This summer, Bryan Cranston demonstrated why he’s the greatest actor of his generation. And he did it with a single line.
During a Q&A with fans at San Diego Comic-Con’s last July, an audience member from Albuquerque—where AMC’s Breaking Bad, the series that made Cranston a household name, was almost entirely filmed—asked Cranston if he enjoyed his time in the New Mexico city.
“Did you have fun there?” the nervous fan asked.
Without skipping a beat, Cranston replied, “Yeah, I’d go and visit your mother once in a while.”
The audience roared with laughter. Cranston stared back at the stunned fan. And then, with the swagger and sneer of a gangster rapper, he dropped the microphone to the floor.
A video clip of the exchange went viral online, and for good reason. Although he was clearly joking, Cranston had convincing menace. It was the same unblinking stare we recognized from Breaking Bad, when chemistry teacher Walter Walter would transform into Heisenberg, the meth-cooking drug kingpin. It was a fierce, unrepentant expression that said, “I am the one who knocks!”
But there’s also a glimmer of mischievousness in his delivery. It’s a skill he first mastered on Malcolm in the Middle, the long-running Fox series from the early ‘aughts. As Hal, the hapless, fearful-of-everything dad, he endured countless indignities for the sake of comedy. During the series’ six year run, Cranston was covered in thousands of live bees, drank a smoothie made of raw ground meat, and performed roller disco in a skin-tight leotard to Queen’s “We Are the Champions.”
Rarely has an actor lived in both worlds so comfortably. When someone asks, “Remember that brilliant scene that Bryan Cranston did in his tighty-whities?”, it’s not unreasonable to ask, “You mean the laugh-out-loud funny one, or the sad dramatic one?” (Yes, he’s done it twice. Once for Breaking Bad, and once for Malcolm. And both scenes are iconic.)
It’s been a long journey for Cranston. One that, in many ways, began in 1977, during a rainstorm in Virginia.
Cranston was just 21 at the time. He and his older brother Kyle had been on the road for two years. They’d traversed the country, from California to Texas to Florida, just the two of them, with nothing but their respective motorcycles and a desire to escape.
They’d come from a broken home in middle-class Canoga Park, in southern California’s San Fernando Valley. Their father, a struggling actor and former boxer named Joe, had walked out on the family when Bryan was just 11. Their mother, Peggy, was an alcoholic.
They were also running away from their possible futures. Both brothers had joined the LAPD Explorers, an organization for teens who aspired to become cops. Bryan and Kyle were on the cusp of promising careers in law enforcement. But they weren’t ready for that commitment.
They spent two years on the road, essentially homeless, finding work wherever they could. While traveling through Virginia, a heavy rainstorm forced them to seek shelter in a covered picnic area off the Blue Ridge Parkway. They were trapped by the storm for almost a week. They read and played card games and did pushups. And at some point, Cranston began reading Henrik Ibsen’s play “Hedda Gabler.”
Something about the play hit him like lightning. He realized, then and there, that he wanted to be an actor. Not because he was necessarily good at it—he’d done a few school plays, but never to much notice. But in that private moment, alone in the rain, penniless and destitute, he realized that this was his passion.
As it turned out, it was a good decision.
Cranston struggled during much of the 80s and 90s. He had bit-parts in shows like Hill Street Blues, CHiPS, and Baywatch. He did commercials for Atari, JCPenny, Preparation H, and Coffeemate. He did plenty of forgettable or embarrassing projects—his 1994 movie Erotique was described by The Washington Post as “venereal fare”—and occasionally got noticed for shows like Seinfeld, where he played Tim Whatley, the dentist who may have converted to Judaism for the jokes. But then came Malcolm in the Middle and Breaking Bad, and everything changed.
In recent years, Cranston has reinvented himself yet again, this time as a bona fide movie star. His name appears above the title in everything from big-budget monster thrillers like Godzilla to historical dramas like the newly released Trumbo, in which he plays the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who stood up against the House Un-American Activities Committee in the late 40s. There’s already Oscar buzz surrounding his Trumbo performance—which means, thanks to his three Emmys (for Breaking Bad) and Tony (for his Broadway turn as Lyndon B. Johnson, in “All the Way”), he’s in EGOT territory.
We sent Contributing Editor Eric Spitznagel, who last interviewed Stephen Colbert and Jon Hamm for Playboy, to talk with Cranston at a private bungalow in West Hollywood. He reports: “Cranston showed up looking frazzled and exhausted. He’d been up all night, shooting scenes from the film adaptation of his Broadway play, ‘All the Way.’ ‘This is going to be a terrible interview,’ he growled at me. But it didn’t take long for him to warm up. Cranston in seemingly incapable of having a conversation without performing, slipping in and on of characters. His hands are in constant motion, and he’s quick to jump to his feet, acting out what he’s trying to describe, whether it’s his father beating a stunned motorist to a pulp or a U.S. President taking a dump in front of aides. Also, he does a spectacular Donald Trump impression.”
PLAYBOY: How long has it been since Breaking Bad went off the air? Two years?
CRANSTON: A little over two years, yeah.
PLAYBOY: Have we reached a point yet where every conversation about you doesn’t need to begin with Breaking Bad?
CRANSTON: Nope. [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][Laughs.] And I honestly don’t expect that to ever happen.
PLAYBOY: You don’t think you’ll ever do something better than Breaking Bad?
CRANSTON: I may do something I’m as proud of, but I thoroughly expect that Breaking Bad will be the lead line in my obituary.
PLAYBOY: “He was the one who knocked” could very well be on your gravestone.
