Bryan Cranston and screenwriter Chris Terio dish on ‘Argo’
Bryan Cranston is a busy man. Aside from wrapping up his regular gig on “Breaking Bad,” the three-time Emmy-winner has been popping up in a lot of movies — seven in 2011 and six in 2012. In his latest, “Argo,” he teams with director and star Ben Affleck to present a decidedly positive view of the CIA.
Metro: You get off pretty easy as far as the ’70s hair goes in this film, at least compared to your co-stars.
Cranston: You know, Ben was asking me as we were going along, “How’s the hair growing?” And it was growing out at the time. I shave it for “Breaking Bad.” I said, “If it’s not as long as you think it should be, then we can put extensions in it. But it’s coming! It’s over the ears now,” and that sort of thing. By parting it and swooping it, it was good. If there was anyone who had more conservative ’70s hair, it would be someone at the CIA — an older guy during the 1970s, not so shaggy, not so unkempt. So it worked.
You’re dealing with playing someone high-up at the CIA, an organization that’s not always portrayed that positively in film. But in this particular story, the organization is pretty heroic.
It’s interesting. Normally you have a clear protagonist and antagonist in your movie. This wasn’t clear. We know who the protagonist was, but who’s the antagonist here? It really became that this ideology, this force of oppression, like a barometric pressure, like it’s going to break open and rain if they don’t get these guys out. But there were all kinds of splinter groups of protagonists, like the Hollywood component. And talking about the maligned CIA, well look at Hollywood! Hollywood is skewered all the time — and not undeservedly so at times. It’s easy. And here you have two people from the “Hollywood industry” that for all intents and purposes are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts. There’s no money being exchanged, there is no public recognition, there’s no award, there’s no nothing. All it is is doing something to try to save six American lives.
That’s a major theme of the film, that idea of doing this job with the full acknowledgment that you’re not going to be recognized for it.
Exactly. And that’s why I rebuke the idea that this was politically motivated. Because these men and women at the CIA were doing this knowing, believing that they would never be recognized for this. And that has to be OK. You have to take that as, “This is what I do for a living. We do things and we accomplish many things — most of them are good, actually — and we get no public credit for them because of the nature of the work itself.” You just can’t tell anyone. And if this was not declassified, they would still not know.
Since “Breaking Bad” has become such a success, you’ve been doing a lot of movies. How do you find the time?
I actually turn down a lot more than I accept, so it’s all about the quality of the film and if it fits in the schedule. My primary responsibility was to “Breaking Bad” from a professional standpoint, and I have a responsibility to my wife and daughter and that sort of thing, and I want to maintain that. There were a couple of other projects that I was supposed to be a part of that I couldn’t do, and that’s all right. I’m very fatalistic when it comes that. If it’s supposed to be, it’s supposed to be. If not, OK.
But you’re going to have a lot more time in your schedule soon.
Yes, soon! Soon! At the end of March.
Unless you pick up another TV series.
No, no. (laughs) Boy, the bar is raised now. I don’t want to do that.
With “Argo,” screenwriter Chris Terio took on quite the challenge in turning Joshuah Bearman’s Wired article about a CIA plan to use a fake movie production to rescue embassy workers in Iran into a coherent film — one that’s part spy thriller and part Hollywood satire. The secret, he says, lay in not using the entertainment industry solely for cheap laughs and making sure the blue Wookiees were believable.
Metro: How do you take such a sprawling, multifaceted story and compress into a movie?
Terio: Well, in a sense I was lucky in that the DNA of the story had a structure built into it. It’s sort of a classic rescue narrative, which is here’s a problem, go in and here are all the complications of making the escape happen, and then the last bit is the escape happening. But that said, I spent a few months walking in circles and pulling out my hair and thinking how do you choose your stories? Because there are a million tributaries to the river that you could take your boat on that would be fascinating. You just kind of have to eventually make tough decisions about what you’re going to focus on. There were about five different things like that where, if it were an HBO miniseries, I would’ve loved to tell those stories. But in the end you just look at the skeleton and just decide what bones are essential to stand up.
I’m assuming there actually was a script for the film they were pretending to make.
It was actually called “Lord of Light.” Tony Mendez actually chose not to use the title “Lord of Light.” They re-christened it “Argo” for the trade ads when they announced the film was happening. But the actual script that they carried around was this script called “Lord of Light.” We chose to not use any of that script in the film so that we could invent this separate movie.
Did you get to read that script?
I didn’t read it largely because I wanted to free my imagination for a completely different script. I mean, Tony told me a bit about it and the fact that it had Middle Eastern elements and it had sci-fi elements, mythological elements, but I didn’t actually read it. I know it exists somewhere, and maybe Tony even has a copy. But literally I think Tony’s copy might have been like the end of “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” sent into the CIA archives. Because that all is real. All of Tony’s stuff at the end of the mission went away and sort of disappeared into the ether.
That was a wonderful homage to “Raiders” at the end.
It’s funny, like, as kids, Ben and me and you who grew up in the world of “Star Wars” and “Raiders,” those things keep popping up in the film. Even in the pillowcase and the sheet and the Millenium Falcon in Tony Mendez’s son’s room. Those are things that Ben and I had in our bedrooms growing up.
Speaking of “Star Wars,” some of the characters in the film within the film seem a tad familiar.
Oh definitely. I mean, the blue Wookiee… But the other great thing about doing that scene is we had Jackie West as a costume designer, who I think is truly a genius. She managed to have the characters within the fake film look fantastical and kind of funny but never cross the line into outright parody. So that even though there’s this blue Wookiee, the texture of the blue Wookiee kind of looks real. You can see that there’s a man inside it. It can exist in the same world as the geopolitical reality of Iran because you feel like you’re watching real people in fake costumes.