Michael McKean: "Better Call Saul" is about "the American escape hatch instead of the American dream"

The legendary actor and comic talks about playing Bob Odenkirk's big brother on "Better Call Saul"

Published April 6, 2015 4:01PM (EDT)

Michael McKean of "Better Call Saul"    (AMC/Ben Leuner)
Michael McKean of "Better Call Saul" (AMC/Ben Leuner)

Michael McKean has had one of the most interesting careers in show business. After making a name for himself in the 1970s as Lenny on the hit sitcom "Laverne & Shirley," McKean became a full-fledged cultural icon in 1982 as rocker David St. Hubbins in "This is Spinal Tap," and remained a key member of the Christopher Guest ensemble in the decades to follow ("Best in Show," "A Mighty Wind," and "For Your Consideration"). He also starred in some of the most iconic comedies of the '80s and '90s -- like "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," "Clue" and "Coneheads" -- and was even on "Saturday Night Live" for two seasons, as their second oldest hire in history and the first to transition from musical guest to host to cast-member.

Beyond comedy, McKean has continuously proven himself as a versatile dramatic actor and a prolific industry workhorse, popping up everywhere from "X-Files" (where he met Vince Gilligan) and "Mr. Show" (where he met Bob Odenkirk). It's fitting, then, that his latest team-up with Gilligan and Odenkirk sees McKean stealing the show once again, as Jimmy's stern older brother Chuck McGill on the "Breaking Bad" spinoff "Better Call Saul."

Much like every role McKean plays, Chuck is a study in complexity and nuance -- a ruthless legal powerhouse and a mentally ill shut-in, a sympathetic figure and a cruel betrayer. We caught up with McKean via phone to ask about his character's arc, Chuck and Jimmy's relationship, and whether he has anything in the works with Guest (he says he'll "answer the bat signal").

Your manager tells me you have not seen the finale yet because you like to watch it in real time.

That’s correct.

So we’ll steer clear of questions about it.

Well, also, I don’t know much about it because I’m not in it very much. At the end of a season you tie up as many loose ends as you planned to, leave a few dangling for next year. So, it’s somebody else’s department, our extremely capable writing staff [is] taking care of that. But I roughly know what happens and I’m very excited to see it. There’s always a lot of really good work on the screen. We have an amazing DP, Arthur Albert, and it’s a phenomenal bunch of people. They all seem to be on the same page. I still haven’t discovered who the company asshole is.

You’ll find him.

I guess so. It might be me, for all I know. It certainly is a concern when you go into a project, but everybody is amazingly nice and brilliant at what they do. It’s thrilling.

Your character has had a really interesting arc this season. At what point did you realize that Chuck was going to betray Jimmy on such a deep, emotional level?

Well, I started hearing rumblings of it around episode five, while we were shooting that, from Bob just shaking his head and going, “Aw.” Because he was just getting some hints of it. Then about a week and a half before we started shooting that episode, I got a call from Peter and Vince. It was just like, “We just wanted to give you a heads up about this episode.” It was kind of exciting. I loved having things to do and it was going to be a big thing, a big scene, and then when I read it I realized what a terrifically written scene it was. Mr. Odenkirk and I sat down and bit into it. It was a lot of fun to do and we knew that it was going to leave some blood on the walls. Which is fine.

We don’t know what’s going to happen going forward, but it certainly seems like Chuck’s speech might end up being the self-fulfilling prophecy that sets Jimmy on the road to becoming Saul.

Everything that happens to you in your life can sometimes find the way to make all the difference down the line. But when you’ve got a confluence of stuff here, Jimmy getting involved in these bigger cases, these bigger money cases, getting a whiff of the money anyway — if you’re going to be cheated of the attention and prestige you feel you should have, if you feel cheated of that, you’ll find a way to settle for the money. That’s the American way. If everything else goes off in your face, if your family can’t stand the sight of you, if you can’t hold a job, if you can’t stay away from drugs and booze, well, at least you can make a lot of money and have all this f-you money stacked up. It really is the American escape hatch instead of the American dream.