CRANSTON: Oh yeah, I would love that. I have nothing but love for the show.
PLAYBOY: Do you wish it hadn’t ended?
CRANSTON: Not at all. I don’t miss it all.
CRANSTON: Because I think we so thoroughly examined that character and that experience. I miss the people. I miss being around those actors and writers and directors and crew. I miss that. And I miss Albuquerque.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t you buy a house in Albuquerque?
CRANSTON: I did, yeah. And I still have it. I like New Mexico. It’s a beautiful state with a rich culture, both hispanic and native American. They have a rattlesnake museum in Albuquerque. You can go see rattlesnakes on display and learn about the history of rattlesnakes. I just adore everything about that part of the world.
PLAYBOY: When was the last time you got out there?
CRANSTON: I haven’t been in awhile, cause I’ve been working.
PLAYBOY: So why not sell the house?
CRANSTON: I didn’t feel an urgent need to let it go. I guess it’s my way of mourning. When the show ended, we had to deal not only with the end of this story and these characters, but also an end of the actors seeing each other on a regular basis. We’d become friends, and there were some deeply rooted emotions. So I guess I didn’t want to get rid of the house because that meant admitting it really was over. And also, I leased it to Bob Odenkirk.
CRANSTON: Oh yeah. He needed a place to stay while he shoots Better Call Saul. Bob Odenkirk crawls into my bed every night.
PLAYBOY: If the stories are to be believed, you were something of a prankster on the Breaking Bad set.
CRANSTON: What have you heard?
PLAYBOY: You were always willing to surprise your cast-mates with an unexpected dildo.
CRANSTON: [Laughs.] Well sure. There’s nothing like a dildo to break the tension. I’ve found that to be true in most situations.
PLAYBOY: How many dildos would you say you’ve used in pranks over the years?
CRANSTON: In Breaking Bad or—?
PLAYBOY: In your entire acting career.
CRANSTON: So many that I bought a dildo manufacturing company. Proudly made in America.
PLAYBOY: But seriously, what is it with the dildos?
CRANSTON: I just think they’re funny. And I think it’s important that you examine the tension levels or anxiety levels or exhaustion levels of your cast and crew. Sometimes, a release is exactly what they need to propel them through the rest of the day and get the work done.
PLAYBOY: You go out of your way to make your casts happy. On Godzilla, you brought in an ice cream truck that served Godzilla-themed treats.
CRANSTON: How do you know this?
PLAYBOY: We have our sources.
CRANSTON: I do that kind of stuff all the time. I just think it’s necessary to show a little gratitude. It doesn’t even have to be a big gesture. It can just be an acknowledgement. Like last night, we were shooting this big scene in All the Way, where Johnson wins the 1964 election, and everybody’s gathered at the ranch. All these background players, there are like 150 of them, and they’re all in high heels or hard shoes, standing all night, hopping and hollering and dancing. It’s four, five o’clock in the morning, and we’re doing take after take. To not recognize that, to just take it for granted, would be remiss. So, yeah, I will always make an announcement, and genuinely thank them for their time and energy, and contributing to the story-telling.
PLAYBOY: Your Breaking Bad co-star Aaron Paul said something curious about you to Jimmy Kimmel once. He said, “Any time he can have the opportunity to show me his ass, he does.”
CRANSTON: [Laughs.] I guess that’s true.
PLAYBOY: That’s just to make him laugh?
CRANSTON: Yeah. Like with the dildos, it’s to break the tension.
PLAYBOY: Do you plan it in advance? Or is it a spur-of-the-moment type thing?
CRANSTON: No, it’s a planned thing. The very last shot we did for Breaking Bad—which was a flashback of Aaron and I, cooking meth together—I was wearing an apron. I’m supposed to turn away from him at one point, and I happened to be in sweats. So while they’re setting up the shot, I kind of wiggled out of the sweats. I’m wearing the apron so he doesn’t even notice. But then we start shooting, and I turn around and just flash him my ass.
PLAYBOY: What a touching goodbye.
CRANSTON: It really was. It was the view I wanted to leave him with.
PLAYBOY: What about in Trumbo? Did anyone in that cast see you naked?
CRANSTON: Oh yeah. I’m fully nude in Trumbo.
PLAYBOY: As a prank?
CRANSTON: No, as part of the movie. It was full frontal.
PLAYBOY: Is that a first?
CRANSTON: I think it’s a first. I’m pretty sure.
PLAYBOY: How was it? A little unnerving?
CRANSTON: It can be. But when I talked to (director) Jay Roach about it, we both felt strongly that it had to happen. A lot of people have that nightmare of being naked in public, and being vulnerable. That’s truly what it is, and that’s what we wanted to show. Here’s this brilliant wordsmith and extraordinary writer, a family man and a crusader. And yet, when you take his clothes off, he’s just like any other man.
PLAYBOY: It’s not like a bedroom scene or something.
CRANSTON: Oh no, it’s humiliating, and especially the way, in the scene, that it’s treated. With this dispassionate guard. “Cough, turn around, spread your cheeks, lift your sack and pull it back.” He’s looking for contraband. “Move on!” Everybody’s the same, nobody makes any distinction between any one man.
PLAYBOY: What’s the mood on the set when you’re shooting a nude scene? Is it serious, or are you keeping things light?
CRANSTON: I remember standing there naked with these three other men in a holding cell, waiting for our turn to come forward. We’re being processed into the penal institution. And we’re giving little looks to each other.
PLAYBOY: As part of the scene or—?
