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Bryan Cranston and Tampa Bay share starring roles in 'The Infiltrator'

Florida is a special place for Emmy and Tony winner Bryan Cranston, not only because his new movie The Infiltrator was largely filmed in Tampa Bay.

There's also the fact that Cranston made his stage debut nearly 40 years ago at the Daytona Playhouse, and his cousins live in Fort Lauderdale.

Then there's Uncle Bob.

"Ah, yes, Uncle Bob," Cranston said backstage before Wednesday's U.S. premiere of The Infiltrator at Tampa Theatre. "Eighty-seven years old, and a nudist in Lutz."

That's right, the Breaking Bad star's uncle resides in a nearby clothing optional community.

"I can't remember the name of the place," said Cranston, 60. "But it's a nice area and he loves the lifestyle. It's just, you know, for those people who like clothing, it's a little different for us when we visit."

Unfortunately, Cranston couldn't find time to drop by while filming The Infiltrator around Tampa Bay in spring 2015. He was too busy absorbing the traits and instincts of his character, Tampa resident Robert Mazur, a former federal undercover agent whose Operation C-Chase investigation of cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar is the basis for the movie, which opens in theaters July 13.

Mazur is an executive producer of the $46.5 million production, and its technical advisor, which mainly consisted of grooming Cranston in the art of undercover deception. They spent countless hours together, at work and socially, to make the portrayal as faithful as possible.

"Whenever you're researching a role, you never know exactly what you're looking for," Cranston said. "But you know when you sense it."

In the case of true stories like Mazur's, an actor's search can extend to locales.

"To be able to come here and have him point out: 'This is where we did this, and this is where the C-Chase apartments were (where the investigation hatched), is enormously helpful," he said.

Cranston has director Brad Furman to thank for that. Furman wanted to film The Infiltrator entirely around Tampa Bay, which wasn't feasible after Florida's tax credit incentives program for attracting productions ran dry. When the Hillsborough County Commission offered a $250,000 localized incentive, Furman and producer Ellen Segal jumped at the drop-in-a-bucket assistance.

"(Mazur's) story generates here," Furman said, "so for me, keeping the authenticity of that was absolutely crucial. When I saw all the diversity offered to me, I said this is amazing. Let's keep it authentic, let's keep it real, let's embrace Tampa as best we can, in its own raw, unique way."

"We've seen Miami (in movies). … I wanted to bring something fresh and new."

That's good to hear, after 1997's Donnie Brasco, another movie about a true-life Tampa Bay undercover case, relocated the action from Pasco County to Miami, a visually sexier locale.

"I actually found elements of real sex appeal in some of the grimier places in Tampa, really authentic and original," Furman said. "There's another side of Tampa, too, let's say elegant, and all these neighborhoods that are driven culturally by diversity. That was really exciting.

"Like, Cephas' (Hot Shop restaurant) is a different kind of place. You guys have, I've never seen laundromats outside like Ybor City. It's an odd thing but I was like, my god, we have to film here; it's an incredible location."

Co-star Benjamin Bratt seconded his director's opinion.

"This industry is based on the whole idea of making people believe, pretending to be somewhere you're not," Bratt said, favorably comparing Tampa Bay in The Infiltrator with New York in his former TV series Law & Order.

"If you get a location like this, where you're surrounded by people actually portrayed in the film … it adds a level of authenticity that can't be mimicked."

Cranston matches those bona fides with his portrayal of Mazur, equal in intensity and morally opposite of Walter White, Breaking Bad's ruthless meth kingpin, the role that earned the actor four consecutive Emmy awards.

In a follow-up telephone interview Thursday, Cranston addressed how his movie career has managed to thrive after creating such an indelible television character.

"What I've realized over 37 years of doing this professionally," he said, "is that there are four main elements to develop a successful career in the arts. One is talent. You really need to have talent, and I don't say that with false modesty; I feel confident about that part of it.

"Then you need patience, and you need persistence. You need to love that work to keep you in it.

"But the fourth element is an X factor, and that's luck. You need a healthy dose to develop and sustain a career."

Bratt suggested a fifth element to sum up Cranston's success:

"Bryan is one of those actors who has both decency and danger in his makeup and his abilities as an actor.

"You can't act decency. It's either in your soul, or not."

Contact Steve Persall at spersall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.

Bryan Cranston and Tampa Bay share starring roles in 'The Infiltrator' 07/07/16 [Last modified: Thursday, July 7, 2016 10:35pm]
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