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Bryan Cranston Talks Walter White, LBJ and His Own Political Ambitions

12 minute read

In the years since Breaking Bad left the air, Bryan Cranston has been busier than ever. Just this year, he was nominated for an Oscar for Trumbo, in which he played the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton; he has a memoir, A Life in Parts, coming in October; and his new HBO movie, All the Way, premieres May 21 at 8 p.m. E.T.

The actor won a 2014 Tony Award for his performance as Lyndon Johnson in the Broadway production of All the Way, and he brings an uncanny resemblance and a raucous Texan energy to the movie. All the Way depicts the road to passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and the debates between Johnson and Martin Luther King, Jr. (played here by Captain America: Civil War star Anthony Mackie). For his part, Cranston says he misses the contentious politics of the 1960s, a climate of pitched debate in which compromise was still possible. “I’m trying to instill a sensibility in the American awareness that we all love this country and we all want what’s best for this country.” As for whether he’d ever run for office himself? He’d need to consult his wife first, he says. (He’s less ambiguous on whether he’d ever return to the role of Walter White.) Cranston spoke to TIME in advance of All the Way‘s TV debut.

How does living with Lyndon Johnson for so long change the way you move through real life?

I think it’s inevitable. When an actor starts to take on a role, it’s like looking at a jacket in the window. It’s not yours yet, and you think, “Maybe I should try it on.” It’s not until you buy it and say, I’m all in, I’ve got to dig into this character, learn as much as I can, and be a student to that world and that era, that you own it. Then you try on that jacket and you’re walking down the street and you’re feeling it.

For me, also, it was the nature of the character himself. In between scenes when we were shooting the movie, I was like, [in Texas accent] I just felt it was easier if I stayed in character with the voice, and I said “Well, honey, look at that dress on you, my God, that just brings out the color of your eyes. And I think that’s so handsome on you, your boyfriend’s going to like that.” Just playing with it, with conversations that were appropriate for the time. I may have developed a few sexual harassment complaints, but it was all in fun.

Does getting into character as a domineering President interfere with collaboration?

Through the experience of Trumbo, I learned to trust completely the sensibilities and ideas of [director] Jay Roach. When you’re playing the President, there is a bombast that you own. In order to play that role, I needed to fully embrace that man. You’re sending out that message to everyone on set: I’m in charge. He was a master manipulator. And actors have to be as well.

This movie seems to be the flip side of Selma—the 2014 movie that was criticized by some for minimizing Johnson’s role in the civil rights battle. Did you feel as though All the Way restores some sort of balance?

That story, Selma, which I liked, was centered on Martin Luther King, and had to take that point of view. This is centered on LBJ and we take LBJ’s point of view. Every other character is going to be seen through the eyes of that central character. What I love about the battle between Martin Luther King and LBJ is that they both had the same desired end result. It’s just the way they go about it, and their own personal agendas, were different from each other.

Johnson accomplished a great deal through brash intimidation. Is civility in politics overrated?

I think it’s a lost art form. Look at what LBJ was. He wasn’t refined like President Obama. He was a rough-and-tumble guy from Texas. That was part of his charm. But he used what he knew from his upbringing to get what he wanted. He fully understood that politics in that day—which we’ve lost—was a horse-trade. In order to get what I want, for the greater good of the country, I need to know that it’s going to cost me such-and-such over here. What am I willing to sacrifice in order to get this? That’s, really, what politics is. What we see now is a bastardization of that, where both sides are folding their arms and saying, We’re not even going to talk to you. We don’t even care if it’s a good idea: You’re on the other side of the ideological aisle. And therefore, we’re shutting you out. It’s ridiculous.

Against the backdrop of the presidential election, Johnson’s willingness to compromise to get things done feels truly foreign.

I’m on a campaign of my own. I’m trying to instill a sensibility in America that we all love this country and we all want what’s best for this country—we just have different ideas of how to go about it. I believe that Sean Hannity loves this country and he wants what’s best for this country. Bill O’Reilly loves this country and he is espousing his beliefs of what he thinks is best.

What’s happened now is that if someone disagrees with you, you make that person the enemy. They’re trying to destroy the country, they’re some alien or Hitler-like being who wants to completely annihilate—and that type of hyperbole and rhetoric is damaging and it’s not true.

Would you ever run for office yourself?

I think I would, but it would be a conversation with my wife. Because it’s a life change for everyone, and it’s not fair to make it a unilateral decision. I’m hopefully an enlightened adult, and I’m in a marriage, and I don’t want to destroy that and change the rules. If I found some neat little hamlet, and I thought I’d like to live here but there are certain things that we can improve upon, then sure—a councilperson of a small town or a mayor or something.

You’ve been through campaigns yourself—for Emmy, Tony, and just this year, Oscar. Did playing Johnson change your view of the awards campaign?