CRANSTON: No, just as people. As actors. You may take a glance at what the other guy has, just for comparison.
PLAYBOY: How’d you stack up?
CRANSTON: You’re grateful sometimes, and sometimes a little disappointed. So we’re standing there, naked and quiet. Normally, in this type of situation, you don’t talk much. But I went the opposite way and talked way too much. More than you’re supposed to. It’s a defense mechanism. I think it’s to protect me from embarrassment.
PLAYBOY: What did you say?
CRANSTON: Just the first thing that came to my head. I said, “How ’bout those Saints.” And they looked at me like, “We’re really going to have a conversation?”
PLAYBOY: Nothing wrong with that.
CRANSTON: What’s the big deal, right? Just three guys talking about football.
PLAYBOY: Who happen to all be naked.
CRANSTON: That’s right.
PLAYBOY: Being naked or semi-naked on camera is not exactly new for you. You have a history.
CRANSTON: I was naked a few times in Breaking Bad. And I’ve been in the underwear a lot, for one desired effect or another, either comedic or sad. In All the Way, there’s a scene where I drop trou. Lyndon used to go to the bathroom and (slips into Texas accent) he’d still be in a conversation, and he’d just start taking a shit. People would be backing away, and he’d be (leaning over, pretending to be on a toilet, in full Lyndon Johnson drawl), “What the hell are you saying, get over here!” I went all out with it, just dropped my pants and underwear and sat down on the toilet.
PLAYBOY: In terms of mortifying things you’ve had to do onscreen, nothing comes close to Malcolm in the Middle.
CRANSTON: Yeah, we had some good times on that show. I told Linwood Boomer, who created Malcolm, “I’ll do anything, as long as it makes sense to the story.” I had 30,000 bees on me at one point.
PLAYBOY: Did you get stung?
CRANSTON: Once in my shoulder, and once on my balls.
PLAYBOY: You got stung on the balls? How does that feel?
CRANSTON: Not terrible. In the sense that it was very informative to me. If a bee stung you right now, it’d be (slaps at neck) “What the hell?!” It would be shock and surprise, and it would hurt more because of that. But if you’re standing there with 30,000 bees on you, then if you’re surprised if you get stung, you’re an idiot. When I got stung, it was truly like, [calmly] “Hmm. I think I got stung.” It was that! Then the guy runs over with a credit card to scrap the stinger out.
PLAYBOY: You had a guy for that?
CRANSTON: Oh yeah. You don’t cover an actor with 30,000 bees without having somebody on the production staff who’s on bee duty.
PLAYBOY: And you really took it on the balls?
CRANSTON: The balls, baby.
PLAYBOY: Why did it have to be the balls?
CRANSTON: I guess I turned too fast, and there was a bee up in my inner thigh who was like, “It’s too crowded in here.” So I said to the guy with the credit card, “I got stung.” And he runs over, really enthusiastic, “Where, where?” And I’m like, “On my balls.” And he’s (backs away slowly) “Sorry, man. You’re on your own there. Wish I could help you.”
PLAYBOY: You have a high threshold for embarrassment and abuse. Has it always been that way?
CRANSTON: Absolutely not. Being embarrassed almost made me give up acting.
PLAYBOY: Really? How so?
CRANSTON: One of the first plays I ever did, in elementary school, was called The Time Machine. My brother did the play when he was in fifth grade, and he got cast as Professor Flipnoodle.
PLAYBOY: Professor Flipnoodle!
CRANSTON: That’s right. It’s a big part. I saw him in it, when I was a third grader, and I was like, “Wooow.” Cause he was getting all of this positive attention for it. So when I got to fifth grade, I tried out, and I got cast as Professor Flipnoodle.
PLAYBOY: It’s a legacy role.
CRANSTON: [Laughs.] I guess it was. So this play has an educational component to it. We’re taking a time machine back to different periods in American history. There’s Lincoln in the stovetop hat, and my line was, “Abraham Lincoln will write the Gettysburg address when he returns to the White House.” So, we do all the rehearsals, we’re ready for opening night. Before the show, my friend Jeff Widener—who, by the way, grew up to become a pretty famous photographer. He took that famous picture in Tiananmen Square, of the kid standing in front of the tank.
PLAYBOY: You guys were friends?
CRANSTON: Good friends. So before the play, he says to me—I should preface this by saying that at the time, in southern California at least, there was a ubiquitous department store called White Front. It was as common as Target or Kmart. They were all over the place. So Jeff says to me, “Wouldn’t it be funny if you said White Front instead of White House?” And I laughed, and said, “That would be funny.” He walks away and I’m thinking, Uh-oh, I better not say that.
PLAYBOY: Now it’s in your head.
CRANSTON: That’s right. So I come up with this mantra, to keep myself from saying it. I start repeating in my head, “Don’t say White Front, don’t say White Front, don’t say White Front.” Unfortunately, I didn’t know the tremendous effect of negative reinforcement. So the play starts and of course it’s too long, and the parents are bored stiff. We get to my line, and sure enough, it comes out as “President Abraham Lincoln will finish writing the Gettysburg address when he returns from the White Front.”
PLAYBOY: The audience notices?
CRANSTON: It was an explosion of laughter. I remember seeing a man literally fall out of his seat, he was laughing so hard. I’m ten or eleven. It wasn’t like, hey, you told a funny joke. Oh no, no, they’re laughing at me, because I made a mistake.
PLAYBOY: Were you used to getting laughs for the right reasons?
CRANSTON: Not at all. I was introverted in high school. I was unremarkable. There was nothing special about me. Nothing unique.
