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Conducted ~6/2003

cranstonLong before he became Walter White on AMC’s Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston was stealing scenes on Malcolm In The Middle after a long career as a jobbing actor.

It was during the tail end of his Malcolm run that we had our in-depth chat. Here’s the original intro to the piece…

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While most people will recognize Bryan Cranston as the affably befuddled father Hal on Malcolm In The Middle, more discerning viewers will remember his roles in From the Earth to the Moon, Saving Private Ryan, Babylon 5, and numerous others on TV and film.

He’s also a writer/director/producer, having performed all three duties (plus acting) on his independent feature Last Chance, and directed an episode of Malcolm during this past season. He’s slated to directed three more episodes this coming season (including the season premiere).

Last Chance has just been picked up by Showtime and will be making its premiere this Fall, with a DVD release planned as well.

In addition, he’s also produced and distributed an instructional DVD for parents and their children on how to stay safe from abduction, called Kid Smartz.

You can learn about Kid Smartz, Last Chance, Malcolm and more at Bryan’s official website, www.BryanCranston.com

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KEN PLUME: You’re from California, originally?

BRYAN CRANSTON: I am. I was born and raised out here. Born in Hollywood, believe it or not, and raised primarily in the San Fernando Valley, where I still live.

PLUME: So this would be what, the ‘mid-50’s, and the ’60s were your formative years?

CRANSTON: Yeah, well, ’60s and ’70s.

PLUME: What was your childhood like?

CRANSTON: It was great. My dad was a struggling actor, and my mom met my dad in acting class, with the likes of Mike Connors and Anne Bancroft - people like that, who were all young, struggling actors. Back then it was the late ’40s, I suppose, right around 1950. They met, they fell in love, they got married, and she quit so that she could raise babies. That was a pretty much expected thing back then. I do happen to know that she regrets that decision, feeling that she could have done both, and has longed to return. She’s now, God bless her, in the motion picture home, where she lives, and doing well. I recently wrote a little part for her in the next movie I plan to make, and she has one word in it. This was all by design - she would be offended by this, but her one word in it is, “Asshole.” So I’m going to get my mother to say, “Asshole.”

PLUME: Are you working out any issues?

CRANSTON: Yeah, I probably am. Like so many people, we don’t really know what issues we’re working on. It just made me laugh when I realized I could do this and not sacrifice anything. So I thought, “Okay.” I love to act, and I’ve been blessed with opportunity, so I’m just following it through. It’s like riding a wave. You go out and try to catch a wave, and you miss most of them. Once in a while, you catch one - and even when you catch it, you go, “Hey, this is a nice wave”… you still don’t know how long it’s going to take you. It could take you all the way into shore, which it looks like Malcolm is going to do. Then at the end of it, it takes you up, show ends… I’ll maybe sit on the beach for a little bit.

PLUME: Or you could be caught in the riptide and never be seen again…

CRANSTON: There you go - you could do a face plant. Exactly. I’ve been involved in those, where you think something is going to turn out good and it turns out just terrible, and all kinds of things. So it’s as fickle as anything I’ve ever been involved with. But somehow, someway, I think those who survive this business are able to find a sense of security built in this insecure world that we live in here. I’ve been doing this for 23 years, and for about 20 years exclusively as an actor. I haven’t done anything else. I find that remarkably rewarding, that that’s my chosen profession and I’m able to do it.

PLUME: Do you think it’s just a function of coming to the realization that it is a fickle business?

CRANSTON: There are certain factors that have helped me survive, as an actor. Because you ask any actor and they’ll be able to tell you, “My God, there was this guy in class that I worked with, I never saw him do anything professionally, but he blew me away whenever he worked.” There are people in class that are fantastic, there are people who start working that are unbelievably gifted, but don’t go the mile. The career is a marathon, it’s not a sprint, and you have to have that kind of mentality, that if your first couple miles, they’re not working out to good - just hang in there. Just keep going, if that’s what you indeed love to do. So my advice to young actors is only become an actor, professionally, if you have to. There’s probably a half a dozen people who will read that comment and go, “I know what he’s talking about. I feel that. I need to do this, I have no choice. But, to be an actor, because I’m pushed into that - it’s part of me.” Then, there will be the masses who go, “What the hell does that mean? Only become an actor if you have to? What is that? What an idiot.” And throw it away because they don’t get it. They see the external things surrounding an actor’s life, and the only actors that they see are ones that they admire or wish they could have a similar career to.

PLUME: Which are the working ones…

CRANSTON: Right.

PLUME: Which is what, 5% according to the Guild?

CRANSTON: If that much. I think it is something like under 5% make a living. Make a living - that means qualifying for your medical and dental plan - then maybe a half a percent of that make a very good living. So it’s not a business for anyone who has other desires. If you are thinking about making a killing financially, or getting in it for all the great women and this and that and the other, then you’re out of your mind. You would do much better to go to business school. Get a degree in business.

PLUME: Why hang out at clubs when you can hang out at cattle calls?

CRANSTON: There’s nothing more testing of your character than to endure one call after another, after another, after another where you see clones of yourself when you’re just starting, and you’re figuring out, “How do I get noticed?” You go through this whole painful retrospective, and the only way you can do it, the only way you can survive, is if you love acting. Then go act. Be in a play, do a student film, do something that allows you to act and find the joy in that.

PLUME: I’m assuming that your parents were not exactly encouraging of you going into acting?

