From Kingpin to Secret Agent: Bryan Cranston Is ‘The Infiltrator’
BY SUZY MALOY
THE INTERVIEW PEOPLE
Attention “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” creator Vince Gilligan: Bryan Cranston is ready and able to return as Walter White … anytime you’re ready. That’s what the Emmy-winning actor known for “breaking bad” as a high school science teacher-turned-meth kingpin in the popular AMC series told journalists while promoting his new movie “The Infiltrator.”
The story is set in 1980s Florida, where shipments of cocaine freely flowed from Colombia into the U.S. Cranston stars as an FBI agent who goes deep undercover to infiltrate Pablo Escobar’s drug trafficking empire by posing as a slick, money-laundering businessman named Bob Musella.
It’s based on the true story of real life federal undercover agent Robert Mazur, who successfully built a case that led to the indictments of more than 100 drug lords and the corrupt bankers who cleaned their dirty money, along with the collapse of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), one of the largest money-laundering banks in the world.
Cranston was nominated for an Oscar for his depiction of blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo; Trumbo fought to free other writers whose reputations had been damaged, and the actor relished the opportunity to play another hero.
Cranston, 60, stars alongside John Leguizamo, Benjamin Bratt, Diane Kruger and Amy Ryan in the film, which is directed by Brad Furman based on a script by Ellen Brown Furman. Clean shaven and outgoing, Cranston conversed about his love for his craft, playing a dedicated agent who puts his life on the line to stop the bad guys, and his willingness to return as iconic character Walter White, if called upon.
Suzy Maloy: What was your process of getting involved with this? Did Brad Furman contact you directly?
Bryan Cranston: Yes, I met Brad on “The Lincoln Lawyer,” and we became friends and wanted to find something that we could do together. I think it was two years ago or so, and I was doing a play in New York and he said, “I have it.” I go, “What do you have?” He goes, “My mother wrote this.” I said, “Your mother wrote this?” He goes, “Yeah. Trust me. She’s a good writer.” I said, “Okay, all right.”
That was almost like, “My mother’s got a barn, and my sister has costumes.” I’m like, “Wait a minute, what are we doing?” I read it and I went, “Hey, you’re right. She is good.” I said, “There’s an element that I really want to bring out, though.” This book, from [my character] Bob’s point of view, is focused on the caper [and] on the operation, which is very detailed.
Anytime you take something from one medium and go to the next, you have to take this and put it through a juicer, and you get the juice. It takes a big bag of oranges to get a glass of juice. A movie is like the juice. You have to take what we consider to be the best elements of that because you cannot film this.
I said the element that I really wanted to bring out is Bob Mazur the man, the husband, the father, because that’s what fascinated me. As an actor, slipping into a character and playing a character is commonplace. I’ve been doing it for almost 40 years. For Bob, if he makes a mistake, there aren’t any do-overs. He could be killed.
With that kind of tension coming home every night, how does that guy become Bob Mazur the dad and “Oh, would you help her with the math homework?” How do you then, “Oh yeah, honey, carry that one.” Or making sandwiches for the kids’ lunches tomorrow. Let’s sit down and have a glass of wine with your spouse and, “How was your day?” He can’t say a word.
“Oh, it was fine.” All he can say is, “Yeah, it was good,” even if it wasn’t. He’s constantly taking in information, stress, tension and not able to release it. Thank God he was a runner. That was a way he can get it out. I needed this film to show more of the emotional stakes at home. I thought that, and Brad and Ellen agreed, let’s really bring that out, so that we would have a solid foundation of the plot and the emotional risk behind it.
Did you listen to the secret recordings Mazur made that helped indict them?
Yeah, they were fascinating. They’re not always the best quality, so you’re leaning in desperately trying to listen, because they’re always shrouded in a suitcase or in a planter or something. They sounded something like this [talks with hand over his mouth]. You can’t listen to it too long because you’re concentrating so hard on trying to … basically what I was doing is not so much [about] the details.
What I noticed is the depth of informality that the two, Roberto Alcaino and Bob Mazur or Musella, at the time, had. Ribbing each other, “Oh, come on. What do you mean?” They were acting like friends. Bob will tell you, he never lost it in his frame of mind what he’s going to do. He’s going to arrest this guy, and so he’s acting like the friend.
