‘Better Call Saul’s’ Michael McKean on Chuck’s Devastating Downfall
The veteran screen and stage actor takes us inside his character’s revelatory Better Call Saul episode. Warning: Spoilers ahead.
Early Monday morning, The Daily Beast caught up with Michael McKean by phone on what was supposed to be his day off.
The actor, currently appearing in eight shows a week alongside Laura Linney and Cynthia Nixon in The Little Foxes, had just started a busy day that would include presenting an award to fellow Broadway actor Kelli O’Hara and performing at a gala in honor of playwright Suzan-Lori Parks before an 11 p.m. Skype session “with a lot of strangers back in L.A.” after Better Call Saul airs the fifth episode of its third season Monday night.
This week’s episode, titled “Chicanery,” contains a few major revelations about McKean’s character Chuck McGill, most notably—spoiler alert!—that his “allergy” to electricity is far more psychological and a lot less physical than we might have imagined.
Much of the episode’s action takes place in the courtroom where a panel of judges will determine whether or not Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill should be disbarred. At the end of Season 2, we found out Chuck had secretly taped Jimmy confessing to breaking into his house and transposing the numbers for an address on a series of legal documents, embarrassing his brother professionally and delivering a major client to his partner and love interest Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn).
The case hinges on whether Jimmy can convince the judges that he only admitted to what his brother was accusing him of so that Chuck wouldn’t think he had lost his mind. In order to do that, he sets out to prove to them that Chuck is far less sane than he appears to be. And that the supposedly rare medical condition that causes him physical pain whenever he is close to electromagnetic waves is all in his head.
At the climax of his dramatic cross-examination of his brother, Jimmy asks Chuck to look in his breast pocket. There he finds a fully charged cellphone battery, surreptitiously placed in his jacket earlier in the episode by Lavell Crawford’s Huell, reprising his role from Breaking Bad. It’s been sitting next to his chest for nearly two hours, but, as Jimmy points out, he “felt nothing.”
In that instant, Chuck begins to question everything about his reality and we can see it all happening on McKean’s face. “I am not crazy!” he shouts. But Jimmy has already succeeded in making the court believe otherwise. The sickest part is that we, the viewers, know that Jimmy is essentially gaslighting Chuck, making his own brother doubt himself when in reality Jimmy did do everything he admitted on that tape.
The episode, and those that have led up to it, presented an acting challenge that perhaps only someone with McKean’s extensive experience on screen and stage could pull off this convincingly. He may be best known for his mostly improvised comedic roles in films like This Is Spinal Tap and Best in Show (and early days on Laverne & Shirley), but in Better Call Saul he is proving week by week how great he can be when given the right dramatic material.
And while he was not willing or able to say anything about the lawsuit he and his fellow Spinal Tap stars have filed against the media firm Vivendi, McKean did say that he “hopes” to work with Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer again sometime soon.
Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
This was a huge episode for Chuck. What did you think when you first read the script?
I thought this is a lot of stuff to memorize. But, you know, the writing is so good on the show that my actions are very, very clear. All of ours are. I’ve had very few questions about any particular area in the scripts for all 30 of these episodes that I’ve done. Dan Sackheim, the director, called me and said, “How do you want to do this? We can shoot in all one direction and get all your stuff out of the way. Or we can shoot everybody else and then come back to you.” And I said, look, you’re the eyes, I’m just the subject here. So, leave it to me, I’ll know my stuff and we’ll go for it. And so that’s kind of what we did. I knew I had a lot to do and a lot of changes take place. The best laid-plans of even the most brilliant lawyer in New Mexico oft go awry.
The flashback with Chuck’s ex-wife is so interesting, because we see the lengths he went to conceal his condition from her. He seems, for the first time, almost embarrassed by it. That might be our first hint in this episode that it’s not a purely medical condition. I wonder if he would be so embarrassed if he truly believed it was a medical condition.
That was one of the few questions that I had for the writers. What is the big deal? Why wouldn’t it be a sympathetic thing to say that, look, I have this problem and it’s gotten worse and worse and I still want to continue conversations with you, my ex-wife. Why isn’t that his way? And the fact is, a lot of people don’t want sympathy. A lot of people think that accepting sympathy would be a sign of weakness. That’s why I really had to approach it. I think the real story there in that flashback is how dedicated Jimmy is to helping Chuck. It’s kind of the part of the story that we haven’t told yet. We’ve seen Jimmy kind of attempt to be sweet, but this is something else. This is Jimmy, hands-on, really trying to help his brother. And no good deed goes unpunished.
The most vivid part of this whole experience for me has been living with this guy and understanding with him and sympathizing with him. I can’t play a character I could not sympathize with. I’m playing a guy right now in The Little Foxes who’s fairly despicable. But I also understand him in his world, in his attempt to control his world. I understand that just academically, so I can follow it emotionally. And that’s what you have to do. I worked with Helen Mirren years ago, and she played an awful character and she said something that was interesting. She said, whenever I have to play someone who’s truly terrible, I have to imagine or learn from the writer or the director, what was done to that person to make them like this. And you can take that to the bank. If you sympathetically examine what your character is about, you can find a reason to be as unsympathetic as they want you to be in the story.
