‘The Upside’ Director on ‘Intense’ Bryan Cranston Performance and Being ‘Truthful’ to Disabled Character

“It’s something that we wrestle with. In a way, we really do the best job that we can to do our homework and research,” Neil Burger tells TheWrap

“The Upside” director Neil Burger described a scene early in the film in which Bryan Cranston, portraying a quadriplegic man, nearly topples out of his wheelchair. It’s played for a laugh at Kevin Hart’s expense, but Burger said that Cranston was so committed to the role, he might’ve hurt himself if Hart wasn’t there to catch him.

“Bryan is such an intense actor, if he started to fall over, and there’s a scene where he does start to fall out of the chair, if they hadn’t gotten to him, he wouldn’t have protected himself,” Burger said in an interview with TheWrap. “He would have just fallen on his face just the way someone with a similar disability would have. He was all in in that way.”

Cranston already has a challenge in the film in trying to be expressive using only from his neck up on his body. But more subtly, he thought about the appropriate and authentic way to hold his body while placed in the wheelchair.

“What’s the big deal? He’s sitting down. But actually, he’s not able to move at all, so are you then clenching your muscles to not move, or are you just relaxed, or are you basically not activating any of your muscles, which is a very tricky thing to do if you sat down and tried to do it,” Burger said. “He’s lucky he’s able-bodied and can do it. That was the interesting thing to see how he holds himself. I think he found he just needed to relax everything and give up all of his muscle tone in the sense that if he was leaning forward, he would need to be strapped into that chair so that he wouldn’t slump forward.”

Of course as Burger notes, Cranston is an able-bodied actor, and Cranston was recently asked about the appropriateness of an able-bodied individual portraying someone with a disability. Actors like Dwayne Johnson and Jake Gyllenhaal have all recently faced criticism for taking parts that perhaps otherwise could have gone to disabled performers, and Cranston defended his performance while acknowledging the challenge of improving representation on screen.

“As actors we’re asked to play other people. If I, 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,” Cranston said in a recent interview. “I don’t know, where does the restriction apply, where is the line for that?”

Burger likewise defended Cranston’s work and talked up the research both Cranston and the crew did in understanding the day-to-day life of disabled individuals and their caretakers.

“It’s a tricky thing in art, to impose almost like a corporate sense of rules on it, even if they seem to be for the best and well-intentioned,” Burger said. “It’s something that we wrestle with. In a way, we really do the best job that we can to do our homework and research and be as truthful as we can to the story and the characters as possible.”

The original film on which “The Upside” is based, the French film “The Intouchables,” is inspired by a pair of real life individuals. But in researching this film, Burger said the crew visited both the MaGee Institute in Philadelphia and the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation in New Jersey, spending time with quadriplegics and their caregivers to learn what life is like for them.

“It blows you away,” Burger said. “It breaks your heart in all the tragic ways and the best sense, the hard work that’s being done to make their lives better is extraordinary.”

“The Upside” opens in theaters on Jan. 11.