If you had told me that the dad on Malcolm in the Middle would become one of my favorite actors, I’d never have believed you. But after years of amazing work on AMC’s brilliant drama Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston has shown that he can transform himself into any character and make it believable. It’s probably why during the last few hiatuses he’s landed small but important roles in films like Drive, John Carter, The Lincoln Lawyer, Red Tails, Larry Crowne, and this summer’s remake of Total Recall. In director Len Wiseman’s film, Cranston plays Vilos Cohaagen, who was originally played by the great Ronny Cox. And like the original, Cohaagen is a close friend and ally of Quaid/Hauser (Colin Farrell) who wants to see his friend return home.
Last summer I got to visit the set of Total Recall when the production was filming in Toronto and participated in a group interview with Cranston. He talked about why he wanted to play the role, what’s different about his version of Cohaagen, what are his characters motivations, filming the action, his process as an actor, his thoughts on the end of Breaking Bad, and a lot more. In addition, Cranston reveals that he was offered Kevin Bacon‘s role in X-Men: First Class but turned it down to be in director Nicolas Winding Refn‘s Drive. Hit the jump to either read or listen to what Cranston had to say.
Before getting to the interview, here’s the latest trailer:
As usual, I’m offering you two ways to get the interview: you can either click here for the audio, or the full transcript is below. Total Recall opens August 3.
Question: Is there now a project in Hollywood that you’re not attached to?
Bryan Cranston: Gangster Squad.
Cranston: Yeah, that was disappointing, but this is how these things work out. You can’t imagine what it means, to me, to be able to have this opportunity. To be able to do these great projects and go from one terrific story, to another whether it’s science fiction, or 80s rock fantasy, or whatever. It’s just fantastic. I’m in a whirlwind. So, when things like that happen that are scheduling SNAFUs, you just go “oh well,” it wasn’t mine to have.
I’ve seen your name attached to a lot of projects, it’s great for all of us fans.
Cranston: Oh! Cool. Well thank you. It’s good to be not forgotten.
So Kate [Beckinsale] is your muscle?
Cranston: How do you like that? Eh?
There’s a villain dynamic going all the way back, the classic paradigm is Goldfinger and Odd Job, that can be pretty limiting. You got the main bad guy and then the physical villain. It can be pretty limiting because we’ve seen so many Bond movies. We’ve seen so many movies with the Bad Guy and his Muscle. What are you and Kate bringing to this that is different and new?
Cranston: Obviously she’s the brains and I’m the beauty. I love it. When I first heard that Kate and Jessica [Biel] were in it, for some reason I thought they would do the other role. I don’t know why. Then I realized, oh that’s interesting. It’s so delicious and I know Kate is having a great time, as am I to play the bad guy. They’re always the best-written roles, I’m telling you it’s so much fun. But there is that trap that you can get into, with that mustache twisting kind of bad guy. You don’t want to do that. I don’t want to do that desk pounding “GET HIM! ” that type of thing. “Rarrrh! ” My approach to this is that Quaid/Hauser was a dear friend of mine, and I looked upon him almost like a son. So I desperately tried to do anything within my power, to rein him in. And the way I’m playing it, and hopefully it will come off this way, is that he’s like a rebellious teenager. He just has to have a little tough love, and be disciplined, and he’ll come around. And when he comes around we’ll be back together again and I’m looking forward to that. And he doesn’t, and he doesn’t, and we have to punish him further.
So do we see you physically on screen?
Cranston: Oh no you see my physically. Yes. There is a lot of green screen and holograms and video monitors that are popping up throughout the world that we live in, in this future, and it feels appropriate and it feels right for the time, the way we imagine it now.
What can you tell us about your character that is different from the character in the previous movie?
