Bryan Cranston took the stage at the University of Virginia’s John Paul Jones Arena on Sunday to raucous applause from thousands of students, faculty and community members, looking as happy to see the audience as they were to see him.
Cranston, an actor, writer, director and producer known for his starring role in the hit television series, “Breaking Bad,” was on Grounds for the annual UVA President’s Speaker Series for the Arts address. Joining alumnus Mark Johnson – an Academy Award-winning producer who worked with Cranston on “Breaking Bad” – the actor took the audience behind the scenes of his career, reflecting on the importance of the arts and offering advice with candor and impeccable comedic timing.
To the delight of the many “Breaking Bad” fans present, Cranston shared stories from the set of the AMC series – widely acknowledged as one of the most popular and acclaimed television series ever – and discussed his own transformation into lead character Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher-turned-drug kingpin.
Johnson, acting as the moderator, questioned the actor about that role and many of his other performances, which include award-winning turns as Hal on “Malcolm in the Middle,” President Lyndon B. Johnson in “All the Way” and screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in “Trumbo.” He asked Cranston to describe how he selects and prepares for his roles and what he looks for when taking on new projects.
Ultimately, Cranston said, it all comes down to a good story.
“The story has to resonate with you,” he said. “Opening up the next episode of ‘Breaking Bad’ was like a treat. Even we, who worked closely on that show, could not predict where it was going. It was a gift.”
Another key for Cranston? Hard work. He shared several stories from his new memoir, “A Life in Parts,” delving into his difficult childhood with an absent father and an alcoholic mother, as well as the many odd jobs and no-name parts that he took before gaining traction in Hollywood.
“All you can control is focusing on getting better and getting smarter,” he said. “I knew I could outwork anyone.”
The actor also drilled that message into students on Saturday when he met with about 100 UVA drama students for a special Q&A session. Cranston specifically requested the smaller session, hoping to talk directly with students who are pursuing careers in the entertainment business.
“As a 21- or 22-year-old, I would have wanted to hear from someone who has been in it, to know what I should be careful of or what I should expect,” he said. “That is what I hope I am giving you.”
Student acapella groups The Virginia Belles and The Virginia Gentlemen performed prior to Cranston taking the stage at John Paul Jones Arena.
Ultimately, Cranston told drama students earlier in the week, their success will depend on their work ethic.
“There will always be people more talented than you and people less talented than you,” he said. “You can’t control that, but you can control how hard you work, and you can outwork everyone else.”
Along with hard work, luck plays a role, he acknowledged. If Cranston had been just a week or two later wrapping up a film project, he would not have been able to audition for the show “The X-Files,” where he met “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan.
“I could have easily missed that part, and I say that not to put a weight on you, but to lift it,” he said. “Control all of the things you can control, work and improve your talent, and believe that at some point, that luck will come your way.”
While introducing Cranston, UVA Vice Provost for the Arts Jody Kielbasa said, “There is a reason the arts are hailed as a universal language. They provide a sense of common cultural ground that is often lacking and increasingly important in our world today.”
Cranston later echoed that message.
“I think that a society that doesn’t embrace and nurture art in all forms, that society is not enlightened and will eventually wither,” he said. “It’s imperative that professors, students and the community support the local arts and teach these kids the joy and love of art.”
Cranston himself is an example of the possible impact of that support. Art helped him overcome a difficult childhood and find a career he loves.
“I can’t imagine having a luckier life than telling stories for a living,” he said.
Now that he has such a powerful platform, he is eager to help the next generation of artists – some of them sitting in the audience on Sunday – make some of their own luck.
“I know that I have this window of time [in the spotlight], and I know that this will end at some point,” he said. “And then, I would love to be able to look at the next generation and wish them well.”