Having won Emmys, Golden Globes, a Tony, and an Oscar nomination for playing such dramatic operators as Walter White, Dalton Trumbo, and President Lyndon B. Johnson, Bryan Cranston was pleasantly surprised to return to comedy with John Hamburg’s “Why Him?” — even if it did mean a prolonged scene sitting on a toilet.
Specifically: While staying at the home of his daughter’s rich Silicon Valley boyfriend, Cranston’s character answers the call of nature, only to discover that his host’s house is paperless. The toilet upon which he is enthroned is a Japanese import with non-intuitive controls and no instruction book.
Think of a high-tech, all-in-one toilet/bidet combo and you get the idea.
“Yeah, it was in the script — I knew going in that I would be naked on a toilet,” Cranston says with a laugh. “That scene turned out to be about 45 minutes where we could not stop laughing.”
It’s an example of Hamburg’s comic mind, bringing together theme and real-world notions into one comically explosive scene.
Cranston’s character runs a large Michigan printing operation in dire straits. The family heads west to spend Christmas with his college-age daughter (Zoey Deutch) and her new boyfriend (James Franco).
“I’m telling a story about a guy who works in paper — and his daughter is in love with a guy who lives in a paperless house,” Hamburg says.
“Now I haven’t actually heard of that yet, but it’s not that far-fetched. I had heard about a Japanese toilet that supposedly does everything for you. And I had a Thanksgiving experience at my sister’s house of not being able to figure out her new toilet. We rolled that all into this scene.”
“Why Him?” actually began life as an idea that producer-director Shawn Levy (“Night at the Museum”) mentioned to Hamburg, while he was doing an (uncredited) polish on the script for Levy’s “Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.”
“I told him about this project I had in development — the premise was a guy meeting his daughter’s nightmare boyfriend,” Levy recalls. “And he took it and rigorously anchored the movie in character.”
Hamburg didn’t mind the overt similarities to hugely popular “Meet the Parents,” the 2000 hit he co-wrote starring Robert De Niro and Ben Stiller.
“What interested me was this idea of how the world has changed since I co-wrote ‘Meet the Parents’,” Hamburg says. “When we made that film, it felt like the grown-ups were in charge. Now it feels like the kids are in charge — so I was able to explore the same family dynamic from a different perspective. All these young people are shaping the direction of the world. And I thought, what if you’re Bryan’s age and the world is changing in front of your face? Losing control is scary. That’s a great premise for conflict and comedy.”
Once he had the actors on board, Hamburg sat down with them to add depth to the script. Franco, in particular, brought ideas that gave his character — an a tattooed, foul-mouthed and unfiltered tech billionaire with a good heart — more dimension.
“James felt that if his character’s need for a family could be his driving force, then he can do all these ridiculous things because it’s coming from a pure place,” Hamburg says. “He had a great instinct that this should be a guiding force for the character.
“We got together six months or so before we started filming and worked with Bryan going over the script,” Franco says. “John did a big rewrite based on our meetings.”
Cranston’s conversations with Hamburg eased his reservations about the broadly comic role. “I was hesitant about the script initially, because of its simplicity,” he says. “But I had some long talks with John and his interest in building the characters through comedy.”
Reassured, he decided to dive in and let situations evolve.
Still, Franco needed to adjust because he came into the project expecting the intense Cranston of “Breaking Bad” and “All the Way.”
“I sort of forgot that he comes from comedy, that before ‘Breaking Bad,’ he was on ‘Malcolm in the Middle’,” Franco says. “It took me a little by surprise how good he was at improv and being comedic.”
“They are two extremely different individuals,” Hamburg says. “That’s true of their approach to acting and life. I was trying to tap into that when I went after them — and they played off each other incredibly well.”