If you’ve been following Bryan Cranston’s small-screen adventures in the drug-trafficking trade, presidential timber may be the last thing to come to mind. In six festering seasons of Breaking Bad, Mr. Cranston played Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who spends his final, cancer-ridden years cooking up a methamphetamine-based nest egg for his family, ending up in the show’s memorable concluding episodes an alpha-type skinhead, street-named Heisenberg. On March 6, the day before he turns 58, Mr. Cranston will switch gears, taking on Lyndon Baines Johnson, the lead role in Robert Schenkkan’s new play, All the Way.
That Mr. Cranston is appearing on Broadway is no big surprise, given the wild success of Breaking Bad. The role he ultimately accepted, however, took a great deal of deliberation. After winning three Emmys, a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award for his role as Walter White, Mr. Cranston was showered in scripts for the stage. “You can only make your debut once, so I thought I really wanted to take a big bite, do something that really challenges me,” he said in a recent interview. All the Way, which covers Johnson’s presidency from the day of the Kennedy assassination to the night of the 1964 presidential election, filled the bill.
In a way, his training for portraying the contradictions of L.B.J. began long before Breaking Bad. That show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, first worked with Mr. Cranston on an episode of The X-Files called “Drive,” in which the actor managed to sympathetically portray a dark, anti-Semitic character. After considerable resistance from AMC—the network was concerned that Mr. Cranston was too associated with his role as the bumbling head of household in the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle—Mr. Gilligan cast him as Walter White.
Mr. Cranston’s ability to transition with ease from drama to comedy has been helpful in capturing the many sides of L.B.J. “If you ask anybody—and I’ve asked a lot of people who knew him—what adjective best described Lyndon, they say, ‘No one adjective describes Lyndon. All adjectives describe Lyndon,’” Mr. Cranston said. “On the emotional spectrum, he swung all the way left and all the way right—from elation to depression—and it could turn on a dime.”
“Politics? Johnson just loved the whole thing,” Mr. Cranston continued. “He loved the wheeling and dealing, the gentle nudging here, the gruff demanding there. What many people don’t know was that, in private, he was a good ol’ boy who was, by turns, crude and funny, embracing and chilling, threatening and hugging. You never knew what edge of the Johnson treatment was going to hit you. Friends who knew him well said they don’t remember Lyndon ever reading a book. If he was reading a book, it was probably a biography of Roosevelt or Hoover, something he could glean from for himself. He never wanted to go to movies or concerts or art museums. He was just all politics, a shark of a politician who was constantly working.”
The actor gives both theatrical masks a real workout. “There are more opportunities in the first act to have some legitimate levity and see his lighter side,” he said. “Yet his whole thrust in the first act is to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed, and that was no easy task—Herculean, it was. He was a consummate politician—probably the best since Roosevelt, up to now even. With all his years as a representative and all his years in the Senate, he got to know those congressmen and senators pretty well. He knew what they wanted, and he fought hard to give them what they wanted so he can get what he needed. That was his whole agenda: ‘Give ’em what they want so I can get what I need.’ It’s a horse trade. It’s no one-sided deal—something that I think our current Congress has almost forgotten. They don’t even want to give credit to a good idea to a member of the opposite party—like, it’s bad form or something—and this polarity has really hurt our Congress and its ability to be constructive.”
The second act is more serious, he said, more focused on Johnson winning the ’64 election. “He desperately wanted to earn the American people’s stamp of approval by electing him naturally. He would never have let that go if he could not win it on his own, so he was focused on that and what it would take to get elected.”
Johnson did, of course, get elected, and Mr. Schenkkan, who is known to take on projects of great length (his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Kentucky Cycle, in two parts, ran to almost six hours), has also covered the rest of Johnson’s political life with The Great Society, the sequel to All the Way.
The Great Society is set to play the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Angus Bowmer Theater July 23 through Nov. 1, helmed by O.S.F.’s artistic director, Bill Rauch, who started All the Way there and is directing it now for Broadway. “The arc of this new play,” said Mr. Schenkkan, “is Johnson’s attempt to implement the domestic programs that were so dear to his heart while at the same time maintaining what he knew would be an unwinnable war in Southeast Asia, which would, in effect, kill the programs that he loved. He’s simultaneously riding two horses. While there is great initial success domestically, everything he fears comes to pass in terms of Vietnam and what that means not just to his domestic programs of course but to the whole country.”
“Whereas All the Way is drama, The Great Society is tragedy,” Mr. Schenkkan added. “In classical terms, a tragic hero eventually has a moment of awareness.”
Jack Willis, a talented local, originated the L.B.J. role at the 2012 world premiere of All the Way and will do it again this summer for The Great Society, presumably keeping it warm for Mr. Cranston, should he decide to, unlike L.B.J., run for a second term.
Mr. Cranston isn’t focused on that decision. In general, he doesn’t like to look too far into the future. “The more in the future I look or the more in the past I look, the less I have time and energy to stay in the here-and-now, which I find far more satisfying.” And at the moment, his here-and-now is all about All the Way. “I just want to stay hyper-focused on this period of time—people who knew him during that period, what was going on, the transition from the Kennedy personnel to the Johnson personnel in the White House, what kind of rifts were there, what kind of cohesiveness was there.”
In the meantime, Mr. Schenkkan holds out hope that his star will return. “It’s a pretty short list of actors of his stature who could do this,” he said. “What we were looking for was an extremely skilled performer who has both tremendous charm and charisma and guile and can also be terrifying, and Bryan Cranston really covers that territory.”