How confronting his white privilege led Bryan Cranston to 'Power of Sail'

Bryan Cranston is returning to the stage in "Power of Sail" at Geffen Playhouse.
Bryan Cranston is returning to the stage in "Power of Sail" at the Geffen Playhouse, playing a professor under fire for inviting a white nationalist to participate in a symposium at Harvard. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

“I’m 65 years old now, and I need to learn, I need to change.”

The words tumble with intensity out of actor Bryan Cranston’s mouth. He sits beside an unlighted fire pit in his backyard on a recent windy morning. Chimes ring mournfully in the breeze, and small white blossoms from a tree twist and twirl their way to a soft landing in the nearby pool.

Cranston is telling me why he chose to step away from an offer to direct a show at L.A.’s Geffen Playhouse and how that decision led him to take the role of Charles Nichols in the theater’s West Coast premiere of “Power of Sail,” written by Paul Grellong and directed by Weyni Mengesha, running through March 20.

As Nichols, Cranston plays an aging, highly respected Harvard professor who faces intense backlash for inviting a white nationalist and Holocaust denier named Carver to speak at his annual symposium. As student protests intensify, Nichols presses forward, claiming his intention is to give Carver and his repugnant ideas a thorough dressing down in a debate.

An avowed “free-speech absolutist,” Nichols says, “The answer to hate speech is more speech.”

“Power of Sail” had its world premiere in 2019 at the Warehouse Theatre in Greenville, S.C., but Cranston believes the play gained resonance in the wake of the pandemic and the social and racial justice uprisings following the murder of George Floyd.

As those occurrences shook the world, they also transformed Cranston, who says in these troubling years he came face to face with his own “white blindness” and privilege. It was necessary work for a man tasked with playing a character whose white privilege prevents him from seeing the very real harm caused by his actions until it is much too late.

When, in 2019, Matt Shakman, the Geffen’s artistic director, asked Cranston if he had any interest in directing for an upcoming season, Cranston — who has never directed a play thought he’d like to give it a try. The play he had in mind was Larry Shue’s 1984 comedy “The Foreigner,” about an Englishman who foils a nefarious plot by the Ku Klux Klan to convert the Georgia fishing lodge where he's staying into a Klan meeting place.

Two years of global grief and pain later, the play no longer felt like an acceptable choice to Cranston.

“It is a privileged viewpoint to be able to look at the Ku Klux Klan and laugh at them and belittle them for their broken and hateful ideology,” says Cranston. “But the Ku Klux Klan and Charlottesville and white supremacists — that’s still happening and it’s not funny. It’s not funny to any group that is marginalized by these groups’ hatred, and it really taught me something.”

Cranston says he had been laughing at the play for decades and he had to confront the fact that his white privilege allowed him to laugh.

“And I realized, ‘Oh my God, if there’s one, there’s two, and if there’s two, there are 20 blind spots that I have … what else am I blind to?'” Cranston says. “If we’re taking up space with a very palatable play from the 1980s where rich old white people can laugh at white supremacists and say, ‘Shame on you,’ and have a good night in the theater, things need to change, I need to change.”

So he stepped aside, telling Shakman, “If you find a play that you need an old white guy to act in, then maybe I can be available for that.”

Cranston also stipulated that he wanted to be a part of “something that changes the conversation.” In his estimation, the measure of success in theater is always “Does the conversation continue after the play is over?”

For Cranston, “Power of Sail” meets that criterion with its pointed critique of America’s devotion to the primacy of free speech.

The play asks if there should be limits to free speech, and if so, why? It tests the boundaries of the free speech ideal by examining the traditional arbiters of that speech — those who get to decide whose voice is lifted and whose voice is quashed. It suggests the existence of a moral compass in an age when truth is often called relative by special-interest groups opposed to it.

Brandon Scott, who plays the Black academic Baxter Forrest in "Power of Sail," tries to stop Nichols from hosting Carver at the symposium while citing 20th century philosopher Karl Popper’s “paradox of tolerance.” Popper's idea is that if a society — in pursuit of tolerance without limits — tolerates the intolerant, the latter will eventually destroy that society.

Cranston is taken with the theory and leans forward in his chair while discussing it.

“There need to be barriers, there need to be guardrails,” he says. “If someone wants to say the Holocaust was a hoax, which is against history … to give a person space to amplify that speech is not tolerance. It’s abusive.”

That’s certainly how the protesting students in the play feel, but Nichols dismisses them as “babies” who can “never know offense, never be challenged.” They wouldn’t last a day in the 1960s or ’70s, he scoffs. He is baffled by the idea of “safe space meets” after he is invited to one by the Jewish student organization Hillel and the Black Students Assn.

Similar debates have played out on college campuses for years now, and “Power of Sail” throws the inherent generational divide of these disagreements into stark relief. Cranston recognized the hallmarks of his own generation — and its many limitations — in Nichols' words. The role caused him to begin reexamining his beliefs.

“What is safe? Well, emotionally safe. Without judgment safe. All-inclusive safe. Empathetic safe. And that’s what gives me hope with new generations,” he says. “Because it’s a beautiful thing to say, ‘We’re all entitled to be who we are without judgment.'"

As live theater continues its slow march toward something resembling normalcy in the pandemic era, Cranston believes the art form is poised to buoy spirits and minds through ever more turbulent waters.

“A good play may not change your life, but it could change your day,” Cranston says. “To go deeper, a play can also stimulate the mind. It can make you question your thought process — your dogma. It could challenge you.”

The Emmy-winning star of “Breaking Bad” has two Tony Awards under his belt for previous stints onstage, playing Howard Beale in “Network” and Lyndon B. Johnson in “All the Way,” and he knows the power of a good story — how it can boost our sense of empathy, make us more responsive, kinder, to those around us.

The pandemic-fatigued world is deeply fractured and anxious, he says, adding, “We’re all feeling very tight and constricted. I think the mask is just a manifestation of how we feel.”

As we work to shed those masks, we must shed our false conceptions of the rosiness of pre-pandemic America. The process of examining our problematic beliefs will be clumsy, says Cranston, and there should be room for those who make mistakes and are honest and brave enough to admit to those mistakes, and to apologize.

“Somewhere in this more hardened world — this less civil world that we find ourselves in — someplace, somewhere, lives forgiveness,” he says.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.