Bryan Cranston: "At some point relatively soon I'm going to hit the pause button"
The Breaking Bad star chats to RadioTimes.com about new film Jerry & Marge Go Large, appearing in Better Call Saul, and why he's considering a break from acting.
In 2003, retired production line manager Jerry Selbee made a discovery that would change his life forever. Whilst perusing a brochure for a new state lottery game, he noticed a loophole that had the potential to make him millions, one he couldn't believe no one else had spotted.
And so, with help from his wife Marge – and eventually from the entire population of his tiny Michigan town Evart – he set about exploiting that loophole, managing to win huge sums of money over several years and helping to revitalise the financially struggling town in the process.
This incredible true story is the subject of Jerry & Marge Go Large, a brand new film that launched earlier this week on Paramount Plus, which sees Bryan Cranston take on the starring role.
"It's as if you've discovered a buried treasure," the Breaking Bad star says of the story during an exclusive chat with RadioTimes.com. "It's like, we didn't do anything, we just dug in our own backyard – and there it is! It was an adventure for them that they took advantage of in all the best ways, and there was mutual benefit all around – not just to them and their families but the community at large."
Cranston hadn't previously been familiar with the story before being sent the script, but he was instantly enamoured with the idea when he read it, feeling it was the perfect kind of project for him at that particular moment in time.
"I felt it was a breath of fresh air kind of story," he says. "Over the 90 minutes, it would be a feel good movie – and coming out of COVID and the lockdown, this is the first project I wanted to do. And it was good for me to do it – because I felt a sense of community as well."
After landing the role, Cranston began researching the case – reading assorted articles and watching various news items about the real Jerry and Marge. And he and co-star Annette Bening even went one step further and visited the couple themselves – an experience which he found incredibly insightful.
"They live in the state of Michigan," he says. "It's a very rural area in many ways, and certainly their little town is very rural. There's one traffic light in the town, 1,900 people total – so everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows Jerry and Marge. And almost all of those people in the town wanted to be a part of it, to be a part of that group."
Capturing that sense of community was something that was particularly key to the project, and Cranston believes that exploring the difference between life in the city and life in the country is a key theme of the film.
"I think you have to strike a tone that people feel is authentic and real," he says. "So for those of us living in cities, we see living in rural settings as a simpler life. And that's not using it pejoratively, I'm saying that there are less things going on, and that's an attractive quality. And so we wanted to have it conveyed as a more simplistic thing, a smaller environment."
Of course, no one could be a better judge of the film's authenticity than Jerry and Marge Selbee themselves, and Cranston seems delighted to report that the pair – who appeared at the film's Tribeca Film Festival premiere earlier in June – were very pleased with the final product, even if they had a few minor concerns early on in the process.
"Marge wasn't really taken by the idea that it was going to be a Hollywood movie," he says. "She was more concerned with how are we going to be depicted? Are we going to make sure that it's clear that they didn't commit any wrongdoing? It was not criminal [what they did], it was within the realm of the game, so she was more concerned about that."
As for Jerry, Cranston explains that when they first met he told him he wasn't planning on doing an impersonation of him – that he would "adjust him" a little for the movie.
"The theatrical licence that I took is that I made him less gregarious, less affable," he says. "I thought it was a better contrast to his success in what he was doing, if he was a little more contained, a little less socially adept. Jerry is very open, and he'll talk to anybody – but my Jerry, in the movie, was less of that, more of a quiet man, a man of numbers."
The issue of how much dramatic licence films like this can take without the project becoming compromised is an interesting one, and Cranston refers to comments made by acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin when discussing how far films based on true stories can get away with deviating from the real events. The important distinction to make, he says, is between accuracy and honesty.
"Accuracy is important in journalism," he says." You [have to] get the facts correct – it's a story, it's a news item. But we're not in the journalistic business, we're in the entertainment business. So when we're telling a story about real people, it's important to be honest, but it's not important to be accurate in the sense that by virtue of making a movie, we have to take liberties in so many areas.
