In the 2008 pilot of AMC's Breaking Bad, high school teacher Walter White fails to interest his chemistry students in the study of change. But over the course of the series, Walt himself came to exemplify radical change, using his knowledge of chemistry to become a master meth cook, and transforming himself into a notorious outlaw who was willing to kill, when necessary, to keep his operation running.
Acting is also about change and transformation, and Bryan Cranston is a master. While Breaking Bad fans were watching him portray Walter White in the final episodes of the series, Cranston was already undergoing another transformation — playing President Lyndon B. Johnson in the play All the Way, which opened in Boston last fall and on Broadway earlier this month.
Cranston tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about the end of Breaking Bad and why his appearance is an acting asset.
On Breaking Bad ending
It's bittersweet because it was an extraordinary time in my life. It changed my life, and I'll forever be grateful for that. I'm also happy that it ended when it did because the effect that that had was so wonderful that everybody comes up to me and says, "I wish there were more. I want more, I want more." And that's always a much better position to be in than having people say, "I want less, I want less of you! Is that show still on the air?"
On how his unremarkable appearance is an acting asset
I have a very fortunate look for an actor. You can't really categorize me. My looks aren't striking, so therefore I'm more capable of sliding into looking like other people, more chameleon-like, as opposed to, let's say, Jon Hamm, who is this handsome, striking, black-haired, chiseled-looking guy. That's great for Jon, and he's a friend and I love him, but I don't know that you would buy him as Walter White. He would have to fight against his looks in order to do that. So there's a larger range of roles that are available to me than are available to Jon Hamm, simply because of physicality. And I love that.
On adopting silent Mondays while performing in All the Way
I thought my biggest challenge was going to [be to] keep my vocal strength. I talked with a beautiful, talented artist named Audra McDonald, and she was doing Porgy and Bess and was starting to feel the strain on her vocal cords. And her ear, nose and throat doctor said: I recommend strongly ... you to shut down on your one day off; don't talk at all. And so she incorporated Mondays as her silent day. And I thought, as a pre-emptive strike, I'm going to do the same. So I don't talk on Mondays. I have little notepads and a whiteboard that I write notes on, and I write it out and say, "What is the soup?" you know, and things like that. ... I have one little notepad that I have that at the top of it, it says, "Doctor's orders vocal rest no talking," and I show it to people, and immediately they start whispering back to me, which is very interesting.
On his early stand-up comedy career
I did it for about nine months in 1981, I believe it was. I did it solely for the purpose of overcoming fear, because I looked at that and I said to myself, "Oh, my God, that's got to be the scariest thing to do." There's a microphone and a light on you, and that's it. It's all you, and so I wanted to do that. I got into the idea of going from club to club. I was never paid for it, nor should I have been, because I never rose above the level of mediocrity. But it was a great, great experience, very humbling. My respect and admiration for those who do it for a living, like Jerry [Seinfeld], was just enormous.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "BREAKING BAD")
BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Chemistry is, well, technically chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change.
GROSS: In the pilot of "Breaking Bad," high school teacher Walter White failed to interest his chemistry students in the study of change. But over the course of the series, Walt himself came to exemplify radical change using his knowledge of chemistry to become a master meth cook and transforming himself into a notorious outlaw willing to kill to keep his operation running.
Acting is also about change and transformation, and my guest Bryan Cranston is a master. While "Breaking Bad" fans were watching him portray Walter White in the final episodes of "Breaking Bad," Cranston was already undergoing another transformation: portraying President Lyndon Johnson in the play "All the Way," which opened in Boston.
It opened on Broadway earlier this month. Before we talked about "Breaking Bad," some of Cranston's other roles and his life, let's start with a clip from "All the Way." This scene takes place when LBJ is trying to get enough votes to pass the Civil Rights Act. He's talking to Senator Hubert Humphrey, persuading him to get votes by getting tough.
(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "ALL THE WAY")
GROSS: Bryan Cranston, welcome to FRESH AIR.
