Can people forget Walter White? Bryan Cranston on breaking bad again in new show, Your Honor
Bryan Cranston’s one-time role in the 1998 The X-Files episode, Drive is what apparently made Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan cast him as Walter White. And the rest, as they say, is history. Regarded as one of the greatest television characters of all time, the chemistry teacher who goes rogue after being diagnosed with cancer is undeniably the best in Cranston’s 40-year career and the 64-year-old has been open about the emotional toll the demanding part has taken on him. Recalling one of the most powerful scenes in Breaking Bad — where Jesse Pinkman’s (Aaron Paul) girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter) chokes on her own vomit and dies — Cranston admits that the scene nearly broke him. He calls it the most moving scene of his whole career. In fact, Cranston has written about the emotional risks he’s taken for his role as Walter White, in his memoir, A Life In Parts. About the scene, he has reportedly said, “It was most moving because it was personal. Krysten was acting her heart out off-screen, and in a split second, (for me) her face changed, and out of that came the face of my real daughter. As a parent, one of our worst fears is seeing something happen to our child.” Incidentally, as the LA-based actor returns to TV with the American crime drama Your Honor, seven years after Breaking Bad ended, he is portraying a father again, who’s willing to break the law, to save his son.
Thanks to his versatility and innate sense of gravitas, over the years, we have seen him pull off eclectic roles. This includes the likes of Tim Whatley in Seinfeld, Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, Vince Lonigan in Sneaky Pete, as well as starring in movies like Saving Private Ryan, Little Miss Sunshine and The Upside. However, playing the central force in Breaking Bad, the game-changing series that went on to raise the bar of television dramas altogether, won him four Emmys for acting and two as a producer, five Golden Globe nominations with one win, nine SAG Award nominations with four wins and six Satellite Award nominations with four wins. After a portrayal so heavy and memorable, it is but natural that the parts he’s been doing ever since, inadvertently get compared to it. But Cranston hopes that the audience this time overcomes Walter and views Michael Desiato — the renegade judge — with an open mind.
We catch up with Bryan Cranston in a virtual press conference ahead of the premiere of Your Honor. He discusses how he approached this role differently, prepped to portray a judge and also the need for people to come together to beat the pandemic. Excerpts.
You seem to be drawn to characters who are pushed into a corner and have to navigate their way out. What attracts you to such roles?
I think everyone is attracted to and relates to such characters, whether they consciously know that or not. People understand characters who are flawed because they are imperfect as well. There are strengths and weaknesses that we have, and I too want to see that when I read a character. If I read a character who has all the answers, makes the right decisions, and is kind to everyone, I’m bored. I don’t want to play that. But someone who has flaws and tries to be a better person, I think everyone can relate to that. That’s what is necessary for the audience to invest their time, energy, and sympathies for the character, to root for them. That’s what I look for — characters that are complex and conflicted, but interesting.
Since both Michael and Walter are people who go against the law under special circumstances, did you consciously approach this role differently?
Yes, of course. You don’t want to replicate anything. There are similarities. But you look for different elements of the story that allow you to take a different pathway. I tried to go down that. The differences are there in how you present yourself and how you handle yourself, in the vocal tone that you may choose to use. So I think that works. After a while, people will be able to divorce themselves from the influence of Walter White and be able to look at Michael with a clean slate.
Do you think that the depiction of the judicial system has changed in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protest? How did that influence the storytelling here?
I hope it has changed or is changing to reflect the reality of the situation. I know that Peter Moffat, our writer, was very cautious and specific of how to depict it accurately and be authentic in what the prison system and the judicial system looks like in America. The prison system is predominantly occupied by African Americans. It’s overwhelming. It is not a number that equates to the population. So there is something askew there. So it’s shown in a way that the viewers will get a sense that it is the way it is and feel that the story is authentic. And maybe the socially-minded viewers will feel that something really should be done about this. I think that is great. It is potentially a benefit to society as we go on.
Have you watched Kvodo, the original Israelian show from which Your Honor was adapted?
I did not want to be influenced by what other actors had done prior. And so I didn’t want to watch the show and use anything that the actor playing Michael had used in the original. I thought it would be best to just stay away from it, do my own research, tell my own story. But, I’m very curious, because I have heard great things. So I want to see it now that I’m finished with the shoot.
The last time you played the lead in a crime drama, it went on for years. Did you have to ask yourself if you are really open to that happening again?
What I was really attracted to with Your Honor was the initial premise of it—what would you do to save the life of your child? But also the fact that it is a limited series. It is possible that this season may be the only season of Your Honor. It is also possible that it could go on for a second year, which depends on a lot of different things. Whereas I knew, going into Breaking Bad, that it was going to be, hopefully, several seasons long, to tell the beginning, middle, and end of the story in the best way possible. The structure of this show is different. It could end even after one season and be a very satisfying conclusion, as hopefully, you will see.
How different was your experience working with another show around this theme?
It was not really different at all. The fact that I knew from experience that every show that you go on, every movie, every play that you do, you are going to encounter a different personality and different ways in which people approach their work... So you have to be open and willing to adjust how you approach things, what works for you, with mindfulness about others, and how they approach their work. What I really look for when I’m doing theatre, television or film is that sense of willingness to be true partners in the storytelling process. To be able to openly tell each other what you are feeling, what works for you, what does not, and to be respectful and honest about those feelings. Hopefully, that collaboration will bring out the best story possible.
What do you personally think of what Michael does in this story? Do you find any similarities between you and him?
