Bryan Cranston revisits the era of the Hollywood blacklist

By Helen Barlow

Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo.
Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo.

When an actor plays a cult character like Walter White, the chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer in the hit series like Breaking Bad, it's a hard thing to live down. So that when Bryan Cranston enters the room to promote his portrayal of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, "Got any drugs?" is probably the last thing he wants to hear. Still the 59-year-old multiple Emmy winner is used to it and sniggers "I might be able to set you up with some!"

Genial, straight-postured and looking far younger than hunched over Walter, Cranston faced having to chainsmoke his way through his depiction of Trumbo, the 1950's black-listed Hollywood screenwriter.

"I thought that smoking was really part of who he was and what killed him eventually. It's what created that raspy voice and the affectation of the cigarette holder really makes a statement. So I thought I'd smoke herbal cigarettes so I wouldn't have any nicotine going in and I'd be fine. But I was still ingesting smoke and I was like oh my God! It was awful, awful!"

Cranston though enjoyed the wild eccentricity of Trumbo, a Communist sympathiser who defied the 1950s ban imposed on him by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to write the screenplays for Roman Holiday, Spartacus and Exodus under pseudonyms. Trumbo couldn't claim credit when he won Oscars for Roman Holiday and The Brave One and for a period was driven into poverty and spent 11 months in prison.

"He went to jail not because he committed a crime but because he didn't respond in a way the committee wanted him to," Cranston explains. Incredibly we have heard little about the man, until now as seasoned comedy director Jay Roach (the Austin Powers trilogy, Meet the Parents and its sequel) gives the writer his due. Cranston wanted that all-important first leading role after his hit series to be special and his portrayal as Hollywood's unsung hero fits the bill. He has been nominated for best actor in the Golden Globes and by the Screen Actor's Guild for his efforts.

"It's a sweet little movie which has a really important message and that's what captured my attention," he says. "When I first read it I thought this is about embracing someone else's opinion you may not agree with. We're living with that now, regarding sexual orientation or whatever, there are social issues that will always come up that we may not personally agree with but that's not the point. The point is allowing that other person to have a voice and as Trumbo says to John Wayne, 'We both have the right to be wrong'." Wayne, Edward G. Robinson and a surprisingly gutsy Kirk Douglas (played by Dean O'Gorman) all played prominent roles in Trumbo's life as did Hedda Hopper, the powerful right wing gossip columnist who is depicted by Helen Mirren. "Trumbo joined the American Communist Party but the truth is he was not a Communist, he was a socialist," says Cranston. "He loved being rich. But he didn't know how to handle money. He'd give it away or he'd spend it. He loved the newest typewriter, 'I need it, the newest car let's get it, let's buy a ranch, let's build a lake'. He had big thoughts, big ideas and big debt."

One of the film's most enduring and curious images is of him writing in the bathtub. "He had a bad back from abusing himself for so long. He thought, 'I've got to soak my back so I can continue writing but I don't want to waste that time'. So that's why he set up the whole thing so he could soak his back and work. He was still smoking and answering the phone."

Trumbo's workaholism is something. Cranston recognises in himself. "I work hard and I work a lot. His real interest was the work and I'm a bit like that." They are also big family men. Trumbo adored his daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) as Cranston dotes on his daughter, Taylor, 22, his only child with his actress wife Robin Dearden whom he met on the 80s series Airwolf. "I love seeing my family together and enjoying things-but I don't have a lake," he quips.

The seemingly cool Californian speaks little about his early life, because it was tough. In a recent issue of Playboy he explained how he was an introvert in school due to a "bad situation at home".

"'My father disappeared when I was 11, and I didn't see him again until I was 22. My mother was an alcoholic." He said his father Joe was an aspiring actor and former amateur boxer who died in October 2014.

Cranston is aware of the recognition that Breaking Bad has brought him. "In an airport I mainly look for older people and sit by them. They have less of an opportunity of recognising me." Despite probably this one and only drawback, Breaking Bad created a huge range of opportunities for the actor.

"I greatly appreciate that," he says of his film roles in the likes of Argo, Godzilla, Rock of Ages, Total Recall, Contagion and Drive. He is not keen to return to play Walter White. If he were ever to revisit a television character it would be Hal from Malcolm in the Middle, the series he appeared in over seven seasons that wrapped a decade ago.

"It would be fun to play that adorable, sweet and clueless guy who is afraid of everything," he says. Cranston has two upcoming films with James Franco, In Dubious Battle, which Franco directed, and the studio comedy Why Him? where the older actor forms a bitter rivalry with his daughter's young rich boyfriend, played by Franco. "James is a good guy and is easy to work with," Cranston says. So too apparently is Roach, who directs Cranston in the HBO television movie All the Way where the actor reprises his 2014 Tony-award winning role as President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Who: Bryan Cranston
What: Trumbo
When and where opens: Boxing Day

- TimeOut

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