For the sake of the movie, the theatrical license is to allow Bob to relax a little bit of his doggedness as a law enforcement officer and expose more of the fragility of a human being, of that dichotomous life of doing something he knows is right and it’s his job but your body is saying, “But I like him and I feel for them and I don’t want to hurt them.” You can justify it intellectually, but emotionally, I think you’re battling.
What kind of an undercover guy do you think you’d make?
Now I think I’d make a pretty good one. I’m used to being undercover, but only pretend. Oh, you meant real? Oh, no. No, because for that very reason that I have a bad day and I go home and “Oh, it didn’t work. You know what? It’s terrible. We’re going to have to re-shoot that scene because it just didn’t work.” That’s the repercussions in my world.
I can fully divulge everything to my wife, whether she wants to hear it or not. [Robert Mazur] didn’t have that luxury. Early on, I was going to be a police officer. I thought that’s what I was going to do and to be a detective, but not necessarily infiltrate.
What hindered you in that?
Girls. Girls in theater class. It was like [makes panting sound]. I’m 19. Second year in college and I went, “You mean, there’s that?” That’s available, and they outnumber boys like 8 to 1.
One of my first scenes in my first acting class. I read it. A boy and a girl on a park bench making out. Oh my God. … I read it again. I was like, “So my job is to make out with a girl. Oh my God. This is possible.”
Once that turned my head around, I realized okay, all those initial emotions aside, if I’m going to do this, I need to learn how to do this, and I mean really do this. That’s what drove me deeper into and very seriously into how one becomes an actor.
What did you do?
The biggest thing is to be able to be vulnerable. We spend all our school time usually, there’s the occasional kid who’s way out there and already exposed by who they are and proud and it’s like, “Who’s that?” They’re also open to ridicule and being ostracized and being embarrassed and all those things.
Most kids want to be with the pack and figure things out all through high school. “I’m wearing the same clothes as you are. No one’s going to point me out.” Then after high school you go, “Oh my God. I need to be me and I need to open these floodgates and celebrate the uniqueness of me. Am I unique?” And just go inward through therapy or through self-awareness.
I was coming of age in the ’70s when it wasn’t self-awareness; it was indulgence. The ’80s [were] different. You could further indulgence with the cocaine and the craziness of that. Remember all the self-help and Marianne Williamson and Leo Buscaglia and Dr. Wayne Dyer?
You can have that path, which I think was very healthy. Self-exploration. Who am I? What makes me tick? What is my raison d’être? What is my purpose here? I had to get serious. Hopefully it’s age appropriateness. You go through the teens and the early twenties, and you are so self-centered. Then you go, “Enough of that. Now I have to grow up and be the person I want to become.”
As an actor, how did you learn what Mazur had to do to convince the drug traffickers that he was a real businessman?
It’s very easy for me to get into being another character. What I learned from [playing] Bob, what I had to take on was the specificity of what he had to do. As you see in his manner and demeanor, he is a triple-check, quadruple-check kind of person. Crossing t’s and dotting i’s and making sure, which was nice because Emir wasn’t. He was an impulsive, spontaneous guy. Together they made a very interesting team and are friends to this day. I think they found that style.
We have it in our movie that they were knocking heads a little bit, which is a more interesting, dramatic structure. The truth is they got along pretty quickly right away and formed a bond right away, and realized that each one brought in a specific set of abilities that the other one did not have. Emir, the role you see John Leguizamo play, was that let’s-get-into-it kind of guy. He was the perfect person to bring them in. He was a lure.
Kathy Ertz (a fellow undercover agent played by Diane Kruger) was also a lure. She’s a very attractive woman, and it’s a very macho-driven kind of environment. That was also a lure and we were fishing. We’re bringing them in, slowly. But like fishing, you could, “Oh my God. They spit the hook.” If they did that after two and a half years of work, we’re in trouble. If they spit the hook, you could also be dead. The similarities and differences were very clear to me going in.