CRANSTON: That man scares me.
GROSS: Not nearly as much as Walt.
CRANSTON: Thank you, Terry, it's good to be here.
GROSS: So congratulations on your Broadway show. Let's start with LBJ and "All the Way." Can I just say that, like, during the Vietnam War when Johnson was president, you were so much wanting to know what he was going to say. You had friends who could be drafted, and he was in front of a podium giving a speech, he was so boring. It was so hard to pay attention to him, which is not the way he was away from the podium and off-camera.
CRANSTON: He was a country, good-old-boy, back-slapping, story-telling, crude, embracing, vicious, fun-loving, ferocious man. He was every adjective you could apply that was ever created in the English language. He was amazing. Bill Moyers, the press secretary for Lyndon Johnson for a number of years, he said something to the effect of, and I don't remember the exact quote, but it was Lyndon Johnson was 11 of the most interesting people I've ever known.
GROSS: So did you ever have to be the boring LBJ in "All the Way"?
CRANSTON: Well, I hope not, but the audiences will let me know that.
GROSS: No, but you know what I mean.
CRANSTON: I do.
GROSS: Like there's - he has to give a convention address, and, you know, he was not a stirring public speaker.
CRANSTON: I do. I touch upon - no, no, he's not. He was very measured and laconic and controlled. And he did that on purpose because he thought it was going to present him in a way that was more presidential, more serious. And it drove his PR people crazy.
GROSS: Has it been difficult to make the adjustment from speaking for a television audience to speaking in a theater and having to, you know, do theater kind of vocal projection? And ditto with the gestures. You know, like everything has to be just a little bigger onstage than in front of a camera.
CRANSTON: Well, I don't pay too much attention to trying to make my gestures larger. I don't have to with LBJ. He was a bigger-than-life character. And it's awfully fun to play him. And I thought that my biggest challenge was going to keep my vocal strength. And I talked with a beautiful, talented artist named Audra McDonald, who was doing "Porgy and...
GROSS: Oh, she's so great, yeah.
CRANSTON: And she was doing "Porgy and Bess," and she was starting to feel the strain on her vocal chords, and her ear, nose and throat doctor said I recommend strongly, in fact I'm telling you, to shut down on your one day off. Don't talk at all. And so she incorporated Mondays as her silent day. And I thought as a pre-emptive strike, I'm going to do the same.
So I don't talk on Mondays. I have little notepads and a white board that I write notes on, and, you know, I write it out and say what is the soup? You know, and things like that.
GROSS: Really? So you go outside; you don't just like stay home and not talk.
CRANSTON: It would be easy if you didn't leave your apartment. But no, I go outside, and I'll go to a museum, or I can go to restaurants and whatnot and just do my best of course not to talk. I'll forget.
GROSS: Does your note say I don't talk on Mondays, so what's your soup today?
CRANSTON: Basically, yeah. I do have one little notepad that I have that on the top of it, it says doctor's orders, vocal rest, no talking. And I show it to people.
GROSS: Wow, great.
CRANSTON: And immediately they start whispering back to me, which is very interesting. They feel like they have to just start whispering. Oh, OK, I'll talk to you at this tone, as if that made any difference. I can hear you just fine.
CRANSTON: But what I was really faced with now is my physicality. I take on a physical nature of Lyndon Johnson onstage that is doing a little damage to me, and I need to be hyper-alert of this, and...
GROSS: With the bad posture that you do?
CRANSTON: The bad posture, and he was always a lot heavier than I am. And I knew that in order to sustain eight performances a week of this three-hour play with this character who's so, you know, commanding onstage that I needed to be in the best shape I can be and to have my physically supported.
And all of a sudden I get a crink in my neck, and, you know, my posture is off, and I don't know how to change that. So I'm talking to some experts on how I can, you know, slightly change it onstage so that I don't go home every night with a pain, a literal pain in my neck.
