Bryan Cranston is living in London right now, starring in the National Theatre’s production of Network for director Ivo van Hove. And, earlier this month, his new film Last Flag Flying, directed by Richard Linklater, opened in the US. The two projects could not be more different. In the first, he is the mad as hell Howard Beale, determined not to take it anymore. And in Last Flag Flying he is Sal Nealon, a Vietnam vet whose larger-than-life personality lights up every room, even if it makes him the kind of friend you’d want by your side, but always keep at arm’s length. They are just the latest roles in a career marked by Cranston’s chameleon-like ability to explore different aspects of himself. I sat with Cranston in London recently to discuss them both.
You play Sal Nealon in Last Flag Flying, a story about a trio of Vietnam vets who reunite after years apart. What appealed to you about it?
For me, it was about knowing what we know now, and accepting what we don’t know, and what we might never know. It explores the power of friendship, and the responsibility we have to our history. What we shared in Vietnam as characters 30 years ago, do we have a responsibility to bring that up? Also, what was interesting, too, from my perspective—and my character’s perspective—is the value of truth. Is it so virtuous if it doesn’t help someone?
It came as a direct offer, and when they sent me the script they said, “They want you to play Sal, they’re thinking of Steve Carell for Doc and Laurence Fishburne for the Reverend.” It was like, “Let’s just say yes right now.” And, of course, the agent’s going, “Now, hang on, let’s negotiate first…”
What drew you to Sal?
I love the challenge of doing something different, and if something scares me a little—if I’m a little nervous about it—there’s a titillation to that. Richard Linklater and Darryl Ponicsan did such great work on this, where it so clearly defines not just the characters but their points of view, and what each is bringing to the story. It’s so clear that you go, “I get it. I know this guy.” I knew Sal. He’s a consumer; he wants it all. He doesn’t say no to anything. “Want to go on a trip?” “Yeah.” “Want to have sex with her?” “Yeah.”
He’s the person that when you say, “Oh, Sal’s coming,” everyone goes, “Ugh.” You have an exhale, because he sucks the energy out of the room and he takes up so much room with his personality that it’s exhausting. But he’s a hell of a friend. He’s the first one who’ll back you up. You’ve got a problem? Sal’s there.
Is there a danger in going too big with him?
A lot of characters I do are big, and I usually tell the director, “I’ve really got to go to the extreme to find this guy. Please pull me back if you sense that I’m going too far.” Dalton Trumbo was like that. Lyndon Johnson too. I gave Rick the same speech. Sometimes you overshoot, and on a character like this you can overshoot. That’s why he can’t be the lead in the story. Doc is the main focus, and he’s the foundation. If Steve hadn’t done the incredible job he did with Doc, my character would just fly off the handle. He’s anchored, so he allows my character and Fish’s character to just kind of circle around him.
Richard Linklater seems to share your passion for changing things up from project to project.
We gravitate towards the same thing. I want to try something new. When, after seven years, Malcolm in the Middle was coming to an end, I had two straight offers to do fun, goofy dads on TV shows. I turned them both down. I want to test myself and try new things. Quite honestly, I go into projects and I don’t know if I’m going to fail or succeed. There’s something very exciting in that.
All our job is, is to try to be as honest in the storytelling as possible, and present it to the audience. What I love about what we do is that it’s so inclusive to our audience. Whatever you feel is correct. You may love the movie, someone may hate the movie. You’re both right. It’s so supportive of the individual audience member who, it’s like, “Yeah, you’re right, we didn’t communicate to you, it didn’t resonate with you. OK, you’re not wrong.” It’s a community and an environment that we really need, especially in these trying times. We need something that’s a unifier as opposed to something that’s divisive.
You’re starring in an adaptation of Network on the London stage right now. What’s exciting you about that?
I was shooting a movie in London and I’d heard that Ivo van Hove was interested in doing Network. I got very excited immediately. I thought, Ooh, Howard Beale. “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore.” But I thought the timing wouldn’t work out. Luckily, the National Theatre pushed the play to a different time and it became possible. What excited me was the power of the script itself, and the message of it in this day and age. Working with Ivo, and being able to be in a play of his that you know is going to be challenging and compelling and thoughtful.
You’ve spent a lot of time in London.
I’ve shot three different films here, and I produce a television show that works here, Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams, so I love coming here. Talent is deep, both in crew and on camera. It’s London, it’s like the capital city of the world to me. I love it.
And what do you love about being on stage?
It’s challenging, and it’s a completely different medium. I love the ephemeral nature of theater, that you either were there and saw it, or you didn’t. It was one of the main factors that wanted me to do this, along with the power of the script itself, the play itself, the message in this day and age. Working in London was an easy yes. And Ivo van Hove, and being able to be in a play of his that you know is going to be challenging, and interesting, and compelling, and thoughtful.
There’s a relationship you have with an audience in live theater, and that’s why I love to do it. There are some actors who don’t do theater for whatever reason and that’s not a condemnation, it’s just they don’t particularly like it or have never done it. For me, there’s a relationship with an audience that you get in live theatre that you just can’t get on film and television. They inform you. You send out a communique, they react, and they send it back to you. Then you go, “Ooh.” Then you send it back. It’s an ebb and flow of communication. I love that relationship. There is no hiding a lack of preparation.
And it changes with every performance. I remember when I was doing a Broadway play during the winter of ’14, three years ago, that I got sick two different times. My character was sick both times. I had a handkerchief and I was blowing my nose. You just have to incorporate it, you have to bring the honesty of your situation on stage with you. There are times when you have a great day or you have a bad day, or you slept well, or you didn’t sleep well. You just bring it all. Maybe you’re crankier today in the character, oh that’s interesting. You might find something, you go, “Boy, if I do that, if I place that right there it might just enhance the experience.” It’s experimental, it’s constantly changing.