10 things Bryan Cranston said in Denver last night

Bryan Cranston, Alamo Drafthouse, Tattered Cover, Breaking Bad, Photo by John Moore.

‘Breaking Bad’ star Bryan Cranston appeared on at the Alamo Drafthouse on Oct. 17 to discuss his memoir, ‘A Life in Parts.’ The event was presented by the Tattered Cover Book Store. Photo by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.  

Actor Bryan Cranston is, proudly, the sum of his parts. And over 40 years in Hollywood, those parts have included Malcolm in the Middle’s tidy-whitey dad, Jerry Seinfeld’s sadistic dentist, blacklisted author Dalton Trumbo, President Lyndon Baines Johnson and, most chillingly, the cancer-stricken high-school chemistry teacher-turned murdering drug lord Walter White in the game-changing TV series Breaking Bad. Cranston has even titled his new memoir A Life in Parts.

But just as chromosomally, Cranston is also the dozens of walk-on characters he played on TV while working his way up and to Breaking Bad, on shows from CHiPS to Hill Street Blues to Baywatch. All of them, he said, helped make him the man, and the actor, he is.

It might have been a bit discombobulating – or at least anachronistic – for Breaking Bad fans to meet the buoyant, vulnerable storyteller who appeared at the Alamo Drafthouse on Monday night for a warm, 90-minute conversation that was seen live or by simulcast by more than 800 fans who were spread out over five full Alamo theatres. His book – and Monday’s conversation, which was held in partnership with the Tattered Cover Book Store and hosted by co-owner Len Vlahos, revealed a man of humility and deep gratitude. Perhaps Walter White, had life had thrown him a bone.

Order Bryan Cranston’s A Life in Parts from Tattered Cover

Cranston is 60, has four Emmy Awards, a Tony Award and an Oscar nomination. But he was keenly aware the reason the Alamo was overrun by his fans on Monday night was because for five seasons the murky morality of Breaking Bad wend its way around all of them. And even three years later, it still has some hold on them.

“(Series creator) Vince Gilligan planted that seed in every one of us – including me,” Cranston said. “He not only put the drama and the intensity and the anxiety on the screen, he put it inside every single one of us. And so as soon as one episode is over, you want another one. It’s as addictive as the drug itself.”

 Here are 10 things Bryan Cranston said in Denver last night:

1 PerspectivesA teenage Cranston, future portrayer of one of TV’s most notorious criminals, aspired to a career in law enforcement. His older brother had joined a police cadet program in high school that took him on summer trips to Hawaii and Japan. “So I joined the group as soon as I was 16,” said Cranston, who was soon sent to Europe for five coming-of-age weeks with 20 other teens. “I lost my virginity on that trip when we visited Amsterdam’s red-light district,” Cranston  said. “I thought that because I was an amateur, I should go to a professional. And so I did.”

Bryan Cranston quote2 PerspectivesCranston decided he wanted to be an actor because of Henrik Ibsen – and a torrential rainstorm when he was 22. He and his brother had been aimlessly traveling the country by motorcycle for two years, “and I had this epiphany on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia,” Cranston said. The brothers pulled over at a rest stop to wait out a storm that did not let up for six days. “It was like a prison,” said Cranston, who had brought along a book of plays and started reading Hedda Gabler. “By the time I was done, I looked up – and it was night,” he said. “I had never missed the transition from day to dusk to night before – not while I was awake. It blew my mind. That’s when I realized the transformational power of storytelling. I thought, ’OK, that’s my signal. I am going to try to do this. In fact, I know I’m going to do this. I’m all in.’ “

3 PerspectivesCranston learned a valuable lesson from his early “bit parts” in television. “It’s a very scary time when you walk onto the set of a TV show because everyone there knows everyone else – except you,” Cranston said. “I remember the people who really extended themselves to greet me and welcome me. That taught me, ‘OK, if I am ever in a position of running a show, I am going to make sure that I greet everybody who comes on that show.’ Not only is it the right thing to do, and the kind thing to do – but in truth, it helps raise the level of the show. When people are greeted and feel comfortable, they work better, and the whole show is lifted.”

4 PerspectivesCranston played the dentist Tim Watley in six episodes of Seinfeld and is best remembered for the episode where Jerry wakes up thinking perhaps he has been molested. In the scene, Dr. Tim asks his nurse to pass the laughing gas, but he takes a hit off of it himself before giving it to Seinfeld. The idea for the bit actually came from a crew member. Cranston was alone on the set after rehearsing the scene when he heard a voice say, “You know what would be funny?” He turned around and saw an electrician on a ladder adjusting a light. He told Cranston he should take his own hit first. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, that’s brilliant,’ ” Cranston said. “So, I did it, and Jerry fell over laughing, because he didn’t see it coming. And Larry David is going, ‘That’s very funny. Keep that.’ We did that scene about 14 times because Jerry could not keep a straight face. Jerry is smiling in the take you see in the actual episode, because that’s the best we could do – Jerry not laughing.” But that was Seinfeld, Cranston said – “a good idea could come from anywhere on that show.”

