ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Dalton Trumbo was a successful Hollywood screenwriter in the 1930s and '40s. Like other writers, his anti-fascism and pro-working-class politics led him to join the American Communist Party.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRUMBO")
BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Dalton Trumbo) I love out country, and it's a good government. But anything could be better.
SIEGEL: That's Bryan Cranston, plays Trumbo in a new movie. Dalton Trumbo was one of a group of screenwriters, the Hollywood Ten, 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, he continued to write through the 1950s, using pseudonyms and often working for studios that churned out B movies.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "TRUMBO")
JOHN GOODMAN: (As Frank King) Trumbo, we can't afford you.
CRANSTON: (As Dalton Trumbo) Well, how much did you pay for the script of that "Bad Men Of Tombstone"?
GOODMAN: (As Frank King) 1,200 bucks.
CRANSTON: (As Dalton Trumbo) All right. I'll write you a movie for 1,200, then.
GOODMAN: (As Frank King) And you don't want your name on it?
CRANSTON: (As Dalton Trumbo) No, you don't want my name on it.
GOODMAN: (As Frank King) You got that right.
SIEGEL: The new movie is simply called "Trumbo." Bryan Cranston, who famously starred in the TV series "Breaking Bad," told me about getting inside the character of Dalton Trumbo.
CRANSTON: He's a larger-than-life character. He's a raconteur. He's a troublemaker. He's also a contrarian. And John McNamara, who wrote the screenplay, really brought a brilliant script that supports this important story about a dark period not only in Hollywood history, but American history.
SIEGEL: As you immersed yourself in the story of Dalton Trumbo for the movie, did you find yourself struck by how strange a time that was and how different it is from the country and from the movie business these days, or did you find any similarity at all between the two eras?
CRANSTON: I do. I think, at the time, in Trumbo's era, when there was the red scare, Dalton Trumbo joined the American Communist Party because it was, he thought, the working-class best and that 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 the 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. And do we find it today? I think it does resonate in today. Any time that civil liberties are in jeopardy of being lost or discarded by a civilized, enlightened society, the citizenry needs to take notice and stand up for their rights.
SIEGEL: What Dalton Trumbo managed to do while blacklisted, which is to effectively win a couple of Oscars for screenplays that he wrote, it's remarkable. But what's also difficult about Trumbo the character is that he was perfectly capable of writing complete junk for the movie.
SIEGEL: He consciously figured there's money in writing junk; I'll write junk.
CRANSTON: Yes. 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, if - I'm a screenwriter; if I couldn't write crap, I'd starve.
CRANSTON: So there is - he has a full spectrum of ability. He wrote beautiful verse and sweet verse in "Roman Holiday" - romantic, patriotic in "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo" and "A Guy Named Joe." He wrote antiwar 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.
SIEGEL: A moment ago, you briefly were speaking a sentiment attributed to Dalton Trumbo, and you broke into Trumbo for a moment.
CRANSTON: I did, yes.
SIEGEL: I think you did, anyway. I think I - I think I could hear a brief turn of Dalton Trumbo.
SIEGEL: How do you get back into this set of mannerisms and speech and voice day after day after day shooting a movie out of sequence?
CRANSTON: Well, the bulk of that work happens before any cameras roll. The character starts outside of you in using 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 had - and I'll go into it now - he had an up and down. And he would rise in his voice and then come down and then rise again. And 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. And it's actually a muscle that - it's an actor muscle that 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.
SIEGEL: You know, (laughter) to hear a very gifted actor like you, Bryan Cranston, talk about this, the gap between what you're describing and a non-talented person trying to imagine what you're doing is enormous, but it works. It works, so...
CRANSTON: Well, the other comment to that is that the audience shouldn't know that it's how the magic trick is done. They just want to see the trick. Either it works or it doesn't. And that's really the way it should be when it's in its final presentation to the audience.
SIEGEL: People who got addicted to watching you on television in "Breaking Bad" are - I mean, I can't tell you how important you are to them. How happy are you to not be the character in "Breaking Bad" anymore?
CRANSTON: Oh, that's interesting that you say that because 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 arc 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, so many enrichment into my life, 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, you know? So, no, it's best to allow the ephemeral nature of storytelling to take its natural place.
SIEGEL: Well, thanks for talking with us about your latest course, "Trumbo."
CRANSTON: Thank you, Robert.
SIEGEL: Bryan Cranston, thanks for being our guest.
CRANSTON: Appreciate it.
SIEGEL: Bryan Cranston stars in the new movie about the blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
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