'Better Call Saul' Star Michael McKean Talks Chuck's Moment on the Stand

Michael McKean discusses Chuck's deteriorating well-being, his ongoing rivalry with Jimmy and his hope for 'Better Call Saul' recovery and reconciliation.
Courtesy of AMC
Michael McKean of 'Better Call Saul'

[This interview contains spoilers for the Monday's episode of AMC's Better Call Saul, "Chicanery."]

For several weeks now, I've been interviewing Better Call Saul writers and directors who weighed in on whether each act of pettiness from Michael McKean's Chuck McGill was the worst thing he'd ever done. All the while, Chuck was goading and prodding brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) into a taped confession of last season's document tampering and then into assault and destruction of property on the way to a hearing that Chuck hoped would culminate in Jimmy's disbarment. Not very brotherly at all!

Monday's episode, "Chicanery," was a big one for the Chuck-Jimmy relationship, an hour spent mostly in the bar hearing, with accusations of unethical conduct and mental instability culminating in as close to an involuntary breakdown as we've seen from Chuck. The unraveling was brought about with the help of a hidden cell phone battery and the return of an old friend from the Breaking Bad universe. 

It's a spectacular showcase episode for McKean, though he jokes, "I imagine it's kind of enough Michael McKean for anyone."

In New York City appearing in the Tony-nominated revival of The Little Foxes, McKean talked about Chuck's deterioration, the challenges of empathizing with a character other people feel is awful and his hope for Chuck's recovery. 

Since you're in the middle of doing Little Foxes on Broadway now, you're in a good position to answer: Was this episode the closest thing to theater you can get on TV?

In other words, did I have to know all my lines? Did I memorize the whole thing? Yes, I did. Yeah, I had a lot of storytelling in this one, a lot of sitting there and talking my ass off. That's exactly what I do. I haven't seen the episode. I imagine it's kind of enough Michael McKean for anyone. (Laughs)

[Director] Dan Sackheim called before we started working on the episode. I was in New York and he called me and he said, "Look, you've got a ton to do here. I'm trying to make it work for you. What's the best way I could do this? I could shoot all in this direction first and then come around? I could start on them and then come around on you so that you'll have extra time, a whole day to learn it." I was like, "Look, I will learn my lines. I'll be the subject, you be the eyes. I'll have the lines. I'll be there. It'll be good." I'm working with Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn, that's two of my favorite people in the world. And John Getz comes in as our chief counsel. It's like old home week. Bob and Rhea and the gang, we've become really close, and this company is remarkable, these writers and directors and DPs, it's world-class. So I just rise to the occasion.

If you'd gotten to do a performance like this onstage, eight shows per week over the course of a few months, how do you think it might have evolved over time, rather than doing it on a hasty TV schedule?

I really never thought about it before because it's so different. On film, when you're driving home from the set, you realize what you should have done, but it's too late. When you're taking the subway home from your play, you realize what you did wrong and you go back the next night and you do it better, or you screw it up again in a different way. It's a different thing altogether. 

I like to think that because of the input of the other actors, because of the timbre of it on the set, you're just going toward a different end. You're not telling the audience the whole story like you are in a play. You're doing this one long scene with a lot of different beats in it, but you're doing it in the reality of the moment. You're doing it in the reality of the courtroom, but then it's up to somebody else to cut and score it and make it work. 

How much variation was there to what you were doing on-set for this episode for the camera? What choices were you giving the editors?

You're seeing, hopefully, a very controlled character. Chuck is all about control. He's all about self-control, which is deteriorating because of his physical, physiological and physiological problems, but he is definitely a man who doesn't like being out of control. So I think that there are probably not a lot of matching problems there, because Chuck is all about staying in the groove. I really couldn't change it up along the way. As things deteriorate, as his world begins to get a little shaky, I imagine there are some differences.

I can't really think about that while I'm doing it, and I can't tell you how it came out because I haven't seen it, but I like to think that I give the editors enough so that they're not bored, but on the other hand so that they don't have a big problem. I've been doing this long enough so that I kind of know how.

It has felt a lot of the time like Chuck hasn't been giving Jimmy enough credit for his intellect and what he's been trying to do. How important was it for you that in this key episode, Chuck really is giving Jimmy a pretty fair amount of respect as a lawyer, and what betrays Chuck is his own blind spot toward himself and not Jimmy?

Yeah. And the other point that I think needs to be made is that the beginning of this episode is all about Jimmy going out of his way to be kind and to help Chuck. It's a deception that he's helping Chuck with, but he's really trying to be helpful to his brother. It's Jimmy's attempt to be a loving person, really, and to be a good brother. That impulse is not exactly absent in Chuck, but it's not active. And it's not active, I think, because he's so self-motivated. I don't want to get too nuts-and-bolts about this, because that's genuinely the center of the problem here. 

Now, Jimmy's got his problems. We know kind of how Jimmy's going to end up on the wrong side of the law. But beyond that, what do these two brothers mean to each other? It's complicated like any pair of siblings is complicated, and even more so if one brother is helping the other brother be deceptive. We like to think that we've designed a pair of brothers that is believable and frustrating and potentially OK. I'm not gonna tell you how OK it is, because that's for you to find out and it's for us to find out, too. My character's a man who's very, very much self-motivated, and that's who he is. I think he would like to love his brother. He just doesn't really know how to do that, because of how he feels about himself.

I appreciate that you have that optimism that this brother bond could potentially be OK, because I don't think as we watch this that we, as viewers, normally think along those lines. How do you keep that hope in some corner of your mind, as opposed to just approaching this as a doomed relationship?

