Bryan Cranston is an actor who loves big characters. From Walter White to Lyndon Johnson, he cultivates performances that are nuanced and rich, engaging and believable, with compelling complexity that utilizes the actor’s versatile repertoire of deliveries. Cranston found comedic success on Seinfeld (1989) and Malcolm in the Middle (2000), dramatic strength on Breaking Bad (2008), and his trajectory continues to point upward.
With Trumbo (2015), Jay Roach’s biopic about famous blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, Cranston brings to life the story of a real man for whom modern audiences have limited awareness. Many are familiar with the Hollywood blacklist and the HUAC investigations of the 1950s, but fewer know the mannerisms and personality of those it impacted. With that limited frame of reference, Cranston worked to craft a character that draws equally on his dramatic and comedic skills.
The actor told AZ Central, “I think you try to make the distinction between seriousness and sincerity. We approached this with the greatest sincerity, that this is an important story to tell. But while doing that, do we have to be serious about it at all times? And the answer to that is no. In my belief, every good drama has a sprinkling of levity. And every good comedy has a sprinkling of pathos and sincerity, seriousness. It helps to ground it. In a drama, it helps to lighten it, so that it’s not all just political details and that sort of thing.”
Trumbo illuminates the ways in which the screenwriter undermined the blacklist. Not only did he continue to write screenplays under false names, but he also won two Academy Awards under the names of others (one front name and one pseudonym) while banned from writing Hollywood screenplays.
Screenwriters aren’t always remembered for their extroverted personalities, but Trumbo was an exception. As Bryan Cranston told Robert Siegel at NPR, “He's a raconteur. He's a troublemaker. He's also a contrarian."
To develop the character, Cranston studied everything available about the real Dalton Trumbo, who passed away in 1976. “Once he comes into you, then you start letting it grow and grow,” he continued to NPR. “And you know I had the advantage of videotapes and audiotapes, and I knew certain habits: He was a chain-smoker and ... he would rise in his voice and then come down and then rise again. He had that nature to him. And I thought that was an interesting thing — a speech pattern that came into me by watching his interviews and such. But that alone doesn't do it. ... It's an actor muscle. ... You use certain talismans, perhaps, that get you there: his glasses; when they put on the mustache and I put on his wardrobe and I look in the mirror and I start to see that man. And I welcome him to come out, warts and all.”
Cranston feels his malleable appearance and personal lack of concern for maintaining some level of physical attractiveness allows him to develop characters more naturally. It also prevents audiences from seeing an iconic character — say, like Walter White — every time he is on camera.
Trumbo was a strange guy — Kirk Douglas said so himself. (Douglas is also portrayed in the film as responsible for hiring Trumbo to write Spartacus (1960) using his real name, along with Otto Preminger who announced that Trumbo had written Exodus the same year, both events effectively putting an end to the failing blacklist.) Fortunately, strange guys make for intriguing characters on film. For Cranston, Trumbo was more than that. He is the symbol of a time in Hollywood's past that bears the possibility of repeating in modern life. Speaking to The Daily Beast, Cranston said, "There are always lessons to be learned, and held. But yes, this can happen again—and it is happening again. There’s evidence of this type of suppression of First Amendment rights all the time. It could be in the name of the Red Scare or it could be under the name now of 'terrorism.' There’s all this fear mongering of, 'Oh, if we don’t do this then the terrorists will attack us,' and people go, 'Oh! I don’t want the terrorists to attack us, so let’s take away this right.' And the right of the National Security Agency to just wiretap unchecked—that’s an example of it. Our forefathers worked extremely hard to set up a structure of government of checks and balances so that no branch of government gets larger than it should. It works very well. Honoring the intent of the First Amendment and putting that into practice is always to be considered before making policy. Of course the world changed. And the number one responsibility of a government is to protect its people, absolutely. But at what cost?"
The actor was nominated for a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for his portrayal of the Hollywood legend who overcame a dark and oppressive system. It will be interesting to follow which characters Cranston moves on to next and whether he takes on more comic, tragic or real-life heros.