GROSS: Oh absolutely. Fans of "Breaking Bad" like me really miss Walter White, your character. What's it like for you to no longer be thinking about what Walt might do in a situation, how he'd react, to no longer have him in your head?
CRANSTON: Well, it's bittersweet because it was an extraordinary time in my life. It changed my life, and I'll forever be grateful for that. I'm also happy that it ended when it did because the effect that that had was so wonderful that everybody comes up to me and says I wish there were more, I want more, I want more, and that's always a much better position to be in than having people say I want less, I want less of you, when are - you know, is that show still on the air?
GROSS: Stop schlepping it out.
GROSS: As Walter White you became physically transformed. Walter White starts as a kind of blending in the background chemistry high school teacher, and over time, as he cooks more meth and starts doing some very evil deeds, he becomes physically transformed. I mean, part of it's the cancer. Your head is bald. You have this, like - how do you describe the kind of beard that he has?
CRANSTON: It's actually called a Van Dyke, which a goatee is just the hair on the chin, ala a goat. But the combination of the moustache connecting in with the hair on the chin is called a Van Dyke. So it started off as this what I called an impotent moustache, which I wanted Walter White at the very beginning to look impotent and weak. And I wanted people to look at the moustache and think to themselves why bother. Shave it or grow it, do something, but - and I wanted that kind of ambiguity to his look and to make him feel confused and un-noteworthy.
And as he grew in power, that - the look would also grow in power. And we discovered that the most powerful look that a man can have, the most aggressive look, is no hair on the head and facial hair.
GROSS: So you had to live with that version of Walt in your regular life. You couldn't grow that beard every week or grow hair every week. So you looked like evil Walt, you know, in your personal life.
GROSS: It wasn't a prosthetic you could take off or anything that you could change.
GROSS: I'm assuming the beard was really yours.
CRANSTON: The beard was real.
GROSS: So I'm wondering what it was like to look in the mirror and see some of Walt in there because that was Walt's look and not Bryan Cranston's.
CRANSTON: Yes, but unlike other actors, I don't look in the mirror that often, quite frankly.
CRANSTON: Most of our day is looking out from our own eyes. So we're not seeing ourselves as others do. And yes, yes, it was a look that became rather iconic, I suppose. And at first it was very pragmatic. I knew that the character was going to go through chemotherapy, and we discussed losing the hair, and it was brought up by Vince. He said, well, do you want to do a bald cap? I said no, I'm going to shave it. Let's do it.
And so I just shaved my head.
GROSS: My guest is Bryan Cranston, who starred in "Breaking Bad." He's currently starring in the Broadway show "All The Way," portraying LBJ. We'll talk more after a break; this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Cranston, and he's now starring on Broadway in "All The Way," in which he portrays Lyndon Johnson.
So I want to play what I think is one of the just best scenes from "Breaking Bad." And this has become a kind of iconic scene, and it's the one who knocks scene. And just to set it up, Walt's wife Skyler at this point in Season 4, Episode 6, knows that Walt's cooking meth. And she knows that Walt's in danger, and she believes - she has no idea the evil acts that Walt has done.
She doesn't know that in addition to cooking meth that you've killed, that you've done horrible things.
CRANSTON: Well, you know, horrible to one man is necessary to another.
GROSS: That's right. So anyway, she's thinking, you know, my husband, he's just like cooking meth, he did it for a reason, to help the family. So Walt, what you've got to do is just go to the police. So in this scene she's trying to convince you that that's all you need to do is like turn yourself in and explain what happened.
So here is a very famous scene from "Breaking Bad" with Anna Gunn as Skyler and my guest Bryan Cranston as Walter White.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM)
GROSS: I just can't hear that scene too many times.
GROSS: That's so good.
CRANSTON: I haven't heard that in a while.
GROSS: Really? It's such a great scene. So when you first read those lines, which are so terrific, did you know how you were going to read them? Like did you try them all kinds of different ways before getting the version that we heard?
CRANSTON: No, but, you know, listening to that again is just a testament to the writing staff of "Breaking Bad," led by Vince Gilligan. And in that one scene you have two opposing viewpoints that are equally valid from their point of view. Skyler is worried about her family. She makes a very pragmatic pitch: just confess, stop it now, don't do this, you're going to put yourself and us in danger.
But Walt by then is too far along in his journey. His ego has been opened, and he is fully realizing his sense of power, and he likes it, and he is not about to, you know, go back into the shell that he originally came out of. And he's taking her comments as demeaning, as pejorative, that you're not who you say you are, you're not a powerful person, you're a little schoolteacher, just go back to that.
And all I'm hearing is you're not a man, you're not this powerful, great Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. You're just Walter White, this little man. And he's so far beyond that at that moment, he now has to express himself with his full range of hubris, and that's what comes out.
GROSS: And that scene is a great example of how your voice changed while playing Walter White because it starts off kind of similar in the voice that you're talking in now, and it ends up in that much deeper, huskier voice.
CRANSTON: You know, a lower voice is always a little more intimidating, isn't it? You know, it's a little - has a little more gravitas to it. And so I wanted to drop it maybe not a full register but, you know, something noticeable.
GROSS: Walt say himself as bland, and others saw him that way, too, until he turned into Heisenberg, the meth-cooking genius. Had you felt that casting directors saw you that way, saw you as bland as an actor, or, you know, or physically bland, you know, if not like in terms of like your talent?
CRANSTON: Yes, no. Well, I have a very fortunate look for an actor. You can't really categorize me. I don't - my looks are striking, and therefore I am more capable of sliding in to looking like other people, more chameleon-like as opposed to, let's say, Jon Hamm, who is this handsome, striking, black-haired, you know, chiseled kind of looking guy. Well, you know, that's great for Jon, and he's a friend, and I love him, but I don't know that you would buy him as Walter White.
He would have to fight against his looks in order to do that. So there's a larger range of roles that are available to me than are available to Jon Hamm simply because of physicality, and I love that.
GROSS: What did you have in your life to draw on to create Walt's insecurity, his anger, his greed his ability to life, his ability to lose his conscience and be able to kill people with a pretty minimal amount of remorse? I know that's too many traits to answer in full, but, you know, these are not admirable traits. So where did you go to find that?
CRANSTON: I understood where Walter White was at the beginning. I couldn't understand where he was at the end because I didn't know exactly where he was going to go, how deep he was going to go. So at the beginning was the only quest for me to find. Initially I had a very difficult time in finding the emotional core of him, which is where I go. That's what I seek when I take on a character.
For Hal in "Malcolm in the Middle," it was fear. He was afraid of everything. And that leant itself to good humor, but it was also very honest, is that he was afraid of everything: of being a bad father; losing his job; not pleasing his wife; you know, and everything; spiders, heights. In Lyndon Johnson, it's seeking love. He needs, craves, he must be fed love. He feels he's unloved at his core.
And so he's constantly doing things out of wanting to be approved and loved. With Walt it was more difficult because I kept looking and kept looking, and I couldn't find it, and it was frustrating me until it dawned on me that he didn't even know how he felt because of depression.
The depression he was feeling over missed opportunities in his life created sort of a calloused cocoon of his emotions. He couldn't tap in to his emotions. He was numb, and therefore - and once I found that, that spoke volumes. It was like oh, got it, I got it. He's given up. He's gone to seed, and therefore that's where taking the color out of my hair and my face. I didn't want any color in his life.
The way he walked, the way he - he was overweight. He had pudginess. He was very pale. And then the diagnosis of terminal lung cancer came and ironically gave him new life because it exploded. It was a like a dynamite exploded that cocoon. And all of a sudden his emotions were spewed everywhere, and that's why he became sloppy.
In what you just played, that scene, his ego wouldn't allow him to just let her talk logically about giving himself up. He needed to tell her how important I am. Do you know how much money I make? Do you have any idea? You know, so he had to give it back to her. Like anything...
