"Do you want to eat my face?" Bryan Cranston asked as I sat down opposite him in a suite at Manhattan's Waldorf Astoria earlier this week. He passed a plate of cupcakes with his newest character drawn into the icing. I commented on how meta it would be to accept his offer, and he laughed, speculating on what I might exclaim after leaving: "'Do you know what Cranston said to me? It was the weirdest thing!'"
Cranston was just as animated throughout the rest of our brief chat. He has no reason not to be these days. How does one follow up four Emmy wins for playing television's most iconic meth kingpin? Quite easily, if you're Bryan Cranston. Since "Breaking Bad" ended its five-season run in 2013, Cranston has won a Tony Award for playing Lyndon B. Johnson in "All the Way," appeared in 2014's successful "Godzilla" reboot and, as of Friday's limited release, portrayed notorious screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was the face of the 1950s Hollywood blacklist that outlawed entertainers who aligned themselves with America's Communist Party.
Directed by Jay Roach ("Meet the Parents," "Game Change"), "Trumbo" premiered at September's Toronto Film Festival, where Cranston drew praise for sinking into the "Spartacus" scribe's imperious Old Hollywood vernacular. It crept into our conversation, which found Cranston in the mood to wax political. Playing a president and an imprisoned grandstander will do that to you. Or maybe it was the cupcakes.
After playing Walter White, did you see Dalton Trumbo as an antihero?
No, I didn’t see him as a hero or an antihero. I just saw him as a man who didn’t ask for this fight, but the fight came to him. He was subpoenaed and summoned to testify to discard his civil rights -- the right to freedom of speech, the right to freedom of assembly, the right to practice whatever religion you choose or be part of any political process. Those are your rights. And the House Un-American Activities Committee didn’t see it that way. They thought they had the power to be judge, jury and executioner and to demand under the penalty of imprisonment. Really, it’s Gestapo tactics.
Freedom of speech and personal identity are such relevant topics right now. So many people are finding their voices, but the movie makes me wonder: Who are the Dalton Trumbos of today?
You know, we find that out. The true Dalton Trumbos are the ones that don’t go looking for the fight. They don’t say, “Hey, listen to me, listen to me, I have something to say.” They’re the ones who say, “Oh, you’re coming after me, I have to defend myself and this is how I will do it.” He was fortunate to be able to find a way to defend himself and his friends to erode the blacklist by doing the same thing that they tried to prevent him from doing: by writing and by having people see the ridiculousness of what this whole witch hunt was about and see it for what it truly was. Now, that being said, it was a dangerous period and the fearmongers did a great job in conveying and associating Communist Russia with the American Communist Party, which were two completely different things. And yet they did a great job in relaying and developing the perception of truth to people all over the world.
Do you think Dalton Trumbo would say that we’ve come as far as we need to in terms of restoring Americans’ political rights?
Well, we’re seeing it in different ways. For instance, the National Security Agency wants to have free rein in wiretapping and that sort of thing. They shouldn’t because that can really break people’s freedoms. That being said, anybody who thinks that this country and this world hasn’t changed since 9/11 is just an idiot. The No. 1 responsibility of any country is to protect its citizens. Now, that’s what the Committee on Un-American Activities thought they were doing, or said they were doing. “We are protecting America,” when, in fact, they weren’t. They were doing just the opposite. They were inflicting punishment upon its citizens. So we have to be very careful about that. It’s a perception of truth that is far more important than the actual truth because that’s what people go by. They determine their actions according to the perception of truth. So all I’m saying, as a proponent of the First Amendment, is to listen to our founding fathers when they literally drew blood in order to set these, in a foundational sense, in forming our government. They are important and they should always be paramount in discussing policy.
It's interesting that "Trumbo" and "All the Way" coincided around the same time. After playing distinctly original characters in "Malcolm in the Middle" and "Breaking Bad," what do you make of these political figures, especially since Trumbo and LBJ were on the scene around the same time?
Well, by the very nature that Hal in “Malcolm in the Middle" and Walt in “Breaking Bad’ were two non-political characters, and now the last two major things that I’ve done are two very political stories about very politically active people: Lyndon Johnson, obviously, but also Dalton Trumbo, who was thrust into this. And he was an active political person anyway. Yes, there are similarities between the characters. If you did a Venn diagram, you would see that they cross over in many ways. Both are very ambitious, both are exceptionally gifted at what they did in their profession. They were prolific and their energies were the same. They treated their bodies the same way, with reckless abandon. They really didn’t take care of themselves. Their focus was on writing for Dalton Trumbo and politics for Lyndon Johnson, and it was a dark period in American history. To help bring down the blacklist in 1960 was an enormous accomplishment for an enlightened society. What Lyndon Johnson did in spearheading the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was legendary. We will enjoy the fruits of that forever, and we continue to find civil-rights issues that are being challenged or threatened. Someone else’s lifestyle or ideology should not be a threat to you. It should be, "This is how they think and feel. I feel differently.”
It’s another form of enlightenment because it informs your own worldview. It’s education.
And the best form of that is when someone can say, “I disagree with your political ideology, but I will fight for your right to say it. I defend your right to not be silenced.” As Trumbo says in the movie to John Wayne, “We both have the right to be wrong.” It’s another way of saying, “We have to agree to disagree.”
I can hear the haughty Trumbo voice creeping up as you quote the movie.
It’s that chain-smoker voice.
The blessing and curse of a November release and the festival circuit is Oscar chatter. Do you feel like that’s an old hat after going through so many Emmy campaigns and wins?
That’s for someone else to think about. I just focus on making a movie and then I focus on talking about the movie because I believe in it. I think it’s an important film, not only for people who were alive during this time, but especially for those who weren’t. It’s vitally important for your generation to come out of this and go, “That happened? Oh my God." These 10 men went to prison not because they committed a crime, but because this committee didn’t like the way they were answering their questions and sent them to prison for it. And they weren’t hiding a crime that had been committed by someone else, even. Oh my God, that’s an ugly period. That’s a dangerous period. And hopefully when people come out of this, they discuss it, even if they disagree. I want people to think about this and talk about it and argue about it, if necessary.
Were you able to connect with people who were affected by the blacklist?
What surprised you?
It didn’t surprise me, but what enlightened me was that it was an ugly period and there was tremendous fear. I talked to a woman who said her parents were on the gray list. They could have been next. They were being talked about and being interviewed and they were worried. This woman’s mother told her, “Never sign a petition, ever. Never put your name down that you support anything because you don’t know what could come around.” Guilt by association could put you in a position where you’ll be in trouble. Well, just think what that means. Never sign a petition. OK, so I’m not going to support anyone. “Oh, I don’t care what your cause is. No, no, don’t include me.” That self-segregating society is what fear creates when it carves into you, and fear is an enemy of freedom.
"Trumbo" opens in limited release on Nov. 6.
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