Bryan Cranston played hundreds of parts before landing his most famous role of Walter White in the groundbreaking series “Breaking Bad.”
But these weren’t all acting jobs.
In his new autobiography, “A Life in Parts,” Cranston delivers crisp stories about his onscreen performances in everything from daytime soaps to “Malcolm in the Middle” to his 2014 Tony-winning portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson in “All the Way.” But he also offers many chapters in which the “part” is his real-life experience as a farmhand, hypnotist, dating consultant or even a murder suspect.
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“These are stories I’ve been telling all my life,” Cranston says. “I didn’t want my memoir to be, ‘I was born on a Wednesday …’ All the stories that are here have conflict and/or hurdles. If there was an experience I had that didn’t have some issue about it or that I couldn’t create a story out of it, then there wasn’t anything to tell.”
Cranston comes to Kansas City on Friday, Oct. 21, to discuss the zigzagging profession that eventually earned him six Emmys and eight more nominations and a 2015 Oscar nomination for “Trumbo,” about blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. And he’ll reveal the details of how an ostensibly modest AMC show made him a household name in his 50s.
Calling from his native Los Angeles, the prolific actor spoke to The Star about the disparate parts that have defined his life and career.
Q: As an actor, you can hide behind characters. But when writing an autobiography, you can’t. Did you ever wrestle with whether to reveal something about yourself?
A: I knew that if I was gonna write this then it’s an open book. I don’t need any more attention. I don’t need the money. So why am I doing this? The only reason is to continue the storytelling.
I’ve been telling these stories that people will read in the book for years. I tell my daughter now that when anything seemingly disappointing or bad happens, it could make a good story. Only those challenging things make good stories. There’s got to be conflict or there’s no story.
Q: Did playing Dalton Trumbo further fuel your appetite to write?
A: A little bit, yeah. He was such a wordsmith. He loved the art form. He loved raising an argument, even if it was with the telephone company. He was ready for it. He certainly had an artistic flair.
Mine is through acting. I dabble in directing. I do some producing now as well … and some writing. I thought, “This is a different type of writing. I wonder if I can do this? The only way I’ll find out is if I try.”
Q: Do you like a good argument?
A: I don’t mind a good argument. Unfortunately, what we see — especially in our political climate now — is arguments are being raised in argumentative style. They’re being disrespectful as opposed to just disagreeing. At an early speech class in high school, one of the first things they taught us is if you lose the respect for the person you’re debating, then you lose the debate.
Q: Have you ever toured before?
A: I have not. This is a whole new thing for me. I’ve never written a book before. I’m excited and kind of curious about how I’ll respond to going to a different city every day. … I’m gonna go on the road, read from the book, talk to people and connect with fans in different cities than I’m used to.
Q: Do you have any connections to Kansas City?
A: The only connections I have to Kansas City are this: best barbecue in the world. The Negro Leagues (Baseball Museum). I was at a Harley-Davidson factory there before. And I’ve been to a Royals game.
It’s a great little town. I’ve got some friends who are coming. … Eric Stonestreet is a friend. And his mom is coming.
Q: On “Malcolm in the Middle,” you became renowned for a willingness to do anything crazy that the role required. Now that you’re a household name, have you lost any of that daring?
A: No. We just did a stage fight yesterday. I took a bullet to the shoulder and fell back on the pad. It constantly reminds me of my childhood when we’re playing cowboys and Indians. Or we’re playing army. It’s just play. Believe it. Dive in. If you believe it, then audiences will believe it, too. It’s really not a secret to successful acting. It’s just the ability to be believable.
Q: What are the odds of ever again getting a part as juicy as Walter White?
A: I don’t think about that. I do think about how lucky I was. But I don’t think about odds or competition or what-ifs. It’s part of my duty now as a 60-year-old man who’s very fortunate in my career to help the next generation. My advice to the next generation of writer or actor or director is to make sure you maintain your own self-empowerment.
The biggest lesson I learned along the way was that I was going on auditions thinking it was a job interview. Thinking that I was there to get something. I realized I was making a huge mistake. I was giving away my power when doing so. When someone needs something from someone else, they’re not in control. When you’re there to give something to someone else, you are in control. It’s just a perception change.
So I would tell young actors: You’re not there to get a job; you’re there to do a job. Just focus on your work and nothing else. Don’t look at money or opportunities, it’s nothing but that character right here, right now. Once I focused on that, my life changed.
Q: Now that “Breaking Bad” has been off the air for three years, in what ways do you see its influence on other series?
A: I think it might be profound. Before “Breaking Bad,” it was a dogmatic belief that characters don’t change. Plots change but characters stay the same.
Never in the history of television did characters change from the time you were introduced to the end like this character. Tony Soprano was that guy from the beginning to the end. He might adjust to different stimuli, but he’s pretty much the same guy. Archie Bunker, Thomas Magnum — these characters were who they are.
(Series creator) Vince Gilligan attempted something that had never been done before. Chemistry itself is the study of change. You take an inert mass and add a gas or liquid to it, and you change the structure of that mass. That’s basically what the story was about. You take this depressed mass of a person and add a change of point of view, an agenda, and he becomes volatile.
Q: In “A Life in Parts,” you reveal the statistical system you use to determine whether to accept a role. What were the totals on deciding to play Zordon in the upcoming “Power Rangers” movie?
A: It was more emotional than anything else. When I first started, when I was 22 years old, I dubbed the voices on “Power Rangers.” I did it so much that when it came over from Japan, they needed to name these Americanized characters that were created in Japan. They came up with the Blue Power Ranger and called him Billy Cranston. It was kind of an homage to me. …
At first I turned the movie down. Then my agent said, “You might want to read this because it’s different. At least talk to the producer.” So I talked to the producer, Marty Bowen, and he said, “You know how the TV show ‘Batman’ became the movie series, and how different are they? That’s what we’re doing.”
After I read the script, I thought it was interesting. And my character is only a head in the wall. There’s four hours of makeup involved. So I started to be seduced.
Q: You got to share a tour and interview with President Obama at the White House. What was the most surprising thing about that experience?
A: The most surprising thing was how relaxed he made me feel. I didn’t realize it until after the fact what a nice quality that is: to make someone else who’s not on their home turf feel comfortable and relaxed. The first thing he said was, “I’m gonna take my coat off. You want to do the same?” Boom. Off comes my coat. Rolled up the sleeves. Had some iced tea. Then had some conversation.
We’re two men. I’m older than he is, but not by a tremendous amount. We’re both fathers. We’re both husbands. We both love basketball. There’s commonality there. Every once in a while, I’d go, “Wait a minute. He’s the president of the United States. I’m not just shooting the (expletive) with some guy.” Wow. But he was charming and personable and … presidential.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Coming to KC
Bryan Cranston will speak at 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 21, at the Uptown Theater, 3700 Broadway. Tickets are $35 (which includes one hardback copy of “A Life in Parts” — a limited number of editions will be signed by Cranston). More info at RainyDayBooks.com.