— A guy opens his door and gets shot you think that of me. No, I am the one who knocks.
Alright! It is cavity time!
I’m the grooviest dude who has ever grooved on.
Six Americans get caught playing movie make-believe with the CIA at the airport and executed. It’s “a national embarrassment” they are calling the operation.
You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither I’m in the empire business. —
Eric: Bryan Cranston went from playing one of TV’s most lovable goofballs to one of its scariest anti-heroes along the way he’s portrayed a blacklisted screenwriter, a conflicted American president; he’s battled Godzilla and has appeared in over 150 different films and TV shows. But before all that he was just a young man on a motorcycle.
Bryan Cranston: I realized that I wanted to be an actor when I was 22 years old and I was stranded at a picnic site on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia. It was – I was on a motorcycle and it was raining for six days straight and the only thing I had with me really for entertainment was a compilation of plays, and I was reading Hedda Gabbler at the time. And it was daylight and I’m reading and reading and by the time I finished the last page I was leaning, and I didn’t really know why and I leaned forward and I realized, “Oh! My God! It’s dark outside!”
I was leaning toward the only light maybe 15 feet away. There’s one light for the whole area. I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. How did I miss the transition? How did I miss dusk altogether? It fascinated me. It gave me pause. And it was at that moment that I had this epiphany that I should do something like this.
This took me away and I already loved the art of acting and evoking emotions in other people, it’s very empowering. But I came up with this credo that I live by. And it’s that I would attempt to do something that I love and hopefully become good at it as opposed to doing something I’m good at but not in love with.
So, once I made up my mind that’s what I was going to do, then I had to put it into action.
Eric: Mr. Cranston began auditioning for a variety of roles and along the way, he learned an important lesson.
Bryan Cranston: I always thought and most of you do too, that when you go on an interview or an audition that you’re trying to get a job. Right? That makes sense? You’re trying to get a job. You’re there to get a job whether you’re a director, or an art director, or AD or whatever the case is. You’re interviewing with a company in hopes that they will hire you. You’re in casting. Same thing you’re pitching a story idea as a writer, same thing you’re trying to get a job. And as long as you feel you’re trying to get a job you want something from someone else that you don’t have. And when you put yourself in a position of need, it’ll stay away from you. It wants to stay away from you. Why? Because people don’t want to hire people who need anything. You come into my office and I’m casting, and I feel the need from you? I’m not as confident. I’m not as confident because there’s a different feeling if you if you can do this one thing which I did 25 years ago and really own it not say I’m going to try that but really practice it, really take it in; ingest it, and let it live inside of you, it could possibly change your life like it changed mine.
And that is this: you are there at that interview to give them something; not to get anything. And that’s the difference. And you can’t do it in a phony way. You can’t do it like” I’m giving you this gift. Now, don’t you have something for me?”
You know, you can do it and expect someone to give you something back because then you’re not giving that gift freely. There are conditions attached to the gift you’re giving and that can’t work. It doesn’t work that way.
It is unbelievable the difference you’ll feel going into a room if you truly feel and value your ability. I’m assuming you’re all talented. Let’s get to that part. But talent alone will not create a career for any of you. No one who just had talent has a career.
It – it is persistence and patience. And this attitude. There is no substitute for putting in the hours. There just isn’t. So you have to be willing to devote yourself and all the time it takes. There’s no shortcut. I’m not going to give you any secret but you work on it, and you go in, and you have to own that feeling. And Someone who says they hate to audition it’s because they’re going there with the wrong need. They’re going there because they think they’re trying to get a job. “I don’t want to put myself in a position,” you sit in a waiting room you see other people, “Oh my! I have seen that guy he’s so good. Oh god!”
You see what you think is competition. It’s not competition. If they want you they’ll hire you if they don’t want you to hire someone else. Move on. And that’s it.
So once you adapt that, the positive energy that you start to imbue in yourself and others is unbelievable. It’s it’s life-changing.
Eric: During his years of auditioning he found that when one door was shut another would soon open.
Bryan Cranston: There were pilots that I was up for down to three guys. In the fifth audition and I didn’t get it and the guys who did it was like “Hey, have fun. That’s great!” And I truly meant it because it was not meant for me. I’ll give you one example of this and why it’s healthy to adopt this point of view. NBC 5th audition test three guys we’re in there. It goes to someone else. Four days later I tested for a show at Fox, But for the CW. That I didn’t get it went to someone else. OK, so the other guys I was with who didn’t get it also, “God son of a bitch!” And it’s like it’s, it’s all right. Well, it’s the way it is. It wasn’t wasn’t for you. A week after that I get an audition for this show called “Malcolm in the Middle.”
