“My starting point was what if this was a stray human?” says Bryan Cranston. Chief is the strangest role he’s had since playing Walter White, the mild-mannered, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned crystal-meth kingpin in Breaking Bad. “Chief has never had a break. He’s had to fight for everything. I get that guy!”
“That guy” is in fact a dog. But we’ll come to that later. When the 62-year-old Californian takes time to chat to Radio Times, he’s in London, finishing a run of Network at the National Theatre, playing the role made famous by Peter Finch in the 1976 film about a news anchor having a spectacular meltdown.
Get him onto the subject of Isle of Dogs, Wes Anderson’s second stop-motion animation after Roald Dahl favourite Fantastic Mr Fox, and it’s clear that he’s still fired up. He relished the opportunity to work to the exacting standards presented by the cult Texan.
This level of dedication to the craft of acting can take you to some unexpected places. Cranston’s success came after he turned 50 when he’d already put in two decades of work on American TV as a busy supporting player, most notably his six-year stint as the inept dad on Malcolm in the Middle.
His game-changing role in Breaking Bad turned him into a cultural icon. With his bald pate, steel-rimmed glasses and basilisk stare, Walter White caught the public’s imagination: an essentially decent man who took the viewers on a compellingly dark journey. Now, in the latest in a string of enterprising challenges, Cranston’s remarkable gravel-and-honey tones get a fresh showcase.
But back to Chief. In Isle of Dogs, he’s a wily mongrel with the scarred fur of a street-fighter – the “alpha dog” in a group of strays consigned to a toxic off-shore dump in a dystopian future Japan.
The Cranstonian snarl fits Chief just perfectly: he doesn’t sit on command; he doesn’t fetch sticks; but he is the scrapper you’d always want on your side. He might be a hand-high puppet made from resin and fur over a metal frame, but to hear Cranston talk, Chief is alive in his imagination. “He’s most likely an orphan, filled with anger, who had to get tough or die,” he says. “That’s what makes him the alpha dog.”
Like any actor, Cranston has had to scrap for decent roles. But, since Walter, they have somewhat fallen into his lap. There was an Oscar-nominated performance as blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Trumbo, a Tony-winning Lyndon B Johnson in Broadway production All the Way, and praise for his turn as a navy veteran in Richard Linklater’s Last Flag Flying.
Cranston is clearly on a roll. “I absolutely loved Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, so when the word came through that Wes wanted me, I was more than ready,” he relates. “It was only later I found out it was stop-motion animation.” Did he feel the slightest twinge of disappointment that this latest Anderson magnum opus was “only” animation?
“Not for a moment. I don’t have that sort of prejudice, which regards animation as only for kids. Good storytelling is good storytelling, and this material is best told in an animated version. If you tried to do it as live action, I don’t think it would work so well as a parable. It opens you up to a different culture, a different language and environment, and that’s exactly what art should be doing.”
The sense of conviction in Cranston’s delivery comes across in the finished film, though that’s just part of the magical believability that handcrafted stop-frame puppetry brings to the table.
The film was brought to life in workshops and studios on the fringes of London’s Olympic Park (just a short hop from the actual Isle of Dogs in the city’s Docklands), and Andy Gent, the head of the puppet department, was kind enough to show me around.
Padding behind us on the tour was Andy’s gorgeous chocolate-brown labrador, Charlie, one of five dogs brought in by crew members to gain authentic canine inspiration. Gent reserves special sympathy for the poor soul who spent eight months attaching eyebrow hair to the resin-cast faces of the human characters.
But the entrancing and deliciously eccentric final results vindicate all the effort. “CGI is all very well,” he says, admitting to “a little bit of digital retouching here and there”. “There’s just something so special about something you can hold in your hands, and see the fur catching the light. We started with a few drawings and months later you had a talking dog. It’s a magic machine.”
For Cranston, too, it was a fulfilling work-out, and a further astute choice that’s ensured his Breaking Bad career momentum is unlikely to peter out soon. It turns out that his secret is not to chase after success.
“There’s so much product out there, all the time, it’s ‘Do this!’ ‘Do this!’ ‘Do this!’” he explains. “But, for me, it’s not about how much a movie makes, or the TV ratings, or the awards. I hold myself to a high standard. I want to reach a level of accomplishment with the characters I take on and the stories I tell. I can only be true to myself, so my measure of success is entirely personal.”