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(Credit: Martin Kraft)

From Steven Spielberg to Breaking Bad: Bryan Cranston's 10 best performances

“Take a chance. Take a risk. Find that passion and rekindle it. Fall in love all over again. It’s really worth it.” – Bryan Cranston

Morphing from an actor famous for his innocent, bumbling roles, to one renowned for taking on Hollywood’s toughest roles, Bryan Cranston is one of cinema’s greatest working chameleons. 

Born in Hollywood itself, Cranston was raised in a family of struggling actors but was undoubtedly supported by his parents in his pursuit of success. Graduating from Los Angeles Valley College in 1976, he continued to persevere through appearances in local advertisements and theatre productions until he got his first significant role in the soap opera Loving. He then began to leapfrog across TV productions, appearing as one-off characters on seemingly random television shows, from Raising Miranda to Seinfeld, to the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. 

This would all be an experience to draw from when he finally broke through into the mainstream consciousness as Hal in the wildly successful Malcolm in the Middle. Running for seven seasons between 2000 and 2006, the millennial sit-com would serve as a launch-pad to career success as he navigated film and TV to varying degrees of success. It wasn’t until a certain AMC TV pilot approached him for their latest programme Breaking Bad, that he would reach true, world-renowned success. 

Let’s take a look at the best of his career…

Bryan Cranston’s 10 best performances:

10. Saving Private Ryan (1998 – Steven Spielberg)

Cranston’s one-armed performance in Spielberg’s epic war classic may not be particularly long, or particularly showy for that matter, but the film was a significant milestone in the actor’s career as it was his first appearance in a major motion picture and would open several larger doors later down the road. Following the Normandy landings of WW2 with shocking accuracy, Speilberg’s film charts the journey of a group of U.S soldiers who go behind enemy lines to rescue a fellow soldier whose brothers have been killed in action. 

Measured and composed, Bryan Cranston’s performance as a War Department Colonel isn’t flashy, though let’s be honest, it simply doesn’t need to be.

9. Isle of Dogs (2018 – Wes Anderson)

In Wes Anderson’s predictably wacky stop-motion animation epic Isle of Dogs, Cranston plays a stray canine deserted on an island of trash and dogs, when a boy shows up looking for his lost hound it is up to Chief and his team to find it. 

This is the simplified version of Anderson’s off-the-wall concept where Cranston’s voice work leaps through his character, embodying the character of Chief with soul and sincerity. Appearing alongside the voices of Wes Anderson mainstays, Edward Norton, Jeff Goldblum, and Bill Murray, Bryan Cranston helps to form one of animations most impressive audible ensembles, with several memorable lines including:

“I’ve seen cats with more balls than you dogs.”

8. The X Files (1993 – 2002 – FOX)

Season 6, Episode 2 of Fox’s incredibly successful sci-fi television series The X Files sees Bryan Cranston as Patrick Clump, a man tormented by a strange piercing sound that could make his head explode unless he ‘heads west as fast as possible’. 

Shades of Walter White can be seen throughout Cranston’s unhinged performance here, visually too. He appears as a broken, desperate man, slipping into the shoes of Patrick Clump with ease as he winces and groans with physical pain.

Strangely enough, if it wasn’t for this specific role, he may have never ended up as the television goliath that we know today. In fact, Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad who was a writer/producer of the FOX show at one point, recalled Cranston’s excellent performance specifically when developing the show and demanded his involvement.

7. Sneaky Pete (2015 – 2019 -Amazon Prime)

Bryan Cranston’s screen-breaking performance as Walter White in Breaking Bad most definitely helped to land him in this role of gangster Vince in season one of Sneaky Pete, a show he co-created with David Shore. Following the time of Marius, a con man who takes the identity of a prison inmate to escape his own troubled life, Cranston plays an intimidating gangster who makes trouble for Marius in the protagonist’s attempts to assimilate into his new life. 

Suave and Frightening as the domineering Vince, Sneaky Pete shows Bryan Cranston truly in his comfort zone after years of honing his craft. Unfortunately only appearing throughout the course of one series, Cranston’s performance remains a significant highlight for the electrifying Amazon original.

6. Seinfeld (1994 – 1998 – NBC)

You would be forgiven for forgetting Bryan Cranston’s role in the comedy titan that is Seinfeld, following the neurotic stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld and the hijinks of him and his friends in New York, though the appearance of Cranston’s character Dr. Tim Whatley throughout the show is consistently hilarious. 

No doubt a touchstone in Bryan Cranston’s comedy career, that would later accelerate in the role of Hal in Malcolm in the Middle, Cranston’s role as Jerry’s dentist in the wildly successful sitcom was often a bizarre one, displaying a complicated, ambiguous personality. Though, episode-per-episode, Cranston displayed his deft ability once more to merge himself into his roles showing perfect comedy timing to stand up tall to the comedy legend Jerry Seinfeld.

