Last June we sat down on the Vancouver set of the then-shooting Godzilla with actor Bryan ‘Walter White’ Cranston to chat about the titular irradiated lizard, his lead character of ‘Joe Brody’ and more; and with the film’s embargo now lifted, here it is: Heisenberg talks the ‘Big G.’
Part reboot and part direct sequel to director Ishiro Honda’s 1954 original of the same name, the 2014 Gareth Edwards-helmed Godzilla features actors Cranston (“Breaking Bad”), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass), Juliette Binoche (The English Patient), David Strathairn (The Bourne Legacy), Elizabeth Olsen and Ken Watanabe, in a script by Max Borenstein, Dave Callaham and Frank Darabont, which pits the world’s most famous monster against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.
Thomas Tull, Jon Jashni, Mary Parent and Brian Rogers produce, alongside executive producers Alex Garcia, Patricia Whitcher, Yoshimitsu Banno and Kenji Okuhira.
(Writer’s Note: Spoilers ahead, so proceed at your own discretion).
Just prior to engaging in a lengthy interview with Godzilla director Edwards (you can read that here), Cranston, decked out in a costume familiar to fans of his role in the television series “Breaking Bad” (a HAZMAT suit), convened with us between takes and proved to be entirely and unsurprisingly engaging.
“He’s a nuclear physicist,” stated Cranston of his outfit, and of his character ‘Joe Brody’ in Godzilla.
“He works at this nuclear power plant as an independent contractor, who is brought in to oversee the structural significance of the building itself, and then he notices (that) there’s an anomaly to some recordings that are happening, (some) seismic activity. It’s baffling, because it’s not irregular as an earthquake would be random. This is steady and pulsating. So he starts to investigate and he’s just trying to wrap his head around it when all hell breaks loose.”
Having just witnessed via monitor an apparently pivotal scene in which Cranston and actor Taylor-Johnson investigate the dilapidated remains of their characters’ abandoned home in Japan (Cranston portrays Aaron’s estranged father in the film), we pressed the actor for details, particularly as to whether his character was at that moment aware of the existence of the titular beast. (Note: Talent had clearly been instructed by the production’s producers to remain rather secretive of the flick’s plot.)
“I go into my old office searching for something specific, something that’s alive,” he answered. (Note: Okay, I’ll wildly speculate that what Cranston’s character was looking for was his son’s childhood pet in an effort to ascertain the effects of radiation upon it, a pet that’s fled its aquarium, an aquarium with the name ‘Mothra’ written on it).
As for Godzilla itself, “That’s the furthest thing from his mind right now,” stated the prolific and versatile actor, whose past credits additionally include the wholesome television series “Malcolm in the Middle,” the Oscar-winning feature Argo, and dozens more.
“He thinks it’s a geological phenomenon, and then he comes to realize, but too late, that it’s not, and that it’s biological,” Cranston expounded.
Given Godzilla’s lineage and the 2014 film’s old-school, 1950’s inspired set-up, we queried him in regards to what for him not only drew him to the material, but of what also contemporized it.
“The reason I’m here is because this story is interestingly driven by strong character motivations,” answered the three-time Emmy-award winner.
“If you saw Gareth’s movie Monsters, which is one of the things that got me involved in (initial) conversations, it was like a character-driven monster movie, and I’m much more attracted to character-driven pieces, from the ‘old school’ perhaps, where you actually want to care about and invest in the characters, and root for them or hate them or whatever, and there is a very strong father-son component to this, and my character makes huge, sweeping decisions that reverberate throughout the rest of the story, that are emotional as well, which is really what brought me here.”
As for the narrative of Legendary’s Godzilla, the film takes place in three separate time periods; the 1950’s (in which the U.S. Navy discovers the last surviving member of an ancient radioactive amphibious species surviving under the waters near the Marshall Islands, and metes out a failed attempt to kill it with nuclear weapons), the 1990’s (in which the creature arises to smack the crap out of Japan, and in the process destroys the previously mentioned home) and in 2014, in which the appearance of creatures known as ‘M.U.T.O.’s’ (kaiju who look vaguely reminiscent of the creature at the center of the feature Cloverfield) appear, which in turn elicits the return of Godzilla from the depths of the ocean.
At its center however is the estranged relationship between Cranston’s character, a scientist obsessed, and his son, ‘Ford,’ an explosive ordinance disposal expert in the U.S. Navy, whose lives are displaced emotionally and geographically by the appearance of Godzilla, and the ramifications of such.
Cranston expounded on this, and on his character’s fragmented relationship with his son.
“He’s, especially at this time, experiencing a frustrating anomaly happening in his work that he just can’t give a scientific answer (for). As a scientist you are compelled to always go back to the science of things, that there’s a logical answer for every cause, you know, and with this there doesn’t seem to be, and it’s just driving him crazy. The consequence is that he has (dived) into his work, so there is that sense of missing out on some of the upbringing of his child, and then you learn to regret it afterwards.”
