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Bryan Cranston: the method man

In an exclusive interview presented by retiresavvy, the Breaking Bad star talks about leading a double life, disrobing on camera and waiting for Better Call Saul 

Things almost turned out very differently for Bryan Cranston. The Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated actor might be best known as Walter White, high school science teacher turned meth kingpin in AMC’s Breaking Bad, but in his youth, he had plans to be on the other side of the law. 

“Early on, I was going to be a police officer,” he says. “I thought that's what I was going to do. To be a detective.” 

In for the long haul 

Luckily for TV fans around the world, he soon got the acting bug. Like many young guys, the initial appeal of acting can be summed up in one word: girls. 

“Girls in theatre class. It was like [he makes a dog howl]. I'm 19, it’s the second year in college, and they outnumber boys like 8 to 1. One of my first scenes in my first acting class, I read it and it was a boy and a girl on a park bench making out. I read it again. It was like, ‘So my job is to make out with a girl? Oh my God.’ 

“Once that turned my head around I realised, OK, all those initial emotions aside, if I'm going to do this, I need to learn how to really do this. That's what drove me deeper and very seriously into becoming an actor.” 

Bryan, who turned 60 earlier this year, is pretty dismissive of a certain type of actor who he sees as getting into the business for the wrong reasons. “A lot of young actors, they're not actors, they are people who just want to be in the limelight. They like to be on television or movies or they chase the fame and fortune. That's not an actor. An actor is someone who enjoys the empowerment of telling stories.” 

And he knows what he’s talking about, having taken the plunge at age 22 with the very conscious decision to be “in it for the long haul” and stripping back everything in the early years that could get in the way of his goal. 

“I decided that if it meant sharing an apartment with three other actors until now, when I’m 60, then that would be it. From the very moment I started working, boom, save. The more I can save, the longer I can be an actor. If I spend, spend, spend, that means I have to get a real job that takes me away from acting. 

“I worked as a waiter every single weekend for years. Why? I didn't care about parties. They meant nothing to me. Weekends are when you can make the most money. I volunteered for every weekend shift. I worked double shifts on Saturdays, double shifts on Sundays and most Fridays. It didn't matter to me. What mattered to me was staying free Monday through Friday, so I could audition.”

Going undercover 

Bryan’s latest movie, The Infiltrator, sees him return to the murky world of crime with another character leading a double life. But unlike Walter White, this time he’s one of the good guys. Bryan plays real life FBI agent Robert Mazur, who went undercover as a money-launderer to infiltrate Pablo Escobar’s drug trafficking empire. 

"From the very moment I started working, boom, save. The more I can save, the longer I can be an actor."

Mazur’s covert work led to the indictments of more than 100 drug lords and corrupt bankers, along with the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), one of the largest money-laundering banks in the world. 

For Bryan, a large part of the appeal of the role was exploring the stress and dichotomy between Mazur’s professional and family life. 

“As an actor, slipping into a character and playing a character is commonplace. I've been doing it for almost 40 years. For him, if he makes a mistake, there aren't any do-overs. He could be killed. With that kind of tension coming home every night, how does that guy become Bob Mazur the dad and help out with the math homework, or make sandwiches for the kids' lunches tomorrow?” 

Bryan says his years on Breaking Bad left him “used to being undercover, but only pretend”. He’s pretty downbeat about his own prospects as an FBI agent. 

“If I have a bad day and I go home and say ‘Oh, it didn't work. You know what? It's terrible. We're going to have to re-shoot that scene because it just didn't work.’ That's the repercussions in my world. I can fully divulge everything to my wife, whether she wants to hear it or not. 

“Mazur didn't have that luxury.  He can't say a word. All he can say is, ‘Yeah, it was good’, even if it wasn't. He's constantly taking in information, stress, tension and not able to release it.” 

Time in prison 

Bryan was nominated for Best Actor at the 2016 Oscars for his depiction of real life Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was famously blacklisted and barred from working in the McCarthy era, for refusing to name Communists working in the movies.  

In one of the pivotal scenes in the film, Trumbo is sent to jail. In order to show the de-humanising effect of going to prison and how he was “stripped of his dignity, stripped of his freedom”, Bryan says he wanted to “show it visually by being stripped, quite literally” and forced into a holding cell with “other men, half a dozen of us of different colours, different shapes, different sizes”.

Bryan says he thought the scene would have been difficult to cast and shoot and that nobody would volunteer to take their clothes off on camera. “I'm willing to be exposed and naked, emotionally and physically, because sometimes you need both. Those are things that I accept. 

“If the intention is to make an audience feel embarrassed for my character, then being exposed, being nude, is one way of doing that,” he says. 

Perhaps surprisingly, casting and shooting the scene turned out to be quite easy. “Jay [Roach, the director] just said, ‘we're doing a scene in prison and it requires nudity. Who would like to volunteer to be nude with Bryan Cranston?’ 

“They weren’t chiselled, body builder guys – they were all shapes and sizes. It was like, ‘Wow! Let's do this!’” 

The secret of a long marriage 

For someone so committed to acting, and who has played such all-consuming roles, does Bryan have any difficulties in letting go of characters off set? 

"My wife tells me if I'm being full of myself. She'll go, ‘Oh, wow. Look at you. You're kind of a jerk.’”

“Sometimes they seep in to your life as you're still thinking about the character,” he says. “If the character just starts coming to you and you start to imagine what he would look like and that sort of thing, that's a very good sign. That's what happened with Breaking Bad.” 

Of course, there are times when work spills over to his home life, and not in a good way. “I have a spouse [actress Robin Dearden] whom I've been with for 30 years and we met on a TV show. She was an actress at one time. She tells me if I'm full of myself. She'll go, ‘Oh, wow. Look at you. You're kind of a jerk.’” 

Bryan says the secret of their long marriage is balance. “It's not allowing yourself to get unbalanced for too long. We talk about balance. It's never balance in the sense that every day is completely balanced. No. It's, ‘Oh, I've been working a lot so I have to do this.’ It's finding the balance over time. The other thing is marrying the right person.” 

And the future? Does Bryan intend to reunite with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, and would he be willing to do a a cameo role in spin-off show Better Call Saul? 

“We're friends, so we see each other constantly. And it's possible. I would do anything for Vince, so if he called it would certainly be something that I would say ‘yes’ to before the conversation was over.”

Retiresavvy is brought to you by Skipton Building Society. The interview in this article was supplied by InterviewHub. The article has been commissioned by retiresavvy and any opinions voiced are the author's own.

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