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Bryan Cranston on 1950s Hollywood blacklisting and current payday gaps

Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo and Diane Lane is his wife, Cleo, in Jay Roach’s
Bryan Cranston stars as Dalton Trumbo and Diane Lane is his wife, Cleo, in Jay Roach’s "Trumbo."
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle

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The early years of the Cold War saw a lot of witch-hunting in Hollywood. Rumored to be a hotbed for Communist sympathizers, the film industry came under scrutiny in 1947 when the House Committee on Un-American Activities subpoenaed several film professionals to testify in court.

Citing the First Amendment, a group of men known as The Hollywood Ten refused to cooperate, which earned them prison sentences and a spot on a blacklist.

Jay Roach's "Trumbo," starring Bryan Cranston, tells the story of one of the Hollywood Ten: Dalton Trumbo. When he was summoned to testify, Trumbo was one of the most successful writers in Hollywood, and he continued to write under pseudonyms and behind front writers, even while blacklisted. Only in 1960 did the blacklist officially end, when Trumbo was publicly credited for his hits "Exodus" and "Spartacus."

John Horn met with Bryan Cranston to talk about how the film resonates today.


The original financiers for "Trumbo" said about the lead role, “If it’s Bryan Cranston, we’re out.” So you got blacklisted for not being George Clooney or whoever. Had you heard that story?

No. I don’t care about those things. But it’s interesting. Ironically, that’s the essence of the story of "Trumbo." 

How do you think the story of Dalton Trumbo resonates today?

I think "Trumbo" does resonate with life. Whenever civil liberties are in jeopardy of being lost or taken away by an overreaching government, that’s a danger. Citizens need to stand up and revolt if necessary. Certainly allow their voices to be heard in opposition.

You could say that the national security right now — wanting to have carte blanche with wire tapping without having approvals from judges — I think that’s an overreach of authority. Our government was created specifically with this construct of checks and balances, [so] that no one branch can develop too much individual unilateral power. It works well. And it shouldn’t be abandoned. So, part of that equation needs to be to respect and revere those hard-fought rights, specifically the First Amendment.

Dalton Trumbo also cared a lot about equal pay for equal work. And nothing much has changed in film and TV. At least that’s the impression a lot of people have.

It is. There’s been a lot of advancement, but that’s been lagging behind. You know, people say, Well, it’s because men will negotiate stronger or harder. I don’t know if I buy that. There is a double standard. I know that’s in the news now with Jennifer Lawrence talking about it.

Someone like Jennifer Lawrence can now say no if they feel [a job offer is] unfair. So she’s in a different position because she doesn’t need a job. I don’t need a job. I never have to work again in my life . . . But the average woman — certainly a minimum wage person — doesn’t have that power. She needs the support and the voice of an advocate in D.C. and in their state capitols to raise minimum wage and whatnot, and to see that there isn’t this discrimination against gender.

I want to ask about what you just said, about not having to work again. It also gives you a creative freedom. 

It does. It gives you power. I’m from very blue collar stock and a strong work ethic. My family’s motto was, Find a job, keep a job, be happy that you have a job. Not to be happy with the job. Who cares if you’re happy with the job? Just keep it!

It’s not a very artistic way to approach life. And you have to take more chances than that. When I decided to become an actor, I was all in. If that meant I was sharing an apartment with two or three other guys for many, many years — then that’s what it is.

And I don’t want to come off as someone smug, like, Oh, I don’t need money. I’ve been poor. Poor to the point where our house was foreclosed on and our family was split up and we couldn’t afford to stay together. That’s pretty poor. And I’ve been rich. And rich is better. But I know what to do with that, and I know what that means to me.

You’re sounding a little bit like Dalton Trumbo. He was a Commie with a nice house. Do you see your life experience and personality in Trumbo?

Yeah. He was born of very humble means . . . And he worked his way up where he was doing what he wanted to do, what he was born to do. I relate to that. I feel that I’ve found my level of empowerment . . . But Dalton Trumbo was not a Communist. He was a Socialist. He loved being rich! But he was also conscientious and cared about people and gave his money away.

And he was very concerned about racial equality and Jim Crow South.

Absolutely. And any kind of inequality on any level.

"Trumbo" opens on Nov. 6.

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