Bryan Cranston doesn’t need to chase paychecks anymore. His salary for Breaking Bad wasn’t exactly at drug kingpin levels, but he’s secure.
So now what? Now it gets interesting.
“I don’t need work — I don’t need to work ever again,” says the actor. “So the choices that I make now should all be things that I think are either fun or important or challenging.”
Cranston’s next move has all of that: He’s making his Broadway debut in a role far from Walter White — playing former President Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way.
Cranston plays Johnson during his first year in office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy and explores both his fight for re-election and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I like to think that I’m well cast for this role. He was a complicated man,” Cranston says. “You only make your Broadway debut once and I’m encouraged that I hitched my wagon to a really well-written play.”
No matter how well-written, a three-hour play about the political maneuverings of an irascible president 50 years ago may not be considered serious box office catnip. Cranston changes that.
“Boy, I planned that well, didn’t I?” jokes playwright Robert Schenkkan, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his epic The Kentucky Cycle.
In fact, Schenkkan planned none of it. The role of Johnson was originally handled by actor Jack Willis when it debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012. Cranston jumped aboard last fall when the play next went to the American Repertory Theatre outside Boston, just as Breaking Bad was wrapping up and Cranston’s star was streaking.
“If you can’t be smart, be lucky,” says Schenkkan.
The role requires Cranston to be bullying, insecure, charming, charismatic, ruthless and scary. Cranston has shown all that in a career that has gone from goofy comedy in Malcolm in the Middle to ferocious drama in Breaking Bad.
“That’s who LBJ was — he was charming and witty and incredibly funny, a great raconteur, the life of the party. And also violent and vile and cruel and utterly terrible,” says Schenkkan. “I don’t write with an actor in mind, but if I had, Bryan Cranston would have been at the head of the list.”
The addition of three-time Emmy Award-winning Cranston has made the play more commercially viable but hasn’t apparently alienated the rest of the actors.
James Eckhouse, best known as Jim Walsh on the original Beverly Hills, 90210 and now playing the roles of Robert McNamara and James Eastland, calls Cranston “an actor’s actor.”
“I don’t think Bryan ever made stardom his business,” says Eckhouse. “He does not forget where he comes from. He’s an actor first and foremost. He works harder than anybody you’ve ever seen.”
Bill Rauch, the artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, who directs All the Way, says attracting Cranston was certainly useful to gin up excitement but he hasn’t been a diva.
“Bryan is a brilliant actor who brings his ferocity, his emotional intelligence, his passion, his heart to bear on the role,” says Rauch. “He really is a true member of the company and a leader of the company. There’s no sense that he’s the star and the star is separate from the rest of the cast.”
Political plays on Broadway haven’t always been big draws, but the creative team behind All the Way describes it as a “thriller” and a “white-knuckle ride.” Schenkkan stresses that what he’s written is not a documentary or history: He’s a dramatist exploring issues of power and morality, and asking how far we are willing to go to do good.
“What Robert’s (Schenkkan) done so successfully I think is to create this dramatic framework where the actors get to come to life in a very exciting and energized way,” says Robert Petkoff, who plays Sen. Hubert Humphrey. “It takes on a life, it breathes in a way that becomes compelling to watch.”
Cranston agrees, saying All the Way is accurate to the past but it’s not history at the expense of drama. “Nobody ever leaves a theater and goes, ‘Oh my God that play was so boring but historically accurate,’” he says. “We don’t want that.”
So it’s time to wish him good luck and to break a leg – a big change from his last role as Walter White. “I’d have someone else break the leg,” Cranston says with a wry smile.