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Better Call Saul’s Michael McKean on Why Great Comedians Can Also Break Your Heart

McKean’s performance on Better Call Saul has taken on a tragic grandeur.

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Knowing that its road winds up at Walter White’s doorstep has allowed Better Call Saul to move at an uncommonly luxurious pace, but the show’s third season has rewarded fans for their patience: Nearly every episode has (re-)introduced a significant Breaking Bad character, from drug boss and fried-chicken magnate Gus Fring to jittery corporate weasel Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. But the highlight of the season has been the ongoing feud between Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill—the future Saul Goodman—and his disdainful older brother, Chuck, played by Michael McKean. Jimmy and Chuck are both lawyers, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Chuck is a keen legal mind, revered and feared by his peers, and Jimmy is a wheeler-dealer, making up in moral flexibility what he lacks in acumen. The show’s first season ended with the revelation that Chuck, who was outwardly supportive of his little brother’s ascent from the mailroom, was secretly attempting to destroy his career: The law, he argued, was sacred, and Jimmy McGill with a law degree was like “a chimp with a machine gun.”

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Since then, Chuck McGill has become the character Better Call Saul viewers love to hate, and McKean’s performance has taken on a kind of tragic grandeur. Chuck’s once-brilliant career has been sidelined by a medical condition that makes him effectively allergic to electricity, which only intensified his resentment of Jimmy’s maneuverability. Breaking Bad viewers know, of course, that Chuck is right to be wary of Jimmy’s amorality, but his dire predictions are also self-fulfilling: What could Jimmy have been had Chuck had his back instead of trying to stab him in it? The tension between brothers came to a head in the season’s thrilling fifth episode, “Chicanery,” where Jimmy outwitted Chuck on the witness stand and forced him to admit that his “condition” only existed in his mind. The dramatic confrontation set the stage for a new era in Chuck’s life; he seems to embrace the liberation from his off-the-grid existence but shows no sign of putting his well-developed sense of persecution aside. Could steps toward psychological soundness actually make him more of a threat?

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Like Odenkirk, McKean is best known for comedy, with a career that stretches from Laverne & Shirley through his roles in This Is Spinal Tap, Waiting for Guffman, and Clue. But his dramatic talents are on full view at the moment, both on TV and on stage, where he’s appearing in the Tony-winning production of The Little Foxes at the Manhattan Theatre Club. On his Monday off, McKean sat down for coffee near Slate’s Brooklyn offices to talk about the evolution of Chuck McGill, what Better Call Saul has in common with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and how to get kids “woke” about classic movies. We began with what was on his iPod.

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Slate: What are you listening to right now?

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Michael McKean: A Noel Coward song called “I Went to a Marvellous Party.” Great comic songwriters can also break your heart. Think about Randy Newman. Richard Thompson. Elvis Costello can write funny, but he can also write, you know. … Loudon Wainwright writes some of the funniest songs in the world, but he also can kill you …

Like with “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry.”

There’s a pet theory of mine that you have to be able to do both to be a great songwriter.

That dovetails into Better Call Saul. Bob Odenkirk might at this point be best known for Breaking Bad, but he came into it as a sketch-comedy legend from Mr. Show, and Rhea Seehorn had a lot of experience on network sitcoms. You’ve got a long history in comedy, from Laverne & Shirley through This Is Spinal Tap and the rest of the movies you’ve made with Christopher Guest. Is there something about comedians that appeals to Vince Gilligan, or that makes them suited for this world?

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I don’t know, I don’t think we should be terribly surprised that Bob can do anything. I don’t think that a comedy performance—you know, it’s essentially the same job, no matter what. You find out what your character wants and then you go for it. That’s really how to do anything. They’re just going to write more jokes for you if it’s a comedy.

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Do you have to think more about the whole when you’re doing comedy? The overall rhythm is such a critic element.

That’s really somebody else’s job. You kind of strew your leaves all over the place and the director scrapes them up into a nice, neat pile—and then the editor burns them.

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My high school drama coach was a guy named Bruce Mooney, and he actually said to me one day, he says, “You know, you might come to a point where you really have to decide what kind of actor you’re going to be. You want to be a comic actor or you want to be a dramatic actor?” And I said, “What’s Alan Arkin?” Because that’s what I want to be. I want to be the guy who there’s no question about. It’s like, he’s a brilliant comic actor, he’s a brilliant dramatic actor. Whatever he does, that’s what I want to do.

