Interview: Bryan Cranston, Actor In 'Trumbo' Cranston used tapes of writer Dalton Trumbo to study his speech patterns and smoking habit. Then he put on glasses and a mustache, and he says, "I [started] to see that man."

Bryan Cranston Becomes Blacklisted Screenwriter In 'Trumbo' Biopic

Bryan Cranston Becomes Blacklisted Screenwriter In 'Trumbo' Biopic

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Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane play Dalton and Cleo Trumbo in a new film about the screenwriter's life. Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Courtesy of Bleecker Street hide caption

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Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Courtesy of Bleecker Street

Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane play Dalton and Cleo Trumbo in a new film about the screenwriter's life.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/Courtesy of Bleecker Street

Dalton Trumbo was a successful Hollywood screenwriter in the 1930s. Like other writers, his anti-fascism and pro-working-class politics led him to join the American Communist Party. Then in the '40s, Trumbo was part of a group of screenwriters who were blacklisted for being Communists. He was subpoenaed by the House Un-American Activities Committee and after he refused to cooperate, he served a one-year prison sentence for contempt of Congress.

When he got out, Trumbo continued to write through the 1950s using pseudonyms and often working for studios that churned out "B" movies. The new film Trumbo, starring Bryan Cranston, tells the screenwriter's story.

Cranston describes Trumbo as a larger-than-life character. "He's a raconteur. He's a troublemaker," he tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "He's also a contrarian."

Interview Highlights

On Trumbo's history with the American Communist Party

In Trumbo's era, when there was the Red Scare, Dalton Trumbo joined the American Communist Party because it was, he thought, the party that would help the working class best and ... it was a political arm of labor unions, and that's what he was truly invested in. He quit and then joined again and quit again. He was dismayed with the bureaucracy of any political party. And the idea that because he was a member of that party that he is somehow associated with Communist Russia at the time is ludicrous. And this is what the House Un-American Activities Committee tried to prove — and failed miserably, because there was no connection to it.

On Trumbo writing "B" movies after he was blacklisted

John Goodman's character is a man named Frank King who Dalton Trumbo actually did work for when he was blacklisted. And Frank King flatly says, you know, "We make crap." And so Dalton says, "Mr. King, I'm a screenwriter. If I couldn't write crap, I'd starve." So, there is — he [has] the full spectrum of ability.

On the range of Trumbo's writing

He wrote beautiful verse and sweet verse in Roman Holiday; romantic, patriotic in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, A Guy Named Joe; he wrote anti-war material like his famous novel Johnny Got His Gun, you know, and everything in between. He liked a good cop-and-robber story as well. So he wrote Gun Crazy. So there was a whole variety of different styles that he wrote.

On how he prepared to play Trumbo

Well the bulk of that work happens before any cameras roll. The character starts outside of you and [you use] your imagination and own personal experience. And the amount of research you do and just allowing that essence to come into you — once he comes into you, then you start letting it grow and grow.

And you know I had the advantage of videotapes and audiotapes, and I knew certain habits: He was a chain-smoker and ... he would rise in his voice and then come down and then rise again. He had that nature to him. And I thought that was an interesting thing — a speech pattern that came into me by watching his interviews and such.

But that alone doesn't do it. ... It's an actor muscle. ... You use certain talismans, perhaps, that get you there: his glasses; when they put on the mustache and I put on his wardrobe and I look in the mirror and I start to see that man. And I welcome him to come out, warts and all.

On whether he misses playing Walter White on Breaking Bad

Most people ask me: "Don't you miss it? Don't you want to go back? Wouldn't you like to start up again?" And I say I don't miss it. I lived through a wonderful arch of storytelling — a beginning, middle and end that was so satisfying to me as an artist and as a person. It gave me so many things ... and I'm grateful. But to go back and start it again would be like having a second or third dessert after a wonderful meal. And it just kind of ruins the meal. So no, it's best to allow the ephemeral nature of storytelling to take its natural place.