Breaking good for Bryan Cranston
Irish-American TV star Bryan Cranston was the son of two actors and knows luck plays its part in his career. But the 50-something had the talent to make the best of it when 'Breaking Bad' became a giant hit
When I first arrive to meet actor Bryan Cranston, the only sign of him at the table is his slightly battered iPhone, marking his place like an electronic familiar.
He fills the room when he enters, looking reassuringly vigorous compared to the cadaverous appearance that defines his lead role in the monstrously successful TV series Breaking Bad (just as with The Wire, TG4 was the station that realised what a winner it was -- and are showing it on Thursdays at 11pm).
Cranston is distantly Irish- American (one of his great grandmothers was from Clare) and it shows in the reddish tinge to his beard and the intent expression in his green-blue eyes. His speaks emphatically, with the slight stagey quality of an old school thesp, his voice bassy and broad. His presence is much more commanding than that of his best known TV alter ego.
Five years ago, Bryan Cranston was, to be frank, a bit of an 'also ran' in showbiz terms. He'd had a stab at the big time as the Dad in Malcolm in the Middle -- so he was a successful support actor, if not quite a household name.
And he worked constantly -- he has a list of credits and bit parts as long as your arm. But by the time he reached 50, it seemed that his moment to set the world aflame as a leading man had probably passed.
Fast forward to now, and he's the kind of television star who could probably spend his spare time counting his dollars and polishing his Emmys, should he be so inclined.
The reason for all this change of fortunes is Breaking Bad. In the show he plays Walter White, a 50-something chemistry teacher in suburban Albuquerque. He's in a rut -- the therapy for his 16-year-old son's cerebral palsy has forced him to take a second job in a car-wash, his 40-something wife is unexpectedly pregnant, he's seen his less talented colleagues get on in life -- but success has always eluded him. And then this life-long non-smoker develops lung cancer. It's terminal.
His worry is not for himself, but how to provide for his family after he dies. He's a good guy: boring, but good.
His answer to his predicament is to use his chemistry skills to manufacture top quality crystal meth for the local drug market. From here it gets complicated -- but Breaking Bad is a smash hit wherever it screens. It has done for Cranston's career what crystal meth did for Walter White's. It changed everything.
Today, he's in town to talk about his role in Argo, the new Ben Affleck flick in which he plays a CIA agent. It's a stylish, quality political thriller sure to please the critics and the popcorn crowd alike and undoubtedly one of the biggest releases of the year. Cranston's involvement in it is further evidence that his wagon is now well and truly hitched to Hollywood's golden circle.
He's not too A-List yet to eschew a bit of tourism. He tells me that he's using the excuse of his promo tour in England to go and visit Windsor Castle with his wife. And when he's in Clare, he's fond of a pint in O'Connell's pub in Doolin.
He likes it there because of the easy pace and immediate familiarity of people. "Within 20 minutes of my wife, my daughter and I being there," he says, chatting about the last time he called in, "there was a child on my lap, because his father was playing drums and the child came over to me and [he makes the noise of a baby demanding to be picked up]. So, I'm holding this child and having a little Irish stew, and sipping my Guinness and having the greatest time there is. You can't put that in a brochure."
Brought up in LA, the son of two actors, he admits there was something preordained about his career choice.
"It's the family business and it's what you've seen and what you know," he says. "Although, my father was an actor, but he wasn't a very successful one. He made a living. He'd have a good year, a bad year, then bad, bad, bad, then good, decent... it was completely erratic. That was the norm," he says.
"We'd go to the set and we'd go to studios and that was my life as a kid. Parents teach you how to behave, but they also teach you how not to behave. You look and you go, I do not want to do what my father just did. I don't want to go down that road. So they are always teaching -- some good, some bad."
His own trajectory has been more consistent, certainly. And he doesn't find it odd that he should be reaching his peak only now. He thinks success of this calibre "could happen at any time, to anyone".
"But what I do know out of 33 years of doing this professionally," he goes on, "is that you have to be talented, you have to have perseverance and you have to have patience, but you have to... be prepared if you can, for luck.
"Without a healthy dose of luck throughout a career, you will not be successful. Anyone who is successful in the arts can point to moments when, all of a sudden, the guy was sick and they had to go on. It takes luck.
"And there were a series of lucky breaks that I can specifically point to -- I can say exactly where the lucky breaks were for me. Without them I wouldn't have a successful career."
Like his father, he too married an actress. Robin Deardon is his second wife, and the pair met 26 years ago while shooting a television programme together in which his character took her character hostage.
"In those times, it was always, if you are a male, you have to be the bad guy, because all the good guys are the stars on the show. And if you come on the show as a female, you are the victim. You'd either get killed or be under the threat of harm or something.
"We were able to spend eight days together with other actors and it was great. We each had a boyfriend, girlfriend situation so it was the perfect scenario -- you didn't have that sort of sexual tension. We could flirt and nothing would happen. It was fun.
"A year later we bumped into each other and we continued it and pretty soon it was like, yeah, let's do this."
The partnership seems functional, and very solid after a quarter of a century together. References to her pepper his conversation, and when I remark that first he captured her and then he kept her for good, he says,"Yeah. And I'm not letting her go!"
Cranston jumped at the chance to do Argo because it promised to take his career in a different direction again. Having become such a badass on television, he relished the part of a good guy on the side of the establishment. "I look for something that's different so ... when Argo came along, it was someone who was pleasant and doing the right thing for the right reasons, a good guy -- a troubled man, a complicated man, and I like that."
He researched rigorously for the role, meeting a lot of CIA officers and drawing on his own experiences as an occasional director so that his involvement was as proactive as possible.
"I would talk to Ben in Argo along the way about his approach to certain things, because I'm always learning as well as a director. And I would pitch ideas, or I'd see something and I'd say: 'Ben, I've a pitch...' just to get an understanding and to try to be helpful because I know what he's going through."
He says that acting in films is a different skill to doing TV, because you have a sense of the complete arc of your character's story. You know what happens at the end.
"With Breaking Bad, I don't know what's happening. We have eight more episodes to shoot before the end -- and I have no idea what it's going to be. I don't know the story. I just swim.
"It's a different story. In a way it's more honest, and more real. Because we don't know our story. We think we know what's going to happen tomorrow or next week. We have it in our schedule what we're doing but that could change. And that's more real for me as Walter White to just play it day by day and swim upstream to see where I'm going to end up."
'Argo' is showing nationwide from November 7.
'Breaking Bad' is on TG4, Thursdays at 11pm
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