Bryan Cranston first decided to be an actor just a few miles away from the University of Virginia, on the beautiful Blue Ridge Parkway.
Four decades later, Cranston – now 61 and an award-winning actor best known for playing drug kingpin Walter White in the hit TV series “Breaking Bad” – will return to Virginia and take the stage Sunday at John Paul Jones Arena for the annual UVA President’s Speaker Series for the Arts. Along with “Breaking Bad” producer and UVA alumnus Mark Johnson, Cranston will discuss his career and the impact of the arts.
Recounting that long-ago epiphany in his new memoir, “A Life in Parts,” Cranston wrote of a cross-country motorcycle trip with his older brother, undertaken as he debated pursuing an acting career. The brothers were stranded in a tiny shelter during six days of pouring rain, with limited rations and plenty of time to think.
“As I lay there drifting off, I had a feeling. It cast out any shred of ambivalence about what I should do with my life, how I should be,” Cranston wrote. “I knew at that moment, lying inside a sleeping bag in a pup tent under a shelter on the Blue Ridge Parkway in Virginia: I was going to become an actor.”
It was a prescient moment. Though “Breaking Bad” catapulted him to new levels of international fame, Cranston has delivered several other iconic performances during his 40-plus-year career. He regaled viewers as Hal, the hapless dad on “Malcolm in the Middle,” jokey dentist Dr. Tim Whatley on “Seinfeld,” and, more recently, impressed audiences as President Lyndon B. Johnson in the play, “All the Way.” He has been nominated for an Academy Award and won Emmy, Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Tony awards. His memoir – detailing everything from his hardscrabble childhood to his time on “Breaking Bad” – is a New York Times bestseller, and he is currently producing an Amazon series, “Sneaky Pete,” and promoting the new “Power Rangers” movie, in which he plays the rangers’ mentor, Zordon.
Speaking with UVA Today before traveling to Grounds, Cranston said that the art of storytelling is at the heart of every project he pursues.
“The first thing I look for is story,” the actor said. “It’s all about story, and I think the people I will be speaking to this weekend in Virginia will be people who love to be told stories, who love to be involved in good stories.”
Below, Cranston shares more about that long-ago, “a-ha” moment in Virginia, his career choices and his advice for aspiring artists.
Q. Tell us about that epiphany on the Blue Ridge Parkway. What went through your mind and how did it change your life?
A. It was momentous in my life. I was 19 years old, right in the midst of figuring out who I was and what I wanted. I don’t think I would have had the same experience in a car. On a motorcycle, there are certain conditions, like rain, that you have to be concerned about. We had found this little park shelter, and there was no one else there for six days. It never stopped raining.
There is something about confinement that makes a person reflect, and I had the epiphany that a career is more than just pursuing something you may be good at it; it’s about pursuing something that you love to do. For me, that was the distinction.
Q. Though the characters you have portrayed are very different, each of them has quirky, complex and often unexpected personalities. What draws you to these characters and how do you choose your roles?
A. A few of us – a fortunate few – are able to become storytellers. For me, choosing my characters is an extension of the story. Is it an important story? Is it thrilling and compelling? Does it make a statement? Does it resonate with me and stay with me after I read it? If the story and the writing are solid, I look at the character. Is the character germane to the plot? Is it something I can see myself doing? Does it scare me a bit? If it does, that’s often a good sign.
Q. You’ve had to do some pretty crazy things in the name of acting, whether rappelling down a building for a commercial or wearing a “suit of bees” as Hal on “Malcolm in the Middle.” What have been some of the most memorable stunts you pulled off?
A. On “Malcolm in the Middle,” the conditions were right for those kinds of stunts, because of the nature of the character and the genre of comedy. There were tremendous opportunities to be naked and covered in blue paint, strapped to the front of a bus, covered with bees, hung upside down, or any number of other things. I didn’t want to do anything that wasn’t part of the story, just for the sake of doing a stunt. But I’m willing to go wherever the storytellers want me to go.
Q. Has it been difficult to shake off the persona of Walter White, who was such a morally ambiguous character?
A. No, it hasn’t affected me. Human beings are filled with idiosyncrasies and characteristics that are both positive and negative. In a dramatization, you accentuate those, but it still has to be believable and honest. There has to be a verisimilitude in the performance and the show itself, and that is what people bought into with “Breaking Bad.”
After the show, I gave myself a three-year moratorium on television and went into theater instead. I was able to step away and do other things, and that opened up new opportunities.
Q. What types of roles are you most interested in now?
A. I’m interested in anything that excites me. I’m no different than any other human being in the sense that our first recollection is dragging a book to our parent’s lap and saying, “Tell me a story.” Everyone still wants to be told a story, whether they are 2 or 102. I’ll ask myself if I want to be part of the storytelling, and if the answer is yes, then I’ll jump in. I feel very lucky that I am able to do that.
Q. Discussing your early acting career, you wrote, “Whenever I felt I was one of the best actors in a class, I left to find another one where I wasn’t.” How did that approach benefit you, and what other advice do you have for UVA students as they pursue various career paths?
A. For me, I would say think about what empowers you. Figure out what makes you feel powerful, strong, accomplished, loved and respected. What makes you feel those great things? You could find that in your personal life – in your marriage, in being a parent, in charity work, in your religion – or in the arts or athletics or any number of other things. Find the thing that empowers you and pursue that. If you do it that way, you can’t guarantee happiness, but it is the pursuit of happiness that is important.
I’m really looking forward to talking to everyone at UVA. For me, it’s not an obligation or a task. I really feel a need to be able to guide the next generation as best I can.