GROSS: He wants credit. He wants credit for what he's done.
CRANSTON: He wants credit.
GROSS: He's a genius cooking meth, and he wants credit for it, and he's figured out how to run an illegal business. Of course he can't take the credit, but, you know, he wants Hank to know, and he wants his wife to know.
CRANSTON: That's right.
GROSS: Bryan Cranston will be back in the second half of the show. He's starring in the new Broadway show "All The Way," portraying LBJ. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Bryan Cranston. He's currently starring in the Broadway show "All The Way," portraying President Lyndon Johnson. He's best known for his starring role in "Breaking Bad" as Walter White, a chemistry teacher who became a master meth cook and outlaw. Let's hear the scene that helped you get your starring role in "Breaking Bad." You were in "The X-Files," which Vince Gilligan - the creator of "Breaking Bad" - had been working on. And in this episode, which apparently made a really big impression on Vince Gilligan, you guest starred as Patrick Crump, who's a racist anti-Semite, seemingly deranged and...
BYRAN CRANSTON: But otherwise sweet guy.
GROSS: Nice guy. And he's trapped FBI Agent Mulder, David Duchovny, in a car and has him driving at high speed. And so your character thinks that he's a victim of some kind of weird conspiracy that's gotten deep into his head, that's like embedded into his head.
GROSS: And what we don't know yet is that he actually is.
GROSS: Actually is a victim of the government.
GROSS: So anyway, so here you are in the car in the back seat, David Duchovny is driving, and David Duchovny as Agent Mulder speaks first. 'Cause you wife has already died of this whatever it is that you think is trapped in your head and was also trapped in hers.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE X-FILES")
GROSS: David Duchovny and my guest, Bryan Cranston, in a scene from "The X-Files" from 1998. Was that unusual part for you at the time, this racist extremist tormented on the verge of hysteria kind of guy - where you're paranoid and threatening?
CRANSTON: No. No. I made the rounds of guest starring roles on many, many television series and usually playing the bad guy of the week, which is basically the role that men had in, you know, in series television, as opposed to women playing usual victim of the week kind of thing.
CRANSTON: And that's, you know, and that's another reason why "Breaking Bad" broke the mold. And - but there you find another example in the writing that Vince was able to do, is that he went another level deeper than what you would expect. And that's why "X-Files" became the show that it did with that kind of sensibility behind it, where an average show would've written Crump to be a nice guy, a sweet guy, therefore the audience would want David Duchovny to save this man. He's a nice man. But the audience wouldn't be invested in that. It would just be an automatic, you know, he's a nice guy. But because he wrote me as this despicable character saying awful things, it put the emotional dilemma in his central character. It gave the power to Duchovny, which is absolutely right. Do I save this man simply because he's a human being? When what he really wants to do is pull over, stop and say, Crump, see ya, go ahead and die 'cause you're an awful person and no one's going to miss you. But he can't because he's, he's human. And he - and despite the actions of this man, he is still worth saving. So that's the germ of "Breaking Bad," that was the seed that he felt that I would be right for this role because Crump was a character that was doing despicable things and still was able to convey a sense of vulnerability and to receive sympathy, and that's what he felt that Walter White needed.
GROSS: OK. One more clip I want to squeeze in here. A lot of us noticed you on "Seinfeld" in your recurring role as Dr. Tim Whatley, Jerry's dentist.
GROSS: And we've stitched two scenes together here. In the first you meet Jerry and George at the coffee shop, where you reveal you've converted to Judaism.
GROSS: And in the second scene you're in your dentist office working on Jerry's teeth, playing up how Jewish you've become. So in the opening of this clip - which again, is in the coffee shop, Jerry and George ask you what's up.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SEINFELD")
GROSS: Did you have to ask what schtickle meant?
CRANSTON: No. No. I knew what it meant.
GROSS: It's a little bit of. Yeah. So you're very funny in that. Did you - I read that you did stand up for a while early in your career? Is that right?
