Meet a man with a mind of his own and unafraid to speak it! Which is good for everybody because mostly he talks good sense.
by Jennifer Quail
photography by Michael Lavine
So, you thought you knew him, right? Bryan Cranston spent seven seasons convincing us he was one of the greatest comedic actors out there with his portrayal of Hal, the hysterically blundering dad on Malcom in the Middle. But, when the series came to a close, rather than ride that laughter wave, Cranston decided the only way to go was in the complete opposite direction.
“I think any person looks for opportunities to have a wellrounded career,” he says. “So, after seven years playing a neurotic, silly dad, I was specifically looking for a drama or dramedy that would take me to a new place.”
Cranston chose to dive into Breaking Bad, a drama that was starting up on AMC, and the role of Walter White, a loving father and chemistry teacher who, when informed he has only two years to live, turns to manufacturing crystal meth to raise money to leave behind for his family. The drama is currently closing its third season. Part of the character’s reality is something Cranston believes many teachers must go through on a daily basis. “He has this frustration that he’s looking into apathetic eyes,” he says. “But he still believes there must be someone, just one, who feels that same excitement he did. And that one student will make it all worth it.”
He also wonders how many people go through transformations like Walter’s. “We started with this sweet, milk toast kind of man,” he says. “He loves his family, he leads a very quiet teacher’s life, it’s all very ‘normal.’ But then he finds out he’s going to die in two years and that just changes a person. But, the question is: What do you do with it?” In Walter’s case, the decision is to take a chance, simply because he never has done so before. “Because science is so measured, he has lost his sense of adventure. There has been no risk. With his terminal diagnosis, he’s more emotional and maybe more alive than he ever was before. Now he has adrenaline and a pocketful of cash. I don’t know if he would change places now with the old
The journey of the show and of this man’s life is one which fascinates the actor because he wonders, “Can this happen? Babies, aren’t born murderers. Something happens, something changes them, right? So, why can’t we show this metamorphosis?” Anyone who bothers to look beyond his current role and into his actual life would see that promoting anything that violates another person’s rights or happiness has no place on his agenda.
Cranston has loaned his support to many causes over the years – the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, pancreatic cancer research and The (RED) campaign, to name a few. His work in this area includes an instructional DVD called KidSmartz, which was designed to educate families on how to stay safe from child abduction and Internet predators. “My daughter was about six at the time and I wanted to talk to her about being safe, but I didn’t know how.” So, after an introduction to the CEO of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, they moved forward with plans for major outreach.
What happened once the DVD was complete, however, was an experience he describes as “quite a lesson. I learned a lot about corporations,” he said, noting the initial intention was to get the DVD into retail locations. “Every single one of them came back and said ‘Not if I can’t turn a profit.’ Fortunately, the DVD has found an alternative route into families’ hands and is currently a free giveaway when you make a donation to the Center.
Turning attention from his own agenda to that of President Obama’s and the current administration, Cranston says there is “certainly no lack of trying.” There are indeed aspects of Obama’s agenda of which he is a great supporter. “I think health care reform is long overdue,” he says. “I think we are responsible for our brothers and sisters and if that means I have to pay a little more in taxes, then so be it.” He notes however, that, “if managed correctly, we wouldn’t have to pay more. All these places now that have to cover the poor because you can’t turn away an individual with an emergency, that all gets charged back to the government. So, why not nip it in the bud and grant everyone preventive care? It is irresponsible and morally wrong to place a monetary value on health care and human life.”
He further notes there have long been other situations where people pay into government-funded areas from which they don’t personally benefit. “What about all the people who never have a child, but pay taxes for their local public schools? No one questions that because education is considered to be for the betterment of the human condition. Well, so is this. Everyone’s basic health is for the betterment of the human condition.”
Some of Cranston’s views on heated topics cross party lines. For example, he holds some very “conservative views” when it comes to criminals, particularly those who target children. “I think they should be subjected to scientific research,” he says. “They should be guinea pigs. Let their lives ultimately go to something useful – helping us find out if there is a missing gene or something common among them, something to watch out for.”
However, he is “pro-prostitution”. I think it’s a complete waste of money and time to try and stop this. They don’t call it the oldest profession for nothing. It’s not going away and, frankly, I don’t care about the deals made between two consenting adults. It’s none of my business. What I do care about are the girls who are hurt because no one watches out for them; the ones who want to leave but can’t.”
The solution, he says, is to legalize and regulate the entire profession, something that is already established in some European countries. “There would be no pimps, no beatings. You regulate it, give them salaries and 401ks and insurance, and you can tax them. Save the criminal proceedings for the ones who still insist on doing it on the street. States would not only make money on the business, but they would also save on all the money that goes into policing, trying, jailing, etc.”
Cranston himself is set to tell more stories, as actor, writer and director. He is writing, and scheduled to direct, a family adventure film for Nickelodeon and says there is also a film for which he’s currently “putting out the word and hoping to get the right attention.” He has already stepped into the director’s seat for Breaking Bad and says the experience has provided him with “a newfound respect for the director as a profession. “The actor,” he says, “is trained to be selfish. It’s all about ‘What does my character want and how do I get that and who and what is in my way?’ The director can’t be that myopic. He has to look at the broader strokes and guide the ship slowly. It’s fascinating and challenging.” He is also a firm believer that “the story should dictate the medium and not the other way around. You could never tell Breaking Bad as a feature because you would miss so much, it would be so choppy.”
“I think TV is the place now that is telling more compelling stories than movies,” he says. And, as long as Cranston is a part of those shows, there’s a good chance that’s how it will stay.