Chuck has gone through two-and-a-half seasons wanting pretty much no relationship with his brother, so I think that any move toward it would have an alien feeling to it, any move toward having a good relationship with his brother. He's made himself pretty clear about how what he thinks about how Jimmy lives his life. I like to think that hope springs eternal, but I also know that when we examine Chuck's life, we're going to see kind of a self-centered person, and I think that may not be good for you. I think you have to reach out. Lloyd Richards, my old acting teacher, said, "Every scene is about love." You can really make a case for that, even if it's about the avoidance of it or the necessity of convincing yourself that love doesn't matter. It's still about love. I've made three 10-hour movies, like all of us have on this show, and it's a lot of stuff to process, but as we go, I think the writers have kept us honest and have kept the characters honest, and it's been just pleasure to work with those guys.

A lot of the pivotal scenes about Chuck's condition have included at least some amount of performativity from Chuck. Have those been regular conversations you've had to have with writers and directors regarding when things are actually happening with Chuck and when he's playing a role, tricking people?

Very little. There's very little conversation about that. The writing is so clear. Early on, Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould] were very kind to tell people, "We really let the actors tell us where their characters are going to go." In other words, they used the scenes that Bob and I had early in the series, they found them to be inspirational as far where the characters were going. That was a very flattering thing to hear from good writers. From then on, I had very few questions, because they seemed to imagine Chuck as a very playable character and not an aberration. He's not an alien. He's not a Martian. He's an actual human being, and I've always felt that way. 

The only times that I've had questions are about, "These two sentences, guys? It could be one sentence." It really is. It's that level of minutiae, because they've been very, very clear. It's not like we sit around and have bull sessions about, "Hey, where's Chuck going to go this year?" It's like, "You tell me, guys. I'm the hired gun. As long as you don't bullshit me, I'm not going to bullshit you." Yeah, I've had very little of that, almost none, to deal with, and it's been a pleasure.

You're right that Peter and Vince have always given you so much credit for how Chuck evolved as a character, and one of the things they've said is that they initially didn't think of quite the degree of darkness and menace to the Chuck-Jimmy relationship until they saw how you were playing it.  What do you think that you were responding to in those early scripts before even they saw or felt it?

I haven't the vaguest idea! I played what they gave me, and Bob and I, we tried to develop a genuine relationship. By the end of the first season I had surmised, "I made Mom proud, Jimmy made her laugh" and that was something that Chuck just couldn't take. He could not understand why his parents seemed to be OK with this eternal screwup, and it got in the way of everything about Chuck and Jimmy. I like to keep it simple because I think simple is best, and I think an awful person is awful for a reason. Helen Mirren says, "When I'm playing somebody awful, I always try and imagine what was done to them to make them that way," and that's what you have to do. Otherwise you're a guy twirling his mustache and looking in the mirror and saying, "How can I be evil today?" That's never interesting. I wanted it to make sense, and they've certainly helped me along the way.

What do you do when you get a script that introduces a theory about Chuck's illness, like that it was somehow related to Rebecca's departure, that Chuck himself wouldn't agree with? How do you respond to that discordance? 

It's not a discordance as far as Chuck is concerned. He doesn't see it. Look, we're sitting at home in our pajamas watching this. We don't exist as far as Chuck goes. Chuck is either all alone in his house or sitting in the courtroom or cowering in a corner. We don't exist. He's not taking stock. We take very little stock of ourselves. We go through life and we do what we need to do. Those moments when we take stock are not that interesting to watch, so I don't think characters really dwell in that. Characters dwell in their actions and not in their self-musing. I think that Chuck doesn't feel conflicted so much as he feels confused. When he's got his ducks in a row, he's a pretty sure shot. Not to mix the metaphor too much, but the apple cart has been upset, and he has to deal with that.

The climax here is that archetypal courtroom showdown, like A Few Good Men or The Caine Mutiny, stories that pretty much end after the vanquishing on the stand. What was interesting about getting to carry Chuck beyond that end point?

There's an element of hope. These moments of help that Chuck had experienced before all had to do with getting rid of his brother — getting his brother out of the state, out of the law and out of his hair. Those were very, very clear actions. Hope is something that is kind of alien. He's never had to worry about it. Before all this, Chuck was a master of the universe. His illness and the presence of his black sheep brother and having to deal with that and having to be the grown-up again now that the parents are gone, having to be the big brother to someone he doesn't believe in, it's all been a terrible thing, but it's something where Chuck had to reach out for help, and now maybe he has to.

I enjoyed seeing that rare moment with Mike and Chuck in last week's episode and I felt they had an odd sort of simpatico. In a different context, did it feel to you like those two men might have had something that bonded them?

Not to be too unkind to Chuck, but I think he thought of Mike as the help. I don't think Chuck's the kind of guy you necessarily want to have a beer with. Maybe if he's bringing the wine or the $3,000 bottle or Scotch you'll have a drink with him, but I don't think he's got that kind of chummy vibe. And I think a guy who comes over to fix the locks in your house or fix your door, I don't think that Chuck's the kind of guy who warms up to the man with the screwdrivers in his pocket.

Do you think he was, before all this started, the kind of guy you'd want to have a beer with?

I don't know! I'm not a lawyer, thank god. Not that there's anything wrong with it. I've never had the brain power for it. I was not the kind of guy who could learn case law. Chuck is what he is. I don't know how warm he was at his warmest. I do know that he got himself a remarkable wife, somehow, and she wasn't just attracted to the fact that he made a good living. She's a legit person, an artist, and I will never know exactly what that was about. Or at least I don't so far.