CRANSTON: I did. I did it in - for about nine months in 1981, I believe it was. And I did it solely for the purpose of overcoming fear because I looked at that and I said to myself: Oh my - that's got to be the scariest thing to do - just stand there. There's a microphone and a light on you and that's it. It's all you, and so I wanted to do that. And I got into the idea of going from club to club. I was never paid for it, nor should I have been, because I never rose above the level of mediocrity. And - but it was, it was a great, great experience, very humbling. And my respect and admiration for those who do it for a living, like Jerry, was just, you know, enormous.
GROSS: Tell us something about what your act was like.
CRANSTON: It was observational. I...
CRANSTON: I did a series, you know, talking about - you know, how out of Detroit there's been a reduction in the amount of cars that are being sold and, you know, they should really appeal to men to buy more cars because women are now becoming the decision-makers. They're the ones who are emotionally connected to it and they convince their husbands or boyfriends, this is the car I want to get. But in order to get men to buy cars, we're such simple beasts. All you need to do is name these cars after women's body parts and they'll buy 'em, like the cute little Ford Nipple. It's peppy.
CRANSTON: And I went on down a list of them. Or that import, that very safe import, the Vulva, you know.
CRANSTON: And I was - and I finished with: And who can resist? And guys, once you step into the new Dodge Vagina, you'll never want to get out.
CRANSTON: You know, it was - I don't know.
GROSS: How did it go over?
CRANSTON: Sometimes I got some decent laughs and other times it was crickets. But then you never know because the times that I had been given were sometimes, you know, 1:48 in the morning.
CRANSTON: You're the last one. Turn off the lights when you're done.
CRANSTON: So everybody's drunk or ready and so you might even get great laughs there. And then you take that same material to a sober audience and they go, eh, not so funny.
CRANSTON: So, and you saw why.
GROSS: It's a great story.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Cranston. And he's now starring on Broadway in "All the Way," in which he plays President Lyndon Johnson. And, of course, he starred in "Breaking Bad" as Walter White.
Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Cranston, who starred in "Breaking Bad" and is now on Broadway as President Lyndon Johnson in the show "All the Way."
So you grew up just outside of LA. Your mother had been a radio actress before you were born. Your father was an actor. He appeared in episodes of some syndicated shows that I used to watch. I mean they were in syndication by the time I watched them when I was growing up: "Annie Oakley," "Highway Patrol," "The Gale Storm Show," "Oh! Susanna." So what were your father's ambitions? Like you've become an extraordinarily successful actor. I know what I know about him through looking him up on IMDb. He's not well-known actor.
GROSS: What did he want to be?
CRANSTON: Well, I think he wanted to be a star. He wanted to go out to California from Chicago, where he was mostly raised, and after the war and hit it big time. And he did a lot of radio shows and with - and that's where he met my mother, doing radio. And they - for a time they lived in an apartment building in Hollywood and Anne Bancroft was nearby and Mike Connors was nearby and all these young actors just starting out and hoping, you know, that they would have a shot at a career. And it's either kismet or hard luck, you know, for most actors. The life is, it looks like, you know, if you looked at the sheet of an earthquake, it's severe. And it could be, you know, a steady line and then sharp movement upwards and then steady line again. It's very difficult to sustain. And I think because of my dad's experience through the gauntlet that is an acting career, I think it helped me just prepare better for it, that my goals were to be a good working actor.
GROSS: So your parents divorced when you were 12. And you stayed with your mother, who had trouble paying the mortgage so your house was foreclosed on, and then you were sent to your grandparents?
