Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
A remarkable tale of immigrant success, wrapped around a crime story.
Though actor Bryan Cranston has moved on from his days of being a mild-mannered chemistry teacher-turned-murderous drug kingpin on AMC's "Breaking Bad," the four-time Emmy award winner continues to bring life to other equally complicated male specimens of flawed humanity.
This fall, Cranston, 59, is on movie screens as the legendary screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, targeted in the ‘40s by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his Communist beliefs—a no-no in the paranoid era following World War II when the U.S. and Russia were engaged in a bitter Cold War. He would go to jail for refusing to testify before Congress and found himself unemployable following his release after being blacklisted by Hollywood studios. The cagey and prolific screenwriter found a way to work incognito, including the use of fronts and pseudonyms, and ended up winning screenplay Oscars for 1953’s “Roman Holiday” and 1956’s “The Brave One” while still undercover.
Trumbo was finally able to come out of hiding after Kirk Douglas publicly recruited him to rewrite the script for the 1960 gladiator epic “Spartacus,” and even included his name in the credits. Under the direction of Jay Roach, the 58-year-old comedy specialist (the Austin Powers franchise as well as “Meet the Parents” and “Meet the Fockers”) with a bent for politically-charged TV movies (HBO’s “Recount” and “Game Change”), Cranston pulls off a marvel of a mustache that rivals Yosemite Sam’s while giving a nuanced performance of a contradictory wordsmith, a rich radical with a dapper streak whose sense of largesse was only exceeded by his considerable ego.
Roach and Cranston will team up again when they bring a TV version of the actor’s Tony-winning debut as President Lyndon B. Johnson in “All the Way” to HBO next May. The two discussed the vision behind “Trumbo,” its relevance to today and their commonalities—including their mutual fondness for “The Graduate”—during an appearance earlier this week at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.
It has been a while since you filmed the finale of “Breaking Bad” in April 2013. Was it hard to let go of Walter White?
BRYAN CRANSTON: It wasn’t hard because Vince Gilligan [the show’s creator and head writer] put such care and concern into the whole sculpting of a beautiful ending to it, so we had a complete experience of a beginning and a middle and an end. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole process and I learned many, many years ago to be in the moment. To enjoy what I am doing at the time, and relish that. Because I know it’s ephemeral and it’s gone. I don’t want to ever look back and go, “Damn, I wish I had appreciated that time more.” I did. I was in it, wallowing in the good times and playing that great character.
If things don’t work out acting-wise now—although I doubt that is going to happen—could you become a meth dealer? Could you actually make a batch?
BC: There was a time when we were shooting the pilot and the DEA chemists were our consultants on the set. And they showed Aaron Paul and myself exactly how to make pure crystal methamphetamine. So I have a thriving side-business going. You think my side-business is producing or something. I could also explain to you that you probably could make four or five times the money.
And, of course, Jay, you watched the show.
JAY ROACH: I did. I thought it was a great cautionary tale because it made that life seem so miserable, so fatal, so bad for you, because you are going to have to sacrifice your family or sell your soul. That is what I love about those kinds of stories. It reminds me of the Coen brothers films, those kinds of stories, as opposed to the ones that to me kind of glorify that. To me, it was the opposite.
Did you know each other at all before doing “Trumbo”?
JR: We saw each other at a function or two. But not really.
Then why did you think of Bryan to bring Trumbo to life?
JR: There is something about Trumbo, which I fell for so quickly. The passion, the earnestness, not trying to be cool but actually just caring about people. He was witty, he could be sarcastic. But he was also humanistic and compassionate. He was so complex. You need someone who could play all those levels. You need someone who has that range. Who can be deadly serious but also has a wit in the way that Bryan has showed in the many shows that he has done, the films he has been in. Once he said he could do it, It was like, “Oh my God.” And, as we did it, I saw even more overlaps in terms of the kind of humanist that Trumbo was.
It is true he is very generous to his friends and he helps out Louis C.K.’s character, a fellow screenwriter, when he gets sick. But Trumbo also bullied his family into sacrificing their own lives to help him get back in the game when he got out of jail. And he often did what he did out of a sense of preserving his pride if not his lifestyle.
