Following this week’s Better Call Saul episode,”Heroes,” Rotten Tomatoes chatted with actor Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard Hamlin. See Fabian’s take on Hamlin’s relationship to Chuck, how he feels about Jimmy, and what he thought of that crazy billboard scene! [Warning: Contains Episode 4 Spoilers!]
Sarah Ricard for Rotten Tomatoes: I’ve seen in you so many shows over the years that it was great to have you turn up as Howard Hamlin in Better Call Saul. You must be so excited about the show.
Patrick Fabian: Over the moon. As you said, I’ve been around for a long time. I’ve done a lot of stuff — not all of it grade-A material and that’s quite alright — but having Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould say, “Come do our show” is being invited into the big leagues as far as I’m concerned. I’m so thrilled to be invited to the party.
RT: Tell me a little bit about the audition.
Fabian: I give all the credit to Sharon Bialy and Sherry Thomas. They cast Breaking Bad as well and they brought me in. I hadn’t seen those ladies in a while, and, honestly, when I heard it was Better Call Saul, I thought, “Well, let’s be honest. They can have anybody they want, right? And that’s OK. That’s the business.’ I’ve been around long enough to get my nose out of that business — that’s not my business anyway. My business is to show up with the right clothes and have my brain around the material and audition.
So I go into this thinking, “Well, maybe I get three episodes of The Walking Dead out of this,’ because they also cast that and that’s where my head was. And I go in and I read with Sherry Thomas and we do three pages… they had not yet released the scripts so you’re sort of floating in space and she adjusted me. That’s what good casting directors do: they adjust you. She adjusted me down from the habits I’ve ingrained into myself for 22 years and that’s why you need them.
About a week-and-a-half later, they called back and they said, ‘Vince saw your tape and they’re interested in seeing you again.’ And that’s how the process began for me. But it all began by Bialy/Thomas having me in and basically coaching me and getting me to do the best I could. It happened to line up with what Vince and Peter were looking for and I couldn’t be more excited that fate decided to smile on me.
RT: Last week I spoke with Michael Mando, and he was telling me how the day he showed up on set, the director really took time to work with him to get his scene right, so it sounds like this show takes care with shaping the cast into the characters they want them to be.
Fabian: I think so. I’ve felt taken care of in a big way. Nothing’s ever been rushed. I think these guys come as advertised: nice people who want to get it right. That’s not to say that other people don’t want to get it right or that other people aren’t nice. But there are constraints in other shows where things are just rolling so fast. For instance, procedurals have an enormous amount of stuff to cover in a limited amount of time. By its nature, there’s a different pacing that goes with that. We work very hard and quickly, but they really spend a lot of time beforehand deciding what they want.
They’ve worked with a lot of the directors before so there’s a common language. It’s almost 80 percent of the crew from Breaking Bad, so they also know what they’re talking about. There’s a shorthand with the way business gets done. So, really, the new kids on the block were the actors — and even not all of them — just a couple of them. There’s a luxury of being able to be like, ‘This is how we do it, man.’ It’s wonderful, and the results? I could not be more thrilled.
RT: So are you watching the shows for first time each week when they air?
Fabian: Oh, yeah. I don’t even watch the east coast feed. I watch at ten o’clock in my pajamas on the couch. I haven’t seen them either. I’ve only seen the stuff I’ve shot that I’m in and I’ve read the other stuff, but that was a while ago. And I never saw the finished product because there was no reason to, so I’m watching it for the first time just like all the fans are, at 10 o’clock on Monday nights, and I dig it like that. Last night? When I realized that Jimmy had taken the Kettlemans money? I went, ‘Oooooh! No!’ And I knew that! But it was still shocking. I’m totally into it. And I won’t lie — I’m thrilled that all of a sudden the scene comes up and I’m in it. That’s awesome too.
RT: Well, that’s a nice perk that the rest of us in our pajamas don’t get to experience! Let’s talk about “Hero” because we see more of the Jimmy-Howard relationship. What do you imagine their backstory is?
Fabian: As with any case in a Vince Gilligan-Peter Gould creation, not everything is what it seems… more will be revealed as we go on and you’ve got to always expect things to turn and the bottom to drop out. So with Howard and Jimmy, I’m always struck by our opening scene together in the pilot. Jimmy bursts into Howard’s conference room unannounced and delivers that speech and acts like he owns the joint and Howard doesn’t throw him out. That speaks volumes to who Jimmy is and who Howard is and how valuable Howard’s relationship to Jimmy’s brother, Chuck, is — both professionally and personally — that he would allow this behavior to go. It also, I think, bespeaks a fondness for Jimmy to let somebody behave like that. When it comes down to the business of the business and what’s going on, Howard still tends to hold most of the cards, therefore, he can afford to be bemused. He can afford to let the clown act like the clown.
RT: But he’s also very measured in what anybody else would consider to be an outrageous intrusion.