CRANSTON: Yes. My brother and I were shipped off to our grandparents, my maternal grandparents, who were retired. He was a retired baker. They're both German immigrants and he lived - they lived on a gentlemen's farm, about a half acre or to an acre, in a community called Yucaipa, California. And it was kind of way out of there. And we went begrudgingly and we stayed with them a year until by mother was able to get back on her feet and get a house and get a job and bring us back together. And after the year and it was time to move back with our mother, my brother and I didn't want to go - even though our grandfather and grandmother were strict disciplinarians. And I think that's why we didn't want to go. We learned something that we didn't even know we needed, we needed that kind of consistency and care and direction and responsibility. And I firmly believe that that's where I picked up my work habits and my ethic toward work, and because we had chores every day. We were out there. We'd have to kill chickens and drain their blood and pluck their feathers and cut them up and do all that stuff. Next door to us was an egg ranch and we had part-time jobs over there collecting eggs and trapping coyotes and all kinds of stuff. It was an extraordinary year that a city dweller that I was wouldn't have had had it not been for that unfortunate messy breakup.
GROSS: Well, what's the story behind this, if you're willing to share it? I think you didn't talk to your father for 10 years, or he didn't talk to you for 10 years following your parents' divorce.
CRANSTON: Yeah. It was, like I said, it was really, it was disruptive and dark. And there was really a dichotomous relationship that we had with our parents, that up until about when I was 10 years old it was wonderful. My dad was always coaching our basketball and Little League and with us, and my mom was, you know, the team mom and making our Halloween costumes and an Avon lady and always with the PTA and very active. And this breakup of theirs just destroyed both of them to a core. My father left and I didn't see him for 10 years. I saw him again when I was 22 years old.
CRANSTON: And it just devastated my mother. He was the love of her life and ultimately he rejected her. And she became an alcoholic and it was a desperate life that she led for many, many years after that. And of course the relationship that I had with her changed because I was growing up and she was - and we were growing apart naturally anyway.
But then you added on and compounded this experience that was just devastating. My father readily admits that he went crazy. He just went nuts. He had this classic midlife crisis that couldn't cope, was dissatisfied with the lack of, you know, attention he was getting in his career and that it wasn't going anywhere near where he wanted it to go. And it boiled over and he exploded and he took off.
And when you're a kid, when you're 10, 11, 12, you have nothing to relate it to. And people come and people go and, you know, in those days - it was the '60s, late '60s by then - and divorced couples were still an anomaly. And you used to look at a house, oh, they're divorced. The people who live there got divorced. Ooh. And so you don't quite know what to make of it all.
And the only point in looking back on your childhood and going to therapy and try to put the pieces of the puzzle back together that were crudely and aggressively, you know, cast off the table is to make your life better as an adult and so that you don't pass on to your children the same problems that your parents passed on to you. So that was my quest.
GROSS: Your father's 90 now. Are you in the position of helping to care for him?
CRANSTON: I am. And I do. And I'm happy to. I'm glad I'm in the position to be able to help him. And support him. And he's a different man too now - as we go through our passages, to be able to be open to them and to accept these changes in ourselves and others and to forgive. And the person who needs to forgive the most is himself because, you know, he doesn't recognize that man who did what he did and left his responsibilities.
He laments about it and talks about it on rare occasion, but when he does it's with disdain for his own sense, you know, for himself. And - and he's - and then he mostly expresses his gratitude for his children getting back in touch with him and rekindling a relationship.
GROSS: You found him? Is that what happened? You found him?
CRANSTON: Uh-huh. Yeah.
GROSS: Was it hard to find him?
CRANSTON: No. No, it wasn't. You know, Hollywood basically is a pretty small community when you think about it.
GROSS: Had he still been acting? Could you have, like...
CRANSTON: No. No. He was now writing mostly for a living and not only in theatrical areas but speeches for politicians and industrial materials in films and things like that. And that's how he made his living.
GROSS: My guest is Bryan Cranston, who starred in "Breaking Bad." He's currently starring in the Broadway show "All the Way," portraying LBJ. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bryan Cranston, and of course he starred in "Breaking Bad" as Walter White, the chemistry teacher-turned-meth-cooker and total outlaw. And he's now on Broadway starring in "All the Way," in which he portrays Lyndon Johnson.
Well, earlier in your career you did commercials.
