The past decade has been pretty great for Bryan Cranston. Over ten years he’s earned six Emmys for Breaking Bad, a Tony for playing President Lyndon B. Johnson in All The Way, and an Oscar nomination for Trumbo. Now Last Flag Flying, his military drama with acclaimed filmmaker Richard Linklater, has just opened the 55th New York Film Festival.
The film follows a Vietnam veteran who asks his friends from the Marine Corps to help bury his son — killed in Afghanistan. The movie deals not only with the emotional landscape of losing a loved one, but also the relationship between sentiment and youth. Despite the unfortunate circumstances of their reunion, Cranston’s character Sal can’t help but reminisce fondly about their time in the service.
“I think it is only natural that with age comes reflection and nostalgia,” Cranston says. “It is hard not to look back on simpler times with rose-colored glasses.” The feeling is one that the 61-year-old actor can relate to, as he prepares to open a new play in London, thoughts of road trip vacations — like the ones he took in his early 20s — are creeping into his head.
Richard Linklater does an amazing job balancing bitter grief and cathartic laughter. Did you find that difficult as an actor in those scenes?
I find that for me to buy in to any narrative there needs to be a significant amount of humor to buoy the dramatic content. It gives the storytelling a richer texture. It gives you a chance to breathe. I remember I was 13 years old when my grandfather died. During the funeral there was a group of people sharing jokes that he used to tell. I was furious at the time because I didn’t understand why they were so happy. But now I know it was helping them deal with the pain of the moment.
How did you get into the mind of a character that has gone through something as conflicting and dynamic as Vietnam?
I think Vietnam was the first war that veterans were coming back and sharing their stories. Leading to films like Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon. It was also the first war that people were truly questioning the ethics and moralities of . Those questions continue on now with Iraq. There are a variety of reactions under those circumstances. Guilt. Pride. Nobility. Shame. Honor. Duty. Following orders. Fuck the orders. As an actor portraying a character that is dealing with all of that you have to filter through them.
Everyone in the cast is a force, between Laurence Fishbourne, Steve Carell, and yourself. How did you all get along?
It was a truly collaborative experience with everyone. There was improvising, which is a testament to Richard, because we were able to really know what our characters would say in any given moment. I had worked with Laurence before, and I always learn from him, because he has been working since the Stone Age. [Laughs]
There is a flag ceremony scene, in which you and Laurence fold the flag at the funeral. How was it filming that moment?
There were consultants on the set to teach us precisely how to do it. It is very exact. There is a great honor and nobility to the ceremony. They told us, “Take your time.” It was about doing it right, and not doing it quick. The hand position and how you present it is all very specific.
Last Flag Flying is a companion piece to Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail starring Jack Nicholson. Do you remember seeing that film?
I was actually in the middle of a two-year motorcycle trip with my brother Kyle, when The Last Detail came out. I was on the road traveling, getting odd jobs to pay for dinner and sleeping outdoors.
How did those experiences shape you?
There is something about traveling out of your comfort zone toward somewhere that you have never been before that allows you to grow. I had an old Honda motorcycle I beat up. Every morning was a mystery; you just get up early and head out onto the road. You don’t know what is over the hill when the sun is coming up. You don’t know where you are eating breakfast. I loved that. I don’t think we are uncomfortable often enough these days. That makes it harder for us to remember who we actually are without all of the things that we surround ourselves with constantly.
Your life has changed quite a bit since that time.
It took me a long time to reach this point in my career. I knew early on that I was going to be in for the long haul. I put the time in to pursue my love for acting, as long as I was able to provide for my family. Making it to this point feels better, I believe, because I persisted in pursuing what I loved.
Have you upgraded your bike since then?
I have indeed. I bought a Harley-Davidson Softail not too long ago, and with that I did Route 66 from Santa Monica to Chicago. Then after that I went on to Route 50, which people call the Loneliest Highway.
Is there another trip in the works?
I am hoping to do one after I finish doing this play in London. It is based on the movie Network. I play Howard Beale, and we are going through until March. But once it is done I’d like to plan one. Not on a motorcycle this time, but in a car so that I can take my wife with me. There is only one state that I haven’t really traveled through and that is North Dakota, so I need to make sure I go through there at some point. I have been in every other state a lot. The next trip that I want to take is a tour of a few national state parks. I want to do a loop of the Grand Tetons, Glacier National Park, and Yellowstone National Park. Stop on the side of the road and see some nature.