He was born to play Walter White. But also Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Having earned three Emmys and a Golden Globe for playing Walter White in Breaking Bad, an Oscar nomination for his title turn in Trumbo and a Tony Award for portraying President Lyndon Baines Johnson in All the Way on Broadway, Bryan Cranston may need to make room on his mantle for another trophy for reprising his stage role in the TV adaptation of All the Way, premiering this Saturday on HBO (8/7 c).
The film, which Cranston executive produced, begins with Johnson assuming the presidency after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 and follows LBJ as he navigates party politics, the Vietnam conflict and civil rights issues, including his complex relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. (Anthony Mackie).
Below, Cranston reveals what it took to become LBJ, how the president compares to Walter White and whether there’s another TV series in his future.
“Within four days of taking on the biggest job in the world, this man sat down and wrote to two children. That told me a lot about the nature of the man.”
Why did you want to bring All the Way to TV?
I felt that it was such a great story and such a wonderful experience for me to do it onstage. But theater is theater, and in the six months that we were performing it, we could now reach millions more and tell this important story by way of HBO. So it wasn’t a difficult decision.
How did you approach it? What kind of research did you initially do?
You do have an added responsibility, from an actor’s standpoint, when you’re playing a nonfictional character. Fortunately for me, there was a plethora of source material and biographies by many different people. You start cracking the books and talking to many people who were willing to consult with me.
And going down to the Johnson Library a couple times and being able to spend six, seven hours at a time by myself looking around. We got the full backstage tour of the [LBJ] ranch—saw the home quarters and bedrooms, the place where he passed away. He was frightfully afraid that he was going to die of a heart attack and sure enough, he did. It was amazing being able to go to the ranch and the library.
The second time I was at the library I saw something I missed the first time. There was a letter from Jackie Kennedy to LBJ, dated four days after Kennedy’s assassination, thanking him for writing letters to her children about their father. Within four days of taking on the most pressure‑packed responsibility of the biggest job in the world, this man sat down and wrote to two children when he had all these other things that he needed to pay attention to. And not just that, but how he felt emotionally about stepping into those shoes spoke to me. That told me a lot about the nature of the man and the thoughtfulness and compassion that he had.
Are there any parallels between Walter White and LBJ?
I suppose you can find similar qualities in any two people. I think ambition is certainly one. In Walter White it was more blind ambition. He didn’t know where he was going. All he knew was where he was running away from. LBJ was a machine. He only thought about and read books on politics. He didn’t care about sports, theater, music. He didn’t know about anything, only politics.
And he knew it really well, backwards and forwards. He studied spouse names and children’s names, so if you came into his office and he wanted something from you, it was, “How’s Marjorie doing, is she feeling better? Are the twins still playing ball?” And then he’d move in and tell you what he wanted and all of a sudden you’re in his back pocket. And you’re going to do what he wants because he’s put the Johnson treatment to you.
“I love good story, so if the good story is on television, I would definitely consider it.”
Was getting LBJ’s look right important to you?
We had a lot of discussions about how extensive should we go with the makeup, and we decided to go full‑on and go as close as we can. Fortunately, my own natural physical makeup is what every man searches for—beady eyes and thin lips. That’s what I share with LBJ. It was about two hours and 15 minutes every day to get into the makeup. And also we had lifts in my shoes and little pieces to pull my ears out a little bit.
I did my own makeup for the stage play, and I didn’t have the expertise to be able to do the prosthetics. So I had little ear-drops that I put on that were flesh colored, and then I painted that in, put some gray in my hair and slicked it back. I had pictures of him around my dressing room, both doing this film and on Broadway, almost like you’re checking in with the character, seeking approval of some sort, going, “Am I doing you justice?” because I feel a sense of responsibility to the history and the essence of the character.
Did Breaking Bad raise the bar so high that you’d never consider doing another series?
I gave myself a three-year moratorium for doing a series-regular kind of thing because what happened with Breaking Bad and Walter White was it was like a snowball effect that became an avalanche, and I realized I had to step away from it and get out of its way as opposed to trying to dismantle or harness it. I love good story, so if the good story is on television, I would definitely consider it.
Photos courtesy of HBO