In Robert Schenkkan's All the Way at the Neil Simon Theatre, Bryan Cranston makes his Broadway debut as President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
In Robert Schenkkan's All the Way at the Neil Simon Theatre, Bryan Cranston makes his Broadway debut as President Lyndon Baines Johnson.
(© Evgenia Eliseeva)

"You only get one opportunity to make a Broadway debut," Bryan Cranston says during an exhausting morning of round-robin interviews to promote Robert Schenkkan's political drama All the Way. "I thought, this is gonna make an impact."

It's hard to believe that All the Way, now in performances at the Neil Simon Theatre, is the first time at the New York rodeo for a performer as heralded as Cranston. Despite a number of stage credits out West, Cranston's career has been firmly implanted in the mediums of film and television, and he's got a shelfful of awards to prove it.

Still, the eternally personable Cranston — the kind of actor who looks you in the eye and says everything genuinely — insists that he's not out for trophies. "As nice as it is to be acknowledged with awards and things—" he says, pausing for a second to interject, "I do mean that sincerely, it is lovely—" but, "that's not the work. My joy comes in the actual working."

You can see that delight in all of his performances, from the wisecracking dentist Tim Whatley on Seinfeld and the beleaguered dad Hal on Malcolm in the Middle to the cancer-stricken meth kingpin Walter White on Breaking Bad, which earned Cranston household recognition and a trio of Emmys. With graying hair, a slightly hunched walk, and drooping prosthetic earlobes to fully sink his teeth into LBJ, Cranston is now a far cry from the bald, goateed Mr. White, but he's just as menacing.

"He's a very complicated man," Cranston says of LBJ, whose accidental presidency, struggle to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and subsequent election campaign are explored in Schenkkan's three-hour drama. "His political acumen is unparalleled. I don't think there's been a president, maybe not even anyone in the Congress, who was as adroit at knowing the political backwards and forwards as LBJ. He is a man who has character issues, some low self-esteem issues. He wanted to be loved and wanted to be embraced for his ideas and his accomplishments. And if that didn't come, he would fret about it."

The role came at the ideal time for Cranston, who was winding down Breaking Bad's five-season run when the drama came his way. (In fact, the show's final episodes, and even the series finale, aired while Cranston was performing the show at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts.) Costar Brandon J. Dirden (who plays Dr. Martin Luther King) says of Cranston, "You never ever got a sense that he wanted to be anywhere else. You look in this man's eyes and you see someone who is one hundred percent present."

With the buzz surrounding Breaking Bad building to fever-pitch levels and a constant stream of media attention, Cranston was happy to be far from the fray. "It was nice to be in Cambridge at that time because everything was just quiet," he admitted. "There was a lot of stuff going on in Hollywood and New York, and I would just go to work and go home." For him, it's all about the work and being present enough to find his way into his latest persona. "I just have to focus on that and make sure I keep everything else at bay," Cranston concludes. "It's a sink-or-swim situation. You can't stick your toe into LBJ. You have to dive in and go all the way."