Interview: Bryan Cranston

Reader's Digest Editors

Malcolm in the Middle made him a household name, but it was his role in the gritty Breaking Bad that made the critics take notice. At 62, James Mottram discovers, it seems that Bryan Cranston is only just getting started… 

Bryan Cranston is having the time of his life. While most actors might see their career tail off as they get older, it’s been the reverse for Bryan, who turned 62 in March. Sitcom Malcolm in the Middle and cult show Breaking Bad—for which he won four Emmy awards as the nefarious drug-dealer Walter White—have turned him into a star. “I feel like my feet are on fire,” he says. “I feel like someone has given me this opportunity and I’ve got to keep going and going. Until they tell me to stop, I’m going to keep trying new things.”

We meet in the rather fancy Hotel de Rome in Berlin, with Bryan dressed casually in a crisp white shirt and dark slacks. Clean-shaven, his hair neatly combed, he comes equipped with a booming voice and a broad smile. His looks, he says, are the reason he’s managed to avoid stereotyping since Breaking Bad finished; he received an Oscar nod for his portrayal of a blacklisted screenwriter in Trumbo and has appeared on the London stage—he’s currently  treading the boards in Network. 

Bryan played the role of long-suffering father Hal in Malcolm in the Middle from 2000-2006

“I don’t have a distinctive shape,” he says. “I’m not short and bald. I’m not exceedingly tall. I’m average height, average weight…” Before you roll your eyes, know this is no “woe is me” tirade from a prima donna performer. “For an actor—what I want to do—it’s perfect,” he beams. “I don’t want to be a personality actor. I want to hide in a character. I love it when people say to me, ‘I didn’t even know that that was you.’ ”

That’s more than likely to happen with his latest project, animated Wes Anderson flick Isle of Dogs. Bryan voices Chief, a stray dog who—along with all Japan’s other mutts—has been shipped out to an island off the coast after all canines are outlawed. An inveterate dog lover, he’s even been on TV to campaign for rescue pups. “Dogs are the best,” he grins. “They’re loyal. All they want is love and to play and to be walked, and they’re so faithful.”

"I have a habit of playing damaged characters. I'm very attracted to damaged characters. I relate to them because I am one"

With the likes of Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum and Scarlett Johansson also voicing some of the characters, the story isn’t just for kids; it smuggles in some heavyweight issues like “xenophobia, greed, fear-mongering, immigration, segregation”, he says. Voicing the emotionally turbulent Chief was the ideal gig. “I have a habit of playing damaged characters. I’m very attracted to damaged characters. I relate to damaged characters.”

How so?

“Because I am one,” he replies, without missing a beat. “I came from a busted-up home that was filled with alcoholism and physical abuse,” he admits. “It turned me into an introvert, very shy, very unsure of myself, very insecure about what to do.” The second of three children, Bryan was raised in Los Angeles in dire circumstances. His mother, Peggy, a radio actress, became an alcoholic, while his father Joe went from job to job before he left when Bryan was just 11.

Bryan met wife Robin when she played his character’s hostage in Airwolf. Their daughter Taylor is also an actress

“My dad was gone. I didn’t see him for ten years and even when I did see him again there was a lot of damage. So I had anger issues and resentment and insecurities and things like that. So part of the reason I love to act so much is that it creates an opportunity for me to live through that vicariously and have a cathartic and therapeutic experience in my work.” It also explains why he wrote the candid autobiography, A Life In Parts, in 2016.

"If you're an adventurous person, when something that appears negative happens, remember it. That's going to be a good story"

Even when he reunited with his father—after he and his brother tracked him down—it remained a strained relationship.

“I knew we were never going to have a truly open relationship. And yet on his death bed, we found a scribbled note in shaky handwriting that said the greatest day in his life was when his children forgave him. Wow! He never told us that. That was his life, that was the way he chose to live. I don’t want to be that way. I don’t want to have to write a note to my daughter. I want to tell her now how much I love her. That’s what I’ve learned.”

Fatherhood is clearly a top priority now. Bryan has been married to his second wife Robin since 1989, after they met on the TV show Airwolf, and their daughter Taylor, 25, is now a blossoming actress in her own right. He positively glows when talking about her and the wisdom they share. Like dealing with life’s ups and downs. “If you’re an adventurous person—and I teach my daughter this—when something that appears negative at the time happens, remember it. That’s going to be a good story.”

Bryan as stray and all-round top dog Chief in Isle of Dogs

Open and honest, Bryan is the sort of raconteur you could spend hours with. He has an infectious enthusiasm for his work but comes armed with forthright beliefs. “I think it’s good to be able to voice your opinion. If it stirs the pot, it stirs the pot. There’s a lot to be stirred right now in America.” He’s a regular on Twitter. The day we meet, he’s just tweeted about the horrifying school shooting in Florida. “These events are no longer a tragedy, they’re commonplace,” he wrote. “The tragedy is the impotence and cowardice of Congress.”

"I'm not motivated by money. I've been poor, really poor: kicked out of the house, living out of a suitcase, no home"

Away from his soapbox, he’s busy producing TV shows like Sneaky Pete and the recent Channel 4 drama Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams. But it’s not about accumulating wealth. “I’m not motivated by money. I have no idea what I made on this movie,” he says, referring to Isle of Dogs. “I have agents who are very concerned about it! And I don’t say that to be smug. I’ve been poor, really poor: kicked out of the house, living out of a suitcase, no home.”

Bryan in character for his stage turn in Network

This came after his father left, the bank foreclosed on the family home and Bryan and his two siblings were looked after by their grandparents. Even in early adulthood, he struggled in low-paid jobs as a waiter, truck loader and security guard. It was only after he started acting in commercials that he became solvent. “I didn’t become wealthy because I wanted to. I became wealthy because of lots and lots of luck, and focusing on what I love to do. But if I didn’t become wealthy I’d still be very happy.”

Recently, he’s been dividing his time between Los Angeles and London, where he’s been performing at the National Theatre for the past three months as the iconic TV anchorman Howard Beale in a stage adaptation of the Oscar-winning movie Network. It’s been an exciting run that’s required him to “guard” his reserves of energy. “I love doing it,” he says. “I don’t realise I’m tired until hours afterwards.”

With this much effervescence, it’s difficult to imagine Bryan ever winding down.

Isle of Dogs is in cinemas across the UK from April 20.