Q&A: Bryan Cranston on surprising the CIA and Ben Affleck as a director in 'Argo'
BEVERLY HILLS - It's been a busy year so far for Bryan Cranston. Two films he shot long ago were finally released ("Red Tails" and "John Carter") and he appeared in three big summer releases ("Madagascar 3," "Rock of Ages" and "Total Recall"). Oh, and he just happened to land his fourth Emmy nomination for best actor in recognition for his stellar work as the iconic Walter White in "Breaking Bad." Plus, "Bad" aired eight of its last sixteen episodes to continued critical acclaim (which sort of makes up for the duds "Rock of Ages" and "Total Recall"). In September, he received another gift, Ben Affleck's "Argo."
Cranston has used his newfound notoriety smartly over the past five years. For every "Rock of Ages," he's picked a "Drive" or "Contagion" to spice up the prestige movie credits on his increasingly varied resume. Now, "Argo" may be his best movie showcase to date. As Jack O'Donnell, Cranston plays a composite figure of many different people who assisted Tony Mendez (Affleck) in a mission to help six State Dept. employees hiding out in Iran during the Iran Hostage Crisis escape Tehran. It's a key role in screenwriter Chris Terrio's screenplay, because if McDonnell can't get the White House to reverse course on a last minute decision than Mendez's escape plan is literally dead in the water.
Upon first screening "Argo," it's clear the audience will remember the tense Tehran sequences and Alan Arkin's hilarious turn in the Hollywood scenes. However, upon a second viewing you come to appreciate Cranston's work much more. Affleck and editor William Goldenberg use Cranston's increasing ferociousness to help sell the tension for an outcome we already know. If "Argo" continues to win over the industry and moviegoers as expected, don't be surprised if Cranston's name increasingly comes up in the best supporting actor conversation.
Speaking to Cranston last week, it was clear he was very proud of the film and at the different opportunities he's being given at the moment. You can watch our interview embedded at the top of this post or read the following extended Q&A below.
Q: I know that you did go and meet with some of the people from the CIA and you met with Tony Mendez. What did you learn about that time or just from the CIA in general like that helped inform the role for you?
A: You know, I think by going back to Langley, Virginia and sitting down with these men and women it allowed me to really desensitize myself to the aura that is around the CIA. And what I found is that no one looks like James Bond, no one is like with a cocktail in their hands and this like [NOISE] that I saw. It's a company; it's a corporation. You have your structure and protocols and bureaucracy and [expletive] that you got to deal with. And sometimes the right hand doesn't know what the left hand is doing and vice versa. So you cut through all of that and realize that get away from the enormity of it and get to the people. My interest was to kind of break through the veneer of that taciturn exterior and be able to see what effect personally it had on these men and women who, for a living, don't talk too much, and they can't be very revealing. So, how did that affect you personally? How did it affect your marriage? What did you tell your children? How did it affect you physically? Do you – y'know, did you feel its toll? 'Do you guys drink?' I would ask if they drink alcohol. When did that start? So, I was asking all these questions that they probably thought was like, wait a minute, that's not about the CIA. I thought you were going to ask about missions and things, which I was less interested in and more interested in, for me, at that time, in what kind of foundation can I build for Jack because I need to feel comfortable in who I've created in order to present it. Otherwise, that character is still outside of me and I need him to be inside.
Q: Well, when you spoke to them, were they excited about the idea that the CIA was actually being portrayed in a positive light? Because so many times we see like – it's the Bourne movies and they're the bad guys going after our hero or it's so rare that you see the CIA as the heroes in a movie. Even in James Bond, he's the guy who rats Bond out or screws it up. So, did they – were they proud of this moment? Did they seem…?
A: Well, I think – most of them they had not read the script because the script wasn't circulated...
A: Because we wanted to keep it rather closed and it was almost not classified, of course, but those who were – Tony Mendez read the script and a couple others but to help consult on that to guide us away from something that's not the way it is – any time we can possibly portray it accurately, obviously we want to do that. Granted there's theatrical license that must be taken in to consideration. But I think for the most part as is their nature inherently they're skeptical and they weren't completely open and, hey, I'm an open book; ask me whatever. It took a little while to let them know that I'm asking these questions in earnest. I'm asking so that I can give an honest portrayal and not some kind of polished, glossy kind of thing, or to be dishonest in how I do that. I think, and I hope I conveyed that so that the information they were giving me would help to facilitate that.
Q: I just remember when I saw it at Telluride that when people came out and it's a big conversation festival and one of the common refrains were, "I can't remember last time I saw a movie about the CIA where I cheered for them at the end." It was sort of this exciting rare opportunity and I'm curious. You must have been at the premiere in Toronto. Was the reaction to the movie what you expected? Were you surprised to see all these people cheer the – was it sort of the ride you were expecting based on what you had read and shot?
A: Well, when I first saw the movie on the Warner Brothers lot a month or so before Toronto I had that feeling of interior giddiness, thinking that this is an important movie. This is a very well structured movie and it really has remarkable assets. And not the least of which are that the CIA, an organization that is maligned often, was an is heroic in this, and rightfully so because for the most part you have to accept that these men and women dedicate their lives to a higher cause, a higher purpose and in hopes that that's the achievement. That's what they actually do so that when they retire they can say no one knows it, but I was involved in a lot of stuff that got done and we had to settle with just patting ourselves on the back a little bit and that's it.
Q: You'll never know the amount of time ...
A: That's right. When good things happen, and "Argo" allows that type of celebration that this was a selfless act that these men and women did what they do because it's their job but also because it's for the greater good. To save the lives of human beings, there's more noble cause than that.