Bryan Cranston Discusses His Chaotic Childhood and the Power of Storytelling

By Dorri Olds 08/16/17

“I’ve never been into drugs,” he wrote. “I do drink now and then, nothing out of hand—but that weekend with Ava felt like what I imagine a binge or bender must feel like.”

Bryan Cranston speaking into a microphone
At a recent Barnes & Noble appearance, Bryan Cranston discusses his memoir and how addiction affected his upbringing. Image via Author

Last week Bryan Cranston arrived at the packed Barnes & Noble in Union Square. With his full hair and crisp button-down shirt, the 61-year-old actor looked nothing like his Breaking Bad alter ego, Walter White, science teacher turned meth-making murderer. He looked healthy and fit standing in the grand bookstore, one of the last few left in Manhattan. Cranston was there to promote his October 2016 memoir, A Life in Parts.

I’d assumed he would read from his page-turner, a coming-of-age slash career autobiography. Instead, he hit the stage with a rapid-fire stream of consciousness that he kept up for his entire two hours. Theatrically, yet without pretension, his arms were a conductor’s whose orchestra was the audience. Elegant hand gestures accented his cadence of words.

In the long list of celebs that I’ve met, none have possessed this level of charisma. His inspirational messages couched as acting advice revealed a soul who has survived times that he’d thought for sure would flatten him. Abandoned by his alcoholic parents, Cranston was the middle child of three. He had an older brother, Kim, and younger sister, Amy. Their father, Joe, worked hard to succeed as an actor. Although he landed parts here and there in both films and TV shows, Joe never reached the stardom he had ached for. Desperately, he tried to think up alternate means to support his wife and kids but every venture withered then flopped.

In his book, Cranston described his father as a man whose failures haunted him. “He had more ambitions and brainchildren than business acumen.” Joe’s bitter resentments mounted and often erupted in outbursts. Trained as a professional fighter, his explosive temper made him dangerous. Cranston and his brother Kim witnessed their father knock strangers out cold with one punch to the face. There’s a chilling scene of road rage the frightened Cranston boys witnessed while crouched in the back seat of the family car.

Audrey, their mother, became what Cranston referred to as “a 1950s wife.” He wrote, “Everything she had she threw behind her husband and his goal to become a movie star.” As each of Joe’s efforts failed, he became increasingly downtrodden. In slow increments at first, Joe began to spend less time with his family. Cranston detailed his father’s increasing absence as “a sort of weaning” until age 11, when he realized his dad was gone for good. Audrey, so devastated by Joe’s departure, folded in on herself. With no energy left, Audrey had nothing to console her children with. She took to drinking, became a hoarder, and eventually lost their house.

In October 2016, when his memoir came out, Cranston told Britain’s The Sunday Times, “[My father] chose not to be with us or see us or be a father. My mother chose to become an alcoholic and drown her sorrows and sadness and resentment. She was like a ghost of herself. And no one ever explained why he left.”

In the book, he described his mother’s misguided last-gasp attempt to win her husband back—Audrey took her young daughter Amy and moved in with Joe’s mother. Cranston and his brother Kim were sent off to live with their maternal grandparents on their farm. The boys, expected to earn their keep, were immediately put to work as farmhands and there’s a dreadfully sad—and bloody—scene in the book where the two were forced to behead the first of many chickens.

Cranston has long been candid about his mother’s alcoholism and has enumerated his bitterness and anger that he and his siblings had to work through in therapy. He thought that it would’ve been easier if he never had a loving family because then it would not have hurt so much when it was gone.

At first hearing about Cranston’s memoir last year, I wondered if the actor had inherited the alcoholic gene. As I devoured his fascinating stories I found my answer on page 111 in the section simply titled, “Lover.” It’s about his romance with Ava, a fatal attraction.

“I’ve never been into drugs,” he wrote. “I do drink now and then, nothing out of hand—but that weekend with Ava felt like what I imagine a binge or bender must feel like.”

Cranston described losing track of time during his first sex-fueled weekend with Ava, “It’s the myth of my generation: sex creates intimacy. It would take me several more years to discover that the opposite is true: intimacy creates sex. And crazy creates great sex.” During their initial passionate and addictive connection, Cranston had no clue how unstable Ava was. He didn’t know yet that she was a drug addict, but later, when he tried to break up with Ava, she overdosed.

Cranston’s father Joe died in October 2014 at the age of 90. Earlier that year he told Great Britain’s The Sun, “I won’t lie, there were really bad times when Bryan was a child that were so terrible I almost can’t bear to relive them. I made some terrible mistakes and had brilliant chances but blew them all, and that had a tragic impact on my family…. I was drinking way, way too much and not being the father I should have been.”

Cranston told the B&N crowd about a devastating childhood moment. It was during his first acting role and he’d flubbed a line, “When I was 11-years-old I felt abject embarrassment. Years later, in retrospect, I realized, wow, I’d mistakenly misplaced one word and it made people crack up with tremendous laughter—what if I did that on purpose?” And that, he said, was how he learned comedy. But, he also said, “I wouldn’t have wanted that.” If someone had asked him, “Would you like to be embarrassed and learn a lesson?” his response would’ve been, “No thanks.”

“If you’ve seen Breaking Bad, you’ve seen me completely naked in public…. That’s not easy to do. It was one of those times when you have to transcend your mind and say, ‘Here I am. I’m fragile at this moment. I am not only figuratively naked, I am literally naked.' That’s the risk. You have to be willing to be naked and vulnerable.”

As Cranston generously doled out wisdom during his bookstore talk, I wondered if he’d ever attended Al-Anon. He stressed to his wide-eyed audience the importance of quiet confidence, humility, persistence and patience. Then he added, “But you’ve got to put in the work. There’s no short cut for the work. You’ve gotta put in the hours.”

As he spoke to the crowd, I was reminded of the Walter White that taught in the science lab, and eagerly passed along every scientific fact that he deemed important for his students to digest.

Cranston said, “Quiet confidence is not a chest pounding. [It’s not] look at me, I’m great.”

He emphasized persistence, with a no matter what, “You’ve gotta keep going.”

The actor sounded like a trusted advisor when he urged the audience to remember to do our best and then let the results go. I was reminded by something I have heard a zillion times but never seem to retain.

“You cannot attach success to an outcome decided by someone else,” said Cranston. “You have to ask yourself, ‘Did I do what I wanted to do? Did I work at it?”

One of the highlights of the evening was when he lit up over the transformative power of a story “when you’re two and you drag a book to your parent’s lap and you sit there while they’re telling you about the dinosaurs and your eyes are as wide as saucers. Then [that love for stories] goes on for the rest of your life.”

That is the premise that all recovery meetings are based on—a desire to share our stories. We want to be heard. We want to know acceptance. Humans are not meant to struggle alone. Like dogs, we need our pack.

“When you’re 102,” said Cranston, “you’ll still want to be told stories. We want to suspend our belief. ‘Please, tell us a story. Take us away. Let me relieve my troubles for a couple of hours or just go on a fantasy trip.’”

Yes, amen to that. When my thinking is askew, if I’m craving relief, my first thought is often about rum and cocaine, but, I’ve learned to think it through, to respect myself—and then I run across the street to the huge Cineplex movie screens and let the stories take me away.

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