An Oscar nominee who leaped into the Wes Anderson ensemble with Isle of Dogs, Bryan Cranston knows how to paint a picture. Before signing on for the director’s second stop-motion outing, Cranston had never met the director; he’d only seen him in photos, and looking to understand the nature of one of the industry’s most distinctive auteurs, he found some clues therein.
“He certainly is a dapper gentleman, in his Seersucker suit. He’s tall and thin like Ichabod Crane, so I guess I was expecting a very idiosyncratic, interesting man. And quite frankly, that’s what I got,” Cranston says. “I call him the most un-Texan Texan I’ve ever met; I don’t mean that in any derisive way, but Texans strike me as being bold and brash, and gutsy, and physical. That’s the impression that they leave, and of course that’s a generality, but he’s not that at all.”
In so many of the director’s films, the same troupe of notables appears, including Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Bill Murray, Frances McDormand and more. Per Cranston, one of the most recent entrants into this world, alongside Greta Gerwig, the Anderson he came to know ultimately flew in the face of the director he’d imagined from afar. “He’s softer, and introspective, and retrospective, and open, and likes the finer things in life. Simple, beautiful food, and friends around the table,” he shares. “I went to his house and stayed for the weekend once in England, and just had a marvelous time, talking about movies, all sharing in the preparation for our dinner that night. It was a very familial setting, with his wife, Juman [Malouf], and their child.”
When Cranston speaks of his Isle of Dogs director, a literary level of detail flows out of him, and it’s precisely this kind of observational skill that informs his rich portrayal of each character he’s taken on to date. In the case of Anderson’s film—set in a dystopian Japan, and following a boy on a search for his lost dog—this meant inhabiting a hound. A former stray who becomes the de facto leader of a pack of dogs traversing Trash Island, Chief was the subject of great attention on Cranston’s part, with the actor finding in the canine all those qualities that we recognize in ourselves.
Speaking with Deadline recently from his dressing room at New York’s Belasco Theatre, Cranston is biding his time. In a matter of hours, he will be up on stage as Howard Beale, the unraveling anchorman, in Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of Network. Defined by humility and respect for the material, Cranston’s approach to his craft is locked in; his only motive at this point, “to keep moving.” And so, he will.
How did you come into the fold of Wes Anderson’s latest?
Honestly, my agency called and said four words before I responded affirmatively: “Wes Anderson would like…” And I said, “Yes.” [Laughs] He’s a wonderful filmmaker, but I had no concept of what he was like personally, or how he was to work with. I just love his films; they’re so intriguing, and so unique, with such a clear voice and vision, that I was eager to jump in. I talked to him, and he said, “Well, if you’re interested, read the script, and I’d like you to be in the movie.” It was just that quick. I read it and thought, “Wow, it’s really intriguing,” and yet I still couldn’t conceive the extent of the visuals that turned out to be the finished product of Isle of Dogs. I couldn’t see it, and I was amazed when I did.
I just enjoyed the whole experience. He’s an auteur of course, but he’s also just a very kind, mild-mannered man. He’s very courteous, and open to ideas, and thoughts, and suggestions. I was in London when he was cutting the film, and he asked me and my family to come by and take a look at an early cut—and then sat with us, and said, “What are your thoughts?” It was like, “Wow, okay.” And yet, like every good storyteller—and he’s one of the best—he’s not a pushover. He doesn’t acquiesce, simply by pressure. He sends it through his filter, and sees if he understands the notes. And if he feels that it could make it a better story, then he goes with it. Lovely. I look forward to the next opportunity.
How did you understand Anderson’s voice, prior to taking this film on? What resonated with you?
His movies are odd and quirky, and they always seem to have a thematic consistency of outsiders looking for acceptance, for their place in life, their purpose. It’s a very relatable subject, and he’s been able to use that in a variety of different ways so that it’s not redundant, and he’s not derivative of himself. It’s just been remarkable, what he’s been able to do.
What was it like when you stepped in to record your voice for Chief? How did he work with you as an actor?
In the recording session, there I was with Bob Balaban, and Edward Norton, and Bill Murray. Jeff Goldblum was supposed to join us, but he couldn’t get away from a movie commitment, so he had to record his stuff separately. But that was our pack. I’d look over and watch him, and he would just be swaying, listening to the dialogue coming together with his eyes closed, and you could just tell that he was imagining the framing, how he was going to shoot the animation with the puppets. He was very meticulous, with a breeze blowing some of the hairs on the dogs’ heads, or a little tilt, or an eyebrow movement. It’s painstakingly difficult to do such a thing, and it took him four years I think to bring it to completion.
He seems to treat dialogue as though it’s music. I’m sure as an actor, you must have a similar appreciation, with regard to the weight and beauty of words.
Just instinctually, I guess I’ve known from a very early age that if I ever got to a place where I didn’t have to work to pay my bills—my rent, my nut—I would completely switch my agenda. That is, I would look for the well-written word, for projects that are really tight. I learned that on Malcolm in the Middle, on Breaking Bad, and into the plays I’ve been doing. Trumbo and Argo, it’s like, “Aw, geez.” It makes the actor look like a genius. The workhorse of any performance art is always, and will always be the writing. It’s the most important element, without exception; that’s just the way I feel about it. So, I have tremendous reverence for the writers of theater, of movies and television. It’s extremely difficult, and is it ever done? It’s like a painter: When do you know you’re done? I guess when they take it away from you, and you have to go. He’s that way. Everything flows. He was open to all the notes, and I usually do copious pages of notes, but there were very few. Man, it was just so good.
