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From Walter White To LBJ, Bryan Cranston Is A Master Of Transformation


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross.


BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Lyndon B. Johnson) Hey, you know that good, old boy you put down for the federal bench? Well, that's a pretty tough sell for Humphrey's crowd, but If you were to support the civil rights bill, they'll just grin and bear it.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Well, Mr. President, I'm not sure my constituents would approve.

CRANSTON: (As Lyndon B. Johnson) Well, I understand that. But maybe you don't have to fight quite as hard as you might otherwise.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I don't think...

CRANSTON: (As Lyndon B. Johnson) Or maybe when the vote comes up, you happen to be overseas visiting our troops. I'm sure Elizabeth (ph) would love Europe (laughter).

DAVIES: That's a scene from the HBO movie "All The Way," starring Bryan Cranston as Lyndon Johnson, based on the Broadway play of the same name. Cranston won a Tony Award for his performance. Most of us know Bryan Cranston from his role in the AMC series "Breaking Bad," which ran for five seasons and won a host of awards.

Cranston played Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher facing terminal cancer who becomes a major drug dealer using his knowledge of chemistry to become a master meth cook. Terry spoke to Bryan Cranston last year when "All The Way" was on Broadway. Here's a scene from the HBO movie, which premieres tomorrow night.

Cranston, as LBJ, is talking to Sen. Everett Dirksen, a Republican from Illinois and the Senate minority leader. In this scene, they're negotiating terms of the Civil Rights Act in hopes of ending a filibuster of the bill in the Senate. Dirksen, played by Ray Wise, speaks first.


RAY WISE: (As Everett Dirksen) I could probably get my troops to accept public accommodations but with, say, a year of voluntary compliance before it becomes law.

CRANSTON: (As Lyndon B. Johnson) Nope.

WISE: (As Everett Dirksen) No?

CRANSTON: (As Lyndon B. Johnson) No.

WISE: (As Everett Dirksen) No?

CRANSTON: (As Lyndon B. Johnson) Is there an echo in here?

WISE: (As Everett Dirksen) The Southern filibuster cannot be defeated without substantial changes. But if you're willing to compromise, I think that I can deliver the necessary 25 Republican votes for a (unintelligible).

CRANSTON: (As Lyndon B. Johnson) No can do, Everett. Now, look here, either your people vote for this bill or you vote with the segregationists and the country goes up in flames. Now, we're making history here, Everett. And you have to decide how you want history to remember you, as a great man, a man who changed the course of this country, or somebody who just likes to hear himself talk.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: Bryan Cranston, welcome to FRESH AIR.

CRANSTON: Thank you, Terry. It's good to be here.

GROSS: Let's start with LBJ and "All The Way." Can I just tell you 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.

GROSS: So did you ever have to be the boring LBJ in "All The Way"?

CRANSTON: (Laughter) Well, I hope not, but the audiences will let me know that.

GROSS: No, but you know what I mean like there's...


GROSS: He has to give a convention address, and, you know, he was not...

CRANSTON: I do. I...

GROSS: He was not a stirring public speaker.

CRANSTON: I touch upon - 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. 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 it's a...

GROSS: What - 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 commanding onstage, that I needed to be in the best shape I can be. 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 slightly change it onstage so that I don't go home every night with a literal pain in my neck.

GROSS: Oh, absolutely. Fans of "Breaking Bad" like me really miss Walter White, your character. So I want to play what I think is one of the just best scenes (laughter) from...


GROSS: ...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 has no idea the evil acts that Walt has done.

She doesn't know that in addition to cooking meth, that you've killed people, that you've done horrible things.

CRANSTON: Well, you know, horrible to one man is necessary to another.

GROSS: (Laughter) 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.


ANNA GUNN: (As Skyler White) Walt, I've said it before. If you are in danger, we go to the police.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Oh no, I don't want to hear about the police.

GUNN: (As Skyler White) I do not say that lightly. I know what it could do to this family. But if it's the only real choice we have, if it's either that or you getting shot when you open your front door...

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) I don't want to hear about the police.

GUNN: (As Skyler White) You're not some hardened criminal, Walt. You are in over your head. That's what we tell them, and that's the truth.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) No, it's not the truth.

GUNN: (As Skyler White) Of course it is. The schoolteacher, cancer, desperate for money...

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) OK, we're done here.

GUNN: (As Skyler White) ...Roped into working for - unable to even quit. You told me that yourself, Walt. Jesus, what was I thinking? Walt, please, let's both of us stop trying to justify this whole thing and admit you're in danger.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Who are you talking to right now? Who is it you think you see? Do you know how much I make a year? I mean, even if I told you, you wouldn't believe it. Do you know what would happen if I suddenly decided to stop going into work? A business big enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly-up, disappears, it ceases to exist without me. No, you clearly don't know who you're talking.

So let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No, I am the one who knocks.

GROSS: I just can't hear that scene too many times (laughter).

CRANSTON: Wow. I haven't heard that in a while.

GROSS: Really?

CRANSTON: It's good to revisit that.

