You know him as Heisenberg and as the guy who broke the convention of your normal stasis TV character taking Walter White from an innocent chemistry teacher and over the course of five seasons transforming him to an undeniable concoction of badness – to the bone – and yet with a slither of heart.
In his book ‘A life in parts’ Bryan Cranston goes through his trials and tribulations of becoming an actor and shares with us some golden nuggets of what he’s learnt from his journey of being an actor.
But, you don’t have to be an actor to understand that most of his methods can be translated into any work of life and not necessarily just in the entertainment field.
Here are some of the key lessons that he’d like to share with you:
Actors are storytellers. And storytelling is the essential human art. It’s how we understand who we are. Its discipline and repetition and failure and perseverance and dumb luck and blind faith and devotion. It’s showing up when you don’t feel like it, when you’re exhausted and you think you can’t go on. Transcendent moments come when you’ve laid the groundwork and you’re open to the moment. They happen when you do the work. In the end, it’s all about the work.
After reading the play Hedda Gabler, he had a feeling about what it is he should do with his life. He knew at that moment that he was going to become an actor.
‘I conjured a credo that would guide me for the rest of my life: I will pursue something that I love – and hopefully become good at it, instead of pursuing something that I’m good at – but don’t love.’
When you first start out in the business, you have to expend a lot of energy. Hustling isn’t complicated. How much energy you put out dictates how much heat you generate. I decided to be a furnace. I felt the hotter I could get, the higher the odds of something catching fire. I did psychotherapy. I did improv and stand up comedy solely for the purpose of conquering my fears. If I became too enthralled with one approach, one way of thinking, I knew it was time to move on.
I enrolled in a bunch of acting classes and I soaked up everything I could. I guarded against becoming a great ‘classroom actor.’ Whenever I felt I was one of the best actors in a class, I left to find another one where I wasn’t.
Writing, meditation, yoga, acting – it’s about letting go. You can teach someone how to drive a car or throw a fastball, but it’s hard to teach someone to let go. The best teacher is experience. Find the educational in every situation.
Cranston worked at various jobs to make ends meet while pursuing his acting career. One of his jobs, was work on a cement slab – a dock – loading and unloading trucks on a ten hour graveyard shift. Being screamed at by foremen tell him to PICK IT UP, PICK IT UP, LETS’ GO!
Covered from head to toe with swirling dirt and cardboard dust during his shift, beneath all his protective gear he was elsewhere. They got his body but he wasn’t going to let them get him or his soul. Brian says that he thinks if he hadn’t been absolutely determined to be an actor, he wouldn’t have made it through. But he was determined. He kept saying to himself: One day I will be able to call myself and actor. Not a part-time actor, but a real actor. One day. One day. One day.
He would fantasise: there I am driving onto a studio lot; there’s me breaking down the beats of a scene on stage. He was cold and he was getting yelled at, and the energy of many of the guys was dark energy.
Most of those guys hated their jobs and it was so easy to be sucked into that despair. But he wouldn’t allow that to come inside. It wasn’t welcome. He wasn’t going to let them clutter his brain. He had something real to hold on to.
While waiting for acting work Brian opened up his mind to work in film productions as well and one of his jobs was an assistant SFX guy on the film Alligator starring Robert Forster who back then was a genuine star. By chance Bryan ended up being in the same ride to another part of the set with Robert who engaged with him in conversation after Robert kindly introduced himself and shook Bryan’s hand. They spoke at length and Robert used Bryan’s name in a sentence and he seemed genuinely interested and made Bryan feel as though his job had real value. Bryan realised that’s a great quality in a person: making someone else feel valued – even if that someone is currently on the bottom rung.
Thirty or so years later Bryan had the pleasure of working with Robert once again on Breaking Bad and noticed how he never once developed a sense of entitlement throughout his career as an actor even when he met him first time on that Alligator film. Robert was always pleased to be working on his craft even though his current roles were much smaller than before, he seemed to enjoy every minute of it.
