Bryan Cranston interview: Wakefield, Better Call Saul, Curb Your Enthusiasm

The great Bryan Cranston talks to us about his new film Wakefield, his signature role in Breaking Bad, and lots more...

Despite being one of the most in demand actors on the planet, we were lucky enough to catch up with Bryan Cranston while he was over in the UK to promote his new film Wakefield, a dark, literate tale of midlife crisis and male entitlement. Our interview took place mere hours after the Breaking Bad star scandalised the nation’s breakfast tables by casually dropping the word ‘shite’ in an interview on Good Morning Britain with a star struck Kate Garraway. Of course, Bryan Cranston being Bryan Cranston, nobody really minded all that much.

It’s this butter-wouldn’t-melt, all-pervading likeability that is used to killer effect in Wakefield, the story of a successful businessman in a faltering marriage who one day decides to leave his family and hide in his attic, to live out a life of eating out of bins while spying on his distraught wife and baffled children as they come to terms with his disappearance. Wakefield is such a loathsome, self-pitying figure that in other hands the character would be all but unwatchable, but thanks to the instincts Cranston honed playing everyone’s favourite meth-dealing antihero Walter White, you can’t help but emphathise with Wakefield, even at his most repugnant.

In a disappointingly swear-free chat, we discussed getting into the headspace of Howard Wakefield, whether we’ll see Walter White in an upcoming episode of Better Call Saul, Bryan’s guest appearance in the new series of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and what it’s like to undergo a crash-course intimacy programme with Jennifer Garner…

Hello Bryan!

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Welcome back to the UK.

Thank you, it’s good to be back.

Soon to be your temporary home, of course, for a few months…

It will, it will. At the end of this year I’ll be doing a play at the National.

Yeah, you’ll be taking on the role of Howard Beale in the NT’s adaptation of Network. How do you feel about that? Does that feel like a big weight of responsibility, or are you just excited to get going? It’s an iconic role.

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It’s all of those things. There’s responsibility to it, but I don’t mind responsibility. With great opportunity, often there’s great responsibility. And to be able to play a dynamic character like that in an important play that’s really going to resonate to our time internationally… I think there’s something going on politically in the states, the UK and throughout Europe – nationalism, what is news, what’s entertainment, what is real, what is fake – and Network is really an illuminating piece of theatre [on these issues]. So yeah, I’ll be here in the winter, and all the way through to the end of March.

I was going to say, if you’d come to the UK to escape from relentless and depressing political news, I have some bad news for you. But it’s appropriate you’re starring in Network, because if I had to sum up in one line Wakefield, the eponymous character in your new film, it’d be Howard Beale’s famous line “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” You’re one of the best around at portraying put upon male characters who snap lash out at those around them, and you’re able make them appropriately horrifying while also still being incredibly empathetic. Is that theme of emasculation an important one for you to keep exploring in your work?

I think it’s what’s important for me, is that I don’t think I can properly do my job unless I get into the fabric of that character, and the interweaving of who that man is. If I don’t understand the character, then I can’t expect the audience to understand, or empathise, or feel any compassion, or anger, or anything they choose to feel about the character I’m playing. So, my job is to let that character soak into my soul, and then present it as honestly as I possibly can.

And with characters like Walter White, I think I learned during Breaking Bad that it’s not important to make sure that you’re liked. What’s important is that you make sure that you’re honest, and you present a character where others go ‘Oh, I dislike what he’s doing – but I believe him’. Or: ‘I feel sorry for him’. Or: ‘No, I like that guy’, or whatever it is. But you present it honestly, and then hope it communicates to the audience.

Because Howard Wakefield is a deeply unpleasant man…

(Mock outrage) I beg your pardon!

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I’m sorry, I call it like I see it: Howard Wakefield is not a nice bloke. He’s not a criminal, but in many ways his moral compass is just as wayward as some of the more literally criminal characters you’ve played in your career, I would say. So what kind of toll does it take, psychically having to inhabit characters this unpleasant? Do you find you can slip in and out of it quite easily now, or does it still require working up to?

It’s all of those things. It takes a lot of preparation. The more comfortable an actor is with a character – through work, through research, through imagination – then the more that you can convey naturally what that character’s all about. I don’t think any actor really goes into it with a judgement on that character: I think that’s damaging, because if you come in with a specific point of view on a character, you may not be able to get past that opinion to get down to the core of who that person is, and why that person behaves the way they do. So you try and be neutral to it all, and come in open, and receive information from your other actors, from your director, your experience on stage or in front of the camera, and then you create your character.

And Howard Wakefield was a man I related to. He’s a person who wants to slow down his life. He wants to get off the hamster wheel, just temporarily. He’s not dissimilar from you, or me, in that a lot is expected of him. Modern technology is great, but it’s also raised the level of expectations on you. You know, you need to be available. You need to answer your texts and your emails, and your voicemails. You’re governed by that schedule: ‘I’ve gotta be here, I’ve gotta be there, I’ve gotta be here, I’ve got to put that in, I forgot to put that in, ah shoot! I’m sorry…’ We’re constantly spinning plates. And at times don’t you feel like you just want to slow it down? To not be a slave to this device, and just be able to walk, and look at a cloud…and that’s how it starts with Howard Wakefield. It spins out of control a little bit…

Just a bit. It’s the effect his actions have on the people he leaves behind, and the lives he subsequently ruins, that provide the dramatic heft of the story. Jennifer Garner plays your wife, who Wakefield clearly blames for his lot in life, whereas I feel the problems in his life and of his own design. It’s very tense and uneasy dynamic that’s kind of similar to that of Skylar and Walter White, and Jennifer Garner is just as important to this film as Anna Gunn was to Breaking Bad. So what was it like to act alongside her, and to work though that dynamic again this time around?

