Today Bryan Cranston was scheduled to talk at an event on UT’s campus (oh by the way, I work here now) and I was bummed because I hadn’t gotten a ticket. But lo and behold, a pop culture miracle occurred and less than an hour before it started my coworker Allen, who spent every Monday this summer geeking out with me about the most recent episode of Breaking Bad, asked me if I wanted to go because he had two tickets and basically I screamed “YES” in his face.
The event was in an auditorium in UT Austin’s theater department and there were probably only a couple hundred seats in there. The talk was with Bryan and Robert Schenkkan, a UT alum who’s won the Pulitzer, has written more than a dozen plays along with shows like The Pacific. Most recently he wrote a play called “All the Way” about Lyndon B. Johnson’s first year in office, which was the first project Bryan attached himself to after Breaking Bad ended.
It was basically just an hour and a half of Bryan talking, and he comes across as incredibly sincere, genuine and hard-working. And now is when I descend into bullet points.
- Bryan was talking about getting a feel for a character, really getting to know them well, and this happened: “When I was preparing for this role [of LBJ] I was learning more and more and really ingesting this character. I was literally ingest – okay, not literally ingesting him, figuratively. [laughs] Literally, I ATE LBJ. I dug him up. And I ate him. I AM THE DANGER.”
- He talked a LOT about the craft of acting and the importance of being all-in. It was clear that the thing he was most proud of was becoming a working actor – being able to support himself and his family through acting alone. He was talking about before he “made it,” his career when he was younger and the fact that he and his wife were able to live a pretty normal life despite having abnormal professions.
- He talked about the importance of luck in acting, specifically mentioned how he got the role of Walt on Breaking Bad. He told the story of how he and his wife were making a small film in the middle of nowhere in the desert – Last Chance – and how he’d come back from the middle of nowhere 3 days before he got a call about a small part on The X-Files. He looked the part of the character after filming the movie – long hair, fu manchu mustache, long sideburns – so he’d decided to go for it. It was on the set that he met the writer of the episode – Vince Gilligan. Basically I was sitting in the audience internally screaming “FAAAAAAAAAATE.”
- He also talked about auditioning and when his entire take on acting and auditioning shifted. He talked about making the audition about giving the people you’re auditioning something, a take on their character, and how stopping thinking about how the end goal of an audition was about taking – taking the role and getting the job – changed his entire approach to his career.
- More along the lines of giving in an audition, he talked about Malcom in the Middle and how when he auditioned the character of the father had about 4 lines in the pilot and they weren’t really sure where they were going with him. Bryan talked about how he looked at what a great character the mother was and started to take everything she wasn’t and feed it into Hal’s character. He said the most defining thing about Hal was his fear. Also he did a scream imitating Hal to demonstrate and the entire room was howling.
- He talked about how at first he pushed back on being labeled a “star,” but ultimately discovered that the public could define what a star was for themselves and he could give it his own definition – for him it’s about having opportunity.
- He talked about how doing the LBJ play was a struggle for him for awhile, that he felt really overwhelmed at first and he had to pull the writer and director aside after the first week of rehearsals and let them know what he was struggling. Robert said it was because Bryan was working too hard, wasn’t giving himself any time off at all to get out of his own head and that in the end he was perfect. He said that Bryan is “virtually word-perfect,” more so than any of the other 16 veteran cast members, and that it wasn’t just the words themselves, but right down to the punctuation.
- Bryan’s developed a scale for choosing his future projects – I am not kidding, he’s given it an actual name: CAPS (Cranston Project Assessment Scale). Bryan, that’s not how acronyms work. Anyway, he said the two most important things for him are the overall story and the script. They seem like similar things, but sometimes the story is better than the writing and sometimes the opposite is true. After these two most essential things come the actual character he’d be playing, the director and other people he’d be working with.
- He used a couple examples for this. The first was about a script his agency had sent him and told him to read – not because there was an available part for him in it, there wasn’t, but just because it was good. He read it and loved it, and wanted to be a part of it somehow. He told his agency this, and they told him there wasn’t a role. He mentioned a minor character and they told him it was only a one day shoot with two scenes. He said he wanted the part. He told the directors the same thing – they explained to him that it was a very minor part, and he said he didn’t care. He went in, did his two scenes, and left. The movie was Little Miss Sunshine. He said he frequently gets told he was amazing in that movie, but he insists he wasn’t; after all, it was only two scenes. He said what made people think he was so good was that the movie itself was brilliant, and that by association it elevated everyone involved.
- The other example he used about the importance of good writing was when he made a point about commercial success versus well-written material. He said that he always, always choses things that are well-written over things that might be more commercially successful. The example he used for this was how easy it was to pick a part in Argo over one in Gangster Squad.
- Okay, I’m getting to the Breaking Bad stuff now. He was asked more than once about his influence on the writers of the show in shaping Walt’s storyline, and he made it clear that all he really ever did was make broad suggestions. For example, about 25 miles from Abq the elevation shifts and there’s snow in the mountains. Bryan mentioned to Vince that shooting in the snow could be really visually interesting – he said the example he used was dragging a bleeding body through the snow – and that eventually led to the New Hampshire plot line of Walt being stuck in the middle of nowhere with snow all around him near the end of the series. Those scenes were all shot in Arizona.
- They talked about reflecting back on Breaking Bad and the character of Walt, and Bryan talked about being able to see it outside of Walt’s eyes for the first time. I think his exact quote was “Wow, this is a crazy dude.” He also said that “morally, he got what he deserved.” [all cheering] [that didn’t actually happen in the audience but in my head it did]
- He also talked a lot about how it’s a show about decision-making and showing how the most boring, insignificant person can become incredibly dangerous.
- The last question was about any funny or interesting stories he had from the set, and he talked about how he has a reputation for pranking his costars with all kinds of things, including “sex objects like handcuffs, whips and dildos” that are “inappropriate things at appropriate times,” and how it can change the mood of everyone on set to get them to rally after a long day of shooting.
- He said that pretty much everything that used to be a secret is now all featured as DVD extras. He specifically mentioned the scene where Walt walks past Skyler to the bathroom naked and Bryan put on a diaper and bonnet as an example of trying to lighten things up at the end of a long day of shooting.
- And that’s all I have for you.
There was no photography/video/electronics allowed during the actual event, but here’s a picture of the stage to prove I was there or whatever. Though I guess I could have just stolen it from someone else who posted them online. I GUESS YOU’LL HAVE TO DECIDE THAT FOR YOURSELF. (Bryan sat in the middle chair)
Bonus screenshot of a text with my dad, who watched all 5 seasons of Breaking Bad as they aired.