My parents were together until I was 11 years old. My dad would always be a coach in Little League or something. We’d put up Christmas lights and play in the yard with our neighbors. It was a good life until my dad, who was an actor himself, had the typical midlife crisis. He had affairs, and my mother became an alcoholic and invested her time and energy in the affections of men — she was like Blanche DuBois. I could manipulate her easily because she was only a small percent engaged in my life. She never looked at any of my report cards. We never had a discussion about what was after high school. My uncle gave me the nickname Sneaky Pete [which later inspired Cranston to cocreate and play a lead role in an Amazon show of that name] because I would circumvent accountability. In high school I had the temerity to walk up to a teacher and say, “What do I need to do to get a C?” I can only imagine how much that must take out of a teacher’s armor. I thought about that moment in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad when I looked out and saw that sea of students who were completely uninterested.
My brother and I took a two-year motorcycle trip in the mid-’70s and would look for work along the way. Anytime we saw a carnival, we’d stop. There are always job openings because it’s so transient, and there’s no paperwork. The carny name for the game booth is a “joint.” If we used that lingo, they hired us. There are three different kinds of joints. There’s one that is impossible to win, but the prize is really good. Shooting the red star with a machine gun is almost impossible to win. Then there’s one, it’s not so easy to start, but you could work up to a pretty good prize. That’s when you’re playing a lot. And then there’s one where, “Hey, I can do this,” but the prize is worth a nickel and you’re spending a dollar and a half. And then there’s after hours, after the carnival shuts down. It was kind of a wild sexual celebration.
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Finding your calling
We didn’t really have a father, so my brother and I subconsciously navigated toward father figures. Police officers were a very manly thing to a young person. I got involved in the Police Explorers program. It almost seemed like the choice was made for me. I didn’t have any money, so I was going to go to junior college, then to UCLA to continue to study administration of justice, then go into the LAPD. And I took one acting class, and the very first week I happened to be reading opposite a very attractive girl. And the script said, “A young couple is making out on a park bench.” So she was making out with me and I thought, Doing my job well in this class means making out with this girl and making it believable? That never happened in police-science courses.
Work, work, work
I’m a working-class guy. I spent a year living with my grandparents as a kid. They made me stop watching TV, and I thought, This is going be horrible. But I didn’t miss it. I had to work next door collecting eggs from a ranch, and l loved having a job and responsibility. With them, it was: You acknowledge a birthday or an accomplishment, then get back to work. You never had the luxury of lounging in accomplishment. That helped me tremendously when I was an actor in my early 20s. When you have an audition, there are always going to be people who are more talented than you. And there will always be people who are less talented than you. Where you line up in that ratio, who knows? But what you can control is how much time and energy you put into your work. I would always vow that no one was going to outwork me. I’d keep preparing, preparing, preparing. Whenever I hear of actors doing drugs or alcohol or going to parties and going on vacations instead of putting in the work, I’m like, OK, good. Go ahead.
Finding the core
When I’m collecting ideas for delivering a character, at first I think, Oh, I can use this little idiosyncrasy or that little idiosyncrasy. And you collect them almost like you’re putting together a bouquet of flowers. Then you go, “I think it’s too busy. I’m going to put some of these back.” It could be your weight, your facial hair, bags under your eyes. I also always write a stream-of-consciousness backstory to a character. Where was he born? What was his economic situation? What was his relationship to his parents? I write it out on a legal pad. The role feels more connected to me that way.
Saying yes (and no)
I never rejected anything the writers came up with on Malcolm in the Middle. [Show creator] Linwood Boomer said, early on, “I’ll never ask you to do something I wouldn’t do.” But then this one time he said, “I’m going to preface this by saying, I wouldn’t do this. But would you wear 10,000 bees?” I said, “Wow. How cool.” The year I had lived with my grandparents, we had beehives. So I was not afraid. I discovered that if you’re wearing 10,000 bees, when you’re stung, you’re not at all surprised. And most of the pain of a beesting comes from the element of surprise. But on Malcolm, one bee went down into my pants. The beekeeper on set had said, “If you ever get stung, let me know and I’ll scrape the stinger out.” You never want to pinch the stinger because more venom goes into the body. So I said, “I think I was stung.” And he’s at the ready. “Where?” I go, “My testicles.” He goes, “Sorry, you’re on your own.”
Competitors become colleagues
When you’re in your 20s, a whole bunch of wannabe actors get off the bus to try to work in Hollywood or New York. When you’re in your 30s, there are a lot fewer of them left, and when you’re 40, even fewer. Now, at 66, I’m looking around and it’s mostly friends left. And it’s like, “Hey, I saw you do that thing. That was great. Good for you.” Most likely I was up for the role as well. But who cares?
