When it comes to picking roles, Bryan Cranston has a type. He likes his characters to be wily egomaniacs who wear their pants too high. And his first post–Breaking Bad part is no exception.
While Bad fans are holding their breath for the series finale, Cranston is midway through his next gig: playing Lyndon B. Johnson in the American Repertory Theater’s sold-out run of All the Way, directed by Bill Rauch.
“LBJ and Walter White are actually very good manipulators,” he said Saturday, backstage at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Mass. “They can use their wiles to get out of problems that they find themselves in or get something that they want.”
“Everyone wants power, everybody,” Cranston’s LBJ says near the beginning of Robert Schenkkan’s historical epic. “And if they say they don’t, they’re lying.”
That bit of wisdom imparted by our 36th President might very well have been uttered by a certain wily meth dealer. LBJ has hair and Walter White has none, but if you ignored the Texas drawl, you could be forgiven for confusing the two.
Cranston thinks so too.
“They’re very smart, in that they both know what someone else needs or wants, they can read people very well,” he said. “And so they know that if they give that person what they want, then I can get what I need. That’s the common denominator between them.”
In the play, LBJ is trying to get the civil rights bill passed while campaigning for re-election, a feat that requires a lot of Southern charm and a little White-ian arm-twisting.
Even Lady Bird Johnson gets some of Cranston’s wrath. “If you’re not with me, then you’re against me,” LBJ warns her. “And don’t you dare cross me, Bird.” In other words, tread lightly.
While All the Way may sound like history class, even nonwonks would enjoy seeing Cranston sputter and bray his way to political domination. And Johnson’s many compromises in the name of civil rights remind us that history is always hard-won, and victory never feels as sweet as it seems it should.
But Cranston isn’t the only TV heavyweight to sign onto this ambitious project. Reed Birney from House of Cards plays Hubert Humphrey and Strom Thurmond, and Michael McKean from Homeland and Best in Show plays J. Edgar Hoover and Robert Byrd.
The show sold out before it opened and runs only through Oct. 12, but there are rumors that LBJ may go all the way to Broadway. “There is a lot of interest in All the Way,” said Diane Borger, the artistic producer of the American Repertory Theater. “We hope there will be a future life so it can be seen by the widest possible audience.”
For the sake of Cranston’s fans, let’s hope nothing stands between All the Way and Broadway. Because, as LBJ said to an old political ally: “Now I love you more than my own daddy, but if you get in my way, I’ll crush you.”