Other than making out with women in movies and the diversity of your career, what was the craziest thing you’ve ever done in a movie … either like, “I’ll never do that again,” or “I’ll totally do that again”?
An actor’s life is filled with risk, certainly emotional risk and what we were talking about first, and being open. I’m willing to be exposed and naked, emotionally, physically, because sometimes you need both.
Those are things that I accept, because in order to truly tell a story sometimes, I have to be completely honest with myself. If the intention is to make an audience feel embarrassed for my character, then being exposed, being nude, is one way of doing that.
Like in “Trumbo.” We talked about that scene a lot. I said, “We need to show the dehumanizing factor of going to prison, and Dalton Trumbo was stripped of his dignity, stripped of his freedom,” and we wanted to show that visually by being stripped, quite literally. I knew, and I said, “Let’s do it.”
I was full frontal on everything, and I told Jay Roach, “I think the thing to do is … we need to get other men, of different colors, different shapes, different sizes, half a dozen of us, in a holding cell, naked.” All of us were naked. When you’re among that, it’s like, “Okay, we are all stripped of our protection.” Our guard. What we need to feel comfortable going out in society, but these men aren’t.
There we are, six, seven guys in a holding cell, naked. I said, “You’re going to have to cast this because no one’s going to volunteer [for] this.” The background actors are not going to say, “Yeah, I’ll do it.” I was totally wrong. I went with Jay to talk to the group of extras who were not told anything about this, and I said, “I’m going to have to go with you because we’re going to have to convince these guys. I’m going to do it.”
Jay just said, “Um, we’re doing a scene in an admitting into prison, and it requires nudity. Who among you would like to volunteer to be nude with Bryan Cranston?” I was like, “What?!” I had to, but … I don’t mean they’re chiseled, bodybuilder guys. “Yeah, man, I want to show this off.”
There were all shapes and sizes. It was like, “Wow! Let’s do this.” You have to prepare yourself for that. I had to prepare Bryan, because once you have a possibility of embarrassment, your real personality comes out and it’s like, “Let that go. Let that go.”
Dalton’s personality came in, and he was scared. He put on a good face for his wife; it’s going to be fine and I’ll be out soon and I love you and all that; it’s going to be good. Take care of your sister, take care of your brother, that scene. Then later, he’s scared.
In “The Infiltrator”, you’re living a duplicitous life and you have to be one way when you’re undercover and another way when you go home to your family, so in real life, as Bryan Cranston, did you have any conflicts letting the character go when you went home?
Sometimes they seep into your life, as you’re still thinking about the character. An actor’s job begins when you read a script. I first read a script from an objective viewpoint, because I haven’t said yes yet. It’s a very good sign … just like reading a novel and you’re walking around that day and you’re thinking about that story; that’s a good sign. It’s staying with you.
If the character just starts coming to you and you start to imagine what he would look like and that sort of thing, that’s a very good sign. That’s what happened with “Breaking Bad,” that’s what happened with a lot of other characters like Dalton Trumbo, LBJ, so those are indicators for me.
My receptors are open to those things that I can identify well-written material, and when something resonates and seems honest to me. Or something that I can bring an honesty to that story, then it’s a very good sign, and I’m open to it.
I have a spouse [Robin Dearden] who I’ve been with for 30 years, and we met on a TV show. She was an actress at one time. She tells me if I’m full of myself; she’ll go, “Oh, wow. Look at you,” “Don’t bring Dalton home, if he’s irascible or something,” “You’re kind of a jerk.” It’s like, “Oh.” She has gumption.
Was it easy or difficult to shed characters like LBJ, Dalton Trumbo or Walter White? Were any of them really tough to part with, especially with LBJ, where you have a certain accent and a way of carrying yourself. Were there times where you’re like, “I can’t get rid of this guy. He’s still in me.”
Yeah, in some ways. It’s interesting because the way film works is that we’ve done this and we shot this over a year ago, so you have to reacquaint yourself to the story because you’re on to other stories.
Some characters grab a hold of you and then don’t want to let go. You enjoy being in their shoes. Especially when, like LBJ was such a constant. I did five months of performances: eight shows a week on Broadway. Then there was a little bit of time off and we re-worked the script, then I slipped back in to those shoes for the movie.
It was fun. It’s fun to stay in that character and play that sensibility, that era, and how the sexual politics were at the time, that sort of thing. I would say, “Wow, I love that blouse. Look at you. I think you should wear that color all the time. I love that. Turn around, doll.” That was acceptable, so I just stayed into that character and that kind of power.
With all your awards and accolades, it seems you’ve never forgotten where you came from. Did that influence your decision to come back on to the upcoming Power Rangers reboot as Zordon?
I did dubbing voices for “Power Rangers,” the series, 35 years ago. I can tell you that I would not have accepted that role if the script wasn’t good. There’s no loyalty to something that I did 35 years ago.
They completely changed the tone. It is not the television series at all. It is a fully realized, updated, reimagined approach to telling this superhero story and I hadn’t really done a superhero thing, so I was kind of intrigued. “Oh, that sounds interesting. Let’s try it.”
Having played a U.S. President, do you know what the key to being a successful one is?
There is no room for a charlatan in that office.
Is there a trick to modulating your performance as part of an ensemble, because this film has such a great supporting cast.
No. I think what you do is you first take it in from an objective viewpoint, you understand the story. Then from there, you compartmentalize it and say what is my contribution to the story? If it’s the lead, you have a larger overview. If it’s an ensemble, you go, “I know my character brings this to the story. I got it.”
You work on that and present that with ideas and suggestions. I like active actors. I don’t like to work with actors who show up on the set and go, “Where do you want me to stand? What do you want me to do? What do you want?” I come in going, “Here’s what I’ve been thinking. Here’s what I would like to try.” It’s a collective.
That’s true collaboration, when everybody charged with the storytelling process is involved. That extends to the crew, as well. Some prop guy can come up and go, “Hey, wouldn’t it be a good idea if this happened?” “Oh, wow, yes. That suggestion helps tell our story. Nicely done.” “What about the hair? In that era, the hairstyles …” “Yeah, good.” You encourage and embrace everyone and every department’s involvement and that’s how it really comes together.
So many Hollywood marriages don’t last. You and Robin have been married for over a quarter-century. What is your secret for balancing family and career?
I think that’s it. It is balance. It’s not allowing yourself to get unbalanced for too long. We talk about balance. It’s never balance in the sense that every day is completely balanced. No. It’s, “Oh, I’ve been working a lot, so I have to do this.” It’s finding the balance over time. The other thing is marrying the right person.
Do you stay in touch with Vince Gilligan?
Oh yeah. All the time. We’re friends, so we see each other constantly.
Any chance of a “Better Call Saul” cameo?
It’s possible. I would do anything for Vince, so if he called, it would certainly be something that I would say yes to before the conversation was over.
For all your success, how have your splurged on yourself as an actor?
I don’t really think in those terms. When I decided to become an actor, when I was 22 years old, I knew that that decision meant I was in for the long haul. This is my life.
Like a lot of young actors, they’re not even actors. There are people who want to be in the limelight, they like to be on television or movies or they become the fame or fortune. That’s not an actor. An actor is someone who enjoys the empowerment of telling stories. That’s an actor.
When I decided to do that, if it meant that I was going to share an apartment with three other actors to, I’m 60 now, then that’s my life. That would be it. From the very moment I started working, boom, save. The more I can save, the longer I can be an actor.
If I spend, spend, spend, that means, “Oh my God. I have to get a real job that takes me away from acting.” I worked as a waiter every single weekend for years. Why? I didn’t care about parties. They meant nothing to me.
On weekends, you can make the most money. I volunteered for every weekend shift. I worked double-shifts on Saturdays, double-shifts on Sundays and most Fridays. Most people wanted off on the weekends. “I’ll take it. I’ll take it.” They always came to me. “You want it?” “Yep.” “Take it.” It didn’t matter to me.
What mattered to me was staying free Monday through Friday so I could audition as an actor.
Suzy Maloy conducts celebrity interviews for The Interview People.
Featured photo: Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) uses a public pay phone, now a relic of the past, in “The Infiltrator.” Photo credit: Broad Green Pictures