“I’m not done with playing Howard Beale,” says Emmy and Tony Award winner Bryan Cranston. He is speaking about why he is coming to Broadway with the National Theatre production of Network, starting November 10 at the Belasco Theatre.
The Breaking Bad star, who wowed Broadway audiences with his award-winning portrayal of Lyndon B. Johnson in All the Way, plays news anchorman Beale in Lee Hall’s stage adaptation of the 1976 Academy Award–winning movie written by Paddy Chayefsky. Making his London stage debut in Network last year, Cranston received an Olivier Award for his riveting performance as the TV broadcaster turned populist scaremonger. “I have to finish this journey with him,” Cranston continues. “It’s such an American story and we have to own that — in all its good and all its bad.”
Cranston is the sole member of the original cast who is moving with the production to New York. He is joined on Broadway by Emmy Award winner Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black), who plays Diana Christensen, an ambitious network executive whose sole passion is for creating shows that will take the network to the top, and Tony Goldwyn (Scandal), as the news division head Max Schumacher, whose principles and moral values are violated by the network’s relentless pursuit of higher ratings and a greater audience share.
Network resonates so strongly with the contemporary zeitgeist that it is easy to forget that Chayefsky wrote his remarkably prescient screenplay more than four decades ago. Cranston says he was approached to play the part of Howard Beale in early 2015. “Remember, this was before the 2016 elections — before the bombardment of fake news and the maligning of the media as the enemy of the people — but it felt at the time like something was brewing,” the actor recalls. “Back in the day, news used to be a report on what happened. Now it is so tinged with opinion that you are not sure if it happened or not, because you are so emotionally charged either in anger at what you are hearing or nodding in agreement.”
“I also thought the play was appropriate because, even without the political spectrum, you have the technological spectrum — and that is the fact that we are addicted to our phones,” Cranston continues. “Howard Beale grouses and yells to his audience, ‘Turn off your TVs and leave them off because you don’t realize we are feeding you information.’ And then he says, ‘Don’t look to us for the truth because we just tell you what you want to hear.’ Our phones are the television of today. And we are absolutely addicted.”
The stage production of Network is helmed by the internationally acclaimed Belgian director Ivo van Hove, who won a 2016 Tony Award for his stark and visceral revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge. “Ivo likes to surprise. He doesn’t rest on convention,” Cranston remarks. “And he is very encompassing of multimedia. This is about television, so the production needs to have a multitude of screens. There are cameramen on stage shooting me at any given time — when we are doing the news as well as when we are talking about how we are going to package it.” Van Hove’s multifaceted production, with scenic and lighting design by his longtime collaborator and partner Jan Versweyveld and video design by Tal Yarden, incorporates on stage a live, bustling TV studio and newsroom, as well as a functional restaurant and bar.
“What’s really interesting is Ivo’s policy of having the actors off book on the first day of rehearsal,” Cranston continues. “I’ve heard that there are actors who have decided not to work with him because of that. But I got to say that I just love it. Everybody was leaps and bounds ahead and we jumped into rehearsal day one. So right at the beginning we are looking into each other’s eyes and we are figuring it out. And then you start making adjustments.”
For his own role, Cranston says he stayed away from thinking about the actor Peter Finch, who received a posthumous Academy Award for his performance as Beale in the film directed by Sidney Lumet. “Even if you try to think [of what another actor did before] just to get away from that as far as possible, you are still comparing, and sometimes your choices will be made as a result of trying to be different as opposed to just feeling what it means to you,” he explains. Instead, Cranston drew from his own experience growing up in a world where there were only three TV networks and the kind of television news personality that is long extinct.
“As a man in his sixties who saw Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, Roger Mudd, Howard Smith, and all those guys, I remember the decorum they had, and the protocol and the seriousness in which they presented the news,” Cranston continues. “I also knew that my guy, Howard Beale, is depressed. We learn in the opening sequence that he’s just been fired. And you know what? He should be fired. He should have retired years ago because now he’s just reading from the teleprompter. He’s not putting any energy into it. He has some disdain for the sheep who are just following [the TV program], and he’s starting to get cranky and irritable. Then out of the ashes of this human being comes this epiphany: He has come to believe that he has been anointed by God, that he has been sent a message. So, he’s a man trying to get back on his feet again and find his own relevancy and, for once, to tell the truth. Some people would call it a breakdown. I want it to be ambiguous.”
Cranston is an international star today because of a television series, but he says doing live theater is so fulfilling because of the relationship between performer and audience. “We say something that has an effect on them and their reaction comes back to us like a wave. We take that in and send out another message, and that relationship goes all the way through the end,” he explains. “The audience is always right. It’s an emotional and subjective experience, and whatever they are feeling — negative or positive — is fine. Any emotion is acceptable except boredom; if the play stimulates conversation when it is over, we have done our job.”