Bryan Cranston may be more known for his acting in shows like “Breaking Bad” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” but he has his producer’s hat on this year with Amazon’s “The Dangerous Book for Boys.” The family series, which he created with Greg Mottola, centers on young brothers whose father has died but left behind the titular “Dangerous Book,” giving them guidance for their lives.
Cranston recently spoke with Gold Derby editor in chief Tom O’Neil about his inspiration for “The Dangerous Book for Boys” and how it found a home on Amazon, while reminiscing about winning his first Emmy for “Breaking Bad.” Watch the exclusive video in full above and read the complete interview transcript below.
Gold Derby: Bryan Cranston, you are competing at the Emmys this year primarily in a role that the general public doesn’t know much about. That is you as a producer. You’ve got “Sneaky Pete” for Best Drama Series, you’ve got “Electric Dreams” up for Best Limited Series and you’ve got “Dangerous Book for Boys” up for Best Children’s Series. Now let’s start there, because in the case of “Dangerous Book for Boys,” you played much more than just a producer role. You’re a creator, right? Explain that.
Bryan Cranston: Well, I started my company, Moonshot Entertainment, about five years ago now, and at the time we had just finished production of “Breaking Bad” and we were looking at product to start to produce and under the same kind of quality of storytelling that “Breaking Bad” was to me and that “Malcolm in the Middle” was. So we were offered this title, although if anybody knows anything about the book, it’s an international bestseller, but it’s a how-to book. It embraces boyhood. There’s no characters, there’s no plot, there’s no story. So I had to come up with something from scratch and I was in Boston at the time and I was in the run of the play “All the Way,” where I played LBJ, and this is before going to Broadway. So I was running along the Charles River, convinced that I had no idea. I just let it all go because I just couldn’t come up with anything, and like is often the case, whenever you let something go like that, you allow room to have something come in, and that’s what happened. And like a lightning bolt I got it. I knew the construct of what I wanted to do for the series and I ran back and talked to my business partner, James Degus, and together we got Greg Mottola and then Greg and I created the rest of the show and wrote the first couple episodes. We have six episodes now on Amazon. I’m really proud of it. I think it’s just exceptional, because what it does is allow true family programming to exist. It’s not a kids show, it’s not an adult show. It’s a family show. In every episode there’s a family problem and also in every episode there are a series of fantasies that contain the possible options for a solution to those problems. I’m really, really proud of it and it’s sweet and funny and irreverent. Lastly, it leaves you with a sense of hope and I think our country could use a dose of that right now.
GD: What makes the whole thing so wonderful and warm and bonding and all of that is that these kids have lost their dad and they are now connecting with him beyond the grave in this fantastic fantasy. I absolutely loved it on so many levels, but what I thought was pure genius about it, to kick it up a notch here, is it taps what I think a lot of great dramas do which is secret empowerment of disenfranchised people. Think “Harry Potter” with his magic, think with women, “Bewitched” or today, “Outlander,” where she’s traveling through time and healing the sick. Here, the secret empowerment of a disenfranchised group is children in this scary situation. Here you came up with the great idea with how to set it up, but the networks didn’t want a dead father show, right? And you had to solve that. That’s the genius of how you developed this is you took time and found a way through that problem.
BC: If you’re lucky enough to go through your childhood with both parents, we all know kids who didn’t have that good fortune or that they lived with their aunt or uncle or grandparents or one parent. So it’s not disconnected. I think it’s something that resonated with kids without being scary, but dealing with loss in an honest way. And yeah, the father has passed away, so what I came up with was that he wrote the Dangerous Book for Boys as a surrogate for his three sons because he knew he was dying. We sold it to NBC and we had a bidding war with all four broadcast networks and it may have been a little too risky for them at the time. i think right now they would probably go for it, but at the time, they were kind of entrenched in that broadcast mold. We got the question, “Does the dad have to be dead?”
GD: The best part of the whole series is the first time he shows up on that screen and the son sees him and it’s this magic wonderful thing, and, of course, you would’ve lost all that. John Updike once said the single worst thing that could happen to any of us is the death of our father because on one hand, we not only lose someone we love so much and has protected us, but, and I’ll never forget this quote of his, he just threw it off on an interview about 20 years ago where he said, “When your father dies, the roof is off the house and there are nothing but stars.” And it’s a quote you could dissect many, many ways but the dramatic setup you have for your story isn’t just any loss. It’s your connection to the universe.
BC: Yeah, and that’s what’s so great about the story is that this family in their real life, they have to deal with suffering and loss and grief and often is the case when you find humor in those situations. But you have to deal with it honestly. And then in the fantasy sequences in the show, it’s fun, it’s adventurous, it’s engaging. I’m just really really proud of it and I hope we’re able to continue telling the story.
