NEW YORK – Bryan Cranston may play a powerful U.S. president on Broadway, but on Wednesday he was outnumbered by about 70 leaders.
The freshly Tony Award-nominated star of "All the Way" joined seven other company actors after the matinee to answer questions about acting and politics from a large group of class presidents and student council officials from over 50 New York City public high schools.
Cranston plays President Lyndon B. Johnson in Robert Schenkkan's play about L.B.J.'s bumpy first term. The play explores Martin Luther King Jr.'s attempts to keep his movement from fragmenting, the growing war in Vietnam and a snooping FBI led by J. Edgar Hoover.
One student wanted to know how Cranston went from Walter White, the sinister meth lord in the TV series "Breaking Bad," to playing Johnson, an irascible, foul-mouthed old-school politician.
"The transition was actually very smooth," Cranston said, as the students laughed. "There are a lot of similarities there. More than I care to say. They are two dynamic men with tremendous determination and goals who had also had enflamed egos, which ultimately was their downfall."
Cranston was joined in the talkback by actors Betsy Aidem, Michael McKean, Susannah Schulman, Roslyn Ruff, Peter Jay Fernandez, Brandon J. Dirden and Christopher Liam Moore. All were in street clothes and sat on the lip of the stage.
Victoria Sottile, an English and drama teacher at The Leon M. Goldstein High School for the Sciences, brought three students from Brooklyn and said she loved the experience.
"As an educational method, art is wonderful way for people to be taught," she said. "And that's the thing about theater — you get everything: You get people working together, you get history, you get art, you get music."
The students, who had been invited to see the play in partnership with the New York City Department of Education, asked about the research the actors did, how they got their starts and how lawmakers have changed since the 1960s. For some of the students, it was the first time in a Broadway theater.
"For these kids in New York City — the cultural capital of the world — sometimes we can be really insular," said Peter Avery, with the education department's Office of Arts and Special Projects, which helped set up the event. "It's important for them to see that there is a present, but there's also a past that got them here, and that they are the future."
Rob McIntosh, a teacher at the Brooklyn High School of the Arts, brought two students but would love it if the entire humanities department came.
"You can't possibly take it in the same way out of a book or video clips than when you spend two hours living this period of history with people who are bringing them to life," he said. "There's no comparison."
That was echoed by one of his students, Victoria Queliz, a student council president and theater major. "It's a great experience to just sit there and watch people actually live in the moment and live in the world that they're in instead of our world. A lot is different and you can see how times have changed," she said.
But she turned even more serious when it came time to evaluate Cranston's chances of earning a Tony Award in June.
"If he doesn't win, I'm going to sue," she said.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits