Bryan Cranston Asks “Would You Become A Criminal To Protect Your Child’s Life?”
By Kate Hahn
Award-winning actor Bryan Cranston is an expert at playing men whose desperation leads them to fall from grace. Or maybe even swan dive.
He held us rapt on the crime drama Breaking Bad as brilliant Walter White, a chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin whose descent began after he was diagnosed with a deadly cancer and started a profitable meth-making biz to leave money behind for his family.
In the new 10-part Showtime legal thriller Your Honor (Sundays at 10pm ET/PT beginning Dec. 6), he is another father on the edge: a respected, ethical New Orleans judge, Michael Desiato, whose teen son Adam (Hunter Doohan) is involved in a deadly hit-and-run that kills another youth, a mafia scion.
Michael believes the vengeful crime family will murder both him and Adam if they learn who was responsible, so he orchestrates a coverup. Things go south fast.
We talked to the actor about why he’s drawn to playing flawed humans; where this suspenseful, danger-tinged story is headed; and how he and his loved ones are coping in our challenging times.
Why did you want to play Michael Desiato?
Bryan Cranston: What all the characters I’ve been attracted to have in common is a struggle: They’re attempting to do the right thing, but they have ambitions of their own. Walter White, Dalton Trumbo [from the 2015 film Trumbo; a blacklisted screenwriter during the 1950s Red Scare], Lyndon Johnson [Cranston played the 36th U.S. president on Broadway in All the Way and later in the HBO movie adaptation]: They’re flawed humans with strengths and weaknesses, secrets and pain — and some joy mixed in. Michael grapples with his oath of office and the private oath he took when he became a parent, to protect his child.
You have a child. Did you feel any personal agony over this story?
Any parent would relate. Once you have kids, there’s something outside of yourself much more important. I’ve asked people, “Would you become a criminal to protect your child’s life?” Without hesitation they say, “Absolutely.” When I ask, “Would you take another person’s life?” there’s a line. Where your moral line is — that’s what makes this story so attractive.
Michael crosses his line almost right away. How bad does it get?
How bad can you imagine? Michael takes his experience as a lawyer and judge and uses it to think like a seasoned, effective criminal trying to get away with a crime. But one coverup after another comes to the surface. He has to double down on lying, developing alibis and destroying evidence. It devolves into a very harrowing, nightmarish story.
Does Michael have other secrets? And can he keep them all?
Nothing is simple. He had a complex relationship with his now deceased wife, which will come out [as the story unfolds]. He also has a flirtatious relationship with lawyer Lee Delamere [Carmen Ejogo] that may develop into something. Michael is engaged in some nefarious actions — how can he possibly keep that out of his personal life?
What research did you do to play a judge?
I spent a lot of time in New Orleans, in and around the courthouse where we’re shooting. I would sit in on a trial, an arraignment, jury selection. Judge Franz Zibilich mentored me. He was instrumental in helping me shape the approach [to the character] from a legal and a human standpoint. You can have legal compassion for [the people who come through your courtroom], but devoting emotion toward that, case after case after case, will bring you down.
How did it feel to wear the robe?
It’s cumbersome, clumsy and baggy. At least we’re not in England, where we would also have to don white wigs.
The pandemic interrupted shooting and now you’re back in New Orleans wrapping up. You also had COVID yourself. Have you been reflecting on that?
I had COVID in March. I got it from my wife Robin; she was surprised she had it. We managed. When we talk to other people, ours was comparatively very mild. I have several people who are 20 or 30 years younger than me who had it far worse. COVID has put a stamp on this city; we’re trying to grapple with it. While the crew sets up, the actors stay in separate cubicles with Plexiglass dividers for everyone’s protection. It’s sad. If you stop socializing, a huge part of your human experience dies, so you have to figure out how to do it respectfully and safely. It’s depressing if you never leave your house.
Speaking of socializing, are you in touch with Breaking Bad costar Aaron Paul, who played Walter’s student-turned-assistant Jesse, or series creator Vince Gilligan?
Aaron and I have a Mezcal brand, Dos Hombres. If I may be so bold, we’re crushing it — in a little over a year it’s become the 12th largest-selling Mezcal [a distilled spirit] in America. We talk constantly. We’re very good friends and will be for life. A couple months ago we spent time with his family in Idaho, all quarantining. We took [COVID] tests before. Vince is a very good friend. He and his girlfriend and my wife and I plan to spend some time together soon — 6 feet apart.
Social distancing is going to make the holiday season very different this year. What are the Cranstons doing?
We’re going to say a lot of prayers. Millions of people are unemployed, homeless, hungry. Let’s forgo the present-giving and give back to our society. We’ll have a Christmas tree, because the smell of pine evokes warmth and hearth and home, but exchanging presents feels wrong. Robin and I will make donations to food banks, and things of that nature.
You are directing the season finale of Your Honor. What can you hint about it?
It will shock you. Michael Desiato attempts to become someone that he’s not, and any time someone compromises their soul, there is a price to be paid.