With Your Honor, Bryan Cranston hopes audiences are ready to see past Walter White
Bryan Cranston has done it all during his nearly 40 years in Hollywood, including playing a judge. Or at least he thinks he has. With more than 100 credits to his name, it's hard for him to keep track, but Your Honor does definitely mark one first: Cranston leading a post–Breaking Bad series.
Seven years after wrapping his legendary run as drug kingpin Walter White, the 64-year-old actor is back playing a law-abiding man who turns to crime to help his family. This time around, there's no meth empire — rather, a father forced to choose between protecting his son and upholding the law after a deadly hit-and-run.
Ahead of Your Honor's Sunday limited series premiere on Showtime, Cranston spoke to EW about needing a break from White, waiting for the right Breaking Bad followup, and exploring the lengths a parent will go for their child.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I'm sure the "TV return of Bryan Cranston" is something that many people have been interested in being a part of over the last few years, so was it deliberate on your end to give some space between Breaking Bad and your next TV vehicle? Maybe let audiences forget a bit about Walter White?
BRYAN CRANSTON: That was exactly my thinking. And I came up an arbitrary number, which I stuck to. Once I knew Breaking Bad was ending, I thought, "Okay, I'll give it three years before I show up on television again." And that's what I did. I felt like I needed a break from the character, and I think fans needed a break from the character in order to accept me as whoever I was going to become next. So it was kind of a mutual thought that it was for me and the audience. You don't want to stay too long at a party, and sometimes if actors work too much then it's like, "Oh God, again?!" [Laughs] "Haven't I just seen him in three movies?" They get kind of fatigued by it, I think, so it's better to be a little more choosy. And so that's why I went and did Broadway and did a play in London and just got on a different medium to be able to express myself.
Is it hard to commit to a new series following such incredible success with Breaking Bad? It's almost, like, how can I ever find a job like that again? Or can you not look at it that way?
You can, and you do. I think my comedy Malcolm in the Middle set the bar high on a situation comedy, and then the bar is equally high on the drama side with Breaking Bad. So that's why it took so long for me to want to commit to something of more than just one appearance in a show. It had to be the right thing, and I think Your Honor is the right thing.
What made Your Honor that right thing?
Whenever there's a character who is facing an emotional, ethical dilemma, it draws me in. And with this dramatic construct of having your son make a mistake and panic and leave the scene of an accident, which results in a death, is disturbing and very, very possible. You go, "Yeah, I think under stress and shock, you could make a mistake like that." That possibility lends itself to some really terrific drama.
You've shown throughout your career that you don't want to be put in a box, like when you transitioned from Hal on Malcolm to Walt on Breaking Bad. No one expected that. So was there something that felt unique to you about this character of Judge Michael Desiato?
Compared to Walter, he's older and the situation was equally stressful for the guy but different. There is some similarities to it; if you draw a Venn diagram there would be some overlap where he is experiencing tremendous anxiety and stress and pressure and threats. But I think what ultimately got me was that the nature of goodness and when someone tries to become someone they're not. This is what was similar to Walter White, he tried to become someone he's not and that's the same thing here. Someone venturing out away from who they are to gain something else, and I think that's a great life lesson: to be genuine, authentic, honest, forthright, noble. And all of those things are questionable in my character Michael Desiato.
So much of this series is about the lengths people will go for their children. As a parent, was that something that you instinctively felt?
I think if you were to ask any parent, "What is your worst nightmare?" — and unless the parent is irresponsible or coldhearted — that person is going to say, "Something happening to my child." You ask a parent, "Would you give your life for the life of your child?" And it's, like, "Yes. Yes, I would." If you had to be faced with that option, you would. So if something happens to your child, it's a piece of your heart that is broken. That's the depth of it. Are you a father yet?
No, not yet.
Well, you'll see. You'll see how for the first time in your life you'll feel a depth of love and joy that you've never felt before. But on the opposite side of that coin is a vulnerability and fear that you've never felt before. That's just what parents go through. And it's worth it, because, ultimately, it's a beautiful experience of human life. But there is risk involved.
In playing this out, is it something that you had to think about yourself, like what you would do?
Anytime that something is well-constructed, as this series is, it's easier for the actor to find themselves in a position of compassion and empathy for their character, and that's from an objective viewpoint. And once you sign on and you start to get subjective about it, you have faith that what you initially felt is what the audience will ultimately feel as well.
From what I've seen so far, there's no traditional villain here. Like Michael Stuhlbarg's character is a vicious mob boss but he's also a grieving father looking for the person who killed his son. Did that approach stand out to you as well?
What Breaking Bad helped to contribute to is the raising of the bar as far as dramatic storytelling across the board. The idea that anyone is one-dimensional is boring. If you have a bad guy who just hates people and loves to kill others, it's like, "Eh, okay." What's more interesting is to see a bad guy put three bullets in someone, put his gun away, and then go home and be loving and tender to his little daughter — that's frightening! That's when you go, "Oh my god, what is that guy like?! I'm really fascinated with that." We are adaptable human beings and we're are also able to compartmentalize, so one could be a Brutus person to one group and be soft and vulnerable in another. It's certainly more interesting in the narrative.
Like Albuquerque on Breaking Bad, New Orleans is a vital character on Your Honor. What extra flavor did that city add?
There's a vibrancy, a history, a sexiness to it — the life, the food, the jazz, the people. And there's also an underbelly to New Orleans that can't be denied. We have a line when my character talks to his friend and I say, "But is what you're doing legal?" And he says, "It's New Orleans legal." [Laughs] You kind of get it.
Did you finish filming before the COVID shutdown?
No, I'm in New Orleans now. We have two more months of shooting. I'm acting, producing, and directing, so I'm spinning a lot of plates now. We're still in pre-production, but there's a tremendous attention to the COVID protocols and adhering to that. Boy, it will be a big victory for us if we can get through and none of our 275 cast and crew get sick. I think that would be something to be proud of.
You've had such a long career and seemingly done it all. What is something you still want to do? Where is your attention next?
I want to rest. [Laughs] My next project is rest. I'm very fortunate I can determine my own future, so I will hopefully choose wisely. I was kind of joking, but in a way kind of not. I only want to do projects that I'm extremely passionate about; anything less than that is foolish. So I think I might be working a little less than I normally have. I say that but there are several things in the pipeline that are in various stages of development, and any one of those could come to fruition soon. Nothing for the rest of this year, just focusing on Your Honor and directing the last episode, so I'll be hyper-focused and super busy on that.
Have you played a judge before? I looked through your extensive IMDB but it's hard to tell for sure.
I probably have. It seems to me that I have. I don't remember offhand.
Well, now that you are TV's newest judge, I was hoping you could help me with a few quick rulings. You're a diehard baseball fan, so the charge here is that Major League Baseball needs to permanently switch from 10 to 16 playoff teams, like they just did for the shortened COVID season.
That should be found guilty and sent to the chair or life imprisonment. I don't like the expanded playoffs because you have really good teams that on any given day could have not a great game and lose it and then the pressure and tension, like you saw with the Chicago Cubs losing two games. I think they're a better team than the Marlins, so I was surprised by that. I think when you have best of five that's a better sampling to see how good a team is.
A film that has been talked about a lot this year was 2011's Contagion, which you starred in. This charge is for now feeling too real for a rewatch.
Guilty. Too real — and you have to watch it.
Lastly, the 2020 Emmys is charged with snubbing Better Call Saul stars Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn.
Guilty! Guilty! Guilty!