After a self-imposed exile from television, the actor's actor — destined to be remembered as a certain crime kingpin — returns as a compassionate commander-in-chief.
What do you do after wrapping five seasons of a life-changing TV series, having played one of the most complicated anti-heroes ever created?
How do you handle being hitched to an iconic character who, like a Tony Soprano or a Don Draper, will follow you the rest of your life?
If you're Bryan Cranston — aka Walter White, the mild-mannered, terminally ill high-school chemistry teacher who becomes a murderous crystal-meth kingpin on Breaking Bad — you escape.
As Cranston tells it, "I had to let Walter White die — literally and figuratively. And step away from television. So I did, giving myself a moratorium of three years before I'd appear on any series again. I contacted my agency and said, 'The best thing to do is hide out in the theater, get kind of lost... go back and tell a different story.'"
And so he did, finding another larger-than-life character to immerse himself in. Only this time, the character is bigger than fiction: Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th president of the United States.
In All the Way, an HBO film adapted from the play by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, Cranston reprises his stage role. He plays LBJ with jaw-dropping (or, in this case, jowl-dropping) intensity, nailing the Texas drawl, good ol' boy swagger and Machiavellian machinations. It's a towering performance. Cranston observes: "It helped me hide out in someone else's skin for a while."
Cranston’s not hiding anymore. He's sitting in a trailer outside the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, where he's shooting a feature for Twentieth Century Fox, Why Him?
"It's refreshing to do a comedy," he says. It's late afternoon, the very beginning of his workday, which is scheduled to go till 4 a.m. Dressed casually in a gray V-neck shirt and jeans while lunching on a paleo plate of buffalo, avocado, egg and kale, he's relaxed and warm, looking every bit the everyman.
He banters easily with the young assistants who flutter in and out, seemingly untouched by the fame that found him in middle age.
Cranston doesn't worry about being trapped by the role that, as he freely admits, changed his life. "I'm proud to be identified with Walter White, but it's up to me to do other things," he says. "Big characters — requiring makeup, prosthetics, dialects — that are way outside of who I am."
And in 1964, when the eyes of a grief-stricken country were upon him in the wake of JFK's assassination, few men were bigger than Johnson.
“What got to me," Cranston says, "was LBJ's humanity and his earnest desire to achieve hallmark legislation — fundamental shifts in our society that would benefit the greatest amount of the people. What he was able to push forward was nothing less than remarkable."
All the Way covers the tumultuous first year of LBJ's presidency, as he presides over an extraordinary period of social progress under his Great Society legislation. He wins passage of the Civil Rights Act, creates Medicare and Medicaid, introduces the War on Poverty and launches programs to aid education and the arts, as well as dozens of other initiatives.
"I believe his domestic achievements make him one of the five top presidents in our history," Cranston says.
Lurking just over the horizon is the growing escalation of the Vietnam War, which would eventually prove LBJ's undoing. But the movie's laser focus is on LBJ's metamorphosis from "accidental president" — thrust into office by tragedy — to the assured leader whose landslide election victory over Senator Barry Goldwater in 1964 validates his acceptance by the American public.
A stellar cast portrays some of the most important political figures of the time: Anthony Mackie (Triple 9) plays Martin Luther King, Jr.; Bradley Whitford (The West Wing) is Senator Hubert Humphrey; Stephen Root (No Country for Old Men) appears as J. Edgar Hoover; and Melissa Leo (The Fighter) portrays Lady Bird Johnson.
Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon) delivers a poignant turn as LBJ's close friend "Uncle Dick," Senator Richard Russell, a segregationist whose opposition to LBJ's civil rights advances ended their 20-year friendship.
All The Way is produced by Amblin Entertainment, Tale Told Productions, Moon Shot Entertainment and Everyman Pictures; executive producing with Cranston are Steven Spielberg, Jay Roach, Justin Falvey, Darryl Frank and James Degus.
As engrossing as it is to watch Johnson outmaneuver his opposition, it's the intimate glimpses into his personal life that stand out: the tender LBJ, telling his trusted personal aide, Walter Jenkins (Todd Weeks), that he's "as close to a son as I'll ever get," and the desperately insecure LBJ, weeping in bed and threatening to resign on the morning of the Democratic Convention.
And, of course, there's the master Texas politician, by turns charismatic and cruel, as big and colorful as the state itself.
"Bryan pulls off this great balancing act," says Len Amato, president of HBO Films. "LBJ was a big, demonstrative character. He has to be portrayed in this big, theatrical way but must also be scaled down to be truthful on screen You can't be so big it doesn't look authentic."
"He was a good old boy who drank too much, smoked, had a heart attack, didn't take care of himself," Cranston says. "He would take a dump in his office in front of people." That scene is in the film. "He did it, I believe, as a way of getting the upper hand in their conversation, to put someone off their game."
Cranston continues: "You can see the difference in how he can manipulate people. Like a coach, he knows that he can't use the one-size-fits-all method to wrangle the votes or the support he needs."
The actor was "knocked out" when he first read the play, which had been commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012. When artistic director Bill Rauch summoned Cranston to meet the producers, it wasn't for an audition. Cranston, however, insisted on reading.
"It's what actors do," he says simply. "I wanted them to know I was the right guy for this role — I wanted them to be confident enough to say, 'Let's go forward,' not just, 'I think he might be good, but we won't know till we get into rehearsals.'"