So even in high school you had an idea of what kind of actor you wanted to be—or didn’t.

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No, no. I didn’t know. I was also learning the guitar. I thought maybe I’d be a songwriter. I didn’t know. I just knew that I wasn’t going to be a damn lawyer or something you’d need a lot of schooling for.

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It’s funny now to look back on the early writing about Better Call Saul, before we knew that Chuck was hell-bent on destroying Jimmy’s law career. One article called Chuck “the nicest character in Breaking Bad franchise history.” Even you didn’t know his real motives until halfway through the first season. That seems like the equivalent of doing a play and someone comes up to you at intermission and says, “Oh, by the way, you’re the bad guy.”

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One of the delights about doing this show is that I really didn’t know what was around the corner—which is kind of like real life. We don’t know what phone call didn’t get made that wound up with you getting a job. We didn’t know what was going to happen on Sept. 10, 2001. No one knows where life is going to take you, and if a good serial series like this is going to stay interesting, it has to at least approximate that level of unpredictability. And I was fine with that. I didn’t need to read the [show] bible. It wasn’t my department. I completely trusted Vince and Peter and the rest of the gang. They’re remarkable writers, and they love TV, and they love actors. Go figure.

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How much do you know about what will happen with Chuck at the end of the series?

I know everything. And I can tell you nothing.

Apart from Jimmy and Mike and a few others, we don’t know where most of Better Call Saul’s characters end up, because they were never on Breaking Bad. But as a viewer, one assumes there has to be some major rift coming. It would feel like a cheat to imply that Chuck and Jimmy were hanging out all through Breaking Bad and the show just never got around to showing it.

Well, Rhea Seehorn has had a similar problem. She’s had people come up and say, “Kim’s dead, right?” It’s just a weird assumption that people have, and it comes from focusing narrowly on something. Can you tell me who the mayor of Albuquerque was during Breaking Bad? The mayor’s never mentioned. Was he dead? No, there was a mayor, it just didn’t come up. It’s the same thing. Kim might have gotten wise and said, “You know what? Screw it, I’m going to go live in New York. I’m going to be the 30th best lawyer in New York rather than the second best lawyer in Albuquerque.”

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Is that “second best” after Chuck?

[laughs] Yes, that is after Chuck. Now that you mention it.

It’s funny that there’s this assumption that dramatic series have to end by killing off their protagonists. How’s Don Draper going to die? How’s Tony Soprano going to die? There are other ways to end a series.

I’ll tell you though, the last two episodes of Breaking Bad are probably as good as dramatic TV gets. And the way that all the loose threads were tied up was kind of phenomenal. There was no full redemption possible for Walter White, but they found a way to redeem him just enough so that his redemption was as flawed as his life. It’s kind of wonderful.

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Better Call Saul is, by design, a pretty slow-moving show, but this season has introduced several characters from the Breaking Bad universe, and the Chuck storyline got a major payoff in “Chicanery,” where Jimmy coaxed him into a breakdown on the witness stand. It’s an intense battle of wills between the two of them.

It was good reading. There was about 30 pages of dialogue, just dialogue, in those courtroom scenes. There was a density to stepping into that. Dan Sackheim, who directed the episode, he called me, I was in New York, and said, “We’ve got a theory of how to do this, because you have so much to do, and I’m looking for a way to not pile on so much.” He started laying it out: “If we start on the coverage of everybody else, that’ll give you more days to learn your stuff.” And I said, “Look, whatever you decide to do, it’s fine. When you roll, I’ll be ready, whistling past the graveyard.” It was kind of a nice gesture, but I really generally don’t like to think about it too much. I like to be prepared, I like to know what I’m doing, and I like to not see the goalposts. Because like I say, real life is unpredictable. You can launch into any endeavor and have a manhole cover give way underneath you. You don’t know.

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So it was not daunting so much as it was invigorating. I knew my stuff and I knew the story, I deeply knew my relationship with Jimmy. The construct came script by script, and the writers have been very kind about talking about it, saying that our relationship, the relationship that Jimmy and Chuck developed in the hands of Michael and Bob, inspired them, and led them places they didn’t really suspect they were going.

