Q&A: Bryan Cranston on surprising the CIA and Ben Affleck as a director in ‘Argo’

BEVERLY HILLS – It’s been a busy year so far for Bryan Cranston.  Two films he shot long ago were finally released (“Red Tails” and “John Carter”) and he appeared in three big summer releases (“Madagascar 3,” “Rock of Ages” and “Total Recall”).  Oh, and he just happened to land his fourth Emmy nomination for best actor in recognition for his stellar work as the iconic Walter White in “Breaking Bad.” Plus, “Bad” aired eight of its last sixteen episodes to continued critical acclaim (which sort of makes up for the duds “Rock of Ages” and “Total Recall”). In September, he received another gift, Ben Affleck’s “Argo.”

Cranston has used his newfound notoriety smartly over the past five years.  For every “Rock of Ages,” he’s picked a “Drive” or “Contagion” to spice up the prestige movie credits on his increasingly varied resume. Now, “Argo” may be his best movie showcase to date. As Jack O’Donnell, Cranston plays a composite figure of many different people who assisted Tony Mendez (Affleck) in a mission to help six State Dept. employees hiding out in Iran during the Iran Hostage Crisis escape Tehran.  It’s a key role in screenwriter Chris Terrio’s screenplay, because if McDonnell can’t get the White House to reverse course on a last minute decision than Mendez’s escape plan is literally dead in the water.

Upon first screening “Argo,” it’s clear the audience will remember the tense Tehran sequences and Alan Arkin’s hilarious turn in the Hollywood scenes.  However, upon a second viewing you come to appreciate Cranston’s work much more.  Affleck and editor William Goldenberg use Cranston’s increasing ferociousness to help sell the tension for an outcome we already know.  If “Argo” continues to win over the industry and moviegoers as expected, don’t be surprised if Cranston’s name increasingly comes up in the best supporting actor conversation.

Speaking to Cranston last week, it was clear he was very proud of the film and at the different opportunities he’s being given at the moment. You can watch our interview embedded at the top of this post or read the following extended Q&A below.

Q: I know that you did go and meet with some of the people from the CIA and you met with Tony Mendez.  What did you learn about that time or just from the CIA in general like that helped inform the role for you?

A: You know, I think by going back to Langley, Virginia and sitting down with these men and women it allowed me to really desensitize myself to the aura that is around the CIA.  And what I found is that no one looks like James Bond, no one is like with a cocktail in their hands and this like [NOISE] that I saw.  It’s a company; it’s a corporation.  You have your structure and protocols and bureaucracy and [expletive] that you got to deal with.  And sometimes the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing and vice versa.  So you cut through all of that and realize that get away from the enormity of it and get to the people.  My interest was to kind of break through the veneer of that taciturn exterior and be able to see what effect personally it had on these men and women who, for a living, don’t talk too much, and they can’t be very revealing.  So, how did that affect you personally?  How did it affect your marriage?  What did you tell your children?  How did it affect you physically?  Do you – y’know, did you feel its toll?  ‘Do you guys drink?’  I would ask if they drink alcohol.  When did that start?  So, I was asking all these questions that they probably thought was like, wait a minute, that’s not about the CIA.  I thought you were going to ask about missions and things, which I was less interested in and more interested in, for me, at that time, in what kind of foundation can I build for Jack because I need to feel comfortable in who I’ve created in order to present it.  Otherwise, that character is still outside of me and I need him to be inside.

Q: Well, when you spoke to them, were they excited about the idea that the CIA was actually being portrayed in a positive light?  Because so many times we see like – it’s the Bourne movies and they’re the bad guys going after our hero or it’s so rare that you see the CIA as the heroes in a movie.  Even in James Bond, he’s the guy who rats Bond out or screws it up.  So, did they – were they proud of this moment?  Did they seem…?

A: Well, I think – most of them they had not read the script because the script wasn’t circulated…

Q: O.K.

A: Because we wanted to keep it rather closed and it was almost not classified, of course, but those who were – Tony Mendez read the script and a couple others but to help consult on that to guide us away from something that’s not the way it is – any time we can possibly portray it accurately, obviously we want to do that.  Granted there’s theatrical license that must be taken in to consideration.  But I think for the most part as is their nature inherently they’re skeptical and they weren’t completely open and, hey, I’m an open book; ask me whatever.  It took a little while to let them know that I’m asking these questions in earnest.  I’m asking so that I can give an honest portrayal and not some kind of polished, glossy kind of thing, or to be dishonest in how I do that.  I think, and I hope I conveyed that so that the information they were giving me would help to facilitate that.

Q: I just remember when I saw it at Telluride that when people came out and it’s a big conversation festival and one of the common refrains were, “I can’t remember last time I saw a movie about the CIA where I cheered for them at the end.”  It was sort of this exciting rare opportunity and I’m curious. You must have been at the premiere in Toronto.  Was the reaction to the movie what you expected?  Were you surprised to see all these people cheer the – was it sort of the ride you were expecting based on what you had read and shot?

