Director Paul Hamburg is no stranger to making hit comedies. He is the man behind films such as Meet The Parents and Meet The Fockers and this holiday season sees him return to that tried and true meet-the-in-laws formula with Why Him?, a film that essentially pits Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston against Oscar-nominated actor James Franco.
A quick look at the trailer for Why Him? may leave the audience thinking that Franco’s character, Laird Mayhew, may well be one of the rudest and most disgusting people to have ever graced the screen but Franco laughs as he admits that there is more to Laird then meets the eye. “I play a guy who is dating Bryan Cranston’s daughter. I’m a video game designer. I’m very successful, but I’m also a bit unpolished, rude and I have tattoos, and I use crude language. So I’m everything that Bryan Cranston’s character wouldn’t want in a son. So, I ask him for his blessing because I want to ask his daughter to marry me and he refuses, so I spend our Christmas holiday trying to win him over. Essentially Laird is not a bad guy he’s actually a really nice guy! So I just said to John that initially we need this guy to be very frightening to a father and one of the ways to do that is to make his exterior frightening because actually inside he’s actually everything that you probably want in a son-in-law. So there was this gag that we had been wrestling with from the beginning about Laird trying to do something when he initially meets the family that he thinks is a gesture of solidarity and a welcome and they read it completely differently and so there were a lot of different incarnations of that and finally we settled on the idea that he would get a tattoo of the family on his back and then John added on that that he only had a Holiday Card photo of the family and that’s the photo that he used, and the tattoo artist also included the Happy Holidays on it.”
So was it the fact that Laird Mayhew that is comedy gold that drew Franco to the role? “I think the first thing that drew me to the movie was John Hamburg,” explains Franco. “He was actually my teacher at NYU when I was there for the Graduate Film Media program. He was actually my teacher there when I was doing 127 Hours, so I wasn’t there a lot but we talked a lot and I got to know him on the phone but yeah he was the initial thing that drew me to this, and I’ve always liked his writing. And then I heard, and he told me that he was thinking about Bryan Cranston for the father role, and I didn’t know Bryan, but I saw him backstage on the last episode of The Colbert Report, and he said ‘hey I heard you might do this and I might do this. What do you think?’ so we started talking, and Bryan Cranston is just the greatest human being ever.
Of course playing alongside Franco in Why Him? is Bryan Cranston who aside from playing Walter in Breaking Bad had a long stretch playing a frustrated father in hit comedy Malcolm In The Middle, so what was it like for Franco to co-star alongside a comedy legend. “I think he had a blast,” says Franco laughing out loud. “ He hasn’t really done comedy since Malcolm In The Middle, and what was that over ten years ago now, so I think he had a great time actually and you wouldn’t expect that Bryan is sort of the one to push the envelope, but he would always make a suggestion for a scene that was just too far, not only for his character but for everybody and I love that. I mean that I love that in Bryan.
Franco also admits that like on most of Paul Hamburg’s sets the actors did have a little bit of ‘free reign.’ “John works in a way that is similar to a lot of the movies I’ve done before, where there is always room for improvisation. You know you start with a script and then kind of role from there and see what you find. And I guess what you always want in that situation is that you want somebody that can give good suggestions. I mean if you are riffing and then they can sort of build on that. You want somebody like that behind the camera that can help support you.”
For Bryan Cranston though he says that he had an instant personal connection to the film and to the role of Ned. “You know there is the truth about the Dads,” he says with a huge smile on his face. “You know I can remember when I was dating the Dads didn’t like me very much and I didn’t know why. I NOW KNOW WHY! I think Ned wants to be open, although it is tough enough as a Dad myself to see your child grow up and become an adult. And for us to have to be responsible for them for all of their lives and then just voluntary let go of that grip and away they go, and the choices they make you are just like sheesh, and you are a little fearful about how all of that is going to play out. Of course these two guys, Ned and Laird, are different in every way. Different level of education, in the way that they were raised, who they were raised by, the principals by the way they were raised, everything, the way they live, their taste in music, their generation, everything about them is a complete opposite to each other. So naturally you would think that there is going to be friction because they just can’t relate to each other in any way. Laird just doesn’t have a filter, but what is great about the Laird character though, and we really talked about this a lot before we got into production, is that he is not capable of lying, he is clumsy, he is socially crude, and he hurts feelings sometimes because he just says what is real, what is honest and what is true, and we know that that isn’t always the best policy. He can’t help it; he just doesn’t have that gear to be able to control himself. But on the other side, he also doesn’t have the gear to be dishonest or purposely hurtful. He just can’t do it.”
It doesn’t take listening to Bryan for long to learn that he really enjoyed his time working on Why Him? and he is only too happy to explain why. “Being able to play with these actors has been a blast. They were all fabulous. I love doing dramatic roles and doing things like Trumbo and All The Way, and doing stage and doing film and Breaking Bad was fantastic but you don’t have as much fun as you do when you do comedy because the whole idea is to be thinking of different approaches of how to make something funny and when your job is to go to work, and you laugh and you make other people laugh then that is a good day. When I first read the script, the script was funny, and I said ‘can we work on this’, and they said ‘oh yeah we are going to work and work on this until you are sick of it’ and I loved that, I loved the all in nature. John brings a sensibility that is very inviting. He allows the actor room to fail and I don’t mean that in an ‘oh he’s going to fail here’ way it’s more of an ‘okay, yeah try that, try it, try it’… that is really his motto. And it is has been so much fun; we’re like children. We do the scene as written and then we are not only allowed to change it but are encouraged just to go crazy and add whatever is appropriate to your character.”
The fact that the cast had so much fun making the film is not a surprise when you walk out of a theatre still laughing after viewing Why Him? – a film that has turned into a surprise comedy hit this summer.
Why Him? is showing in cinemas right now.