'Breaking Bad' Favorite Discusses His 'Better Call Saul' Debut in "Something Beautiful"

'Better Call Saul' introduces a younger version of yet another 'Breaking Bad' favorite, and the actor discusses the challenge of learning 'The Elements' and more.
Nicole Wilder/AMC

[This interview contains spoilers for the Monday, Aug. 20, episode of Better Call Saul.]

The Better Call Saul creative team has gone to some lengths to avoid making its AMC drama into a nonstop callback for Breaking Bad, but Monday night's episode, "Something Beautiful," offered fans the long-awaited return of a favorite character.

I'm referring, of course, to the triumphant appearance by Ira.

What? You don't vividly remember the former owner of Vamonos Pest, now helping Jimmy McGill with petty crimes?

Well, then, it's more likely that you got excited at seeing karaoke-loving Gale Boetticher, living and breathing and out of Gus Fring's super lab, back in his native chemistry classroom and singing Tom Lehrer's "The Elements." In a brief appearance that was more a welcome reunion than a key plot development — at least thus far — Gale warns Gus that the locally produced drugs he's trafficking have a distressingly low purity level. After suggesting that Gus' chemist is using contaminated equipment, Gale volunteers to help his old college benefactor. Gus declines, saying, "You were meant for better things."

Will we see more of David Costabile in this familiar terrain? It's unclear. In order to make this cameo, Costabile had to drop by Albuquerque, New Mexico, in the midst of production on his Showtime drama Billions, hence Gale's tonsorial similarities to Mike "Wags" Wagner, rather than the clean-shaven look familiar to Breaking Bad fans.

Costabile talked with The Hollywood Reporter about bringing back Gale, the challenges of learning "The Elements" and why the character is such a singer to begin with. He also explains why it's OK to swear at Wags fans, but not at Gale devotees.

Was this an out-of-the-blue thing for you or had you had conversations with producers at any point about bringing Gale back into this universe?

When they were first shooting Better Call Saul, I happened to be in Albuquerque, and I was shooting this series called Dig. I ran into Peter Gould in the parking lot, and we decided to have breakfast. We were sitting and I was asking him questions about the show and how it was going and he was like, "Oh, we should have you on the show." I thought he was being nice, like you would say, "Sure, you were on Breaking Bad, we'll have you on the show!" and I was like, "Great, that sounds great!" So I was happy to play the character because I loved playing that character and there was no one sadder than me when Vince [Gilligan] told me I was going to be killed, not only because the character was going to die, but I was also gonna have to find a new job. So I was thrilled to be able to come back. I'm a fan of Saul. I was a fan of Breaking Bad before I was on it and remained so even after my untimely death, and I've watched Saul since the beginning. I love the way those guys tell stories. I love that world. You want that world to keep going and to have that feeling over and over and over.

So I was psyched when they called and said, "Hey, do you want to do this?" At the time I was shooting Billions, so it was unclear if that was going to happen, but then it did!

How long did it actually take to shoot this appearance?

A day. It took me endless hours to learn that song, but a single day to shoot.

And this was actually in the midst of production on Billions?

Oh, yeah.

Does that explain why Gale is all scruffy and bearded here? He was so clean-cut for most of the time we knew him on Breaking Bad.

Yeah, at the time we had to augment because I had Wags' face. We had to change it up. It was good! It was years earlier, and who knows? Maybe the guy had a beard and he certainly had more hair, and it's much darker than my hair is now. I think for them, in terms of production, it was nice to say, "Oh, it is this person, but it's also them before Breaking Bad."

Gale is such an open and earnest guy, and Wags is much more vicious and sarcastic. Is it easy to duck back into that Gale mind-set in the midst of a long stretch of playing Wags?

No, it's not easy! It was actually quite challenging. One of the things that made it easier was the tune, having to learn that tune, because it was so many hours of learning the tune, and so I could really spend a lot of time just really meditating on who Gale was and why he would want to know the song and how long it would have taken him to learn the song and the kind of joy that it would bring him to learn that song. So that was really very helpful, rather than it just being a scene. There was kinda like a launchpad to get back into that part of me, that part of him. When you're playing something over and over and over and it's any instrument … do you play an instrument?

Violin a long, long time ago.

So you know that when you practice, you get better, and the particular muscles to play whatever particular tune and the way you're practicing something, it feels like your being gets stronger. It's not just the musculature, but the synapses and the ease with which they fire to play the right notes, to anticipate what's going to happen, to breathe and to listen and all of the things that are required to do that. It takes a long time. And Gale was a long time ago and was a ways away from what I had been doing. Because I was practicing over and over playing lines, it was a challenge to get there. Once I got to Albuquerque, once I saw Giancarlo [Esposito], once I was speaking with Giancarlo, he is such a forceful human being and Gus is such an incredible character, it was very easy to then be led by him back into that world. That was also very helpful. If it had been somebody else that I hadn't known, it might have not been as easy, but when the person is such a great centering force. … That was true for him, for Gale, later and it so it was easy to translate that back in time to see how that person would initially have hooked him.

Before learning all of it, had you been at least vaguely familiar with "The Elements"?

