INTERVIEW – First, Underground Stimulant Chemist. Now, President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Bryan Cranston on similarities between his role as Walter White on Breaking Bad & his returning role as Lyndon B. Johnson on HBO’s All The Way
By Abbie Bernstein
Bryan Cranston won four Outstanding Lead Actor Emmys and pop culture immortality for his performance as high school teacher-turned-meth-maker Walter White in BREAKING BAD. In 2014, Cranston also won a Tony for his Broadway performance as U.S. President Lyndon Baines Johnson in Robert Schenkkan’s play ALL THE WAY.
Now HBO has made a telefilm version of ALL THE WAY, which sees Cranston bringing his LBJ to the screen, directed by Jay Roach, with Steven Spielberg as one of the executive producers. Schenkkan wrote the screenplay for the adaptation, which also stars Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson and Anthony Mackie as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(L-R) Actor Anthony Mackie, president of HBO Films Len Amato, actors Bryan Cranston and Melissa Leo and director/executive producer Jay Roach
✤ALL THE WAY premieres on HBO Saturday, May 21.
During HBO’s portion of the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena, California, Cranston participates in a Q&A session for ALL THE WAY. Widely known as one of the most accommodating and cordial actors alive, Cranston then makes himself available for some follow-up discussion with reporters.
One obvious question is how Cranston feels about returning to the role, and a very similar script, after playing LBJ on stage for six months.
“I just felt it was such a great story and such a wonderful experience,” he says of his Broadway work. “But theatre is theatre, and in the six months that we were performing ALL THE WAY,” the audiences were small compared to those offered by cable television. “We could now reach more and tell this important story by way of HBO. And Robert and I met early on with Steven, and he was on board. He said, ‘We want to tell this story, and it’s an important story to tell.’”
Asked about Leo as LBJ’s devoted spouse Lady Byrd, Cranston says:
“Melissa is a remarkable actor, number one, and comes about it in a very kind of shy way, saying, ‘Well, I’m not very political, and I don’t know, and I’ll just kind of softly have to …’ Every actor approaches a character differently, and we just hit it off immediately and embraced the differences of how we approach characters and that sort of thing, much like you would in a marriage, like, ‘Oh, she does this and I do that, oh, okay.’ It’s how you get to know each other. She was wonderful.”
Bryan Cranston as Dean Stella on One Life to Live, 1985
Cranston and Leo both did daytime dramas early in their careers – he was in the 1985 season of ONE LIFE TO LIVE, while she was on ALL MY CHILDREN.
“Daytime was an incredible learning experience for all of us,” Cranston recalls. “Technology killed daytime television. The problem with daytime television wasn’t the talent level, the problem was the quantity, the demand for every single day, coming up with a forty-page, fifty-page script. You just can’t keep quality up doing that. You’ve got another one tomorrow, and another one, and another one, and another one. You’d go dry, that’s just inhuman.”
Asked if he’d return to series television after the high bar set by BREAKING BAD, Cranston replies:
“I love story. So if story was on television, I would definitely consider it. But – it’s arbitrary – I gave myself a three-year moratorium from doing a series regular on another show like that, because what happened with BREAKING BAD and Walter White was, it was like a snowball effect that became an avalanche, and I just realized, I had to step away from it and get out of its way, as opposed to trying to dismantle it or harness it or something.”
In researching LBJ, Cranston went to the Texan’s ranch:
“We got a full backstage tour of the range, saw his home quarters and his bedrooms and things, and the place where he passed away, where he was frightfully afraid he was going to die of a heart attack, and sure enough, he did.”
As to the challenges of taking on the persona of LBJ, Cranston responds:
“I think a sense of risk-taking is inherent in actors. There’s a feeling like when you were playing sports as a young kid. Actors are the ones who said, ‘Hit it to me,’ or ‘Give me the ball, let me take the shot with three seconds left, let me take that chance to win,’ as opposed to many more people who would say, ‘Oh, please, God, don’t give it to me, don’t make me do that.’ I think inherent in actors is that sense of, ‘I’ll give it a shot, I’ll see what we can do.’ I think that’s the biggest thing.”
Does this mean that it’s easier to play a leader than a character who is withdrawn or reticent?
“No, because we’ve certainly been around people who are more reserved and passive, and so that’s actually quite a big challenge, to be able to say, ‘Okay, you have a certain ambition or desire or a secret, and now sit on it, and let it just settle down, and other characters are going to be the more visible, the bigger characters.’ So everything is a challenge. Every time you find something new, it’s a challenge.”
The finale of Breaking Bad brought in an audience of 10.3 million viewers and is often quoted as “The Best TV Show of All Time.”
Does Cranston see any similarities between his Walter White and LBJ, other than the fact that he’s played both?
“I suppose you can find similar qualities with any two people, right? You can say, ‘Well, male, same age …’ But yeah, I think ambition is certainly one. In Walter White, it was more blind ambition. He didn’t know where he was going, all he knew was where he was running away from.”
“LBJ was a machine. He only wanted politics, he only thought about politics, he only read books on politics. He didn’t care about sports, theatre, music, he didn’t know about anything, only politics, and he knew it really well, backwards and forwards. He studied spouse names and children’s names, so if you came into his office and he wanted something from you, [LBJ voice] ‘My God, how’s Marjorie doin’, I know she had a little bit of a problem the other day, she all right?’ And all of a sudden, you’re back on your heels, you’re like, ‘My God, he knows my wife’s name. She’s much better.’ [LBJ voice], ‘And the two little ones, and the twins you have there, are they still playin’ ball?’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, my God, he listened, he knew.’ And now I [as LBJ] go, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what I want to talk to you about.’ And he’d move in on you, and all of a sudden, you’re in his back pocket, and you’re going to do what he wants, because he’s putting the Johnson treatment to you, and by God, it works.”
On aspect of playing LBJ that Cranston didn’t have to worry about on Broadway was the transformative makeup job that he has for the telefilm. “On stage,” Cranston explains:
“you were looking at more of a [metaphoric] wide-angle lens, and cinematically, we knew we were coming in close, and we had a lot of discussions among us [Cranston and director Roach] and the other producers about how extensive we should go with the makeup, and we decided to go full and go as close as we can. Fortunately, my own natural physical makeup is what every man searches for – beady eyes and thin lips. And that’s what I share with LBJ. It was about two hours and fifteen minutes every day to get into the makeup, Bill Corso, who designed and created the makeup, is a genius and a lovely man to work with. Also, we had lifts in my shoes and little pieces to pull my ears out a little bit.”
For the stage play, Cranston says, he did his own makeup.
“I had little ear drops [to make the lobes look larger] that were flesh-colored, and then I painted that in, put some gray in my hair and slicked it back. It became sort of a Zen experience for me as I’m preparing for that performance that night. I came to really enjoy that moment of taking him on.”
Photos of LBJ were in Cranston’s dressing room for both the play and the film.
“It’s almost like you’re checking in with the character, seeking approval of some sort, going, ‘Am I doing you justice?’ Because I think that’s what we feel most definitely, is a sense of responsibility to the history and the essence of those characters.”