PLAYBOY: That’s so hard to believe.
CRANSTON: I was trying to fly under the radar. I had 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. I was reeling from all of it. Because up until 11, it was a good childhood. And then the rug got pulled out from under me. I lost the mother to alcoholism, I lost the father physically, I lost the home. Our house went into foreclosure. So now I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.
PLAYBOY: You thought if you weren’t noticeable, trouble couldn’t find you?
CRANSTON: Exactly. I was too shaken to be assertive. It felt safer to keep my back against the wall, to just observe.
PLAYBOY: How did your dad disappear? Was it one of those “he went out for a pack of cigarettes and never came back” moments?
CRANSTON: No, it wasn’t that dramatic. It was more like being weened. Every day, we saw a little less of him.
PLAYBOY: Where was he going?
CRANSTON: I’m still not sure. There was alcohol abuse and probably some drug abuse. And just abject depression, from never becoming the actor he wanted to become, and whatever fights he was having with our mother. He had a lot of issues. A lot of anger.
PLAYBOY: He was a former boxer. Was he ever violent around you?
CRANSTON: Not towards me, but yeah, I’ve seen him hit three different people in my life. Once when he was driving. My brother and I were in the back seat. Some guy cut him off in a hot rod type of car, and my dad was pissed. He pulls up next to him, starts honking the horn, yelling at him. And the guy shouts back, “What are you going to do about it, old man?” My dad had salt and pepper hair by the time he turned 30, so he looked older than he was. My dad yelled at him, “Turn the corner, I’ll show you!” So they pulled over, behind some stores. My brother and I are in the back seat, terrified, in each other’s clutches. We’re boys, little boys.
PLAYBOY: Holy lord.
CRANSTON: My dad gets out, and the other guy is leaning against his car, being all cool about it. And he’s a big guy. My dad was five ten at his tallest. He walks over to the guy, and slugs him in the face. The guy hit his car and fell to the ground, and there’s blood everywhere. My dad gets back in the car, and he’s like, “It’s okay, it’s okay. Calm down.” And as we’re driving home, he says, “We don’t need to tell you mom about any of this. It’ll just make her worried.”
PLAYBOY: That is crazy.
CRANSTON: It really was crazy. And these kinds of things happened before he left, when I wasn’t even 11 years old yet.
PLAYBOY: You finally reconnected with him when you were in your early 20s?
CRANSTON: Yeah. We tried to talk about the past, why he disappeared on us. But he wasn’t interested in talking about it. He’s of that generation, that just likes to forget the past. “It was a bad time,” he’d say. We kept trying, my brother and I, but we eventually realized he’d gone as far as he was willing or capable to go. So that was it.
PLAYBOY: Have you forgiven him?
CRANSTON: To a point. I think so. [Long pause.] My father passed away last year, in October. He was 90. The night before he died, he found a scrap of paper, and he scribbled out in his shaky handwriting, “The best part of my life is when my children forgive me for the worst part of my life.”
PLAYBOY: Did that surprise you?
CRANSTON: No, I knew he felt that way.
PLAYBOY: But were you surprised that he wrote that for you?
CRANSTON: He didn’t share it. We found that. I think he wrote it recently, because it was out. It wasn’t in a drawer somewhere, it was out. He knew the end was coming. He was feeling so awful. He died of congestive heart failure. He was in a bad place. I think he knew it was going to happen.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t you base Walter White on him?
CRANSTON: The physicality of him, yeah. My dad had Walter’s body shape. He carried the burden of missed opportunities on his shoulders, and therefore they’re rounded.
PLAYBOY: Did your dad know?
CRANSTON: Yeah, I think I told him a couple times. And it wasn’t insulting, because he’s 30 years older than me. I wanted Walter to have the body of a man who’s much older than him.
PLAYBOY: Did your dad watch Breaking Bad?
CRANSTON: He did.
PLAYBOY: And he liked it?
CRANSTON: He loved the show, and was very complimentary.
PLAYBOY: There was no professional jealousy?
CRANSTON: Not really. He was born in the 20s, and he became an actor during a creative period which was much more presentational. TV shows were more escapist. Even the drama tended to veer towards melodrama.
PLAYBOY: So he never looked at Breaking Bad and thought, “That could have been me?”
CRANSTON: No. It was a different time, with different circumstances. He did some great stuff, though. I remember he was in this movie in the late 50s called Beginning of the End, which was about enormous grasshoppers that attack Chicago.
PLAYBOY: Sounds like a classic.
CRANSTON: I still remember everything about his scene. He’s an army guy on the roof with binoculars, looking out for the grasshoppers, and we see these gigantic antlers rising slowly behind him. And then it’s got him, and he’s, “Argggggggh, arrgggghhh!!”
PLAYBOY: Isn’t it kind of ironic that you got the fame and adulation he always wanted as an actor, but you did it by not following his example, by not chasing fame?
CRANSTON: I guess it is a little ironic. But I really think it’s true, that if you want something too much, it stays away. I was never a person giving an acceptance speech in the shower. That wasn’t me. And I think what broke my father’s spirit was how much he really did want stardom. That was always what my disgruntled, heartbroken mother talked about when she discussed our dad. He wanted to be a star, he always had to be a star. You either hit it big or what’s the point?
PLAYBOY: You never felt that way?
CRANSTON: I wanted to be a working actor. That is still, to this day, my highest professional achievement. From the age 26 on, that’s all I’ve done for a living. And that means a lot to me.
PLAYBOY: You gave yourself that goal during a cross-country motorcycle trip when you were in your early 20s.
