Although he’s better known to TV audiences as the meth-making teacher Walter White on Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston spends a good portion of his year working on plenty of other film and TV projects. “It’s like a drug to be able to tell stories—that’s (my) drug of choice,” says Cranston, who directed an episode of ABC’s Modern Family this season and is prepping his own feature to direct when Breaking Bad finishes shooting its final episodes early next year. He recently sat down with AwardsLine to talk about his latest role as CIA agent Jack O’Donnell in Argo, Ben Affleck’s story about how Hollywood and the CIA teamed up to rescue six stranded diplomats in 1970s-era Iran.
AWARDSLINE: When you read the script for Argo, did you know that you would be playing CIA agent Jack O’Donnell?
BRYAN CRANSTON: The first time I read a script I don’t really want to know what character they’re thinking of. I just want to get a sense of the story by itself. I could even sometimes look at it and go, “There’s a good story here, but it’s kind of hidden with this muddled script.” If that’s the case, and I like the character, then I’ll talk about (working) on improving the script, which is mostly the case for me. When I heard this story and I read the script, and I was taken away by it. Not only is the story fantastic and real, but Chris Terrio’s screenplay was so supportive of that story and told it beautifully. I realized there’s no discussion here as far as “the script is lacking.” The role of Jack O’Donnell just popped off the page for me, because he’s an integral part of the story but also has his moment of heroism. He needs to rise to the occasion, damn the torpedos.
AWARDSLINE: Besides reading the Wired article, what kind of research did you do?
CRANSTON: I went to Langley, VA, and interviewed CIA officers there. They were a little surprised that I was asking more personal questions than mission-related questions. They said often, “There’s only a few things that we can actually talk about,” and I said, “That’s alright. I’m really more interested in finding out what a CIA officer is like as a person” After a little while, they opened up and went beyond the monosyllabic answers. I told them, “My job here is to take what is a composite character, representing the CIA, and I really want to do it justice.” They wanted to cooperate, as well, because they want to be seen in a light that is at least fair.
It’s interesting the clandestine nature of the subject allowed these people to work under the radar for the right reasons, and there’s no one who wants to celebrate that more than audiences: To say, “The man or woman who was not going to get any recognition for their deeds just got recognized.” That’s a wonderful feeling.
AWARDSLINE: Do you prefer to rehearse?
CRANSTON: Rehearsals to me are fantastic luxury. If you’re able to do that in film and television schedules, you have a bonus. There were directors like Sidney Lumet who used to have it in his contract that there would be an extensive rehearsal period prior to him shooting anything, and I regret that I never had a chance to work with him because that would have been great. We had a rehearsal period on Drive that was soenjoyable. It really allows the actor to be responsible for what you’re bringing to the picture and the story. By the time we started that movie, we were all fully invested because we spent timeon this. But that’s not always the case. In fact, more often that not, it’s not possible.
The fortunate aspect for Argo is that (the) script was just so good that the guide posts were very clear. Nothing was murky. When it came time for me to have meetings with Ben, I didn’t really have many questions. So basically what I did was alone time. I went to the bowels of the underutilized L.A. Times building where we shot. The first thing I wanted to do was go to that bullpen area were Jack O’Donnell lives. The bulk of his career was spent in that bullpen. And I went into my office, and I moved things around. In my backstory, I wanted him to be a devout Catholic, so I asked for rosaries and other religious artifacts that I could put on my desk. Not to billboard it or show it, but for me. (In the backstory), I just wrote, “You know he’s a better man than he is a husband, and he was divorced twice.” I had a feeling like, if this mission we call Argo could work, that’s Jack O’Donnell’s swan song. I think he’d retire after that.
AWARDSLINE: In addition to directing an episode of Modern Family this season, you’re prepping your own feature-film directing project. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
CRANSTON: We hope to be shooting next year, after Breaking Bad finishes shooting. (The story is) a strong family dynamic drama as much as it is a murder mystery. It’s about a man who wants to rekindle family values with his small family, his 16-year-old son and his wife, after he abruptly quits the FBI even though he was lauded for his work. He just feels he needs to do this for his family. But things start to fall apart, and the father and son end up literally and figuratively saving each other’s life.
AWARDSLINE: Does it have a title yet?
CRANSTON: It does, but I don’t want to give it out because we may change it.
AWARDSLINE: Has the success of Breaking Bad changed the type of roles that are coming your way?
CRANSTON: Oh, yes. That’s why I’m sitting here. Breaking Bad has opened up the level of opportunity for me, and I couldn’t be more appreciative. On screen, it is the role of my life; I will never have a role better than Walter White. I know that, and I’m fine with that. Then off screen, it’s afforded me the chance read a better quality of script and meet with fine filmmakers that I would love to continue a relationship with. I don’t play golf, I’m not one of those guys—I enjoy storytelling. I like to write it, I like to direct it, I like to act in it, I like to produce it. I like to be around storytellers. That’s what excites me.