Bryan Cranston brings a true story to the screen with this weekend’s The Infiltrator, and in appreciation for his efforts, we decided to dig into his extensive filmography and select some of our favorite roles. Sure, you’ll find a nod to Walter White in here, but Mr. Cranston’s career is a heck of a lot more than Breaking Bad; from comedy to award-winning drama, there’s truly something for everyone in here. Make room in your queues, ’cause it’s time for Total Recall!
As Cranston’s profile has grown in recent years, he’s plowed some of that newfound clout back into his own production efforts — such as Sneaky Pete, recently ordered to series at Amazon, and the animated SuperMansion, which will debut its second season on Crackle in 2017. Working alongside a roster of voice talent that includes Keegan-Michael Key and Seth Green, Cranston stars as Titanium Rex, the aging leader of a past-its-prime group of heroes; although the results have thus far been neither universally acclaimed nor particularly widely seen, it’s worth checking out for Cranston fans and stop-motion enthusiasts with an off-kilter sense of humor. After all, how many cartoons give a guy the chance to play a character with a titanium hand and a prostate problem?
In a 2009 interview, Cranston pointed to this little-seen 1999 drama — which he produced, directed, wrote, and starred in — as the one project from his filmography that he didn’t think had gotten the attention it deserved. “I think Last Chance was an interesting tale,” he mused. “It’s the story of someone who doesn’t believe that they have any hope left in their life, and when an opportunity presents itself, will you even recognize it? Do you take advantage of it? Do you ignore it? So it was all about that, and about hope, and taking your last chance if it’s offered.”
After a few seasons of Breaking Bad, Cranston’s Hollywood stock had risen to the point where he was being actively sought out for movie roles — for example, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Cranston was Refn’s first choice for Shannon, the body shop owner whose lucrative side business involves hiring out his star employee (Ryan Gosling) as a no-questions-asked getaway driver, and even though Cranston’s plate was already pretty full — and the part was far from the movie’s showiest — he was sufficiently intrigued to sign on. The result? Screen time in one of the year’s most critically adored movies. “This,” wrote Deadspin’s Will Leitch, “is pop art of the highest degree.”
Like a lot of characters in Argo, Cranston’s character was an amalgam of actual individuals involved in the movie’s real-life story — and like many of the incredible actors assembled for the Oscar-winning drama, he didn’t have an overwhelming amount of screentime. But as Jack O’Donnell, the boss of CIA exfiltrator Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, Cranston plays a crucial role — both for Mendez, who relies on O’Donnell as his lifeline back to the States during his mission in Iran, and for the audience, who feel the tension and urgency of the situation back home through his increasingly strained efforts to pull the whole thing off. “Is it me,” wondered the San Diego Reader’s Scott Marks, “or should Bryan Cranston be in every film released?”
Okay, so Bryan Cranston isn’t in Godzilla for anywhere near the length of time he deserved — but that doesn’t take anything away from the fact that his character is the emotional centerpiece of the first act. As Joe Brody, the nuclear plant supervisor who’s among the first to suspect that the human race might be staring down the barrel of an enormous catastrophe, Cranston carried the burden of setting up a hugely over-the-top story in an easily relatable way, and he pulled it off with aplomb. The movie would have been a lot better if Joe stuck around a little longer, but the results are still pretty entertaining, and they offered Cranston a too-rare opportunity to display dramatic range in a blockbuster action thriller. “This is exactly what big summer movies ought to aspire to,” wrote NPR’s Ian Buckwalter. “Never short on dazzle, but unafraid to let us catch our breath once it’s been taken away.”
Cranston’s piled up a lot of screen credits over the years, but relatively few have been leading roles. One notable exception is 2015’s Trumbo, in which he portrays the legendary screenwriter during and after his politically motivated fall from professional grace. Delivering a full-bodied performance that neither lionized nor demonized Trumbo, Cranston proved he was more than capable of carrying a movie — even one that, as critics reluctantly pointed out, wasn’t necessarily up to its subject’s impeccable standards. “Cranston’s performance is the motor that runs Trumbo,” wrote Ty Burr for the Boston Globe. “And that motor never idles, never flags in momentum or magnetism or idealistic scorn.”
It takes a special kind of actor to disappear so far inside a character that the audience forgets it’s watching someone go to work, and that goes at least double when the character in question was a real-life individual. All of which is to say that Cranston deserves every bit of the voluminous praise he picked up for his work in All the Way, which dramatizes Lyndon B. Johnson’s actions during the period leading up to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After winning a Tony for his portrayal of Johnson on the stage, Cranston reprised the role for HBO’s film adaptation, and earned another round of critical applause. “All the Way should be admired for going the distance,” wrote Ben Travers for IndieWIRE, “and Cranston rewarded for holding it all together.”
Long before he stripped down to his briefs for Breaking Bad, Cranston made a habit of it on Malcolm in the Middle, the long-running Fox sitcom about a quirky suburban family rounded out by a brood of boys and led by a no-nonsense mom. As the father, Cranston was often just as much of a kid as his onscreen sons — and twice as afraid of their mother (Jane Kaczmarek) — adding yet another sweetly clueless sitcom dad to an already lengthy list. Yet while Malcolm didn’t exactly reinvent the TV comedy wheel, it did what it set out to do consistently well, and earned Cranston a passel of Emmy nominations along the way.
Cranston’s done a lot of fine work throughout his career, but he’ll probably always be most closely identified with Breaking Bad. It makes sense, really — how often does an actor get the chance to star in a hit series about a high school chemistry teacher who turns to manufacturing and selling his own meth in order to shore up funds for his family after learning he’s dying of cancer? Critically acclaimed and consistently successful in the ratings, Breaking Bad was also an awards magnet — not least for Cranston, whose depiction of Walter White’s descent into the criminal underworld netted him four Lead Actor Emmys during the show’s run. “One way or another, you’ve got to figure Walt is going down,” wrote the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s Mark Dawidziak during the final season. “And, thanks to Cranston, he’s going down in TV history as one of the medium’s most fascinating, memorable and grandly tragic characters.”