— I just love you boys so much who wants a hug?
You thought no one would discover your dirty little secret, didn’t you? That clever little flail of the wrist every four steps masking the hop.
Who wants to make five bucks? – Make it 10! – Done!
You’re a good son.
I got him, honey. I got him, don’t worry. —
Had I gotten one of those other two jobs that I thought I wanted, that they shot the pilot and both of them did not sell, I would have been looking for another job. So when something you think appears like a negative, maybe it’s not a negative because it wasn’t for you anyway. If it’s supposed to be for you then great. If it’s not, OK.
Eric: Before Malcolm in the middle. Mr. Cranston honed his comedic chops on numerous sitcoms most notably as the dentist Tim Watley on Seinfeld.
— George, you know Tim Watley? – Yeah dentist of the stars. What’s up? – I’ll tell you what’s up. I’m a Jew. I finish converting two days ago.
Did you hear the one about the rabbi and the farmer’s daughter? Those aren’t Matza Balls! —
Eric: In Hollywood actors are often typecast by easily defined labels. Thankfully Mr. Cranston never put much stock into that concept. After years of comedic work he was ready for a truly dramatic departure.
Bryan Cranston: I knew that I can’t do another comedy. I got two offers to do comedies and I turned them both down.
To me, it was an easy decision. Easy! I didn’t give it a second thought. To others, they might accept it because it was another job. But it would be – like you were talking about – it would be pigeon-holing myself into that position. And I wanted to do other things. So I informed the agency that I’m looking for a drama. Let’s look for a drama because…It’s so funny. It’s like you do one thing and they say, “Oh! He’s a drama guy.” Then you do a comedy, “Oh! He’s a comedy guy.” Like, we’re just actors. That’s what I hate, I hate – I hate the comment, “Oh! He’s a theater actor. He’s a theater actor,” almost in a derisive way. You know “He’s soap opera actor. A soap opera actor.” Which I was; which I was proud of; which was a great training ground; which was an opportunity for me to act every single day and try to make something honest of scenes that were repetitive and weren’t written very well. But you just do the best you can forgive yourself and move on.
Eric: One of Bryan Cranston most notable roles was the X-Files episode titled Drive.
— You shut up and drive, you understand!? Oh yeah. You think I don’t know. You think I’m just some pudknocker. But I get it, man! —
This marks his first collaboration with writer Vince Gilligan who would become the creator of Breaking Bad.
— I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger.
Say my name. – You’re Heisenberg. – You’re god damn right! —
Bryan Cranston: When I first met with Vince Gilligan – on my first meeting with him which was supposed to be 20 minutes and lasted an hour and a half. And when I went in there I told him what the character looked like. I told him what how he dressed. I told him all these details. I had – that I had a thin mustache that looked “impotent,” is what I called it. In other words, it was his writing that inspired me to daydream. And that’s an actor’s job. It’s part of the actor’s palette, to start daydreaming character and you develop those characteristics along the way. So without his really brilliant writing, it would have been harder for me to develop those thoughts because the hardest work we’ve ever had to do is on poorly written material. The easiest work we’ve ever had to do is on brilliant material, where you read it and you’re already flooded with – it resonates so deeply and you have a plethora of ideas that you want to go and you’re so excited, and I would wake up and come up with ideas. I knew he should be overweight. I knew that he would – I took the color out of his face, you know. All these things that just came to me because it was – I was so inspired by the work. Without that, and there are many occasions, many more occasions where you’ll read material that is not that good. You have to do your own work. What is that particular character look like. What does he sound like.
Eric: When playing a character as dark as Walter White Mr. Cranston stressed the importance of leaving one’s work at the office.
