(Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)
Every year, the Paley Center for Media honors television greats with panels which can be attended by fans to meet the casts and creators. This year, PaleyFest hosted one such event for Better Call Saul, featuring creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould as well as stars Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn, Michael McKean, Patrick Fabian, and Michael Mando. Rotten Tomatoes was on the red carpet to talk to them beforehand.
Our first interview was with McKean, who plays Jimmy McGill (Odenkirk)’s brother Chuck in the Breaking Bad prequel. Viewers met Chuck ailing in his house with all the electricity tuned off and later found out he has a medical allergy to electronics; this season, Chuck has ventured into the office, which throws a wrench in Jimmy’s plans.
Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: Since we know Jimmy ultimately leaves Chuck behind, are you worried for Chuck?
Michael McKean: How do we know that? Maybe Chuck leaves Jimmy behind. Maybe Chuck becomes a full-time judge at the Cannes Film Festival. We don’t know. It’s not that I’m not telling you. We really don’t know.
RT: I guess I should ask if you’re worried for their relationship.
McKean: Boy, their relationship is very complicated. Take any two brothers you know. Some of them are very close, some of them are at each other’s throats. Some of them don’t speak. What Vince and Peter and company have created is a very complex relationship, and we’ll see where it goes. I think this season we’ll find out a little bit more via backstory, flashback and anecdotal history. We’ll know more.
RT: How do you imagine what feeling allergic to electricity feels like?
McKean: It’s a genuine thing. It’s a real thing. There is a long list of symptoms that various people have reported — I just took a handful of them. I know what nausea feels like. I know what muscle and bone ache feels like. I install that stuff within myself and I do what the words tell me to do on the page.
RT: Is wrapping yourself in a foil blanket all that comfortable?
McKean: No, and if you’re shooting in Albuquerque and you gotta turn the air conditioning off because it makes a sound, it gets a little warm, I’ll be honest with you.
RT: Is Chuck trying to undercut Jimmy by going back into the office?
McKean: Chuck is trying to do the right thing by his own lights and Chuck is trying to readjust the universe, which is changing around him. Good luck with that.
RT: Musically, now that there’s so much music available on iTunes, Spotify and services like that, have you discovered new Spinal Tap fans who have experienced the music that way?
McKean: I suppose. Our catalog is fairly limited. We only have about 35 songs, but listen, I just love hearing older stuff and I love hearing new stuff that people are doing.
Nacho Varga is a new character in the Better Call Saul crime world, though he connects with Mike (Jonathan Banks). In last week’s episode, viewers saw Nacho’s connection with Breaking Bad’s Tuco (Raymond Cruz) when Nacho wanted Mike to assassinate Tuco, but instead Mike baited Tuco into a public assault to get him arrested. Michael Mando, who plays Nacho, was next on the PaleyFest red carpet.
RT: Nacho really knew exactly how to play along with Mike, even when he had to help Tuco antagonize him. Were you impressed that Nacho could keep up with Mike’s plan?
Michael Mando: I think there’s a saying that says “real recognizes real.” I think the moment Nacho sees Mike, he immediately sizes him up as someone who is legit, who’s had life experience and who’s capable of holding his own. I think the great thing about Nacho is that despite his ambition, he’s capable of putting his emotions aside and taking the best course of action. So in that sense, when Mike speaks with reason, I think Nacho’s strength is that he has the capacity to recognize that rationale.
RT: Were you ever worried that Nacho might ruin it for Mike, being too antagonistic?
Mando: No, I didn’t think that ever came along. I think if anything, Nacho was worried for Mike because it wasn’t necessarily a plan that Nacho completely agrees with. He knows the repercussions of dealing with Tuco could lead to somebody getting shot, could lead to Mike being extremely hurt or having brain damage. So I think if anything, Nacho felt in a way his job was to protect Mike or Tuco or keep the situation from getting out of hand, because it’s also his life in jeopardy.
RT: Do you think Tuco’s really out of the picture until we see him on Breaking Bad?
Mando: I can tell you that Tuco’s alive. That’s as much as I can say. Jaws is still in the water.
RT: Could Nacho bring a character like Gus back into the show?
Mando: I think everybody’s game. I’m a huge fan of Giancarlo [Esposito]. If that’s the case, if Vince and Peter decide to do that, then I would be extremely excited.
RT: How have you enjoyed getting to show Mike and Nacho’s early relationship and trust develop?
Mando: It’s been such an amazing experience because the relationship between Nacho and Mike is very similar to mine with Jonathan. There’s this huge generation gap. Mike’s been around. He’s been doing this for longer than I’ve been alive so there’s a lot of admiration, I think, for me as an actor to work with Jonathan. Nacho feels the same way, that this is a guy that he can learn from.