5. Argo (2012 – Ben Affleck)

Ben Affleck’s directorial masterstroke Argo tells the miraculous true story of Tony Mendez, a CIA operative who under the cover of a Hollywood producer seeking a new location for his sci-fi film, ventures to Tehran to help rescue U.S embassy officials under threat from Iranian activists in 1979.

Bryan Cranston appears as Jack O’Donnell, a key figure in the project, pulling the strings from behind the scenes as a to-the-book CIA officer. Despite his character not appearing in the front and centre of the action, Cranston performs his role as a hardy, authoritative figure, with sobering honesty, switching from moments of anger to scenes of comedy with ease. Filled with suspense and tension, particularly in the films’ climax, Cranston knows exactly when to dial up the tone, or when to leave the material to breathe. 

4. Your Honor (2020 – Showtime)

Recalling his time as Breaking Bad’s Walter White with great aplomb, in Your Honor Cranston plays Michael Desiato, a judge who, when his son is involved in a hit and run incident, must question his own convictions to save his family’s life. 

It seems as though Bryan Cranston is at his very best when he’s playing a broken father, particularly one that is threatened to have everything he has taken away from him. The actor elevates this otherwise bland series from Steven Moffat, providing layers to the central character that surpass the written words of the script. His ability to effortlessly switch personalities, and to show two very different sides of the same coin, is again on display here. Snapping from blood-curdling intensity to softer moments of honest reflection, his performance as his life around him crumbles is undoubtedly riveting.

3. Drive (2011- Nicolas Winding Refn)

Another role that Bryan Cranston helped himself to acquire through his lead performance in Breaking Bad, Nicholas Winding Refn’s independent thriller Drive, saw the actor fill the boots of Shannon, a mechanic and old friend of the nameless protagonist played by Ryan Gosling.

The film itself follows Gosling as a brooding Hollywood stuntman and behind-the-scenes getaway driver who gets tangled up in his neighbour’s dangerous business. Cranston very much takes a supporting role here as Gosling’s honest business accomplice and loyal friend, though again commits himself to his character with tremendous dedication. 

Cranston is perhaps most known here for his gruesome demise which he himself helped to engineer behind the scenes. Speaking at the Tribeca TV Festival the actor stated: “In the original script, my character and Albert Brooks’ character actually liked each other. They were fond of each other and I thought that was a great problem to have,” Cranston said.

“What if your task is you have to kill someone that you really like — that’s odd. And in the script, it had him come up behind me with a garroting wire and he chokes and cuts me to death. I thought, there’s something wrong with this. … It’s too painful.”

2. Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006 – FOX)

“One boy’s purse is another boy’s bookbag…if he’s European. Besides I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been jealous of your mother and her purse. You know, we men have to shove our whole lives in a little square of leather, that we then have to sit on.”

Malcolm in the Middle was Bryan Cranston’s playground. Quite literally, here it looked as though not only was the actor truly enjoying himself, but he also looked to be trying out different techniques by fully immersing himself within his character. He somehow managed to resemble every ‘dad’ you’d ever known in Fox’s breakout sitcom following the three brothers of a dysfunctional family. 

Struggling to properly lead and become a role model for his children or a good husband to his wife, Hal was the family’s fifth child who throughout the six series run of the show was given increasing screentime and the chance for Cranston to flex his comedy muscles. The actor has unfortunately been unable to take on a fully comedic role since the conclusion of the series in 2006, but his performance as the loveable father figure will long be remembered in sitcom history.

1. Breaking Bad – (2008-2013 – AMC)

“If that’s true — if you don’t know who I am – then maybe your best course is to tread lightly.”

Shoulder-to-shoulder with Tony Soprano and Omar Little, Brain Cranston’s Walter White from AMC’s runaway success Breaking Bad will undoubtedly go down as one of the very greatest characters of television. 

As the chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin Walter White transforms himself from innocent father to ruthless gangster across the course of five stunning seasons, Bryan Cranston’s transformation is marvellous if also genuinely heartbreaking. The reactions, shock, and heartbreak of his wife, son, and close friends as they see the man they once knew evolve into something quite terrifying are genuinely agonising, but only so because of Cranston’s central performance. 

Winning four Emmy awards, three back-to-back, for his performance across the series, Bryan Cranston managed to create a broken protagonist that reeked of psychological pain and turmoil as he watched the fantasy life he’d pieced together crumble. So good was his performance that the legendary Anthony Hopkins wrote him a letter reading:  “Your performance as Walter White was the best acting I have seen – ever…This work of yours is spectacular – absolutely stunning. From what started as a black comedy, descended into a labyrinth of blood, destruction and hell. It was like a great Jacobean, Shakespearian or Greek Tragedy.”

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