Fabian: Outrageous. Absolutely. He’s very measured. But the firm is also called Hamlin, Hamlin, and McGill and I’m the Hamlin. Everything comes to me; it comes through me. I sit on top of a 125-employee law firm in Albuquerque. We have ties to the political class, the business class. I don’t have a problem getting a reservation in town. I don’t have a problem getting anything done in town. I’m not saying he’s king, but he certainly is in such a position that — you know what? If Jimmy wants to come in and fly off the handle and do his best Network speech? If that makes him happy, let him do that. Because, in the end of the day, things are going to go my way.
RT: Well, let’s talk about BillboardGate because Jimmy crosses a line there.
Fabian: Right, he does. Because now, all of a sudden, he’s no longer a clown. At that point now, he’s mixing it up with the man’s bottom line and no businessman tolerates that. That’s when things get serious. At the very end of the episode, when Howard’s the one who gets to go ahead and tell us all that this is a stunt, it’s that awfulness of, ‘Oh, I’ve been played and I played my part just like he wanted me to. I think Jimmy recognizes a fellow snake when he sees one. You don’t get to be the head of a company like this without also wielding soft power really well.
I think what’s interesting is to see Howard’s response. As you said before, he has this measured response when he’s talking, and we’ll see what his response is for Jimmy’s infraction — whether it’s measured or not. I don’t imagine that Howard’s the kind of person who’s going to leave his fingerprints on anything.
RT: What did you think of the billboard scene when you saw it?
Fabian: It was just thrilling. And him paying him off up there at the billboard, that’s the best thing because it speaks volumes about the guy he hired. The guy’s like, ‘I’ll give you 45 minutes and then I’m coming down off this damn thing,’ and he’s like, ‘Okay, just stay there! Just stay there!’ It’s so seat-of-your-pants and yet so completely well thought-out. It’s like a mousetrap, so you have to have admiration for it. There’s no doubt about it.
RT: The other scene I wanted to ask you about is the scene where Chuck goes outside to get the newspaper.
Fabian: Colin Bucksey is the director on that and he just won the Emmy last year for Fargo… I didn’t know how they were going to shoot that so I thought it was so awesome. It really conveyed a sense of confusion and panic and claustrophobia. It conveyed what’s going on in Chuck’s head really well…it’s a great sequence when he comes out of the house and the camera’s moving and he’s this! And this! And this! And the rock! And the money! And then they cut to the point of view of the woman in the house and the camera is perfectly still. It’s totally normal. And then there’s this lunatic in a space blanket running across the street. Hats off to Colin for being able to convey that.
And that’s what I’m talking about when I say we’re in good hands. I come to the table, as any actor does, with ideas and preconceived notions of what the scene is about, how I fit into it — and then you get somebody like Colin there who’s on the spot to say, ‘Uh huh, well… let’s think about this.’ And, ‘How about this color?’ ‘Well, what if we try this?’ And he was good at helping me be more reserved.
Especially that scene where I bring him to the billboard. At first I’m like, ‘He must be really agitated,’ and Colin goes, ‘No, no, no, no, no. He’s looking for answers — and he probably already has them.’ It’s more puzzlement because clearly I still have all the cards and the money and the guns, so what does Jimmy hope to gain by it? It’s almost like a head shake. I’m like, ‘Oh, poor Jimmy, wasting his time and money on something that is clearly not going to work for him,’ Until it does by getting him on the news. It is being outsmarted. I think that at the end when you see Kim smile — Howard doesn’t see Kim smile — when she says that line, ‘Everyone loves a hero,’ there’s something about the way she says it that gets Howard’s antenna up.
RT: One time when Jimmy goes to visit Chuck, he realizes that Howard had been there too. Now, I’m interpreting this as Howard has a fondness for Chuck, which I think gives Howard’s character some depth beyond the smarmy lawyer type. But how are viewers responding to your character?
Fabian: Jimmy called me Lord Vader, so clearly I’ve got something up his butt about me. But my actions to this point haven’t necessarily warranted that which means that there is something in the past that has yet to be revealed that does warrant it. But as you mention, when Jimmy discovers that I had gone over to Chuck’s, it sort of throws him. ‘Howard grounded himself?’ And Chuck’s answer, which is so great, is, ‘Well, of course. I’m not a recluse!’ Then, all of a sudden, it puts Jimmy on the outside of being like, ‘Well, maybe I’m the only one seeing this as a weird thing. Everybody else seems to be saying that it’s okay.’
That’s all worldview and point-of-view stuff. But to answer your question directly, I’ve gotten a lot of tweets from people saying, ‘Wow, you’re an a-hole,’ or ‘You look good, but you’re a dick inside.’ That sort of thing. But that’s okay. Guess what? I still wear the best suits on TV and that’s revenge.
RT: You know that now, forever, you will receive gifts in Hamlindigo Blue.
Fabian: Hamlindigo Blue! My tombstone will be Hamlindigo Blue!