'Argo's' Bryan Cranston on CIA Secrets, Ben Affleck's Directing Style (Q&A)

Bryan Cranston Argo - H 2012
Warner Bros. Pictures

Bryan Cranston Argo - H 2012

The "Breaking Bad" star also talks to THR about what he’ll do after the AMC hit ends.

Bryan Cranston may be known for playing the increasingly audacious science-teacher-turned-meth-maker on AMC’s hit show Breaking Bad. But Cranston shifts into a very different role for the Ben Affleck-helmed political thriller, Argo, which has already been garnering plenty of buzz before its theatrical release on Friday.

Cranston plays CIA officer Jack O' Donnell, who is Tony Mendez’s (Affleck) boss. Based on the real events of the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81, Affleck’s suspenseful film follows Mendez, an expert extricator, as he attempts to rescue six U.S. embassy workers who had escaped the compound where 52 other Americans were being held hostage.

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Cranston talks to The Hollywood Reporter about his memories from the real events back in 1979, what he likes about Affleck’s directing style (hint: whips) and his plans post-Breaking Bad.

The Hollywood Reporter: What do you remember about the actual events of the Iran hostage crisis?

Bryan Cranston: That was a very bleak time, America was suffering. Nightline was created for this purpose -- to give a daily recap of any progress that may have been made in trying to release the hostage. And then, when six Americans were released and it was like, “Oh, my God, this is amazing.” That’s really all we heard. For a couple of days it was on the front page and then rightfully so, it loses interest because the focus goes back to the 50 blindfolded Americans who are still being held and hoping that through some diplomacy and outside pressure and embargoes and things that were being tested and tried they would be release, but they were held for a total of 444 days.

THR: Is your character based on Mendez’s real boss at the time?

Cranston: It’s an amalgam of characters that were at the CIA at the time, so he’s a composite character. Instead of seeing several different pictures of people and voices at the CIA, we needed to hone it down to one so the audience can keep a clear idea, when you see me, you know, “He’s the CIA guy,” so you're not left wondering, “Wait, is that the guy from the White House or which one is that guy?” It was important to help the audience just focus on the actual plot.

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THR: You actually filmed at the CIA headquarters. Had you ever been there before?

Cranston: Oh no, you have to have some pretty high clearance to be able to go through and take a tour. They did a background check on me when I went to talk to them.

THR: What was that experience like?

Cranston: I was able to talk to several different CIA officers of different ages and I was very interested in finding out what effect it has on their personal life. Can you imagine if you went home to your boyfriend or husband or wife and you could not say a word of what you did that day or any day for your entire career. It’s fascinating and yet you think, how would couples be able to manage that? And a lot of them don’t. There’s a high divorce rate and they date within themselves, they marry within themselves. I talked to one officer who’s married to a CIA officer, their daughter was a CIA officer -- it’s the family business.

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THR: How would you describe Ben Affleck’s directing style?

Cranston: He has a riding crop with him and if he’s not pleased with you, he gives you a little swat on the fanny. I respond to that kind of behavior, so I kick it in the gear -- I don’t want to displease him.

He’s passionate about the subject matter. He’s compassionate about the actors that he works with and what he’s asking them to do. He lays the responsibility on the actor, which I like. I don’t want to be told, “You go to the window on this line, you pick up the phone on that line.” I want to be able to have the freedom to be able to create and move around and get a sense of ownership like in my office and anywhere that is my character’s domain. He not only allows it, he encourages that.


THR: Breaking Bad is ending after the final eight episodes air in summer 2013. What do you see yourself doing next?

Cranston: I see myself going home. I will stay away from acting as a series regular on television for a while. I won’t be looking for anything; I just need to step away. Breaking Bad, the experience of it is just so wonderful and the time of my life -- the role of my life -- and so I know I just need to let that be and give it some air.

I’m going to do a play next year in Los Angeles and I’m looking forward to that. I’m looking forward to doing some more directing and writing of my own and beyond that, I don’t know. I mean, I still love acting so we’ll see what’s next after that.

Argo opens in theaters Friday.

Email: Rebecca.Ford@thr.com; Twitter: @Beccamford