Bryan Cranston: “My method, my approach, is kind of a potpourri of trial and error”

He’s one of the most celebrated, highly decorated actors of his generation – and that’s no surprise. After all, everybody loves a man in uniform, and Bryan Cranston has worn more than most

The black swag of a judge’s robes hang heavy in his closet. Next to them, the stiff shoulder boards and brass buttons of a patrolman’s uniform. And, a little further down the rail, the workaday suit and wire-rimmed sunglasses of a CIA spook. While walking his Hollywood beat, Bryan Cranston has worn them all, at one time or another, stepping into the well-polished shoes of rookies, veterans – and every lawman in between.

His most famous turn, of course – that of teacher-turned-drug-lord Walter White in eulogised TV series Breaking Bad – saw Cranston cast as a criminal. But, for many, it’s the actor’s more strait-laced characters that have made the most impact. Maybe it’s his authoritative, smooth-but-sand-papery baritone, or his ever-so-squinting eyes – always primed for an interrogation. Or perhaps it’s the handsome police-issue moustache that so often bristles away above his top lip (and, might we say, is looking particularly commanding today).

Bryan Cranston in Nick Fouquent cowboy Hat


Whatever the exact reason, Cranston’s blue-hued, by-the-book looks have been captivating casting directors for decades. In the 1980s, he popped up in police procedural Hill Street Blues. In The Lincoln Lawyer, his hard-boiled detective threw the book at Matthew McConaughey. And, in Argo, he was made deputy director of the CIA. He’s played sergeants, special agents, lieutenants, commissioners and sheriffs. More recently, he’s even played a judge – the tormented and terrifically realised protagonist of Showtime’s Your Honor.

Cranston’s next establishment man arrives in Argylle, the new spy-a-palooza from British director Matthew Vaughn (he of the Kingsman franchise). Starring Henry Cavill as the eponymous agent, the film casts Cranston as a less clean-cut operative than we’re used to; the big, bad, power-hungry head of a rogue spy organisation. He describes the project, which releases in February, as a “high concept, comedic, Jason Bourne-esque kind of movie.”

Bryan Cranston in Nick Fouquent cowboy Hat


“And, I was thoroughly entertained while watching the entire thing,” says the actor, “which doesn’t always happen! Sometimes, what works on paper doesn’t necessarily translate and, in my own writing and directing, I would never conceive this sort of enormous, ridiculously fun environment to play in. Some things that happen in Argylle will have you burst out laughing, because they are just patently absurd. And, yet, you just buy into it – you’re on a ride.”

Cranston’s spymaster, who hunts down a mysterious author played by Bryce Dallas Howard, follows in the film’s unhinged, deranged vein. To lean in to the lunacy, the actor took inspiration from an unlikely source: Steve Carrell’s supervillainous Gru from the Despicable Me franchise.

“I thought, what if I could do a live-action version of that kind of sinister, evil operator?” smiles Cranston. “Because Gru made me laugh. So, there’s that, and also an amalgamation of other characters I’ve seen or played myself. It’s like picking a bouquet – you take a quality from here, there, and you form your own person.

“Because, when you’re doing this,” he adds, “anything is fair. And, acting is a lot like a magic trick: we don’t necessarily want the audience to know how it was done.”

This dissecting and defining of the craft comes naturally to Cranston. But, that’s only to be expected from a man who was born in Hollywood. His parents met in an acting class: his mother was a radio performer; his father guest starred on TV shows including Bronco and Highway Patrol – the sort of pulpy, prime-time TV that Quentin Tarantino would eventually praise and parody in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

He was raised in this technicolour Tinseltown, a city crawling with characters magnetic, enticing and evil. (Coincidentally, as a teenager, Cranston encountered Charles Manson at Spahn Ranch, the same homestead depicted in Tarantino’s 2019 film.) But, this lifelong exposure to drifters and double-dealers has helped the actor, and given first-hand depth to his “complex, troubled characters”.

“Characters with fissures running through them,” Cranston explains, “fissures that break them up. I find that complex characters – the ones who aren’t all bad or all good – that’s the way to go. And, to find humanity in characters that are very large, you have to find something that grounds them, so audiences can develop an empathetic point of view, then either root for them, or root to hate them and see them destroyed.”

Bryan Cranston in Nick Fouquent Hat riding a chopper bike


This study of morality and motivations continues to drive Cranston’s career. But, at one time, he had different designs for the future, and had planned to become a police officer himself. He even joined the West Valley Division of the Los Angeles Police Department Explorers – a branch of the Boy Scouts with an instructor who had previously served as a paratrooper in the Second World War. He learned crowd control, crime scene management and every code that could buzz across the scanner. There were over 100 teenagers in Cranston’s division, and he graduated first in his class.

