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We revisit a great conversation Sacha Pfeiffer had with Emmy-award winning actor Bryan Cranston just before his play "All The Way" opened at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge in September. The show has now gone to Broadway, where it will begin previews next month and officially open in March.
Sacha sat down with the actor during one of his lunch breaks to talk about his different experiences on stage and screen, and the challenges of playing the 38th vice president of the United States, Lyndon Banes Johnson.
Bryan Cranston, Emmy-winning actor
Sacha Pfeiffer: LBJ was known as someone whose public persona could be very different than his private one. And that, of course, has a fascinating parallel with Walter White. Did you find that having played that Walter character, and then going to play another character, LBJ, who was often different in public than he was when the door was shut? How did playing the Walter White character then help you play this LBJ character with that parallel?
Bryan Cranston: To me, I was just attracted to the dynamic nature of this man and the hugely important condition that he found himself in, not only as the leader of the free world, so to speak, as the president, but ultimately having literally lives in the palm of his hand that will be determined by his decision-making. And, to a lesser degree, Walter White had the same kind of dynamic sensibility, that his decision-making could create that environment of life and death. One on one side of the law and the other on the other.
But, truly, it was the entire package. Yes, the polarity of the man and the craziness of the office. And, you know, I think if he was diagnosed today, if he were alive today and diagnosed, I think he would have been diagnosed as bipolar, because he had severe doubts of depression, and then on the twist of a knife he would turn and be positive and eager to tackle issues. He was a problem-solver and an astute politician.
How do you prepare for a role like this? For example, you’re doing a Texas accent. What’s your strategy for embodying a character, especially someone who’s been a real person?
Well, that’s the whole point. When you first start out, the character is outside of you because you haven’t done the work to bring him in. And the more you read not just the text but also biography, which I have, and other biographies written by other people who have written about him, you get a sensibility of the man. And then pretty soon, hopefully, you start to pull that character inside of you. And then, you start filtering your thought process through that filter of him. And, at the same time you’re working on the Texas accent and his speech pattern and how he talked all the time, and he was a good old boy, and he’d have that kind of twang and drawl. And it’s fun to play with and you live with it for a while and pretty soon it just gets into the fabric of that character.
So very much a psychological/emotional/mental transformation as well as a physical one?
Oh God, it’s everything. If I don’t bring everything, every bit of my sense on stage, I will get lost. Yeah. And it kicks my ass! I’m telling you. We haven’t even opened yet and just the rehearsal process, is just — it’s so intense. You know, we have one day off a week — technically Mondays is our one day off — but there’s no day off for me.
Because even if you’re not acting with the rest of your cast you’re thinking constantly?
Oh absolutely. I’ve got a nose in a book or the script and you’re always developing. I just don’t feel I have any time to let that go. And we won’t know until after the first few shows that we have with an audience that I feel like, OK, he’s deeply rooted in there and I can completely relax and allow what I’ve worked on to come out.
When you do movies or television, you film a lot of scenes, pick the best one, that becomes the final and only scene the public sees. You’re going to have a chance here to redo it night after night after night. How does it feel to have that opportunity?
Good because you can erase the mistakes of the previous night!
Or possibly make some!
Or make some new ones! That’s a saying we have: “Ah, I made some new mistakes today. That was good.” That’s the one thing ’bout live theater that you cannot compare to anything is, is that, here it goes. It’s a slingshot and once that fires you’re off and running. Whatever happens happens. And hopefully you know the text and the character so well that it’s second nature, that the work you’ve done and where you’re physically supposed to be on the stage at any given point is just automatic, you just go there like a homing pigeon and you don’t have to think about it.
Many people know you primarily for your TV roles, but you’ve also had a lot of stage roles. You’ve done Sam Shepard and Ibsen and Shakespeare. But you have also said this LBJ play has taken you a bit out of your “comfort zone.” What about it did you have any trepidation about?
I didn’t have any trepidation about doing it, deciding to do it. And I don’t have any trepidation about when we’re ready to go. … It’s just that I have to attack this role just like Lyndon Johnson attacked the presidency, with vigor and such tremendous aggression. And I feel the parallel there with me approaching this task. It’s Herculean and it’s kicking my ass. It truly is. I’m completely consumed by it and I collapse at 9:30 at night and I’m out. Of course, that’s bad now because we would still be doing that play at 9:30.
That’s right — that’s just intermission time!
So I have to now adjust my body clock to perform at its peak level at 7:30 at night now.
