Q&A: Bryan Cranston on Argo

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.

Behind The Scenes On Argo

This story appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of AwardsLine.

With more than 120 speaking parts and a key scene that required 2,500 Persian extras, Argo couldn’t have struck the right note of realness without showing faces that lived through the 1979 Iranian Revolution, and that meant heading somewhere in the Middle East to shoot. Several locations were on the short list, including Jordan and Bulgaria, but ultimately Turkey won out for having the right Persian look. (Director and star Ben Affleck jokes that Turkey having a posh Four Seasons Hotel is what really clinched the deal.)

“In truth, it really was very similar architecture, and it was next to Iran, so I felt like we’d be able to get a lot of Farsi-speaking extras,” Affleck says. “As it turned out, that was a false assumption; most Iranians were afraid to be in the movie because of reprisal against their family, which kind of brought home the seriousness of the real story.”

Alan Arkin and director Ben Affleck on the set of Argo.

In fact, because the production had so much trouble finding extras in Turkey, some of the scenes had to be moved to Los Angeles, which has its own eager population of Farsi speakers. The pivotal airport scene moved to the City of Angels, and Affleck says he was overwhelmed by the passion of the Persian extras, many of whom had lived through the revolution and talked about family members still living in Iran.

“For them, it was like someone was telling their story. The whole movie absorbed an extra level of seriousness just being around the Persian population of Los Angeles. People in the crew were really, really moved,” Affleck explains.

The production team’s commitment to veracity—with the requisite dose of dramatic license—in telling Argo’s story of how the CIA and Hollywood teamed up for the top-secret rescue of six American diplomats caught up in the 1979 Iranian Revolution paid off with a warm welcome that has continued since the film’s Toronto Film Festival debut in September. Oscar pundits immediately bestowed best picture status on the film, and audiences have also shown their support, with Argo set to hit $80 million at the domestic boxoffice at press time. And during awards season, it doesn’t hurt that the film has an accolade-heavy cast that includes Affleck, who plays CIA agent and plot mastermind Tony Mendez; Bryan Cranston, who plays the Washington, D.C.-based agent running the logistics, Jack O’Donnell; Alan Arkin, who plays veteran (and fictional) producer Lester Siegel, charged with finding the right script to fool the Iranians into accepting Argo as a real film; and John Goodman, who plays Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers.

The film’s production path started about five years ago, when Smokehouse Pictures’ Grant Heslov and George Clooney optioned Joshuah Bearman’s April 2007 Wired article, “The Great Escape,” a tightly written, little-known story about how the CIA worked with Hollywood insiders to devise a fake production company, set up a fake film, and turn six trapped diplomats into a fake film crew as a way to smuggle them out of Iran. After the project was set up with the studio, then-Smokehouse development exec Nina Wolarsky suggested screenwriter Chris Terrio, who pitched Smokehouse and got to work.

Although the mission to Iran wasn’t declassified until the mid-1980s, Terrio says he had no shortage of material to consult when researching the political climate and top-secret event. In fact, the Wired article was the start of a months-long process of devouring everything he could find about the details of the mission.

“The article was really the beginning of a long trail,” says Terrio, whose script also incorporated details from The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, a book from plot mastermind Tony Mendez. “Then, of course, eventually you just have to sit down and write. You circle and circle, and convince yourself you can’t possibly write until you read one more book. Finally, you think, OK, I’m going to get fired if I don’t (start writing).”

Terrio successfully condensed his extensive research into a script that Heslov has called the best first draft he’s ever seen. Nevertheless, Argo would have to wait.

“We knew we had a script that we loved,” Heslov explains, “but we didn’t really have time to make it at that point because either we were making a film or George was acting in a film or I was producing a film. It was one of those (situations) where you know you’re going to make it (eventually). “

The script sat at Warner Bros. for a while before it landed in the hands of Affleck, who was looking for a followup to 2010’s The Town.

“Ben read it, and he actually called George and me,” says Heslov, who was working with Clooney on Ides of March at the time. “Basically, he pitched us on why he should direct the film. We were both huge fans of his previous films, and the way that he saw the film was right in line with the way George and I saw it.”

When it came to casting, Affleck didn’t have much trouble figuring out who would play the lead of CIA agent Mendez in the film.

“That part of me that will always be looking for the good role said, ‘I’d be good for this.’ The director part of me thought it would be too much trouble not to give the actor the part,” Affleck says. He was so eager to take on the film that Heslov says the director started prepping before the Smokehouse team finished Ides.

“Ben was like a pony at the gate, ready to go,” Heslov recalls. “The day that we wrapped the Ides of March, George and I jumped right in to producing Argo.”

Three separate locations—Turkey, L.A., and Washington, D.C.—helped bring the story to life, but along the way, the fact that the film was dealing with traumatic historical events was never lost on cast and crew, and the filmmakers carefully balance humor and drama. Though that balance was always a part of the script, according to Terrio, Affleck says seeing it through was thanks to the actors, notably the charming and all-too-accurate Hollywood-types Goodman and Arkin play in the film.

“All the performances were I felt very real, very honest—even the ones that had the most potential to be over the top felt very real,” Affleck says. “Reality being funny doesn’t feel different from reality being tense and dramatic. What would have picked away at the fabric of the reality that we were trying to construct would have been if the comedy had been arch.”

For Cranston, the real story behind what motivated Mendez and his fellow agents, as well as how the Hollywood component fit in, was the appeal from the moment he first read the script.

“These are guys that feel that they’re doing the right thing, with the knowledge that they (might) never have public praise for their work,” Cranston says. “There was no way of knowing that this file would have been declassified. And the Hollywood component—there was no financial gain to be had. No recognition. So why would they do it? Because they’re patriots.”