NEW YORK — Bryan Cranston doesn’t need to chase paychecks anymore. His salary for Breaking Bad wasn’t exactly at drug kingpin levels, but he’s secure.
So now what? Now it gets interesting.
“I don’t need work — I don’t need to work ever again,” the actor says. “So the choices that I make now should all be things that I think are either fun or important or challenging.”
Cranston’s next move has all of that: He’s making his Broadway debut in a role far from Walter White — playing former President Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way.
Cranston plays Johnson during his first year in office following the assassination of John F. Kennedy and explores both his fight for re-election and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“I like to think that I’m well cast for this role. He was a complicated man,” Cranston says. “You only make your Broadway debut once and I’m encouraged that I hitched my wagon to a really well-written play.”
No matter how well-written, a three-hour play about the political maneuverings of an irascible president 50 years ago might not be considered serious box office catnip. Cranston changes that.
“Boy, I planned that well, didn’t I?” jokes playwright Robert Schenkkan, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his epic The Kentucky Cycle.
In fact, Schenkkan planned none of it. The role of Johnson was originally handled by actor Jack Willis when it debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012. Cranston jumped aboard last fall when the play next went to the American Repertory Theater outside Boston, just as Breaking Bad was wrapping up and Cranston’s star was streaking.
“If you can’t be smart, be lucky,” Schenkkan says.
The role requires Cranston to be bullying, insecure, charming, charismatic, ruthless, and scary. Cranston has shown all that in a career that has gone from goofy comedy in Malcolm in the Middle to ferocious drama in Breaking Bad.
“That’s who LBJ was — he was charming and witty and incredibly funny, a great raconteur, the life of the party. And also violent and vile and cruel and utterly terrible,” Schenkkan says. “I don’t write with an actor in mind, but if I had, Bryan Cranston would have been at the head of the list.”
The addition of three-time Emmy Award-winning Cranston has made the play more commercially viable but hasn’t apparently alienated the rest of the actors.
James Eckhouse, best known as Jim Walsh on the original Beverly Hills, 90210 and now playing the roles of Robert McNamara and James Eastland, calls Cranston “an actor’s actor.”
“I don’t think Bryan ever made stardom his business,” Eckhouse says. “He does not forget where he comes from. He’s an actor first and foremost. He works harder than anybody you’ve ever seen.”
Bill Rauch, the artistic director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, who directs All the Way, says attracting Cranston was certainly useful to gin up excitement but he hasn’t been a diva.
“Bryan is a brilliant actor who brings his ferocity, his emotional intelligence, his passion, his heart to bear on the role,” Rauch says. “He really is a true member of the company and a leader of the company. There’s no sense that the star is separate from the rest of the cast.”