Arts

The Upside stars Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart on acting, politics, and quadriplegia

Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart star in a new drama The Upside about a billionaire quadriplegic and the ex-convict he hires to take care of him. They talk to Laura Harding about diving into their challenging roles and whether they anticipate criticism for Breaking Bad star Cranston's casting as a disabled character

Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart in The Upside

BRYAN Cranston and Kevin Hart seem an unlikely double act at first. One is best known for playing a drug kingpin in hit TV series Breaking Bad and the other for selling out stadiums as a stand-up comedian, but somehow, they come across as if they have known each other for years.

They certainly bring out a different side of each other in their new film The Upside, based on a true story in which Cranston (62) plays a billionaire left paralysed after a paragliding accident, and Hart plays the ex-con he hires as his live-in carer.

"The way we rehearsed it was, all the way through the entire run of the movie Kevin would feed me every meal," Cranston jokes.

"Even when we weren't working, we would go out to a restaurant and he would feed me. I think it really helped him."

Kidding aside, funnyman Hart took his role of Dell Scott, who is newly released from prison, very seriously.

It is a change of pace for Hart (39) to play a dramatic role, and he got into character by spending time with carers before filming started.

"They explained to me just how in depth, how far you had to go with providing for a quadriplegic. Everything from feeding, to wiping their mouths, the movement, to dressing them, they're really in a position where you are their everything, to a certain degree."

In the film, Dell is newly paroled and in desperate need of a job, but left frustrated by the menial opportunities available to a convicted criminal. This particularly struck home for Hart, who grew up poor in north Philadelphia and who has friends who have been through the criminal justice system.

The most high profile of those is the rapper Meek Mill, who has been in and out of prison since 2008.

"Meek Mill was in jail and went back to jail because his probation was violated and he was given this crazy sentence. Sometimes, it takes someone close to you going through something, for you to educate yourself in how wrong something is in the system," Hart says.

"That fight became, 'Hey we have got to get him out', but then after getting him out, the fight continued, because there are so many more that are going through this just like him."

Despite this, Hart has no plans to enter the political fray.

"Standing alongside of him was the most that I've done ever from a political standpoint at all, but that is because of the personal relationship.

"Politics is such a touchy place, because you're damned if you do and damned if you don't.

"If you stand for one thing then others that stand against it don't like what you stand for. But if you do stand for one thing and you don't stand for it correctly, now these people have a problem with you.

"I have never embraced politics, I never have, it's not my cup of tea. What I do is understand right from wrong and I know what my beliefs are. I try to stay true to being a part of society in the way that I'm uplifting and not dividing."

For Cranston, the biggest challenge of the film came with a performance that confined him to a wheelchair, when he is so used to acting with his whole body.

It was spending time with Phillippe Pozzo Di Borgo, the wealthy Corsican French businessman on whom the story is based, that helped him focus on the emotional trials he went through, rather than the physical.

"Were there periods of time he wanted to give up? Yes. Were there depths of depression? Yes. Were there thoughts of suicide? Yes. Were there peaks where he thought, oh no, I do have some options? Yes. It's all of the above.

"It was up to him to be able to embrace everything about the challenges ahead, both good and bad.

"At first, I thought I'd really have to focus on being absolutely still. I started practising holding my body in a rigid manner, but that can't be sustained.

"You're too tense. It really had to just be the opposite of that. I had to go into a Zen-like state in order to just breathe and let it go. Just go with the fallow and have the whole-body collapse in the chair to where the only thing I can move is my neck. And that worked."

He also spent time with many other people with quadriplegia, learning about not only their daily routines but also how their lives have changed – their relationships, emotions, perceptions of self.

Despite this, the pair are bracing themselves for criticism that may come their way over the fact that Cranston is an able-bodied actor playing a disabled character.

"We live in the world of criticism, if we're willing to get up and try something, we have to also be willing to take criticism," Cranston admits.

"We're very aware of the need to expand the opportunities for people with disabilities.

"I think being cast in this role as a quadriplegic really came down to a business decision. As opposed to someone who is actually in a wheelchair to play the role, not that they're not able to play the role, but it was a business decision.

"As actors we're asked to be other people, to play other people. As a straight, older person, and I'm wealthy, I'm very fortunate, does that mean I can't play a person who is not wealthy, does that mean I can't play a homosexual?

"I don't know, where does the restriction apply? Where is the line for that? I think it is worthy for debate to discuss those issues."

For Hart, he also hopes it kick-starts a debate about inclusion.

"I think having a conversation started is always a good thing. In this particular case, bringing awareness to the fact that hey, we would love to see more disabled people given the opportunities to participate in the entertainment world, and potentially grow.

"But having this opportunity to work alongside Bryan is one I'm going to forever hold on to because I saw how seriously he took the role, I saw how in-depth he went to understand the world of a quadriplegic.

"I know the conversations he had with different quadriplegic individuals and together he took all that information and did his best job."

:: The Upside is released in cinemas today.

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