Bryan Cranston might have had to dig just a little deeper these last few days to get to the pit-bottom despair that has audiences at Broadway’s Network recognizing a performance for our times. In the hours after he was Tony-nominated on Tuesday (leading actor in a play), Cranston, who portrays Howard Beale, the newsman in the midst of a nervous breakdown, said in a statement, “It’s hard to stay Mad as Hell when you’re nominated for a Tony!”
And anyway, “mad” is far from the only way to describe Cranston’s Beale, as the Breaking Bad actor nightly vitalizes a character once so cemented to Peter Finch (who won a posthumous Oscar for his performance in the 1976 Sidney Lumet-Paddy Chayefsky film) that imagining the many ways this four-time Emmy-winner could plop from that particular tightrope was nearly as much of a pre-season Broadway parlor game as wondering how the giant two-ton Kong puppet might wreak havoc on its cast mates.
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In this conversation with Deadline, Cranston talked about Network‘s famously unhinged newsman, pondered a Trump nickname, didn’t fall for a sneaky Breaking Bad question and previewed his upcoming Showtime legal drama series (he’ll star and executive produce; production begins later this year in New Orleans).
“It’s called Your Honor,” Cranston said. “I’m very much looking forward to that. It’s written by Peter Moffat, who wrote the original version of The Night Of in England. A lovely writer, lovely guy and it’s a beautiful 10-episode, one season series. I’m looking forward to doing it.”
[This interview, edited and condensed for length and clarity, was conducted prior to the April 30 Tony Award nominations announcement. Network scored five: Cranston; Ivo Van Hove’s direction; Jan Versweyveld’s scenic design/play; Versweyveld and Tal Yarden’s lighting design; and Eric Sleichim’s sound design. The awards ceremony is June 9.]
Deadline: Have you figured out why Donald Trump’s tweeted about you last month? That was bizarre even for him.
Bryan Cranston: In a way it’s flattering and it was surprising. I guess it’s something one of his followers or base participants put together and he just retweeted it. So, it wasn’t anything official. It was something that was done ad hoc. But in a way, I’d kind of like to earn a nickname. You know, like Beleaguered Bryan or something, you know, whatever he would assign to me.
Broadway Bryan, how’s that?
Oh, no, no. No, that’s not anywhere near as derisive as he could be. Come on, Greg.
So I’m too nice to figure out his mind?
You just don’t have what it takes.
Okay, then let’s jump back to the old questions. What appealed to you about Network?
It’s one of the classic movies of the last forty years. The characterization is so crisp and relevant to today, so that was the easy part. Being attracted to it was not an effort at all. I first met with Ivo van Hove in London, in March of 2015. I was doing a movie over there and he was just finishing up…in fact he was going to the Olivier Awards that night. He didn’t know he was going to win best director for…let’s see, what was it…
A View from the Bridge, yes. So we talked then [about Network] and I was very excited when he said “I’d like you to do the role at the National,” and I thought oh just fantastic…
You said “easy” because it was such a great movie, but that seems counterintuitive to me. To me you’d think, why would we want to do something that has already been done perfectly? I talked to Santino Fontana, who plays the lead in the musical Tootsie, and he said one of his initial thoughts was Dustin Hoffman did this.
But of course I draw a very thick distinction between a desire to do something and actually doing something, Agreeing to doing something takes a lot more thought than just desire, you know? When I was young I’d think, Oh would I like to make out with that girl, but actually doing so required a tremendous amount of thought and planning. A lot of difference between [desire and doing]. So I had to think about [Network] and when I thought about it I said, Well I’ll need to read the adaptation that Lee Hall did, then once I read that, I went back and looked at the movie, and I saw Peter Finch’s performance…I thought the styles of the movie, everything from back in the ’70s was sort of heightened. The performances were somewhat eccentric in a way, and I thought I don’t know if that’s really how it would be played now.
When you mention the heightened aspect of the movie, I thought of the whole, very lengthy terrorism subplot in the movie, which probably couldn’t translate to the stage, at least not in the spirit of how it was depicted back in ’76 – a little jokey.
Right. I agree.
…those comic scenes in the terrorist headquarters and all of that. But anyway, we both like the movie and Finch’s performance. So I’m wondering what goes through an actor’s mind in a case like this. Are you thinking, “How am I going to do something different here? What do I bring?”
I last saw Network four years ago, after the news came back that [the London production] was pushed back and it would be a year and a half later that we’d start. I wanted to see it then because I knew it was going to be at least a year and a half or so before rehearsals, and I just wanted to get a sense of the movie and compare that to the text of the play that I was reading, see what themes and sensibilities seemed important to me, and then let it go. I certainly don’t want to try to emulate Peter Finch and his Oscar winning performance. I needed and wanted to find my own avenue toward my version of Howard Beale, and so I just let that all go and erased everything, just let it all get down to nothing, just let it dismantle to get down to neutral and then start to rebuild in a way that felt organic to me.