GD: If you score a breakthrough on this, let’s say it becomes this huge cult “Harry Potter” kind of thing, let’s just hope for the best here. A fantastic setup for you will have played out for a second time which is you have your career breakthrough at least in terms of critical acclaim with “Breaking Bad” and that broke through because of Netflix. That broke through because of streaming service. The repeat viewings, suddenly gathered this mass audience. And now here you are on the programming side producing and co-writing, you did those first two episodes, and now you’re betting on the streaming services again because they have the money, they have the clout, they have the mojo, and that’s where the kids are, right?
BC: The streaming services I think are the broadcast version of today. It’s where things are happening, and we’re excited about being with Amazon and allowing that culture to grow and to get audiences to find us, but it’s difficult because I heard somewhere, maybe you can corroborate this or not, but this year, 2018, there are going to be over 500 scripted series.
GD: That’s right. Who’s watching all this? Who’s producing? Who’s paying for all this?
BC: Yeah, you as a critic, as a reviewer, as a person who’s embedded in television, how can possibly watch all of that?
GD: You can’t.
BC: You can’t.
GD: And that makes your job as a produce harder because you’ve gotta make that profitable. The great comedian Fred Allen was asked, “What do producers produce?” And his answer was, “Relatives.” How would you answer that question, because you’re co-producing for “Sneaky Pete” and you’ve got “Electric Dreams”? So if you had to define the producer’s role, what is it?
BC: To me, what I found is that the producer role, the four shows that I am producing, I co-created two of them, so from scratch developed and built the house to those. The other two were really following and supporting other writers’ dreams and ambitions. So I would say a producer can either create on their own and hand it off to really talented writers to carry the ball, or they can just listen to the pitches from really talented writers and give them all the support you could possibly give. You will fall on your sword to make sure that their dream comes to fruition. So it’s nice. I’ve been in front of the camera for so long. It’s nice to be on the other side to see all that works, all the machinations of that, and I enjoy supporting writers in trying to meet their vision.
GD: Last year, you did not submit yourself in the acting race for “Sneaky Pete.” You played a villain there, it was a guest category. You chose not to submit. This year, you’ve chosen not to submit on the actor side because you’re putting your focus on the producer side. As I understand it, and correct this if I’m wrong, you have one episode in “Electric Dreams” that you could submit for Best Actor in a TV movie/Mini and you’re choosing not to do that. But you are competing for a producer on those things and then you have chosen, however, to make one exception this year and I like the fact that you’re making one exception, for “Curb Your Enthusiasm” on the guest side, ‘cause that’s comedy, and that’s where if you look back over your career, you never got the just desserts that you should’ve had for “Malcolm.” You had three nominations. You got creamed by Jeremy Piven and Brad Garrett. So what is your strategy in terms of what you submit for and what you don’t on the acting side?
BC: That’s a good question. On “Sneaky Pete,” I believe I was in all 10 episodes, so I would’ve had to have gone into the Supporting Actor category because I was in so many, and I just didn’t want to draw any attention away from our core cast of Pete Gerety and Shane McRae and so I just opted not to do that. It was a calculating thing, and maybe I made a mistake there. I really want to bring attention to the shows. I wanna bring attention to “Sneaky Pete” and to “Dangerous Book” and to “Electric Dreams” and to “SuperMansion,” to be able to get more viewership. It’s welcoming to know that a lot of people did see it, but we could always have more. So I just decided I thought it was best not to, and I had discussions with my publicity people. Whereas with “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” it was one episode and it was so much fun to do, so I thought, “Well, okay,” because it’s not one of the show’s I’m producing, so I’m not drawing any attention away from other actors on one of my shows.
GD: Let’s go back to the days when you competed for the Emmys and you may not remember this but I sure do. It was the Creative Arts, the first year of “Breaking Bad” and the show had not really broken out yet, of course. You premiered around the same time as “Mad Men.” That had a high profile. When you guys came out, it was a much more slow build and you were nominated for Best Drama Actor that year and you and I chatted out on the red carpet before you walked in and I was telling you you were gonna win, because in those days, the winners were chosen by smaller juries, like 50-75 fellow actors in your case, peers, who see one sample episode and make a determination. That’s less true now. They do submit one episode, but of course but everybody votes and it’s not a small jury. Emmy watchers like me do not believe they watch the episodes. I have not yet made up my mind if that’s a bad thing or not. But in your case, let’s go back to that moment, that time, you really didn’t believe you were gonna win, so what hits your head when you heard your name? You had submitted the pilot for “Breaking Bad” and that’s why I knew you were gonna win. The editors of Gold Derby, all of us watch them all and it was such an obvious standout.