JR: Yes, and a little bit of greed. He is not a perfect man. But I think that is also what made him seem so relatable. He was imperfect to an extreme but he was also capable to an extreme. Look at what he accomplished. If I could accomplish even a 20th of his prolific output as an artist, I would feel lucky.
You both are working together again. I guess that means you got along pretty well.
JR: It’s a good thing. It would have been awkward.
Is the HBO version of “All the Way” done?
BC: My part of it is done. To an extent. We finished shooting it. It is now being edited—assembly edited. And Jay, when we leave here today, he goes back and starts that long process of editing.
Is it a filmed play?
JR: It’s a film adaptation of the play. The playwright (Robert Schenkkan) also did the screenplay. It’s a full cinematic experience. It’s not just a recording of a performance of the play by any means. It’s really well done, how he adapted it to the screen.
I think most Baby Boomers think of LBJ in terms of escalating the Vietnam War. As a kid, I also remember him picking his dog up by his ears and showing off his surgery scars to the media. But he also invested a lot of effort into promoting civil rights, especially when he signed the Voting Rights Act.
BC: It’s interesting, because I think there are some parallels between the characteristics of Dalton Trumbo and the characteristics of President Johnson. If you did a Venn diagram, you would see that they have a lot more in common than not. Johnson not only did good things, he was one of the most accomplished presidents in our history as far as domestic policy. His Great Society created a tremendous amount of foundational work on how the country and the society grew from there.
JR: He passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was one of the most sweeping bits of legislation since Lincoln. It is a phenomenal thing. Right after Kennedy was assassinated, he takes that on. And then he also does a whole range of other things, like the American Film Institute, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Medicare and Medicaid.
BC: It is just that Vietnam clouded everything, and understandably so, for most people.
It came into our homes almost every night on the nightly TV news.
JR: But the first year, that year that we cover only runs from November ’63 to November ’64. It’s a phenomenal year. Any president would be proud of that year.
I have to say that I became quite fascinated with Trumbo’s mustache while watching the film.
BC: It’s many mustaches. It has to evolve through the years.
It really defines his personality.
BC: It was sort of a marker for audiences to gauge the passage of time over 23 years that we cover in the movie. The cigarette holder and the mustaches and all the beautiful suits. He was quite a flamboyant man.
JR: We could have created a museum display of his mustache through the years. There is a really big mustache at the end.
BC: You can practically twirl it.
Being a writer myself, I admired that he could sit in a bathtub full of water while drinking and smoking and somehow writing all these wonderful stories atop a makeshift desk. That’s a lot of multitasking.
JR: He didn’t sleep. He talked about he could live another 50% as long a life as another person because he only slept a four hours a day. But he took pills to get up and pills to go to sleep. And he would drink and smoke in between.
Was there water in there when you sat in the tub?
BC: It was a real bathtub. It was a bathtub that was moved by the art department into that house. So the drain had to be plugged. But Jay was kind enough on that particular day to put hot water in there. There was actually a very practical reason for that. He was so prolific and self-abusive in his writing, eating and drinking and smoking, his back would kill him. So his doctor recommended that he should soak his back in Epsom salts for two hours a day. And he said, “There is no way I can justify taking time out from what I need to do to soak my back. Unless, I created a desk.” That was the birth of that. It wasn’t that he was so flamboyant that he said, “I’m going to write in the bathtub.”
JR: It was a therapeutic choice, a coping strategy.
You two share some things in common. One is Albuquerque, New Mexico.
JR: Yeah, weirdly.
Jay, you were born and raised there. And Bryan lived there during his time on “Breaking Bad” since that was where the series was set.
BC: In fact, we shot my science classes at El Dorado High School in Albuquerque, and that is his alma mater.
JR: I took courses in that science lab. He gave me a hat from my old football team, the El Dorado Eagles.
The other thing is interesting is that you were both pegged as comedy guys for a while. It wasn’t until Jay did “Recount” that he sort of stopped being simply labeled that. And Bryan, for a long while you were a guest star on practically every TV show on the air.
I just watched a “Baywatch” clip where you were running a party boat.