Fishing as to whether or not Cranston’s character was responsible for the kaiju threat, he was asked if he felt ‘Joe Brody’ was in any way repenting for past sins.
“I don’t know about that, but there is regret,” he stated.
“I think it’s very relatable, because you get to middle-age or beyond and you start evaluating how you lived your life, and you realize, like my daughter is already twenty and in college, and I can’t for the life of me know how fast that (time) went, and so you do. You look back and you go, ‘Yeah, there were sacrifices,’ so there were a lot of opportunities and great things, but then you miss a couple of things about growing up. So there is that. He is experiencing that type of regret.”
Regarding how his character factors into the theme of ‘Man vs. Nature’ as stated by Edwards as being the core of the film, “You know, he’s a man of science, so it’s all about how science can give answers to protect man, really more than the nature of things,” answered Cranston.
“I think that kind of contrast can exist together,” he mused, when asked how the sci-fi and human elements interact in Godzilla.
“I always thought that when you saw a movie that had one element that they focused on and ignored the human element, I thought they were just (being) lazy. I just always do. It’s not really my thing. And if this movie didn’t have a character component to it, I wouldn’t be here. It just doesn’t interest me.”
Questioned as to whether or not Cranston felt that Godzilla was an anti-nuclear energy film, he stated, “I think more than that. I don’t really think it’s really making a statement in that sense. Society as a given accepts the inherent dangers of nuclear power. They know that it’s always been that way. It’s fine if nothing goes wrong, but things go wrong. In my state of California, San Onofre nuclear power plant was just closed down because it’s leaking. So they closed it down completely, and these are problems. So I think more than trying to make a political statement, it’s something that immediately a wide-ranging audience can relate (to). If there’s a problem there, there’s a big problem, and it’s intensified and exacerbated to the point where it could be catastrophic.”
“You know, one of the things I thought about is that as a man who works in the nuclear energy industry, he’s OK with that,” he offered of his character. “It’s not an issue for him. So as far as being able to come to terms with that, I think he’s fine with it. And I think that’s a prevailing thought with most people in that industry is that the gain outweighs the risk.”
He paused dramatically.
“Or does it?”
As for what action is allowed his character in the script, Cranston joked, “Oh, I see some action. Oh yeah, I do, I see some action. Some ‘hot scientist’ action! Some ‘scientist on scientist’ action. You can’t miss it! Sometimes there’s some ‘three-way’ scientist action. Oh yeah.”
And for his on-screen proximity to Godzilla himself?
“He’s in his trailer (right now). That guy (is) such an asshole,” joked Cranston.
“I gotta’ tell you, when he gets on the set, he delivers though, so I see why he keeps coming back to make movie after movie, because he’s good. He’s just a prick.”
More seriously, Cranston told us of his character’s reaction to the existence of the creature, “Curiosity is insatiable. The militarist point of view is, ‘Kill it! I don’t understand it!’ But we have a different point of view which is fascinating, that is fascinating to us.”
With Cranston called back to set, we caught up with him later in the afternoon outside the soundstage, where a gourmet ice cream truck lay in wait. It being the actor’s last day on set, he had personally not only hired the confectioners to deliver desserts to his cast and crew as a ‘thank you,’ but had gone a step further. In addition to a hand-drawn depiction of his “Breaking Bad” character of ‘Heisenberg’ (hat and all) with text thanking the production, he’d personally come up with two ice cream concoctions which he’d listed on the dry-erase board; ‘Nutzilla’ and ‘M.U.T.O.’ (Note: While we now know the latter as one of Godzilla’s adversaries in the film, producers at the time were entirely cagey regarding this character, which I’ll surmise is an acronym for ‘Mutated Underground Terrestrial Organisms).
Like a big (and gracious) kid, Cranston joined us for ice cream, sincerely adamant that those in attendance indulged with him.
Regarding his director, “He’s quite remarkable for a young lad,” said Cranston of Edwards.
“You know, given the circumstances, after Monsters, and then coming to do this monster budget film, he has every right to freak out, and just break out in hives, but he’s amazingly calm; frighteningly so.”
As for what attracted him to Gareth’s directorial style, Cranston stated, “I always look for someone who has a clear vision, and yet is malleable, so that the vision isn’t set in stone, or rigid, or a ‘my way or the highway’ kind of thing, which you do run up against sometimes. I think it would be shooting yourself in the foot, because the triumvirate of writer, actor and director is what you want. You want everybody working at that level, so by having a director who welcomes dialogue, in this case from the actor to director, ideas, input and that sort of thing, and embraces it, then it just spawns more of that. It gives actors a sense that they are valued. Not just that, ‘You know, you can do this and step here,’ but that your opinions are valued coming in.”
