Bryan Cranston and Megan Mullally bring brass, class and sneaky-sexy chemistry to 'Why Him?'

It’s remarkable how frequently Megan Mullally and Bryan Cranston were either adjacent to one another or in the same orbit without ever colliding.

The L.A. natives both appeared on episodes of “30 Rock,” “3rd Rock from the Sun,” “How I Met Your Mother,” “Murder, She Wrote” and, of course, “Seinfeld.” (He was infamous re-gifting dentist Tim Whatley; she was the woman whose aunt’s death prompted George’s “double-dipping.”)  As it turns out, says Cranston, “We were actually shooting ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ on the same lot as ‘Will & Grace’ but never really crossed paths very much.”

And now the Emmy winners are married. Onscreen that is, in the new film comedy “Why Him?” playing buttoned-up Michiganders Ned and Barb Fleming. They’re having trouble accepting that their Stanford-attending, good girl daughter Stephanie (Zoey Deutch) is dating a filter-less, tattoo-festooned Silicon Valley tech millionaire named Laird (a freewheeling James Franco), who keeps an art installation of a moose entombed in its own urine in his living room. The film pulled in a solid $16.7 million over this past four-day holiday weekend.

The chemistry was instant the pair says, and it is apparent during a recent joint interview at the Four Seasons during which they consistently crack each other up.  

“We just immediately had a rapport and were acting like an old married couple,” says Mullally, her feet tucked under her on a couch beside Cranston and noting that it likely helped that they have both been in happy marriages for a long time. “I don’t know how we just fell right into that and it was so funny and great. And [‘Why Him?’ director] John [Hamburg] emailed me and said, ‘The chemistry between you and Bryan is insane. I cannot believe how smart I am that I cast you because it’s perfect.’”

Cranston takes some of the credit for that. Early on in the script, Franco’s character shamelessly — and discomfitingly — admires Mullally’s character, calling Barb “sneaky sexy.” It is established early in the film that Laird is incapable of being dishonest so, Cranston says, “If he cannot lie we must hire a woman who’s really attractive and I said, ‘I think it’s got to be Megan Mullally.’  Because not only is she really attractive but, man, is she funny.”

It is a mutual admiration society says Mullally, an early adopter of “Breaking Bad.”

“When I was doing ‘Young Frankenstein’ on Broadway [in 2007] I got a screener and I was like ‘what the hell is this?’” says Mullally, who soon became addicted. “In the show I had this entrance and I belted out a big song and then I was offstage for an hour and 20 minutes, which was terrible. And I had a DVD player in my dressing room and I remember I started watching ‘Breaking Bad’ and I was like ‘Am I losing my mind or is this the greatest show I’ve ever seen?’”

“Did you ever miss an entrance because you were watching?” Cranston asks.

“Yes, I got in trouble,” says Mullally with a laugh. “Let’s just say, a lot of sprinting was happening. In heels.”

The duo’s chemistry is on full display in one of the film’s funniest scenes. After an awkward party experience with Laird’s friends, Barb, stoned out of her mind, tries (unsuccessfully) to persuade Ned to get frisky. At one point Mullally thrusts her (clothed) posterior right in Cranston’s face and he is too distracted to appreciate the view.

“He’s like that in real life too, I’ve tried,” Mullally quips.

“I’ll be sitting in my cast chair and I’m like ‘Megan, your butt is blocking the light,’” says Cranston returning the volley. There was, the pair says, a lot of laughter on the set that day.

“I didn’t know what she was going to do,” Cranston says.

“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” exclaims Mullally of the scene, which wasn’t in the original script and largely improvised.

“This was an idea of Megan’s to be able to have a moment with this husband and wife who have been married for a long time,” says Cranston, who has been married to wife Robin for 27 years. “Not only is it a drop-dead funny moment in the movie, but it’s important that the audience sees that they connect or disconnect at any time. They’ve been married a while, they’re in a situation that is uncomfortable and they are trying [to process it] in different ways and there is a moment where they could connect and they don’t. But because they don’t connect in that moment, it makes when they do connect in the end more rewarding.”

“Also,” adds Mullally, who has been with husband Nick Offerman (“Parks and Recreation”) for 17 years, “I feel like it’s important for younger audiences to see people who aren’t 23 years old being sexual and affectionate with each other.  Because it doesn’t come to a screeching halt. The ... still goes down when you’re middle-aged and older.”

Cranston laughs and says, “I love the way you say that: the … goes down.”

That playful dynamic was a treat to watch says Hamburg, the screenwriter-director behind “I Love You, Man,” who mined a similar vein in his scripts for the “Meet the Parents” films.

“When two people are going at it in a movie like this, with scripted lines and improv, it becomes like music almost,” says Hamburg in a separate interview. “As a director it’s just such a joy to sit back and watch two seasoned performers at the top of their game playing off of each other. They’re both insanely funny, but they’re both generous actors. The funnier the other one is, the better it makes them and they both understand that acutely.”

It was also important to all involved that, no matter how wacky things might get in Laird’s lair, that everyone remain grounded in reality.

“The idea was not to do a movie about goofy Midwesterners who come to a totally cliché version of Silicon Valley,” says Hamburg. “It was to tell a story of this real family who happened to live in the Midwest. They’re a close family with normal values and ups and downs and they’re flawed, wonderful people and they just find themselves in this upside-down world. It was so important to make them all believable, dimensional characters.”

For Cranston, the broad comedy of “Why Him?” returns him to the form in which he first made his name, after several years of playing very serious men both real (his Tony-winning turn as President Lyndon B. Johnson and Oscar-nominated portrayal of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo) and fictional (“Breaking Bad”’s Walter White).

Conversely, playing the mostly sensible — but still funny — Barb gives Mullally an opportunity to shine in a more dramatic space after many TV seasons of playing outlandishly outsized women (including her two-time Emmy award-winning performance as kooky Big Pharma fan Karen Walker on “Will & Grace” and the comically destructive Tammy 2 — opposite Offerman — on “Parks and Recreation”).

“I always play the craziest person on earth, so it was nice to be able to play a normal person for once,” says Mullally with a laugh. “I would actually not mind doing that again sometime.”

In the short term, however, Mullally is bringing her stage show with Offerman, “Summer of 69: No Apostrophe,” to television soon and releasing a new album with her band Nancy & Beth (with actress Stephanie Hunt) in April. Plus, she confirms, “There’s talk of ‘Will and Grace’ coming back but nothing official right now.” 

Cranston will unveil his Amazon con-man drama “Sneaky Pete” next month, the concept for which sprang from an Emmy speech of his. And he’s about to begin working on a film with Kevin Hart that is, surprisingly, not a comedy. “Boom!” says Cranston with a laugh.

But perhaps another comedy is not far off. Even though “Why Him?” has a fairly neatly sewn-up ending, both actors seem amenable to the idea of a sequel. Perhaps “Why Him Again?”

“Yes!” says Mullally with a cheer and Cranston adds with a laugh, “Something could always go wrong.”

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