Bryan Cranston still talks to his “Malcolm in the Middle” boys long after they left the house. “My love for them wasn’t just on camera, but I developed a paternal feeling for them off camera,” says Cranston, who played the good-hearted father who didn’t always know best from 2000-06. “It’s the same with R.J. (Mitte).”
On television, Cranston went from lovable goof to Mr. Chips gone wrong as Walter White on the much-lauded “Breaking Bad,” where he’s the fractured father of a teen boy, Walter Jr. (Mitte), and the daddy figure for his meth-cooking former student Jesse (Aaron Paul).
While W.C. Fields famously cautioned actors against working with kids, some thesps have relished their time as mentors to their on-screen children. TV series require actors to spend a concentrated time together, and the relationships between veteran and fledgling actors can often take on a learning experience that aids both the performances and the individuals.
Cranston points to a scene he shared with young Mitte about missing Walter Jr.’s 16th birthday party. When Walt breaks down, his son comforts him. Later, when Walt apologizes for showing weakness, his son says at least his dad was “real.”
Earlier, Mitte had shared a story with Cranston about visiting his grandfather in the hospital and how awkward he felt, wanting to reach out to him yet resistant. Cranston told him to bring that to the scene.
“He wasn’t quite there in the scene, and right before (the director) said ‘action,’ I told him to think of his grandfather and look at me. There was a mistiness in his eyes and he went to a whole new level,” Cranston says. “He volunteered information, put his trust in me and I was there to say we as actors can use that experience.”
When he directed an episode of “Modern Family,” Cranston says that child actors turned the tables and taught him a thing or two — such as how to engage in modern warfare by stalking and killing with a Nerf gun.
“We took the whole lunch break with teams,” Cranston says. “It makes you realize that even though you have responsibilities and have to learn your lines, you have to remember to have fun too.”
Rico Rodriguez’s onscreen step-dad, Ed O’Neill, often helps his young charge with scenes.
“Ed’s style is so stripped down and basic,” says executive producer Christopher Lloyd. “He tells Rico to just tell the story, don’t act it.”
Lloyd says as the show has gone on, Luke (Nolan Gould) has been inheriting more and more of his dad, Phil’s (Ty Burrell), traits.
“Ty will show Nolan how he narrows his eyes, or cocks his chin,” Lloyd says. “It’s wonderful to watch the two together.”
Lloyd says the show’s chemistry is a delicate balance of mentor-acolyte between professionals.
“You want to be respectful (of the children) as professionals, but this is also how they learn,” Lloyd says. “They have a ready team of teachers. But they know these kids are actors who hold their own.”
Often there’s that sense of respect between pros despite the age and experience levels.
Damian Lewis of “Homeland” had T-shirts with “The Brody Bunch” made for his on-screen family and often has his on-screen kids Jackson Pace, 13, and Morgan Saylor,18, come to his home to spend time with his young children and go for hikes.
“Getting to know each other leads to greater intimacy in your scenes, but it’s not a good idea to have too many directors on the set,” Lewis says. “These two kids are good natural actors.”
Lewis tries to avoid reaching out to child actors who can’t concentrate or don’t quite get the nuance of a scene because of bad experiences on other sets.
“You reach out and forget what you need to do as a performer and I’ve been stung by that once or twice, so you selfishly have to remember what you have to achieve as an actor,” Lewis says. “You have to afford them the same respect that you would give a seasoned performer, to concentrate on what they have to do. I don’t interfere with that too much.”
Cranston says he makes himself available if the young actors are receptive, but doesn’t force it on them.
“You don’t want to short-shrift them, but you need to give them their due,” he says. “I like to give them a one-word verb or visceral explanation, and have it resonate as opposed to giving them a line reading. It gives them a chance of discovery, and that’s a lesson that goes deeper.”
Cranston says he benefited from mentors he worked with early in his career, from James Garner to Dick Van Dyke.
“They set a tone of how to behave and who they are as people that taught me a lot,” Cranston says. “I try to pass on (to fellow actors) to be in the moment. If you own that, you’ll be fine.”
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