JR: I didn’t even realize you did all these character roles, that you would just be on all these different shows.
BC: Yeah, back in the day.
JR: During “Malcolm in the Middle”?
BC: No, no, no. Way before that. I was 23 when I earned my SAG card. You make the rounds as a guest star. And I made the rounds on every television show. I met my wife on a TV show, a bad TV show called “Airwolf” with Jan-Michael Vincent and Ernie Borgnine. So I was the bad guy of the week and Robin was the victim of the week. It was 30 years ago.
She was your victim?
BC: Yeah, yeah. I held a gun to her head. It was like, “You smell pretty good. Maybe I won’t kill you. Maybe I’ll taste you instead. How about that?”
But then we all got to know you as the father on the sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle” for seven seasons starting in 2000, and you were a recurring character as the dentist on “Seinfeld.” So many of us thought of you as a funny actor. And Jay did three "Austin Powers" and a couple of "Focker" films. But you both have shown that you have a serious side to what you do since then. And Jay seems to have embraced this world of political-themed stories.
JR: I like great stories and I love doing comedies. But I like doing stories where the character is that the story is about their particular predicament, and their soul is at stake in their small world. But they are against this larger predicament that is putting pressure on them. It is the classic storytelling thing, like classic theater. Someone is about to break down the castle’s walls and somebody else is staging a coup, and this poor dude has got some emotional crisis or a dysfunctional thing he has to work through. To me, that’s a great story that works on all levels. A political story, the best ones—and I think Trumbo is one of the best ones—John McNamara, our great screenwriter, figured this out. But it can work on all those levels simultaneously. Also, to be authentic to it, it had to have serious drama to it, but also some comedy, because these men were witty. They were witty men who used their wit to undo the Blacklist because they were such good smartasses and quipsters, they had the right comeback at the right time. They wrote witty movies.
In "Trumbo," when John Goodman as the B-movie mogul hauls out the bat when he is threatened for hiring Trumbo, that is pretty funny.
JR: But you think life has that mixture, though, of personal, political, dramatic and comedic? That’s life. That’s my life anyway. And sometimes at the darkest moments you joke your way through it. That is what the Hollywood 10 often did. They turned Trumbo’s funeral into a roast. They were trashing him the entire time.
One of the first big movies I saw on a big screen when I was really young was “Spartacus.”
JR: Me, too. It was 1967 during the re-issue.
I saw it in 1960, when I was really little. Parents didn’t worry about taking their children to adult films so much back then. I was mainly impressed by those flaming tree trunks rolling down the hill and how huge Kirk Douglas’ bare chest was. But I didn’t realize until I saw it again as an adult just how funny Peter Ustinov is as the slave trader was.
JR: That is the Trumbo wit. That is a great example of it. That guy actually sounds the most like Trumbo than anyone else in the film.
While I was watching “Trumbo,” I was wondering whether anyone who didn’t know about the political paranoia during that period, as reflected in films that had Martian invasions or something like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers," might be shocked that Communism was seen as such a threat to the nation. People were building bomb shelters and school kids had duck-and-cover drills. Was there a real threat?
JR: Of course. Totalitarian Communism was a major threat. By 1947, which is when this all began, Russia was occupying on all of Eastern Europe and had already been spying like crazy to get the atom bomb. So it was real. The big lie was taking that threat and applying it to anybody who disagreed or had progressive ideas and wanted to fight for the unions.
Trumbo obviously put his thoughts and beliefs into his work. But they weren’t necessarily subversive or propaganda.
JR: They never named a single film of his that was subversive. When slaves rise up against slavery, is that a Communist idea? But it was a revolution.
Are you hoping that moviegoers watch this and see parallels to what is happening today?
JR: I think fear-mongering is a pattern in our political process. In those days, it was totalitarian Communism, now it’s terrorism. It’s like saying someone is being soft on terrorism. You can say, like some political candidate did recently, that no Muslim should be able to run for president. That implies that all Muslims are traitors, all Muslims are terrorists. Those kinds of bad ideas that get spread based on fear, that happens all the time. Someone recently said federal funding should be denied to any university where an extreme political bias occurs. A well-known candidate for the presidency said that recently. Is that different from Joe McCarthy? What the Constitution protects is the unpopular speech. The popular speech is easy to protect.