Freedom from clothes
My uncle lived in a nudist colony in Florida, where we visited sometimes. We called him our naked uncle. Personally, I like the fact that most people wear clothes, because there are very few people on this planet that I actually want to see naked. But I understand nudists’ sense of freedom and that they don’t want restrictions. Fortunately, it was nice and warm in Tampa, so that’s where they hung out, literally and figuratively.
Keep your own counsel
When I did eight shows a week on Broadway — a three-hour show playing LBJ raging — I would lose my voice. Audra McDonald was doing Porgy and Bess at the time. And I said to her, “How the hell do you do that, eight shows a week, belting it?” She said, “Don’t talk.” So I started doing Silent Mondays, where I would write notes to my wife and not speak. Silent Mondays gave me a perspective of how much slower life can be if I’m not on my phone talking. My energy level just dropped into neutral — almost like you’re idling in a car. I’m sitting in Central Park and I’m looking out and I’m going, “Oh, I never noticed that hill over there or the detail on that bridge.”
Playing Lyndon Johnson
It’s funny: Once you play a character, that guy stays inside you. When I hear people say, “LBJ is unlikable,” I get angry. It’s like you’re saying to me that I’m unlikable. If you’re judging your characters, you are looking at that character objectively, and that’s not where you want to be.
As we get older, we put ourselves in a position of being a beginner less and less. But it’s really important to lean into that, keep broadening your circles. The tendency is to close the circle and say, “This is what I do. And outside that circle is what I don’t do.” And your circle gets smaller. Even, “This is when I go to bed. This is when I eat.” It’s important to keep pushing that out so that you are open to experiencing new things.
Designing a house
I designed a certified LEED platinum-level beach house. There’s no fireplace, no AC. It has 9-foot-tall glass doors that open up, and there’s the ocean. I’ve since sold it. And I’m fine with that. The process is fun for me. It’s not about getting to the finish line and then staying there.
Give it away, yeah
I don’t need jackets with the names of the shows I’ve been on. I can’t wear them because it’s a billboard when you walk around, drawing attention. So I have a storage room for all my swag. I distribute it to charities as they ask for things to auction. It’s enough stuff that I had to rent a storage unit — with racks along every wall. Every month I’m going in there and getting things to give away. Sometimes an appropriately small talisman will connect you to something. I do have my Heisenberg hat from Breaking Bad. It’s under a case in an office. We don’t put those things around the house — Emmys or things like that. That’s all tucked away in a room. At some point that’ll go, too.
Through some unbelievably good fortune, instead of hunting down material, now it’s coming to me. So I give numerical scores to the different aspects of a script. It helps me look at it objectively. The category that gets the highest priority is the story. Does it say something that is lasting, or is it ephemeral? Either one could be fine because a rainbow is beautiful. Then the character. Is the character someone that I can step into? Is the character integral to the storytelling? Not the size of the role, but the importance of the role. Because I want to be a cog that makes the story move. Then I go to the director. What’s the director’s vision? Then I go to the other cast. Then family. Does this impinge on family, or does it create an opportunity? If I were shooting in Europe or South America or Italy or Africa, could we go do a family vacation? I don’t think salary is still on the list. If you are fortunate enough to be financially secure, I don’t understand why you would chase a paycheck.
Experience trumps stuff
As I get older, things are meaning less and less to me. I’m 66 years old. I had files on everything. I don’t need to keep these clippings of this hiking trail. I have that at my disposal instantly. I get rid of all that load so that I can move more swiftly through life.
Marriage requires effort
We’ve been married for 33 years. And like any living thing, you have to keep nurturing it. Robin reads every script that I’m considering, and I get her feedback on it. She has veto power.
It’s not all about me
I’m doing a play called Power of Sail. It is about the conversation that is happening and needs to continue to happen to really embrace equity among all people. Especially for a white man, it’s to say, “I need to step aside and make space for emerging voices so that we have equality.” We haven’t had that. It’s not time for an older white man to say, “Listen to my voice.” It’s time to say, “What am I missing? What are my blind spots?” It goes back to accepting the challenge of being a beginner.
Escape is noble
I made the decision to do Jerry and Marge Go Large while we were in the lockdown. And I’m so glad I did because it was a great true story to tell, about this guy Jerry Selbee who — along with friends and family — came up with a legal way to win a big lottery. It was uplifting. It was sweet. It was such a nice contrast to our society’s woes right now. There is true value in entertainment that allows a distraction to an audience for a couple hours. A little brain vacation. This is not going to change the world. But it could change the next couple hours. And that’s enough.
—As told to Joel Stein
Bryan Cranston, 66, stars in the movie Jerry and Marge Go Large with Annette Bening, streaming on Paramount+.