Cranston: Ronny Cox? You see the hair. I have a naturally scary face. When I was raised in the 70s, when I was a teenager growing up, there was no sunscreen. I was out in the sun, on the beach. And I’m a motorcycle rider, so I’m in the wind; this is the result of that. You get crag, a lot of crag. It can lend itself, and my voice is on the lower register for the most part. So it’s kind of built in that way, I didn’t want to be that guy, that mustache-twisting guy. So my message was, I want wavy hair (this is a little sprayed right now). I want light hair and have it kind of wavy. I said “John Edwards,” I want a John Edwards softness to him, so it’s not “here comes the bad guy! ” I wanted to change that up and approach it that way. Because what he’s doing is already dastardly. I don’t think you want to present that. Ronny Cox wore dark clothing, dark suits, and that sort of thing. I wanted to go more natty and dress in these Tom Ford suits that I’m wearing, all nice and tailored. All of my suits and shirts everything is by Tom Ford. And it feels so good, it feels crisp when you wear it. It does change you when you wear something like that. It makes me feel, I don’t know, stronger in a way. Not in a demonic sort of way, just more powerful. If I remember correctly I think Ronny had his hair kind of slicked back, I just wanted to take this approach. Otherwise you’re just doing something that’s derivative, and who wants to do that?
What are your evil motivations? In the 90s version he’s selling off oxygen, what are your dastardly deeds in this movie?
Cranston: Oh I don’t know, world domination. You know it’s funny, because it’s kind of what I’m learning as a character on Breaking Bad now, that when a person is poor there is no sensibility of greed or avarice that comes to the surface because it’s never going to happen for them. But when a person is exposed to power and money and riches and fame and that sort of thing. That’s when you see the true character of a person come up. When they have control and they have choices, and they choose to do the right thing, that’s what we all call character building. Right? There’s a lot of people who get a taste of that and it’s like a drug. That’s the way that I see Cohaagen, he doesn’t want to kill millions of people, but he will if he has to. He honestly feels that, and this is part of the ego of him, that his way is the best way. And these people, “believe me, trust me I’m doing this for all of you, yes you’re the proletariat but I will take care of you as long as you stay in line. And you’ll all have jobs. Our unemployment rate is almost next to nothing, what empire can say that? “
Cranston: Oh yesssss. Oh yes. What would it be without a climax? When I actually get to the point.
That’s what they say. I hear.
Cranston: Not that kind.
Cranston: And I actually kill Hauser, oops dammit.
Can you actually talk about preparing for your fight? I’m 100% sure you will end up in a fight with Colin Farrell on that rooftop that we were told a little bit about. I don’t think we’ve really seen you engage in a huge fight sequence? Have you been training for that?
Cranston: The biggest thing, especially for my age no 55, is endurance. Being able to just physically withstand that kind of workout daily, for hours on end. On Breaking Bad coming up there’s a fight sequence that Jessie and Walt have. And we fought for two days. It was a big, big fight sequence. Even when you’re faking punches, “BAM BAM POW,” you’re still snapping your neck. You’re still jerking forward, you’re still falling down. Even though you have pads, your body is still slamming. And you do that for 12 hours, for two days, I had a masseuse come over to my place in Albuquerque and I said, “I am sore everywhere work as long as you can and get as deep as you can. ” Two hours, it was one of those [smacks hands on the table]. Just pounding me. I put on serene music, but it was more “AAAAAAHHHHH! ” It was [makes gasping noises]. So that’s the only thing I’m really focused on. It’s like a dance, to choreograph a fight is like a dance. It’s very specific. You have to carefully plan it out. Because if someone gets hurt, then we didn’t do our job, someone screwed up. The fight choreographers and the actors involved, we messed up somewhere. It’s not OK to get hurt. It does happen sometimes. But you try to rehearse it, rehearse it, rehearse it. We rehearsed it in slow motion. Then we do half speed. Then half speed for the camera when it’s set up. Then we do a full speed rehearsal. Then we do one once everybody gets the dance.
Cranston: We haven’t done it yet, and it’s going to be about 5 days. 5 maybe 6 days.
That’s a healthy fight sequence.
Cranston: And in a row.
Have you called that masseuse back?
Cranston: They have some on hand. But actually it’s a necessity. I’ll have someone come over to the hotel at night work it out, and go sit in the jacuzzi to relax the muscles again.
The motive of Ronny Cox in the previous Total Recall he was an oxygen barren. Oxygen is oil spelled sideways if you squint right. Is there something metaphoric in your motives and the real world. Is it globalization, oil again?