"First of all, people know I'm not Jerry Selby, so you have to accept that. And then we have to truncate stories. We have to shorten stories in order to fit in and get to the core. So it's more important to be honest, that we are depicting real-life events and how they were approached, as opposed to being exactly accurate in each little thing.
As an example, he cites the fact that the real Jerry and Marge have six children and "scores of grandchildren" whereas, in the film, they have only two – each of whom plays a key role.
"We felt, and I think rightfully so, that we should only give them two children so that we can deal with both," he says. "Otherwise, if you only deal with two children, and the audience knows they have six, it's like, 'Where are the rest of their kids?' And that kind of gets us away from the adventure and the story itself. So you have to make those decisions based on what is best to maintain the drive of the story."
Throughout his career, Cranston has proved himself to be an extremely adept performer in a huge variety of often vastly different roles – from family sitcoms like Malcolm in the Middle to high-end dramas like Breaking Bad and award-winning stage shows like Network. This eclectic nature of his CV, he says, is very much by design.
"When Breaking Bad came to an end, I guess it was arbitrary, but I just felt I needed to step away from doing any television for three years," he explains. "So I did, I didn't do any television for three years, I went and did theatre. And so I was able to still do what I love but in a different medium. And to be able to take on different characters and help wash away the Walter White iconography of it all, you know.
"My face is still on T-shirts and tattoos and things – and that's kind of strangely bizarre when I see those things," he adds. "But it's my job to not lean into it. It's my job not to embrace and keep generating interest along those lines, but to go elsewhere. And forge new ground."
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Although this eagerness to not look back has been a key tenet of his career, Cranston isn't afraid to make one or two exceptions – and he's set to return to his most famous role alongside former Breaking Bad co-star Aaron Paul in the final season of Better Call Saul later this year. Much has been written about the possible nature of that appearance since it was first announced back in April, but Cranston isn't able to shed too much light on what his role entails – claiming he doesn't even know which episode he and Paul are actually starring in.
“It was [surreal]," he says, about the process of shooting the scenes. "Aaron Paul and I, we had to coordinate our schedules to make sure we were available when they were in production. So a year ago, April, is when we shot it. And because it was a separate section of us shooting the scene, I don't know what actual episode it's in. Because it wasn't done in order.
"We were flown into New Mexico secretly and they created this shroud of privacy – we were sent right away to an Airbnb house that we were not allowed to leave," he adds. "There was all this stuff going on, it was exciting! But also a secret and we kept it secret for a year.
"And then when Better Call Saul premiered they announced it, and Aaron and I said, 'Oh, well, I guess we can talk about it now!'”
Having already achieved so much in his career, you might wonder what Cranston has up his sleeve next, and the actor says that the last couple of years have changed his perspective somewhat – such that he feels a short break from acting could be on the cards in the not too distant future.
"I'm not interested in being derivative of the roles that I've already played and just rehash them over and over," he explains. "I'd rather not work if that were the case. So I think at some point relatively soon, I'm going to hit the pause button and step away for a little while, and just allow myself to rest and be a human being and experience different things, learn something that I have yet to learn in my life, whatever that may be."
On the topic of learning new things, I ask Cranston if there's any lesson in particular he'd take away from his encounters with Jerry and Marge Selbee.
"To look beyond what is in everyone's view, to be able to look past something," he responds. "And maybe, you know, don't judge a book by its cover or don't allow the facade of something to tell you what something is. Just to relax and look beyond, because there's something beyond what you've first seen, if you have the patience to uncover something. It's kind of exciting."
But what about the lottery – will Cranston be looking for any loopholes himself any time soon? "No," he laughs. "That's not mine – Jerry owns that, and he does it extremely well!"
Jerry & Marge Go Large is currently streaming on Paramount Plus, which has launched in the UK and is available at no extra cost to existing Sky Cinema subscribers – sign up for Sky TV here. Find out what's on tonight with our TV Guide.