En español | Playing a chemistry teacher turned meth dealer on Breaking Bad proved Bryan Cranston's affinity for playing morally conflicted men. Now the six-time Emmy winner is back as New Orleans judge Michael Desiato, who breaks the law to protect his teen son (who confessed to his father that he was in a fatal hit-and-run accident) in Showtime's 10-episode drama Your Honor (Dec. 6). Once again, Cranston shows how a good man can go off the rails. He talks with AARP about complex characters, his love of comedy and how it's going since he contracted COVID in March.
Why does your character cover up his son's crime?
The father of the person who died is a mob boss, and my character realizes, “That guy is going to kill my son.” I have to make this immediate decision and change my life course — and reverse-engineer everything I know about the justice system — to figure out how to protect my son's life.
Is Judge Michael like your Breaking Bad character, Walter White, who became a drug lord to provide for his family because he's dying of cancer?
You could draw a Venn diagram in that crossover: a man past middle-age with a family [to protect]. But Michael comes from a different place. I'm just really attracted to characters who are conflicted and troubled but genuinely good and trying to right the ship. I think what an audience is attracted to is to see people's struggle. They get knocked down, they get back up, they get knocked down again. That's what makes good drama.
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Did COVID-19 affect the shoot?
We shot about eight-and-a-half episodes out of 10 before we shut down for seven months. I'm directing the last one.
Is that working out?
We're tested three times a week — even if you're not scheduled to work that day, you have to come in. CBS and Showtime put these protocols together and as rigid as they are, they're working. Knock wood, we'll get through the next two-and-a-half weeks, and we'll finish strong. And without anybody getting infected.
How are you feeling after recovering from COVID?
Great. I got it in March. My wife [actress Robin Dearden] and I were very fortunate. We had about three days of slight achiness, not enough to keep you in bed. I had a half a day of a 99.8 temperature, then a week of real exhaustion. You get up in the morning, walk around for three or four hours, and you say, “You know what? I gotta take a nap.” We both lost our sense of taste and smell for a solid two months. And then it slowly started coming back. Very slowly. Almost imperceptible. Now, it's almost 70 percent.
Now you can eat that rich New Orleans food.
I'm not really tasting it. I can taste sweet and savory but I can't really taste nuance or subtleties in flavors and spices. I can't smell coffee unless I open the bag and stick my nose in the bag of beans. Then I can smell it.
Bryan's Fast Facts
Hometown: Canoga Park, Calif.
Current project: Your Honor (Showtime)
Greatest Hits: Breaking Bad, Trumbo, All The Way, Network, Malcolm in the Middle, Seinfeld, The Upside
Accolades: One Oscar nomination (Trumbo), two Tony Awards, one Olivier award, six Emmy awards, three SAG awards
Education: Los Angeles Valley College, Associates Degree in Police Science
Pen to paper: 2016 memoir A Life in Parts
Which type of character is the greater challenge, real-life ones like Dalton Trumbo and LBJ or Walter White and Hal from Malcolm in the Middle?
The fictional ones. With Trumbo or Johnson I had endless amounts of things to read and people to talk to and source material. It's fun to listen to the temper and the tenor of the voice, not to do an impersonation but to get the sensibility of why he spoke in a rhythmic way. Trumbo was irrational, and even when he said, “Yes, I'll have more coffee,” it almost sounded like an argument. It was fun to capture those things. A fictional character is a little unwieldy. It's a little too free and open. It's not as clear where you're going. Whereas if you look at a nonfictional character, you can see where you need to go. Whether you get there or not is another story.
After you play heavy dramatic roles do you ever long to go back to comic roles like Dr. Tim Whatley on Seinfeld or Larry's therapist on Curb Your Enthusiasm?
I do. I like to mix it up, for my entertainment and so that the industry doesn't pigeonhole me.
What's the secret of your 31-year marriage?
What makes it work is that we were able to be normal for many years. When you're a journeyman actor — and so is my wife — for 15 years, you sock that money away. You don't know when your next job is coming. My wife and I have never argued about money. The secret is her character. She's not cynical. She hasn't lost her girl-like joy of life. She's very emotional and empathetic and compassionate and loving. And I thought she would make a wonderful mother. And she has.
Being quarantined with someone 24/7 will illuminate the strength or weakness of a union.