Bryan Cranston as Michael Desiato in Your Honor
Bryan Cranston as Michael Desiato in season two of Your Honor
Bryan Cranston as Michael Desiato and Margo Martindale as Elizabeth in season two of Your Honor
What, you think Bryan Cranston is going to attach himself to a project just because he's drawn to a good script? This is Bryan Cranston. The one who knocks!
"I have a method that involves giving an evaluation score to everything I read," he explains. He awards the most points to any well-executed story that "resonates, compels, intrigues and engages me." Cranston — a fifteen-time Emmy nominee and six-time winner — next factors in character, the director's vision, the cast and shooting location. The paycheck, by the way, "is nowhere on the list and never part of my decision-making process. I say that openly and honestly."
That said, the harrowing Showtime legal thriller Your Honor — which unfurls its second season January 15 — was right on the money. Cranston stars as Michael Desiato, a onetime prominent New Orleans judge who's gone to extreme (and illegal) lengths to protect his teen Adam (Hunter Doohan) from the local mafia after Adam accidentally kills the son of a kingpin (Michael Stuhlbarg) in a hit-and-run collision. The web of desperate lies and secrets culminates in (spoiler alert) Adam's tragic shooting death.
The veteran and in-demand actor had every intention of wrapping the show after that shocking finale. "I thought it was a very fitting, Shakespearean ending," he says. But showrunner Peter Moffat conceived of a compelling idea for a second season, and Cranston couldn't resist. Now disbarred, distraught and disheveled, "Michael Desiato is a man who's lost everything," Cranston says. "We're going to see what happens to someone going through despair and work through those five stages of grief. But I also enjoyed playing the redemptive side to him."
In addition to his work in front of the camera, Cranston gives notes on all the episode outlines and rough cuts in his role as executive producer. "It's a massive undertaking," he says. All the responsibilities equate to less time on the couch to watch television. "I have a tendency to be active and creative as opposed to recreative," he shares. "I do want to tip the scales a little bit and relax more."
But Cranston did steal a few moments to compile his seven shows for Emmys.com. And true to his fastidious nature, he divvied up his list to encompass childhood favorites, influential non-fiction entries and the series that directly impacted his incredible career.
- The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959–64)
From a dramatic standpoint, it wasn't like anything I'd ever seen. It was scary, it challenged me, it entertained me. It was radical for its time and upset the applecart. I don't think I missed any of them. Looking back, I remember the episode about Mr. Frisby the raconteur [1962's "Hocus-Pocus and Frisby"], who tells all these tall tales about his life. Then these aliens come down and take him because they think he's a good human sample subject, but they realize he's lying and back off. Then he tells the story about the time he was abducted by aliens and nobody believes him.
- The Andy Griffith Show (CBS, 1960–68)
It represents my bucolic childhood in the 1960s when I was able to jump on my bike and go anywhere I wanted. My friends and I had that same freedom that appeared on the show, which my daughter watched with envy. And the show leaned into this concept completely with a humorous note that was also comforting and reliable and consistent. Andy was like this surrogate parent I felt safe with. In retrospect, I also learned from watching Andy and Don Knotts how to deliver a comic line and why something was funny and how you build a character.
- 60 Minutes (CBS, 1968–)
I wasn't necessarily a keen observer at first because it was so serious. But as I developed my interest in expanding my horizons of awareness, I found that it suited my insatiable curiosity in wanting to know more about life beyond the borders of the United States. So, I'd go to the library and find out a little more about the Shah of Iran or the cosmonauts of Russia or the after-effects of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I just loved that it covered the basis of life and did so in a respectful journalistic way. And if you invested time and energy into watching, you really gained something.
- Saturday Night Live (NBC, 1975–)
Younger generations think it's just that show with funny sketches. But when it first came on the air, I remember thinking that it broke ground because it appealed to young people like me. A cool rock 'n' roll group would come on, not Lawrence Welk. And there was a forbidden fruit aspect to it, too — my younger sister longed for the day when she could stay up late and watch. I hosted in 2011. Given my history with the show, hearing [announcer] Don Pardo say, "And starring. . . Bryan Cranston!" I went, "Oh my god, look where I am!" It was surreal and just a blast. And I mean that in every sense of the word, including the propulsion.
- Seinfeld (NBC, 1989–98)
It impacted me for two reasons. First, I was on it [as faux Jewish dentist Tim Whatley] and learned a tremendous amount of comedy from watching Jerry [Seinfeld] and Larry [David]. They would carve into a script like they were surgeons who had to keep that patient alive. It wasn't careless or hasty. On the entertainment side, I thoroughly enjoyed the way each episode came together. All four characters had an agenda that came out like a tapestry. That was very rare at the time and exceedingly difficult to do. There was also sophistication, nuance, subtleties and callbacks. What an extraordinary gift for me as an artist to be invited to play with them.
- Malcolm in the Middle (Fox, 2000–06)
I realized from my comedy influences that I didn't have to work hard — just work smart and stay true to the character to get my slice in there. My character Hal wasn't a loquacious guy, so I came up with the distinction that he was distracted from his family but not disinterested. This gave me tremendous confidence. I also thought it was a brilliantly written show. [Creator] Linwood Boomer told America, "We're going to go crazy with this boy energy, but we're also going to give you a sense of familial comfort. You will know that this family loves each other." As a performer, I realized it was my responsibility to take the audience on this journey so they could think, "That was a journey worth taking. Thank you."
- Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–13)
[Creator] Vince Gilligan is a genius who developed a completely empathetic character. You felt for this guy. When he started this illicit drug dealing, you think, "Oh, this is temporary. He's sick and needs to set up his family." You make excuses for him. But the character changes over the course of the show, which had never been done in the history of television. Tony Soprano remained Tony Soprano. Archie Bunker remained Archie Bunker. Ross and Rachel remained Ross and Rachel. I knew I wanted to be a part of it, but there was resistance out of the studio and rightfully so. I was seen as this goofy, silly dad. How's he going to play Scarface? But Vince went to bat for me and said, "He's the guy. He can do it."
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.