Lessons from Bryan Cranston’s ‘A Life In Parts’

I finished Bryan Cranston’s new memoir, A Life In Parts, over the weekend. Most people now know Cranston’s work due to his epic portrayal of Walter White in Breaking Bad — one of the most complex & rich characters crafted in the past decade — but he has been acting and hustling for nearly 40 years.

Achieving greatness in one’s specific vocation or enterprise has a lot of commonality with greatness generally in any pursuit.

Here are some of my key takeaways:

  • Peak performance relies on presence — technical skills and preparation are necessary, but can only get you so far. What makes a performance great is an openness to the range of emotions any character could be feeling in the moment. What are the possible emotional levels my character could experience? I break the scene down into moments or beats. By doing that work ahead of time, I leave a number of possibilities available to me. I stay open to the moment, susceptible to whatever comes.
  • Bring it all — Cranston’s portrayal of LBJ on Broadway was the culmination of a lifetime of his experiences, both professional and personal. We are all the product of our experiences. His relationship with his parents, gigs that didn’t work out so well, how he was feeling on the day. Authenticity cannot be crafted — its the sum of what’s happened in life up until this point. You’re hungry. Use that. You caught a cold. You have a sinus infection. LBJ is dealing with these same maladies on stage, blowing his nose, hacking away. You bring everything you are on stage with you. And you see if it can fit into the character.
  • Trust and mutual respect is the bedrock of culture — Breaking Bad’s success was the result of the interplay between the actors, writers, producers & crew. The show worked because of shared respect for the perspectives of the various players. If trust breaks down, its hard for the culture to be preserved — this puts everything at risk. This is why a member of the crew was let go immediately after disrespecting team members at Breaking Bad Bowling Night (despite this individual having his own demons to contend with). But there was no way we could let him be part of what we were trying to do. We couldn’t let anyone put at risk this thing we’d worked so hard to create.
  • Everything counts — in the late 90s, Cranston auditioned for a character, Patrick Crump, in an episode of the X-Files. This is how he met Vince Gilligan. Subsequently, Cranston spent 7 seasons happily playing the goofy dad on Malcolm in the Middle. But his performance in X-Files left an impression on Gilligan, who sent him the script for Breaking Bad 8 years later. At the time, Cranston was ready to do an 8th season of Malcolm. Every negative has a corresponding positive. So many twists of fate and accidents of timing that seemed, in the moment, insignificant or unfortunate or even like rotten luck, and they all led me to this part.
  • Explore things that scare you — it often means there’s something personally meaningful hiding behind it. If I’m considering a role and it makes me nervous, but I can’t stop thinking about it — that’s often a good indication I’m onto something important.

Cranston’s story is also perfect example of the myth of overnight success. His ‘moonshot’ happened in his 50s — on the foundation of a career of singles and doubles (and plenty of failures, too). This is a great lesson for anyone who thinks its too late to pursue their professional or personal dreams. I certainly relate to this, thinking about the baggage I carried around when I left the comfy world of venture capital to start my first company (in my 30s, with a kid on the way). Instead of feeling weighed down our prior experiences, we can reframe our past as bringing us all to this very moment in our lives — and try to make something great happen.

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