Bryan Cranston: I always talked about this I want to create a foundation at home that’s really sane so that I can go insane in work. So there’s like almost an invisible tether to my foundation that I come back to that makes me sane, so that I can go out in my work. But I always know I come back at the end of every day when I’m shooting a show; especially something as tense as breaking bad was. I would go into the hair and makeup trailer and put a hot steamy towel on my head and just let the hot moistness just kind of lift all the tension and dirt and anxiety that you’re feeling for that day and wash Walter White off of me; take off his clothes and I’d leave him at the studio. I never brought him home. That’s the only way that you can survive. Really you have to. You have to be able to compartmentalize. You know you hear a lot of stories about actors who are, you know, who never are without the character. And I would think, “Oh, my god! I would be exhausted!” You’d be exhausted. So I would recommend that work on your home life. Make sure that’s solid then if, if your home life is boring in some, in some great way then you have a chance to make something very exciting in your professional life. Tell a story about one of the first Emmys that I went to and I’m in a tuxedo and my wife’s in a gown and we’re picked up in a limo. We go there and “Flash! Flash! Flash” and “Pictures, pictures, autographs.”
And I’m up for an award, and the parties, and all this pomp and circumstance we get in the limo going home, and I pay the babysitter, she says goodbye. My wife’s in the kitchen, she says, “What the hell is that?!” It’s like the trash is like “Ew!’ She grabs the trash and she pulls it out and hands it to me and I – and I just take it and I’m like doing this because I don’t want that. I don’t want whatever’s dripping to get on my patent leather shoes. You know, I have my tuxedo and I’m I’m realizing, “Oh, my god!” 20 minutes ago people wanted my autograph. Now I’m just a trash man, and I smile because that’s life. Right? You’ve got to have both.
Eric: He emphasized that actors always need to be working on something.
Bryan Cranston: You know I – as far as actors, actors act.
And if you’re not acting you’re not putting your best effort forward if you’re not writing, which I recommend every actor do, and it’s a way of expressing yourself. Certainly, for me, it was a way of expressing myself creatively in between auditions.
But it was – just get into a class, get into any class. And I had a little litmus test for myself that, at the risk of sounding self-centered, I took a test where if I got into a class and I felt that I was becoming one of the best actors in the class I would leave the class. And I had to move up to where I constantly felt challenged. And to this day I always look for something that scares me a little bit, and if it scares me a little bit there’s something to it. It’s like a really ferocious roller coaster ride. And and I want to jump in. So there’s that. I think actors have to have that mentality of – I’ll put it in a sports analogy: if you have three seconds left in the game, you want the ball. “Give me the ball. Let me take the shot. Sink or swim. I want to be out there.” And we all know that there are people who are of the other ilk who’s who, when there’s the game on the line they go, “Please don’t give it to me. Please don’t give it to me. Please.” They don’t want it at all. And, and that’s fine. And thank God there are those kind of people. But if you’re going to be an actor I think you need to put yourself out there and take risks. Look at what we do: we – we – we make ourselves available for criticism on a on a regular basis. And you have to be able to withstand that and know that what your strength is, what your passion is, is far stronger than what anybody else can say.
Eric: Mr. Cranston’s passion led him to the treacherous waters of improvisation.
Bryan Cranston: I did years and years and years of improv classes. If you’re not doing improv you’re, you’re missing a huge part of your life here. Not only are you sharpening the tool but you’re getting up in front of people every single week without a clue of what you’re about to do. Think about that.
You’re getting up in front of people and you don’t know what’s going to happen. If you can somehow get comfortable with that, then when you do have something planned, when you have worked on a character in front of people, it’s easier. It’s just easier because you’re attuned to it. I would highly recommend you maintain that comedy improv. Every single week get up on stage. Fail. Get used to failing. Throw it out there, risking, try it again. It’s, it’s good.
I did – I did nine months of stand up comedy. And the reason I did it was because I was afraid of it. It scared me.
So, I do it you know and then I, and I, I really, really got mediocre. Went all the way up to mediocre. It’s a very, very tough thing. And I you know, I didn’t say I was going to it for nine months but something happened to me personally that I didn’t like. I started drinking a lot. If you go to those clubs and they put you on at midnight you’re wired, you’re going. Right. You’re like, buzzing. Right? It’s like when you finish a play you’re like -REVVING NOISE – with adrenaline and you can’t go to sleep. So what do you do. You go out, there’s the bar. If you have a good set you’re going to have a drink. If you have a bad set you need a drink.
Right? So all of a sudden I was drinking no matter what happened.
And staying up till 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning until I finally calmed down. Finally, it was nine months in and I realized, “What am I doing?” I didn’t – it wasn’t my passion. I just did this because it scared me. And I realized, “Oh, I can stop.” And I just stopped. So I would, I would challenge you to do things that scare you.