I had heard it, and I had sung other Tom Lehrer songs and I certainly knew the Gilbert and Sullivan tune, but hearing it and then being able to do a chemistry experiment while singing it flawlessly? It's one of those things where you can't miss a syllable. You can't lose a single consonant in it, because otherwise the whole thing just falls to pieces. Once you get behind the train, you're done. You'll never catch up. Each piece is put together, it's like this crazy jigsaw puzzle and one piece does not fit without the other. So you can't drop an element and think you're going to get back to the other elements. It ain't gonna happen.

And after you'd learned it and taken that one day to shoot it, how long was the song stuck in your head for?

I could do it now! Are you kidding? It's in there, in there, in there. I've been in a couple Broadway musicals, and the first one I was ever in was Titanic. It was a long time ago, and I did it 675 times for almost two years. That's the kind of thing where you hear that music. … When I say "24-7," you hear it when you go to sleep, you hear it when you wake up. You hear it all the time. It's constantly happening to you, and you just can't get it out of your brain. That took a long time to get out. Music stays in there and it can be dastardly. This song in particular is an earworm. The good thing about it is that because you don't know all the elements of the periodic table — I'm assuming — you'll sing the tune, but you won't be bothered by [he starts singing], "There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium/ And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium." You won't do that to yourself! You won't know that "rhenium" is going to follow "nitrogen."

Singing is such an important thing for this character. Was there a conversation with the writers when you were on Breaking Bad when you discussed how that became Gale's thing?

No! The story is that my friend Sam Catlin, who was a writer and producer on the show and is the showrunner on Preacher now, he and I had gone to graduate school together and were good friends. And Vince, supposedly, at one point just asked him in the writers room and was like, "Can he do anything else? Does he have any talents?" And my friend's like, "Well, he can sing." And they were like, "Great, we'll have him do that." So that was the origin.

The song selection is I think really the key. "Crapa Pelada," the first song I sang, it's just magical. The song itself is incredible, and it's also just one that no one's ever heard of. You've never heard that song before, and it was the perfect expression of who that guy was. It really was who he was. To that end, it's in the singing that the joy and the earnestness and the innocence and the great sense of how big his heart was comes out, and you see it in the love of music and also in his quirky and odd taste in music.

Before you got to shoot, did you and Giancarlo have a chance to talk about where Gus and Gale are in their relationship? Because the warmth between them definitely comes through.

We did not. I'm glad that that is true. We're pals and after many years of not having seen him, it was so great to see him. I think he's such a tremendous actor and he's such a kind and generous person, so it was easy to slip back into that world and their relationship again.

In your mind, when Gale volunteers to help, is that just his gratitude toward Gus or is there something else pushing him in the direction of what we know will be his career path?

I think one of the things that really drives him is this sense of the lengths that you need to go in order to pursue excellence and the rigor that it takes in order to achieve that. I think he is really deeply committed to that as a person and as a scientist. That actually really brings him joy as well, how difficult that is and how relentless it needs to be. For someone who does not want to dog out people's inadequacies, he's willing, in the scene, to be like, "This is not really good. It just isn't. You need to be better. You need to try harder." I think he really feels that deeply. I don't think that is a put-on. It's something that he wants to pursue at most costs, to force himself to be better.

Have you ever, even on the stage, had the chance to revisit a character at this distance, with a gap of this length?

Not of this length. I did another musical, Caroline, or Change, where we had three or four months off between the Broadway run and the tour, but other than that, this is really quite a new experience. At the center of this, you're in a different place, and the character's in a different place and you don't want to just do a retread of who that person was then, when you first played it or when you eventually played it. You don't want to do just his introduction or right before he died. It really is a mind-twister to wrap your brain around, to figure out how to get there.

Yeah, the math is funny. You haven't played this guy for seven or eight years, and you'd played him for a couple of years, but now you're playing him several years younger than he was when you started.

As a math equation, it's not easy.

In your mind, are there lots of points still between when we see Gale in this episode and when we first meet him in Breaking Bad?

Well, as far as I was concerned, there were many more points before Vince decided to kill me. I thought there were all these story points! But clearly my feeling about story points are not being followed by these particular writers, so I leave it to them how much or how little they will deem to have the story involve Gale or not.

When you finished with the Breaking Bad run, was there a long period of people recognizing you as Gale? And has that been totally supplanted by Wags at this point?

When I first started on the show, the viewership that happened at the end of Breaking Bad was not the viewership that was happening at season three. The show really started to blow up around season four or five, and then people could really binge it and watch it as a whole and it was one of those cultural touchstones where people were like, "You haven't watched that?" then it really started to ramp up. That is for sure. I was recently in Ireland, and there were a lot of Breaking Bad fans and they were very, very excited, because there the show runs on regular TV, not pay cable, whereas Billions over there is pay or some people can't even get it, but everybody gets Breaking Bad. It also depends on where I am in the country, where I am in any particular city. If I go to Midtown, it's much more Wags than it is Breaking Bad. That's for sure.

Is there a difference in the way people react to you based on the role they're reacting to? Does Wags get greeted with profanity and a different attitude?

Oh, yeah! Absolutely! In fact, if I ever give back that kind of profanity to them, people really just go apeshit. If I flip them off or say, "Fuck you!" they're just like, "Oh, my God!!!" I think if I did it as Gale, people would be really upset and they wouldn't understand. They'd be like, "Why are you telling me to fuck off? That's not nice." But I meet a Wags fan, I can really lay into them and they love it.