How Bryan Cranston Avoided An Overdone Cliche In The Making Of The One And Only Ivan

Bryan Cranston as Mack with Ivan in The One And Only Ivan

When it comes to movies about circuses, audiences have become exceedingly familiar with one particular character trope: the viscous and terrible ringleader. Typically they are a greedy sort, exclusively interested in furthering their business, and that usually means with extreme cruelty towards the innocents around them – both employees and animals alike. It’s a cliché that audiences have seen countless times, but if you’re expecting to see yet another example in director Thea Sharrock’s upcoming The One And Only Ivan, you’d be mistaken.

Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of doing an online video interview with Bryan Cranston, who plays a ringleader in the new Disney+ movie, and my first question out of the gate was in regard to the fact that his character, Mack, doesn’t turn out to be the villain that decades of cinema history would suggest he would become. You can check out our discussion of the subject by clicking play on the video below:

Based on a true story that was turned into a children’s book by author Katherine Applegate, the new movie tells the tale of Ivan (voiced by Sam Rockwell), a Silverback gorilla who has spent the vast majority of his life in captivity – his parental figure long being Bryan Cranston’s Mack. Dubbed by a local billboard as “The One And Only Ivan,” Ivan is the star attraction of a circus located inside of a small shopping center, and while Mack is certainly often portrayed as desperate to keep his business afloat, this isn’t a man who lets his anger get the best of him and lashes out at those around him.

Rather than being an archetypical villain in The One And Only Ivan, Bryan Cranston was excited to play Mack as a genuine human being that doesn’t fit into a black-and-white mold. Sure, there is one sequence in the film where he shows serious frustration while trying to train a baby elephant (voiced by Brooklynn Prince) to do a new trick, but Cranston wants audiences to see the role as multi-dimensional and understandable. Said the actor,

I've always been attracted to complex characters, as you know, and characters that are able to show their shortcomings, their frailties, their fears, what they excel at, what they fail at – but also with their ambitions. And so to me, that's very human, and I think it's very relatable. And so I hope that people will look at this character and go, 'Okay, I don't always agree with what he's doing, but I understand why he's doing what he's doing.' And you root for that kind of person to find their better angel along their path.

Continuing, Bryan Cranston added that there is a strange set of circumstances set up for the character in the film, and that his performance was rooted in the reality of the real person on whom the role is loosely based. Having raised Ivan since he was little, Mack feels a true paternal responsibility for his gorilla, and he does what he can to try and protect him and give him a good life:

What do you do? What would you do? Well, what he did in real life was rent a defunct shopping mall and start a kind of a stationary circus. And it's a crazy idea. It lasted for several years, and to various degrees of success, but it was a way for him to keep his son, Ivan, with him. And I think there's merit to that. There's sweetness to that.

Ultimately Bryan Cranston’s performance is a big part of what makes The One And Only Ivan a unique movie, and also a cute and emotional one. And it won’t be long now before you have the opportunity to watch it yourself.

While originally planned for theatrical release, the film is now set to arrive as a Disney+ exclusive feature that will be available on the streaming service starting this Friday, August 21. Check it out, and then be sure to stay tuned here on CinemaBlend as we continue to dig into this charming movie featuring an all-star voice cast including not only Bryan Cranston, Sam Rockwell and Brooklynn Prince, but also Angelina Jolie, Danny DeVito, Helen Mirren, Phillipa Soo, and Chaka Khan.

Eric Eisenberg
Assistant Managing Editor

Eric Eisenberg is the Assistant Managing Editor at CinemaBlend. After graduating Boston University and earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism, he took a part-time job as a staff writer for CinemaBlend, and after six months was offered the opportunity to move to Los Angeles and take on a newly created West Coast Editor position. Over a decade later, he's continuing to advance his interests and expertise. In addition to conducting filmmaker interviews and contributing to the news and feature content of the site, Eric also oversees the Movie Reviews section, writes the the weekend box office report (published Sundays), and is the site's resident Stephen King expert. He has two King-related columns.