Film News

How Bryan Cranston Picks His Roles: Remove Salary from the Equation

Hal. Walter White. LBJ. Dalton Trumbo. Cohaagen.

Okay. That last one’s from the 2012 Total Recall remake, and accepting that part might not have been the best decision. Even with that, Bryan Cranston has led a very interesting career, working hard to establish himself as one thing and then working equally hard to play against type and surprise us. He followed Breaking Bad up with a surprise turn as LBJ on Broadway, and now he’s back in the Hollywood Black List drama Trumbo playing a legendary screenwriter who was unjustly victimized by the great Red Scare of the 1950s. Somehwere in-between there he played the dad on Godzilla, and lent his voice to the R-rated Crackle animated series SuperMansion. So, it’s a natural question to ask the guy who played the avuncular dad on Malcolm in the Middle and the meth-king Walter White on Breaking Bad: How do you decide which roles to play?

It turns out that the answer is simple: He has a ratings system, and salary is not among the variables he considers. It really pays to have been on one TV show for seven seasons and another for five. That gives you the built-up financial security to take the projects which interest you, not the ones which help pay for that second summer home in the Bahamas. He explained his system in a recent interview with Kim Masters on KCRW’s The Business:

I developed a system to determine what it is I would like to do. I call it the CAPS-Cranston Assessment Project System. I give a numerical value to, first and foremost, the written word. That doesn’t always hold up. I have found that you can start with a very good story, and perhaps the script itself doesn’t fully realize the potential of that story. Or vice versa, you can have a great script, but, “It’s kind of clever, but why am I not enjoying this more? What is it trying to say?” Or you can have a great character, but in a story that’s not as great. It has to hit on a high level on story, script and character, and then we go director and cast. The variables that are not involved with that are money. I care about money, but it never weighs into whether I accept a project or not. Of course, my agents really care [about the money]. The last variable I consider is time away from family.

In the case of Trumbo, you could assume that maybe it scored low on the director’s criteria in his assessment since Jay Roach was attached to direct, and he’s most known for directing comedies like the Austin Powers movies, Campaign and Meet the Parents.  However, Cranston saw a director who made comedies which work exceptionally well for what they are, and he also saw a director who had expanded his horizons by making the politically-tinged HBO movies Recount and Game Change.  Plus, there’s no substitute for feeling a director out in a one-on-one meeting and getting a sense of their passion and intelligence.  As Cranston explained, “Primarily, it’s when you get together with someone, and you get a sense of how they work. Roach is very unassuming, and he’s not an absolutist. He doesn’t beat his chest and scream, “I’m in charge here,” which I’m always kind of leery of. I always look for a relationship that would welcome collaboration.”

And now Cranston and Roach have not only made Trumbo together but also the LBJ HBO Original Movie, which will presumably air sometime next year.

Cranston’s assessment system is obviously not foolproof, or else he wouldn’t have ended up in John Carter, Total Recall, Red Tails and Rock of Ages. Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter to him that all of those movies bombed because at this point he can focus on picking the things that interest him.  Maybe it was a lot of fun playing the bad guy and beating up Colin Farrell in Total Recall, or playing Catherine Zeta-Jones’ husband in Rock of Ages.  Good for him.

Lesson of the day: Try and get on a long-running TV show, and then save as much of your money as you can and live every actor’s dream of getting to pick the projects (movies, shows, plays) which inspire you.  How hard can that be, right?

Source: KCRW’s The Business


    1. In the interview I quoted, Cranston actually talked about that period between Malcolm and Breaking Bad, revealing that he turned several projects which seemed perfect for him. He had his pick of other sitcoms in which he would have played a version of Hal, but because he had made so much money in those 7 seasons on Malcolm he was free to pick something against type instead of taking something just for the money. So, he was able to lay low and just do a couple of things before Breaking Bad came along, which he says was the type of script you read and know that it’s going to change your life (if you’re lucky enough to be cast in it, of course).

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