"Breaking Bad" Star Bryan Cranston Takes on American Politics as LBJ in All the Way

By Mervyn Rothstein
31 Aug 2013

Cranston on "Breaking Bad."

Cranston is known for his TV work – he played the father, Hal, on "Malcolm in the Middle," and his Emmys have come for his role on "Breaking Bad" as Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who finds out he has terminal lung cancer and decides on a second career as a methamphetamine manufacturer. But in addition to TV – and movies – Cranston has also spent time onstage. His theatre credits include Sam Shepard's The God of Hell at Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse, and productions of Chapter Two, The Taming of the Shrew, A Doll's House and Eastern Standard.

And he says he is glad to be back in a theatre dressing room. "I'm thrilled," he says. "The process of acting in film and television consists of bits and pieces. I relate it to an inverted funnel, where you're doing little pieces here, little bits there, and no rehearsal period, really. You're just kind of quickly putting it on its feet and trying to figure things out. And you shoot little bits and pieces and you put them in the small hole of the funnel, and it all comes together and comes out big later on, after sound effects and color correction and music. All these things get mixed in there. It becomes an event.

"For an actor, it's OK, there are always some gratifying things, but the process is not as gratifying as you'd like. It is what it is. You adapt to it."

But "what I love about theatre is that the funnel is right side up. It's wide and open and huge. And you're trying things – there are a lot of different avenues for you to go down, to experiment with. I keep telling myself whenever I do theatre, after a stretch of television, that it's OK not to know. I don't have to know right away. I can sit with the ambiguity of issues, and that's good. Let me contemplate, let me try things. And then you assemble all these thoughts and pieces and it shakes down into the funnel, and it comes out after you've done your work.

"I have a month of rehearsal in Boston. And that's just a part of it. I'm absorbing as much resource material as I can, listening to tapes and going back to the text."

The cast of All the Way includes Brandon J. Dirden (The Piano Lesson Off-Broadway) as Martin Luther King Jr., Michael McKean (The Homecoming, Superior Donuts) as J. Edgar Hoover, and Reed Birney ("House of Cards") as Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's vice presidential candidate. Bill Rauch, the artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare, directs. The play has won the 2013 Steinberg/ATCA Best New Play Award for work done away from New York City in 2012. It is also a co-winner of the first Edward M. Kennedy Prize for Drama Inspired by American History.

All the Way, Cranston says, "gives the audience a glimpse into the sensibilities of its era," a decade that was among the most explosive in the history of America, one that included the assassinations of JFK, King and Robert F. Kennedy, the success of the civil rights movement, race riots across America and the Vietnam War.

"You can point to other times when there were big turning points, but there were also huge turning points in this era. It was 100 years after the Civil War, and civil rights in America were still mostly given lip service. Look at what Johnson was able to accomplish in a matter of months after taking office – pushing through and signing the Civil Rights Act of 1964," which made illegal many forms of discrimination against minorities and women. "It was extraordinary.

Johnson, who wielded enormous power as a senator from Texas and as the Senate majority leader, had always wanted to be president, Cranston says. But Johnson lost the Democratic nomination in 1960 to Kennedy and, after hesitating, agreed to run as the vice presidential candidate. It appeared to be a grievous mistake – there was no love lost between the men, and Johnson was isolated, essentially shoved into a corner with nothing to do and no power whatsoever.