‘Breaking Bad’ star Bryan Cranston steps into LBJ’s shoes on Broadway

May 3, 2014 at 2:20 PM EDT
Actor Bryan Cranston is best known for his role on the hit AMC drama, "Breaking Bad." But today he plays President Lyndon B. Johnson in the Broadway show, "All the Way." In a candid interview, NewsHour's Jeffrey Brown sits down with Cranston to discuss the actor's transition from portraying the chemistry teacher turned drug lord, Walter White, to an American president in his first year in office.

BRYAN CRANSTON AS LBJ: This is the most important election of your lifetime. And the choices couldn’t be clearer.

JEFFREY BROWN: Lyndon Johnson: ambitious, impatient, tortured and troubled in a million different ways…all captured by actor Bryan Cranston.

BRYAN CRANSTON AS LBJ: ….him and the rest of his Harvard Blue Bloods would look down their noses at me like I was some kind of country bumpkin!

BRYAN CRANSTON: In three hours you see him go through a myriad of emotions. It’s rare to be able to have a character of that scope. I’m grateful for it.

BRYAN CRANSTON AS LBJ: This ain’t about the Constitution! This is about those who got more wantin’ to hang on to what they got.

JEFFREY BROWN: The play, called “All the Way,” opened on Broadway in March. Written by Pulitzer-Prize-winning playwright Robert Schenkkan, it’s a look back at the year 1964: President Johnson’s first year in office after the assassination of John F. Kennedy. A tumultuous time for the presidency and the entire nation.

BRYAN CRANSTON AS LBJ: We got people in this country living in unbelievable poverty. I know, I grew up like that in the Hill Country.

JEFFREY BROWN: I saw you last night, and I saw this character, you know, neck out, shoulders up.

BRYAN CRANSTON: That was my version of LBJ. I mean, it really is a version of him. Because you don’t wanna try to take on the character specifically in the sense that – to do an impersonation. I just want to get the sense of who he is. And allow that character to just be absorbed into me, you know. And so I’m able to then let him loose onstage.

CLIP/BREAKING BAD: The methylamine keeps flowing no matter what.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now 58, Cranston of course, is best-known for his role on the hit AMC drama, “Breaking Bad.” He grew up in Los Angeles. His parents were both actors… but he first thought about becoming a cop. He started taking acting classes in his twenties, and soon began landing commercials…

CLIP/COMMERCIAL: Now you can relieve inflamed hemmorhoidal tissue with the oxygen action of Prepration H.

JEFFREY BROWN: And small roles on TV.

CLIP/MATLOCK: Mr. Matlock, I don’t have much money.

JEFFREY BROWN: He played a dentist with an off-color sense of humor in “Seinfeld.”

His nearly-seven-year stint on “Malcolm in the Middle” as the kooky father increased his profile.

But it was the wildly-praised and popular show “Breaking Bad” that finally made Cranston a major star.

CLIP/BREAKING BAD: – Say my name.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before the show ended its six-year run last September, Cranston won three Emmys for his role as Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned meth cook and violent drug lord.

CLIP/BREAKING BAD: I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger.

JEFFREY BROWN: Being– so identified with one character, that can be a double-edged sword, can’t it, in terms of–


JEFFREY BROWN: Sort of narrow casting you, everybody sees you as that one character.

BRYAN CRANSTON: Well, it can if you succumb to that kind of, you know, easy out.

When Malcolm in the Middle ended after seven years I was offered two pilots for TV that were fun goofy dads. And of course I turned them down. But it was a surprising to those people who offered it. Because they felt I was perfect for it.

And I went, “I’m not going to help you put me in a box.”

BRYAN CRANSTON AS LBJ: Now, where do you suppose this came from?

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s why Cranston chose this latest role — it’s his first time on Broadway — and a chance to take on a multi-dimensional character caught up in the tide of history.

Cranston said he prepared for the role by visiting Johnson’s presidential library in Austin and reading from the many books written on him.

He also listened to some of the former president’s recorded phone conversations.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON (recording): Now you and I are buddies now, and you understand politics and I do too, and I’m telling you that we’re working with the Republicans up there 100%.

ALBERT THOMAS (recording): Well, I’m on your side.

LYNDON B. JOHNSON (recording): Well alright, well you just don’t ever agree that’s a good clause, ‘cause you know goddamn well it ain’t.

BRYAN CRANSTON AS LBJ: I’m gonna resign. Let somebody else deal with it.

