Ed Begley Jr., who plays Cliff Main on AMC’s Better Call Saul, talks about imagining his character on a commune and auditioning against Michael McKean.
Q: How did you end up joining the cast of Better Call Saul? Were you a fan of the show before?
A: I’m a huge fan of Breaking Bad… I’m friends with Bryan Cranston and I was originally so behind on Breaking Bad. I thought, “I’m going to see my friend’s show. I hear it’s really good!” [Laughs] Then, it was like “give me more!” I watched every episode religiously and was blown away by everybody’s work. Vince [Gilligan] and Peter Gould are brilliant writers, so when Better Call Saul came around, like many people around the world, I was hungry for more storytelling and as many of those characters as they could muster. They got Jonathan [Banks], they got Bob [Odenkirk] and I was just blown away by the first season.” It’s some of my favorite television.
The audition process for [Cliff] was so interesting. The wonderful Vince Gilligan had me come in for the part of Chuck and I knew right away that Michael McKean was the first choice, but there was some question about his availability. Vince liked what I did, but when I heard it would be Michael McKean, I called Michael up and told him that I had made one mistake in the casting session and that was saying, “May the best man win!” He did, dammit! [Laughs] I can’t think of anyone who would have done that part as well as Michael. He’s brilliant in the role. When I’m on the same list as him on someone’s desk in the casting office, I’ve already won. When it didn’t work out, Vince Gilligan said he would come up with a part for me. I thought it was sweet, but didn’t think it would actually happen.
Q: You were in This Is Spinal Tap with Michael McKean. What was it like working together again after all these years? Any talk of getting the band back together?
A: I’m not good enough of a drummer to play with them. They’re all really good musicians. I was a wannabe and a much lower level musician then they all are, but I loved playing with them in the movie. I’m good friends with Chris Guest, Harry Shearer, Rob Reiner, Michael McKean and Michael’s wife, Annette O’Toole. I see them as much as I can. They’re all like family, so to work with Michael again is a treat.
Q: In the season premiere, Jimmy turns down the Davis & Main job but later changes his mind. Have you ever turned down a big opportunity like that?
A: Yes. A famous director told me to read a novel because he was going to make it into a movie. I don’t know if I would have gotten the part, but I certainly didn’t since I didn’t even bother to read the novel. Next thing I know, the movie was being shot. I’ve had some missed opportunities in my life, but I’m one of those people who thinks everything is essential. There are good decisions and what you can call bad decisions, but they’re all essential to get to this moment in time right now. I have everything I need and a great deal of serenity in my life.
Q: Cliff seems like a decent guy, for a lawyer. What backstory have you imagined for him?
A: I think he lived an alternative lifestyle. He’s one of the name partners at a law firm, so he’s done very well for himself working within the system, but I think he might have lived in a commune with a hookah back in the day. Now, he’s a little more mainstream. He’s a guy who’s very understanding and willing to cut people a lot of slack up to a point.
Q: Employment at Davis & Main gives some pretty fantastic perks. If you’d been in Jimmy’s shoes, what specialty items would you have requested?
A: I would have wanted a drum set, but I would have been considerate and gotten the electronic kind.
Q: You’re a well-known environmentalist. Did you try to introduce any sustainability practices on set?
A: I didn’t have to! They have so much going already. If I needed a script, I could print it on 100% post-consumer recycled paper or read off a tablet. They gave everybody a Better Call Saul water bottle so we didn’t waste. They used energy-efficient lighting for the production offices. Everything is as green as possible. Very impressive stuff!
Q: We’ve asked your co-stars, now it’s your turn: Would you rather have Jimmy McGill or Saul Goodman defending you in court?
A: I’d rather have Saul because he’d do anything to win.
Q: What if we threw Cliff in the mix?
A: Oh! I’d rather have Cliff then. No disrespect to Saul or Jimmy — they’re both incarnations of the same fellow, of course — but Cliff Main is a very good lawyer and there’s a lot that he brings to the table in the court room.
Read an interview with Jonathan Banks, who plays Mike Ehrmantraut.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10/9c on AMC. Receive show exclusives by signing up for the Insiders Club.Read More