DO A RICHARD
When Bryan finally managed to get an agent he got a call telling him about a Mars candy bar commercial audition coming up and that the actor was required to rappel off a huge rock. During the audition Bryan told of his experiences mountain climbing and rappelling experience when he never actually did any of that. Mountain climbing was, in fact, one of a few recreational activities that he had no desire to do. The casting director set up a callback but said to all the prospects that the client would need to see them actually rappelling off a three story office building and how did they feel about that. Most of the actors in the room hesitated whereas Bryan said ‘Cool, let’s do it now!’ He knew that they weren’t set up for rappelling at that time – so it was an easy, hollow boast.
Since the callback was arranged to happen within a couple of weeks Bryan looked for an instructor for basic climbing with emphasis on rappelling. He found one to give him a crash course for the day.
on his first go at rappelling Bryan was so nervous and scared that he had an intestinal emergency and had to excuse himself to go and relieve himself in private.
After a few rounds of rappelling he eventually got the hang of it and shrieked with joy like a child in a bouncy castle. With overcoming the fear factor he was able to move with abandon and enjoy the experience.
When he got the callback he had the chance to show them what he’d learned. Set up against four other actors he beat them all to a pulp and convinced the director and producer of the commercial that he was their man. Two weeks later he was told that they’d shoot the commercial at the exact same spot where he first struggled with his confidence and lost his bowels.
Richard Branson says ‘If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say Yes – then learn how to do it later.’
Taking acting classes taught by a venerable acting teacher Bryan was told to drill down on a scene for months and months and polish it to perfection. Bryan got weary of that and left soon after. What he did learn was the value in letting the imperfection of the work be okay. The imperfect is your paradise. You don’t want to drill away every shred of spontaneity and freshness. You have to leave room for discovery.
The whole business of acting is a confidence game. If you believe it, they’ll believe it. If you don’t believe it, neither will they. Actors will not get hired, not because they are untalented, but because they haven’t yet come to the place where they trust themselves, so how can a director trust they’ll be able to do the job with a sense of ease? Confidence is king.
Actors are like athletes in that sense. They have to want to be the one to step up to the plate when the game is on the line. They have to have an arrogance about them. Not in public or in their private lives, but when they work. Actors have to have that drive, that instinct that says: this role is mine.
BE ON THEIR RADAR
To keep in mind of the casting agents Bryan would send post cards and alert them of his up coming roles, even if they were minor ones. Watch Bryan Cranston in Matlock this week! Don’t miss Bryan Cranston’s guest turn as Tom Logan in Baywatch! Tune in to Amazon Women on the Moon for a special treat: Bryan Cranston stars as Paramedic #3. He knew 99 percent wouldn’t watch but they would see his name. They would see his face. And they would get the message, even if only on a subliminal level. This guy works a lot.
Whenever young actors ask Bryan for advice, he always tells them: get your house in order. Your relationships, your health, your personal life: that’s your foundation. If your home life is sane, it allows you to go insane in your work.
The great acting guru Constantin Stanislavski said, ‘Love art in yourself, not yourself in art.’ Try to live by that. Work, hone your craft, enjoy your successes in whatever doses they may come. But do not fall in love with the poster, the image of you in a movie, winning an Oscar, the perks, the limo, being rich and famous. If that is what you’re falling in love with, you’re doomed to fail. Fall in love with creative expression and the surprising discoveries and empowerment it can bring. Be wary of the rest.
Talent alone doesn’t cut it. If you want to be a successful actor, mental toughness is essential. Lay your whole self-worth on getting the role, on the illusion of validation, before long you’re left angry, resentful and jealous. You’re doomed.
Rejection is part of that living. Bottom line is that sometimes they are simply not going to want you. And if they do want you, they may fire you. Or they say with what seems like sincerity ‘Let’s keep talking’ and then never call you back. Or they tell your agent, in a polite way, that you sucked. Or that you’re great. ‘Wow! Fantastic! Really. He’s perfect for this. We’ll be in touch.’ And then… crickets. There are a lot of crickets in this business so learn to deal with them.