So what is that thing for Chuck?
It is fairly complicated, but if you really want to boil it down, it’s that I was the good boy, but my parents seemed to like Jimmy more. They loved me, too, but I was the one who went off to school and graduated from college and passed the bar on the first try and did all those good-boy things. And then I became like a third parent when it came to the problem child. I never quite understood that. If you keep boiling it down, you get to this: I made Mom proud, Jimmy made Mom laugh, you know? Not to give away too many secrets, but that’s kind of it in a nutshell. How this total screw-up got so much of the sympathy vote. Lloyd Richards, who was my [acting] teacher at NYU, had this theory that every scene you do is about love, on some level. At the time, when I was 18, I thought, well this guy’s full of crap. But you can really almost play anything that way. You can love money, you can love a woman, you can love America. There are all those things that if you take love as the center—you can be a loveless person, but it will make sense.
Do you feel like Chuck loves Jimmy despite it all?
I think that he would be capable of loving Jimmy, yes. I think that what happens in the early part of this episode in the flashback with Rebecca is evidence of something potentially very close about these brothers, something we have not seen really. They have only been antagonists. But I really think that there’s hope there. I think that there’s hope for everybody, I’m that kind of optimist.
Whether Chuck’s condition is psychological or medical presents an interesting acting challenge for you. Does the nature of the condition affect the way you play it?
I have always had to play it as if it were 100 percent real. And physically and genuinely feeling it. I have to be that way because it says in the script, even when there are no other actors on the set, Chuck is suffering. It’s not in his head, as far as he knows. But even if something is in your head, it can still hurt. I’ve always had to take that as the real thing. And the revelations of this episode make no difference. It’s still something that is felt. The more it changes, as far as the viewers are concerned, the more it stays the same, as far as what the actor is doing, in my opinion.
It’s almost as if Jimmy is gaslighting Chuck, making him believe he’s crazy, even though we know Chuck is right and Jimmy is the one who’s lying. Where do you think that leaves Chuck emotionally at the end of the episode?
Well, as you see, it is a man finally looking for help, looking outside himself. Like I said before, the guy who has a law degree in his early twenties and is really good to go, the self-doubt is not even an issue for him. When it suddenly becomes an issue, a very stubborn man will never look for help and will die on that hill. But a man who has been pushed into getting help is a man with some hope. I try to keep it simple, because humans, despite all their complexity, are very simple. They want to feel better and to do better and to find love. And to succeed, I suppose. It’s everybody else who makes things complicated.
You recently told fans not to “get too attached” to Chuck. What did you mean by that?
You know, I’m not really sure what I meant. If I recall, we were talking about Chuck as a role model and I think it got kind of taken out of context. I think I was really talking about, be careful, even if a guy makes some headway in becoming a better human being that doesn’t mean you really have to change your allegiance.
There are almost two separate shows happening at once on Better Call Saul right now. Do you watch the Mike and now Gus story as a viewer?
Not just as a viewer but as a Breaking Bad fan. And as a Giancarlo Esposito fan and a Jonathan Banks fan. When I’m reading those scripts, I’m aware of what has nothing to do with me, so I kind of skim over that part. A lot of it is wordless anyway, a lot of Jonathan Banks stuff is like Rififi. There’s no dialogue, it’s just, what’s happening? What is this picture telling us? And it’s just so beautifully shot and so well-directed. And it’s like I’m watching another movie and then, oh my God, look, I’m in it! And the introduction of Giancarlo’s character, of Gus, it was just so gradual and kind of leaked out so beautifully, it was just really, really good filmmaking. I think this [Vince] Gilligan guy is going to have a future.
Do you have hopes to work with those guys, Jonathan and Giancarlo, in some scenes at some point?
Oh my God. Well, you know, only God and Vince Gilligan know. I guess Peter [Gould] knows, too.
This show, as you said, is so well-written and well-constructed, but have the improv skills you built working with Christopher Guest and others over the years come in handy at all on this show?
Not really. The scripts make sense, it’s very clear. The writers know who we are. There’s really no room for improvisation. Mr. Odenkirk and I, if we were left to our own devices, we’d probably have more jokes, but it wouldn’t serve the show much.
Any plans to work with those guys again in the near future, Chris and Harry Shearer?
I hope so. I certainly hope so. Every time Chris cooks up something, he gives me a shout and sometimes I can join him, sometimes not. It depends on what I’m up to. Same with Harry. Harry’s in New Orleans a lot and he’s in London a lot. Getting us all in the same city is a chore. I’m here in New York, I don’t even know where in the hell Harry is and Chris is in L.A. But when the confluence is there, we always have fun and we usually wind up with something that’s worth seeing.