If you can’t share and debate ideas on a campus, where can you?
BC: You think along the lines that we do, that ideas aren’t threatening in and of themselves. They are just different. You don’t have to agree with them, but we do have to stand up for their right to voice them.
JR: Obviously, if someone is plotting to overthrow the government with a violent revolution, that is an idea that should probably looked into. But none of these men were. Trumbo cared about human rights, he cared about civil rights. He cared about freedom of speech. He once said, “I realize all the fights I’ve ever had have been about one thing—liberty.” Aren’t the Libertarians interested in a situation where government can come in and police your thoughts? And ask what poltical groups you belong to? That’s a right-wing idea. It is not a partisan idea, but an American idea that free speech should be protected.
Sometimes I think that no one really knows what politics is anymore. From what I have seen lately, it is like one big bad “Saturday Night Live” skit.
JR: Have you seen a committee recently that has wasted millions of dollars, thousands of dollars on testimony and tens of thousands of documents and got nowhere? There has been a few of those Congressional committee interrogations.
They are going after Hillary Clinton and they can’t get her, since she is the smartest person in the room.
JR: Just as in our case, nothing comes of it. It is just politicians trying to make a name for themselves.
Hollywood is often accused of being a hotbed of liberalism but they all went after Trumbo and his friends. What were they afraid of?
JR: They were worried that the potential of themselves being accused of having subversive writers made the studios nervous, so they actually believed they were protecting their own industry. Hedda Hopper believed she was protecting it by cleaning it up.
But wasn’t a large part of the reason that they didn’t want unionizing? Studio heads like Walt Disney discouraged organized labor.
JR: That is my theory. They drew targets on themselves by fighting for unions. I strongly encourage people to go online and type in “Disney” and “HUAC.” He really believed that animators and writers and whoever worked at his studio would never have been interested in workers’ rights, health benefits and safe working conditions if it hadn’t been for Communism.
BC: As if those were bad things. That is one of the saddest things that I discovered when doing the research for this to find out my own unions turned against their membership. The main responsibility of an union is to protect their membership. Screen Actors Guild, Directors Guild, Writers Guild, the Motion Picture Academy, all turned against their membership. That shows you the level of fear that was going on. Everybody was frightened.
I do like that you invited Kirk Douglas to a screening of “Trumbo.” The guy who was the cute dwarf in “The Hobbit” movies, Dean O’Gorman, he was great as Douglas in the film.
JR: I love that quote.
BC: “Hey, cute dwarf, can I talk to you for a second.”
JR: Dean didn’t need any prosthetics. He does a great job.
Kirk Douglas hugged you, Bryan. How did that feel?
BC: Like being hugged by a king, a titan of our industry. And a man who has earned a great amount of gratitude from those who were blacklisted and those who came after. They realized the risk that he took and putting his career and finances at risk. His production company, it could have backfired greatly. He could have been ostracized. And he could have solidified the blacklist if this didn’t work. If Otto Preminger [who used Trumbo on “Exodus”] and Kirk Douglas’ plans didn’t work, it would have been rock solid.
JR: I told Bryan that when they put his name on his work, it was like throwing water on the Wicked Witch. She just melts. To see Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper melt in that scene with Kennedy at the premiere and saying, “Ah, it’s a fine picture.” The whole mutated corrupt mythology of dissolves like the Wicked Witch, into the floor.
BC: By the way, I just wanted to say your Kennedy impression sounded just like Gomer Pyle.
One more question. I told you how “Spartacus” made a major impression on me when I was young. What film had a powerful effect on you when you were growing up?
BC: Probably “The Graduate.”
JR: For me, it’s the same thing.
BC: I could relate to Dustin because we were young boys watching it. And the sexuality of an older woman. Up until then, I thought, “Wait a minute. I thought you were supposed to be with someone your own age.” Like it started to twist my head and open my eyes.
JR: Also, the identity crisis, the existential promise was so palpable, so beautiful. That and “All the President’s Men.” I either wanted to go into journalism or go into politics.
BC: And you failed on both.
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