Early in his career Bryan was always hustling, doing commercials, guest starring, auditioning like crazy and was making a decent living but at one point he felt he was stuck and wondered whether he’d plateaued. He took a private course with a self help guy who suggested that he focus on process rather than outcome. He wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. He wasn’t going to compete with the other guys.
He was going to give something.
He wasn’t there to get a job. He was there to do a job. Simple as that. He was there to givea performance. If he attached to the outcome, he was setting himself up to expect, and thus to fail. His job was to focus on character. His job was to be interesting. His job was to be compelling. Take some chances. Serve the text. Enjoy the process.
There wasn’t going to be predicting or manipulating, no thinking of the outcome. Outcome was irrelevant. He couldn’t afford any longer to approach his work as a means to an end.
Once he made the switch, he was no longer a supplicant. He had power in any room he walked into. Which meant he could relax. He was free.
When he was asked to play a doctor in a TV show similar to Grey’s Anatomy the script wasn’t up to scratch. And in Bryan’s words quite shallow. Over the years, he’d developed a philosophy, a way of choosing projects: Follow the well-written word and it will not fail you. Good writing is everything to an actor. Give Meryl Streep C-level material, and even at the top of her game, the best you can hope for is she elevates it to a B. Mere mortals might be able to stretch it to a C+.
Bryan was after the role of Walter White in Breaking bad. After reading the script in one sitting he knew he had to play that role. Great characterisation, complex plots, nuanced story elements, surprises that left you thinking: what on earth is going to happen next? For him the script wasn’t just about a chemistry teacher going through change. Chemistry is the study of change. That’s all of life. It’s the constant. It’s the cycle. It’s solution and then dissolution over and over and over. Transformation. Reformation.
Building a character is like building a house. Without a solid foundation, a base, you’re screwed. You’re going to collapse. An actor needs a core quality or essence for a character. Everything rises from there.
Bryan had a hard time figuring out Walt’s character. He couldn’t find a way in. Sometimes that happens when you first approach a role. A character is outside of you. And then you go to your actor’s palette – which is comprised of personal experience, research, talent, and imagination – and the base begins.
Bryan kept asking questions of the writer in order to research Walt’s character further and build from there. What you’re not given as an actor you must provide. So you start filing in the blanks and that leads you to the why of it all – the character’s foundation.
Once the character appears to you, everything else can blossom. Everything else becomes clear. The character is no longer outside. He’s within. Even when it comes to what the character will wear or eat becomes evidently clear.
Character is both formed and revealed when we are tested, when we are forced to make decisions under pressure. That test can either make us stronger or it can highlight our weaknesses and crack us into pieces.
Some actors come into work and wait to be told what to do. These actors can do well. But Bryan is not that kind of actor. He has a finite time on earth. He’s not interested in coasting through it. He wants to be fully invested. An invested actor asks questions that may punch holes in the story or highlight contradictions in a character the writers many not have considered. Asking those questions might mean having to rethink a beat in the script or redo the blocking. It might mean more work. And that might upset people momentarily. But in the end Bryan would rather do more work and get it right and give the finished product a richness and resonance that will last.
GOOD TO FAIL
Bryan would always let his daughter figure things out for herself, even when she got into trouble. When something moderately bad happened outwardly he was always saying: ‘Oh, honey, I’m sorry.’ Inwardly he was shouting: Yes!
You’ve got to fail, or risk failure, to learn to succeed. You’ve got to be hungry. The job of a parent is to console the failure but nurture the hunger. That’s how you create independence in children, give them the tools they need to be functioning adults.
Always be encouraged to wander, to feel it’s okay not to know exactly where you are. Figuring it out builds confidence. Get lost every once in a while. It’s okay to be afraid. Being afraid can actually be a sign you’re doing something worthwhile. If you’re considering a role and it makes you nervous and you can’t stop thinking about it – that’s often a good indication you’re onto something important.