CRANSTON: That’s right. That’s where I realized it. But at the time, it was mostly about running away. I didn’t want to stay and fight for something I wasn’t sure I wanted.
PLAYBOY: You were on the verge of becoming a police officer, right?
CRANSTON: I had taken the police science courses in junior college, and was doing well, and was going to transfer to a university before going into the LAPD. That was the plan. My brother was pretty much in the same position. He passed all his tests. He was very close to being an Orange County sheriff. And all he needed to do was to literally go down and pick up his badge and his gun.
PLAYBOY: But you both changed your minds?
CRANSTON: We just had doubts. And it’s interesting, because I think the great majority of people don’t.
PLAYBOY: Don’t have doubts?
CRANSTON: I think if they have a talent, there are friends or relatives or whoever that give them affirmation. They’re like, “Yeah, you’re good at that. You’re good at roofing. You could make good money as a roofer.” And they just fall into it.
PLAYBOY: They don’t realize they’re making a decision for the rest of their life.
CRANSTON: I think people kid themselves, and they’re like, “Okay, I’m going to do roofing for five years. Save some money, and then I’ll quit and go right into making music full time.” And what happens 15 years later?
PLAYBOY: They’re still a roofer.
CRANSTON: And then they’re like, “I’ve still got time. I’m in my mid-30s. It’s fine, I’m good. This is the new plan.” But then 20 years have gone by, and they’re 45 or 50, and they’re like, “I’m a roofer. I guess that’s who I am.”
PLAYBOY: So what you’re saying is, young people should get on a motorcycle and ride around the country for two years to figure out what they really want to do with their lives?
CRANSTON: I don’t think that’s a bad idea.
PLAYBOY: You left home with how much money?
CRANSTON: I had $170 in my pocket. That was it.
PLAYBOY: How long did you think that was gonna last?
CRANSTON: It didn’t matter. We knew we could get jobs in coffee shops and carnivals. We could pick up jobs that paid in cash. “You want to work? Sure. Rake those leaves and I’ll give you $50. You can sleep in the barn.” Okay, thanks man.
PLAYBOY: That sounds dangerous.
CRANSTON: No, it’s terribly exciting.
PLAYBOY: We’re sure it’s exciting. But, “sleep in the barn”? That’s how people end up disappearing.
CRANSTON: Well I suppose. You’re safer in numbers, and I was always with my brother. We depended on each other.
PLAYBOY: The carnival thing is a little freaky.
CRANSTON: Why? I’d worked at carnivals when I was 12 years old.
PLAYBOY: Not you didn’t!
CRANSTON: I absolutely did. I worked one of the booths. We called them “joints.” I had a joint with the balloons. You threw darts at the balloons, and if you hit one you got a prize. The guy I worked for, his name was Ace.
PLAYBOY: Of course his name was Ace.
CRANSTON: Of course, right? It had to be Ace. Anything but Ace wouldn’t make sense.
PLAYBOY: So your boss is Ace.
CRANSTON: And he was kind of a crook. He was embezzling from whoever owned the carnival. The owners showed up one day, looking for Ace. And he was long gone. They were pissed, and they got even more pissed when they realized that he’d left a 12 year old, and my brother—he was working there too—a 14 year old in charge of the booths. We didn’t understand why.
PLAYBOY: Is this something you’d recommend for your daughter?
CRANSTON: Working at a carnival?
PLAYBOY: Escaping. Driving around the country with no money and no plan.
CRANSTON: Absolutely. And she did it, in her own way. When she was in her junior year of college, she went abroad for half a year to study. She blossomed over there. You have some structure, but you’re in a foreign country. She went to Berlin and Prague and Scotland and Budapest. That was exactly what she needed to do.
PLAYBOY: Just hit the road with no plan?
CRANSTON: Go with girlfriends or boyfriends, and get lost. Figure things out. Go to youth hostels. Count your money out, share it, figure out what’s fair, and how to keep each other safe, and explore everything. Grow up! Figure things out.
PLAYBOY: See what you’re made of.
CRANSTON: My daughter’s generation, unfortunately, was raised with this world of instant gratification and immediate information. It’s not to their advantage in many ways. When I was a kid, I remember being in the back seat of my parents car, and I’m just bored.
PLAYBOY: No cellphones, no Tablets, no DVD players.
CRANSTON: None of that. And you’re like, “Arrrghhhh.” You feel like you could literally die of boredom. You either fall asleep or your brain kicks in and you start seeing these shapes in the clouds. Or you come up with stories in your head. It’s the mother of invention. You need to entertain yourself. And when you let these little electronic devices create that entertainment for you, you lose something.
PLAYBOY: What will a generation raised on iPhones and Tablets be like as adults?
CRANSTON: I think we’re going to have a generation where imagination isn’t valued. For the artists, they will have less competition. Because there will be less true imaginative people in the world. There’ll be more workers, more followers, more watchers, more information-driven people as opposed to substantive-driven. In this culture now, we are more informed. But that doesn’t mean you’re wise. We’re less wise, more informed.
PLAYBOY: There was a moment during your motorcycle trip, when you and your brother were trapped in a rainstorm.
CRANSTON: In Virginia, yeah.
PLAYBOY: You were reading Hedda Gabler, and you had a moment of revelation. This is what you want to do with your life. This is where your passion was.
CRANSTON: That was it.
PLAYBOY: Fast forward to a few years later, and you’re doing Preparation H commercials. You’re getting paid to say things like “inflamed hemorrhoidal tissue” and “oxygen action.” This isn’t what you wanted to do.