After an initial run in Boston, the play moved to Broadway in spring 2014. Reviews were ecstatic, and All the Way won the Tony Award for best play. Cranston, making his Broadway debut, won for best actor.
By then, HBO had optioned the play for Amblin Entertainment to produce, "We were told Steven Spielberg was interested in directing a film version," Cranston says. Spielberg ultimately hired HBO veteran Jay Roach (Recount, Game Change) to direct.
The hiring wasn't without some risk; Roach was preparing to direct Cranston for the first time in the feature Trumbo. Amato recalls wondering, "What if they end up hating each other, then we're supposed to do another movie together?"
Fortunately, actor and director clicked immediately. Cranston got an Oscar nomination for another outsized character — blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. During the shoot, he and Roach developed a working shorthand that continued through All the Way.
"In the end, we were quite fortunate that we got both of these guys right after working on another project," Amato says.
Early publicity shots of Cranston in character, revealed last fall, display a startling physical resemblance between actor and character. As Amato recalls from visits to the set during production: "Many times I wouldn't recognize Bryan.... He'd be in the Oval Office, give you a hug, and you thought you were with LBJ."
Cranston did his own makeup for the play, but for the film, he put himself in the skilled hands of Bill Corso. The Oscar-winning makeup artist outfitted the star with a series of facial prosthetics to mimic LBJ's famed proboscis, chin cleft and prominent jowls. Finally, Cranston's eyebrows were darkened and his hair was thinned out.
"They brought my hairline back an inch," he says. Looking like LBJ was one thing; accessing his deeper emotional layers was another. One item in particular proved a revelation for the actor: a framed letter on display at the LBJ Presidential Library in Austin, which Cranston visited for research. It's a letter from Jackie Kennedy to LBJ, thanking him for a letter he wrote to her young children, in which he conveys his respect and love for their father.
"I was stunned," Cranston recalls. "Within two days of LBJ taking over the presidency, under such tragic circumstances... for him to take the time to write to two children about the loss of their father had a tremendous impact on me. It spoke volumes about the depth of his character. That was foundational work for me when I went to play the role on stage."
Cranston experienced his own version of parental loss growing up in Canoga Park, an L.A. suburb. He was 11 when his father, an amateur boxer and failed actor, left the family. After the divorce, Cranston and his older brother were partially raised by their grandparents. (Cranston later said he based the physicality of Walter White on his father: "He carried the burden of missed opportunities on his shoulders.")
In high school, Cranston considered a career in law enforcement, but an acting elective at a local college changed everything. Performers like Spencer Tracy and Dick Van Dyke were early inspirations, but "I never tried to emulate anyone," Cranston says. "You allow yourself the freedom to make mistakes, knowing it's not always going to work. It's like a recipe."
Throughout the '80s and '90s, Cranston slogged through the journeyman actor's litany of soap operas, commercials and the odd series guest spot on shows like Airwolf, where he met his second wife, Robin Dearden, That union has lasted 27 years; their daughter, Taylor, 23, is a budding actress,
A recurring role on Seinfeld as Jerry's smarmy dentist brought Cranston some heat. In 2000, he broke through as Hal, the patriarch of Malcolm in the Middle, which ran for seven seasons and earned him three Emmy nominations.
But it was in 1998 that Cranston met the man who would change his life a decade later. An up-and-coming TV writer-producer, Vince Gilligan, cast him as a villain on an episode of The X-Files.
"We needed a really strong, charismatic bad guy who could be scary and forceful, but at the end, you had to feel sorry for him," Gilligan recalls. "From the time Bryan walked through the door, I said, 'This guy really has something.'"
Fast forward to 2008. Gilligan had sold Breaking Bad and was pushing AMC to cast Cranston as Walter White. The actor wanted the role badly. "I had never read anything as compelling in an hour-long format," he recalls.
But he understood why execs were initially hesitant. "They said, 'Wait a minute, you want the silly dad from Malcolm in the Middle to play Walter White?'"
Sixty-two episodes and six Emmy Awards later (four as lead actor and two as an executive producer), it's impossible to imagine anyone else in the role.
"It wouldn't have been the phenomenon that it was without Bryan," Gilligan says. "He took an unlikable, unplayable part and turned it into something people will be watching 100 years from now." Cranston told The New Yorker it's "the role that will undoubtedly be the first line of my obituary."
The show's runaway success unleashed a flood of creative opportunities. Under his Moon Shot Entertainment banner, Cranston has 14 projects in various stages of readiness.
Supermansion, an animated series about superheroes living under one roof, premiered on Crackle last fall; Cranston is an executive producer and voices an aging superhero. On Sneaky Pete, which debuted on Amazon last fall, he also executive-produces and guest-stars as a bad guy who gives star Giovanni Ribisi's character a hard time.
And he appears opposite Jennifer Garner in the dramatic feature Wakefield, about a man who leaves his wife after suffering a breakdown
Fame, the actor muses, came "at the time it was supposed to." Unlike his father, whose unfulfilled dreams of stardom crushed him, Cranston had no grand ambitions when he made his career choice.
Now, he cites his greatest professional accomplishment as having sustained himself as a working actor since age 25. "Anything that happens beyond being able to make a living as an actor, it's all gravy," he says. "I don't feel like the business owes me anything; life doesn't owe me anything. I work hard, but I have no designs or sense of entitlement to achieve X."
He smiles. There's a knock on the door. It's time to get into wardrobe. Cranston rises, radiating a zen-like calm. "Wherever it takes you, it takes you."