Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston’s advice for aspiring actors
The process of auditioning for TV pilots is a petri dish for self doubt. When you test for a pilot at a network, you wait and you wait for them to call your name. When they finally do, it’s common to walk into a room and find 20 people in really nice business attire staring blankly at you. A few hellos, and it’s show time.
Act your ass off on command. Typically, they consider a minimum of three actors for each role, but it can be up to eight. It’s nerve-racking, and it’s over before you know it. Out you go to wait for the next guy to step to the plate, then the next. When everyone has been in once, you’re usually asked in again for round two of the same scene or scenes, but only after sitting in the waiting room, dissecting your audition, thinking about all the things you’d change if you had the chance to do it again. Or maybe you’re pleased with the work.
But your competition is there, too. By the water fountain. And he seems pleased with his work! You sit, trying not to seem nervous. You even smile at your competitors as if to wish them good luck. What you’re really hoping is that they break down and confess: I screwed up. I was awful.
But no one says a thing. We’re actors. Looking confident under pressure is our stock-in-trade. You look unbothered. Cool, even. Inside, you’re wondering: Am I any good? You’re staring at the door. They’re discussing your fate behind that door. It could be five minutes, it could be half an hour before the door swings open and the casting director appears and offers a boilerplate: Thank you. Everyone was very good. You’re all free to go.
And just like that, it’s done. You collect your things and go home, your mind racing. Did they find their guy? Did they think we were all terrible? Will they have to cast a wider net to find the actor they want?
Ah, f— it. You may never know. You could get that call from your agent saying, Congratulations! You got it! Or, more often than not … nothing.
That’s the life. That’s why talent alone doesn’t cut it. If you want to be a successful actor, mental toughness is essential. Lay your whole self-worth on getting the role, on the illusion of validation, before long you’re left angry, resentful, and jealous. You’re doomed.
From the time I got back from my motorcycle trip in 1978, I knew I wanted to make my living as an actor. Rejection is part of that living. It comes with it, like rain on the Blue Ridge Parkway. You can sugarcoat it. You can use a euphemism if you wish. But the bottom line is that sometimes they are simply not going to want you. And if they do want you, they may fire you. We’re going in a different direction.
Or they say with what seems like sincerity “Let’s keep talking,” and then never call you back. Or they tell your agent, in a polite way, that you sucked. Or that you’re great. “Wow! Fantastic! Really. He’s perfect for this. We’ll be in touch.” And then . . . crickets.
There are a lot of crickets in this business.
Early on, after an audition, I’d wait by the phone, wringing my hands. And then when I heard I didn’t get the part, I’d marinate in disappointment and introspection. Could I have done something differently?
But about 20 years ago something changed. I’d gotten to a place where I didn’t feel any of that negativity. No more post audition self-laceration, no more competition, no ill will toward anyone else. I made a switch in the way I approached the process. The switch seemed simple enough once I understood it, but it took me years to achieve that understanding.
Early in my career, I was always hustling. Doing commercials, guest-starring, auditioning like crazy. I was making a decent living, but I confided to Robin that I felt I was stuck in junior varsity. I wondered if I had plateaued. Ever thoughtful, my wife gave me the gift of private sessions with a self-help guy named Breck Costin, who was really wonderful with actors and other creative people.
Breck suggested that I focus on process rather than outcome. I wasn’t going to the audition to get anything: a job or money or validation. I wasn’t going to compete with the other guys. I was going to give something.
I wasn’t there to get a job. I was there to do a job. Simple as that.
I was there to give a performance. If I attached to the outcome, I was setting myself up to expect, and thus to fail. My job was to focus on character. My job was to be interesting. My job was to be compelling. Take some chances. Serve the text. Enjoy the process.
And this wasn’t some semantic sleight of hand, it wasn’t some subtle form of barter or gamesmanship. There was to be no predicting or manipulating, no thinking of the outcome. Outcome was irrelevant. I couldn’t afford any longer to approach my work as a means to an end.
Once I made the switch, I was no longer a supplicant. I had power in any room I walked into. Which meant I could relax. I was free.
In advance of an audition, I’d read the script, suss out what was expected. The character is going to murder his coworker, so there’s probably some rage and frustration and fear of getting caught. My job is not just to deliver those expected feelings, but to find something interesting and unexpected, maybe some barely contained glee or mania or righteousness.
I learned to take control of the room. If I felt the scene called for the two characters to be standing, I might ask the casting director to please get up. “What? Get out of my seat? Oh, uh, OK.” The casting director gets up, and now we’re at eye level. Or if the objective was intimidation, I’d get close. That shift in physicality is visceral. It changes the power dynamic. We are accustomed to keeping a certain distance in professional settings. Cheating that, even if it’s just by a few inches, provokes a reaction.
Of course I didn’t always get the job, but that wasn’t my intent any more. What was important was I always left that room knowing I did everything I could do.
I had a basket at home. I’d audition and then toss the script in the basket. I’d forget about it. I’d let it go. You can’t fake letting it go.
You have to really genuinely detach from it. If I’d get a callback, I’d fish out the script and say, “Oh, yeah. I remember this guy”.
In 1999, I got a call about Malcolm in the Middle. They were looking for someone to play the dad. I read the script and it was excellent, really funny, really smart, but all you knew about the father was that he had a lot of body hair. I’m not hairless, but I’m not hirsute. There wasn’t a lot more to go on with Hal. I read it again to see if I could find another way in.
The mother was more fully written. She was an alpha, a sergeant of arms, a lioness. She was fearless, strong, sharp, bombastic. I wrote all those things down. And then, on a whim, I wrote the opposite of all those qualities. Fearful. Weak. Obtuse. Reserved. I started to realise I was building a character. I was supplying what she didn’t have, which was good for a marriage. Good for a comedy, too. I realised there was a lot of potential for humour in this character. It could be really funny.
I’d learned that if a character wasn’t in the script, I had to infer it or imagine it. I had to take it on myself to build it. I came to the audition ready with ideas.
The writer gave me the template in the script, and I expanded that into a multi-dimensional person. Even in the half dozen lines Hal had in the pilot, I was able to find something. He was distracted by his family – not disinterested. When he was overwhelmed, he took a vacation in his mind. No one wanted to see someone who didn’t love his family. But a man who is exhausted by his family? Almost everyone can relate to that.
They auditioned me last-minute; they were already building the sets for the pilot. Because Hal was underdeveloped in the script, they were having a hard time casting him. All of which played to my advantage. But I wasn’t thinking of my advantage. I was thinking of giving them Hal. I remember sitting in the office on a folding chair with set construction going on just outside, and Linwood Boomer, the creator of Malcolm, falling out of his seat laughing at what I did.
I got the part. After we shot the pilot, I got a call from Linwood. He told me that Fox picked up the show and it was moving forward. What he didn’t tell me was that Fox wanted to reshoot the pilot and replace me. The network wanted to go in a different direction with Hal. They wanted to go away from me. I found out years later that Linwood told Fox – emphatically – no. He told the network I was Hal. Linwood fought for me. He believed in me. Everyone needs a champion, and Linwood Boomer was mine.