CRANSTON: My dad wasn’t, because my dad was living the typical actor’s life, which was a hard struggle. I remember as a kid, back in the early ’60s, he would be in a good mood, and there were things going on and, you know, we bought a new car. And then the following year we sold that new car and got an old car. Okay, I don’t really get that, but kids are resilient. We’d have nothing to relate it to, and you don’t have a sense of underprivileged or privileged or deprived or anything. We were pretty much in a middle class society, and we’re living that life, and okay. One year we put in a pool, we had a built-in pool. Then I remember the following year my mother saying, “We can’t swim, because we can’t afford the chemicals that go in the pool.” “Oh, okay.” You have a flash of a sense that, “I guess this is what every kid goes through.” It’s only into your later teen years you realize, “Some kids don’t have that problem. Some kids kind of have it easier, have money or inherit money - Wow! What’s that like?” My whole family, like many depression era families, were raised on the ability to save a dollar - but they had no education, no background, into how to make a dollar. You got a job, get a job, hold a job - any job. Doesn’t matter, just get it. What’s a better job? A better job is one that pays more or it’s a little easier. That’s a better job.

PLUME: So it was always thinking in the now…

CRANSTON: Yeah, always thinking in the now, and save a buck, here’s a coupon, here’s an early bird special … here’s a garage sale, buy it there. Go to the Goodwill to buy some things. Do this, and so it was always a lower middle-class kind of mentality that I grew up with, and because of that, I went into an acting career concerned about, “Oh, I’ve got to save this, I’ve got to do this. Only drive this … I can get another couple years out of these clothes.” Thinking about that, “I need this job, because I’ve got to pay this bill, I’ve got to pay my rent.” It was nickel and diming my mind to the point where it would be intrusive to my art. I would start thinking and start obsessing about how I did. “How did I do at this audition? Did I do well? Do I think I’m going to get the job? Let me call my agent. Did you hear from them? Did they call you?” One agent one time said to me, “Bryan, listen. Believe me, they have my number. If they want you, they will call me.” “Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know. Did you get any feedback? Did they say they liked me? Am I closer?” I always just spent energy on this, until about 15 years ago, where I formulated a different point of view. That was, if I took all that energy on “Am I going to get a job? Who did they hire? Why did they hire? Why don’t they hire me? Oh my God, look who the competition is! He’s good. I’ve seen his work before. Oh God, I’ve really got to be good now, because …” and start psyching yourself out and this sort of thing. Instead of spending any amount of energy on that, I’d put the energy and the time on the work. Go back to the work. Your work starts when you get a phone call. You’ve got to read the script, because you’re going to be reading for the character of a barber and whatever… a college kid… whatever it is. You start putting together the ideas of your character, from that moment. You read the script to get a sense of the tone of the film or TV show, and you read your character to get a sense of tone of the character. Then, what I’ve always done is you start making a bouquet. I start, “What about an accent? Do I play with an accent? What about an affectation? This guy’s kind of full of himself. What about stance? Or something that he does…” And I start putting together little things like this, like gathering and making a bouquet. Perhaps now attitude, “Is he angry? Is he upset?” So I create this thing, “What does he look like? What does he dress like? How does he wear his hair? Where is he now?” I ask myself all these questions, and I would continue working on it until I felt that I would get the casting people or the producers in the room to go from having their heads rest in their hands, to picking up their head and noticing me. That I have to find something that’s that different, you know, that they would then be able to later on say, “What about that kid who did that weird thing.” Even if it was totally wrong, at least it’s something that makes a stand and says something.

PLUME: That broke the monotony.

CRANSTON: That breaks the monotony. You know, it had to be something that I felt no one else would do, because there are guideposts when you read a script. You go, “Okay, I know this guy. I know this guy. Okay.” Some people can then put the script down and go, “Okay, I know what to do,” and you’ll do what you expect to do. You’ll see the actors come in and do exactly what was written. I kept thinking, “I’ve got to do something more than what’s written. I have to go a step beyond that. Sometimes it would come to me right away, and sometimes it would take hours and hours and I’d still contemplate on it. But the energy was focused on the character, and building the character - as opposed to something that’s out of my control. I would then select my bouquet - throwing some flowers out and putting other flowers in, even at the last minute before you go in. I wouldn’t talk to anybody, I’d be alone and collect my thoughts and go into the room, present the bouquet to the people, leave it with them and you walk out. From that moment on, your job is done. I never thought about it. I would have a whole tray of scripts and sides that I would throw the things into. Not only would I not call the agents anymore, I wouldn’t even think of it. I would completely forget about it. I wouldn’t tell anybody about my auditions … I didn’t want to conjure up any kind of things I was up for, and “I think I’m really close to getting this.” It was just a waste of energy to me. Then, when I got callbacks - and I started getting more and more callbacks from things, because of my energy in a different place - I would have to try to recall, “Oh yeah, what was that?” And I’d go in that big box and I’d start fishing out, “Oh, there it is. Oh yeah, yeah, I remember this guy. Oh good, they want to see it again. Any notes?” “No, no, same thing.” “Okay.” Then I’d start working again, and that was my salvation. I simply took the axiom of not thinking for a moment about things that are out of my control. It’s not a part of acting, to wonder who they’re picking or why they’re picking someone is someone else’s business - it’s certainly not mine.

PLUME: A watched pot never boils…

CRANSTON: Exactly. I digress, but you asked about my father - he was an actor, and he started producing things and he did a series of commercials for the United Way, and PSA spots, and he put me in one. I had a great experience, and I knew from that experience that it was special. I was about 8 years old, 7 or 8, and I knew it was special. I didn’t quite know why it felt special, and I certainly didn’t say, “This is it!” at that age, but I knew something about that was special. I guess that sort of just stayed with me for many, many years. Then you go into high school, and I got into sports, and I was interested in girls, and everything’s kind of a mishmash of confusion and desires. Then I had a cognition around 21 or 22 that this is what I should do.

Continued below…

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