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Playback: Bryan Cranston on ‘Last Flag Flying’ and the Loss of Civility in Politics

Welcome to “Playback,” a Variety podcast bringing you exclusive conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films.

The 55th annual New York Film Festival kicks off Thursday night with the world premiere of Richard Linklater’s “Last Flag Flying.” Based on the Darryl Ponicsan novel, a sequel to the author’s own 1970 book “The Last Detail” (though the new film is not, actually, a sequel to the 1973 Jack Nicholson film), it tells the story of three Vietnam vets who reconvene decades later under somber circumstances. Bryan Cranston stars alongside Steve Carell and Laurence Fishburne as Sal Nealon, a Norfolk bar owner who’s high on life and desperate to drag anyone else along for the ride.

Even though Cranston isn’t actually playing Billy “Badass” Buddusky, a character that helped make Nicholson a household name, he is playing him of a fashion. Nevertheless, he was not tempted to go back and look at the three-time Oscar-winning legend’s work again, lest it get in the way.

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“Nicholson is such an indelible personality that I certainly didn’t want to go back and revisit the movie and see what he did, because it would seep into the performance,” Cranston says. “I don’t want to do a poor imitation of the great Jack Nicholson. I just wanted to find out who [Sal] was. For me, the character of Sal is all-consuming, but for a reason. He’s trying to drown out the demons that rise up within him.”

The last time I spoke to Cranston, Donald Trump was a topic of conversation. It was late-2015 and he was merely candidate Trump at the time, but Cranston called him “a wake-up call for America.” Linklater’s latest promises to resonate all the more in a climate seemingly driven toward war at all costs, and for Cranston, the country missed that wake-up call and is still very much asleep.

“I think there has to be less of a focus on the individual and more of a focus on what is best for our country,” he says. “Something I learned when I was doing ‘All the Way,’ playing Lyndon Johnson, was that during his time there was a lot more civility in politics. It was very common for men and women in Congress, on the opposite side of their ideological fence, to be able to share drinks together and meals and meet their families and have picnics. By doing so, by breaking bread with the opposing team, let’s say, when it comes time to work out a deal, you are less likely to throw that person under the bus. The climate is so bad now that if you and I were in opposite parties and you had a fantastic idea that would really help the country, I can’t support it. And that really has to change. It’s not about individuals winning, it’s about what’s best for the country.”

For more, including thoughts on the evolution of television and how he would envision a Walter White cameo on “Better Call Saul,” listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.

Subscribe to “Playback” at iTunes.

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