You run tremendous risk of getting complacent if you don’t keep looking for changes. You should never be too at ease on stage. Get too rehearsed, too relaxed, you lose focus and slip into autopilot, and then you’re not listening. Someone could drop a line and you have to work out of that problem and react to it.
Some actors panic; some assimilate mistakes and correct course. If you’re paying attention, if you’re present, more often than not you can rise to the occasion.
If every night you sip your drink on exactly the same line, your consciousness will pop out of your body. You’ll be a casual observer of yourself, going through the motions. Once that happens, you’re dead. You’re a robot. Every performance needs to have its intimacy, its difference.
TRUST THE PROCESS
Bryan was up for playing the role of Lyndon Baines Johnson in the stage play All The Way.The play would run for nearly three hours and Bryan would be offstage for about fifteen minutes in total. So he dove into the research, read, studied and devoured everything that he could about the 37th president that he neglected to actually spend time learning his lines for the play. He was so consumed by the role and the research that he was looking at it objectively, not from a logical, elbow-grease, what’s it going to take perspective. Looking for a deeper understanding of the story, the man, not thinking about memorising the lines.
Then he realised he has four weeks, four weeks before his first appearance in front of an audience on stage. Holy shit! He thought, what had he done? Or more appropriately, what had he not done? His part was so big, and he had so little time. The amount of dialogue he had to memorise was mind boggling. Do the work, he told himself. Just do the work. There are no shortcuts for doing the work.
But soon he started to feel that the amount of work he had to do would soon crush him since there was just too much to memorise and stuff into his brain.
After a week he had serious doubts about whether he was going to be able to pull it off. And his uncertainty affected everything he did, it even affected him physically. He thought: I have to be in a place where my body can support this effort, this stress so at every meal he sat with the script. Every night, homework. Seven days a week he worked. He needed every minute.
After the second week he was feeling desperate and asked for a meeting with the director and writer who told him not to worry and that he’s in great shape and to keep going.
So, he kept going, willing himself out of bed. Sit ups, push ups and more push ups. A run every other day. Oatmeal and then into the play. He’d spend the entire day at the theatre memorising and then back home, at dinner, he’d eat and read more sections of the play. He’d go to sleep with the play on his chest and wake up with pages scattered all over his bed.
‘I don’t think I can do this’ he said to his wife – Robin. They were nearing the end of the second week and he still felt as if he was adrift at sea.
‘You can do it.’ He was doubting but he heard no quaver of uncertainty in his wife’s voice.
Trust the process. It’s amazing what the brain will allow you to do. You open your brains and fill it with words, and close it and let it rest. And then the next day you’ll be able to stretch and fill it with more.
By the end of the second week, he was feeling his sanity at risk. He was having the classic actor’s nightmare. Being on stage, doing the play, and then – blank. Not remembering his lines. Feeling naked, defenseless.
Bill, Bryan’s long time friend said, ‘Here’s the bottom line. Come the first night of previews, you will be on that stage. You will perform. So work backward. Trust that you’ll get there. Don’t stop working. We won’t stop working. We’ll get you there.’
Bryan just had to trust the people around him and the process and keep working. Never stop working.
With one week to go, the play suddenly began to open up. It began to come to him. Everything he’d done in his life seemed to have prepared him for this moment.
On opening night Brian stood in the wings as the audience got settled and then for the lights to cut to black which was his cue. On stage centre, right in front of the audience, that empty seat was his. Two weeks earlier it looked like an electric chair but now on opening night, it looked like a throne.
Standing in the hushed darkness he smiled. Ah, that’s why he went through this. The monastic life, The doubt. The work. The pain. It was all part of it. It was all so he could have this feeling. It was so he could live this moment.
He took three deep breaths and then relaxed and let it go.
And then he went to take his place… on his throne.