LADY BIRD JOHNSON: No, you are not.


LADY BIRD JOHNSON: No, you are not going to resign.

BRYAN CRANSTON: You never knew which LBJ you were going to get when you walked into the Oval Office that day.

BRYAN CRANSTON AS LBJ: But god, did I love those kids of mine.

BRYAN CRANSTON: You just didn’t know. He could be high. He could be low. He could be angry. He could be happy. You know, and you had to just deal with it.

BRYAN CRANSTON AS LBJ: What you think of this civil rights bill of mine?

JEFFREY BROWN: Much of the play focuses on the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — part of Johnson’s legacy of legislative achievement that’s being remembered and celebrated now, 50 years later…and before he was worn down and, for many, tarnished by the Vietnam War.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you feel yourself part of that looking back at the legacy and therefore some responsibility to– to telling that history?

BRYAN CRANSTON: Well, there’s a certain amount of ownership that happens when you– when you take on a character. You absorb as much source material as you possibly can. It’s like you’re making a bouquet. You’re taking bits and pieces from each material that resonate with you. And you’re crafting your own LBJ or whomever that character would be.

JEFFREY BROWN: That resonates with you in some way.


JEFFREY BROWN: What does that mean?

BRYAN CRANSTON: Well, knowing that I physically have to be up on that stage and presenting this text, as it were– you– you take bits and pieces of– of information that makes sense to you. That– that make you realize, “Oh, there’s interesting things.”

For instance, in– I don’t even know where I read it. But– he had a standing appointment to get a massage every night at the White House. He called it a rubdown. He’d get himself a rubdown. And that informed a couple of things. I said, “I– he must have been tightly wound.” And so—I– I gave him– a back issue– in the play.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, the physical transformation Cranston goes through is striking: back bent, shoulders hunched, face scrunched, as Johnson cajoles, sweet-talks and threatens legislators to get his way: the famous “Johnson treatment” — as here with his future vice president, Hubert Humphrey.

BRYAN CRANSTON AS LBJ: This is about votes! That’s the problem with you liberals . You don’t know how to fight. You wanta get something done in the real world, Hubert, you’re gonna have to get your hands wet. You call yourself the leader of the Liberal wing of the Democratic Party? Then show me some goddamn leadership!

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re doin’ that, you know, towering o– lookin’ down, is that fun to do?

BRYAN CRANSTON: It’s a lotta fun to do.


BRYAN CRANSTON: Sure. Anytime a man could– boastfully be intimidating, you know, that’s– that’s fun to do.

BRYAN CRANSTON: Well, I’ll lean into you a little bit now– I say, “Now–” First time I’d say somethin’ like, “How’s your wife?” And I would– I would remember her name.

JEFFREY BROWN: That– that’s right.

BRYAN CRANSTON: “I’d say, how is she—she doin’ fine? She’s such a pretty lady. You’re a lucky, lucky man.” And I’d get you to go–

JEFFREY BROWN: I’m smiling, I’m happy.

BRYAN CRANSTON: Now look! Now we need to be able to get this done now. Don’t disappoint me. And we– you know, and all of a sudden–

JEFFREY BROWN: And I’m saying, “Yes, sir, yes, sir,” about anything.

BRYAN CRANSTON: Because I hook you in. He was uncanny with his political savvy.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cranston says he’s grateful for the stardom that now gives him the ability to pick and choose his roles … and the money to live well.

But, he also comes off as very un-LBJ or Walter White-like – an un-tortured soul who is happy to have built a life-long career doing exactly what he wants.

JEFFREY BROWN: Did you have times along the way where you thought maybe this isn’t gonna happen the way I had hoped?


JEFFREY BROWN: You didn’t?

BRYAN CRANSTON: No, because my goals weren’t to be a star. It’s still not. My goal was not to be famous.

By the time I was 25, I started working exclusively as an actor. And I’m 58 now. And that’s all I’ve done since I was 25 years old. And that’s my proudest moment is that I can say that I’m a working actor. I make my living as an actor. And that’s it. Now whatever happens, happens.

BRYAN CRANSTON AS LBJ: A march into a bright future. Or a retreat into a dark past.

JEFFREY BROWN: What happens next for Bryan Cranston? Well, “All the Way” runs through the end of June. He’s writing a memoir, due out next year. And he plays a scientist in the new movie “Godzilla.” That opens May 16.