When Chuck comes out and tells Jimmy why he didn't want to hire him -- that "slipping Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun" -- that's a really unpleasant and in some ways unfair sentiment, but as "Breaking Bad" fans know, it's also a totally accurate one. Did you agree with Chuck's reaction here?

Everything that has my name on it or my character's name on it in the script, I have to find a way to make it come from me. By the time we were playing it, it totally came from me. I accepted everything he was saying as the absolute, grown-up way to approach this. By putting it off and putting it off with falseness and deception and “Who, me?” innocence, he’s gotten away with it for a while and now it just explodes. Now: "You really want to hear what it is? You’re not really a lawyer." That’s something that he could have said all along, wanted to say all along. “Who the fuck do you think you’re playing with here? These are the big leagues. You belong in class A, if that.”

Right. Was that speech a difficult thing to get right?

It was kind of usable every time we did it, I think, because we rehearsed some and it was the kind of thing you wanted to learn to the letter and not have any fumbling about. You’re delivering a punch that you’ve had ready for a long time.

Yeah, he’s amazing. I want to go back to Chuck a little. I remember when the casting news came out, you originally had a different name. I think it was like, Dr. Thurber or something.

Dr. Thurber, I know!

Were you not going to be brothers originally?

We were always going to be brothers but I think that they didn’t want anyone to even hear the word brother, so they made up Dr. Thurber. I’m this huge James Thurber fan, I guess maybe they are too, I don’t know. But they just came up with that and threw it in there. It’s one of those names that you can use if you’re signing into a hotel and you don’t want anyone to know you were there. You know, Rock Hudson didn’t check into the hotels as Rock Hudson. He was Dr. Abernathy, whatever.

Do you read Chuck's illness as a psychosomatic thing or do you play him as if he’s really physically unwell?

I have to take it that it’s real for the very simple reason that when we see him alone, he’s still suffering, when no one is watching. It’s not like the guy who’s faking it and hops out of the wheelchair when there’s no one in the room. It’s not that at all. So, that script tells me that I have to make it real for myself. Having said that, there are people who suffer from psychosomatic illness that is indistinguishable by the sufferer from a physical illness itself. And by the same token, there are real hyper-sensitivities to electromagnetic fields that can produce these symptoms. All I can do is just assemble out of things that I have felt — pain and discomfort and vertigo and this whole laundry list of stuff that I'm feeling. I just have to make those real, so I just do. I don’t judge it. I don’t think there’s a moment when Chuck doubts that he is suffering from a real, physical illness.

Do you have a backstory for yourself as to what it is that broke him, what turned him from a successful lawyer?

No. I am aware that might be revealed and suspecting that that might be revealed keeps me from wanting to even speculate. You know why? Because Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and Tom Schnauz and company are better writers than me. It’s their problem and my pleasure.

Do you guys talk or think about what Chuck and Jimmy’s childhood dynamic might have been like?

Yeah. I am quite a bit older than Bob Odenkirk, and we tend to believe that Chuck is quite a bit older than Jimmy. My sister and my late brother were 10 years apart, so we just buy into that. Which means, this brilliant young man, I was getting out of law school when he was just getting into junior high. So it’s not like we had that tightness, brothers going out boozing or anything that a lot of people grow up with, because we're different ages. But by the same token, that means that I was out of the house and Jimmy was told every day what a good brother Chuck was. That’s very important to the relationship. When we were together, we were civil, we were nice, we’d laugh about funny shit that mom and dad did, but I don’t think they were ever close in that way because they live in different worlds because of their age difference.

And as we see from Chuck’s blowup, there’s obviously some deep resentment or jealousy towards his brother.

Well, one thing is that [Jimmy] has the sense of humor. He can take a situation that’s dire or perhaps just an iffy situation and do a joke on it. We see him do it in the show, when he’s out in the desert with those guys who are getting their legs broken. We still see him trying to look for the joke, trying to keep it cool. He’s the one who made mom laugh, that’s what we’re thinking now. That’s the worse crime of all. I made my mother very proud, but Jimmy made her laugh. That kills me. There’s a billion reasons, that’s just one of them. I think that’s just one that’s playable. It’s in the speech, it’s in that episode. We make one passing mention of mom, but I think that’s what that is. It’s like, “Mom, he’s the fuck up. Why does he make you happy?” I make you proud, but he makes you happy in some way. He’s the baby, he’s this brat.