It was great. I’ve known Jen for a little while, and we’ve always been very friendly. But this was a film where we were going to be playing a husband and wife with an intimate history, so we went through a little intimacy programme, a crash course in intimacy because we didn’t have a lot of time…

What does an intimacy programme entail?

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Well, it’s really great. It’s being able to be this [about seven feet] far apart from someone, and to take them in, and then come closer and closer. This is fine, this is an acceptable distance, but then if you and I went nose to nose, we’d both be feeling some weird stuff.

That’s true.

It’s like, we’re in each other’s space, and I don’t know if I’m comfortable with that. Can I trust you? Can you trust me? So then she and I were back-to-back, and we felt our fingertips together without seeing each other, and then you slowly – but actually, rather quickly – you get into a level of intimacy that is not normally accelerated to that point. And it did help us, I think it was very helpful for when we did the love-making scenes. When we started that, it’s like, ‘Oh, we were here before.’ And we have a genuine affinity for each other, so that helps. I just adore her, I think she’s a bright, fun, good-spirited person, and beautiful in every way, so it was easy to engage. And then when it’s over, you disengage, and that’s the extent of your life with each other.

She’s excellent in the film. Wakefield is based on EL Doctorow’s story – were you a fan of his writing before coming on board? And I was wondering, do you as someone who produces your own work and develops things yourself now, do you find yourself reading more now in order to find potential projects?

To answer your first question, EL Doctorow wrote the Americanised version of it, but the origins of Wakefield are in UK history. Nathaniel Hawthorne first wrote Wakefield – same name – in 1833, I believe it was. So we know for hundreds of years, men have experienced this sense of pressure in wanting to step away from their lives, or slow it down. The idea of looking into your life without you in it – that level of curiosity, or voyeurism, has always been within us.

And yes, [when reading] I look for roles that intrigue me, but mostly it’s about the stories. The stories that I hear and that I read – was I moved? Is it important? Is there any social relevance to it? Is it just for a laugh – which is equally important. It’s got to move me to some strong emotional place, or I’m not interested.

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That brings me on to my next question, as there’s a rich vein of black comedy in Wakefield – there are still some big laughs to be had at points in what is primarily quite a dark story. And while Breaking Bad obviously took you to a whole other level of stardom, lots of people – myself included – were introduced to you primarily as a comedic actor, playing Hal in Malcolm In The Middle or as Jerry’s dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfeld. It’s just been announced that you’re going to be guest starring in the latest series of Curb Your Enthusiasm and reuniting with Larry David. How do you feel about returning to that world of comedy?

Seinfeld was like going to comedy boot camp. Being in the arena with Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Jason Alexander, Julia Louis-Dreyfus… it was just phenomenal, to be right there on the set, learning, and giving, and sharing, and figuring out how to carefully lay out a joke. And Curb was a blast, I had so much fun. I think it’s going to be fun for audiences to see that side of me. I like to go between comedy and drama, between stage and film, just like we all like different types of foods, and have different moods. I have the same thing as far as my work: I like to try different things. so I’m excited to come to London and work on stage for six months. That’s what’s really important to me, the storytelling. I’ve never really been money-motivated, so I’m not really interested in that. I have agents who work on that part, and that’s great, but I choose what I want based on the artistic endeavour that it proposes.

You’re also quite a prolific television director now, having directed episodes of The Office, Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Do you think you’ll be directing features in the future too?

I hope so. I have a few screenplays I’ve written, and one’s starting to get some traction now. I might be able to direct it next year. So we’ll see. It’s like building a house, you need all the parts to come in – financing, the right actor etc – so hopefully they will.

As unofficial Den of Geek Breaking Bad correspondent, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about your most famous role, and indeed Better Call Saul. How does it feel watching that universe play out without you in it? And can we expect to see you in the show at some point soon?

Well, it’s been over four years now, since the end of Breaking Bad. So there’s been a period of mourning (laughs), and distance, and time that heals…and now I look at Better Call Saul as a real big fan of that show. And not because there’s some familiarity too it, but because it’s just damn good.

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It’s completely its own thing now.

It’s its own thing. The actors are fantastic, and the writing is solid. I know Albuquerque, and I know some of the characters who are inhabiting it, and yet it’s all fresh and new to me, and I like that part of it. I’ve been asked to direct Better Call Saul, and I was very keen on doing that. I’m kind of in limbo on that now: that I may not choose to direct an episode of Saul, only because I’m a fan of the show, and there’s a part of me – a big part of me – that just wants to remain a fan of the show, and not get inside and know the inner workings of it. If Vince Gilligan or Peter Gould called and said, “We have an idea for Walter White to be on Better Call Saul”… yeah, I’m there. I’ll do it. Because Breaking Bad changed my life, so I’m all in on that.

Well I for one very much hope that happens.

It would be great.

Bryan Cranston, thank you very much.