When it comes to his character transformations, Bryan Cranston has an almost alchemical touch.
Breaking Bad is a prime example of this. The series that ran from 2008 until 2013 has endured as one of the greatest in television history, in part due to how Cranston channelled the character of Walter White from a somewhat timid high-school chemistry teacher to a fearsome and calculative drug manufacturer.
Cranston’s series Your Honor features a transformation as dramatic. In the first season, released in 2020, Cranston’s character — Michael Desiato, a prominent New Orleans judge — is forced to grapple with his beliefs as he fights to protect his teenage son after he was involved in a hit-and-run incident, which resulted in the death of another teenage boy.
While Desiato initially tries to convince his son to turn himself in, he quickly changes his mind when he discovers the boy his son had accidentally killed was a mob kingpin's son. He then begins to veer from his convictions, resorting to hiding and lying as he attempts to keep his son’s involvement a secret.
Adapted from the Israeli show Kvodo, Your Honor was originally planned as a mini-series. However, following the success of the first series, it was renewed for a second season, making its premiere on January 15. The episodes are being released weekly in the US on Showtime and regionally on Starzplay.
The new season opens in the wake of a tragedy that has Desiato coming to terms with his actions and decisions.
“I wasn’t contracted to do it,” Cranston tells The National. “I was compelled to do it because of the possibility of telling a story of the same characters, but the aftermath of what they went through. That really excited me.
“Most of the characters I play have a deep complexity to them with a lot of idiosyncratic baggage,” Cranston says. “I guess I'm just attracted to very complicated men and problematic men. I think there's a reason for it because I see myself in them. They are flawed but I also see hope in them, and where they want to be, whether or not they get there. As long as a character recognises, and attempts to make a change, I think the audience welcomes that. They recognise that, too, in themselves.”
With Desiato, Cranston says he was first interested in the lengths parents would go to protect their children, and how they are willing to do the unthinkable for their safety and well-being.
“What would you do to protect your child? The answer is anything. Then the question is: would you willingly and wilfully become a criminal if you thought it would protect your child’s life? That's what happened to Michael Desiato, he had to make this snap decision, a hasty decision in that moment. What was I going to do? He didn't have the luxury of time to consider.”
The first season explores Desiato’s moral transformation. In the second, Cranston says he was interested in telling an authentic tale of despair, grief and depression, but to do so in a way that was entertaining — and hopefully helpful.
“It was a great journey for me to explore as an actor to go through all these variety of emotions,” he says. “To open up the chest and say, ‘Oh, this is when I felt this and despair, and oppression and aloneness’, and be able to use all of that in an actor's toolbox.”
Cranston says he hopes season two of Your Honor will offer solace to those suffering from depression, grief or suicidal thoughts, while presenting “something at the end of that journey that lifts an audience”.
“I'm hoping that there is a sense of social importance,” he says. “That people can look at this piece of entertainment and say, ‘I get that guy. I know exactly what he’s thinking and feeling. I want to see how he deals with this’, and then follow the journey. And perhaps, perhaps, there might be someone who's helped by it. And if that's the case, I will be overjoyed.”
Besides drawing on his own experiences to inform his portrayal, Cranston also did considerable research on the process of grief and its five stages, from denial, anger and bargaining to depression and acceptance.
“In the five stages, when someone goes through those and is able to come out on the other side, it’s never clean,” he says. “It’s never that you finish one and then that’s done and you enter another. It’s messy. It's like slogging through mud all the time. You never know exactly when you are finished with any given one.”
Cranston kept from watching the original Hebrew series while filming the first season of Your Honor, so that it didn’t colour his performance.
“It's a very bad habit or practice to watch an earlier iteration of something you're about to do,” he says. “I watched it when we were done because I wasn’t contracted to do a second season. I just watched that, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and appreciated the differences.
"It was very well done, very well acted, and I appreciated it. It felt familiar because of the storyline, and yet it was different. And so, it was exciting to watch.”