Just when you’re fading.
Just when I’m starting to feel like energy is fading you have to just start now.
I have read that you’re training for this almost as if it’s physical exercise — your diet and so forth. So it’s physically demanding and requires conditioning, in a sense.
I didn’t want anything to interrupt my need to have full focus on this. So I can’t get sick. I’m loading up on my vitamins. I’m eating really well. I don’t drink and I’m going to bed early. And by doing so I’ve lost some weight, which is good for me as a performer because then I feel stronger and it will support me through this venture. But the truth is is that LBJ really fought his weight all the time. And there’s even a line in the play about “Bird has him on a diet.”
So unfortunately I’m a little thin but we’re going to have to get away with that. I thought, well, I could eat a bunch of cheesecake and potato chips and get heavy. But then my body — and if your body reacts antithetical to what your mind is requiring, you’re in trouble.
You’re now 57 years old. What has it been like at this stage of your career and age to continue to have these roles in which you blossom and flourish. I mean, is it very rewarding?
You know, I’m not a believer of past lives, but if those listeners are, I must have been terribly mistreated in a past life because I am now reaping the rewards of something or maybe they’re mistakenly attributed to me, but I have just been so fortunate to be able to have this as my body of work. It’s just been a huge gift.
I imagine it has to be a little annoying that when you’ve had a career as long as you have, even though you hit it big with one thing in particular that ends up defining you. Is that a little annoying sometimes?
No. I mean, an actor is lucky if they have that one thing. Otherwise you’re not defined. You go from job to job and you just want to be able to pick and choose good work.
Jason Alexander, the Seinfeld guy, went to Boston University, and I remember he did a master class once where someone in the audience asked him a question about that. “Do you worry that everyone will always think of you as George?” He was clearly irritated by the question, but it’s sort of a job hazard when you have those mega successes.
It is. Jason’s a friend, and when he was able to land George Costanza on “Seinfeld,” a landmark comedy show, it created a tremendous amount of opportunity for him, and in the same sense it also puts you in a box that he now has to diligently work out of so that he’s not just “that guy.”
Do you feel like you’re in that box?
No. He is more distinctive looking than I am, and I have a chameleon type of look. I can change my look and adjust things – my facial hair and head hair, things like that, and I look different. I’m more fortunate in that case.
A big picture industry question: Movies used to be where actors wanted to do their thing. Obviously there’s a transformation of television and the most innovative things in TV are now happening on cable and with Netflix. You’re very much part of that. “Breaking Bad” is part of that. I’m interested both in what you watch on TV and your general thoughts about this transformation that’s happening.
Oh, I don’t watch television! It’s for the masses! No, I don’t watch a lot of television because I just don’t have time. When I have a moment to recreate, as opposed to create, I usually watch something like baseball. I’m a big Dodger fan and so I’ll follow them and just kind of allow my mind to go to blubber a little bit and appreciate just the simplicity of the game. To be honest, I haven’t turned on a television in a month other than to watch my show for that hour on Sunday night. That’s all I’ve seen.
Really? Your sole focus has been this play?
You mentioned you’re a Dodgers fan. Do you plan to visit Fenway while you’re here? Have you already made a visit?
Oh, I’ve been to Fenway a few times. I love the Red Sox. In 1975 I picked the Red Sox as my American League team because we didn’t have it and they never played each other unless they were actually in the World Series. So I wanted to have an American League team, and I was a big Dodger fan so naturally I hated the Yankees since the Brooklyn days, when they were there, and I thought, who else hates the Yankees? The Red Sox hates the Yankees! I love those guys! So I’ve been rooting for the Red Sox since ’75.
Robert Schenkkan, the playwright of “All The Way,” has written or is writing a sequel to this play that covers Johnson’s second term. Any sense yet if you might be the LBJ in that play, as well?
You know, when I first heard he was writing the sequel, so to speak, of “All The Way,” I thought, “Oh no!” because I want to be able to put my impression on this, partly because I’m taking ownership of this. I can’t lease this character. I have to own him and bring him in and embrace him for everything he is, warts and all. And when you do that, you do have a proprietary kind of feeling toward it, and if someone else now goes on and does LBJ in some other role, I would be like, “Ooh! That’s my guy! Don’t take my guy!” But it will remain to be seen. We have to see how this production goes and how we all feel. It’s been a great process so far and very collaborative and inclusive and I’m looking forward to a great run.
This segment aired on January 2, 2014.