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Even among cinephiles, Dalton Trumbo may not be a familiar name. A member of the United States Communist Party who eventually signed a deal to be one of Hollywood’s best paid screenwriters, Trumbo was blacklisted in 1947 after refusing to name names to the House Unamerican Activities Committee. Trumbo worked anonymously—he won an Academy Award under a pseudonym and wrote Roman Holiday in secret—while reconciling his convictions with his need to support his family.

Bryan Cranston plays the lead role in Trumbo, a biopic directed by Jay Roach that details his struggles along with other members of The Hollywood Ten. This is Cranston’s first lead role since the end of the acclaimed AMC thriller Breaking Bad, and he disappears as Trumbo, combining a fierce intellect with a droll sense of detachment. Trumbo does not have all the trappings of a conventional biopic, and gives Cranston to spar against actors who play real life Hollywood big shots like John Wayne, Edward G. Robinson, and Louis B. Mayer.

City Paper sat down with Cranston earlier this week to talk about Trumbo, which opens at E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row tonight.

Washington City Paper: Before you accepted the role, what was initial impression of Trumbo? How did it change while working on the film?

Bryan Cranston: I honestly didn’t know that much about him. I knew that he wrote Spartacus, I knew that he was in The Hollywood Ten, so he was blacklisted and went to prison. I didn’t know how long he was there, or what he wrote at the time. Digging in, I learned more not just about his professional history—the great films he wrote—but also the speeches, the pamphlets, the letters. Like anything else, when you work on a character, you want to stay away from the objectivity of it. I need to play him, so I don’t want to stand in judgment, watching him. You let the information you read and gather, as well as advice from the people who knew him, wash over you, and then the character develops.

WCP: Who are the people from whom you got advice?

BC: Mainly his daughters, who are alive and well. They were tremendously helpful to me and to the movie as a whole, because they were invited to read several drafts so they could offer their thoughts and corrections about the script.

WCP: Do you remember any of those corrections?

BC: There was an early iteration where Trumbo says to his kids, “Come on, let’s hop in the car and get ice cream.” His daughters said he never, ever did that. That was Cleo [Trumbo’s wife]. Like in many constructs of a family, she was the anchor, she was the foundation. She made sure the kids had a genuine supply of nurturing, fun, and love in their lives. This is while Trumbo was blacklisted. He was working for far less than when he first began, and working hard.

WCP: Going back to what you said about objectivity, there’s a scene with you and your daughter where it’s her birthday and your character can’t be bothered to celebrate with her. In a scene like that, do you focus solely on your character being a bastard, or do you think about the reactions in your family that your behavior will inspire?

BC: You never want to be outside. If you start judging your character, you’re going to be in trouble. You want to be subjective to [the performance]. In that scene, I’m having difficulty with a very tough [screenplay edit], and now they’re talking to me about fucking CAKE? [Feigns anger] Are you kidding me?! Cake?! When I need to do this?

The comparison at the time was trivial, and he let it be known. It’s not until his wife, who he loves dearly, lets him know where he is. Much like any good relation, she calls him on his bullshit. That makes him stop for a moment, realizing he cannot be a steamroller, even if he’s got this unenviable task to complete.

WCP: How did this role change your opinion of screenwriters, if at all?

BC: It hadn’t, because I put writers in general in great reverence. Either in performance art or literary fiction, they’re the genesis. They start the work on their own, even if it’s an adaptation, and brought it out of an idea. They have a tangible story they can share, long after they’re gone. I never thought that writers got their just due in Hollywood. Now it’s different, especially in television.

WCP: Why is it so different now?

BC: The lunacy and tragedy of the blacklist helped to highlight the plight of the writer, and that he/she needs to be protected. That’s one of the sad things I learned from my research. Just like the number one thing for a country is to protects its citizens, so too is the number one responsibility of a union to protect its members. The Screen Actors Guild, The Director’s Guild, and The Writers Guild all turned against their members. They shut them out. That illustrates the level of fear that permeated not just in Hollywood, but America, too.

WCP: In the film, there is a subplot where Edward G. Robinson names names, but his character has his reasons, too. Does a story like his make the blacklist more complicated than you previously thought?

BC: Very much so. Nothing is black and white. At the end of the film, Trumbo has this speech at the Laurel Awards where he says, “There are no heroes and no villains. Only victims. We all suffered.” If someone was duped and led to think that naming names is the patriotic thing, they later realized that doing so would lead to more problems. Compassion and forgiveness needs to extend to those people, and that was he was trying to say. He was criticized for that speech. The bitterness that existed from the blacklist community was that everyone wanted him not to give an inch. To teach them a lesson. His point was, “Haven’t we suffered enough?” His speech was polarizing.

WCP: Was it strange to act against characters who were real people versus composites?

BC: Not really, because they’re fully realized characters. Roger Bart played a composite of the independent film producers who ran around Hollywood, while Louis CK played a composite of The Hollywood Ten. I think it was smart filmmaking because you couldn’t possibly do justice to all of [The Ten], so you have to try to honor one person with a view that was further left [politically] than Trumbo was.

WCP: What Trumbo movie do you wish you had an opportunity to act in?

BC: Spartacus comes to mind. It’s funny how he was accused of sending communist messages through the film, and indeed Spartacus is the most communistic movie about the power the group, the people gathering together to oppose tyranny and oppression. Papillion was quite interesting because of the nobility that Steve McQueen’s character maintained. He did not name names, nor did he give up the person who tried to help him.

WCP: How do you reconcile playing a character versus doing an impression?

BC: You have to get to a point where you trust the director. When you’re in it, when you’re emotionally in the character and actively telling that story, it’s difficult. At the end each take, I had to get a feel for the character, asking myself, “Did that feel right?” In order to find that sweet spot, you have to extend out, you have to go out on a limb. But if that limb starts to break, you have to come back a little bit. There were takes of any given scene that were small, medium, large, and everything in between. The performance is like a living thing, so you have to move to what the scene requires. Luckily, the director has the advantage of editing whichever approach of mine is best for a given moment.

WCP: You’ve mentioned several times that you must resist judging the character. Is that something you constantly have to work on, or now that you have a long acting career, is it easier to have that focus?

BC: It’s a muscle. Whenever you start a project—whether it’s fiction or nonfiction—the character is outside of you. You put out a welcome mat every time you open a book on a subject, do any deep research, or talk to people who know about it. The more information you gain, the more you’re inviting that character in, and hopefully at some point it seeps inside you. From that point on, you’re thinking and feeling and making decisions on your sensibility of that character.

WCP: How are fiction and nonfiction different?

BC: In nonfiction, these men have done something worth telling a story about. Biographies and photographs create certain parameters that you must work with. That gives some control over where you can go. In fiction, you have unlimited possibilities, unless the script specifically says something like, “The character has horns and flaming red hair,” or something like that.

WCP: I’d like to see you play a character with horns one day.

BC: Yeah… [In Heisenberg voice] What makes you think I’m not doing it right now?

Handout photo via Bleecker Street Media