So now what? Now it gets interesting.
“I don’t need work - I don’t need to work ever again,” says the actor. “So the choices that I make now should all be things that I think are either fun or important or challenging.”
“I like to think that I’m well cast for this role. He was a complicated man,” Cranston says. “You only make your Broadway debut once and I’m encouraged that I hitched my wagon to a really well-written play.”
No matter how well-written, a three-hour play about the political maneuverings of an irascible president 50 years ago may not be considered serious box office catnip. Cranston changes that.
“Boy, I planned that well, didn’t I?” jokes playwright Robert Schenkkan, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for his epic “The Kentucky Cycle.”
In fact, Schenkkan planned none of it. The role of Johnson was originally handled by actor Jack Willis when it debuted at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2012. Cranston jumped aboard last fall when the play next went to the American Repertory Theater outside Boston, just as “Breaking Bad” was wrapping up and Cranston’s star was streaking.
“If you can’t be smart, be lucky,” says Schenkkan.
The role requires Cranston to be bullying, insecure, charming, charismatic, ruthless and scary. Cranston has shown all that in a career that has gone from goofy comedy in “Malcolm in the Middle” to ferocious drama in “Breaking Bad.”
“That’s who LBJ was - he was charming and witty and incredibly funny, a great raconteur, the life of the party. And also violent and vile and cruel and utterly terrible,” says Schenkkan. “I don’t write with an actor in mind, but if I had, Bryan Cranston would have been at the head of the list.”
The addition of three-time Emmy Award-winning Cranston has made the play more commercially viable but hasn’t apparently alienated the rest of the actors.
James Eckhouse, best known as Jim Walsh on the original “Beverly Hills, 90210” and now playing the roles of Robert McNamara and James Eastland, calls Cranston “an actor’s actor.”
“I don’t think Bryan ever made stardom his business,” says Eckhouse. “He does not forget where he comes from. He’s an actor first and foremost. He works harder than anybody you’ve ever seen.”