Nobody descends into the dark as insightfully as Bryan Cranston does.
In the 10-part drama Your Honor, the 64-year-old star finds himself examining crime and its rippling repercussions again, seven years after his critically acclaimed, five-year run in Breaking Bad.
The actor breaks bad anew in Your Honor, which follows how his character, New Orleans judge Michael Desiato, uses his influence to circumvent the law when his teenage son, Adam (Hunter Doohan), gets embroiled in a hit-and-run case that kills the second son of the city’s most feared crime boss Jimmy Baxter (Michael Stuhlbarg of Call Me by Your Name) and his wife, the even scarier Gina (Hope Davis).
Ironically, Michael is known in legal circles as a stickler for ethical procedure and accuracy, who even goes out of his way to prove that all accused are indeed guilty of the crimes attributed to them. However, he goes through the moral wringer when the life of his asthmatic only son, still reeling from the untimely death of his wife a year ago, is on the line.
We watched the first four episodes of the miniseries before we spoke to Bryan for this Philippine exclusive last week.
The actor told us why Judge Desiato’s moral ambiguity drew him to the show, the same way that Walter White, the high school chemistry teacher-turned-drug kingpin he portrayed in Breaking Bad, piqued his curiosity enough to fully commit to the role.
“I am a person who’s imperfect, and anyone who watches Your Honor will feel that he’s imperfect, as well,” Bryan explains. “We all have strengths and weaknesses, and in a dramatic narrative, you want to watch someone who is conflicted, who does have flaws to his character, who perhaps is trying to become a better person.
“And that’s where members of an audience can place their investment of time, energy and sympathies toward … to root for that person to find his way through this maze of difficulty and come out the other side better.
“Our job in Your Honor is to tell this story as honestly as we possibly can and hope that audiences are entertained by it. But if it makes them feel or think differently as far as race relations or justice is concerned, that’d be nicer.”
Acknowledging the legacy, massive appeal and global reach of Breaking Bad, Bryan said that comparisons between Walter White and Michael Desiato can’t be helped.
“Well, there’s always going to be similarities because I’m the actor who played both characters,” he quipped. “First, I’m of a certain age, and because of that, I’m most likely going to get cast as a parent. Aside from that, I look at the differences: Walter was very methodical in his chosen journey. He planned it out and went there purposefully.”
“On the other hand, for my character in Your Honor, his situation happens impulsively. As Michael, I have to make an immediate decision on whether or not to save the life of my child—and that’s Michael’s journey. It takes the twists and turns as well as any good dramatic storytelling does. Hopefully, [that journey] will also be surprising. It’ll be a roller-coaster ride, that’s for sure—with heightened emotions, anxieties and moments of enjoyable viewing.”
Read also: ‘Breaking Bad’ star Bryan Cranston says he has recovered from COVID-19
Our Q&A with Bryan Cranston:
What has come through to you about human nature in this project?
Great question. That’s exactly what it is that you ask yourself: What would I do in that situation? And if yours isn’t terribly different from what my character does, then we’re on this journey together. The crux of Your Honor is that it presents a scenario that’s very relatable. It’s any parent’s worst nightmare—and hopefully, none of you will ever have to go through this in real life.
Personally, I hope I never will. But were this to happen to you, where you have to make a decision that would save your child’s life, of course you do it. My character does impulsively and cannot think down the road about how this implicates him. What other cover-ups and lies and alibis do I have to generate in order to serve the original decision? When you decide to do it, that’s where the sentimentality and sympathy of the audience will be, because they’ll go, “I would have done the same thing!”
Based on the series’ first four episodes, the show tackles racism, as well—a common focus on TV shows and movies these days. Do you think exploring this issue could help change American society somehow?
It’s possible. An artist’s responsibility is to be authentic and faithful to what’s the truth or what’s happening around him. Or else, what’s the point of that fantasy … of the utopian society that we strive for, or a dystopian society, where everything collapses, that we fight against.
Our job is to entertain and tell stories. If we can also lay a lining of social benefit to that, I think that’d be great. So, in Your Honor, we depict the authentic view of what is happening in the United States as far as racial relations are concerned.
The predominant number of African-Americans in our prison system is appalling. And we examine race relations and how justice treats a person of color as opposed to a person with white privilege. It’s very apparent, and those are little seeds that might get into someone watching and be stimulated to be a social worker or a politician for change.
Hunter is impressive as your son. Could you talk about him and what it was like working with the other cast members?
I did a lot of testing with the actors who were up for the role of my son, Adam—and Hunter Doohan just rose to the surface. He had all the elements that were needed for that character, and we’re very proud he turned in a terrific job.
Carmen Ejogo plays my friend and love interest in the show. Then, there’s Isiah Whitlock Jr., Hope Davis and Michael Stuhlbarg—all terrific actors. Some I’ve worked with before, like Margo Martindale. The quest is to find a cast that will take those characters and just enhance them.
Seven years after Breaking Bad, how do you look back at that journey and the lessons you’ve learned from it? How did it change the course of your life?
For actors, our roots are rather shallow. We plant our tree somewhere for seven years, then we lift it up and put it somewhere else. But for that period of time, it gets very intense. I try not to think of similarities of characters—what I do instead is try to find the differences in them.
The more you work, the harder it is to define a distinction between your characters. And sometimes, when you portray a character that is very different from you, which helps [introduce] you to a new personality.
All I’ve learned as far as Breaking Bad goes is the desire to do good work and tell stories that are important and compelling … those that resonate with audiences and entertain them.
During this pandemic and the lockdowns, I think what we’ve realized more than anything is the value of pure entertainment. And even if it’s just a distraction for a couple hours, it’s nevertheless a worthwhile distraction. It helps people along the way to maybe step aside from their troubles and escape for a moment.
Your character is almost like a private investigator, who goes above and beyond the call of duty. Did you shadow a judge of that kind? Should judges follow your example and do a bit more [sleuthing]?
I was in New Orleans for a couple of weeks [before the shoot]. I attended several trials, watched several judges at work and saw how they handled their own courtrooms—and they vary. Some feel like they’re the captain of a ship, some act like they’re more of a referee. Some feel like they’re onstage, and some feel that they shouldn’t be heard or seen at all—it all depends on the judge’s personality.
Do you feel that justice, or lack of it, is a big issue in the US? Or is there an essential problem with the law itself?
I think it’s universal: Injustice is true wherever you are in the world. In the issue about the rich versus the poor, the rich have always had a tendency to get more favorable verdicts. The difference lies in race in America, where we have a predominant number of African-Americans who have historically been given unjust trials and sentences.
There’s an unfair playing field in racism, probably because of the disparity between rich and poor. Changing that is a slow boat, and requires a lot of hard work. It takes ambition and determination to continue to make it better and make it right.
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