Get up in front of people and write some material and say some jokes.
Eric: and a good attitude doesn’t hurt either.
Bryan Cranston: One thing I do when I when I’m going to show that I’m running, or if I’m producing, or if I’m the lead actor on it, I don’t allow bitching on the set. I know. I don’t allow people to bitch and complain about the hour we have to start or anything like that. You’re working as an actor. Shut up. But I do – I do embrace frustration. Frustration’s allowed. We all get frustrated when we can’t get in, we can’t crack a character or something is blocking it, like – and arguments ensue. That’s fine as long as it’s about the work then allow it to be and just stick with it and work through it.
Eric: Even after receiving five Emmys for Walter White, Mr. Cranston continues playing complicated and challenging roles including President Lyndon B. Johnson in both the stage and film versions of “All the Way.”
— The greatest leader of our time has been struck down by the foulest deed of our time.
That maniac wants a lob an A-bomb into the Kremlin’s bathroom to start World War 3.
I’m trying to turn this country around and prevent a major war.
Everybody wants power Walter, but everybody thinks it ought to be given out like Mardi Gras beads.
Politics is War period. —
Bryan Cranston: Bill Moyers was a very respected journalist who said that Lyndon Johnson was 11 of the most interesting people he’s ever met. And it tells you something about the characteristics that you would assign to that man. He was all over the place. And so that was an intimidating character to take on, but he was also a very accomplished and ego driven. I think it was his hubris that got him in trouble with, with Vietnam. You mostly know and remember his legacy as a failed one from Vietnam. But he did some amazing things in domestic policy. The crown jewel was the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Where he changed the face of the country.
So anyway, there’s an enormous amount of research and it’s just it’s one of the actor’s job, doing the research.
Eric: Research helped him portray another conflicted historical figure, the legendary blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
Bryan Cranston: With Trumbo he was such a chain smoker and he had an affectation you know, and he went he went up and down it was, it was a fun thing to work on.
— Congress has no right to investigate how we vote, or where we pray; what we think or say, or how we make movies.
Hello. I’m Dalton Trumbo.
Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? – Am I accused of a crime? – You’re not asking the question. – If so I believe I have the right to be confronted with any evidence that supports this question. – Are you refusing to answer – I would very much like to see what you have. – Oh, you would! You will see. Very soon! – Good!
You’re not asking the question. – I was. – The chief investigator’s asking the question. – I beg your pardon. – Now, are you or have you ever been a member of the communist party? – I believe I have the right to be confronted with any evidence which supports this question. I should like to see what you have. – Oh, well you would? – Yes. – Well, you will pretty soon!
Eric: Even at the heights that Mr. Cranston has reached, he doesn’t let money dictate his creative choices.
Bryan Cranston: I was never money motivated. To this day I’m not money motivated. I never really even know what I’m making on projects. I’ve never said yes to a project because of money. I don’t want to have to make a creative decision based on financial need. So once I became rich, I socked it away. And you know I’m married and have a child and so we – you, you do the things that you need to do to buy a house.
But it wasn’t it wasn’t extravagant. Living a very middle-class life, and that’s what was important to me.
Eric: After the multiple Emmys, the Oscar and Tony nominations, becoming a working full-time actor is still the highlight of his career.
Bryan Cranston: No, it’s been a pretty, pretty blessed life. I must say. Not without ups and downs but to be able to act for a living was when I was 25 years old, the greatest accomplishment that I’ve ever had in my profession and remains so.
It’s a great career in the arts but it is something that needs your full attention and your patience and your faith. But this is true: if you don’t try then you have truly failed. If you feel that passion in your heart, you must try. And that’s that’s a good thing. That’s a powerful thing. There’s power in being bold, taking chances. And if you live a clean life the risks that you take are all fine. Go out and have a good career.
Eric: This episode was written by me, Eric Conner; based on the guest speaker series produced and moderated by Tova Laiter; the episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Hayden produced by David Andrew Nelson Kristian Hayden and myself; executive produced by Jean Sherlock, Dan Mackler, and Tova Laiter. Associate produced by Vinny Sisson; a special thanks to Robert Cosnahan, Sajja Johnson and the staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs please check us out at nyfa.edu. Be sure to subscribe and leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. See you next time!