Yesterday, I came across a profile of Bryan Cranston in The New Yorker. And I thought this part was pretty cool, detailing the strategy he used to get the most out of seemingly thankless roles.
As he was often the last person cast on a show or film, his strategy was to play the opposite of what the ensemble already had. Drama is conflict, after all. When he auditioned for the father on “Malcolm in the Middle,” the Fox sitcom about a crew of unruly brothers, he knew that the boys’ mother was bombastic, fearless, and insightful, so he played the father as gentle, timid, and obtuse. “It was a genius way to make an underwritten part work,” Linwood Boomer, the show’s creator, says. “By the third episode, we realized we had to do a lot more writing for the guy.”
Now that he’s better known, he has a new formula for picking roles.
In his trailer, Cranston told me that when he trumpeted a few recent offers to his wife the skeptical tilt of her head made him realize that he’d been indiscriminate. He wanted to carve out time to pursue a deal he’d made with Sony Television to produce his own shows, and also wanted to pick roles that forced him to stretch. “You never want to repeat yourself,” he told me. “Otherwise, it’s just”—he named a well-known actor—“doing his thing.” He leaped to his feet, raised an imaginary pistol, and shouted, “Get down! Bam, bam, bam, bam, bam!,” followed by “Because right now you’re safest with me!” and “He’s my son!” He shrugged. “You can write the dialogue before you see the film.”
So he’d constructed a grid in blue ballpoint: the Cranston Project Assessment Scale. On the left were rankings from Very Good to Poor, and across the top, in decreasing order of importance, were Story, Script, Role, Director, and Cast. A very good story was worth ten points, a very good cast only two. Story and script count the most, he said, because “an actor can only raise the level of bad writing by a grade. C writing, and I don’t care if you’re Meryl Streep—you can only raise it to a B.” After factoring in bonus points (high salary = +1; significant time away from family = –3), he’d pass on a project that scored less than 16 points, consider one from 16 to 20, accept one from 21 to 25, and accept with alacrity one from 26 to 32. “ ‘Argo’ was a twenty-eight,” he explained, showing his addition. “Ben was a three as a director—he was ‘good’—and now he’s a four, ‘Argo’ says. ‘Godzilla’ was a twenty, on the high end of ‘consider.’ I was dubious, but when I read the script I was surprised—you care about these people, and you’ve got Godzilla.”
The article was written just before the final episodes of Breaking Bad were aired, so it does contain some spoilers.