Monday 19 March 2018

Cranston can't escape his alter ego

Memoir: A Life in Parts, Bryan Cranston, Orion, hdbk, 288 pages, €16.99

Big break: Bryan Cranston
Big break: Bryan Cranston
A Life in Parts by Bryan Cranston
Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad

Hilary A White

The 'Breaking Bad' star's memoir focuses on his most famous show.

Is it a tad premature to be receiving a biography from Bryan Cranston? In an age when any vacuous celebrity is given licence to scribble up a glittery biography in time for Christmas, a memoir by the 60-year-old screen star does not hum with the same air of triviality. At the same time, Cranston is an actor in thrall to his method and process. Breaking Bad is the role that he will be best remembered for, but surely Cranston has one or two more iconic peaks to ascend?

He alludes to as much in the closing pages of this slim autobiography as he explains the CAPS ("Cranston Assessment of Project Scale") that he developed to vet the skip-loads of scripts that were coming through the letterbox after Walter White's story had been told. The system worked with Argo (2012) and Trumbo (2015). Less so with Godzilla (2014). As Warren Buffet told him during a chance encounter on the set of Breaking Bad, the "secret" is to try to make more right decisions than wrong ones.

The slightly top-heavy feel to A Life in Parts as far as "Cranston The Actor" is concerned is not surprising, given how late to the fame party he came and the manner in which Breaking Bad's widespread adulation changed his life. The final quarter is devoted to Vince Gilligan's New Mexico urban noir series about Walter White, the chemistry teacher and family man who establishes a crystal-meth empire after being diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad
Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad

Rightly or wrongly, the show is placed alongside The Sopranos and The Wire as examples of television's superior format for developing a character.

Cranston is in no doubt about this, and painstakingly spells out what attracted him to the role and why the masses duly responded. There are many anecdotes from the set to illustrate his points and it will undoubtedly fascinate devotees and Breaking Bad completists (at whom, you suspect, this release is squarely aimed). However, all this has the effect of making the preceding passages seem token by comparison. In one lively section, he recalls a spectacularly unhinged girlfriend who responded violently to a break-up and makes sure to mention that he fantasised about bashing her head against a brick wall "with metronomic consistency" so that "clumps of hair and bits of skin and brain matter stuck to the floor". It feels like he is only including this because Walter White fans will get a kick out of such a sharp dose of darkness.

Yes, there was a life before Walter White for the journeyman actor, and each occupation and pursuit - "roles" - is used here as a punctuation mark in that journey. Malcolm in the Middle is remembered with much affection. For many of us, the role of the man-childish dad was Cranston's natural habitat, a place where his pliable face and clowning physicality could be given free rein.

In more serious fare, it is hard to shake the idea that he is "an actor acting". His guest role on Seinfeld as the vaguely sleazy dentist Dr Tim is another example of his functioning funny bone and paragraphs are devoted here to praising Jerry Seinfeld's genius.

Even years later, when he stepped into the Y-fronts and meth-lab overalls of Breaking Bad, that mugging quality, the hanging jaw and the hunched, near comical exasperation in the frown, was more Jacques Tati than Jack the Ripper. Further back, there were all sorts of endeavours. Choking chickens with cold accuracy on his grandfather's poultry farm as a boy. Getting screamed at by Hitchcock while working as a hotel security guard. Studying police science.

The list continues and always comes accompanied by a telling parable and a life lesson. By the time he is negotiating fame in the wake of Breaking Bad and financially supporting his jack-of-all-trades father, Cranston is offering less than revelatory insights into his craft. We learn that actors can contribute a lot on set to our understanding of a character, and that it takes many people working together to make a successful TV show. Who'd have thought.

In between these drab nuggets and the hammy insistence on shoving in speechy colloquialisms ("son of a bitch", "goddamit", "my ass"), Cranston does emerge as somebody very much in tune with his inner frequency after many lost years.

His childhood, as the son of an unreliable father and scorned mother, was unsettled, broken and scarred. Outside, he explains, he is measured, while inside he is prone to eruptions of emotion after bottling up so much stress in the days when men weren't allowed to cry.

It was so bad that when the time came to propose to partner Robin Dearden (they met on the set of Airwolf), he was unable to say the words looking directly into her face. It is in these recesses between the sets and scripts that a more tangible sense of Cranston trickles through, one mercifully unencumbered by the spectre of Walter White.

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