They created Chuck as a person that Jimmy cares about. Saul Goodman has said goodbye to the world, in large part. For him it’s about amassing those oil drums full of money in the desert. So by the time we got to Episode 5 of Season 3, the gladiators were in the arena, but they had a very deep, very troubled relationship. If you want to boil things down, I made mama proud, Jimmy made mama laugh. What has more value? What burns Chuck? What doesn’t Jimmy understand about what burns Chuck? Because Chuck has never expressed it to Jimmy.

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One of the prime movers in Chuck is his inability to talk about these things that he’s feeling. He doesn’t have anyone. When he has a couple of sessions with [Chuck’s therapist] Dr. Cruz, she’s Clea DuVall’s character, it’s the first time that we’ve seen a person that he’s completely honest with about himself. Imagine having a life where you don’t have that person. You have to hire a professional to be the person you’re honest with. That’s key with Chuck, I think.

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Do you think Chuck’s ex-wife was that person for him, earlier?

Yes, but there’s a kind of formality that he had with his wife. It was kind of an aesthetic level that they had together. We don’t really know what their intimacy level was.

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It seems like it was more of a deep appreciation for each other.

I think so, I think so. Their intimacy was not explored. In a different universe, I can imagine being in love with Annie Cusack; she’s this fabulous actress, a brilliant, funny woman. But the construct on the page was something very much withheld, as far as Chuck is concerned. And not it’s not just Chuck withholding, it’s also his inability to get at what’s really wonderful about Rebecca. It’s lovely, and kind of complicated.

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Jimmy proved in court that Chuck’s “condition,” his electromagnetic hypersensitivity, was all in his head, and Chuck seems to have reconciled himself to the fact that it’s purely psychological. Does being in therapy make Chuck more or less dangerous to Jimmy?

That’s an interesting question. Can you weaponize recovery? Very possibly. You can buy a fixer-upper, and just slap some paint on it, but it ain’t fixed up. You’re still going to put your foot through the stairway. So I don’t know.

Chuck is the show’s big proponent of “People don’t change.”

Yes he is, absolutely. But he doesn’t think of himself when he thinks of “people,” you know? Because he’s the protagonist of his own life.

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The critic Matt Zoller Seitz argued that viewers viscerally hate Chuck in a way they don’t someone like Hector Salamanca, even though Chuck is just trying to get Jimmy disbarred and Hector murdered an innocent man in cold blood. Is that surprising to you?

No, because I understand rooting interest. There is something about rooting for the guy who breaks the rules. It’s like [Animal House’s] Dean Wormer, you know? Dean Wormer was right to try and shut down Delta House. But you can root against the rules. That’s permitted. The Dirty Dozen were breaking the rules.

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I haven’t watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in a long time, but there was a point in my life where I suddenly realized that he’s an asshole.

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He is an asshole. Absolutely. Absolutely.

His sister’s a killjoy, but she’s right, and in those circumstances, I would absolutely be her.

I remember at the time, Harry Shearer and I saw Ferris Bueller, and I thought it was really fun. I just love Matthew [Broderick], and I thought he was brilliant, and I love Alan Ruck, so it was a really fun movie. And Harry Shearer saw it and was like, “This guy’s the biggest asshole in the world!” And I said, “You’re absolutely right.” But I didn’t think about it during the 95 minutes that I was watching the movie. And besides, history has shown us that Ben Stein is the biggest asshole in the world.

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This may not be an important concern for you as an actor, but how much of Chuck’s concern for the sacredness of the law is legit, and how much of it is a pretext for pursuing a vendetta against his brother?

I think it’s totally legit, and I think it’s something that he really does live by. But then again, he’s also a really clever lawyer, and he can take circumstances and bend them slightly to his own ends. That’s his job. I think there’s a reason that he is not a criminal defense lawyer.

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He’s not Atticus Finch.

