Bryan Cranston talks about his latest movie, Trumbo

Breaking Bad star Cranston plays the American screenwriter in Trumbo, a biopic directed by Jay Roach that is set during one of the most shameful episodes in Hollywood history: the Communist witch-hunts.

Bryan Cranston and Diane Lane in Trumbo. Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / Bleecker Street
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Should Bryan Cranston win the Best Actor award at the Oscars on Sunday February 28, it is easy to imagine that the late Dalton Trumbo, himself an Academy Award winner, might be looking down with a wry smile.

Breaking Bad star Cranston plays the American screenwriter in Trumbo, a biopic directed by Jay Roach that is set during one of the most shameful episodes in Hollywood history: the Communist witch-hunts.

A left-wing sympathiser, Trumbo was one of several prominent writers and directors who were blacklisted by the industry for their political beliefs in the 1950s.

“At first, you look at it and you think: ‘Oh, it’s about Hollywood’,” says Cranston. “But when you read the script, you realise it’s not about Hollywood, it just happens to be the backdrop.

“What it’s really about is the threat of losing your civil liberties and putting up a good fight, and how it affects not just the person or the brotherhood of writers that he was a member of, but friends and families. Their kids went to school and got bullied and were ostracised by other kids. The ripple effect was disastrous.”

Such was the effect on Trumbo’s career he was forced to work under pseudonyms, often cranking out scripts for cheap B-movies anonymously just to feed his family.

Twice he won Oscars – for his screenplays for the 1953 Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck romance Roman Holiday, and for the 1956 Mexican-set drama The Brave One – and twice he was forced to watch from home as writers falsely given credit by the studios for his work collected the statues. It was only many years later that the Academy finally recognised Trumbo and granted him his rightful awards.

Adapted by John McNamara from Bruce Cook’s biography of Trumbo – “the book that became our Bible”, says Diane Lane, who plays Trumbo’s wife, Cleo – the screenplay immediately made an impression.

“It could have been handled, I think, in a ham-fisted manner, just pounding out one-note accusations,” says co-star John Goodman. “I think it was handled with a deft touch, much in the spirit of Dalton Trumbo himself, who managed to keep a wit about him while under duress. I think it was written in the spirit of Trumbo.”

Goodman plays Frank King, a B-movie producer who did not care about Trumbo’s politics and was happy to hire the blacklisted writer as long as he was able to keep cranking out scripts.

“He was probably the purest capitalist in the film,” says Goodman. “He would hire anybody to do anything just so that he can grind his product out without problems.”

Cranston points out that there was something rather amusing about the relationship between Trumbo and King: “The irony of a capitalist coming to the aid – really to the rescue – of a ­Communist.”

Goodman had previously met some of the people who ended up on Hollywood’s blacklist.

“When I started, I was particularly affected by [New York collective] The Group Theater,” he says. “I particularly liked their influence in American theatre and acting, and most of them were one-time members of the Communist party and were very severely affected by the HUAC [the House Un-American Activities Committee, which investigated people with alleged ties to Communism]. A lot of them carry very heavy grudges, as well they should.”

Trumbo, Cranston says, reminds us just what a hellish time it was in Hollywood in the 1950s.

“There were homes lost, families split, divorces, suicides, hastened old age or heart conditions caused by the stress,” he says. “It’s immeasurable to see what the extent of the damage was.”

Sides were taken, too, with influential gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren) leading the scourge against the so-called “red menace” supposedly sweeping through Hollywood. The film also paints real-life actors John Wayne and Edward G Robinson in a less-than flattering light.

A number of Hollywood stars and filmmakers testified before the HUAC and named those who were blacklisted, creating huge divisions in the film community that never really healed.

“That’s where the line is drawn,” says Cranston. “You are no longer just protecting your own civil liberties, you are then condemning others – and that’s … the Nazis did that.”

Goodman says he has sympathy for those who were put in a no-win situation – either betray your friends or lose your career.

“Getting closer to the situation made me wonder what I would do in this situation,” he says. “I don’t know.”

Is it hard to believe that this behaviour went on in America only about 60 years ago?

“We did the Japanese internment camps [in which Japanese- Americans were locked up after the attack on Pearl Harbor during the Second World War],” says Lane. “Of course I believe it happened in America.”

• Trumbo is in cinemas now