Alamo Drafthouse teams with Denver Actors Fund on film series

5 PerspectivesEven though Cranston won a Tony Award for playing LBJ in Robert Schenkkan’s play All the Way and on Monday slid easily into mid-sentence impressions of Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld and GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, he doesn’t think he could fairly play Trump on stage or screen. “Playing any character requires an actor to find an empathy and an understanding of that character – and I don’t think I can do that right now,” he said to big laughs.

Bryan Cranston. Alamo Drafthouse. Photo by John Moore. 6 PerspectivesTwo things actors must innately possess are an insatiable curiosity and a keen eye for observation, Cranston said. “I used to go shopping with my wife, but I wouldn’t go into the stores,” he said. “I would sit out in the middle of the mall and study people. When a couple gets into a fight, most people want to get away from that. But I want to get as close to the argument as I can. I would go to airports and emergency rooms and airports and just watch the tension. Train stations are always good to find people filled with anxiety. Someone is always leaving someone. Or a kid can’t wait for someone to arrive. Maybe a family is going on a trip – but they could be very sad about it. I wonder if it’s a funeral? You are making all of these guesses. And every time I am observing people, I am filing their behavior away.”

7 PerspectivesTV had not seen anyone like Breaking Bad‘s Walter White before. “To change a major character from good to evil over the life of a show had never been done in series television before,” Cranston said. “TV at that point had always been about stasis. Even Tony Soprano (The Sopranos) was Tony Soprano when you first met him. Vic Mackey (The Shield) was Vic Mackey. Archie Bunker (All in the Family). Ross and Rachel (Friends). They are who they are. But not Walter. Like chemistry itself, this was all about change, and we are going to go from this sad, sweet, sympathetic guy to this horrific murderer who would take on the cloak of toxicity and infest everyone who comes around him.”

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8 PerspectivesWhen Cranston first read the pilot script for Breaking Bad, “I was absolutely hooked,” he said. “It was the best one-hour drama I had ever read. And I wanted it. I wanted it badly. I would have dreams about it. I would get up in the morning and I would start writing down characteristics of Walter White. I was getting these feelings from the power of the script about how he should look and dress. It was a way of taking ownership. Before I even got the part, I went in to talk with Vince Gilligan, and I said, ‘I want to gain weight. He should have love handles. He’s gone to seed. He always looks like he needs a haircut. Take the color out of my face. Make me disappear into the walls. My clothes should all be pale yellow and taupe and sand colored.’ ”

9 PerspectivesBryan Cranston quoteTo Cranston, Walter White was the invisible man from the moment we first met him. “He was invisible to society – and to himself,” Cranston said. “And you felt for him. He’s a man who was just trying to put one foot in front of the other. He’s taken a second job at a car wash to pay for his son’s special needs. He’s looking out into his classroom teaching what he loves, and seeing nothing but a sea of apathy. There wasn’t one student who looked up with any care or interest in his passion for chemistry at all. What does that do to you? Walter was in a deep depression. That’s where we first find him. He is a beaten-down man. And so, what then? … Cancer! Two years to live. He is going to die. And not only that, he will leave his wife and children penniless. That’s not how he wants it to be. If he is ever going to make a bold move, it’s now, because he has nothing to lose. Then he’s introduced to crystal meth and it’s like, ‘This is my chance. Just do this, make as much money as I can, give it to my family so they don’t lose the house, and let me die at least knowing that.’ There is a certain honor to that. We were all sympathetic to that. It was like we went fishing. We dropped the bait – and you all took it. You grabbed the nice piece of shrimp, and you swallowed it. You’re going, ‘Go Walt, go Walt, go Walt … oh no, wait … are you just going to watch that girl die?’ And he does. And you want to spit out the hook because you don’t want to follow this anymore. … But you can’t.”

10 PerspectivesThe moment Cranston refers to above is the moment he says Walter fully crossed over from Mr. Chips to Scarface: Watching Jesse’s girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit while in a heroin-induced stupor. Cranston said Gilligan initially wrote the scene for Walter to proactively turn the blackmailing Jane into her pillow and essentially snuff her out – but the censors made him pull back. And Cranston agreed. “It was only Season 2,” he said. “It was too much, too soon.” So instead, Walter touches Jane’s shoulder – perhaps even in an act of tenderness. She naturally turns over on her back, and soon starts to choke. Walter does nothing to help her, gravity does the rest, and he watches her die. That, he said, is when Walter changes from a self-preservationist into cold-blooded killer. And how did the actor pull it off? While filming that brutal scene, Cranston said his eyes involuntarily saw not actor Krysten Ritter choking on that bed, but rather his own real-life daughter, Taylor. And it devastated him. He choked up Monday even saying the words out loud.

When Breaking Bad was over, Cranston writes in his book, “I needed to let Walter White die.”

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

 Bryan Cranston, Alamo Drafthouse, Tattered Cover, Breaking Bad, Photo by John Moore.

Above, some of the 800 who came to the Alamo Drafthouse on Monday to see actor Bryan Cranston. Below, Cranston with Tattered Cover Book Store co-owner and conversation host Len Vlahos. Photos by John Moore for the DCPA NewsCenter.

 Bryan Cranston, Alamo Drafthouse, Tattered Cover, Breaking Bad, Len Vlahos, Photo by John Moore.


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