CRANSTON: It is what I wanted to do.
PLAYBOY: But it wasn’t a Henrik Ibsen play. Or any other play. It wasn’t immersing yourself in a complex character. It wasn’t the vision of your future you had, daydreaming in a Virginia rainstorm.
CRANSTON: It wasn’t not the vision though. My goal was to make a living as an actor. That’s all I wanted. I wanted to be able to say, “This is my profession. It’s what I do as a living.” I’m very pragmatic. I don’t fool myself. I’m not delusional. When I was doing a lot of commercials, back in the early 80s. I welcomed it, because it was doing several things for me. It was giving me the money I needed for rent, for acting classes, for headshots. It was creating a foundation for my health coverage, and was contributing to my pension. It meant that I didn’t have to look for a civilian job.
PLAYBOY: That’s an amazingly mature way to think about it.
CRANSTON: Is it?
PLAYBOY: Not every struggling actor would feel lucky to do hemorrhoid commercials. They’d be like, “I’d an artist! What am I doing this shit?
CRANSTON: You don’t get to be creative with everything. These commercials, they were perfunctory. You’re here to deliver a task. You’re here to do something specific and sell this product. If you can find some iota of creativity to infuse in this message, then great. But don’t be disappointed if you can’t.
PLAYBOY: Does it feel fortuitous that you didn’t get any real attention as an actor until you were in your late 40s, early 50s?
CRANSTON: It happened the way it should. It would have been very different for me if I’d been thrust into the limelight when I was in my 20s. It was better to wait for it. And to be able to recognize how much luck was involved. I got lucky. That’s the one thing I always say to young actors. A career in the arts will not happen without a healthy dose of luck.
PLAYBOY: You are living proof of that. You got cast as Buzz Aldrin, in the HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon, just because the original actor was too fat for the spacesuit.
CRANSTON: That’s right. [Executive producer] Tom Hanks called me up and said “Are you still skinny?” I got the role just because of that.
PLAYBOY: You have to be ready for the opportunities.
CRANSTON: That’s exactly it. You can’t plot for that. You just have to be open to luck when it happens. You have to be good and you have to be persistent and you have to be patient.
PLAYBOY: Do you believe in fate?
CRANSTON: I do.
PLAYBOY: So it’s not entirely in your control?
CRANSTON: I think it’s kind of a combination. Fate is one half luck and one half determination.
PLAYBOY: What about true love? You’ve been married to you wife, actress Robin Dearden, since 1989. Does a marriage work because two people are meant to be together, or because they work their asses off to make it work?
CRANSTON: I don’t believe in either one of those. I’m somewhere in the middle. It is conditional. Love for a child, that is unconditional. I will always love my child. I may not like the decisions she makes, but I will always love her. I would die for my child. I would die for my wife, too. But it’s conditional.
PLAYBOY: How is it conditional?
CRANSTON: It’s conditional for both of us. If I found out she had this secret life as a prostitute, or if she found out that I do in fact murder people, yeah, I think that’s a deal breaker. But we don’t work our asses off to keep the marriage going. I think if you have to really work, work, work at it, there might be something systemically wrong with the marriage. There’s got to be some ease.
PLAYBOY: Do you believe in love at first sight?
CRANSTON: I don’t know if that’s always the case. But I certainly had that with Robin.
PLAYBOY: You met her on a job, right?
CRANSTON: Yeah. We were doing a TV show called Airwolf. With Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernest Borgnine and a helicopter. It was a terrible show, but I’m grateful for it. Because I met my future wife there, and that was twenty… God, that was almost thirty years ago.
PLAYBOY: Did you have any scenes with her?
CRANSTON: She was one of my kidnap victims. I threatened to kill her. I said, “Date me or I put a bullet in your head.” No, no, I said my lines. But that’s what my character’s internal plot arc was. “Get this girl’s phone number.”
PLAYBOY: You’ve rarely talked publicly about your relationship with Robin, but you shared something really sweet about her with the blog Humans of New York.
CRANSTON: Oh god, what did I say?
PLAYBOY: You told them that your favorite thing about her is “She still gets giddy when she sees a firefly.”
CRANSTON: That’s true. She sees a firefly and she’s like a child. It’s mystical and magical. She’s well past middle age, but she still retains a sense of girl-like wonder. I love that about her. I loooove that about her. She has never lost that sense of wonder and joy at the simple things. She’ll see a sunset, or a dolphin swimming by, and she’ll be like “Look, look, look, look!” (Claps hands.) It may seem a bit saccharine, perhaps. But when you’re living with a person like that every day, it’s an upper. That lifts me up.
PLAYBOY: Was that what you first noticed about her on Airwolf? Her child-like wonder? Was that the reason you were drawn to her?
CRANSTON: No, I just wanted to bang her.
CRANSTON: What? I’m being honest.
PLAYBOY: No, no, that was sweet, in a weird way.
CRANSTON: I was a young guy and she was hot, and I wanted to take her clothes off. We’ll have time to discover all the other stuff later. After the banging.
PLAYBOY: That’s how guys operate.
CRANSTON: That’s right. It starts with “Wow, she’s hot.”
PLAYBOY: You start at the boobs.
CRANSTON: It starts there! Right? We’re simple beings. Women are so clearly the superior sex. Men are simple people. You put food in front of us, we’ll eat it. You show us cleavage, you’ve got our attention. If I see a woman scratching her leg, and she pulls up on her shirt in just the right way, and you catch a glimpse of her calf muscle, oh my god, you just lose your mind. You see the smoothness of it. I’m powerless against that.