“So, then I thought – as a 16-year-old – this is it,” says the actor. “This is what I should do. I’m apparently good at this. I didn’t know I was, but I am. It made sense.”

Thus, the teenage Cranston enrolled in college to study Administration of Justice (“a fancy name for police science”). On the side, he got a job as a freelance security guard, posted in gated communities and grocery stores. During one job, an event at the Los Angeles Century Plaza Hotel, he escorted Alfred Hitchcock into his limousine. Perhaps it was a sign. Because, upon starting an elective acting class in his second year, Cranston’s life changed forever.

“I came up with a credo,” he recalls, “to discover something that I really loved, and to learn how to get really good at it – as opposed to going after something I was already really good at, but didn’t love. Most people on this planet go into something that they happen to have an attribute for, and don’t necessarily like. So, to be able to pick and choose what brings you joy is a godsend. I don’t know why I was blessed with that opportunity, but I’ve never taken it for granted, nor will I ever.”

“Acting is a lot like a magic trick: we don’t want the audience to know how it was done”

With such a surfeit of lawmen and military roles to his name, Cranston has, in some way, fulfilled his youthful ambitions of becoming a police officer. But, does it feel odd when he’s given a badge or shrugs on a shoulder holster during filming?

“No, it doesn’t feel odd, because I’m used to putting on all sorts of costumes,” Cranston reasons. “Cowboy. Military. Baseball. Whatever I’m playing. The actors that I admire most are chameleon-like, and can adapt to the role and the story. I don’t want to behave the same way in every film – there are actors who have these personalities, and play the same person in every movie, regardless of the wardrobe they happen to be wearing. And, I don’t appreciate that from an artistic, creative standpoint. But, seeing an actor getting lost in a character? That can take my breath away.”

Bryan Cranston in Richard James button-front jacket and Paul Smith check wool trousers


After leaving college (and, in another enforcement-adjacent sidestep, taking up work as a lifeguard), Cranston got his first acting break – in a production of The King & I at the Daytona Playhouse. More stage work followed: some Shakespeare and a touch of Tennessee Williams. Next, a job churning fake blood for schlocky horror flick Alligator. Soon after that, he booked a Mars Bar advert, before landing the role of drama professor Doug Donovan in soap opera Loving in 1983. And, he did all of this without any formal training.

“To be able to pick and choose what brings you joy is a godsend”

“Instead, I learned by reading,” says the actor, “by going to a variety of different acting classes, and just learning by doing – by starting my acting career at 23 years old. My method, my approach, is kind of a potpourri of trial and error. I’ve attempted, a couple of times, to stay in character for an entire day on a film. But, by the time they were getting to me, I was exhausted.”

Bryan Cranston in a Canali Shearling coat


Bryan Cranston posing through his hands


This isn’t to say that Cranston hasn’t taken on meaty roles, or turned in powerhouse performances. He has. In Drive, he out-brooded Ryan Gosling. After Breaking Bad, he returned to television as a vicious ex-cop in Sneaky Pete, the crime drama he also co-created. In 2015, his portrayal of victimised screenwriter Dalton Trumbo earned Cranston his first Oscar nomination. But, the role that initially saw him rise to prominence was significantly less life and death; that of Hal, Malcolm in the Middle’s henpecked patriarch.

“I’ve attempted to stay in character for an entire day on a film. But I was exhausted”

“There’s a lot of thought that goes into comedy, despite it not being as emotionally or physically demanding,” says Cranston, who cites his 2016 comedy Why Him? as “probably the most fun [he’s] ever had doing a movie”. A dabbling with musical comedy – Cranston appeared in the film adaptation of Rock of Ages – showed another dimension to his comic talents. There are now even rumours of a singing and dancing debut on Broadway.

“There’s discussion about that,” nods Cranston. “It’s progressing, but it’s not solidified yet, by any means. The development of anything is like replanting a tree. You can replant 12, and one might do really well, but another might not take. You don’t know why, and you can put the same effort, the same energy, the same nurturing into it, but it just doesn’t take.”

Luckily, Cranston stands on fertile ground. After Argylle, he has several more projects lined up – despite claims in a recent British GQ article that his retirement is imminent. “I never said that,” says the actor. “The word ‘retire’ or term ‘retirement’ never entered my brain. Why should it?”

The confusion came from Cranston’s worry that the industry had “coddled” him. Instead of moving from set to set, stage to stage, the 67-year-old had expressed a desire to take a year off in order to “experience life”. To learn a language, devour a stack of classic novels, tend a garden. And, most importantly, to spend some quality time with his wife, actor Robin Dearden.

