A quick word association game. “Bryan Cranston.” The correct answer is, as you guessed, “Walter White”. It’s a little unfair, perhaps. An actor’s entire slog boiled down to one role that defines him in public imagination.
Cranston found that part late in his career. In his fifties. But he might be better for it because by the time Breaking Bad knocked on his door, he was a well-worn traveller, whose journey had taken many unexpected turns. This is what imbues his memoir with a free-spirited sense of adventure.
Cranston doesn’t milk every emotion or wring pathos from tragedy. He just delivers stories as they are, enriched with fascinating details and a keen-eyed hindsight.
Cranston followed a long-winded route to Hollywood, even though he grew up not far from it, in the Valley. The actor’s parents were your average 1950s all-American couple. Mother Peggy, “a blue-eyed flirt”, was an Avon Lady and a member of the PTA; father Joseph was a pugilist with a penchant for spinning a good yarn and a burning desire to be a movie star.
When stardom didn’t manifest, Joseph turned resentful. Cranston and his siblings (older brother Kyle and younger sis Amy) were witness to their father’s violent clashes with Peggy. He describes them as “careening, blistering fights that occasionally left us children cowering in our rooms, out of the line of fire.” Eventually, his father walked out, triggering his mother’s gradual transformation into a depressed alcoholic.
For the brothers, movies were an early form of escape from the family drama. Cranston went through his young life in survival mode. He rolled from one random employment situation to the next: paperboy, house painter, LAPD Explorer, minister, security guard. He was, momentarily, a murder suspect, and, at one time, contemplated a career as a cop. In 1976, he and his brother took off on a biking trip through the country, on a whim, only stopping for odd jobs or colourful romantic trysts along the way.
At times, it feels as though Cranston had experienced far too many lives for one person but to the actor’s credit, he doesn’t try to overwhelm. His unhappy childhood, his vagabond phase, his dating history and his painful relationship with his mother are all etched out with a clear-headed honesty. Cranston doesn’t milk every emotion or wring pathos from tragedy. He just delivers stories as they are, enriched with fascinating details and a keen-eyed hindsight.
Cranston could have made his Breaking Bad experience out to be one of harmonious bonhomie. But evidently, he loves his work too much for that.
While living in New York, he was once stalked by an obsessive ex-girlfriend. She tracked him down in his apartment and landed up at his door, screaming his name. At that moment, Cranston was gripped by an anger and fear so visceral that he conjured a dream in which he caused her death.
“Nothing happened in that apartment but everything had changed. I understood clearly, without question, that I was capable of taking a life. I understood that given the right pressures and circumstances, I was capable of anything,” he writes, in a brutally perceptive assessment of his condition.
The actor has a similarly frank and unalloyed view of his craft. On a film or a TV set, Cranston would rather be an active participant. Some actors may need a lot of direction but “I am not that kind of actor,” he says. “An invested actor asks questions that may punch holes in the story or highlight contradictions in a character the writers may not have considered.”
One of the most memorable passages in the book arrives when Cranston recalls butting heads with his Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan for reconsidering his choices in a crucial scene where Walt and Skyler concoct a story about his gambling addiction. The scene was reblocked while shooting as the actors felt it wasn’t working the way it was exactly written. In a heated exchange, Cranston later tells Gilligan, “Vince, that is the way we are going to do it, because it’s best for the scene.”
It’s hard to think of many actors today who would have presented this unvarnished account. Cranston could have made his Breaking Bad experience out to be one of harmonious bonhomie. But evidently, he loves his work too much for that. The nuts and bolts of performing, and failing or succeeding at it, drive him.
Cranston went through his young life in survival mode. He rolled from one random employment situation to the next: paperboy, house painter, LAPD Explorer, minister, security guard.
There’s much here for aspiring artists to take away. Cranston’s wisdom is not wisdom by way of grandiose philosophising but accrued through an essential rite of passage in showbiz – constant disappointment and rejection. “Transcendent moments come when you’ve laid the groundwork and you’re open to the moment,” he writes early in the book. This might sound like trite acting class lecturing in less authentic hands but in Cranston’s case, the pudding is proof.