Bryan Cranston’s First Amendment Crusade: On ‘Trumbo,’ Trump, and Why He Respects Fox News

The award-winning actor sat down to discuss his fine turn as blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, the political divide in America, and his three words for Dick Cheney.

Walter McBride/Getty Images

At this point, Bryan Cranston could rest on his laurels.

He made his first big splash as the infamous Judaism convert-regifter on Seinfeld; starred in the Peabody Award-winning show Malcolm in the Middle; and, of course, dazzled us as the iconic antihero Walter White on Breaking Bad. Yes, the 59-year-old actor has had a hand in arguably the greatest comedy series and the greatest drama series ever.

But the cool Californian is far from finished.

In director Jay Roach’s Trumbo, he turns in his best cinematic performance to date as Dalton Trumbo, the embattled screenwriter who became the face of the Hollywood Ten—a fraternity of communist sympathizers crucified by the House Un-American Activities Committee for their political beliefs, and subsequently blacklisted from Hollywood.

Trumbo, however, would not be silenced. During his blacklisting, the most prolific screenwriter in the biz wrote under a pseudonym, penning the screenplays for films like Roman Holiday, Exodus, and Spartacus, and ultimately grinding the Red Scare witch hunt to a screeching halt.

The Daily Beast sat down with Cranston to discuss his stellar turn as Trumbo, and much more.

Whenever one plays a larger than life character like Trumbo, you run the risk of turning him or her into a caricature. How did you modulate your performance?

It was a concern of mine. What I did was I told Jay Roach, our director, that in order for me to find this guy—and he was a big, theatrical man—even if I did an impersonation of him, it could still be too big for our film. So I said, “Let me go out there on a limb, and if it starts to crack, pull me back and we’ll modulate and find it.” Some takes we did were big and some were minute, and then in editing he could say, “OK, for this take we want him to be bigger, and then for this other take let’s go smaller.” It’s the advantage that you have doing film work as opposed to stage, because you can manipulate the performance that way.

What do you think we’ve learned from the Hollywood blacklist, and do you think that, given how politically polarized we are today, something like the HUAC witch hunt could happen again?

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?

It’s interesting how the more things change, the more they stay the same. In the eyes of many Americans, Russia is still seen as an enemy of the United States, and Putin has, it seems, been cast as a Bond villain.

I think as far as a country’s ideology, America has nearly always been at odds with Russia. They were absolutely needed to be an ally during World War II, but shortly thereafter it was identified that this communist regime under Stalin was unbelievably cruel and vicious. But the truth is they weren’t communists. Stalin wasn’t a communist; he was a fascist dictator. But the name “communism” stuck to that. The American Communist Party at the time, which really grew out of the Depression where nobody had a job, was supposed to be like the political arm of labor unions so that more jobs for the working man could be created. But they had the title “Communist” in there. If they called themselves the American Worker Party, maybe things would’ve been different. But with the name “Communist,” people thought, oh, well the American Communist Party must want to take over the country, so we need to weed them out! But HUAC proved to be totally ineffectual. All they did was put people out of work and destroy lives for expressing their opinion. It was the thought police. A very dangerous, dangerous thing.

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Even the term “socialism” has been demonized now by association. But if you look at two of the greatest American presidents of the 20th century—FDR and LBJ—they would be classified as socialists.

It has been demonized—and they’ve done well. The fear mongers have been able to do that. And back in Trumbo’s day, they were able to convey the perceived truth, which is far more important than the truth itself in the eyes of the public. What the public perceives to be the truth is how they behave—and how they respond—and they were able to get this sensibility out and scare the people into thinking that this was happening. We saw that in the middle of George W. Bush’s presidency where Dick Cheney said something to the effect of, “If Bush isn’t re-elected, there will be another attack on American soil.” That’s nothing but fear mongering. And shame on him. If I ever get a chance to meet him, I would say those three words: Shame on you.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders is running on a socialist platform, and his agenda is all about destigmatizing “socialism.”

I think it’s great. Even if I disagreed, I think it’s great that there’s a groundswell of thoughts and ideas. I think it’s great that Donald Trump is in the mix. He’s a maverick. He says what he wants to say, and it forces the other candidates to be more real, more honest, and more open. That’s what’s getting through to the people—that this guy doesn’t give a shit and just says what he wants to say. But as his campaign is going along, you notice that Trump is getting more and more conservative in his speech and his policy, getting a little more controlled, and conforming. He’s becoming a politician, which is an interesting thing to see.

At the same time, many of the things he says are highly problematic. When you talk about his immigration comments—branding the majority of Mexican immigrants “rapists” and drug mules—that is very troubling.

Right. If a sitting politician said the things he did, he’d have to resign. For him to say, “I don’t think John McCain is a hero. Personally, I like when my heroes don’t get caught,” it’s like, oh my god! Are you kidding me?! How can you make a statement like that and not only survive, but thrive? It’s amazing what he’s done.

Many actors on iconic TV series’ are forever tethered to that role. Why do you think you’ve managed to avoid this fate? You still manage to disappear into roles, and people don’t just see Walter White every time you pop up in something.

I made a conscious effort about a year-and-a-half before I knew Breaking Bad was going to come to an end to step away from television and do theater. I did All the Way in Boston and for six months in New York on Broadway, and had a great experience. I was able to do something that I loved to do—I love to act—and do it in a big way, but not for the masses to see. So I was able to step away from the whirlwind of what Breaking Bad became, allow it to calm down, and still be active. I don’t really care what I look like in person, but I do have an everyman kind of face where I can do a lot of things. I’m not striking to look at, so you don’t go, “Oh my god, that’s Jon Hamm!” and I’m grateful for that primarily because it offers me the opportunity to do a diversity of roles. So doing Dalton Trumbo or Lyndon Johnson is such a joy.

As far as Trumbo goes, what do you think the legacy is of the Hollywood Ten, and how they were chewed up and spit out by the Hollywood machine?

The primary responsibility for a government is to protect its people—but the same is true for unions, whose number one responsibility is to protect their membership. And they failed. The Screen Actors Guild, the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, they all turned against their membership. Anarchy and fear were rampant. They were the same tactics that were used in Nazi Germany: Are you helping the Jews? Who is helping the Jews? Point them out! It’s Gestapo tactics, and they were used here. Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party? was an illegal and un-American thing to ask. It’s protected under the First Amendment. It’s no one’s business.

Do you see this happening a bit in Hollywood? It seems like if you’re a Republican in Hollywood, you’ll be cast off a bit and demonized.

It shouldn’t. The biggest problem I think we have is the polemic nature of politics, and in Hollywood, it’s castigating someone who doesn’t think the same as you and branding them the villain. I look at Fox News and I honestly don’t demonize them at all; I honestly believe that what they’re saying they believe in, and for that I can’t fault them. I disagree, but I hope they can say the same about me—that I’m truly fighting for what I think are in the best interests of the country—because I think they are, too. We can have discourse and we can disagree with each other, and as Trumbo says in the movie, “We both have the right to be wrong.” That’s America.