Cranston: I was going to say globalization. Dammit! We’ve already seen it; even 20 years ago when Total Recall was first made, life was a little different. It will be 22 years by the time our film comes out. And life was different. And now, look what happened the other day, Standard and Poor’s reduced the rating and it affected every market basically. We’re so interconnected; I think it feels familiar for an audience to accept that as a future life. I think that’s the key to doing science fiction, is to not go to the implausible. You want to surprise people with the “Oh my god, wouldn’t that be weird and oh that’s cool! ” but also with a sensibility that is somewhat relatable, especially from the humanoid position. You want to have people go, “I get it I see where he’s going, I see what his motivation is, and I see why that’s happening. “
You’ve had a long background in comedy too. Do you feel like Total Recall gives you an opportunity to flex some of those comedic muscles. Is there a project coming up that you might be able to go back to comedy in some way?
Cranston: There is some cheeky fun to Total Recall. There have certainly been some takes that I’ve been more buoyant then others. And then some you drop down and get menacing. There’s a range in there. To give that range, and I’m a good character to be able to give that, some of the other characters they really can’t get too cheeky. So Len will be able to go into editing and feel it out. It’s like “Oh boy we really need something to lighten up at this moment,” and maybe take the take that is a little more fun. Conversely, it may be the decision later on that we’re in the thick of it now, let’s go strong and drive it home. But I think options is what I think is the best thing to have. They’ll probably do some test screenings and see what comes of that.
Comedy, I love it. Not only is it fun to see in its finished version, but the making of it is always much more fun than doing drama, because you’re laughing you’re having a good time. I just came up from Miami, I finished a movie called Rock of Ages. That’s going to be a lot of fun. Great 80s anthem music, Rock & Roll. Tom Cruise, Alec Baldwin, Russell Brand, Catherine Zeta-Jones. It was a great cast, and we’re singing, having a blast.
Do you sing in that film?
Cranston: I do. I sing Hit Me With Your Best Shot. It’s kind of a medley with the other singers. Mine’s really more of a cameo role. I play Catherine’s husband, who is the Mayor of Los Angeles, and somewhat corruptible.
So politicians are kind of your thing right now?
Cranston: Maybe so, yeah, it’s weird how things come up, you never know.
Cranston: I actually thought it would be a lot more green screen than what we’ve seen. It kind of takes you back a little bit. When you hear of this, I think it’s just what one does, if you’d read the script you would think green screen, green screen, green screen. I was prepared for that. But, when you can give your actors somewhat more of a practical environment it’s just better. And quite frankly money wise it’s a toss up, because if you have a real set then you don’t have to paint it in. Doing all of that CGI is very expensive.
Did you get to see the concept art before signing on?
Cranston: No I talked to Len and told him I really liked the script. That was the number one thing. It really does differ from the other Total Recall. It goes back to more of the source material, I thought, from Philip K. Dick’s novel. And I pitched out what I told you guys, that kind of want to play him this way, no so… and he liked that idea and it worked out timing wise.
We’ve heard about some of the future items like the hand phone. I would imagine that Cohaagen has a lot of luxury items? Is there any cool future stuff that you get to play with?
Cranston: Yes, there are a few weapons that we’ve been playing with. That’s coming up actually. I don’t have a lair. Whereas Ronny Cox you saw his place, and that sort of thing. You catch me on…it’s more holographic than anything. It’s almost like he’s a moving target. You don’t know where he’s going to be or where he’s going to show up. And now you have instant visuals through the hand thing. You can bring on screens, stretch it and open it, touch certain things, they come and you can push it away!
Cranston: A lot of stuff I did today was two-camera. Whether I was a man of the people and telling them hello and trust in me, and that sort of thing. Or talking directly to Mathias, urging him to turn himself in. Or to Lori, Kate, finding out little logistics of where people are, and go after them, “don’t use lethal force. ”
When talking to the people, what sort of message are you sending the people of this new world?
Cranston: Stay in school, don’t do drugs.
Do you have a tagline or a slogan.
