Most recently, I came across Bryan Cranston’s A Life in Parts. Cranston is best known for playing the role of Walter White in the hit series Breaking Bad. I couldn’t resist picking it up. Thank you to the New York Public Library for supplying this girl’s thirst for stories. The book was a fun short read, and I love that it gives a multifaceted view on his actor journey. Each chapter is about a different role or job he played in real life, on the stage or on the screen. He wrote about the ways in which he balanced survival jobs while keeping acting professionally at the forefront of his goals. He was a night security guard, a truck loader, an ordained minister — yup some married people are walking this earth having been wed by Cranston and they may not even know it. Amidst the chaos of odd jobs, he didn’t think about it too much because his goal was clear. Acting was his calling. After Breaking Bad, he wrote about the challenge of playing Lynden B. Johnson in All The Way onstage. Cranston wrote after weeks of being terrified of memorizing text, “Oh. That’s why I went through this. The monastic life. The doubt. The work. The pain. It was all part of it.” Cranston won a Tony for his Broadway debut in All The Way, and is currently nominated for another Tony Award for his current part in The Network.
At the time that Breaking Bad was running on primetime TV, Walter White was a role that was pushing boundaries in American television because it was the first time a character had a clear trajectory: from being pathetically good to being badass bad. After each compelling episode I watched the credits roll in, and I would say “damn you Vince Gilligan!” with my fists to the sky. It was such a wild ride and I was addicted. This show was pushing boundaries because before Breaking Bad, characters on tv would more or less stay the same. Now, all of a sudden this black mirror is awakening us, showing us that human beings are not consistent especially when our circumstances change. In the first episode, White is diagnosed with cancer with two years to live at best. A beautiful story unfolds. Every living thing goes through change — hopefully in the name of growth, though it was cancer growth for Walter White. If I’m not changing I’m not growing. Thank you to your bountiful wisdom, Walter White, chemistry teacher turned meth producer.
Many people assume that an actor gets successful by luck. To Cranston, growing up in a broken household, he attributes his ongoing success from having a stable home life as an adult. Cranston says, “Whenever young actors ask me for advice, I always tell them: get your house in order. Your relationships, your health, your personal life: that’s your foundation.” He was a hustling actor, yes, but he knew from seeing his father’s and mother’s own struggles with their creative journeys, that having a stable home life was just as important as any career. “Fatherhood has been such a part. And it’s been my favorite one.” He also describes clutter as senseless and “devoid of reason.” Do you think he knows Marie Kondo? I imagine them both having a chat at the water cooler backstage of the Tony’s, decluttering and rearranging the craft services table.
Earlier in his career, Cranston felt like he hit a creative plateau. After seeking help from a private coach, Cranston reoriented himself towards the process of auditioning: “I wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. I wasn’t going to compete with the other guys. I was going to give something…My job was to be compelling. Take some chances. Serve the Text. Enjoy the process.” He also worked as a Production Assistant and got to work with some named actors who treated him nicely. He took note that successful actors were kind; they were attentive to other people around them. They remembered people’s names. They gave credit when credit was due. They listened and had normal conversations with crew members and developed amicable relationships with them. They collaborated with the director and their fellow actors to serve the storytelling.
Actors are not celebrities. Actors are watchers. We watch people and study human behavior. Wherever I go, I am consciously gathering research for future roles, roles not even written yet. I’ve worked a multitude of day jobs, with all kinds of people. As a nanny, I humorously observed how kids have the ability to manipulate their grownups and vice versa. As an admin assistant in a boardroom, I have observed people in suits one-upping each other. I observe how women mask themselves in order to participate in the meetings. One time, I walked into the office with my pencil skirt and jacket, and I observed an exec clipping his toenails on his fancy executive desk WHILE he was giving me a to do list for the day. Not all day jobs are always going to be fulfilling but, like Cranston, it’s important to me to find these gold nuggets of experience to bank.
Celebrities, on the other hand, are the watched. Cranston wrote how its harder to watch people when you are the one being watched. I don’t know what it feels like to be a celebrity but I know what it feels like to be the new person in a room when all eyes are on you. But as a celebrity, I imagine that people treat you with special glasses. Cranston talks of going to an awards show in a tux and receiving the red carpet treatment, and then coming home and his wife orders him to take out the trash. And he does it and he appreciates it.
I’m so glad Cranston wrote this memoir. I love that he wrote about the different roles that have added to the richness of his life. We are not just one thing. We can continue to surprise ourselves, especially if we keep learning new things as we grow and develop. As a voiceover actor, the more I embrace that fact, the more confident and successful I feel. Let’s celebrate our multifaceted way of being by trying new things or working on things we assume we’re not good at.