Ten years ago, most comic fans would be hard pressed to think that actor Bryan Cranston could step into the hard-edged role of Jim Gordon for an adaptation of Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli’s “Batman: Year One.” The singular 1986 reinvention of DC Comics’ Dark Knight mythos as a modern crime drama didn’t quite sync up with Cranston’s image as a goofy dad on TV’s “Malcolm In The Middle.”
Things have changed since then.
His Emmy Award-winning role as Walter White in AMC’s “Breaking Bad” has redefined who Cranston is to viewers as well as opened up new dramatic avenues for him including a substantial role in the summer’s acclaimed crime drama “Drive.” Now with Warner Bros. Animation releasing their take on “Batman: Year One” this week, the actor gets to step into the role of Gordon opposite “Southland” star Ben McKenzie as Batman/Bruce Wayne and Eliza Dushku’s Selina Kyle.
CBR News spoke to Cranston about the project, and the actor opened up on his initial reticence to play the part, how his view of comics and animation have changed in the process and how he’s just like Batman.
CBR News: Bryan, I wanted to start with “Year One,” with your knowledge of comics coming into this project and whether or not you had an idea of the pedigree this Frank Miller story has when you came onto the movie.
Bryan Cranston: I did not. I was into playing baseball and collecting baseball cards when I was a kid, and that took up most of my time. So in a way, I thought, “I’m not a good choice for this” initially. But then I thought, “Well, why not? Why not instead of someone coming at it from the position of a longtime fan who might have a preconceived notion of how to approach this character, have a fresh approach?” I actually almost had a negative take on all this in that I remembered Commissioner Gordon from the old “Batman” TV show, and I quite frankly thought he was kind of a buffoon. So I wasn’t really keen on that. I thought, “Why would I want to play high farce?”
But my agent called me up and said, “No, read this. This is more true to the original comics.” And I was still thinking of Archie and that, but I thought I’d read it. They know that I’m all about the writing. I would pound this mandate into my agency over and over again. It’s all about the writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s a children’s play. If it’s well written, I’m interested. So they threw this back at me and said, “Don’t pass until you’ve read it! You always talk about the writing, so read this script.”
I read it, and I was blown away by it. I was just really impressed that there wasn’t this connotation of animation…I realized I had a prejudice to it. But after reading, I knew I had to give it a fair shake. What I said at Comic-Con [International] was that I learned that there’s a distinct difference between a cartoon and animation. This type of work shouldn’t be called a cartoon. It really does it a disservice. It is adult storytelling and adult issues handled in intrinsically complicated ways, where not everything is tied up in a neat little bow. Certainly at the end of our show, we don’t know where that relationship is going to go with Jim Gordon and Batman. We don’t know for sure if they’re going to continue to develop this relationship. It’s not as apparent, even though historically, the story does go that way. But it comes at a price. Jim Gordon is trying to find his moral center. Who is he? He keeps getting shot down and is lamenting that he has to come and work in this hellhole of a city. It’s no place to raise a child, and he’s hated by his fellow cops who are rogue. And he’s hated by the criminals and his superiors and everybody. He seems to be an island. It’s just multi-layered storytelling that’s so interesting. So I happily ate my hat and said, “I’m glad you had me read this because now I’m interested in doing it.”
One of the things we often hear when this story is discussed is that, even though it’s called “Batman: Year One,” it’s not really Batman’s story first and foremost. It’s almost more of a Jim Gordon story that Batman is a part of. What’s your take on that? Would you agree?
I think the stage is shared. Was that in the Miller original as well, where Gordon takes the lead?
He’s very much the point of view character for most of the story, yeah.
See, I think that’s much more interesting. By keeping Batman almost at a distance — you get to see him and what he does, but if he’s narrating it all, it takes away the mystery from the iconic figure of Batman. I think it’s best not to completely know all there is to know about Batman. I think we want to maintain secrets about him, questions about him. We want to keep an arm’s length from him to keep him interesting. But if we are treated to the insights of Batman right from the get-go, we naturally will lose interest. Because, I mean — it’s Batman! [Laughs]
But if we come at him from a more relatable character like Jim Gordon, people will be able to identify with him and his plight and his very human behavior of seduction on one end and doing the right thing on another. It’s him trying to find himself. I think we’re more invited into that story and it’s more accessible than if Batman were calling the shots and narrating the story. I think it was a very smart move, and that’s one of the reasons I was intrigued by it.
When the “Breaking Bad” season finale hit over the past week, I think the #1 comment I saw from people on Facebook was “Holy shit.” Part of that response is that the character of Walter has become so fully immersed in this criminal world and persona. Were you looking for a chance to play something a bit lighter in this project?
