"If you are offered a job, take it". How Bryan Cranston became top dog
When he hit the big time, he really hit it, and now Bryan Cranston can afford to pick the parts he plays. Kaleem Aftab talks to the actor about how his latest role in Isle of Dogs has taken him back to where it all began
“If I need grief, I’ve got that,” says Bryan Cranston. “Jealousy? Rage? How about this…?” The actor gesticulates with his hand, alluding to his past – one that has been crucial to his present success.
“One of the tools in an actor’s toolbox is personal experience – and I’ve been doing it for so long now, I’m an open cavity.”
This is true for every part he plays, even it turns out, when voicing an animated dog.
After Bryan Cranston cooked up his first batch of meth on Breaking Bad he went from being a stray character actor we kind of knew from Malcolm in the Middle to a superstar. He is now one of the most famous sexagenarians on the planet, and by far the coolest.
The 62-year-old is so synonymous with the part of cancer patient Walter White, it still takes a moment to sink in when we meet at the Berlin Film Festival that he has a full head of hair.
Indeed for his latest role, the American actor has more hair than ever, as he lends his voice to a mutt named Chief in quirky director Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs.
It’s full circle for Cranston, who in the early part of his career did voiceover work to make rent. He was paid $50 an hour to dub foreign language productions into English. Much of this was adapting Japanese shows, most notably the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
Before we’ve even had time to get comfortable, Cranston has taken my compliments about his recent turn on the London stage with a satisfied grin, and is soon boasting how his early voice work was so well received that, “In the States, the blue Power Ranger is named after me.”
It’s too good an opportunity to miss, and the retort comes before I remember I’m not in a pub: “Was he called ‘Wanker’?”
There is that moment in every conversation when you meet someone where you decide whether you like them or not, and their reaction to a put-down is often the bellwether.
“Woah! Good one. I left myself open to that,” laughs Cranston.
Legend status confirmed.
When I was a boy we got kicked out of our house, we got foreclosed on, and I had to go and live with my grandparents and sleep on the couch
William ‘Billy’ Cranston may be the brains of the Power Rangers team, but Cranston’s characters usually find themselves a little more out of their depth. There’s White, the chemistry teacher who sells meth to pay for his cancer treatment and then lifestyle. And there’s Hal, the inept husband and black sheep of the family in Malcolm in the Middle.
But in Isle of Dogs, he finds himself on top – at least, to a certain extent. Anderson has asked him to lend his dulcet tones to Chief, the de facto leader of the pack.
The film is set in a future where dogs have been banished to Trash Island after dog flu threatens the Japanese human population. While this kind of work might sound like a walk in the park for the actor, Cranston approached the part like he would all others – trying to see where his own biography interconnects with the role.
“I didn’t look at him like a dog,” says Cranston. “We have always transferred our human emotions onto our pets, and that is what I did. I looked at his arc. Chief is a homeless being, and I’ve seen and experienced homelessness a little first hand.
“When I was a boy we got kicked out of our house, we got foreclosed on, and I had to go and live with my grandparents and sleep on the couch, and it was transient.”
“I thought, ‘what are the characteristics that one can develop when you are a homeless person, especially in my country?’ Protectiveness, guardedness, perhaps aggression, anxiety, resentfulness, there’s a lot – and that’s what I’m creating as I go.”
A homeless Cranston is hard to imagine. Dressed as he is in a fresh white shirt, black blazer hanging over his seat, sat in a five-star hotel ballroom. He’s certainly come a long way.
His mother and father both worked as actors on the wireless. “They met after World War II in an acting class – like every parent meets in acting class,” he quips.
“It was a weird childhood for me,” explains Cranston. “For the first nine years it was really solid. My parents were both very active in PTA, and were coaches at sports. For Halloween my dad would bring costumes home from his work in the movie business and my mum would adapt them for us. It was all very active and together. Then they started to fray.”
Most people ask if I want to play Walter White again and my answer is always no – because it was such a wonderfully written and executed show, that had a beginning, middle and end
Then, one night before Cranston was even a teenager, his father slammed the front door behind him and never returned. “So I became a different person, introverted, shy, closed down, because I didn’t trust anymore. It took me a while, until after I went to college when I was 21 or so, to really start to open up again because I was kind of shell-shocked, actually.”
In a tale that could have come straight from a Wes Anderson movie, which have a common theme of lost family connections, Cranston decided to go and look for his father. When he found him he realised, “I don’t think he would have looked me up if we didn’t go looking for him. I think he was so filled with shame.”
His past is what has kept Cranston grounded when the success came to him.
“I will always be a stray,” he says. “I don’t have any formal education in theatre, or acting, it’s what I’m picking up off the street.
“So that’s why I relate to the dog; it’s me. There are times growing up when you almost feel empowered and then you cower or go into your shell, and then you come back out again and try to figure out life.
“I fell in love with acting because it took me away; it allowed me to engage my creativity and imagination, and then eventually my talent, to incorporate that and discover if I have it, and put it all together.”
When Cranston started out he could not afford to be choosy about the roles he took: “I try to encourage young actors that if you are offered a job, take it. Even if you don’t like the material there is plenty to learn and you can develop a sense of taste so if you get to a position where I am – where you get to control what you do – you have discerning taste.”
The position to choose whatever he wants to make came after Breaking Bad. It’s made hanging up Walter’s hat so much easier for him and he’s happy to be free of him.
“Most people ask if I want to play him again and my answer is always no – because it was such a wonderfully written and executed show, that had a beginning, middle and end. It would be like staying too long at a dinner, where everything is perfect and then someone brings more food, and you wish you didn’t eat more. And that is what it feels like to me: to walk away and say ‘that was fantastic’.”
If Malcolm in the Middle hadn’t happened, if Breaking Bad and everything after that hadn’t happened, I’d still be happy because I get to be an actor
Not that dessert is off the menu completely, as there is one person Cranston admits could persuade him to make a cameo in the spin-off show Better Call Saul: “You know, I owe a tremendous amount to Vince Gilligan. He believed in me; he was my champion to get that role. And I would do anything for him. If he asked me to be in it, I would be in it.”
Cranston also recently appeared in the Richard Linklater comedy-drama Last Flag Flying, playing an immature war veteran. He was pretty sad that the film didn’t catch the zeitgeist but says you have to accept the bad as well as the good: “I did a film and it was just poorly marketed. I thought it should have been treated as more of a mainstream film but it was treated like an art-house film. That was their opinion. I disagree. But you can only control so much in life and then you have to let it go.”
Of late, Cranston has been resident at the Southbank’s National Theatre. Over the past few months he’s been wowing critics and audiences alike playing Howard Beale in a stage adaptation of Sydney Lumet’s classic movie Network. In the play, his character unravels live on screen – and then becomes the biggest thing on TV. Sound familiar?
For Cranston, it’s all about the love of his craft. His wife is an actor and now so is his daughter. “It’s what we do; we love to create.”
And it’s definitely not about fame: “My goal was to make a living as an actor, and I have done that since I was 25 years old. If Malcolm in the Middle hadn’t happened, if Breaking Bad and everything after that hadn’t happened, I’d still be happy because I get to be an actor.”
And as for that success? “I’m still dealing with it. I’m not very comfortable when people ask for my autograph. I’m not ungrateful, I’m just still learning how to deal with it.”
You get the feeling that sometimes this top dog would like to go back into the kennel and be just like the other hounds in the yard.
The Isle of Dogs is in cinemas from 30 March