Back at the office, Howard Hamlin is the kind of smarmy executive in a suit that thinks he can control Jimmy, and he’s demoted Kim (Seehorn) to the document review room as punishment for allowing Jimmy to run free. You might remember Patrick Fabian, who plays Howard, from The Last Exorcism as huckster minister Cotton Marcus, who thought he could reveal the secrets of fake exorcisms until he had to perform a real one. Howard may be a fake in a different way.
RT: Since Howard doesn’t quite know exactly what Jimmy is capable of, are you worried for Howard that Jimmy might get him killed?
Patrick Fabian: That’s funny — somebody on Twitter implied exactly that. They said, “Hey, you’re not on Breaking Bad. I guess you die.” I was like, “Well, maybe I retire. Maybe I go to Malibu.” I don’t think that kind of violence enters Howard’s brain at the moment. I don’t think anything that Jimmy has shown Howard so far would lead us to believe anything other than Jimmy is a truant lawyer with an ethically wobbly spine.
RT: For me it’s not that you’re not on Breaking Bad. It’s knowing what Jimmy is capable of and what he gets into, and that Howard is an antagonist.
Fabian: Right, but as a character I would not know that, and as an actor I would like to hope that doesn’t happen. Somebody else mentioned, “Hey, your first scene with Jonathan Banks will be your last.”
RT: Even if Jimmy ever got the upper hand on Howard, would Howard recognize he’s in trouble?
Fabian: I don’t think so. I think Howard lives…not in a glass house or a golden tower, but he eats at different restaurants, you know what I mean? The way he does business is just different. So where Jimmy likes to troll and live is a world that Howard just doesn’t know. So I don’t think he would see it coming, really, until it would be upon him.
RT: What was it like doing scenes with TV legend Ed Begley, Jr.?
Fabian: I love Ed. He’s so fun and he’s so funny. He’s also got a thousand million stories about television and working. In between takes I’d be like, “Ed, tell me another story” and he would. You just throw out a name, he’s like, “Oh, I know them. I went to a party with them.”
RT: Did he ride his bike to the set?
Fabian: No, I don’t think so, because we were in Albuquerque so I don’t think he had it.
RT: Is there a little bit of Cotton Marcus in Howard?
Fabian: Oh, hey, thanks for referencing that. Yeah, absolutely. Howard has better suits than Cotton Marcus but there’s still a bit of the salesman, without a doubt. Howard is the salesman for HHM. We haven’t even seen him practicing law yet. So he’s kind of a charlatan when it comes to that until we see him practice.
At this point on the red carpet, the cast and creators started talking to several reporters at a time just to make sure everyone got included. Even with a joint effort, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould weren’t giving up anything that was happening next on the show.
Q: What do you want to hint at about what’s ahead?
Peter Gould: There are so many things.
Vince Gilligan: Well, a lot more of the good stuff you’ve seen already. We have learned to try to be very careful not to give away too much because we always feel like people think they want a hint, they want to know what’s coming, but typically with Breaking Bad and now with Better Call Saul, we feel like they don’t really. They just want to go along for the ride. So there’s not a lot to tease other than the fact that I’m even more proud of the second half of season two than I am with the first half. As we record this, a couple nights from now the first half of the season will end unofficially with our fifth episode of 10. I think the final six episodes get even more exciting from here, and more interesting.
RT: Have there been fan theories about how Jimmy becomes Saul, like Lost had fan theories about all the island mysteries?
Gould: Unless someone tells me about a fan theory, I’m not going to hear about it because I think we both try to avoid reading too much about how people are reacting to the show. Part of that is you want to hear positive things of course, but you get used to hearing positive things and then if somebody doesn’t like something, that kind of stays with you. Or it stays with me.
Gilligan: Just for our own mental health.
Gould: Yeah, for our own mental health. So you tell us, are there fan theories?
RT: I don’t know. I was hoping you’d have a crazy weird one to share.
Gilligan: We heard a good one actually we did not know, about four or five folks down the line. Someone on the internet was saying it’s going to turn out that Nacho has been taught chemistry or taught on some level by Walter White when Walter was still teaching high school. I can tell you, unfortunately for that theory, the best way to make sure that something doesn’t happen on Better Call Saul is for us to hear the theory, because now there’s no way we could do that. To be fair, I don’t think we’re heading toward that anyway.
Q: How did you surprise yourself in the writing?
