From writer/director Robin Swicord, Wakefield tells the tale of a successful suburbanite, named Howard Wakefield (Bryan Cranston), who steps away from his family and out of his life when he vanishes without a trace. But he’s not really missing, at all, instead secretly observing the lives of his wife (Jennifer Garner), their children and the neighbors from the attic of his carriage house garage, all while waiting for the perfect moment to return home.
At the film’s press day, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with actor Bryan Cranston and filmmaker Robin Swicord to chat about what made Howard Wakefield a compelling character, how someone could find themselves in a situation like this one, why this man continues to stay apart from his own life, why the honest depiction inherently makes the character likable, and how tricky the tone of the story was to get right. Cranston also talked about working with Wes Anderson on the animated feature Isle of Dogs, and getting to do voice work with the incredible cast, which includes Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Edward Norton.
Collider: Just how bad do things have to get in someone’s life and marriage for them to pretend that they’re missing, just to watch other people’s reactions?
BRYAN CRANSTON: Not bad, at all! If you look at Wakefield, on the whole, you go, “Oh, my god, he spiraled!” But his first decision was, “I’ll go deal with this in a couple of hours. Just give me a couple of hours. Please.” Who hasn’t wanted that, to clear their head and refresh and recharge? Howard just wanted that little moment of reprieve because he didn’t want to deal with the argument, right now. Have you ever seen your spouse or any significant other call you, and you press decline?
ROBIN SWICORD: No one will admit to that, but all of us have done it!
CRANSTON: It’s like, “I love you, but I’ll get back to you.” It’s not a judgement on them. It wasn’t them. The important thing to think of is that it was a momentary decision that had a long-term affect.
He certainly went all in, on the decision.
SWICORD: It was a slippery slope for Howard Wakefield. He stepped out, and then he stepped out a little bit more, and then just a little bit more. Then, it was off to the races.
Do you think there’s anything that could have gotten him to step back into his life sooner?
CRANSTON: That’s the interesting thing, it could have happened, at any time. That moment in the story when the knife sharpener was there, Howard was feeling a sense of boldness, and he was going to just put himself out there, but leave it up to her to determine whether or not he was going to be accepted. Either she would shun him or accept him. He didn’t anticipate, and I don’t think the audience is going to anticipate, the third option of what really happens. He did not see the third option as a possibility, and that crushed him. We can conjure as many situations as we wish, but we don’t often know what’s really going to happen. He conjures up the idea that he’s going to walk in there and say, “I’m home!,” to see what that’s like, but we don’t actually know. We think we know, but we’re not always prepared. It’s such a delicate, sweet, engaging, compelling story that I really think audiences are going to watch and go, “I’ve felt that way before. I can’t fault him to the utmost degree because I’ve wanted to do the same thing.”
Robin, what compelled you to bring Howard Wakefield to life for the screen?
SWICORD: In Japan, 150,000 people go missing, every year. They’re called The Evaporated, and they’re people who have stepped out of their lives. They apparently go live in one section of Tokyo and they change their identities. They usually do it out of some kind of shame or not being able to handle their own life. There’s a very strong sense of shame and honor, in that culture. In this country, it’s probably more people who are running from debt or who steal a kid over custody. In terms of Howard Wakefield, I think that he doesn’t intend to step out of his life. He has the same impulse that all of us have when you drop the kids off at school and get on the freeway to go home, but you think, “You know what? I could just keep on driving. Today is a great day to go to the desert!” What I connected to, when I saw the short story, was that part of it.
There’s the sense that all of us have some tension between wanting to escape our responsibilities and go have adventure, but also be loved and cozy in the bosom of our family. Both of those things, for everyone, are always co-existing with invisible tension. Depending on what’s going on with you, one is gonna weigh more than the other. In the case of Howard Wakefield, he has some unfinished business in his past. He has some uncertain foundation in his marriage, which contributes to a sense that he’s not living his real life somehow and that he’s not being the real Howard Wakefield.
If that man that he’s been presenting to the world, all along, is not himself, who actually is he? What would happen, if you could just escape any idea of self, whatsoever? What if you could just live in complete anonymity and freedom, as a denizen of the night? He gets a chance to explore that and, as he watches his family, he sees that they’re fine. It’s not, “Oh, my god, we’re losing the house!” His wife doesn’t suddenly have a boyfriend. There’s nothing to create the crisis to draw them home. He can look out and see that they’re just fine, so he’s free to wander in the world and do whatever it is that Howard Wakefield does at night.