You’ve said you approached Chief like you would any other character. What did that mean in this case? What conclusions did you come to?
He was a discarded being. He was not wanted, cast aside. And what happens to a person who is cast aside? Well, you either die, or you fight. And Chief had to learn how to fight in order to survive. Naturally, he is intrinsically suspect of other beings. He was a fighter, and might is right in the animal world, [which] also includes human animals. You become an alpha, so all the things that he included in that character were like, “Yeah, that makes sense.” I could see it. Then, he tells the story of when he bit someone, and I just related that to an unfortunate experience in a human life, when you exploded, and acted temporarily insane. You acted out, and you hit the boss, or whatever. And it was like, “Oh, sh*t.” Then you get fired, and you have regrets. But in order for you to not cave inward, you justify the actions that you committed, and you move on. So, it was still the same developmental work that you do as an actor, using your imagination.
It’s interesting to hear that you recorded your voices as a group, which is not typical in animation. Could you describe that experience? Did it involve any improv?
There was room for improv, but only if you felt the need to supply something that came to mind. Certainly, there’s no penalty for it, and we all did it. But the script was pretty tight, and with an auteur like Wes, you just let go. You just fall back, and he’ll catch you, and you try to understand the note that he’s saying. The majority of the time, the note that Wes was giving was, “Don’t put any effort toward that. Don’t try to make it more than what it is.” In other words, don’t act. Just let it be. Let the nature of the given circumstances show itself, and come to the surface. If I were to direct an animation, I would do it like Wes did. I would have as many of the actors in one room at one time because that is just like doing live-action. You’re asked to bring that character to life, and give your all in a scene. To take it seriously, and talk about the character, and what the character wants. When the actors put that kind of effort into it, it’s richly rewarded.
According to Anderson and his co-writers, Isle of Dogs wasn’t written with any specific agenda, though it resonates powerfully with the world today, in more ways than one. What in his script spoke to you, in this sense?
I think any filmmaker worth their salt realizes that in order to affect people emotionally—and that’s the goal—you have to have subjects and themes that are relatable. On Isle of Dogs, I found it very clear, the overarching issues of immigration and xenophobia, and the feeling that some people feel superior to others. Just the anger and vitriol that is spewed, usually towards things they don’t understand. Ignorance, and intolerance, and demagoguery. That became very clear to me, and I think the immigration issue to it is very, very apparent. But at the base of it, when you really strip everything away, what you come down to is a story about a boy who’s looking for his dog. It’s beautiful. Simple.
In December, you started a Broadway run with Network. What has this show meant to you? What do you enjoy about performing live on stage?
Well, once again, I adhere to my policy. Paddy Chayefsky wrote a beautiful screenplay 43 years ago. Lee Hall adapted it to a theatrical presentation in a wonderful way, and again, that carries you. Strong writing is like six strong men lifting you up on your carriage, as they carry you. It’s catnip to an actor, when you read something and just go, “Oh, my god.” Big, wonderful speeches that move you, and may scare you. Certainly, Network is one of those, going along with Isle of Dogs. The themes in Network are just astoundingly prescient, from 43 years ago to now. That’s what people are finding, creating that sense that you’re mad as hell, and you’re not going to take it anymore.
But there’s nothing like doing theater. Theater is the most rewarding that I’ve found of the disciplines because it’s immediate, and it’s titillating because there’s no second take. You have to stay very focused. I have a credo that I use, and it’s that “The audience is never wrong.” I truly believe that, that they will tell you if you’re communicating to them in an ebb-and-flow relationship, and if it’s not flowing back to you, then you’re ebbing. [Laughs] You’ve got to take them along on a ride, and bring them with you in your storytelling, and if the story is good, it’s just great to be a part of something that wonderful. You can have a very visceral, very rewarding experience, watching a television show like Breaking Bad, or a movie like Trumbo—after the fact, when you see it put together. But on a day-to-day basis, film and television is the bits-and-pieces business, whereas theater, you perform a beginning, middle and end every night.
Did you pre-negotiate how long your run with the show would be?
In some respects. You have to make a commitment, so that the investors are not in jeopardy of having someone drop out at a whim. I make a commitment and stick to that, but there are triggers that allow me to stay longer or shorter, depending on how sales are, and that sort of thing. We’re doing exceedingly well right now, and I’m very happy for that. We’re going definitely through the end of April.
You’re doing a whole range of work these days—on stage, and for screens big and small. While acting, you’ve also been doing a lot of producing. Is continuing to pursue quality material your only consideration at this point, or are there others?
That’s it. What more is there? I don’t need money. I don’t need more attention; I’ve got enough celebrity, and what celebrity means to me is opportunity. I now get the scripts and plays that are on that high echelon, and I’m so grateful for that. If it gets to the point where I’m just not finding the level of material that I’m excited about, then I’ll shift in another direction. I’m doing a play. We’ll leave this, and I’ll go do a film. I have another film coming out in January, which I’m very happy about, called TheUpside, with Kevin Hart and Nicole Kidman. That’s a beautiful film, very heartfelt, and I’ll keep moving. I don’t have a specific plan, like, “Next, I’m going to do this.” I just go.
Reportedly, Vince Gilligan is working on putting a Breaking Bad movie together. Do you know anything about this?
I hear all the rumors you hear. [Laughs] I haven’t read a script; I haven’t seen a script. I’m not sure what’s happening with that, but for all I know, I think Walter White’s dead. Isn’t he?
The series did feel self-contained, catching every important moment in the devolution of Walter White. I’d be curious to see what a film in this universe would look like.
I’m curious, too. I think we’re all curious.