Oscar-nominated Bryan Cranston on power and blacklists

Bryan Cranston (above) plays the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in the film set in the 1950s and 1960s.
Bryan Cranston (above) plays the blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in the film set in the 1950s and 1960s. PHOTO: SHAW ORGANISATION

The stars of the Oscar-nominated film wrestle with politics and paranoia in Hollywood

Hollywood's ambivalent relationship with politics takes a navel- gazing turn in the form of Trumbo.

Starring a whiskered Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame in the title role, the movie set in the 1950s and 1960s recounts the persecution and industry black- listing of screenwriter extraordinaire and self-identifying communist Dalton Trumbo.

The 124-minute film about politics opens this year amid the presidential elections and alongside James Vanderbilt's Truth, another movie making salient indictment of the media's stakes in political regimes and election politics.

Trumbo is playing in Singapore cinemas and Truth opens on March 10.

Cranston, 59, says Trumbo's message "resonates internation- ally". "Any time a government overreaches its powers to oppress the civil rights of its citizenry, that's cause for alarm."

He adds of the film: "It happened in the United States. This was a breach of our First Amendment to the Constitution, which states the right to free speech, and a man went to prison for a year for committing no crime. I think that's certainly worth a story, hopefully it will resonate internationally."

Anytime a government overreaches its powers to oppress the civil rights of its citizenry, that’s cause for alarm.

ACTOR BRYAN CRANSTON on what he feels is Trumbo’s message to the world

The film also stars Helen Mirren as powerful gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, alongside John Goodman as B-grade movie producer Frank King.

While Hopper publicly denounced several film industry workers, including Trumbo, as communists to the House Un-American Activities Committee, leading to jail terms for many, King employed a roster of the same untouchable writers to churn out cheap screenplays when they could not find work.

Trumbo had to pen Oscar- winning scripts The Brave One (1956) and Roman Holiday (1953) using pseudonyms, until his rehabilitation slowly began with actor Kirk Douglas' bold move to give him full credit for his work on the award-winning Spartacus in 1960. It was only in 2011 that Trumbo could posthumously claim his work for Roman Holiday.

Goodman, 63, recalls: "When I started out in the mid-1970s, there were a lot of older actors who had friends or who were themselves targeted by the scare which ended 50 years before I started; there was still a great deal of resentment.

"A small section of the government exploiting the population and propagating fear and paranoia that feeds upon itself... It is a cautionary tale and it's happening now."

Indeed, in a world today where politics and paranoia converge around fears of global migration and Islamophobia, among other issues, the resonances could not be more salient.

Mirren, 70, sees the film as "a story about the fearful power of the press and the way it can be misused. Or at least, when the press engages so immediately in the zeitgeist of the time, rather than challenging the zeitgeist".

She adds: "My character, with the power of her journalism, plays to the fears and the paranoia of her public, and it shows us how very dangerous that power can be. She would have scared the s**t out of me."

As Hopper, the British actress thought nothing of putting her acting chops to fleshing out a more- than-odious character - albeit decked in the finest hats and three-piece pastel suits of her time.

Trumbo, however, is not just about politics in the abstract. Milking the talents of Cranston, the film directed by Jay Roach (Game Change, 2012) sees the actor cope with the impact of his persecution on family relations. Trumbo's devoted wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and daughter (Elle Fanning) bear the brunt of a sudden change in income and lifestyle (plus egregious neighbours) with varying degrees of stoicism and insouciance.

"A lot of it comes down to your circumstances - some of them had families, a lot more to sacrifice than others," Cranston reveals of the famous Hollywood Ten, who were all sentenced to 11-month jail terms alongside Trumbo during the McCarthy era.

The blacklisting still continues today - for a different spectrum of reasons. The actors themselves are not afraid to talk about it. Cranston, for example, sticks his head out to name Mel Gibson as current persona non grata in Hollywood for his recent anti-Semitic rant.

"If you have skeletons coming out of your closet that expose you to abnormal behaviour, or any kind of criminal behaviour, you could put yourself on that blacklist because people don't want to work with you," he explains.

Things are changing though. He hopes there are no more political blacklists, at least, in the media industry, or a sexual orientation blacklist.

"I think we're moving out of that as a society and I think that's a great thing," he asserts.

"There's probably some lists of people who don't want to hire certain people, but for me, there're probably four people whom I don't want to work with again after 35 years."

He adds with a laugh: "And they're right here."

  • Trumbo is in Singapore cinemas.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2016, with the headline 'The trouble with Trumbo'. Print Edition | Subscribe