No. I wasn’t looking for characters that weren’t as dark. My criteria is well-written material. That’s not to say I want to or will get to play everything I find that’s well written. That’s just not going to be possible. But certainly, I throw my hat in the ring. And it helps me separate the “Nos” from the “Yeses” so that I don’t have to pay attention and give energy to the stuff I’m not interested in.
But this came out of nowhere. I thought, “Oh, it’s been done to death.” I kept thinking, “Oldman did it, and he did it well.” In a way, there was this feeling I’d had from years ag,o when they came to me because they were doing “The Wizard of Oz,” and I thought, “Oh God, ‘Wizard of Oz.'” You’re in a no-win situation there. You either exactly copy what Bert Lahr did as the Cowardly Lion or whatever character it — and what is that? You’re not even creating, just imitating — or you completely change it and do what you want to do and infuse it with a new take…and then everybody hates it because they love that character so much. [Laughter] There’s just no way you can win in doing that show. I thought in a way that Batman was like that. I thought Gordon was pigeon-holed in a certain manner, and that Oldman had made him real when the TV show made him farcical.
So I thought, “Well, Oldman did it. That’s what you do with that character. You make him a real, relatable human being.” So I wasn’t interested in the character until they made me read it, and I said, “Wait. In the Batman movies, even though Gary did a great job, it wasn’t about him. He didn’t narrate it.” So this was a different take that made me find it interesting. It has a lot to do with him, and that’s where it all started.
What was the process like for you in doing the recording. I know that Andrea Romano, who voice directs all these movies, likes to get her cast together when possible to read the parts together. What was your experience in the recording booth?
It wasn’t possible. Ben [McKenzie’s] series was going on then, and my series was filming, too. So we weren’t able to work right together. I was by myself the whole time. But when I say that, it really wasn’t that. Andrea has such a keen ear in what she’s hearing and how it plays. And the tone of it has to mesh with the other sensibilities in the story. So I felt like I was in completely capable hands. And that’s all an actor hopes to find — working with a director who is confident and knows what he or she is doing. And Andrea did. She’s able to put us in a place where even though I never acted opposite any other actor in this show, it feels like I did. Her ability to work the nuance and changes of a line delivery and remind us of the sensibility of the actors that recorded before did, it feels like we were in the same room.
There’s a thread of crime that’s been running through a lot of your work recently. Aside from “Breaking Bad,” you were just in “Drive,” which garnered great reviews, and “Year One” is in many ways a crime drama. What do you think accounts for the renewed popularity of this kind of material now?
Well, crime has always been a storyline from the very first point. It raises the stakes. Any time there’s a crime, we as human beings know the stakes are risen. That’s why there are lawyer shows or doctor shows, because they raise the stakes. No one is going to see the insurance show. [Laughter] “Insurance Adjustors!” So these are obvious places to start.
But that being said, there are plenty of examples of poorly written crime shows and doctor shows and lawyer shows. We’ve seen that all the time. So it still all depends on the quality of the writing and if they bother to create an interesting character that gives an actor a place to jump off from as opposed to a boilerplate “angry boss.” You know, the guy who goes “Get in here, you two! You’re fraying my last nerve!” and then opens up a bottle of Pepto Bismol. We’ve all seen that guy.
I try to look for things that are unique, and “Drive” was one of those that was an interesting take on the genre. I had an idea for where to take that character, and I pitched it out, and they liked it. The same thing happened with “Breaking Bad.” When I first read the pilot script, it was brilliant. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. In fact, I dreamt about it. So I pitched them on how Walter should look and feel and act and talk, and we were sympatico from that moment on. After seven years as a silly dad on “Malcolm In The Middle” — a really well-written show, but still a comedy — I was able to get in. That was a lucky break. It was a very lucky break.
So after doing “Year One” and having your eyes opened up to the potential of comic book and animation-type work, would you be willing to do more in this realm if the project seemed up to your standards?
It takes a lot of work to go out and initiate those things, and because I’m not indoctrinated into that world, it’d have to come to me from something they had already initiated. But the lesson I’ve learned from Batman is to take everything singularly and on the merit of its own ability to recreate itself. And Batman in some senses has had the same issues that Bryan Cranston had. When you become known as the silly dad from “Malcolm In The Middle,” is there a chance to reinvent yourself? Batman has done that! It reinvented itself from a goofy TV show into a legitimate form for dramatic storytelling. That’s terrific, and that’s not easy to do. So my lesson here is that I’ll take everything. If someone comes to me and says, “There’s a play here for five-year-old children. Would you like to read it?” I’m not just going to say, “No, that’s not for me.” If someone recommends it, I’ll read it and see if — even at that level — it has good storytelling. Because good storytelling is good storytelling.
“Batman: Year One” is on sale now on DVD and Bluray from Warner Bros. Animation.