. Mostly comedies, I would think were things that I was mostly attracted to. Then you find movie stars that you like, and I think the one person that I wanted to have a career like – when I realised I wanted to be an actor – was Jack Lemmon.

SM: Nice choice.

BC: He would go from drama to comedy rather easily, and be accepted in both. I said, ‘Boy that would be a great career to have’.

SM: Well, that’s something you’re doing now. You’re in Drive at the moment. I understand Drive’s director Nicolas Winding Refn offered you the job pretty much based on your work in Breaking Bad. But before you accepted, you worked on a ‘pros and cons’ list. Is that something you do with all your projects?

BC: There were a couple films that were out there. I was offered a role in the [X-Men] movie. And I looked at it, and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a big movie’, and I actually liked it. I liked the story. But then I looked at the story and the potential of what Drive could be, and I was just more attracted to the character that I had in Drive than I was offered in [X-Men]. So it became a clear choice for me, and one that I was happy to make no regrets.

SM: Excellent. Nicolas has said in interviews that your character to begin with was fairly underdeveloped; the character of Shannon. Can you tell us what you did to flesh him out?

BC: What was so great in my first meeting with Nicolas Refn was that he said, ‘Bryan, just take this role. Just accept the role. I’ll let you say whatever you want and you can do whatever you want’. And I’ve never had a director say that to me. It’s like, ‘Really?’ You think, ‘Oh my gosh, it’s an open canvass; I can paint whatever I want’. He’s saying, ‘Yes, you can’. And I thought, ‘With that comes responsibility’. And he said, ‘What I’d like to do is get everyone together’. So we went over to his house several times, in his living room; kicked off our shoes, put our feet up on the table and ordered pizza and chatted and just talked about who these people were. What were their relationships? We made adjustments and shifts. We all pitched ideas and thoughts and they were accepted and put in the script. Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman and myself – Carey Mulligan was out of the country and couldn’t make it, as was Oscar Isaac – we got to pitch this story out and change it. So I fell in love with Nicolas’ character and temperament and courage to be able to say, ‘I’m opening it up – If you guys want to change it, change it; let’s go’. What that did is that it not only gave us the responsibility for these characters and story. It made us work – work hard –  and really think about it and present our ideas in a cogent, responsible way. It also was a way for the actors to invest emotionally and intellectually in this movie, rather than just being ‘actors for hire’. So by the time we started shooting Drive, we were into it; we were ready to go and we couldn’t wait to get to it.

SM: Well, that sounds like an actor’s dream, and I’m sure it was fun hanging out with Ryan and Albert and Ron and Nicolas. But was that imposing as well? The idea that, yeah, you’re not just a hired actor on this film, the responsibility of the final product is going to be on you?

BC: It wasn’t daunting to me, and I didn’t feel any trepidation with any of the other actors because we all like to work. We love this work, so we want to work. It’s the lazy actors that usually don’t last very long. Acting is made to look easy, but if you really want to excel in it, there are no short cuts. You really have to put in the time and effort. You have to put in the thought. You better be day-dreaming and waking up in the morning with ideas and thoughts that come to you in your dreams, and write these down and pitch ideas, you know? When you go for a run, you’re thinking about it. That’s the work that we do. You put all those thoughts together in what congeals as a character and you present that. That’s creativity.

SM: Your character in the film, he tries to get a little slice of the pie and he ends up in way over his head. Sort of similar to Walter White in Breaking Bad. Is there something in particular that draws you to these characters with good intentions and bad methods?

BC: I think ultimately the more relatable a character is, the better your relationship to the audience will be. Certainly Walter White in Breaking Bad started off very altruistically – to want to do something for his family after he’s dead – and then it twists and turns and goes into a bunch of different places where his ego, his hubris is exposed and we see him for the man he truly is. That’s like everybody else, with faults and attributes. So when I’m looking for a character, I want to see that too. I want to see all that he can be – the good parts and the bad. In shaping my character Shannon, it was important to be able to do that openly, but with Ryan there so we’re not duplicating characteristics. Ryan’s ideas are counterbalanced to my ideas, so it gives a better weight distribution to the overall film, and it makes it more interesting.

SM: Absolutely. You’ve got Ryan of course, who says very little, and Shannon has trouble not talking in many of the scenes.

BC: That came about naturally, because Ryan was saying, it was true that in the original source material – that James Sallis wrote – we never knew his name. We never know his background. Because of that, Ryan rightfully said, ‘I shouldn’t be talking so much, because if I talk too much then it belies the idea that we don’t know too much about him. He should be mysterious’. And everyone is nodding and going, ‘Yes, that’s true’. Then I spoke up and said, ‘And I think I should talk too much, so that everything you don’t say, I should say. Give me the expositional dialogue, because that Shannon just goes off’. He’s charming, he likes the ladies, he’s got ideas, he’s the schemer, he’s waiting for his ship to come in, he’s got another plan, he’s got another idea, and he’s just too much. So we had that relationship to it, and it seemed to work. It was a nice balance to each other.

SM: Just back on Breaking Bad. I know season four just finished in the US, and congratulations on what I – and many, many others – think is the best show on television. But you’re nearing the finish line now. How does it feel to be at the tail end?

BC: Well, we’re close to the finish line Simon, but we’re not quite there yet. After this fourth season we have sixteen more episodes to shoot, and then we’ll be done.

SM: Is it nice to know that the finish line is there though? That you can see the end?

BC: It is nice. To me, I look at it like an athlete. I’d rather be proud of the sixty-two episodes that we’re going to complete, and walk away knowing that we made strong episodes and left when we should have, rather than stay at the party too long [laughs]. It’s like, ‘Are they ever gonna leave?’

SM: You don’t want to be the Gilligan’s Island of meth shows.

BC: Exactly. Or an athlete who stays too long and beyond his prime and it’s kind of sad to see someone’s diminished abilities. I don’t want to see that in the show. So this is good. We always knew, given the concept of my character has terminal lung cancer and two years to live, we’d be liars if we stayed too long; that our premise was just a lie. And we’re not about to do that. We’re gonna come in, finish it up, walk away proud.

SM: Walter White has certainly gone on a pretty significant journey into the depths of morality. I’m sure it’s going to get much darker. Do you ever have apprehensions about where Vince Gilligan – the show runner – is going to take him, or are you prepared to follow him right to hell?

BC: Right to hell, baby. One way ticket. I knew going in that he wanted to have this man go on a journey that took him from a good guy to a bad guy. I thought, ‘There’s something that’s never been done on television before. I’m in. Let’s go, and no holding back’. The only responsibility we have, Simon, I believe, is to be truthful in our portrayal of the human experience. That it feels right, that we didn’t misstep. That these could be plausible steps that could happen in this man’s life and the ramifications of his decision making, and that’s what we’re seeing.

SM: Will you be directing any more episodes before the show wraps up?

BC: I will. I’ll be directing at least one more. Maybe that’s all, but at least one more.

SM: Excellent. I’d ask you what else you have coming up, but you’re in quite a few things, Total Recall and Argo among them. Once Breaking Bad finishes up, would you consider jumping into another show? Obviously you did Malcolm in the Middle for a number of years, but is TV something you’re keen to work in again?

BC: There are some ideas I’m kicking around. Nothing is set yet. But I’d like to go back and do more theater actually. That experience, again, it’s something that we miss. You work in film or television, and that’s where the lion’s share of opportunities and work is for an actor, and that’s great. But it’s a very different experience than working on stage and feeling that immediate response from the audience and it guides you and it’s really interesting. I like it.

Drive is now showing in Australian cinemas.

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