GROSS: It's such a great scene.

CRANSTON: 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 it's - 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. You know, 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 'cause 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 just maybe not a full register but, you know, something noticeable.

GROSS: What did you have in your life to draw on to create Walt's insecurity, his anger, his greed his ability to lie, his ability to lose his conscience and be able to kill people with a pretty minimal amount of remorse? And 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. In Lyndon Johnson, it's seeking love.

He needs, craves, he must be fed love. He's a - 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 into his emotions. He was numb. Once I found that, that spoke volumes. It was like, oh, got it. I got it. He's given up. 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: And 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: 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...

CRANSTON: But otherwise sweet guy.

GROSS: (Laughter) 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. 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 your wife has already died of this whatever it is that you think is trapped in your head and was also trapped in hers.


DAVID DUCHOVNY: (As Fox Mulder) I'm sorry about your wife.

CRANSTON: (As Patrick Garland Crump) Sure you are. You and the rest of your Jew FBI.

DUCHOVNY: (As Fox Mulder) Crump...

CRANSTON: (As Patrick Garland Crump) Oh, yeah. You think I don't know, huh? You think I'm just some ignorant pudknocker, don't you? But I get it, man. I see what this is. I am not sick and I do not have the flu. Vicky and me were just some kind of government guinea pigs.

DUCHOVNY: (As Fox Mulder) You think the government did this to you?

CRANSTON: (As Patrick Garland Crump) Oh, hell, yeah. Who else? You see it all the time on the TV. They're dropping Agent Orange, they're putting radiation in little retarded kids' gonads. Oh, yeah. You sons of bitches sneaking around my woods at night - I seen you. You think I don't know?

DUCHOVNY: (As Fox Mulder) Well, on behalf of the international Jewish conspiracy, I just need to inform you that we're almost out of gas.


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 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. 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 human. 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. 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.

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.


CRANSTON: (As Tim Whatley) I'll tell you what's up. I'm a Jew.

JERRY SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Excuse me?

CRANSTON: (As Tim Whatley) I'm a Jew. I finished converting two days ago.

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Oh, well, welcome aboard.

CRANSTON: (As Tim Whatley) Thanks. So I'll see you tomorrow?

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Yeah. I have a cavity, lower left.

JASON ALEXANDER: (As George Costanza) Hey, were you just at the health club?

CRANSTON: (As Tim Whatley) Oh, yeah.

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Oh, we must've just missed you.

CRANSTON: (As Tim Whatley) Oh, well, I didn't do much. I just sat in the sauna. You know, it was more like a Jewish workout.


CRANSTON: (As Tim Whatley) Which reminds me, did you hear the one about the rabbi and the farmer's daughter? Those aren't matzoh balls.

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) (Unintelligible).

CRANSTON: (As Tim Whatley) What?

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Tim, do you think you should be making jokes like that?

CRANSTON: (As Tim Whatley)Why not? I'm Jewish, remember?

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) I know, but...

CRANSTON: (As Tim Whatley) Jerry, it's our sense of humor that sustained us as a people for 3,000 years.

SEINFELD: (As Jerry Seinfeld) Five thousand.

CRANSTON: (As Tim Whatley) Five thousand, even better. OK, Chrissie (ph), give me a schtickle of fluoride.

GROSS: Did you have to ask what schtickle meant?


CRANSTON: No, No, I knew what it meant.

GROSS: It's a little bit - yeah. So you're very funny in that. I read that you did standup 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 'cause 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, 'cause 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 (laughter) 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 them, like the cute little Ford Nipple. It's peppy.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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'd never know because the times that I had been given were sometimes, you know, 1:48 in the morning.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRANSTON: You're the last one. Turn off the lights when you're done.

GROSS: Yeah.

CRANSTON: So everybody's drunk already. And so you might even get great laughs there. And then you take that same material to a sober audience and they go, not so funny.

GROSS: (Laughter).

CRANSTON: So - and you saw why.

GROSS: (Laughter) It's a great story.


GROSS: 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 a 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, Calif. 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, 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.


CRANSTON: Now you can relieve inflamed hemorrhoidal tissue with the oxygen action of Preparation H. It accelerates absorption of pure oxygen to help shrink swelling of inflamed hemorrhoidal tissue as it often relieves pain and itch for hours. Preparation H with oxygen action.

GROSS: Do you know what oxygen action was (laughter)?

CRANSTON: No. It was 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, 'cause 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 had 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 (laughter).

GROSS: You're also wearing these big, like, '80s glasses in it, so (laughter)...

CRANSTON: Yes. I also don't think my testicles dropped yet.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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 (laughter).

CRANSTON: Yes. No. And Lee Marvin should never have sung in any movie ever.

GROSS: (Laughter).

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 then 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's 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.

DAVIES: Bryan Cranston speaking with Terry Gross in 2014. Cranston stars as Lyndon Johnson in the HBO movie "All The Way," which premieres tomorrow night. Coming up, David Edelstein reviews the new film "Maggie's Plan." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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