“So, before I even signed on, I had two very lengthy conversations over the phone when I was still shooting ‘Breaking Bad.’ At first I was a little reticent, just because of the overall nature of the film, and I think I was also feeling a little bit of, ‘Oh, I have to protect this now,’ because I was coming off of a very well-written show with very compelling storytelling, that it’s going to be compared, whatever I do. Then I thought that I didn’t want to be a prude about it either. I want to be able to embrace the largesse of it, the uniqueness of it, and the fun! I don’t want to say, ‘Oh no, that’s not high-brow in any regard!’ But what won me over is the story-line and Gareth’s commitment (to it). He came after me, we talked, and I told him the initial problems I had with the script, and then we started talking some more, and then pretty soon, if you are not careful, as an actor you start to take ownership of it, and then you are sunk.”
Having directed television, we asked him what the process was like as an actor on Godzilla.
“I have a bad habit of inserting my ideas into shots and things,” he stated.
“I don’t know; I don’t hold back on suggesting things, but I don’t have any connection to what actually happens, so I’ll make a suggestion on something and then just let it go. If it works, fine; and if it doesn’t, I’ll do whatever we do. I think that’s what works best in the collaborative art form, is that you just put it out there without having an attachment to the outcome.”
“As you know, there are a lot of writers on this. I don’t know who did what, and whose sensibility was woven through. There were some minor things, just points of view. For instance there was a thing where my character assumes that my son is going to go with me on this dangerous excursion, and I just thought that was wrong. It was an easy fix. Nothing that I raised was, ‘Oh no, we have to draw the line there!’ And then I proposed a couple of things, like just more, like more (of a) broad stroke kind of sentiment. Like that song when I was a kid, ‘The Cats in the Cradle.’ You know where, ‘I’m going to grow up just like him, Dad.’ And then I pitched it, it was there, it was already there, but I suggested that we do a handshake, that I shake hands with my son when I haven’t seen him in a while, and that that also happens with his son (because) his son hasn’t seen him in a little while and he has trepidation about who this man is. So it has an effect on ‘Ford Brody’ the character like, ‘What am I doing in my life, where the people in my life I’m close to shake my hand as opposed to hug me?’ So that was kind of a theme that we got upon, and really tried to revisit every now and again. So that’s just an example of just a nice layer that’s in there that makes it more than just an epic spectacle kind of thing.”
That said, we asked if the word ‘Godzilla’ was actually ever uttered in the film.
“I haven’t said the word,” he said.
“I’m not allowed to. What’s funny is that there was a lot of secrecy about the whole thing, and early on they were calling it Nautilus, so I’m going through Canadian immigration, and trying to get my paperwork, and the guy was very efficient. ‘What are you working on?’ he asked. ‘A movie,’ I said. ‘What’s the name of the movie?’ he asked. ‘Nautilus,’ I said. And that’s when his eyes went up. ‘You mean Godzilla,’ he said. And I go,’ Yeah.’ But he even he knew!”
As for his level of excitement in appearing alongside such a cinematically famous character, and as for whether he was pleased by the design of such, “I love Godzilla!” effused Cranston.
“Actually, the new design is basically back to an old design, I think. The scale surprised me. The extreme size of it compared to the M.U.T.O’s that they are fighting. Even that! When you see the M.U.T.O. it’s enormous, but it’s not nearly as big as Godzilla.”
“What I loved as a boy was Godzilla more than King Kong, because he just destroyed everything without any apologies. I did. I loved it! And then later on, I heard the story about the (American producer Joseph E. Levine) who bought this Japanese film (1954’s Godzilla) and was going to release it in the States but he knew it wasn’t going to fly, so he hired writers and (actor) Raymond Burr as a reporter and they shot a bunch of stuff and just inserted him throughout the movie and they released it (as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!) in 1956, and that’s how he made his fortune.”
Given the amount of green screen shots inherent to the film, we asked Cranston of his approach to them.
“It’s like a laser pointer. ‘OK, see where the laser is now on the green screen?’ That’s part of an actor’s bag anyway, is just imagination,” he stated.
“You pull out what you need if you don’t have personal experience, and imagine it. I think it was probably easier for my generation too, because we got bored easily in the back seat of a station wagon and there was nothing to do and you had to just daydream. I never thought that my extensive daydreaming catalogue would actually come in handy someday, and it really has. It’s interesting, because I wonder if this new generation that has instant entertainment at every turn will in a sense fully develop an imagination, or will it be derivative of what they see that’s hitting them all of the time, because they don’t have a chance to wonder on their own.”
Up next? Our interview with Aaron Taylor-Johnson.
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