“It is unprecedented,” marvels Bryan Cranston. “We have not been able to be privy to someone’s impulsive thought patterns—and that’s what they are for him.”
We are, of course, discussing the personal Twitter account of President Donald Trump: America’s agonizing alarm clock. It has “real” in the handle because egomania, trades in gibberish like “covfefe,” and nearly half its followers are faker than a Kellyanne Conway CNN hit, yet it is a valuable tool, offering us the commander in chief’s thoughts at their most unvarnished.
They are still exhausting. And between the tweets, diplomatic gaffes, ally-alienating speeches, and daily (hourly?) developments in the Trump-Russia probe, it’s hard to turn away from the flames engulfing the country. Many are on the brink of going full-Howard Beale—opening their window, sticking their head out and screaming, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!”
But fear not, my fellow Americans: Walter White is right there with you.
“I find myself throughout the day making a point to just limit my exposure to input. I just don’t want the bombardment to continue,” says Cranston.
“I was anticipating that there was something going to happen on this presidential tour throughout the Middle East, that something was going to come up. So we’re all sitting there waiting and worrying, ‘What is going to happen?’ ‘What will he do?’” he continues. “Then there’s the issue of Melania swatting his hand away, and everybody is contemplating that. It’s like, Oh my God. And it either affirms or makes people who don’t believe in it laugh and think, ‘Oh yeah, she hates him.’ But it depends on what side of the fence you land on. It’s all information. It’s being able to recognize that this is all a tool, and you need to control it.”
Which brings us to Wakefield, Cranston’s latest film. Written and directed by Robin Swicord, and adapted from an E.L. Doctorow short story of the same name, it tells the tale of Howard Wakefield (Cranston), an unassuming fella who appears to be living the American dream—beautiful wife (Jennifer Garner), two sharp daughters, good job, house in the ‘burbs—yet one day chooses to vanish from their lives. He retires to an attic above his garage, all the while deriving voyeuristic pleasure from observing his family as they deal with his loss.
Sadistic? Perhaps. But it’s Cranston’s all-out performance, replete with voiceover narration allowing us a window into Wakefield’s tormented soul, that makes this “descension” so damn compelling. As his character transforms into a more extreme version of later Howard Hughes—caveman beard, peeing in bottles, scavenging for food—he feels a sense of liberation, having divorced himself from the banality of routine.
“He gets down to that place of utter simplicity. He became an animal—a human animal—in its simplest form, worrying about shelter, food, and clothing. And then he built from there,” offers Cranston. “Once he got to that level, would he get to a point where he missed his former life and just say, ‘What am I doing? I have to go back,’ or would he go ‘This is who I was meant to be. This kind of freedom. The Howard Wakefield Manhattan lawyer was just armor I put on every morning, it’s not who I was.’”
The Emmy-winning Breaking Bad star likens Wakefield’s journey of self-discovery to that of Caitlyn Jenner, who spent years masquerading as “Bruce” before finding her truth.
“Look at Caitlyn Jenner. For decades, she lived this different life,” Cranston explains. “But she confessed, ‘I never, ever felt comfortable in what I was doing. It was what I was supposed to be doing; what I was capable of doing. And so I did it.’ I wonder how many people are living their lives like that—not just from a sexual-identity frame point, but just in terms of existence. What is the thing you feel truly at home with?”
Wakefield’s slow descent into madness also speaks to the soothing—and frankly, sanity-keeping—effect that women can have on men, and how if you remove women from the equation, a man left to his own devices is a troubling prospect. Those unhinged 7 a.m. tweets and increasingly erratic behavior by our president? It may have a little something to do with the fact that he’s waking up alone while his wife is several states away and apparently wants nothing to do with him.
Cranston’s character in Wakefield, on the other hand, is at least afforded the ability to observe his lovely wife and two daughters. And the remove seems to not only instill in him a sense of comfort, but also has the effect of bringing him closer to them by persuading the lonely lawyer to ponder his role in their lives.
“I think there is that. And perhaps that’s why E.L. Doctorow wrote it to where he has two daughters, as opposed to two boys or a boy and a girl,” wonders Cranston. “They have a natural sense of comforting each other in times of crisis in a very emotional, physical, and tactical way, and maybe that was why. When he looked in on them, it was by and large very peaceful and very warm, as opposed to any acrimony he may have been experiencing.”
One way Cranston the man has been avoiding the cacophony of late is by treating himself to complete silence before he goes to sleep. Otherwise, he says, it’s difficult to get a good night’s rest in given the constant onslaught of news.
“I silence the noise. I turn it off,” he says. “I certainly don’t look at any news when I’m contemplating bedtime. When I’m in that realm of slowing down, teeth-brushing, quiet time, getting into bed, you don’t want to look at any news. Nothing to stimulate. You want to shut it down.”
“We are in a position where you can have non-stop, 24-7 information being fed into your head. It could be politics, it could we war, it could be fashion, it could be sports. You could listen to it non-stop without any break whatsoever,” he adds. “So what we need is to properly use this tool for us—not let the tool use us, but use the tool. We need to recognize that all of technology is a tool, and we should be able to control it and not have it control us. The way for me to do that is to just turn it all off. When you turn it all off and you sit there, you’ll hear something that’s very rare in our day and age: silence. And it’s very therapeutic.”
Another way people have tuned out the noise is through comedy—in particular Saturday Night Live, which enjoyed record ratings in its stellar 42nd season. But with the late-night sketch show on hiatus till fall, and Alec Baldwin seemingly nearing the end of his tenure donning the wig and too-long tie, they may soon be looking for a new Trump.
And Cranston, who debuted a killer Donald Trump impression on the Today show not too long ago, is game to join in on the SNL fun.
“I hosted once and I did a little ‘Live from New York it’s Saturday night!’ last December. I really enjoy it over there. There’s a tremendous amount of creative energy and Lorne is phenomenal as a leader, decade after decade with all the changes and to remain on top,” says Cranston. “I would absolutely love to play in that sandbox. And that also is therapeutic. Why is Stephen Colbert now at the top of the ratings? Because people want the outlet. They want to be able to laugh at what they’re seeing because most people can’t believe what they’re seeing. It’s frightening. It’s like, Oh my God.”