Chuck’s such an interesting and multifaceted character. He's this ruthless legal powerhouse but he's also incredibly vulnerable and weak for much of the season.

Just remember that nobody you’ve ever met has been just one thing. Nobody is just one thing and Chuck is a lot of things. He’s still emotionally vulnerable when he’s pouring it on somebody else, as he does with Jimmy. It’s still the same guy, is what I’m saying Some of the most cocksure people I know are also very emotionally vulnerable. People aren’t one thing. If they’re one thing, I wouldn’t blame the audience for not watching it. But I think that’s what’s great about the characters that Vince and Peter and Tom Schnauz, who wrote this episode, the kind of people they make are complex. I did a couple of episodes on “X-Files” that Vince was instrumental in the writing of, that’s where I first worked with him. It could have been just this “Men in Black,” government agent kind of guy, but what was written there was really complex and really interesting to play. So that’s always better than just playing the villain of whatever.

Vince is such a good writer. Are you excited that “The X-Files” is coming back?

I am, yeah. I’m very curious. I’m in awe of Gillian [Anderson]’s work of late, all of the stuff that she’s done.

“The Fall” is so great.

Oh my god, “The Fall,” she’s amazing in that! It’s just always great to see a great actor, so that’s exciting right there. And Duchovny is everybody’s favorite puppy dog. I think it’s going to be very cool.

They also just announced that Bob and David are doing some sort of "Mr. Show" reprise, that’s exciting.

I know, I heard that hinted about on the set. They can’t call it “Mr. Show,” so it’s -- okay, we know what this is. It’s Bob and David. But Bob says he really thinks it’s going great and it’s going to be awesome.

I know that you did an episode way back when. Do you think there’s any chance of a reprise?

I don’t know. I think we’re so far beyond anyone knowing who John Houseman was. I can’t play that character, I just did the one thing. I was a huge fan and shall be in the future.

You and Bob both have very interesting trajectories. You both have this sketch comedy background, you were both on SNL and have done this incredibly range of dramatic and comedic roles. Is there a feeling of kinship between you?

He’s one of those guys like I am, when we see something or read something that makes us laugh or makes us think, we like to share it with people. There are certain people I share things like that with. I’ll email a friend, “You’ve got to read this, oh my god you’re going to fall out of your chair.” To have somebody on the set that’s like that, and he’s one of the guys who knows a zillion things about comedy, about the history of it, about who’s good now, about who doesn’t get enough recognition, about who I liked when I was 11, all those things. That’s our level of conversation in a lot of ways and in that sense, there’s definitely a kinship I think. He’s a great guy and he’s very smart, he’s very patient with people, which is great.

The show is obviously a drama, but there are these winks and moments of levity. Obviously you guys both have the comedic chops to add that element to it.

Well, we try. Again, life is like that. Funny things happen at the hospice. It’s not all funny or all sad all the time. Life is very complex.

Is there any chance that you’ll be reuniting with Christopher Guest and gang anytime soon?

I don’t know. Christopher makes noises about starting something up but he has other things that he does. And he’s playing a lot of music I think, which is great. When he knows, we will shortly after that, unless he’s going to do that long-awaited solo show. Christopher did a short film years ago called “Dead Ringer” in which he played all the characters. It’s a short film, he directed it at Sundance Festival, and it’s really good. It was back when Sundance was kind of a school. It was very funny. But when Christopher wants to do something, if he needs us, we answer the bat signal. When that happens, I’ll let you know.

We’re all looking forward to it. In the meantime, I assume you’ll be back as Chuck on “Better Call Saul?”

I’ll be back in some shape, we’ll see what happens. I haven’t the vaguest idea and I don’t want to know until I have to.

By Anna Silman

MORE FROM Anna Silman

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Better Call Saul Bob Odenkirk Michael Mckean Tv Vince Gilligan