PLAYBOY: You’re going to be a great dirty old man.
CRANSTON: Absolutely. What I love and appreciate about my wife is that she still takes really good care of herself. And I’m still very sexually attracted to her. She has beautiful legs, an amazing body. I truly appreciate that. I think she wishes it was reciprocal. [Laughs.]
PLAYBOY: You don’t return the favor?
CRANSTON: Well look at this. [Grabs his belly, jiggles it.] I gained 15 pounds to play Lyndon Johnson. I’m not padded, that’s really me.
PLAYBOY: And Robin doesn’t appreciate that?
CRANSTON: She looks at my stomach, and she’s like [big sigh] “Boy. That’s, uh… That’s not very good.” I just pat my belly and say, “This is work, Robin. This is my investment. This is how important my work is to me. Okay? More cheesecake, please!”
PLAYBOY: But you’re not being flip. You are doing it for work.
CRANSTON: Exactly! Will you talk to her? Robin and I were talking about another project I’m considering, another movie, and she said, “You know, in that movie, I think the character would be in great shape, don’t you?” [Laughs.] And I was like, “I think you may be right.”
PLAYBOY: During your Emmy acceptance speech last year, you said that acting is something you’ll be doing “till your last breath.” Do you still feel that way?
CRANSTON: Well, my daughter always tells me, “You’re never going to stop acting.” But I don’t know. My mother died of Alzheimer’s. If I ever struggle to remember lines or get confused about what’s happening in a shoot, like if I can’t remember the names of the other characters, that might be enough to make me stop. The minute it stops being fun, I’m out.
PLAYBOY: Even if you’re still being offered work?
CRANSTON: That’s not what matters. It needs to be fun. It needs to be challenging. As I get older, I’m less interested in material things. I don’t want to do something just for a paycheck anymore. I’m more interested in new experiences. I don’t want to retire.
PLAYBOY: Would you rather go out like Redd Foxx?
CRANSTON: [Laughs.] Just drop dead in the middle of a rehearsal?
PLAYBOY: People think you’re doing a bit.
CRANSTON: Or maybe like Dick Shawn.
PLAYBOY: How did he go?
CRANSTON: On stage. I think he was in San Diego. The story I heard was that he was doing a stage show, and one of his bits was pretending to be a politician, and he said something like, “If elected, I will not lay down on the job.” And he had a heart attack, and he fell down. And the audience is laughing, like “Oh my god, that is so funny!” And they just sat there and watched him lying on the stage for several minutes. The dark irony is that maybe he could have been saved if anybody had gotten to him earlier. [Laughs.]
PLAYBOY: It still sounds better than dying in bed.
CRANSTON: Oh yeah, absolutely. That’s no way to go. I’d rather be on stage. Yeah, I could be okay with that. If you have to leave, that’s the way to do it.
PLAYBOY: Would you do another Broadway play? Maybe a one-man show?
CRANSTON: I’ve thought about it. All the Way came close, but that wasn’t a one-man show. I might be tempted, if it was the right person, the right subject. If the man was extraordinary.
PLAYBOY: Maybe Donald Trump?
CRANSTON: Yes, he’s fascinating. What a man. The things he says. [Does a perfect Donald Trump impersonation.] “I love women. Look at my wife, she’s hot, she’s super hot. And I imagine some Mexican women are pretty, too. Some of them. When they’re not being criminals.”
PLAYBOY: You’re joking, but that’s not far off from what he actually says.
CRANSTON: It’s just insane! The way he brags about being rich. Why would he do that? Why would he tell the world how much money he has? What is he lacking?
CRANSTON: [Laughs.] Okay, we all have our guesses. But for him to need to tell the world, “I’m very, very rich. I’m extremely rich. Look, here’s my financials. Here’s how rich I am.” It’s like, oh my god. It’s certainly narcissistic. Even people who like his policies must be able to say, “Well sure, there’s narcissism flowing through his veins.”
PLAYBOY: Is he hiding something, do you think?
CRANSTON: See, that’s why it’s fascinating to me. As an actor, we have to be students in human psychology. And Trump, it’s so obvious that underneath that veneer of protection, the man who needs to spew and tell people how much money he has, there’s a volcano of complicated emotions going on underneath.
PLAYBOY: Could you ever see yourself getting into politics?
CRANSTON: I could, actually. I’m a closeted politician in my heart. I would love to be involved in politics, just for the altruistic feeling of making people’s lives better. I know realistically that it’s never that easy. Politics is about compromise and bureaucracy and it’s kind of sticky and murky. It’s no longer about “I’m going to devote four years to my country or my municipality and then go back to being a farmer.” Now it’s a career. People’s egos are wrapped up in it, and there’s a tremendous amount of money involved. It’s hard to sustain the purity of the concept.
PLAYBOY: So why do you still entertain the idea?
CRANSTON: Because I’m fascinated by it. I think at some point in my life, if I stop acting and I’m living in a little community, like a town of 700 people—nothing as big as Los Angeles—I might throw my hat in the ring and become a candidate for mayor.
PLAYBOY: Give us a taste of your political platform. If you ran for office, would Fox News endorse you?
CRANSTON: [Laughs.] I’d be too small potatoes for them. We’re talking a small town, not a major city. And that town, if I became mayor, well… [Long pause as he considers it.] First of all, prostitution is legal. Pot is legal. Tax it all. Have a surplus.
PLAYBOY: You’d legalize prostitution?
CRANSTON: Without hesitation.
PLAYBOY: Have you ever had sex with a prostitute?
CRANSTON: Just once. I lost my virginity to a prostitute in Austria. I was 16.
PLAYBOY: Was it a good experience, bad experience?
CRANSTON: Fantastic experience. The sex was horrible in retrospective. Of course at the time, I had no comparison. So it’s like, “Wow! That was amazing! Nobody in human history has had sex as well as we just had sex.” But then you grow up and mature, and you’re like, “Oh wait, no, that was terrible sex. Now I get it! This is what sex is supposed to be like.”
PLAYBOY: So you’d open up legal whorehouses in your town?
CRANSTON: Sure. We’d use the money to take care of the homeless and pay for the schools. But I wouldn’t throw it in families’ faces. You don’t put the whorehouse in the mall, next to the yogurt shop. There would be areas—keep that stuff far, far away from children.
PLAYBOY: What about gay rights?
CRANSTON: Equality, man. It’s all about equality. These people freaking out about gay marriages. What the hell difference does that make? It’s tough enough finding love. So you’re in love with another guy. What do I care? Anybody who thinks gay marriage is a threat to their own marriage is fooling themselves.
PLAYBOY: The people who oppose it seem to think that homosexuality is a choice.
CRANSTON: That’s ridiculous. Anyone with even a modicum of understanding of their own desires knows that’s ridiculous. Your desires are there from birth, and that’s who you are. I would be a terrible gay man. Because I’ve just infatuated with every little nook and cranny of a woman.
PLAYBOY: The idea that those desires could be changed….
CRANSTON: Is just ludicrous! “Pray out the gay.” Oh come on! You love what you love. Just let everyone love what they love. There are simple rules. The only exceptions are, no children. Ever.
PLAYBOY: And no animals.
CRANSTON: Right, right. Other than that, have at it. Do what makes you happy.
PLAYBOY: So when you run for mayor, it’s all about personal freedom.
CRANSTON: Yeah. I’m a pure libertarian, I guess. As long as you’re not hurting anybody, you should be left alone.
PLAYBOY: When does the campaign begin?
CRANSTON: [Laughs.] Oh, there’s a ways to go before I get there. First I have to convince myself that I really want to do it. Because seriously, why would I do that to myself? Why would I willingly put myself through the bureaucracy of politics?
PLAYBOY: It’s a little masochistic.
CRANSTON: It’s completely masochistic. It’s awful. But there is something also very Pollyanna-esque about it. Because to put yourself through that, you need to have this strong, naive belief that you can make a difference. You’re the guy who says, “Don’t you think we could make that better?” I guess that’s why I would rather do local politics. Something on a small, small scale.
PLAYBOY: You don’t want to be the next Governor Schwarzenegger?
CRANSTON: Never. Not at all. Because then it’s too machine oriented, and you lose the intimacy. But a small town…
PLAYBOY: You still own that house in Albuquerque, right?
CRANSTON: That’s true, I do. Maybe I’ll run for mayor someday.
PLAYBOY: Odenkirk is living there, that’s one vote.
CRANSTON: It’s funny, every time I’ve even entertained this idea, I remember that I couldn’t do any of it without talking to my wife about it. And I can already see her reaction. She’s just going to shake her head and say, “You’re out of your mind.”
PLAYBOY: “Can’t you go back to getting fat for movie roles?”
CRANSTON: [Laughs.] Right? That’s at least a little less traumatic.
PLAYBOY: Does she like living in LA, or would she rather be in some secluded ranch home in Montana?
CRANSTON: She’s not a ranch girl. Not in the least. We were both raised in southern California. Although I wouldn’t mind not being in Los Angeles. I’ve been here for many, many years. The density of it is not very conducive to harmony, at least for me.
PLAYBOY: Would you describe yourself as mostly happy?
CRANSTON: I would, yes. Why, do I seem unhappy?
PLAYBOY: No, but sometimes the more brilliant the actor, the bigger their demons. Guys like Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Williams, they seemed happy from the outside.
CRANSTON: I sometimes wonder. Not whether I’m clinically depressed, but why I work so hard. I’ve never worked more in my life. I have more opportunities now than I ever have, and I’m able to pick and choose, but I just want it all. I want to experience it all. I’m getting better at saying no. I hear about something and I go, “What’s that about? I should try that.”
PLAYBOY: Didn’t you dabble in Scientology?
CRANSTON: That was back in the 80s. I had a friend who was a Scientologist. He recommended a class, and I was like, “Fine, I’ll go check it out.” It was at one of the Scientology centers in LA, I think in the Valley. It was pretty good; a communications class, I think. So I took one more class, I forget what it was about. They wanted me to continue, obviously, but I was like, “Nah, I got what I needed. Thanks!”
PLAYBOY: You got the gist of it?
CRANSTON: Yeah, I got the basic idea. It was helpful, actually. And then I was okay, “Okay, I tried that. What’s next?” I think I tried Est after that.
PLAYBOY: You’re Scientology’s worst nightmare.
CRANSTON: I just don’t have an addictive personality. I’m more interested in what else there is to learn. What’s next? Transcendental meditation? Tantric yoga? Oh, I want to try that!
PLAYBOY: So you really don’t have any demons?
CRANSTON: I have demons. I have anger issues. I have abandonment issues. I’m working through that. Running helps a lot. I like to run. It’s a way to expel the tension and anxiety and toxicity, whether physical or emotional.
PLAYBOY: Is that your way of chasing away demons?
CRANSTON: [Laughs.] I don’t chase my demons. They chase me.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the December 2015 issue of Playboy magazine.)