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Playing the Parts

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By Sam Gaines

For the many fans of his work, actor/director/writer/producer Bryan Cranston needs no introduction. His iconic performance as Walter White on AMC TV’s seminal series, Breaking Bad, cemented his reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest actors. He also played the role of caregiver to his mother, who died from Alzheimer’s disease in August 2006.

Walter White.

That name can send chills down the spines of fans of Breaking Bad, acknowledged by many critics as one of the greatest TV shows ever made. White, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who turns to a life of methamphetamine manufacturing to provide for his family, created a new dimension in the depiction of anti-heroes in TV dramas.

Bryan Cranston portrayed White and was honored with four Best Actor Emmys and many other accolades for his work. Cranston’s performance in turn spring boarded him to more film roles, including an Oscar nominated turn as the blacklisted scriptwriter Dalton Trumbo, and even more opportunities to wear his many hats.

In October 2016, Cranston published his critically hailed memoir, A Life in Parts, which recounts his journeys into a variety of fields and situations that ultimately culminated with his professional career. One of the chapters from the memoir details his mother’s battle with Alzheimer’s disease and Cranston’s role as an emotional caregiver.

We talked with Bryan Cranston about the many roles he’s played throughout his life and what he’s learned along the way.

A Storyteller

Bryan Cranston is frequently sought out by young actors looking to break into the business. His advice to them? Unless you’re absolutely burning with a desire to perform, find another line of work. “You’re entering a world that is highly competitive and overcrowded with interested people getting involved,” Cranston says. “If you’re looking at odds and opportunities, it’s not a good career move. If you think you could be happy doing something else, then you should do it. There will never be a shortage of actors.”

Cranston is currently deeply involved with a number of projects, all in different capacities, including his work as a producer and performance as an actor in a new Amazon Prime series, Sneaky Pete. “I like going back and forth,” he says. “It’s all interrelated. It’s all under the umbrella of ‘storyteller,’ which is how I refer to myself.”

Keeping a Busy Schedule

Cranston keeps a full schedule in his many roles, but he still finds time to take care of himself and his family. With the presence of Alzheimer’s in his family history, he puts brain health near the top of his list. “I eat well, I try to get the normal amount of sleep, I don’t drink very much, I like to exercise and keep active,” he says. He adds crossword puzzles to the mix, too.

But it’s his career and the creativity it demands that keeps his brain working hard. “In my work, developing ideas for stories and shows, I’m constantly thinking,” he says. “[The brain is] a muscle, and it’s great to be able to exercise that muscle and then rest it. The brain is an amazing thing. When you open it up and feed it with words and thoughts, then close it down for sleep, it’s good. It will serve you well in the end.”

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in AMC’s Breaking Bad. Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC

 

His Mother’s Battle with Alzheimer’s

Cranston’s mother, Audrey, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s later in her life, when she was around 79 or 80, as he recalls. As he related to friends during a discussion about families, his mom had started to do things that piqued his attention. “Once we were going out to lunch, and she was going to get dressed,” he recalls. “And she was gone a while. I was knocking on the door, and I saw that she had her pants over her head. I said ‘Mom, what have we got here?’ That was one of those things where I knew something was wrong.” His friends confirmed his suspicions and suggested he get her tested. Those tests yielded a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.

Cranston and his family were involved in securing appropriate care for his mother after her diagnosis. They found the Motion Picture & Television Fund’s Alzheimer’s facility, Harry’s Haven. “They had an opening, and because my mom had a show business background, she was accepted,” he recalls.

The care provided at the facility was top-notch, and Cranston remains impressed with the work that Alzheimer’s care providers do. “They are really compassionate about their jobs and what they are providing,” he says. “I think a caregiver is the unsung hero. Those who do it for a living, I am so respectful and grateful for.”

Cranston and his family stayed in close contact with his mother through her final years, providing emotional care to complement what the staff at Harry’s Haven provided for her. He sees an advantage in having someone outside the family provide physical care, when it is an option. “I think it’s best to have someone who is detached to some degree because the emotional drain just compounds and exacerbates the task,” he says. For those who provide physical and emotional care for family members with Alzheimer’s, Cranston has the ultimate respect. “I am in awe of those who provide care and sustain it. It’s a very difficult thing to do,” he says.

The Importance of Continued Research

For Cranston, research and caregiving form the spearhead in the battle against Alzheimer’s. “The money needed to find the source, find the cause, is going to be a lifelong quest. We keep seeing breakthroughs, another clue that gets us closer to finding a cure,” he says.

And we must keep pursuing the cure. “It’s more important to have that dream, that agenda, of accomplishing a task than it is even if we never see it in our lifetime. But there is reason to believe that we could,” he says. “What we have found we hand off to the next generation. There’s no giving up. You just don’t.”

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