It is akin to what I imagine a political campaign is. When I embraced that, when I wasn’t trying to disguise that, then I was okay with it. But at first, I pushed back on the idea of the campaign because it seemed disingenuous. I don’t know, if people find the performance great, they’ll vote on it, and if they don’t, they won’t. But making people aware of something is really what you’re trying to do. Making people aware of several issues in a campaign is the same thing as making people aware of a film that you’ve done. It benefits the film, it benefits you, and it’s fair to just admit that. Actors can campaign all they want—but when it comes down to the privacy of my vote, I will vote for what I think is the best performance, friend or not. It gives me great pleasure to whisper to a friend, I voted for you, not because you’re my friend, but because it was the best performance. They’re grateful to hear that, but it is a popularity contest to a great degree.

What was more challenging—being able to start from scratch creating someone like Walter White or working with a familiar set of mannerisms as Johnson?

It depends on the complexity of the character you’re creating. In many ways, creating a nonfiction character is simpler. You are shown the parameters. Here’s where he resided. Right here. Here’s the sweet spot. Now it’s your job to go find that within you. In a fictional character, you’re given some parameters, like if you’re a bookish podiatrist. But you could add some surprises to it.

This movie is tightly focused on Johnson’s Civil Rights crusade, but the President is also remembered as someone unable to constrain the Vietnam War. How are you, playing him, able to reconcile all of that?

I think it’s a fair assessment. He did fail. That was the main contribution to him not seeking re-election in that speech of March 1968. And that was his legacy—one of failure. But when I was doing the play, it gave people impetus to write about it. We’re not revising history, we’re revisiting history. Let’s revisit Johnson’s legacy and see what stood the test of time. When you look at it, if you’re being fair, you must look at the domestic accomplishments that he was able to gain. Legendary, landmark changes in the way we live. Not just the Civil Rights Act, which was enormous! We treated an entire cross-section of American citizens like they were still slaves. In my lifetime this was happening. To change that by law was enormous. Someone once said: Without the law to mandate these changes, the Emancipation Proclamation was just a proclamation.

So absolutely it’s fair to bring in the failure of Vietnam. But to look at it in its entirety—it was a failure of every president who was in Vietnam: Kennedy, Nixon. It was a quagmire and a clusterf— that wasn’t going to work. We were misinformed, we got involved when we shouldn’t have. The prevailing thought was when Vietnam falls, so will all of Southeast Asia, and that’s a terrible, terrible thing to happen. Well, it didn’t happen. And it did become Communist. And was it terrible? No. The world is changing. And unfortunately, that’s the lesson we didn’t learn in Iraq. We thought the same thing would happen in Iraq. If we didn’t take this guy out, it would be disaster for everyone. And we were wrong.

Do you see King’s or Johnson’s method as more effective? You cannot deny the astute political acumen that both men had. It was clear that while King was supporting the grassroots level of peaceful protest, he was also pushing and pulling the NAACP and other political leaders. He was not content to just have one battle. He was engaged in several different battles. I think people give short shrift to Martin Luther King from a political awareness standpoint: He was a master at it. He could have been a Senator in his own right had the climate been different.

It’s no different than two brothers who were fighting. They wanted the same thing. Their timing and their agenda were on a different schedule, and they became an occasional impediment to each other, but never in conflict with each other. The final analysis is that they wanted the same thing.

Change, in Johnson’s time as much as in ours, came incrementally and slower than many wanted. Is that frustrating?

Pace is a subjective point of view. If you and I were running at a slow pace, my slow pace may be a lot slower than yours. You can’t quantify it by being so specific. LBJ’s agenda and MLK’s agenda were on a pace. They weren’t always in sync with each other.

Is it strange for you that Better Call Saul exists in the Breaking Bad universe, but you aren’t a part of it?

It isn’t odd, because it’s such a different story. What’s great about it, as a fan of my own show and a big fan of Better Call Saul, is that I can see a similarity, a flavor, a texture, that is familiar. And it’s familiar to any fan of Breaking Bad. It feels like that world, it’s that same world, and there are similar characters—and the exact same characters at a different time in their life. I’m such a fan of the show that whenever I see anyone connected with the show, I ask them not to say anything to me, because I don’t want to know inner secrets that might slip out. I just want to be a fan.

I don’t miss playing Walter White. I miss Albuquerque and what it meant to me, and the good people of New Mexico who really did help us create an additional character to our show. I miss that. I don’t miss the character, because there was a complete beginning, middle and end to the story. It was so satisfying that I felt good to walk away.

Does that completed arc mean you’d never come back to the character on Better Call Saul?

Well, this is a prequel, which means it was before Breaking Bad. My point-of-view on it is that if [show creator] Vince Gilligan wants me to be in the show, I’ll be in the show. Quite frankly, if he called today and asked me to be on the show, I would say yes before he finished the question. Because he changed my life.

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