Bryan Cranston as the 3rd Annual President's Speaker for the Arts
Brayan Cranston has made an extraordinary career out of creating and embodying a range of fascinating characters...
Bryan Cranston has made an extraordinary career out of creating and embodying a range of fascinating characters. Television actors and critics for generations to come will be measuring performances against the brilliance he brought to Walter White, who set a new standard for antiheroes in AMC’s Breaking Bad. It is hard to imagine anyone diving deeper into a role than Cranston did with President Lyndon Baines Johnson, first on Broadway in the Tony Award-winning one-man show and then for HBO cameras in the movie All the Way. And those are just a couple of examples – the list goes on and on in a career that has transcended genres and delighted millions.
But for one special evening last April, a crowd of more than 3,500 at the John Paul Jones Arena had a chance to see one of the great actors of his generation in the role of, well, himself, when Cranston took the stage as the latest in the UVA President’s Speaker Series for the Arts, supported by the offices of the President, the Executive Vice President and Provost, the Vice Provost for the Arts, and The Joseph & Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation. Following in the footsteps of famed UVA grad Tina Fey, and Academy Award-winner Kevin Spacey, Cranston and his friend and Breaking Bad Executive Producer Mark Johnson (a UVA alum (College ‘71) and longtime Chair of the Virginia Film Festival Advisory Board) spent more than an hour talking shop, life, and the ultimate power of storytelling.
Cranston shared that every major choice he makes in his career comes down to writing. Great writing, he said, allows you to be the “production designer of your imagination.” Often speaking directly to the many students in the audience, Cranston hailed the power of storytelling by looking back at our earliest years. “Our first memories in our lives,” he said, “are when we are three years old and we are dragging a book to our parents or our grandparents’ laps. We are wanting to be told a story. That is the joyous thing about being a human being. We want to be taken away.”
Cranston remembered being taken away quite regularly on the Breaking Bad set – as in every time a new script came out. “You know when you are reading a great book and you cannot wait to get back and read the book at night? Well, opening up the next episode of Breaking Bad was like a treat,” he said. “Even we, who worked closely on that show, could not predict where it was going. It was a gift.”
He also made sure the experience was always full of surprises. “The journey of Walter White for me was like riding a roller coaster. It was zigzag. I couldn’t control it. After the second episode of the first season, I decided I would not read the scripts too far in advance because you could create a potential danger in giving away a mood or an attitude or feeling toward someone that didn’t happen yet. So, I only read the scripts four days before we would start shooting that episode.”
What many in the JPJ crowd didn’t realize was that Cranston’s Walter White journey, with all its twists, turns, and Emmy Awards, might never have been possible without Charlottesville. That is where, in 1988, Mark Johnson met the show’s creator and writer Vince Gilligan. Johnson had been asked to come the Virginia Film Festival, then in its infancy, to present a screenwriting award. And the winner was Gilligan, for his script Home Fries, which would later be made with Drew Barrymore starring.
Johnson called Cranston one of the hardest working people in show business, citing his successes as an actor, writer, and producer. Cranston cited an inherent work ethic passed down from Depression-era parents. “When I was first coming up, I realized that no matter what line of work you are in, there are always going to be people who are more talented than you are. And there are always going to be people less talented than you are. You can’t control all that. What you can control is focusing on getting better, and getting smarter. I always knew I could outwork anyone.” He recalled starting out in show business and auditioning for every role he could. “If you are offered the role of ‘Clerk Number Two,’ the answer is ‘Yes!’ Drunken frat boy? ‘Yes, I’ll do that!’ Then you actually have a name, you are like ‘Whoa, I’m Steve!’ You feel like you are getting somewhere.”
In addition to preaching hard work, a message Cranston also shared with a group of UVA Drama students he met with earlier in the day, he cited passion as one of the biggest prerequisites for pursuing a creative life. “My message to anyone thinking of a career in the arts is do not do it unless you love it, unless you feel like you would do it for free for the rest of your life. That’s what you have to be willing to do. This is not a business where you say, ‘I’ll give it three years.’ Is three years the maturation time to be a well-crafted actor? If you are thinking of the arts as a career and you have given yourself an arbitrary expiration date, perhaps you need to either change your point of view or find something else you love to do.”
Following his discussion with Johnson, Cranston took questions from the audience. The first, in keeping with the theme of the Speakers series, was about the role of the arts in education. “The broader question,” Cranston answered, “is what does art mean to society? A society that does not embrace and nurture art in all forms is not enlightened, and it will eventually wither and die. It’s imperative that the professors and the students have the support of the community. Go out and support local art, and teach these kids to the best of their ability the joy and love of the art. Find some form of art, whatever it is, and immerse yourself in it. Art needs the citizenry to be able to wrap their arms around it in order to maintain this as a society.”