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

By Mervyn Rothstein
31 Aug 2013

Lyndon B. Johnson

"He hated the vice presidency," Cranston says. "He felt impotent in it. He felt it was like being in a cage, trapped."

And then suddenly, one horrible day, "he was thrust into the spotlight. But as much as he craved that position, he never thought it would come this way. And now it's here. And as the weeks went on, and he was getting more comfortable, he was also getting more uncomfortable. He was also starting to fret that 'I'm just the accidental president. I don't know if the American public truly loves me. They loved Kennedy. I was just along for the ride.'

"He was developing an absolute pressure cooker that 'I need to win the 1964 election on my own. I have to do that or I'll forever think that I will be in the history books as an accidental president, the man who became president only because of an assassination.'"

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 came at an ideal moment, Cranston says. "He was able to pull that off for a few reasons. A large part is that he knew all the players from Congress. He knew their strengths and weaknesses, what they wanted, and he gave them what they wanted so he could get what he needed. He knew how to play that game. He was a master politician."

Johnson also "realized that he was in a fortunate position politically – there was a honeymoon period, a mourning period, because the country was deeply saddened and shocked by what had happened. He knew that, and he used the words of John F. Kennedy, who wanted to get this done, and he said that these were Kennedy's policies, let's fulfill his hope." It "was sort of a perfect storm."

Schenkkan, whose sequel, The Great Society, covering Johnson's second term, is scheduled for next year at the Oregon Festival and the Seattle Repertory Theatre, says that when Johnson took office, most of the country was "uncertain about what a Johnson president would mean. He had a very carefully calibrated political process of being all things to all people – conservative to the conservatives, liberal to the liberals, racist to the racists. What did Lyndon Johnson really want? – that was the question. And in what dramatic and exciting way he answers that, is the substance of the play."

It was, Schenkkan says, "a hinge point in American history – it's where everything changes. It is I believe where modern political America was created."

For Cranston, the final season of "Breaking Bad" begins Aug. 11, and he says he has mixed emotions about the series' end. "Actors, after a show and a production, you embrace, you cry, you rejoice, you promise to stay in touch, which we do and don't do. And then you move on. It's part of our DNA. I suppose you look back historically at the lives of actors, who were vagabonds, going from town to town with a hat on the ground. You perform, and hopefully a couple of shillings are thrown in there, and you get run out by the sheriff, and you go to the next town."

Cranston's next town may be New York, and Broadway – there have been reports that All the Way may wind up on the Great White Way.

"We're taking it one step at a time," he says. "Sure, I'd love an opportunity to do that. If we're well received and I do my job, there may be a life after A.R.T. Right now, we're really focusing on presenting our show there, and whatever happens after that, happens."

He is, he says, happy just where he is right now. "To be able to allow myself to be myopic at this point and just focus on this project is a luxury. Because usually you're putting out all kinds of feelers – what else is on after this job is done? What's developing? I've just stopped all that. I don't want to hear it, to be involved in any of that right now. After working hard for 13-14 years on television, I want to be able to step back, slow it down and control the next chapter of my life."