The Hollywood veteran on returning to the crime-drama genre after seven years, his ‘Breaking Bad’ legacy, and what it means to choose the wrong path for the right reasons
Bryan Cranston, 64, looks a picture of calm as he settles down before his phone’s camera for our Zoom call.
“Hello, guys!” he begins sprightly. It’s 10.25 AM in Los Angeles, and closer to midnight here as we get ready for our interview with the multiple Primetime Emmy/ Golden Globe/ SAG and Tony Award winner, to promote his new mini-series Your Honor.
A return to the crime drama genre after seven years (Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad ended in 2013), the show sees Cranston take on the role of Michael Desiato, a highly-respected judge in New Orleans, whose life comes to a crossroads when his son is involved in a hit-and-run. Does he turn him in or do his paternal instincts kick in? There’s also the small issue of the victim being the son of a local crime boss, to complicate matters even further.
Adapted by Peter Moffat from the Israeli format Kvodo, Your Honor gives Cranston yet another intense, compelling role whose arc is bound to remind fans of his still-enduring Walter White legacy.
However, the actor, who’s immersed himself into life on stage (a number of award-winning performances pepper his theatrical career) in recent years, is adamant that his latest role of an upright father-turning-criminal to save his son’s life, will not trace his iconic meth lord avatar too closely.
Could the new outing be yet another genre-defining turn for Cranston, whose prodigious talent, many still feel, hasn’t gotten its due time on-screen since 2013?
“You know, the human nature of the project is what drew me to Your Honor. I asked myself what I’d do in the face of such a challenge — having to save my child’s life — and it isn’t terribly different from what my character does. So we are on this journey together,” begins Cranston, who shares screen space on the show with an excellent cast including the likes of Michael Stuhlbarg, Margo Martindale, Hope Davis, among others.
“Michael (his character) cannot think down the road how it implicates him in other situations, or the lies and alibis that he’d have to generate. I think that’s where the sentimentality of the audience will be with the protagonist. Every human being has an internal trigger — which we may not even know of — but boy, when it happens, it happens quickly. For a parent, the number one responsibility is to protect our children. It’s not a hard decision. We see it in wild animals even, a bear protecting its cubs and becoming aggressive,” he continues, “But it really is a parent’s worst nightmare; I hope none of us ever have to go through this in real life.”
“Fun fact,” he adds. “My character is a runner and back in the day, so was I! I’ve run four marathons in my life, but unfortunately my body is not the same it was in the 80s. I pulled my hamstring in one scene, hurt myself and had epidural shots in my spine… what a mess!”
Did he watch the foreign original which the show is based on? “Watching another actor’s performance in a different iteration of the same series doesn’t help me, so I haven’t seen the Israeli version yet. I might have inadvertently stolen something from it. But I’m looking forward to giving it a shot now.”
Pre-reviews of Your Honor laud the series’ (extremely) sensitive portrayal of modern-day racism in the United States. Asked if he thinks if a project like this could help influence change, and Cranston replies that it is “very possible”. “An artist’s responsibility is to be authentic and faithful to the reality around us — or either choose an utopian fantasy that we can all strive for/ a dystopian society where everything collapses,” he remarks, gingerly.
“I’d like to think that we have showcased an authentic view of racial relations in the US. The predominant number of African-Americans in our prison system is appalling, and we show that. The level of justice, how it treats a person of colour as opposed to someone who is white and privileged, we show that. If someone watching could be stimulated to be a social worker or get into politics for positive change, then it’s fantastic we did our due diligence and exposed the reality of the situation… while also being dramatic.” (laughs)
During the interview, Cranston also reveals that he was in New Orleans for a couple of weeks before the show, to attend several trials and observe judges on how they handled their courtrooms. “Some are like the captain of the ship, others like a referee, some others feel they are on stage, and some don’t want to be heard or seen at all! I put together an amalgamation of all the different personalities I witnessed and gleaned from the script to create my version.”
He does admit that there’s a certain level of satisfaction he gets out of breathing life into troubled characters. “I am a person who is imperfect. We all have strengths and weaknesses — and in a dramatic narrative — you want to watch a story about someone who is conflicted, has flaws, and is trying to be a better person. The audience then can invest their time, energy and sympathy into rooting for that person to find his way through that maze of difficulty.”
Comparisons are inevitable with his most legendary character till date — in a show that rewrote television folklore as we knew it — Breaking Bad’s Walter White. Was he mindful of this, when the show was offered?
“Well, that was expected. For one, I’m the actor who played both roles. (grins) I’m of a certain age today, which means any character I play is most likely going to be a parent. However, the similarities stop there. Walter was very methodical in the way he planned his actions and went on that path purposefully. Whereas, Michael’s actions are very impulsive and his journey is full of surprising twists and turns; a rollercoaster of anxiety and emotions if you will,” Cranston answers.
With Aaron Paul in ‘Breaking Bad’
He adds that as actors, the roots (of roles they play) are rather shallow. “We plant a tree, nurture and grow it for seven years, and then you have to lift it and try to put it somewhere else. But I constantly try to find differences; the more you work, the harder it is to find distinction between your characters. All I’ve learned from Breaking Bad onwards is the desire to do good work, stories that are compelling and resonate with audiences. The pandemic and lockdown have reminded us of the value of pure entertainment. A distraction for just a few hours, if it is worthwhile, helps people along the way to step aside from their troubles.”
And finally, considering he plays a judge in Your Honor, his take on (in)justice in today’s society? “Injustice is universal all over the word. In the battle of the rich vs the poor, the rich have had a tendency for more favourable verdicts to go their way. Difference in race is also a factor. Racism and an unfair playing field is true globally, and to change that is a slowboat. It takes hard work and determination, and that’s our quest: to have true justice,” he concludes.
Yeah, science! Thank you, Mr. Whi.. er, Mr. Cranston.
Your Honor will stream exclusively on Voot Select, December 7 onwards at 8:30am (weekly drop). The series will also air in India on Zee Café