There are quite a few memorable “Breaking Bad” quotes still coasting over the cultural landscape, but perhaps one of the most relevant is still, “Say my name.” Walter White’s power play was so well-established, so key to his character and so unforgettably badass, that to this day it speaks to more than just one man in a black hat. It speaks to us all via .gifs, memes and everyday back-and-forths, whenever the timing is right. And right now, instead of belonging to the character, it may be more fitting for the actor who played him so perfectly.
Few performers in recent memory have been honored as consistently or as fervently as Bryan Cranston. Starting as a largely unknown but incredibly talented comic actor in Fox’s hit sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle,” his Oscar nomination for “Trumbo” in 2016 was another of Cranston’s consistently awards-worthy performances — performances that actually attract as much attention as they deserve.
When “Breaking Bad” started its Emmys tear in 2008, many thought the show might represent one of those perfect coincidences of character and actor; the rare Hollywood occurrence when an iconic, career-making performance went to the ideal man to play him. Walter’s face became such a touchstone of television culture, it quickly became hard to imagine him in any other role. Much like the way “Sopranos” fans would always think, “Hey, that’s Tony Soprano!” when James Gandolfini came onscreen — despite Gandolfini’s impressive, nuanced turns in films like “In the Loop” and “Killing Them Softly” — it felt like “Breaking Bad” was peak Cranston, and everything after would just be a reminder of how perfect he was in an old role.
The thing is, it’s starting to look like “Breaking Bad” is far from peak Cranston.
While it’s hard to imagine the Los Angeles Valley College grad ever fully putting the shadow of Walter White behind him, he’s been working at a fervent pace since before the landmark series even ended to make sure no one’s could pigeon-hole the thespian as only a “Walter White type.” In addition to the success of “Trumbo,” Cranston took smaller, supporting roles in big movies like “Argo,” “Contagion” and “Drive,” as well as key comedic turns in “30 Rock,” “Modern Family” and “How I Met Your Mother.” He’s tried his hand at directing, earning DGA nominations for helming episodes of “Breaking Bad” and “Modern Family,” and he co-wrote and executive produced the upcoming Amazon original series “Sneaky Pete” (in which he also co-stars) — areas he’s dabbled in since long before “Breaking Bad” came around. When it comes to his on-screen activities, Cranston is making sure to be seen by a broad range of people in an equally expansive array of roles.
But he also stepped away from screens both big and small to earn raves — and a Tony award — in “All the Way.” Starring as Lyndon B. Johnson and chronicling the man’s time in the White House from VP to “accidental” President, Cranston took the theater world by storm. Cranston had plenty of stage experience leading up to his award-winning turn, much of which came before he broke into TV with”Malcolm in the Middle” in 2000, but he wasn’t the first person to play LBJ in “All the Way.” The original production rolled out in Oregon with Jack Willis in the lead before moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, with Cranston stepping into the role. From there, it moved on to Broadway and eventually brought Cranston his first Tony award. And, in case the above trailer wasn’t a tip-off, the production was so well-received it’s been turned into an HBO original film; and not just any film, but what may be the crown jewel of the network’s award season hopes.
Paired with “Confirmation,” another true story offering historical insights in a dramatic fashion, “All the Way” sports a cast of heavy hitters, from Cranston to Anthony Mackie to Frank Langella; all of which are playing well-known historical figures from LBJ to Martin Luther King Jr., to Senator Richard Russell (respectively). A few more players round out an ensemble that’s no stranger to awards attention, including Melissa Leo (an Oscar, Golden Globe and Emmy winner), Joe Morton (Emmy winner) and Bradley Whitford (a two-time Emmy winner and three-time Golden Globe nominee).
In short, with about two months before the film premieres and almost four months before Emmy nominations are announced, Cranston already seems poised for a return to the Emmys spotlight. All the time and love Cranston has put into supporting his work on “Breaking Bad” should pay dividends for the thespian, only two years after he last earned an Emmy for the AMC drama. It’s unlikely anyone is tired of seeing him onstage, so the idea that voters could want to move on to new, less heralded names probably won’t hold any traction when the real campaigning kicks in.
What’s interesting about the first trailer, though, is that there aren’t really any big, “look at me” moments for the frontman. Of course, that’s not to say there won’t be, but HBO has elected this early on to let the names and story speak for itself, rather than reveal the big, showy moments from Cranston’s complex performance this early on. We’ll see if more dramatic scenes are released later as the premiere date and Emmys approach.
The trailer itself seems primed for the awards spotlight, however. Cranston’s makeup paints him as a spot-on doppelganger for LBJ, but avoids separating Cranston from himself. (There’s no Leo-in-“J. Edgar” overreaching here.) Add to that the gravity of a period drama and the timely reexamination of a key civil rights moment for America and you’ve got yourself a bonafide conversation starter for dramatic competition. If TV Movie performers had their own categories, Cranston may even be considered a lock — even this early — especially when considering how fresh his name is for the voting body and his proven track record of successful awards campaigning; campaigning that just ended a month or so ago for his role in “Trumbo.” Instead, Cranston will have to compete against more than just film performances, but actors in limited series as well, leaving his run open to a much more heated race.
In fact, most of his strongest contenders come from limited series and not movies. In my (very early) Emmy predictions, four of the five best bets were from the series side of things, with threats coming from Cuba Gooding Jr. in “The People v. O.J. Simpson,” Tom Hiddleston in “The Night Manager,” Patrick Wilson in “Fargo” and Oscar Isaac in the HBO project “Show Me a Hero.” We’ll see if Bill Murray becomes a factor for “A Very Murray Christmas,” or perhaps Idris Elba will see some more love for “Luther,” but otherwise Cranston will be squaring off against actors with a lot more time on screen to leave their mark.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about the story surrounding Cranston this year isn’t that he’s up for yet another award, but that the roles he chooses don’t seem specifically targeted for attention. “Trumbo” felt very much like a passion project, as does “All the Way,” even though both sported a number of factors that made them friendly to Academy voters. Yet what’s most friendly is probably Cranston, both as a campaigner very much ready to support his projects and as an actor always providing the necessary gravitas to earn this attention. That’s probably why his peers are so eager to say his name come awards season, why he should be ready to hear it again come July, and why we all should get used to saying “Bryan Cranston” when he comes onscreen — instead of “Walter White.”