For 50 years, Bryan Cranston was a stranger to fame. Not any more. On my way to meet him, a teenage boy passes me in a T-shirt he might have bought in a thou- sand different places. Printed on it is a crude sketch of a man’s face – a flat black hat, moustache and sunglasses. Many of you would instantly know it as Heisenberg, the brutal alias of Walter White, the character that made Cranston a star in the wildly successful series Breaking Bad.
A little later, Cranston himself sits quietly sipping coffee. A few weeks off 60, he is kind- eyed and sandy-haired, dressed in knitwear and cords. When I tell him about the T-shirt, he smiles wryly. “An odd world, isn’t it?”
Is he often recognised in the street, given he is now a pop culture icon? “Not a lot. I keep my head down. Becoming famous has changed me, and not necessarily for the better.”
You can’t just leave that hanging, I say. “Well, I often now opt to stay home, when I may have had a desire to go out. I’m less social than I used to be. I have a tendency to hide away.”
Cranston is deeply likeable company. For him this is a happy moment: he is in the running for a best actor Oscar, nominated as the star of the movie Trumbo (with winners to be announced on 28 February). It’s the story of Dalton Trumbo, the flamboyant left-wing Hollywood scriptwriter who was blacklisted by the studios during their postwar anti-communist purges.
You wonder if he saw Trumbo as a risk. It still feels daring to play a paid-up communist, and the blacklist remains a dark memory for Hollywood. “Right, it was shameful, which was exactly why I wanted to be a part of exposing it.” He is confident audiences of all persuasions can relate to Trumbo, a man whose politics didn’t preclude him “loving being rich”.
Still, the film enjoys slaying sacred cows: John Wayne is depicted as a bullying phoney. But then, for Cranston, debate is king: “You and I could have a conversation from different sides of an issue, and I would find it fascinating. I want to talk to people who don’t believe in climate change! Someone who finds the idea of gay marriage an affront, tell me – why? I’ve been married 27 years, and I don’t see how anyone else’s relationship affects mine at all. But I am truly curious.”
Cranston has an adult daughter. His own childhood was difficult, growing up in LA the son of two actors. His father, forever unem- ployed, walked out when he was 11. Much of the drama in Trumbo comes from the writer’s attempts to support his family. Did growing up with similar insecurity draw him to the part? It’s the one subject he skirts around. His answer is a long tribute to Dalton Trumbo, leading to the issue of alleged communists being asked to “name names”.
“The Nazis offered that same deal. ‘Where are the Jews? You don’t know? Oh, so you’re helping the Jews?’ We always need to be alert to that tactic.”
A valuable point, if not an answer to my question. Which is, of course, his prerogative. Despite his father’s example, he too found himself drawn to performing. He tells me how, in the 70s, he and his brother were on a road trip across America, riding motorcycles in the Appalachian mountains. One day, a storm left them stranded. Cranston had a copy of Henrik Ibsen’s play Hedda Gabler stuffed into his bag. Hours later, having lost track of time reading it, he realised he wanted to act.
“The idea was to do something I loved and become good at it, rather than do something I was good at and hope to love it.” So began a solid career. There were adverts and voiceovers, then guest slots on TV and bit parts in movies. In his 40s, he won a regular role in the fondly remembered sitcom Malcolm in the Middle. All this suited Cranston fine.
“I never had designs on becoming a star. Fame and wealth weren’t the goal. I just wanted to make a living acting. That is still my most cherished professional accomplishment.”
Then, in 2007, he was contacted by TV producer Vince Gilligan. The pair had worked together on an episode of The X-Files almost a decade before. Now, Gilligan was developing a pilot about a high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer, who starts selling drugs to provide for his family.
Cranston says he always knew how good the scripts for Breaking Bad were, but had no idea if anyone would watch. But that central idea of a family man transformed into a callous drug lord helped propel the show to acclaim and awards. “It taught me that everyone has the potential for evil. I could find out what scares and threatens you, push your buttons, and you might do ugly things, too.” He grins genially. “But we’re also all the mother whose love for her child means she can lift up cars to save them.”
In his 50s, Cranston was suddenly famous. The transformation has been double- edged. Recent years have seen him star in movies like Oscar winner Argo and cult favourite Drive. But ordinary life has been curtailed: “Let me say clearly, I highly appreciate my good fortune. But there is a price.” Interviews, he says, trouble him. “Normally, I wouldn’t talk about myself. I’d want to know which museums to visit in Britain, or why when I was here last year, everyone thought Labour had a shot at the election. I want to have that conversation!” In social situations, he says, he now seeks out older people, as they won’t know who he is.
After Breaking Bad’s finale in 2013, he has only returned to it in one context. About 60 times a year, he says, his agent is contacted by someone terminally ill whose wish it is to talk to Walter White. So he slips into character for at least a phone call or, when he can, a visit. “I try to be playful, ruffle their feathers. If they’re in hospital, I’ll say as Walter, ‘Hey, you want me to break you out of here?’ They enjoy that.”
Otherwise, the past is the past. “I don’t miss the show. I miss the people who worked on it. We were together six years, and a lot of life happens in six years. But we had a beautiful beginning, middle, and end. And you have to know when to end.”