GROSS: And one of them was for Preparation H, the hemorrhoidal creams and suppositories.
GROSS: So let's just give a listen to my guest, Bryan Cranston, doing a commercial for Preparation H.
(SOUNDBITE OF COMMERCIAL)
GROSS: Do you know what oxygen action was?
CRANSTON: No. You know, some buzzword that someone came up with. You know, I justified doing that because I said, well, I'm not the guy who actually has the hemorrhoid so I'm the expert trying to help others.
GROSS: Oh. OK. Yeah.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: No, because I was wondering, like, were you worried people would see you and they'll go, oh, yeah, the hemorrhoid guy?
CRANSTON: No. No. Unless - you know, there's very few commercial campaigns that strike a chord and become iconic. Other ones are easily forgotten.
GROSS: I would not recognize your voice from that commercial, and if you just showed it to me I don't think I would've recognized your face either.
CRANSTON: Yeah, maybe not. I've changed quite a bit. I noticed the voice is a couple of octaves higher.
GROSS: You're also wearing these big, like, '80s glasses in it, so...
CRANSTON: Yeah. I also don't think my testicles dropped yet.
CRANSTON: That was quite a long time ago.
GROSS: I want to ask you your favorite TV shows and movies of all time, maybe the ones that had the biggest influence on you in your formative years growing up.
CRANSTON: Well, the movie that had the most impact on me was one that probably no one else will select and that's because it's very personal. And that's "Cat Ballou" with Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin.
GROSS: He sings in that, doesn't he?
CRANSTON: Well, no, that's - you're thinking of "Paint Your Wagon."
GROSS: I'm thinking of "Paint Your Wagon."
GROSS: Yes, I am.
CRANSTON: Yes. No. And Lee Marvin should never have sung in any movie ever.
CRANSTON: But, no. In "Cat Ballou" it wasn't so much the movie as it was what I was going through at the time. It was - I believe it was early 1968 or late 1967 and my parents were going through a terrible time and this was right before their breakup, the official splitting off. And my dad had leased a bar and coffee shop in the Corbin Bowl on Ventura Boulevard in Tarzana in California.
And he was running this and it was not doing well. And it was another thing that was going down fast and that exacerbated the problems they were already having. And right next door to this cafe - and we were young, I was 12 - was the Corbin Theater. And they were playing "Cat Ballou" at this very critical time when we were there most of the night, because we did our homework on one of the coffee shop tables and when we were done we were able to go over to the theater and they made arrangements with the theater owner. We got in free and they gave him a free lunch and that sort of thing. And my brother and I would go and watch this so that we can escape the tension of what my parents were doing.
And we got to memorize this movie. Every single line of this movie we memorized. And we would go back home and when they were still arguing we would be in our room and we would do the entire movie over again. We would play the movie in our heads and we'd act out the parts. And so from an early age we were using that theatrical experience as an escape mechanism, as a way of almost like our acceptable drug of choice.
Where someone may take a glass of wine or whatever to escape that emotional crisis they may be in, we were escaping an emotional crisis by reinventing, you know, art. You know, I look at it in retrospect and I have such fondness for this movie, I can't accurately say whether it was a good movie or not. It was a great movie to me because of what it meant.
GROSS: Bryan Cranston, it has been so great to talk with you. And also to just hear your voice speaking as yourself. It's been so much fun.
CRANSTON: I am the one who talks.
GROSS: Thank you for that.
CRANSTON: Thank you. And thank you, Terry. It was a delight.
GROSS: I love talking with you. Thank you so much.
CRANSTON: Thank you.
GROSS: Bryan Cranston is now starring in the Broadway show "All the Way," portraying President Lyndon Johnson. We have an audio extra for you. There's a couple of stories Cranston told that we just didn't have time for in the broadcast, stories about how when he was a teenager he was thinking of becoming a police officer but pursued acting instead. You can hear that on Sound Cloud at soundcloud.com/freshair. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.