Gould: Constantly. We’ll think that we’re headed for a big set piece or a big moment. Then when it comes down to it, something will cause us to hesitate. Usually, the character’s not ready for that. The character has something else that he wants to do. When we had Jimmy drive off at the end of season one, I think it was in all of our heads that he might go off and open a little law office. Maybe he would take a step towards being Saul Goodman.
Gilligan: Or maybe just be him, period, when the season began.
Gould: Yeah, maybe he would be Saul Goodman at the beginning of season two. Then the more we looked at the details of what had happened, we thought he can’t leave Kim high and dry that way. She went all the way out on a limb to get him this job. He can’t just walk away. Then we started thinking about his relationship with Kim. That’s a perfect example of the characters kind of guiding the story rather than the other way around.
RT: Is Tuco really out of the picture now until we see him on Breaking Bad?
Gilligan: Never say never, but it does look like he’s up s— creek a little bit there. It does look like he’s in trouble with the law, but even that…”just stay tuned” is the best thing we can say. We do enjoy our reversals. As writers, we enjoy defying expectations. It’s not that we want to whipsaw the viewers. Life, as we all know from all of us living our lives, throws you some curveballs. We like to put curveballs into our show because it feels real and because it keeps things dramatically interesting. It’s funny, sometimes people say to us, “Gee, you really do beat up on Jimmy. Gee, you really did beat up on poor Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad. You must really hate the character, right?” No, we love the character. We love Jesse Pinkman. We love Jimmy McGill, but we also know that drama is drama. There’s a reason that old fairy tales end with “and they lived happily ever after.” That’s the part you don’t see because that’s the boring part. We all want the boring part in our real lives, but we don’t want it in our drama.
Even though the show is called Better Call Saul, Bob Odenkirk plays Jimmy McGill. We knew when we met Saul on Breaking Bad that Saul was a persona he created, but we have yet to see how McGill becomes Saul. So far, Jimmy is trying to stay legit in the law game. His subversive tactics are only getting himself and Kim in trouble.
RT: These are such subtle degrees of defiance — shooting the commercial, soliciting clients. Does Jimmy know how far he’s pushing his friends and brother and colleagues with these acts?
Bob Odenkirk: You know, one of the things I love about this character, and it was true of Saul Goodman too, is he is very inspired by his creations. He’s got these inspirations. He’s got this positive energy trying to flow through him. So he gets so carried away with his inspirations and that’s a positive person. That’s a person you want to be around, is a person who goes, “Let’s just make our own commercial. Let’s just put it on. Let’s not ask.” It’s an upbeat, positive energy that he brings to his world. I think somebody like the character of Kim, she sees that and she loves this guy for that. She doesn’t understand why other people don’t. How can you not like him for trying so hard? That’s how I feel about him too. I do like a person who tries even if maybe it’s a bit wrongheaded at times. The fact is, Davis and Main could’ve responded and said, “You shouldn’t have done that but it worked, we gotta admit.” In the end, understandably, that company’s public persona is worth a hell of a lot more to them than any single effort because they’re a longterm business. They’re in it to be this thing that lasts for a lifetime.
Q: How does acting on this show engage you as a writer?
Odenkirk: Well, I am a writer but I’m a writer of sketch comedy and short comic pieces. This is very different. As a writer, the way it engages me is from Breaking Bad to Better Call Saul, I take the script as an actor and think about it as a writer. I think about what’s been written and what it means, what each sentence is. Why he says this and not something else and why he says that and not something else. I see amazing stuff going on. You can look at a simple monologue in either of these shows and take it apart and find two or three things happening. One note I made to myself after the first two episodes of Better Call Saul was: every scene is an emotional scene. In other words, there’s some emotional drive happening. It’s never just procedural. A lot of shows are called procedurals and that’s literally what’s happening. They’re like problem-solving; there’s not an emotional investment by the character necessarily. They would like to solve the problem, but in our show, every problem is an emotional one. Every situation is an emotional one. Every scene has an emotional dimension. So that’s just something I look for and I think I take it apart a little bit as a writer and I marvel in awe at their hard work.
Q: How does your background in comedy inform your acting on the show?
Odenkirk: Well, keep in mind, I wasn’t that funny as a comic actor. I was rarely the funniest person on screen, not when I was next to David Cross or Jay Johnston or any number of funny people. The only similarity is comic acting is a lot about commitment. You find yourself in a comedy scenario and it’s really ludicrous. The whole point is to believe in it with no doubt and just play this really stupid character, scenario, desire, moment with utter full belief. That carries over into drama. The big difference is in modulation because a drama, oftentimes the character’s subtext has to be played a lot quieter, a lot smaller. It has to be there but you can’t show everything. There has to be a texture to that. So it’s just thinking about that and being aware of that.