It’s easy to list great actors who’ve been in the business for around four decades or more; Robert DeNiro, Daniel-Day Lewis, Harrison Ford, to name but a few. Yet you’d be hard pushed to find one as jovial and optimistic in the current climate as Bryan Cranston. Speaking at the Oxford Union recently, and giving a live interview with Ian Haydn Smith screened at the Curzon cinema the day before to promote his new film Last Flag Flying as well as his current theatre role in Network, Cranston remains incredibly level-headed, humble and kind.
Last Flag Flying is another excellent edition to the actor’s already impressive CV. Directed by Richard Linklater, his trademark humanist themes are clearly on show as we see Steve Carell’s reserved Larry Shepherd – a career-defining performance, and one which solidifies Carell’s ability in less comedic roles – meeting with his old Vietnam buddies Sal Nealon (Cranston) and Reverend Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) to convince them to come with him and bury his son who has died in action. Indeed, Linklater’s organic style is clear from the opening bar scene where Larry and Sal meet, with Sal considerably more brash and confident, and the screen then cuts to Larry asleep on the sofa next to an almost finished pizza, which Sal dangles over his face before eating. Later, we see this scene echoed poignantly with Carell looking at the coffin of his dead son, before cutting to an image of Sal eating donuts. Despite the film’s subject matter, Linklater rarely allows a moment for long sentimentality, and instead expresses a candid, earthly view of daily reality for the three men.
Despite the film’s subject matter, Linklater rarely allows a moment for long sentimentality, and instead expresses a candid, earthly view of daily reality for the three men.
Yet Cranston’s Sal remains the prevailing comic standout; as the actor admits in the interview with Ian Haydn Smith, Sal is “so big” a personality that he often dominates the screen over the other actors. But Cranston retains his subtle genius in his balance of both comedy and tragedy, and his Sal is markedly similar to the tragicomic role of Shannon in Drive. A particularly fine example of this nuanced skill takes place in a scene with Mueller, where Sal angrily questions him about the fate of Larry’s son, plays Eminem on the radio to lighten the mood, then moves back and forth between bitterness and banter so smoothly it’s almost taken for granted. Indeed, Last Flag manoeuvres between these two modes incredibly fluidly, never allowing too sentimental or serious a moment to overtake the wider plot. After Carell’s poignant admission that “I’m not going to bury a marine, I’m just going to bury my son”, we’re soon greeted once more by Cranston’s comic genius with a seatbelt when the two pull over for the police. No matter how bleak a situation, Cranston, with his characteristic wit and pathos, is always there to counter the mood and rouse his friends to action.
When anyone has an interview with Cranston nowadays, the questions will inevitably move towards Breaking Bad. Indeed, this proved to be so when the floor was open to questions at the Oxford Union, although the individual’s question to Cranston about which episode of Breaking Bad he’d hypothetically direct as a play was much more creative than I was expecting. And he came up with my favourite and hoped-for answer: the fly episode. Who knows what creative spectacles could take place? Yet I was even more intrigued by his response to Ian Haydn Smith’s question about creating the character of Walter White. Cranston explained that he ignored the cancer side of his character almost entirely, and instead focused on learning about aspects of depression, and delved into the “implosive” reaction that was created from White’s desperation. It’s unusual but also refreshing that Cranston took this approach and built a major part of the character from the roots of his occupation. He also mentioned the incredible difficulty he had researching Walter White compared with previous roles, and has previously referenced the process of starting a series as one individual and ending as someone completely different, going from “Mr Chips to Scarface”, to be an incredibly intriguing and complex task.
Yet I was even more intrigued by his response to Ian Haydn Smith’s question about creating the character of Walter White.
Ultimately, Cranston found Walter White’s strongest “emotional core” came through family. He noted that this core value also played a major part in his thinking for his role as Hal in Malcolm in the Middle back at the start of the millennium. Most of the people at the Oxford Union talk didn’t seem too familiar with this comic gem, but it sits in a strong position among my fondest childhood TV memories. Its eponymous character takes centre stage, of course, but Cranston’s blundering father figure nonetheless remains a major comic highlight, whether he’s contorting and personifying his flab in front of a mirror (Interestingly, Cranston remarked that, when enthusing to Vince Gilligan about the Breaking Bad script, he actively demanded that his character should be fleshly and simply dressed), duelling with a bee or narrowly missing the perfect 300 in bowling, he never failed to both amuse and endear in my mind. It was also nice to watch an American TV comedy that didn’t have a jarring laughter track which tried to patronisingly highlight precise moments to chuckle and smile (looking at you Two and a Half Men, Big Bang Theory).
And Cranston’s own family experiences play a big part in his life. Largely abandoned to the care of his older brother in childhood, he was left to forge his own path, and left home as a teenager, travelling around the country for two years on a motorcycle before deciding to pursue acting as a career. Speaking to Haydn Smith, he admitted that he leads a very “monastic life” at home, and often had to wash his face several times after a Breaking Bad filming session just to get out of character and return to normality. His relentlessly positive hopes for the future and final inspiring words at the Union to “get lost” and explore the world felt particularly heartwarming. If you’re thinking that Bryan Cranston is one of the warmest and most enthusiastic individuals working in cinema and theatre today, you’d be goddamn right.