When Breaking Bad premiered on AMC in 2008, Bryan Cranston was a 52-year-old actor best known for playing the dad on the hit comedy Malcolm in the Middle. Six seasons and four Emmys later, he’s entered the annals of all-time TV greats. Plus, he’s proven himself a big-ticket draw with his sold-out Broadway run as LBJ in All the Way, not to mention a major movie star with a Best Actor Oscar nomination for 2015’s Trumbo.
All those journeyman qualities have made Cranston a relatable and beloved figure in the entertainment industry. And last weekend, his fans crowded into a New York City cinema to watch his new movie Wakefield on the one screen in the country that it’s showing before expanding to more theaters in coming weeks.
Joined by the movie’s director Robin Swicord (an Oscar nominee for writing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Cranston appeared after a Saturday showing for a Q&A (moderated by your writer).
Wakefield is about a mild-mannered businessman who one day impulsively decides to drop out of his own life. He lives in a room above his garage and spies on his wife (Jennifer Garner) and two kids from a dirty window. Read EW’s review here.
Cranston, who these days cannot walk the streets without fans requesting selfies and autographs, could relate. “Celebrity and fame came as a result of my love for acting,” he said. “But it’s not anything I sought. I became a working actor at the age of 25, and for a long time, things were pretty good. But then in my 50s, I found myself in a maelstrom of craziness, which nobody could have predicted. After Malcolm in the Middle, I didn’t really have to work again for money reasons, and my whole philosophy became that I didn’t want to make any decision based on financial need. So I secured my little nest egg. I kept my nut low, and money, to me, meant freedom.”
Cranston was offered several father roles in TV comedies after Malcolm in the Middle. He turned all of them down — which led Vince Gilligan, who had cast the actor a decade earlier on The X-Files, to consider him for the role of Walter White on Breaking Bad.
In discussing himself as a sort of “moving target” as an actor, never allowing himself to get typecast, Cranston referred to his participation in last year’s comedy Why Him?, costarring James Franco. “I turned that down twice. It was a silly comedy, and the story was not a lot to hang your hat on. Seemed kind of basic. I would rather not work than do something I wasn’t into. But here’s how it worked: After seven years of Malcolm in the Middle, I turned down a few silly dad parts. Then after Breaking Bad, I was the drama guy. And all these drama offers came flooding in.
“Why Him? was a lead role in a studio comedy. And I thought, ‘I need to take a risk here. I need to go into something that’s not fully formed, and hopefully James [Franco] and [director] John Hamburg are willing to work on it.’ And they were. We got together four or five times, for hours and hours, just to hone it and make it better. And it was a blast.”
But Cranston added, “Not everybody has this luxury, I’ll tell you that. When I was first starting out, when my agent called and said, ‘They want you to be in…,’ I said ‘Yes!’ before she finished the sentence. Because I needed a job. And a lot of us should say yes when we need a job.”
Asked if he had any advice for independent filmmakers, Cranston offered an anecdote that underscored his generosity. Here is his story about the making of Writer’s Block, a 10-minute short film which you can watch below:
“Well, make movies. If you’re a writer, write. If you’re an actor, act. You can act in student films, which I’ve done a lot of all through my career.
“Four or five years ago, I was shooting a movie called Cold Comes the Night. Another cool little independent film. I got to play a blind Polish hit man — and it’s not a comedy. We were shooting in New York when Hurricane Sandy was coming through. The production said, ‘Guys, we’re shutting down until the hurricane passes. Everybody stays in the hotel.’
“So I said to all the interns and theproductionn assistants, ‘Let’s make a movie. Let’s use the cameras and all the equipment. Who wants to do it?’ They were all like, ‘Hooray! Yeah!’
“So I proposed to them, ‘Whoever wants to join in, write a short film. Don’t put your name on it, but slip it under my hotel room door. And whoever I pick, everybody else will be the crew.’ So I read all of them; there were five. Some were like, ‘And then he travels to the moon…’ Come on now, we’ve got two days to do this! I picked one that was shoot-able.
“We grabbed the cameras that were in quarantine. Our producers looked the other way. We got our sound equipment, bounce boards, some LED lights, everything we needed. And for the next two days, we made a short named Writer’s Block. And it was so fun to work with hungry young artists who need to work and should be working.”