When Bryan Cranston ended his run as wacky patriarch Hal on Fox’s hit comedy “Malcolm in the Middle,” he was offered two pilots in quick succession. But instead of jumping at the chance to start work on another project, he promptly turned both of them down.
“The description was ‘He’s a silly, goofy guy,’ ” Cranston recalls. “Well, I just did seven years of that and I would be derivative of myself. Why would I do that?”
Now that his turn as the iconic Walter White on AMC’s “Breaking Bad” has also reached the end, Cranston is once again facing what he calls the “champagne problem” of following up a character that has become a part of popular culture.
“The industry and human beings have a natural instinct to try to classify,” Cranston says. “I just happened to get some comedy roles, and it’s, ‘Oh, he’s a comedy guy.’ Then I do some more serious roles, and now, ‘He’s a drama guy,’ as opposed to ‘He’s an actor.’ We’re all just actors looking for the next opportunity.”
Going against a type an actor becomes famous for creating is something every lead actor nominee has experienced to varying degrees. Usually, throwing a curveball is the best way to keep audiences from thinking an actor is merely playing himself in every part. Jon Hamm, who portrays Don Draper on AMC’s “Mad Men,” took a guest role on NBC’s “30 Rock” that earned him plenty of “He’s handsome and funny!” praise, while Jim Parsons, aka Sheldon Cooper on CBS’ “The Big Bang Theory,” appeared in an understated dramatic role in HBO’s Emmy-nominated “The Normal Heart.”
Cranston says his way of maintaining a varied career is by stepping away from TV after more than a decade to develop projects, work in theater and pursue film roles.
“I made a very measured and calculated choice to not do television in a series role for at least three years,” Cranston says. “I need to give space to it. The ubiquity of TV certainly was surrounding me. I thought, ‘Well, I think it’s happiest for my career if I push away from that.’ ”
“Shameless” star William H. Macy, who earned an Oscar nomination for his role as Jerry Lundergaard in 1996’s “Fargo,” says he’s enjoyed the way his character Frank Gallagher has connected with audiences. The Showtime series is his first long-running TV show, and he does admit that playing the same role for an extended period inevitably blurs reality and fiction.
“There’s a downside to it, which is the actor and the character become synonymous at a certain point,” Macy says. “The writers start to copy the way you speak and your sense of humor and what they know of you. You finish seven or eight years of a run and then you get a film, and everyone says, ‘Oh, look, Frank’s the president now.’ It happens, and you just have to wait it out.”
The area gets a little more gray when an actor is playing himself, such as Louis C.K. on FX’s “Louie,” and Matt LeBlanc on Showtime’s “Episodes.” But “Episodes” creators Jeffrey Klarik and David Crane say the big-ego character of Matt LeBlanc was created outside the actual person.
“It’s fun because we’ll occasionally reference ‘Friends,’ but it is very much an invented character,” Crane says. “I mean, it’s so not Matt.”
Quips Klarik: “It’s much more based on Matthew Perry.”
“Whoa,” Crane replies.