Cranston: I don’t have a slogan. No, I don’t. Did Ronny have a slogan, son of a bitch I want a slogan. Do you have any suggestions? I’ll just start feeding it in. It won’t have any relevance. Len will go “what the fuck are you doing, why do you keep saying that? ”
Do you remember your reaction when you saw the first Total Recall film for the first time, it was a bit of a ground breaking movie for its time.
Cranston: I thought it was really cool because at the time it was ground breaking. There were things that they were doing that were pretty amazing. I didn’t remember a lot of elements in it, so I was curious and I rented it and saw it again. But yeah there was some interesting fun stuff that they did. We have several elements that we extrapolated from that movie, and then a lot of our own. A lot is a new fresh take on it. It is a remake, but it’s really different. It’s not quite at all like what they were doing. What’s interesting, ironically, was when I got it my friend who works with me on the show [Breaking Bad] Dean Norris, came to me and said he was in the original. He plays Hank on the show. He was in the subterranean ground he was the one who had the line, “You got a lot of nerve showing your face around here. ” “I could say the same about you,” or something like that.
What’s your process as an actor for getting ready for your roles? Have you become more comfortable as an actor where you’re doing less time in rehearsal, or are you still putting in as much time as you did years ago?
Cranston: It really depends on the role, how far away it is from you, how much research you need to do. I know that when I did From the Earth to the Moon playing Buzz Aldrin I fell asleep more than once with notebooks and audiotapes going from the lunar module landing. The weight of doing a real person, a hero, and the responsibility that that brings. So if it depends on the type of person. If it’s closer to who you really are, then you kind of grab it. I do have an approach to it. I do work a lot on characters, it’s all for my own comfort. So that when I walk on to a set, the more I’ve worked on something, the more comfortable I feel. And it’s like an anchor for an actor. When a script is well written, as this is, it feeds you it feeds the actor; it gives you the nourishment you need to develop your character. The hardest work that actors have done, including myself, is on poorly written scripts. And when you first start out you do anything. I did a lot of crap. I did more crap than I can tell you. But you did it because you needed the money. You have to pay for your pictures and resumes, and classes and insurance and food like everybody else. In those days if it was crap you just didn’t put it on your resume. And it was gone. Gone. You can’t do that now.
Speaking of something that is not crap, the movie Drive. Could you sort of talk about working on that real quick, and what your reaction to it is?
Cranston: I auditioned for the role in—what was that big blockbuster movie that came out this last year with all the changing faces and Kevin Bacon was in it? I read for the Kevin Bacon role in X-Men: First Class. And it was like, “Ah, there’s a possibility. ” Then there was this thing happening over here. It’s kind of like things coming up like materials and projects that are coming in and out. Quite often, it’s almost like a wave. “Here it comes, here it comes. . . oh no, that wave didn’t break. ” Why? Funding went this way, the lead dropped out, any number of things can happen. Or the studio says it’s too much money. Projects ebb and flow all the time, and the same thing in an actor’s career. There’s interest, and there’s ebbing and flowing all the time. “You have the offer! Oh, no you don’t. ” So, that was happening. They offered it to Kevin, and they offered me a different role in it.
At the same time, I read Drive, and I thought, “Oh, this is what I’d rather do. ” I turned down X-Men for the role in Drive because I liked the character better. Much better. The experience with Ryan Gosling and Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman and Carey [Mulligan]—it was terrific. We had a great time. What was so much fun about it is that we’d go over to Nicolas Refn’s, the director’s, house in the canyons, and we’d all get together with the writer, and we would pitch out ideas and thoughts. “What about this? What about that? ” There’s nothing more satisfying than to have your thoughts and comments welcomed and incorporated in the script. So, we really feel ownership and part of that. You’re not just a hired hand, coming in, doing your job, and leaving. And Nicolas took a real kind of film noir, European feel to it, and it’s really hip and cool.
If you don’t mind, talk a little bit about how you got involved with John Carter.
Cranston: That, too, was about the script. I met Andrew Stanton early on, and he really wanted me for this role. It’s a small role. I’ve always felt that way. My agents want me to stop saying this, but the way I feel is that it doesn’t really matter to me the size of a role. What matters is the quality of the script and the kind of role that it is. Is it a pivotal role?