No, no, no. He goes where the big white-shoe money is, and he was very comfortable doing that. Somebody asked a question last night, “Are we ever going to know what kicked off this affliction of Chuck’s?” Because after [Episode] 305, we know that it’s psychosomatic. We know that it’s in his mind. I don’t know whether we know that know that, but the point is, it’s not something that I would ever dwell on. It’s never been terribly interesting to me. As I said last night—and I won’t say it again after today, because I’m tired of saying it—if your assignment is to play a guy who thinks he sees unicorns, you can’t play a guy who thinks he sees unicorns. You have to play a guy who sees unicorns. Otherwise it’s not going to hold water.

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Up until the point that you play a guy who realizes that he doesn’t see unicorns.

Right, or he tries to hop on one and ride off into the sunset and it doesn’t work out.

There is something terribly poignant about Chuck, who takes such pride in the power of his intellect, having to come to terms with the fact that his mind has betrayed him.

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Of course. And he knows that. That’s why you have the lovely scene at the end of Season 2, where he gets Jimmy to confess on tape, and he does it by playing what he’s really feeling but theatricalizing it for Jimmy’s benefit, to turn Jimmy. This is a guy who can take what he really is feeling and portray it a certain way, in a certain light, so that it’s useful to him. It’s a person who uses his own affliction to get what he wants. It’s Machiavellian in a kind of way that I don’t think even he realizes.

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And as much as that’s the ultimate betrayal, you also see in that moment how they’re brothers. Chuck’s not above scamming Jimmy when he thinks it’s for a greater good.

But listen, Jimmy’s got smarts. So does Chuck, it’s just a different brand.

You’re doing The Little Foxes on Broadway right now, with Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney switching roles every night. What would it be like if you and Odenkirk did the same thing?

It’s hard to even picture it. But having said that, I did, as Michael, have to confess to my admiration for some of Jimmy’s tricks. It’s like watching close-up magic. If you can’t catch the guy at it, you go, “That’s amazing, you got me.” But I think Chuck cannot appreciate that. When he told Chuck that he got a law degree and from what college he got this degree, something evil started creeping up in me. Chuck thought that was a step too far. He thought he’d maybe work in the mailroom until he got bored, and then maybe go back to Illinois and try something else with his life. I didn’t want him in the same profession, that’s kind of the short version.

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You’ve known Odenkirk a long time, and you were a big enough Mr. Show fan that you appeared on an episode. You were aware of it from the beginning?

Oh yes. I knew Bob a little bit, and I was already a David Cross fan, and it was also a sketch show that actually got it right, in my opinion—the way they made this kind of overarching, if not a story, they made a half-hour that all belonged together. Bob always referred to them as scenes, and that’s what they were. Part of a whole. I think that they nailed that as well as anybody since Python, anyway. They were just kind of fearless, and brutal. And very, very funny.

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Mr. Show was such a nexus of great comedians of that era that even the minor roles are filled by people like Sarah Silverman and Jack Black.

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The first time Jack was on TV, yeah, as the devil. Very funny. Right after the first season of Mr. Show. I was at Aspen, and the whole gang was up there: Bob, and Jack and Marilyn Rajskub and Sarah and David. It was like, “OK, these guys are good.” Nobody stepped up to the plate who wasn’t ready to swing.

Do you keep up with sketch comedy now?

Some. There’s this all-female Canadian bunch called Baroness Von Sketch. They’re hilarious. I watch a lot of British TV, and there was a sketch show, probably about 15 years ago, called Smack the Pony. Fabulous. Amazing. And then you follow those careers since then. Sally Philips has got a wonderful career, she’s the Finnish prime minister on Veep. She nails it. That’s a funny show.

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You were in the pilot for the American remake of The Thick of It, weren’t you?

Yes, that’s right. That was not a marriage made in heaven as far as I’m concerned. Chris Guest was directing but not in his style. It was Mitch Hurwitz, and Armando [Iannucci]. It was kind of the first pass at Veep in a lot of ways. It shouldn’t have been a show on ABC anyway. It really needed to be HBO. The original Thick of It, in Britain, that wouldn’t be on ABC either. You have to find the right shoes if you’re going to do some walking around, and it wasn’t a good fit. And like all network television, there were too many people in the room at all times.

