In his latest film, Last Flag Flying, Bryan Cranston plays a troubled Vietnam veteran. He spoke to Georgia Humphreys.
Bryan Cranston is recalling the first time he saw the caskets lying in state and draped in American flags while on set for his latest film.
It was 2016, and the US actor was shooting a sequence for Last Flag Flying at a Pennsylvania airport hangar.
The site was used on-screen to portray Dover Air Force Base, the Delaware facility which arranges for dead soldiers shipped from overseas to be transported to burial sites. And, even though the cast and crew knew there was nobody in those caskets, “everybody got quiet”.
“You’re acting and projecting, so it becomes real to you that there’s a human being lying in each one of those caskets,” continues the 61-year-old, known to fans the world over for his leading role in huge hit TV show Breaking Bad.
“They served their country and died doing so. Filming this scene on Veterans Day really embellished the whole experience and forced us all to ask ourselves, ‘What does this mean to me?’”
Cranston plays alcoholic ex-Marine Sal Nealon in the story of three Vietnam War vets who reunite after 30 years – Steve Carell is former Navy Corps medic Larry “Doc” Shepherd and Laurence Fishburne portrays Marine-turned-Reverend Richard Mueller.
After Doc’s son, a young Marine, is killed in action in the Iraq War, he decides to forgo burial at Arlington Cemetery and instead, the three friends embark on a bittersweet road trip to bury him in New Hampshire.
As they travel together, they reminisce about their tour of duty in Vietnam, and it becomes evident the men are all carrying a dark secret that still haunts each of them.
Directed by Richard Linklater, who won a Golden Globe for 2015 film Boyhood, the tale is both deeply emotional and stirring – but that is juxtaposed with some comedic moments.
This is something that Cranston (who, before Breaking Bad came along, was probably best known for sitcom Malcolm In The Middle) welcomed.
“I do actually look for ways to travel back and forth doing drama and comedy,” confides the California-born star.
“I love doing both, I love doing different mediums – doing a film or working at The National this winter, and doing a play.
“I like to be a moving target, so that people can’t say, ‘Oh, he’s that guy’.”
No one could argue Cranston has stood still since his career-defining five-year run as drug-dealing teacher Walter White in Breaking Bad. He has since won a Tony Award for Best Actor for play All the Way on Broadway, and received critical acclaim for his role as a successful screenwriter blacklisted for his political beliefs in period film Trumbo.
Currently back on stage in an adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s classic film Network – “It’s very, very of the day, we’re talking about fake news, terrorism, unemployment and anxieties and fears” – that looks set to continue.
When it comes to comedy-drama Last Flag Flying, a huge focus is on the camaraderie of the three very different main characters, which Cranston explains is where a lot of the humour comes from.
“These are not men who are going to tell each other ‘I love you’ – they just don’t do that,” he says. “But simply by being with each other, we don’t need to say it. We don’t need to hug and stuff like that. It’s like, ‘Come on, let’s have a drink!’”
It’s clear that self-destructive Sal has a lot of pain and guilt from his experience of fighting in the Vietnam War. “He’s not comfortable revealing his feelings so he tamps it down primarily with alcohol,” says Cranston. “He considers himself the life of the party kind of guy, but on this journey he opens up and discovers that what’s really important is friendship.”
What all three men have in common is that memories of the Vietnam War continue to shape their lives, even three decades on. And although it’s set in 2003, the themes of Last Flag Flying still resonate with people today, says Cranston.
“The subject matter that you’re dealing with – trusting government, trusting your military, being a part of a group, being told what to do that could put you in harm’s way – it’s an ongoing conversation,” he says.
“It really came to light during the Vietnam War, and then it carries on through to the Iraq war, where the younger generations are experiencing the same thing.
“I think it’s just good to debate it, to talk about it.”
Intertwined throughout the film is the unavoidable, underlying question of why America became involved with the war in Vietnam in the first place. “There were so many war movies after World War Two, because it was clear-cut we knew exactly who the enemy was,” says Cranston. “But Vietnam – what are we doing there? This civil war of their own, why are we here? 58,000 Americans died, I don’t know how many thousands upon thousands of citizens there died. For what purpose?”
Another topic that Last Flag Flying manages to thoughtfully raise is the long-lasting effect that going into battle has on veterans.
And straightforward Cranston doesn’t shy away from sharing his stance on war.
“Some people talk about, ‘Well, is this an anti-war movie?’” he says.
“And I think every movie should be anti-war. War should be the very last thing that is on the table as an option.”
Last Flag Flying (15) is out in cinemas today.