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Bryan Cranston opened up about his process as an actor in a talk at this year’s Tribeca TV Festival.
The majority of his hourlong conversation with New York magazine film critic David Edelstein on Saturday revolved around how the Emmy-winner decided that performing was right for him, with Cranston sharing previously told anecdotes about how he envisioned his own daughter’s face when he was watching Jane (Krysten Ritter) die in a memorable Breaking Bad scene and how the scene was originally written to have Cranston’s Walter White kill Jane before the network and studio deemed the act “too soon” in Walt’s progression and about how in his first acting class a scene involving a couple making out, and his scene partner’s impressive performance, allowed him to realize the power of acting.
Cranston, who’s also worked as a writer, director and producer, revealed that he often writes down notes with a pencil and pad about his character’s motivations and pros and cons for various choices as well as his stream-of-consciousness thoughts about a script as he’s first reading it.
In addition to his own work with his characters, Cranston said he loves being able to share his ideas about a particular role with a director.
“I love the collaborative art form that we’re in. I love the idea of being able to be in a room, whether you’re doing a play or a movie or something, and all of your energies and juices are going and you go home and you just contemplate and you come back with some ideas and a pitch, and it’s exciting when you get something,” he said.
Cranston then revealed that he actually pitched the way his character in Nicolas Winding Refn’s 2011 film Drive died. Cranston’s character was killed by Albert Brooks’ character in the Ryan Gosling starrer, but not in the way it was originally written.
“In the original script, my character and Albert Brooks’ character actually liked each other. They were fond of each other and I thought that was a great problem to have,” Cranston said. “What if your task is you have to kill someone that you really like — that’s odd. And in the script, it had him come up behind me with a garroting wire and he chokes and cuts me to death. I thought, there’s something wrong with this.… It’s too painful.”
So in a meeting with Refn, Gosling and Brooks, Cranston pitched an alternative.
“We have this confrontation, and I have a bum hip so I can’t run away from him, and he says these nice things about me and he intimates that he might let me go. In fact, he offers his hand.… And now I’m thinking I can exhale because he’s going to let me go, so I shake his hand and he looks at me, and before I know it, he just twists my wrist and slices it with a blade.… I pitched it that Albert says, ‘That’s all right, no more pain, that’s all.’ I said, ‘And then I think he sets me down carefully.’ And then I think I even pitched: Maybe he gets a blanket for me. He ended up not doing that, but he sets me down on the ground and gently lets my head against the bumper of a car. I’m just laying there and he says, ‘No more pain, you’ll just go to sleep.’ My character is in shock and looking at [his arm] and he doesn’t really feel the pain yet, and that’s how he dies.”
Cranston indicated Refn and Gosling were both shocked and recalled that Refn said, “That’s in the movie.”
“That’s what’s exciting about the work we do is you never know where it’s going to come from and the best idea needs to win,” Cranston said.
And it was his thoughts about another character, in a Western that he was offered, the type of project he’s said he’s long wanted to be a part of, that led him to pass on the role.
In response to an audience question about whether he thinks about how a role may affect society and whether that influences the decisions he makes about the parts he plays, Cranston said that he does think about that and admitted that as a result of his success, he’s now able to decide if he wants to pass on an undesirable role.
“I will be honest that I have the luxury to be able to make those decisions because I can control what I do and what I don’t do and most actors are not in that position and you have to take a job because you need a job,” he said. “If you get very lucky, as I have, then you get to the point where you can pick and choose and have some control over your own destiny.”
Specifically, Cranston said, the Western script, “was disappointing.”
“The character had all of the tropes of the Western: There was racial prejudice. There was misogyny. There was senseless killing, brutality,” he said. “I didn’t want to be a part of that. There’s too much of that and I didn’t want to.”
Cranston had a very different reaction to the first Breaking Bad script, describing it Saturday as “fantastic” and explaining that his wife seemed to concur but expressed it with her own sense of disappointment.
Cranston said when he was offered the role of Walter White his daughter was in middle school and he knew that working on Breaking Bad would mean filming in Albuquerque, N.M. He briefed his wife on the location of the shoot and let her read the script, with him peering around the corner to see how she reacted.
“She read it,” Cranston recalled. “She gets down to the end, closes it, throws it and goes ‘shit.'”
But the actor didn’t let his work keep him away from his family, explaining, “I’m on the southwest bus every Friday night or Saturday morning from Albuquerque back to Los Angeles, every time unless they were coming out or I happened to get a cold or something and I just couldn’t go home, but almost every time. And that’s what you do; you go home to be a dad and a husband.”
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