‘Wakefield’ Star Bryan Cranston and Writer-Director Robin Swicord on the Personal Drama

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.

Image via IFC Films

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.”

Image via IFC Films

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.

Image via IFC Films

Did you both mutually decide that it didn’t matter if this guy was likeable or not, and instead, he just is who he is?

CRANSTON: I think it was inherent in Robin’s screenplay. This is just the honest depiction of him. There is a certain amount of, if you’re willing to be honest, as a character, and to an extent, vulnerable, you will be liked because those are both characteristics that can be embraced. And then, that character goes and does a couple of things that make him multi-faceted and very complex. So, it’s not a matter of, “Oh, I like him and I’m with him, all the way,” or “I dislike him.” People are more than that. We are the sum of all parts.

SWICORD: The whole idea of liking in movies is something that has been important to studio executives, for a long time. But when I think about some of my favorite movies, like Groundhog Day, The Godfather and The Apartment, the protagonists are not people that you would say, “Dying to be that guy! I love him! I’ve gotta hang out with him! He likes to kill people!” What I think about, all the time, as a writer, is alignment. Are we aligned with this character? One of the things that does cause us to align with a character is their vulnerability and their humanness – the qualities that they show us that we also inhabit, every day. That was something that was built, very carefully, into the screenplay, and we paid a lot of attention to it in the editing room, to make sure that we understood his reasons. He doesn’t want to go into the house because his wife is powerful and she’s angry, so why should he go in there, right now, and have the argument with her? The kids are there, so he doesn’t want to do that scene. He’s rather sit that out. There’s no one in the world who’s married, who has not had that moment of thinking, “I’m just going to avoid this argument right now because I’m too tired to have it.” And then, you go, “Oh, my god, I’ve stayed all night in the attic. Now, I’m really in trouble! What I’ll do is wait until she leaves, and then I’ll go in, shower, dress, leave her a note, go to the office, take her for dinner later, and maybe buy her something in the city. I’ll do something to make this better.” But that’s not how it goes because she does something else, since you’re not in control of her. That slippery way that we slide into trouble of our own making, every single person in the world can say, “That’s me.” So, alignment more than liking is really what I pay attention to.

CRANSTON: If you look at the relativity of it, audiences are more impulsive to those thoughts. “What if I just kept driving? What if I got a massage? What if I took a nap?” But if Howard Wakefield was given the choice of, “Do you want to stay in this attic for eight months?,” he’d say, “Of course not! Why would I want to do that?!” It’s moment to moment. He makes one decision now, and then that has unintended circumstances connected to it, so he makes another decision. All of a sudden, it’s a slippery slope.

Image via IFC Films

Was this a very tricky tone to get right?

SWICORD: It’s a very tricky tone. Everybody had to be working in concert to make that tone land. That was the scary thing, especially as we get close to the end.

Bryan, what’s it like to do voice work for a Wes Anderson movie? How was it to be directed by him for Isle of Dogs?

CRANSTON: He’s a fascinating human being, a nice guy, and a person you would not think is from Texas. Speaking of Groundhog Day, I was in a recording session with Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Edward Norton and Wes Anderson. It was interesting and weird and fun. Wes has his image of what that’s going to be, like Robin had her image of what Wakefield was going to be. Even though they’re in different genres, the work is the same. You still have to compile all of these stories and the nuances of it, and separate things and go, “This is good, but I need this later.” You’re constantly orchestrating the whole thing. And I don’t know what the picture is. I read little snippets of it, I saw the picture of my character, and things like that, and I know the general story and what we recorded, but I wasn’t aware of other recordings, just like actors are not always aware of other scenes that are being shot, and I don’t know how it will all come together. We’ll see how it turns out.

And you’re voicing an animal, correct?

CRANSTON: I’m a dog. I’m me. I’m kind of a scruffy dog. I’m not a purebred. I’m a mutt, who it turns out to have a dalliance. It’s a sweet, odd film, and it’s what you’d expect from Wes Anderson.

Wakefield is now playing in New York City and in Los Angeles and on VOD on May 26th.

Image via IFC Films

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