“If you’re a celebrity,” Cranston explains, “you’re being touted here and there, and your partner kind of holds onto the tail. By and large, it’s a really great life, but it doesn’t equate your marriage with your partner. It pushes you to a loftier position, and we’ve been together for 36 years, so that’s not something I want to continue. Let’s level it out. Let’s just be her and I.”

But, retire for good? No. Which is good news for Cranston’s fans – and his fellow actors. In 2013, Anthony Hopkins wrote Cranston a letter that quickly went viral, praising Breaking Bad as having “the best acting I have seen – ever.” Cranston says that, if tasked with writing a similar letter, he would address it to Robert De Niro.

“The word ‘retire’ or term ‘retirement’ never entered my brain. Why should it?”

“I met him before,” the actor says of De Niro, “and I had a conversation with him – at a hockey game, of all places, in Madison Square Garden. I found myself next to him, and said ‘You seem to be working a lot. It’s good to see that you haven’t lost your love for the work.’ He said, ‘It’s also just more comfortable for me than not working.’

And, I get it, because what is Robert De Niro going to do on a day off walking around New York? He’s going to get noticed every 10 steps. When he’s working, there’s a buffer, a protective circle around him – it’s different. I admire him: I admire his career, his risk-taking, and that he’ll do the silly comedies. He doesn’t take himself so seriously.”

Nor, of course, does Cranston. In recent years, the actor has reprised the role of Walter White in several Super Bowl adverts and for a skit on Saturday Night Live. He even teamed up again with his Breaking Bad co-star Aaron Paul to create an award-winning mezcal, Dos Hombres.

Bryan Cranston reclining on a leather sofa in a Golden Goose jacket


“I first tried mezcal in high school with some poker buddies,” laughs Cranston. “We would take turns buying a case of beer and a spirit. Someone once bought a plastic bottle of mezcal, with a dead worm at the bottom, for $4 – which was cheap even then. Now, it’s ridiculous. We opened it up and it smelled like industrial carpet cleaner.”

So, when Paul approached him with the mezcal idea, Cranston took some convincing. Happily, several superior glassfuls at a high-end New York bar did the trick, and Dos Hombres has become a successful name in the category. Cranston says he’d have taken a bottle of rum to those high-school poker games – “Probably something equally cheap!” – as he’s always had a soft spot for the spirit. During his Tony Award-winning stint in Network, which sold out Broadway and the West End, Andrew Lewis, Cranston’s understudy and “a real rum connoisseur”, would frequently bring him sample bottles of the world’s best rums. Every night after the show, Cranston would pour himself one “over a big rock of ice.”

Such windows into Cranston’s life – concisely framed, sumptuously told – can be found in his 2016 memoir A Life in Parts. He has a knack for short, sharp storytelling, and says that he relished the cathartic process of gathering and ordering tales from his past to create the bestseller.

“It was therapeutic,” he nods. “Most of those stories, I’ve told people over the course of decades. Others I’d never told until that moment. I’ve been collecting more stories to potentially write another book. I think there’s room. I really enjoyed it; it felt really cleansing to be able to just pour it out. We are reciprocal beings, and we need that inflow and outflow of information. So, yes, in a couple of years, another book.”

It’s something to look forward to. Before then, we’ll see Cranston in all-American drama Everything’s Going to Be Great opposite Allison Janney. A cursory Google search shows that this may be his most majestic moustache yet. “I’m basically lazy about shaving,” he laughs. “In between jobs, I’ll always grow facial hair because, when it comes to sculpt a look for the next role, you want to have it. That way, you can ask, facial hair or no facial hair? And, if there is facial hair, what kind? You have choices.”

It’s another neat window offering a glimpse into Cranston’s mind and his method; the self-written laws that govern his every part and performance. Thank goodness that the retirement rumours were just that, and there’ll be plenty more acting anecdotes to fill a second memoir. Although this one, we presume, will be brimming over with more mezcal, even more movies – and, most importantly, more moustaches.

With special thanks to:

  • Grooming: Daniele Piersons
  • Producer: Jennifer Rovero
  • Photo assistants: Ram Gibson and Francesco Secci
  • Styling assistant: Isabelle Mead
  • Director: Jason Bergh
  • Video assistant: Matija Milicevic
  • Location: Image Locations
Gentleman's Journal Issue 41 subscriber cover with Bryan Cranston

This cover interview was taken from Gentleman’s Journal’s Winter 2023 issue. Read more about it here.

Want more cover interviews? For our Summer 2023 issue, we sat down with The Little Mermaid’s Jonah Hauer-King…

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