The one who knocks, and writes
Barry Hertz talks to Bryan Cranston, who gets up close and extremely personal with his memoir, A Life in Parts
If you are looking to find the one true Bryan Cranston performance, his C.V. offers no easy answers. The actor is a wily chameleon, just as skilled at playing sleazy dentists (Seinfeld 's Dr. Tim Whatley) and suburban doofuses (Malcolm in the Middle's Hal Wilkerson) as he is lowlifes (Drive's Shannon) and kingpins (Breaking Bad's Walter White). Perhaps in an effort to dispel just who Bryan Cranston is, the 60-year-old star has written (sans ghostwriter) A Life in Parts, part autobiography and part meditation on the acting craft. Extraordinarily detailed, honest and raw, the memoir paints a vivid portrait of one of the finest performers of his generation, all while refusing to bury the life moments (loss of virginity, fits of rage) that most of us would rather forget. Ahead of a book-tour stop in Toronto this week, Cranston spoke with The Globe and Mail about Hollywood, family and the importance of "an actor's arrogance."
The book is remarkably honest. How challenging was it to commit these words to paper?
In truth, I want to say that it wasn't challenging at all. When I agreed to do the book, it was the prerequisite for me. I don't believe anybody when they say my wife and I have never had an argument, everything is wonderful! The most boring memoirs are the ones I just don't believe. There's a narrative that applies to everyone's life, and that must include a struggle. Everyone faces a crucible of some sort, and that's what you want to hear.
Because of how detailed this book is, particularly when it's about your adolescence, did you go over any passages with your family first?
Not at first. I just wrote down what I remembered, and then I gave those passages to my brother, my sister, my wife, [ Breaking Bad creator] Vince Gilligan – for clarity and accuracy. And they all wrote back with their versions of what they thought happened, and it helped considerably.
Were you nervous about anyone's reaction?
Not nervous, but anxious and anticipating. Sometimes I wanted to hear from the people who were involved in these stories so maybe they'd tell me something that will enhance them. And that happened, with everybody chipping in. I'm not one to write a journal, so I needed to rely on my memory, and because the stories are all geared around pretty exceptional periods of my life, I remembered things when, say, there was either a lesson or they were unfortunate, or there was something I had to overcome to some degree. Certainly with [my ex-girlfriend] Ava, when I got caught up in that web and felt I couldn't get out, I wanted you to see my own culpability with that. I invited that into my life and perpetuated that problem by succumbing to sexual desire. I brought it upon myself, and I wanted to be honest about that.
With that passage about Ava, where you imagine killing her one night after a particularly intense encounter, were you concerned that would come off as too visceral, too brutal?
I wanted, to the best I could, to put the reader in my position. That's how real it was to me [at the time]. I wanted the reader to feel that as well.
At one point, you describe all the twists of fate that led you to Breaking Bad – directing your movie Last Chance, which led to getting cast on The X-Files, which led to Vince reaching out to you years later. How difficult is it for an actor to dwell on those "what-if" scenarios?
Well, I want to be able to honestly tell myself and the world that this is what I do for a living. There was something that happened when I turned 25, and I got a job in New York on that soap opera [Loving]. It wasn't necessarily the soap opera that did it for me, it was the timing. I felt like I crossed a threshold. I felt like I belonged, that I wasn't fooling anybody and deserved to be there. Even though that's the Joe Stuart period where [the Loving producer] fired me unceremoniously. But even then, as you saw, I was licking my wounds, and I went to Central Park and saw the marathon and felt, I'm going to do this next year. And I did. I don't like to talk about things, I just want to do things. I learned early on in acting class that I don't want to get comfortable. I would ask myself – not with false modesty, but I wanted to be honest about it – am I the best actor in this class? If I can honestly say I think I am, I would leave. I would find another class where I'm on the bottom rung. I wanted to play with better actors. Intuitively that was my way of knowing I'd always be working to improve.
You write that actors need to have an "arrogance" about them. Was there any point in your career when that arrogance didn't serve you?
No, and I need to qualify that because it's an actor's arrogance. Certainly you don't want to be arrogant, but I think it's a confidence without boasting, a quiet confidence. It was taught to me as an actor's arrogance by Shirley Knight, and I got it: We have to be the ones to say, "Give me the ball," with three seconds left to take the shot. That's a little arrogant, right? We want to take the chance to sink or swim. I'll talk to young actors all the time and ask if they're talented, and I want them to say, "Yes, I am." Not in a boastful or self-centred way, just a quiet confidence. If you can't answer that question, then you shouldn't be attempting to become an actor. You have to have that going in – the confidence in who you are, and to value your work.
There's a section toward the end of your book where you describe the statistical system for which projects you've chosen to accept post-Breaking Bad. The upcoming comedy Why Him? only gets an "on the bubble" rating [14 points out of 20]. Are you worried what its producers or moviegoers might think of that?
No, uh-uh. I don't concern myself with other people's opinions. I don't read reviews. I have a very high standard of what I want to do, and people are entitled to have their opinions. There are specific reasons why I did Why Him? that came into play. The biggest is that it's a comedy. Since Breaking Bad, I've had plenty of offers to do dramas, only dramas, one drama after another. And Why Him? turned out to be a really funny film. It's a studio comedy, a big commercial film, and I'm not averse to that. And then I'll go and do a little thing like [the upcoming drama] Wakefield, an odd little existential examination of one man's life. I love being able to navigate the stories that way.
You don't read reviews, but in the book you mention watching Breaking Bad with your wife each week – do you find yourself reviewing your own performances?
Yeah, and you can't help but do that. Mostly, I don't want to be a stranger to my work. I know there are some actors who don't watch their things, and I think that's kind of sad that you don't get to appreciate your own work. It's important to acknowledge the time and energy spent, and celebrate it. Like a birthday or an anniversary.
I'm curious as to what you think about the state of the mid-budget features that you've worked on, like Argo, The Infiltrator, Trumbo. I find they are fewer and farther between.
Yes, and every studio used to have these divisions where they would do these low- and mid-budget films. But looking at the corporate-run studio system, they're looking at the bottom line. And if they have a $10-million film and need to spend $20-million on ads and marketing, it's too small in scope. It would cost the same to advertise, let's say, a $50-million movie, which is much more commercial and has a better chance of making more money. That's what happened, and smaller movies got cut out. And what we found in that vacuum is that television came along, long-form serialized storytelling. Breaking Bad, The Shield, The Sopranos. That's where those smaller-budgeted stories live. And I'm grateful for it. I see Anthony Hopkins doing Westworld and Clive Owen doing The Knick. I love the fact that the line between feature films and television has been blurred to that point. Just follow the best storytelling. There's no sense of hierarchy, where it's like, "Oh, he's a movie star as opposed to a TV star." Hopefully that's gone away. I'm an actor who has worked in daytime TV, commercials, primetime, feature films, on stage. I am just looking for the opportunities to tell the best story.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Bryan Cranston will participate in an on-stage discussion of his life and career with Globe contributor Johanna Schneller on Oct. 27 at Toronto's Isabel Bader Theatre.