Breaking News: Cranston on Broadway
“I like playing big, troubled, dysfunctional men,” Bryan Cranston says, summarizing, as well as anyone could, the secret of his success. With his everyman looks and all-American aura of decency, Cranston can swerve, without warning, into dark and perilous territory. He makes you believe that a mild-mannered high-school chemistry teacher could become a homicidal meth cooker (as he did as Walter White on the hit AMC TV show, “Breaking Bad”) or that a bombastic, mercurial Texan can, with cunning and charisma, pass the nation’s major Civil Rights laws (as LBJ in the television drama and Broadway play, “All the Way”). Complex men who do great or terrible deeds: Not just any actor can work that magic.
Cranston’s latest transformation is now on Broadway, where “Network” is running thru April 28. A dazzling, multimedia stage version of the 1976 Paddy Cheyefsky-scripted movie, “Network” tells the story of news anchor Howard Beale (Cranston), who gets fired, cracks up on air and unexpectedly becomes a ratings magnet for raving against the status quo. He exhorts his viewers to stick their heads out the window and scream, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Recently, over lunch, the actor talked about Howard Beale and keeping anonymous on the streets of New York.
The movie “Network” came out in 1976. What were you doing at the time?
Traveling across the country with my brother on motorcycle. I saw it and thought, “Oh my God, can you imagine: Terror Hour?” Vigilantes and terrorists negotiating their own TV show!
How is the satire still relevant?
When Paddy Chayefsky was asked why he wrote it, he said that what we really should be afraid of is absolute beliefs. Once you say, “I dogmatically believe in this,” it’ll shake your world, because the world isn’t like that. Being dogmatic doesn’t make you languid or facile.
What is Howard Beale’s belief system?
It’s such a beautifully sad, compelling journey for Howard. It starts where he’s depressed. He’s past his prime. Probably drinks too much. So you see in the beginning where he delivers the news dispassionately. The man is calloused over and the only thing that would hit him is an epiphany. So I have to play that he has an enlightenment. It’s up to the audience to decide whether or not he’s gone mad, or maybe something has occurred to him.
Howard’s “mad as hell” speech is a real showstopper: You take this long, agonized pause. How did you and director Ivo van Hove find that moment?
Ivo is an insightful, sensory director. He’s not willing to pull a performance out of anyone. So the actor has to come in prepared. Ivo demands that every actor memorize their lines for the first day of rehearsal. For the “mad as hell” scene, he said, “Take your time.” He’s always willing to be wrong, but the only way to find out if you’re right is if you’re willing to be wrong. So he said, “Come in and take it slowly, slowly, slowly,” and I did. We tried it several times that way, and then almost like a Howard epiphany I went, “Oh, oh, I got it.” Howard gets this epiphany, then it’s fading from his mind as he rushes to the TV studio to tell everyone. The big message from God, or wherever, has just evaporated from his mind.
You do animated work: “Isle of Dogs,” “Family Guy.” And you produce an animated show for Sony Crackle, “SuperMansion.” What’s the attraction?
I find it challenging. I don’t consider myself to be very good at it.
But you’re so good with voices and celebrity impressions.
I have fun doing that. It’s a different technique, but I don’t feel as comfortable doing the voice work as I imagined in my head. That’s why I continue to do it, because I don’t think I’m very good at it.
Is Walter White coming back in a prequel? Is he even truly dead?
He’s dead as far as I know. But because it’s a prequel, if [“Breaking Bad” creator] Vince Gilligan said, “Bryan, I’d like you to be on ‘Better Call Saul,’ I’d say, ‘Of course.’” Because I know Vince is proud and diligent in protecting his characters. It wouldn’t be something for stunt effect.
I heard you got your first tattoo because of the show?
Yeah, the show logo. [Shows the inside of his right-hand ring finger] “Br Ba.” I got it almost six years ago. When we finished the last day of production in April.
What about classic drama?
Well, Lear is probably what I would have my eye on at some point. I’m old enough, and yet, I like to try and create something new. While I don’t read reviews, I know that I would be compared to all the other people who have ever done Lear.
What do you do in New York for fun?
I go to museums, art exhibits. Not so much sitting-down things because I need to get up and move around.
Also so you won’t be mobbed by fans.
I don’t look for attention. I always wear a hat. I can walk in Manhattan with my friend and security guy at the theater, Mikey, and not be noticed because he’ll say, “OK, start looking for nickels,” and I’ll keep my head down. It’s an interesting thing, that attention. It’s not something you anticipate: It would be foolish for any school to teach how to deal with fame.
How to deal with being famous. Sounds like a comedy sketch.
Even parenthood has more help on how to handle it, right?