Bryan Cranston has dog videos on his phone, at the ready. His current favorite is a clip of a golden retriever that nestles her tiny puppy against her chest, covering its head with her paw for protection. “Look at that dog,” Cranston sighs. “Isn’t that so cute?”
The actor is backstage at the National Theatre in London, nearing the end of a lengthy production of “Network,” in which he plays Howard Beale, the news anchor who is so mad he’s not going to take it any more. Cranston, who recently said farewell to his own longtime canine friend Sugar, is here because he wants to feel empowered by his work.
He hopes to create something that matters, whether it’s personal or political. He’s also ready to leave “Breaking Bad” behind, which he’s doing both in his Olivier Award-nominated turn in “Network” and as the voice of a gruff dog in Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated hit “Isle of Dogs.”
“[‘Breaking Bad’] is the reason I’m onstage in London now,” Cranston says. “I have no delusions about that. I know that’s the reason I was onstage on Broadway — because of the success of ‘Breaking Bad.’ And that’s wonderful. I will always look back on those six years with nothing but utter joy and gratefulness. But I don’t want to live in the past. So it was time for me to move on and go into a different medium that can hopefully help wash away the Walter White of it all and carve out new identities.”
In “Isle of Dogs,” that new identity is a scrappy, road-hardened mutt named Chief, one of the creatures that inhabits a futuristic garbage pile island in Japan where dogs have been exiled. Chief is the leader of the pack, a true Alpha dog, but there’s also more to him that meets the eye.
Cranston had no idea who he was meant to play when he agreed to be part of the film, which features Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton and Bob Balaban as fellow dogs.
“The first three words from my agent were all that I needed to say yes and that was ‘Wes Anderson wants…’” Cranston laughs. “Because he’s such a beautiful auteur in his work, in his artistry, very eclectic, very individualistic and visionary. His stories are all really around family and identity and where one belongs or doesn’t belong and the search for that. That’s humankind, isn’t it? So when this came up, it was, ‘Yes, I’ll read anything he has.’”
Anderson thought of Cranston, whom he calls “one of the greatest living actors on the planet,” for a few key reasons. “[It was] his voice, for starters,” the director says of casting the actor as Chief. “He can speak in a growl. But, anyway, if you have seen ‘Breaking Bad,’ then you have seen an actor cross the most vast panorama of emotions within a single character.”
Cranston recorded Chief’s lines in only three days in summer 2015. He went into a recording studio alongside Anderson, Norton, Murray and Balaban (Goldblum’s schedule conflicted with the dates), and the pack of dogs came to life with an unusual opportunity for the actors to banter and play off each other in the same room. Typically, voice-overs are done solo, but Anderson wanted the group to speak simultaneously, as they do in the film.
“It was really exciting,” Cranston says. “I could see Wes sitting in a small chair as we were standing at the microphones and I could see him mostly with his eyes closed, just imagining and picturing the cacophony of voices and sounds coming in and how he would frame it and how he would shoot the movie.”
He adds, “There’s something about falling into the arms of a trusted storyteller. It’s really his show. We would offer ideas and he would either take them or not. He clearly saw what he wanted to do.”
“I think they had to be together,” Anderson notes. “But, also, frankly, it’s sort of more fun that way. To let the players play the scenes.”
For Cranston, “Isle of Dogs” is a family film, although not necessarily just because it’s animated. The actor feels that the social messages within the story are universal. The ideas of isolationism, greed and immigration could be germane to any viewer, but the theme of fear-mongering strikes especially hard.
“The less you know of something and the more the drive is to point the finger at it, the more people become fearful of it,” he notes. “It’s terrifyingly relevant.”
As the movie progresses, certain facts come to light that re-define who Chief is, both to himself and to those around him. He goes on a true journey of change, which is ultimately one of the main reasons Cranston connected to the character.
The actor tries to maintain his own sense of playfulness, mostly by being open to new things (he recently tried haggis — not a fan). He finds elasticity to be an essential attribute and admires a true willingness to change.
“The things that worked for us when we were children or teenagers or in college, they don’t necessarily apply anymore,” the actor says. “And if we hold on rigidly to that, we’re in trouble. You have to be flexible enough to realize that we’re in the ebb and flow.”
He’s seeing that potential for change right now in Hollywood too. “We’re living in extraordinary times,” he adds. “The Time’s Up movement. The #MeToo movement. I’m happy with it in an odd way, that every time an aggressive person — a person who robs the dignity of others and forces himself on someone — falls, it feels like the pillars of misogyny are not going to be able to hold it up anymore. And then for a real opportunity to create a new foundation where it’s based on mutual respect and honesty and openness — and not a power, might-is-right kind of thing like it is in the dog world.”
The actor’s production company, Moonshot Entertainment, recently unveiled the family-oriented series “The Dangerous Book for Boys” on Amazon Prime; it also reflects Cranston’s desire to see the industry — and the world around it — shift. The series looks at the ways in which young men can experience emotions and not be so forced into gender stereotypes that may eventually be harmful to their relationships with women.
We have this opportunity to introduce a softer side of boys so they become all the things we want young men to become. To become respectable young men.
“We have this opportunity to introduce a softer side of boys so they become all the things we want young men to become,” Cranston notes. “To become respectable young men. And it’s the right timing for it. It’s serendipitous, for sure, but I think a lot of positive change in our lives happens that way. Why not wrap your arms around that and celebrate it? Let’s be excited about a new beginning.”
Cranston is genuinely interested in the way in which art and entertainment can affect society. The closing moments of “Network,” every night, involve a sequence of clips of the presidential inaugurations since Ronald Reagan. By the time the clips roll to President Trump, the theater fills with deafening boos.
Cranston, who enjoys getting under Trump’s skin, isn’t scared of speaking out about politics. His Twitter feed is filled with thoughtful takes on various issues, and “Network,” adapted for the stage by Lee Hall from Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 Oscar-winning screenplay, has a strong political tinge with commentary on fake news and the way humanity just can’t seem to come together as one.
“Being opinionated is good,” Cranston says. “But you don’t have to be disrespectful just because you disagree with someone. That’s been my real thrust now. I want to heal. I want to do what I can to heal the country. And I have a soapbox and I do make myself known in my political views. But that doesn’t mean I want to shut down anyone else’s political views.”
Next, Cranston will shoot Disney’s “The One and Only Ivan,” another tale about our love for animals. “I was just taken in by the sweetness of assigning our emotions onto animals,” he says of the film, which is being directed by Thea Sharrock (“Me Before You”). “It stayed with me. That’s about finding identity too.”
The actor — who won four acting Emmys for “Breaking Bad,” a Tony for the play “All the Way” and earned an Oscar nomination for “Trumbo” — doesn’t care which medium, necessarily. He also hopes to continue to put himself in the position to be a beginner, to try new things with an open mind and a curious spirit without lingering in the past.
“I don’t look for things with a message, but just like anyone reading a good novel, if it resonates with me, I want to go back to it,” Cranston says. “When you read a good book, isn’t it fun because at that moment it feels like you’re the only one with that little secret? That’s what I look for: the storytelling that moves me. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big budget or a small budget, or if I’m in a double-wide expandable trailer or if I’m changing my wardrobe in some bathroom. I’m not in it to make money. I’m in it to be able to tell stories.”