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I did a pilot where it really reached its apotheosis, in my opinion—the sainthood of meddling—in ’99 or 2000 for a major network. I just walked into it, they just offered it to me. I said, “Cool,” the money was good, I did the pilot. We shot the opening scene nine times, with the warmup guys telling the audience to laugh just as hard as they did the first time they saw the sketch. And this whole time, 10 or 12 development people were throwing in alternate jokes for each pass-through. Never got better. By the time we finished shooting, it was 2 o’clock in the morning, and the extras were the only people in the audience, laughing dutifully. It was like, this is no way to run a railroad. I never saw the pilot. I’m sure it must have been crap, even though it started out as a pretty funny script with some really good people in it. What are you going to do? It’s not the way to do things.

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You mentioned Christopher Guest’s directing style, which came out of working on This Is Spinal Tap with Rob Reiner and has two main components: improvisational acting and documentary-style camerawork. Did you decide to shoot Spinal Tap like a documentary because you wanted to improvise, or did you want to send up rock documentaries and realize you’d have to improvise to make that work?

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We actually started writing a screenplay, because the company paid us to write a screenplay. I think we got about a page and a half into it, and we just said, this is really boring. This is not going to yield what we want to show. And we said well, let’s really do it documentary style. We’ll put the hardware onto the table, and then we’ll assemble it as we go. I think that’s kind of how it worked.

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You get jokes out of that process that you couldn’t get any other way. There’s the scene in Best in Show where Parker Posey’s camera is at her wit’s end, and she lashes out at a hotel manager by calling him “You stupid hotel manager!” It’s hard to imagine anyone writing a line like that.

And another thing she says in that, she says admiringly about her husband, “Isn’t he good? Oh, he’s so good.” And you wouldn’t write that line either, but it tells the story.

Is there a performance of yours, or a project you’ve been involved with, you wish people talked about more?

I don’t really do that too much. I don’t think back on those. I’ve been in projects that I thought could have gone on a little longer, would have been more fun—mainly talking about stage stuff. Seven years ago, I did a show called Harps and Angels, which was a Randy Newman revue. It was six of us, just three men, three women, and there wasn’t really a story, a throughline, but there was a feel to it. Jack Viertel did the continuity of it, but there was no dialogue. It was kind of a look inside Randy Newman’s head. And of course Randy was part of the project, and I’ve been a fan of his since 1969, he’s just one of those guys that I really admire. I thought that maybe should have had another life. It was a really cool show. But I don’t do regret, because I don’t think it gets you anything. It’s like wishing you were taller or cooler. I guess you could work on being cooler, but it usually makes you less so. But it’s not something I do.

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I know you’re a big Turner Classic Movies watcher. What was the last good thing you saw on TCM?

The last thing I started watching—and I stopped it because my wife was asleep and she’s gotta be awake to see this—it was called Mickey’s Polo Team. It was a Mickey Mouse cartoon from the ’30s, and Charlie Chaplin was in it—all these ’20s and ’30s stars. I recorded The Thing From Another World, and actually I tweeted this, I said, “I don’t really need to watch this because I have memorized it, but I’m going to record it anyway.” It really is a remarkable movie. All the rumors about Howard Hawks directing most of it. Who knows? He was one of the producers, he always said Christian Nyby directed it. But it has that kind of overlapping dialogue feel to it. I guess that’s my last TCM drive-by. But it’s what I do—as the TV is warming up, I hit 82, I’m going to see what’s going on there, and there are some movies like if it’s right in the middle of it, it’s like, “Oh shit, I’m not going anywhere.” All About Eve is on. I gotta see this scene, and then oh, this scene, and then oh, I gotta see him say, “You’re too short for that gesture.” That’s the kind of fan I am.

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And the amazing thing is, when we lost the glorious leader, he’s still all over that. It’s still his channel. I do love old movies, and when I have friends who have little kids, there’s a guy I’m working with now, and he loves movies, but he’s never seen High Noon. He’s never seen Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and it’s like you want to shake him. It’s like, “You should see these movies, and when your kids get a little older”—because his kids are little—“make sure that they don’t turn up their nose at a movie because it’s black and white, or doesn’t have a lot of special effects.” Show them movies that are going to grab them. The first 20 minutes of David Lean’s Great Expectations, for example. You show that to a kid who’s 10 years old, with Pip wandering into the graveyard. It’s like, holy shit, if the kid isn’t hooked by that, then let him go to his own devices. But make sure that you give them the opportunity to get woke about old movies, because it’s like discovering a cave full of treasure.

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