Although a ripple of disappointment spread through the packed house at the Smith Rafael Film Center once word got out that Ben Affleck, director and star of Argo, would not be attending Friday night’s premiere at the 35th Mill Valley Film Festival, the let-down soon turned to whoops and shouts when they learned who was coming in his place: actor Bryan Cranston, known to millions of ardent fans as Walter White on the TV series Breaking Bad.
A line of autograph-seekers who’d camped out in anticipation of Affleck’s arrival were equally thrilled to throw themselves at Cranston, whose square jaw and movie-star smile provided ample star wattage.
Cranston was in San Rafael along with Argo’s screenwriter, Chris Terrio, to represent the film that has had Hollywood buzzing with Oscar talk since it bowed at the Telluride Film Festival in early September. A tense, edge-of-your-seat thriller, Argo tells the real life story of six Americans who escaped the seige of their embassy during the chaotic peak of the Iranian Revolution. Offered shelter in the Canadian ambassador’s residence, the six Americans were eventually rescued after several months in a CIA operation involving a fake Hollywood film production that comes straight from the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction files.
The film has been one MVFF35’s most highly-anticipated screenings since the schedule was first announced in September, and the love was clearly felt by Cranston and Terrio, who posed for pictures, signed autographs and answered questions outside the Smith Rafael Film Center before the film’s start.
We asked Cranston how it felt to build upon one of the most acclaimed performances in TV history with a plum role in a highly-anticipated film, and the ear-to-ear grin on his face spoke volumes.
“It’s glorious,” he said. “I’m having the time of my life.”
He acknowledged the incredible effect that the Breaking Bad role has had on his career, admitting “I never ever could have expected what it would do for my life.”
Indeed, playing Walter White got Cranston the opportunity to read for the part of Jack O’Donnell, the tightly-wound CIA officer who provides Ben Affleck’s operative character with crucial stateside support. He admits, though, that when his agent called him about meeting with Affleck and George Clooney (the film’s producer), he moved the meeting up by a week because he couldn’t stand the thought of anyone getting in to see them before he did.
“I know actors,” he said, “and if there’s one thing I know about them, it’s that a good role is like catnip. I needed to get in there right away.” The meeting, needless to say, went well, and Cranston’s performance lends a crackling tension to many of the film’s most exciting moments.
Cranston and Terrio both sang the praises of Affleck as a director and star whose vision, they said, brought the film’s many storylines and settings into one coherent whole. For anyone surprised by Affleck’s shift away from noir-ish crime thrillers, territory that his two previous films have explored, into political thriller, Terrio pointed out that Affleck was a Middle Eastern studies major in college.
Audience members clearly appreciated the film, applauding during the film’s climax and giving both Cranston and Terrio an enthusiastic reception at the film’s post-screening Q&A. The audience was filled not only with the usual crowd of film buffs, but also with others who had a more personal connection to it.
The nephew of Tony Mendez (Affleck’s character) was in attendance and said that he never really knew his uncle until 1997 when many of his exploits – which earned Mendez the CIA’s highest honors – were declassified. A relative of John Chambers, the larger-than-life Hollywood player who helped Mendez set up the fake film production, was also in the audience, and gave a hearty endorsement to John Goodman’s portrayal of him.
Several women who had been in Iran before and during the revolution spoke up as well, both about the authenticity of the Tehran scenes, and about what one felt to be an unfair portrayal of the Shah of Iran’s culpability in leading his nation to the brink of revolution.
Festival-goers looking for a potent mix of star power and powerful storytelling got just what they were looking for last night – another feather in the cap for MVFF35, quickly shaping up as one for the books.