I worked one day on Little Miss Sunshine. I was the book agent for Greg Kinnear, and everyone was saying, “Why are you doing that? ” and I said, “Because this script is really terrific, really good. ” I went out and I pitched Jonathan [Dayton] and Valerie [Faris], the directors. I said, “I have a take on this. I want pitch to you. ” They go, “You know it works one day? ” and I go, “Yeah, so there’s no time commitment. ” They go, “Okay, what’s your pitch? ” I go, “I just want to be aloof. I want to counter Greg’s character. Greg needs this—you know. He’s got to have this sale or he’ll feel like a complete failure in his life. I want to compound his problem by having, “Hey, we’ll get ’em next time. ” Not taking him seriously. We did one take where there’s a girl swimming in a pool, and I never took my eyes off her. It was fun. So, it was just one day, three little scenes. It wasn’t a good movie; it was an important movie, and so, John Carter was that kind of thing, too. Although, it was a little more involved. We did some green screen, we shot in London for a week and a half and shot in Utah for a few weeks, a lot of outdoorsy stuff. And then I got to look like George Armstrong Custer. He’s a big boy. I’m still just playing Cowboys and Indians, astronaut, and baseball player—all that stuff that I used to play as a kid.
Getting back to what I first said when you first walked in, you are attached to so much stuff in the future. Could you sort of talk about what it’s like for you being in the business for this long and all of a sudden being offered all of these high profile projects? What’s the other criterion, or is it still just script based?
Cranston: It’s all script based. When I first started, I just thought the coolest thing in the world would be if I could make a living as an actor. How great would that be? So, I had no plans, thoughts, ideas, attachments to becoming a star of any kind. I didn’t even know what that meant. So I was just a working actor, doing my thing. I guest starred. I’ve been doing this 32 years. Just guest starring, doing this, I’d do a play here, then I’d do a commercial—just making the rounds, earning your keep. As things started to develop and more and more things came up, I had several series—most of which didn’t fly, because that’s the nature of the game.
Then Malcolm in the Middle hits. The character in Malcolm in the Middle, for me, the dad had five lines in the entire pilot. He was not developed. But I loved the writing. Again, I went back to the writing. It’s all about the writing. That’s the most important element in all of Hollywood for sure, in anything. It’s the story. The writing was so fantastic. The mom was just this bombastic whirlwind, and the kid was this angst-ridden kind of brilliant kid, and I thought, “What would be good? ” because he had nothing. There was nothing there. I thought, “Well, just go in and be distracted. Not disinterested in your children, just distracted. Like you need a brain vacation all the time. And be a good husband, because she’s bombastic. What’s the opposite of that? What would be a good complement? Be softer, be more sensitive, be sweet—all the things that she wasn’t. ” So I just kind of did that at the audition, and it worked. You find those elements that you can put together like a bouquet, and then present it, that’s an audition. You don’t want to stop working until you find a presentable bouquet. Then, you have to go in, you present it, and you walk out. Because if they feel like you have some sort of need or attachment to some outcome, death. Death.
Cranston: No, I love it. If it calls for it. In television, it depends. If the structure is like Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s structured that way. Seinfeld allowed a little room here and there that we were able to throw things in. Malcolm in the Middle not so much. More of your character or quirks that your character would do or say. , but there wasn’t like, “Hey, go off and do a riff on something. ” Certainly, dramas are less likely to do that. I mean, there are still characteristics that can come out. Yeah, it’s fantastic when you read something that just—that’s what Breaking Bad was, the best pilot script I’ve ever read. All the guideposts were there. They were all there, and when that happens, like I said, it becomes easier for the actor when it’s so well written because you can’t help but dream about it. I dreamt about the character. Oh my gosh, I know how he should look. I know how much he should weigh. I know how he should walk. I know what he wears. I know how he has his hair. I know he had a stupid little mustache. These are all things that just came to me naturally. I didn’t have to think about it.
You clearly have excellent taste. You can read a script and you know what’s there. You clearly loved contributing to Drive. Do you have any interest in writing yourself?
Cranston: I do, I have, and I will. I wrote a little thing that I directed, too, many years ago, called Last Chance. A very linear, simple story, romantic drama. I just really didn’t know what I was doing, really. Just going on your instincts in some craft, and it turned out really cute. I had to stop editing when I ran out of money. We didn’t have a lot of money to start with. We had short ends, and we were shot on 35 mm. But, the process is fantastic, and the storytelling is the same. You’re still being true to that story, and tell a good story. And it is a good story, I’m proud of it. And I wrote something that I adapted from a novel that I handed to Mark Johnson, our executive producer and feature film producer, and he loved it. So, he said, “Let’s do this. ” So, I’ll direct that as well. Maybe next year, it depends. I don’t know where Breaking Bad is gonna fit into this. I know we’re going to go at least one more year, but I don’t know when we’ll start or what that’s going to do the scheduling.
What did you adapt?
Cranston: It’s based on a novel called Home Again by David Wiltse. I’ll change the title of it. It’s basically a very strong father/son story and a murder mystery. An FBI agent who suddenly quits the department and takes his son and his wife and moves back to his hometown of Cascade, Nebraska, to rekindle family values and pay attention now, because he’s been working for the FBI for so many years that he’s been home sporadically. His son is now sixteen, very sensitive, and looks upon his father like sort of a stranger. “I don’t really know how to behave, and mom and I have gotten along fine without him, and now there’s this presence. ” So there’s all that going on. Then, there’s a murder that happens in the little town that they move to, which kills his whole stance on “Things are better in small towns! ” Things unravel, and basically, the father and son come together at the end and save each other, emotionally and literally.
I have a Breaking Bad question. What are your thoughts on possibly the next season being the last season? There has been talk of it going to thirteen episodes, and AMC saying, “Well we’re not sure. It’s going to be one more year. ” Could you talk about where you’re at in your headspace, knowing that it might be the last year, we might be doing two years?
Cranston: Vince Gilligan and I talked about this when I first signed on, and we both are in agreement that it should only be as long as it needs to be to tell that story and the journey. But that’s a subjective comment. So, how long is long enough? How long is too long? So, not really knowing where Vince sits—it depends on when you ask him, too. When he’s up to his eyeballs in work and editing and he hasn’t had a break in a year and a half, it’s a different story than if he’d just gotten back from a holiday and they go, “Hey, let’s go for three more years! ”
Like a proud athlete, I would rather quit a year early than a year too late. I don’t want to have an asterisk next to this. Breaking Bad: five good years and one mediocre one. ” I don’t want to have people go, “You know, that last one. . . ” You know, they talked about The X-Files that way. There’s a lot of series that you can point to and say, “For the bulk of it good, maybe not so much. . . ” Knowing when to end it is key. But, that being said, it is commerce still. We have to be good hosts and guests and working partners with Sony TV and AMC so that if we support them and negotiate a time and out date that is satisfactory to Vince, I’m sure it’ll work well. If it’s satisfactory to AMC and Sony, hopefully we can all be happy.
The best thing to happen would be for Vince to know exactly when he’s done, because then he can write to it. We don’t want to finish a season and then, “Oh, that’s your last season,” and we go, “We didn’t finish the story. ” If it’s twenty episodes, if it’s sixteen episodes, if it’s twenty-four episodes, I dunno. If it’s two more years, great. I think we can. My personal feeling is I think we can go two more years of thirteen episodes apiece. I think we can, without slowing down or getting into a rhythm that is not Breaking Bad style. But when it’s over, it’s over, and we’ll hold true to it. I’m not gonna wake up and find out it wasn’t really cancer. “These aren’t your charts, I’m sorry! ”
For more on Total Recall, here’s my on set interviews:
- 20 Things to Know About the Total Recall Remake from Our Set Visit; Plus Video Blog Recap and New Images
- Colin Farrell and Jessica Biel Talk Action, Epic Chase Sequences, Remaking A Beloved Sci-Fi Film and More on the Set of Total Recall
- Director Len Wiseman and Producer Toby Jaffe Talk Referencing the Original, Sequel Possibilities and More on the Set of Total Recall
- Production Designer Patrick Tatopoulos Talks Car Designs, Constructing New Cities, Product Placement and More on the Set of Total Recall