A: Well, when I first saw the movie on the Warner Brothers lot a month or so before Toronto I had that feeling of interior giddiness, thinking that this is an important movie.  This is a very well structured movie and it really has remarkable assets.  And not the least of which are that the CIA, an organization that is maligned often, was an is heroic in this, and rightfully so because for the most part you have to accept that these men and women dedicate their lives to a higher cause, a higher purpose and in hopes that that’s the achievement.  That’s what they actually do so that when they retire they can say no one knows it, but I was involved in a lot of stuff that got done and we had to settle with just patting ourselves on the back a little bit and that’s it.

Q: You’ll never know the amount of time …

A: That’s right.  When good things happen, and “Argo” allows that type of celebration that this was a selfless act that these men and women did what they do because it’s their job but also because it’s for the greater good.  To save the lives of human beings, there’s more noble cause than that.

Q: Well speaking of structure, your character is very involved a back and forth [sequence] between what’s going on in D.C. and what’s going in Tehran. How real was that entire sequence?

A: I think the admission is that this is – Argo is first and foremost an entertaining film.  

Q: Right.

A: Film entertainment.  And the fact that it’s based on a true story makes the story and the experience of watching the movie all the richer.  And that can’t be taken away.  This is the – that in and of itself is a valuable entity.  Movies have always taken liberties in order to tell a story, truncated stories, compressed time capsules and that sort of thing, chronology of a story.  For instance, in my composite character there were several people at the CIA who were pulling strings while this mission was going on, but for the sake of following the story from an audience standpoint the producers felt that if we had one voice, one visual and one voice there it would be stronger and easier so that the audience doesn’t go, “Wait a minute, who’s that guy?” and not stay on track.

Q: Yeah.

A: So whenever it cuts back and you see me, they immediately think CIA.  That’s his CIA guy.  So that’s how you’re able to follow the story.  So that’s why my character was a composite character to begin with.

Q: I know you’ve worked with other directors who have been actors before.  Is it a misnomer to assume that if someone is an established actor and then they become a director that they’re therefore “actor friendly”? That they’re more inclined to give their acting brethren more free rein?

A: I think it’s a fair assessment to say that an actor turned director has a leg up on how they work with other actors because they’ve been there, they talk the same language.  They know what it’s like when you give a piece of direction for that actor to have to then process it and perform that, that adjustment, that switch, the drive or whatever.  That’s in and of itself – Ben has a demeanor on the set that is very calm and very confident so that it allowed me the confidence and comfort to be able to take a chance.  So, I know what I wanted to do and I would try that and that’s good.  And when you’re on the same wavelength there’s really not a lot of conversation going on about you may tweak it a little bit, you may say for the sake of intercutting we’re going to cut in between my conversation and you, put a little pause in between that.  It’s like – if there was some technical aspects that you do.  We’re used to that.  So you do that and you file it away.  You don’t think about that the next take, it’s just there.  The suggestion was there.  But Ben is more than that.  He’s not an actor director now.  He is a bonafide director.  He’s smart, he’s passionate about the story, he’s passionate about filmmaking.  He’s very empathetic with other actors and what he’s about to ask them to do, he needs to get his shots.  He’ll do anything and what we see and what the – the audience sees the finished product of Argo and the story is compelling and it moves and it’s gratifying and it’s great, and it is.  And then they see Ben on the red carpet getting out of a limousine, in a tuxedo, his beautiful wife, and everything looks glamorous and the flash photography.  And that’s what they see.  They see Ben – I can guarantee you Ben in the dog days of shooting this movie was on his belly and wiping away sweat and then realizing he needs to eat something and keeping focus, and something didn’t work right so he’s got to reconfigure his shots and where he set the camera wasn’t quite telling the story.  So, there are innumerous problems that come up and a good director, which Ben is, looks at it like he’s playing chess.  Like it’s a move that he didn’t anticipate and he looks at it and goes, “Huh, okay.  Didn’t see that coming.”  And then immediately starts to problem solve.  How can we fix that?  And it’ll take a moment and think about it, be relaxed, don’t panic.  A good chess player doesn’t see a move and go, “Ahh, God.”

Q: So, he’s not a panicked director on set?  He’s calm and cool, and…?

A: Not at all.  I direct as well and there is that underlying feeling that I’m going to miss something.  I feel like I’m going to miss something.  So there was a certain amount of anxiety but it’s how you deal with that and how you present it.  And he is the captain of the ship and he needs to come on board with a sense of confidence to lead us all to this finish line.  It’s a daunting task for many people.  He handles it with a plum.

“Argo” is now playing nationwide.