The similarity, of course, is that we are of the same age. To an extent, we both perform for a living, him in a courtroom and I, on stage. We are both parents. What you have to realise is that he made one decision, impulsively, immediately. In a moment he realises that, ‘This man is going to kill my son. I have to make a decision right now.’ It is impossible for a human being to think, ‘Wait a minute. If I’m going to make a decision now, what’s going to be the ripple effect?’ You just have to make that decision and hope for the best. He does that. Whenever any of us ever try to become someone we are not, it’s impossible to sustain. It’s because that is not who you naturally are. It would all fall apart. That’s the most interesting thing about this character. As a parent myself, if I were forced to make that decision, I would do the same. I would do anything to protect my child and hopefully, wouldn’t go to that length where innocent people get hurt or killed. That is for dramatic purposes.
Your Honor tells the story of a father doing all he can for his child. Is it also a story about a father who is trying to save himself?
Well, I suppose you could say that. But for me, the decision making was impulsive. And he felt he was on the precipice of turning his son into the police, to put his son into the system of justice where he could be exposed to a lot of things, and quite easily be killed in prison. So I don’t think my character had the luxury of time to really think ‘What’s the best thing to do here?’ He had to make an immediate decision. And with immediate decisions, as we know, we find ourselves often feeling ‘Oh, I wish I thought that through.’ And that’s what happens here. He has to cover up his mistakes and figure out how he’s going to rectify the situation. I suppose he could have chosen to leave the country with his son to be safe, that could have been an option but that came to him probably later when it was too late. Or any number of things like that. Hopefully, we never have such problems in our real lives and we can just enjoy it from afar in a television show like this.
You have done diverse roles all through your career. Is there a genre that scares you?
Musical theatre! It is something that I’m not comfortable with. I wouldn’t call myself a singer. And therefore, I will probably do it at some point in the future. I think there are things in life that scare you, that you should not do for the sake of your mental health, your physical well being, etc. Then there are things that scare you that you still should do. And this is one of those things. As a performer, I don’t want to look at something and go, ‘No, I only do this’. So I want to keep opening up. Be a beginner at something, I think it’s very courageous for adults to allow themselves to be a beginner at anything, to say to yourself, ‘I don’t know this world. I don’t know this language. I don’t know how to paint, dance — whatever it is, and still having the courage to do it anyway. I think that is remarkable. I think that is what all adults should be doing for the rest of their lives — to find the things that open them up to the world.
In what ways did the pandemic affect the filming of Your Honor? What was it like coming back to it after a break?
Part of the experience of being an actor on a show is to meet the cast — some are new, some are people who you have worked with before. I enjoy the camaraderie. You bond, you go out together, you have cast parties and dinners. You figure out how someone wants to play a scene and for that, I have meetings with directors and producers. It’s very social. And that’s what we had in the first six months of the shoot and then March came along, the pandemic happened and the production shut down — seven months off for us to reflect on all things.
We just finished last week. And we did under strict protocols and rightfully so, to keep everybody feeling safe and healthy. We were actually rehearsing in a shield and that put a barrier between you and the other person. For me, I’m 64 years old and I have had my fair share of rock concerts in my life. I’m absolutely positive that I have lost some measure of my hearing and so when you are talking to someone with a mask or a shield on, the sound gets blocked. I kept asking them to repeat themselves. There was this one scene where I was hugging my son and both of us were wearing the face shield. We go to hug and our shields collide, clashing with each other like gladiators (laughs). So it was awkward. We were being tested three times a week. Also, the crew was asked to stay clear of the cast just so that we try not to get anyone infected but that kind of segregated the environment, it was uncomfortable and again, it was anti-social. In the last two months, we just had two-and-a-half episodes of the series left. So it was easier to think, ‘Okay, we are near the finish line, let’s just power through with these conditions that are in place, that are necessary.’ But if I was starting an eight-month project with these protocols in place, it would be a little depressing, to be absolutely honest with you. But I’m not alone. Work environments around the world are having to deal with these new protocols, spacing, and distancing. Hopefully, we will all be able to get back to a point where we all could be in the same room and can hug each other again. But we need to have universal cooperation. This is a human effort, not a country effort or a political effort. We are all human beings, so just do the right thing. Wear our masks, let’s beat this so that we can get back to the normal life we all enjoy.
On preparing to judge
“The first thing I did was go to New Orleans where the story takes place. And go to the courthouse. I watched a bunch of different trials in its various stages —the arrangement, the jury selection, the actual trial, witness testimony, and things like that, while observing the judges and how they handle themselves. Some are masters of their universe, they take control. Others like to be in the background so varying degrees of personalities can be seen. From the script and from experiencing the trials for two weeks, I tried to get in their shoes, chose what elements of personality would fit the story, and went that way. Michael is more likely to be the kind of judge who will sit back and allow the jury and lawyers to take control unless he needs to make a statement.”
Walter Vs Michael
“There are similarities. For instance, we are both of a certain age, are fathers and we are going to play against rules. Then there are the distinctions. The father in Walter was very methodical in his journey and what he was plotting to do. Michael Desiato in Your Honor is impulsive. He has to make an immediate decision in order to save his son’s life and has to suffer the repercussions of that decision. So there are the differences. I hope the audience sees that and allows those to play through. And hopefully, forget about Walter White and watch it with an open mind.”
“The toughest part about playing Michael was the running. When I was young, I used to run marathons. I was looking forward to getting in the mindset of being a runner again. But then I got injured, I had to have epidural shots in my spine two different times in order to just have my slipped disk not give me sciatica. Then I strained my hamstring muscle in one of the scenes, and that put me back by a couple of weeks. It was difficult to come to terms with that. Back when I used to run marathons, I was 30 years old and now I’m 64. So my body was telling me ‘Not so fast’. You do not and you will not have the same body you think you still have.”
Your Honor will stream on Voot Select starting December 7 at 8.30 am. The series will also air in India on Zee Café
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