BC: Well, I appreciate that and I remember our conversation on the red carpet. I guess I was in total denial. I remember that moment very well because my wife, you’re sitting there in the auditorium and there are half a dozen camera crews hovering around and whatever the category is, they plant themselves in front of those actors, or the writers or the directors, so you know what’s coming up. So a cameraman planted himself in front of me and my wife got nervous and I said, “Honey, relax. It’s not gonna happen, so let’s just enjoy the night.” I truly didn’t feel it was going to happen. I didn’t write a speech, ‘cause we had only seven episodes on this new series that we hadn’t yet gone into that cyclical drive of Netflix yet, so it was kind of a fringe show. It was a little odd and not many people found it. So I really didn’t think it was going to happen with just seven episodes, “So let’s just enjoy it.” So you hear your name being called… (gulps).
GD: It’s so weird though, because in the case of “Breaking Bad” and you specifically, other awards came later, like Golden Globes, not early on. But the Emmys, you did get that first year recognition, second year you were nominated for Drama Series which you weren’t the first year, and that slow build began and I think the Emmys played a role in that. But it certainly played a role for you. It was, for me watching this, this actor who’s been toiling in the trenches forever, who’s obviously gifted, who’s found this role, we don’t know if the show’s gonna be successful or not, but you got your chance and you came flying out of the gate and you did it. It was just one of those great Emmy moments historically, because the Emmys are not the popularity contest that the actors are. Y’all know Leo[nardo DiCaprio]’s gonna win this year because he’s overdue. At least up under the old voting system, it’s a case of you guys really had a fair shot and you did it. It was impressive.
BC: Well it’s funny you mention Leo going to win, because he was overdue (laughs).
GD: Oh that’s right, was that the year for you?
BC: For me and “Trumbo,” yeah! I had a great time that day, too, because there’s no chance in hell I’m going to win so just enjoy the night. I was happy for Leo.
GD: And you knew that the pressure was off you. But you had to think that the first year of “Breaking Bad.” You had to think, “Well Jon Hamm’s a shoe-in, my god! ‘Mad Men’s’ such a hit!”
BC: I did, and that’s why you can find all the reasons why you’re not going to win and I think it’s partly because you’re nervous about it and I think that’s why it’s hard for you to accept the possibility, but once you do win, then it was like, “Well, gosh I guess it could happen again.” And I remember one of the years that I did not win and I was backstage getting ready to come onstage to present an award and I had already not won and Jon Hamm, who’s a friend, he came up to me and he just whispered, “It gets easier.”
BC: So I was happy to see him win in the last season of “Mad Men.” That was a great button to that show and to his really great work on that show.
GD: As an awards watcher, my advice would be to you as a producer, and I know you already do of course, take the Emmys very seriously and all these awards, because I think the single greatest example of where the Emmy has had a profound influence on the financial success of a show, we’re all looking for that, what does this mean when you win? Is there a real payoff? At the Oscars there’s always about a $100 million bump at the box office for the movie that wins Best Picture, but what about the Emmys? And I think the single best example is “30 Rock.” Tina Fey has said over and over and over again that the show was only kept on the air because it was winning awards. It won Comedy Series three times, of course it won a bunch of others, and over time, those Emmys were so important in getting that show syndicated overseas in Bulgaria and Manchuria and all these places, that if you do a Google search now for just the words “30 Rock” and “syndication” and “million,” the deals that it has made through the years, it comes to over a billion dollars. A billion dollars, that the Emmys were able to bring to “30 Rock” if Tina Fey’s right, the show would’ve been cancelled without them. What do you think about that? When you take “Dangerous Book of Boys” out into NATPE and the international markets, they wanna see nominated for this, won that, right?
BC: Not only does it bring attention to your show, but it also brings a stamp of approval. It’s a gold star. It really is. It’s something that I’m very proud of and I know that when I vote, and I tell my friends this, too, that if I voted for them, I tell them, “I did not vote for you because you’re my friend. I voted for you because you were the best in that category.” That’s what I feel, and if I didn’t vote for them I wouldn’t say anything. But I take it very seriously. I wanna make sure that every vote counts and that when I vote for either the Emmys or the Oscars, that I’m voting what I really feel is the best work, because we are all contributors to the foundation of that. That if we as a body say that this is what we feel is the best work, then we’re telling the world that, and yeah, I think it does have positive consequences. Yeah, knock wood. I hope that we can get to that point with my shows, but if not, then it is what it is. I never take a job to try to win anything. I love to just focus on the work, keep my head down, and if someone taps me on the shoulder and says, “Guess what, we nominated you for something,” I’m genuinely surprised and grateful.
GD: That’s the right attitude. Okay, Bryan Cranston, good luck at the Emmys this year.
BC: Thank you very much!
GD: We’re rooting for you, especially for your latest role as producer.
BC: Thanks, Tom, appreciate it. Bye.
Be sure to make your Emmy predictions today so that Hollywood insiders can see how their TV shows and performers are faring in our odds. You can keep changing your predictions as often as you like until just before nominees are announced on July 12. And join in the fun debate over the 2018 Emmy taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our television forums. Read more Gold Derby entertainment news.