Better Call Saul Q&A – Michael McKean (Chuck McGill)

Michael McKean, who plays Chuck McGill on AMC's Better Call Saul, talks about Chuck's condition, creating a brotherly dynamic with Bob Odenkirk, and the advice he got from Bryan Cranston.

Q: You first met Vince Gilligan when you had a recurring role on The X-Files. Did that prior relationship lead to your involvement in Better Call Saul?

A: Yeah, I think it sort of did. Anytime Vince had something going, he would give me a shout and see what was happening and if the project made sense for me. This time, it worked out, geographically and every other which way, and I’m glad it did.

Q: You accepted the role of Chuck knowing very little about the character. Did you have any particular expectations?

A: Going in, I knew almost nothing. Vince asked me if I wanted to work, and I said, of course! I was ready to go. I’m a huge Breaking Bad fan, like everybody else, and I knew he wouldn’t steer me wrong. I didn’t even know what my name was, they were calling me by another name and it was just some kind of code. As we went on, I learned the character had some kind of affliction. He was one of those guys who used to rule the world, but now the world was on top of him, and Jimmy was going to be his lifeline. My fear was that his condition would be something that was disfiguring and I’d be in a makeup chair for six hours a day.

Q: Did anything surprise you when you started receiving scripts?

A: After they told me what Chuck's condition was, I thought it was intriguing. I asked if it was a real thing and how much of it is psychosomatic. They didn’t nail anything down because they wanted to see it progress. I went and looked it up and I got a few pointers, but really, by and large, it was a matter of trust in where Vince and Peter Gould would take me. I’m the guy sitting at home saying, “Oh my God, I don’t believe they did that!” It’s nice to be a part of that now. It was great and playable, like I knew it would be. These guys have become so good at dialogue and story. Anywhere they’ve taken this character has been really thrilling and a lot of fun.

Q: Did you get attached to Chuck's space blanket?

A: Oh no, I don’t need that. We were shooting in Albuquerque in July, and when I was outside with the space blanket, it was seriously hot under there. It does work for what it’s supposed to do, it keeps you nice and warm, but it’s not your first priority in Albuquerque. I think it’s a good prop, and I think it’s part of Chuck’s identity and a symbol of the interface between him and the world. It’s a psychological expression of something that's a general affliction. When you feel ill, you also feel the fear that you’re not going to get better. There’s an emotional element. We’re human. There’s something about looking into the abyss of it.

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Q: What helped inform your portrayal of Chuck as a seasoned and successful lawyer?

A: We have a lot of really smart people who really know the law helping us out with this stuff. We’re not spouting gibberish. We’re actually saying things that we at least understand, as laymen might understand them. I’ve known terrific lawyers, and I’ve known some not-so-terrific lawyers. It’s a broad field. I try to be specific about what I’m doing, and hopefully it carries some believability.

Q: Is Jimmy a terrific lawyer?

A: He’s got a mouth on him that’s obviously connected to some kind of huge solar engine, because he can just go on forever! He can talk a dog off a meat wagon. That’s his talent. At the end of Episode 102, when he saves the lives of these two idiot scam artists and gets away with it, he realizes that’s what he can do. Chuck’s talents are a little more intellectual, and about delivering the right paper to collapse the other guy’s case rather than tricking him in court.

Q: Breaking Bad revealed nothing about Saul’s family relationships, effectively giving you a blank canvas to work with. Once you were cast as Saul’s brother, how did you and Bob Odenkirk go about creating the dynamic between your characters?

A: Bob and I have known each other for a long time. We try to keep it real, and we both have brothers. If your parents think one brother can use a talking-to, even for a moment, guess who’s going to be talking to him? Not the parents. It’s going to be you. There is a certain amount of tag-along with the baby brother thing, and it’s compounded by the fact that Jimmy has been straddling the lines between legal and illegal for some time now and Chuck has had to bail him out. Brothers are a complicated thing. We’re all individuals, but there are certain situations in life where we become custodians of one another, unwilling mentors or slaves. There are all sorts of family relationships, and they are always complicated. There’s a closeness, because even though Jimmy is a problem, Chuck is kind of a problem, too.

Q: You shot Better Call Saul in Albuquerque while also performing as J. Edgar Hoover in All the Way on Broadway opposite Bryan Cranston. Did he have any helpful advice or insider tips?

A: He told me, very truthfully, that it’s the best crew you could possibly find, and he was right. He was also the first one to tell me I should do the role. I was sure that he was very supportive of me, because he told me so. It’s good to have someone like Bryan in your corner. He’s pretty remarkable.

Read an interview with Michael Mando, who plays Nacho on AMC’s Better Call Saul.