Bryan Cranston's Versatility - On Screen And On Stage

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Bryan Cranston (AP)
Bryan Cranston (AP)

After cutting his teeth on sitcoms like "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Seinfeld," Bryan Cranston brought his comedic sensibilities - and depth as an actor - to bleaker, dramatic heights with the AMC drama, "Breaking Bad."

For six years, Cranston's award-winning depiction of a high school chemistry teacher turned meth cook has helped to put the cable network on the map and given his own career a newfound direction.

But as "Breaking Bad" comes to a close this season, Cranston is looking ahead to new roles, now taking the stage as President Lyndon B. Johnson in the American Repertory Theater's production of Robert Schenkkan’s “All The Way.” Directed by Bill Rauch, the run will go until Oct. 12 and has already sold out.

In an interview with WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer, Cranston said he saw a parallel between the 36th president of the United States and the meth-cooking schoolteacher.

"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," Cranston said.

"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," he added.

Interview Highlights

On devoting himself to his role of President Lyndon B. Johnson:

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.

On making mistakes:

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.

On being a baseball fan:

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.

Listen to the complete interview here:

WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer also sat down with the director of "All The Way," Bill Rauch:

On Bryan Cranston's acting skills:

Bryan is a theater beast. He's one of those actors where he's equally at home in comic beats or tragic and dramatic beats. Television, film, theater. You know, he's just one of those versatile... You know, blessed with a versatility of gifts. So it's never been an issue, honestly. He really understands how to translate his work for the size of this room and the 540 seats in it.

On the Lyndon B. Johnson role:

It's such a steep mountain, this role. I mean, it is a Mount Everest of a role. It's like King Lear, you know? It is, we refer to the play being Shakespearean and the character being Shakespearean often but it's true. He's onstage most of the time, he has torrents of language that have to pour out of his mouth so I think early on that would be daunting for any actor but he's completely mastered the material now. I mean, he's completely off-book for the whole thing and we're able... This is my favorite face of the work. Because we've built the production, it's largely staged, we know what the story is and now we can really dig deeper in terms of the layers that are in the writing and make new discoveries, find new details, new nuances, so I love this phase of the work.

On Bryan Cranston's versatility:

Whether it's "Malcolm in the Middle" to "Breaking Bad," or "Breaking Bad" to LBJ, you know, Bryan is an artist who has defined himself, his career, by his ability to transform himself and to take on risks and to not repeat himself and I think that's part of the brilliance of who he is as an artist.

The ARTery's Ed Siegel also spoke with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "All The Way," Robert Schenkkan:

On why Bryan Cranston was cast:

Robert Schenkkan is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "All The Way." (Jenny Graham/AP)
Robert Schenkkan is the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of "All The Way." (Jenny Graham/AP)

We needed a certain stature, a certain profile, and I’ve been a huge fan of his, really since “Malcolm in the Middle.” The range from Mr. White to that hapless father is really amazing. He brings a certain intelligence, a certain ferocity, a chameleon acting ability, a good sense of humor, all qualities LBJ possessed. Again, as with A.R.T., he has passed all my expectations. I think he’s going to be breathtaking.

On whether Schenkkan is a fan of "Breaking Bad":

A huge fan. I think it’s brilliantly written, beautifully cast and it is really kind of immaculate. “The Wire” is maybe my favorite television and this comes a close second. The writing, the characters, it’s like a Russian novel or a Greek tragedy. I haven’t seen the last two episodes, so don’t tell me anything.

On President Lyndon B. Johnson:

I do think he’s a tragic figure, I do, and I agree with assessment that if you could just separate out his domestic achievements he would have been thought of much differently. But he bears a tremendous responsibility for Vietnam, you can’t diminish that in any way. JFK and Dwight Eisenhower bear responsibility, too, but LBJ’s lying and escalation of the war are part of his legacy. He had said that he left the woman he loved, domestic politics, for that bitch of a war. But I’m pleased to see new thinking emerge about LBJ and the ‘60s … The programs that emerged had a tremendous effect. Medicare, Medicaid, civil rights. They changed the country in a better way, they changed the way we think. So yes, he was a tragic figure because he knew. He was a shrewd man, a smart man, he knew what the consequences of Vietnam were going to be.

Don't miss Jimmy Fallon's parody of "Breaking Bad," complete with a cameo from Cranston himself:

This program aired on September 14, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.