Bryan Cranston is going rogue. At least when it comes to grooming. He’s letting his hair grow. Not just his head, but his face, too. It’s a good beard, full and thick with bits of red and brown and a touch of grey — very much on trend — but that’s not the point. He’s letting himself grow, not because he doesn’t care how he looks, but because he does.
Partly, it’s a work thing. Because, when you’re a working actor like Cranston — a descriptor that, after more than 35 years and hundreds of credits in the business, Cranston essentially defines — your livelihood depends on your ability to convince others that you’re the most ready person in a room full of ready people. Sure, he’s a star now, but for three quarters of that career, Cranston was a hoofer, a bit part wonder. And to keep those parts coming, he had to out-ready the competition. The role needs a moustache? He’s got one. The character has a ponytail? He’s already halfway there. Shaved head? That’s easy. And sure, on one level it’s just a man actively not doing anything, keeping his canvas as blank as possible. But it’s also a metaphor for the way this particular man lives his life. Bryan Cranston is ready for anything.
There’s something about staying a little on edge that keeps me alive.
Maybe he learned it from his parents. Two actors who treated the vaunted profession like real jobs. They weren’t stars, they were actors: punching in and out of flicks. Almost blue collar-like, this acting without fame. As such, it’d be easy to write off his arrival in showbiz at age 26 as inevitable, but the truth is that neither of his parents ever succeeded in making the family business look all that glamorous: his mother quit to raise the kids, and his father, always working paycheque to paycheque, left the family when he was 12.
“There was abandonment and alcohol abuse and resentment and anger and being broke and having our house foreclosed on and having to live with relatives,” says Cranston, remembering the years that followed. “There was a lot of stuff.”
But, they managed, and as children of fractured homes often do, Cranston learned young a lesson his father seemed to struggle with: success wasn’t about luck, but preparation, persistence and patience.
Let’s start then with the preparation: When he was 19 years old, he and his older brother packed their lives onto a pair of motorcycles and set out on what would be a two year adventure across America — the epic kind of wanderlust satisfaction that now only seems to come packaged in a three-minute Vimeo documentary, artfully shot by drone — working for a few bucks at a café in one city, a few more at a diner in the next, a brief stint at a carnival, or wherever else they could make enough to get back on the road.
Before he left, he ran into an old high school friend.
“He was the assistant night manager at this fast food restaurant,” says Cranston, “and he looked at me and at my motorcycle and was crestfallen. He just looked at me with envy like, ‘God, I wish I could do that.’ He had already told himself at 19 years old, ‘I need to stay here at this fast food restaurant and work for, at the time, $3.75 an hour or whatever it was. And I’ll never forget his look. I felt so sorry for him because, at 19 years old, he had already put himself in a box that he didn’t feel he could get out of. I never want to be in that box.”
The thing is to voluntarily put yourself into the role of a beginner…That’s seeking adventure in life, and I like adventure.
So, Cranston never got into the box. Instead, he used his hard-earned, put-your-head-down-but-keep-your-chin-up attitude to go into the family business, such as it is. He punched in, and hasn’t punched out yet. Instead, he has blasted through the next three decades of jobs, always remembering to let his hair grow long during the breaks, just in case the next project required something a little different.
Different? Ha! If you were to graph the various credits on the lower two-thirds of Cranston’s lengthy IMDB page (it’s an interesting read, if you’ve got an hour to kill), on pretty much any axis you can dream up, it’d look like a Jackson Pollock painting. There was the Preparation H commercial; his short stint as the borderline anti-Semitic dentist on Seinfeld; voicework on the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers; Hal the hapless father on Malcolm in the Middle; and bit parts on, among many, many others, Walker Texas Ranger, Touched by an Angel, and The King of Queens.
Which isn’t to say that Hollywood didn’t try to stuff him into a box. When they wrapped Malcolm in the Middle in 2006, offers to inhabit other iterations of The Hapless Father came filing in, but that had been done. What hadn’t been done? Playing a father who wasn’t hapless, but maybe was evil, or at least had that capacity. In retrospect, the success seems inevitable: of course Cranston could play a suburban dad, diagnosed with cancer who turns into a meth-making badass. But cast your mind back to 2008. It seemed improbable, a stretch too far. He proved everyone so wrong, we forgot we were wrong to begin with.
Then, inevitably, the gangster-type pitched followed the game-changing success of Breaking Bad. For all its creativity, showbiz sometimes suffers from a lack of imagination. But that doesn’t mean that Cranston has to have one.
“The thing is to voluntarily put yourself into the role of a beginner,” he explains. “Not many people like to do that and it’s harder as you get older. We have a tendency to say, ‘well this is what I do and this is what I don’t do,’ and we separate those two things. I hope that I will be the person who says, ‘well, I’ve never done that. Let’s try it. I’m not sure if I’m going to like this or not, but let me try it.’ That’s seeking adventure in life, and I like adventure. I want experiences.”
And so he’s making them. He’s not going on any more Easy Rider trips across the country, but he’s pushing himself, resisting that box like he’s resisting his razor. Currently, that translates into Trumbo [above], written by Bruce Cook and directed by Jay Roach, which follows Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Cranston) through his battle, alongside the Hollywood 10, (condensed and amalgamated into the familiarly dark Louis CK), against the blacklist that forbade them to work in America due to ties to the communist party; while simultaneously shooting All The Way, the upcoming HBO film about Linden B. Johnson’s first years as President, following the assassination of JFK, and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. He already earned a Tony for the role on Broadway, which did not come without sacrifice. Call it persistence.
“[LBJ] was always battling his weight and was never one to take care of himself,” says Cranston. “I found myself holding my body in a certain way on Broadway that, by the end of the night, caused my back to hurt. And I just couldn’t make that correction on stage. I would get into the headspace of that guy and just go into it.”
So, he’d book corrective massages in between showings and hair appointments that increased the size of his forehead and thinned his hair to match that of the former president, like regular oil changes for the revving engine that is his career. All part of the job, and certainly worth the experience.
In Trumbo, Cranston found another challenge, this time, thankfully, less physically taxing. The Hollywood screenwriter was one of the great American dandies, with a flashy sense of style to match his flashy personality, an absolute champion wordsmith with a quick wit and a quicker pen. He spoke fast and intelligently, with a superfluousness that was quite unlike the stoic, largely silent Walter White. But those butterflies that Cranston got when he first read the script for Trumbo are his dragon, and he knew he had to chase it.
“There’s something about staying a little on edge that, for me—and I’m not saying this for all actors—keeps me going, keeps me alive, keeps me thinking, keeps me working,” says Cranston. “I don’t want to get into complacency. I don’t want to look at a script and go, ‘Oh ya, I’ll give that look and do that there,’ and put it down, because then you’re phoning it in. I want to be challenged.”
That’s the real reason Bryan Cranston lets his hair grow out. Sure, the paycheque is nice (if no longer necessary), but really, he just wants to be ready when someone comes along with his next adventure. The next job. Actors talk about excitement and challenges and doing different things almost as much they talk about how thrilled they were to work with their co-stars, whoever those co-stars happen to be. But, with someone like Cranston, you believe it. Because he’s proven it. That box is calling, and so is the barber’s chair, and any other metaphor we could throw around to describe the potential for complacency and routine. But Cranston isn’t having any of that. He’s got too much work to do.