Talk about Bryan Cranston and the conversation inevitably turns to his leading role in “Breaking Bad” as the high school chemistry teacher-turned-drug-lord Walter White. But Cranston’s career has many layers, as detailed in A Life in Parts, his autobiography published in 2016. Many of his early gigs were comedic roles, as on “Seinfeld” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” and he is an Academy Award nominee, a four-time Emmy Award winner, as well as a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Tony Award winner.
Talk to Cranston (who just turned 61), and the discussion flows eloquently from the importance of fatherhood and a painful childhood, to the ironies of fame, his appreciation for connecting through art and the lesson of having no expectations. His insight, warmth and sense of humor demonstrate that Cranston, despite choosing to do his own paragliding stunt for next year’s Untouchable, has his feet firmly on the ground.
C-VILLE: You’ve had a long career, with major, household name-type success coming late. What inspired you to write an autobiography when you seem busier than ever?
BC: I’ve become a household name like sponge or vacuum. That “household name” always gets me. It’s like lamp.
No, it’s funny [laughing]. …I’m one that likes to take risks. Certainly the opening chapter in the book talks about the emotional risk that actors take—and that you’d be willing to take. The risk of being possibly embarrassed, the risk of ridicule, criticism, all those things. You have to be willing to suffer the slings and arrows, as one great writer once put it. And so, it was an opportunity for me to take a risk into a realm that was not part of my repertoire—writing a book.
In writing the book, reliving your life story, what did you learn about yourself?
I learned that I enjoy the storytelling process, the written word. Many of the stories are ones that I’ve been telling friends and family for years. The one thing that surprised me a little bit: It’s very intimate. I mean I might tell these stories to a handful of friends at a dinner party or something. But when you write it down on paper and it releases, intimate details of your life, personal and professional, it does expose you to an enormous cross section of people around the world and they are now in on your story.
My makeup artist is reading the book while shooting the film I’m working on right now, and every morning I come in and she’s like, “Well, I learned this about you and I learned about that about you,” and it’s kind of interesting to see her impression of my life. My driver did the same thing. He said, “Wow, there’s a lot of similarities.”
It’s a very socially engaging exercise and they want to then open up their lives to me. I think that’s what good art does, whether it’s in written form or visual or musical, it stimulates conversation after the piece is done—and hopefully that’s what this [book] is doing.
You watched your dad struggle as an actor. Why did you pursue the same path?
I guess I was exposed to it early on through him and my mother as well. We did garage and school productions.
I believe our parents are always teaching us something, what to do and what not to do. I look back on it and I realize that pain that my father put himself through and put his family through, and the path that he chose, and I make a distinction between the path that he chose and the method of that path. I deduce that his method was to become a star and anything less than that was unacceptable, and it doomed him I think.
I really didn’t want to go into that. I was thinking of going into sports or sports management or police work. I had a turn in college…a very simple, natural emotion took over and it made me stop my path toward becoming a policeman and set my sights on traveling for a while to figure out what it is, who I was and where I was supposed to belong in this world.
What role do you most identify with?
There’s probably aspects of many different roles. But I’m a father in real life, and at my age I’m playing fathers all the time, so a father is someone that’s a very comfortable feeling to be in.
I have very, kind of, wholesome values sort of. ..I’ve always wanted to have a normal life in my personal life so my professional life could go insane, could go crazy…to have that travel into the stratosphere, because I always knew that my foundation was sound, and I could always return. You can’t do so much if it’s reversed. If you have a crazy personal life, it’s going to upset the apple cart at some point. You can’t sustain a crazy personal life and a crazy, risk-filled professional life. It will burn out—those are flashes that happen. So I think that, too, is something I witnessed in my father.
Once I realized I was going to do this, well, what do I really want? Well, I really enjoy acting. I enjoy the empowerment that it gives me. So if I just focus on that, and not any arbitrary plateau of achievement, then I should be okay. And I’m willing to put it forth.
I don’t feel like this business, or this world for that matter, owes me anything. If it comes to me through hard work I can celebrate it. Not to the point where it’s like, okay, I’m home free now. No, it’s not like that. The work never stops. The work never stops. In any successful business, I think that’s a common denominator.
What new hobbies or skills have you acquired by playing or preparing for a role?
The side benefit to being an actor is that you get access to experts in the field of whatever you need. In this movie that we are shooting now, I will be paragliding.
You haven’t tried it yet?
No, and production wisely put it at the very end of the shooting schedule. Once we get everything shot, then we do the paragliding. And they should, because if there was an accident, God forbid, they’d still have their movie. It could be…at the end of the movie in the credits, you know, “in memory of Bryan Cranston” [laughing].
I talked to Kevin Hart. He and I are together on this movie and I asked, “Are you paragliding?” and he goes, “There’s no way!” He says, “I won’t increase the odds of my eventual death. I like where it is right now.” But I look forward to those things.
As actors, we move on. I’ve played astronauts and been in spacesuits, and I learned how to cook crystal methamphetamine from DEA chemists—and probably forgot how to do it. I’ve played doctors, lawyers and been able to travel the world and it’s a great, great life. I still don’t feel there’s a level of expectation attached to it. Things are going great now, but I know they’ll subside.
Do people ask you a lot of questions about meth because of “Breaking Bad”?
People by and large are able to differentiate between myself and the character, but they are curious as to “They really taught you?” Yes, they really taught Aaron Paul and myself the steps on how to make pure methamphetamine. It’s absolutely crucial that it’s done in an exact order and you have to do it at certain times and certain temperatures. You know there’s definitely an alchemy involved. You have to know what you’re doing, because those that don’t often blow themselves up.
Did you actually make it?
No, that would be illegal [laughing].
I read that you collect baseball memorabilia.
Really? Oh no…
No, it’s not true. It’s funny because now in this day and age of instant, quote unquote news, or I should say information, there are pictures taken and a bombardment of information.
For my 40th birthday, my wife [threw a party]—I love baseball and I’m a big Dodgers fan—some people gave me gifts relating to baseball…and some reporter saw those in my office and took a leap and said, “Oh, he’s a collector of baseball memorabilia.” And so if one person writes it, it gets on Wikipedia or something, it gets out. So, no. There was an old saying when I was a kid. Believe half of what you see and none of what you hear. And if you do that, you should be pretty safe.
Do you collect anything?
No. And the older I get, the less things I want.
There a few things that operate as touchstones or talismans from certain parts of my life. A few things we would take in a fire, art or anything that’s emotionally meaningful to you, but, in truth, I could get rid of it all and not feel like I’ve lost any great thing.
It’s all about your personal relationships and experiences. Aside from that, what else is there to truly enjoy or treasure?