What I discovered is that my Howard Beale became, I guess if I’m able to look at it objectively somewhat now, I think he became perhaps more pained, more vulnerable in the sense that the pressure and the alcoholism that I felt he had, the loneliness, the feeling of irrelevancy, that he is finished with life and so [in his mind] taking his own life on air would not have been a great loss. “F*ck it,” you know.
But how can I get this man to that point so I can legitimately and justifiably say and mean, “I’m going to kill myself, I just don’t care anymore.” I had to circle around that until I felt like I’d gotten to the bottom floor, and then with the vulnerability that created, and the pain, I thought this is very useful because in the Mad As Hell speech instead of just coming out and screaming, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore, and just having a venomous battle cry, well wouldn’t it be more organic for me to play with the despair first? And the public humiliation? Let all of that and the sadness and the depression, and the loss of relevancy, let all of that swirl around until it became a volcanic eruption of emotion. The anger came out as secondary. So, that’s where I went with it.
In the movie, as a sort of punchline to Howard’s outbursts on air, he passes out after every eruption. You didn’t do that on stage. I have a feeling you made that decision because the passing out would have gotten laughs.
It would. That never even came up, as a matter of fact. It wasn’t in the text. I don’t know if that was [eliminated at] Lee Hall and Ivo’s instruction or even if it was ever in the screenplay. That could’ve been something that was presented during the shooting of the film.
Let’s talk about the themes of Network, and how you all – playwright Lee Hall, Ivo, the cast – brought a modern sensibility…
Well, there are so many things that were already relevant. It makes you realize how prescient Paddy Chayefsky was 43 years ago, to make these Nostradamic-like claims. We’re going to see executions on television and lo and behold, we can go to YouTube and see the ugliness of humanity as a form of entertainment and titillation.
We understand much more now about the machinery of big business. The sensibilities of the ’70s and earlier were so much more naive than they are today. When I was watching Walter Cronkite then, I never thought that he edited what news items would be mentioned on his program. I just thought, this is what the news is and this is what he’s showing us. I never thought there was someone going, “No, I don’t like that story so we’re not going to do that one, we’re going to do this one.” You know, just making those decisions – and hopefully they’re made without a political ideology connected to it but we’re human beings and human beings may have a tendency, even if it’s subliminal, to make those decisions based on how we feel – so yeah, [Network] was a forecasting of what we see now, the news has morphed into news opinion, the line is blurred and so we don’t know what’s true. So those themes Chayefsky talked about – the addiction to the latest technology. In the ’70s and before it was television, this tube, and now our televisions are even more addictive and smaller and we can walk around with them.
Are you able to tell when an audience sort of lets go of the movie and starts receiving Network as an entirely new experience?
Well, it’s hard for me. I certainly don’t interview them when they’re coming in so I don’t know how familiar they are with the movie. I tend to think there are far more people who are not familiar with it or may have seen it 40-some odd years ago…I have people who wait afterward at the stage door and are just shaking still by what they’ve experienced and what happens to Howard, and a lot of them say they completely forgot that he gets shot at the end. They completely forgot that part and it shocks everybody, and that’s good.
There’s also a scene where you come into the audience and interact with them. Has anything happened when that didn’t work out so well?
Well, it’s an improv so some nights are better than others. It really kind of depends on my selection [of audience members]. We’re mostly sold out and it’s a lovely thing to be able to look out into the audience of a packed house, but sometimes people don’t show up, or they forget about it, their tickets are pinned to their cork board and they forget to bring them, or scalpers will buy a row of tickets and not sell them all, so sometimes there are empty seats in that second row. Not often, but sometimes. And so when I go down into that row, I feel it would be inauthentic to not sit in an available [open] seat, and that’s never as strong as when I kind of wiggle my way to sit on an armrest, which just tickles people. [Either way,] I then just talk to the people, I just use what’s there as any improv artist would do. If I see they’re holding candy I might take some candy and pass it around. Sometimes, someone will try to take a picture on their iPhone and I’ll grab the iPhone and say something like, That’s a strange looking cigarette holder and thank you for not smoking, you know, just to try to keep it.
A couple more things then I’ll you go. How long will you be in the production, do we know that yet?
June 8th is my last day.
June 8th is your last day.
And from there you go directly to the Breaking Bad movie, right?
Nice try, Greg. Oh, that was good. It was almost smooth.
Can you blame me?
I know not of what you speak. I know not of what you speak. You know, there’s a lot of talk about that. Boy, I get asked that all the time. But it’s really a mystery to me.
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