'Better Call Saul' Star Rhea Seehorn on Kim's "Internal Unraveling"

Better Call Saul Still Season 3 Episode 9 Rhea Seehorn - Publicity - H 2017
Courtesy of AMC

[This interview contains spoilers as far as the Monday, June 12, penultimate episode of AMC's Better Call Saul, but not the season finale.]

When we left Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) on Better Call Saul, she was stuck between a rock and a hard place. The rock was a literal rock.

Burning the candle at both ends in her work for Mesa Verde, her assisting Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) with his own difficulties and a potentially lucrative new client, Kim has spent the third season on the brink of something. She's been sleeping in the office or catching brief catnaps in her car before meetings. She's been trying desperately to keep her solo practice afloat and to keep the man she loves from losing his license.

So it wasn't a surprise when, at the end of last week's episode, Kim fell asleep on the road to a meeting and came to with her car smashed against a boulder on the edge of a rocky decline, airbag deployed and papers scattered everywhere. 

It has been a sad season for Kim, as Better Call Saul has suggested more and more explicitly that Jimmy's relationship with Kim is one of the things preventing him from going full Saul Goodman, a transition we know is inevitable. They're still a couple, but the strain has been evident on both characters.

When I spoke with Seehorn last season, the actress said she was still rooting for Jimmy and Kim's love and still believed that that love could exist offscreen in the Breaking Bad universe. On the eve of Monday's season-three finale, Seehorn sounds less optimistic. 

In this Q&A, Seehorn discusses the third season as a season of consequences, touches on the challenges of last week's great opening scene at the oil derricks and explains how she's feeling about Jimmy and Kim if she isn't optimistic.

Poor Kim. As someone who lives with this character and loves her, what has it been like watching this trainwreck, or car accident I guess, coming from a long way off this season?

I think you know, and it's widely publicized, that we are not given the story arc. They don't even write a bible for the show. They don't pin themselves down to making certain events happen by a certain time. So, I didn't know it was coming, and it's interesting for me to now look back and think about the nap scene, where she tries to take a nap in the car for five minutes and they do this rough edit jump-cut where it's like you didn't even get to sleep. Your alarm immediately goes off. And I look at that now I think, "Oh, that's so great to layer that in." And then the accident is done the same way, so brilliantly. That feeling of losing time and space and psychologically being so rocked by an accident, more than actually remembering nodding off or anything.

I didn't know that was coming, but I definitely understood from the beginning that I'd feel like season three about the consequences and the fallout of actions that were set in motion in season two. And for Kim, it's in a very specific and particular way. And as soon as we have that first episode in season three where she cannot stop trying to fix punctuation obsessively in a document for Mesa Verde, and then can't even hand over the paperwork, asks if she can have it back to look over one more time, I thought, "Okay, there is an internal unraveling that's going on as the consequences for her keeping this case."

Of course, with the Mesa Verde thing, yes, I defended Jimmy and made sure I didn't help Chuck (Michael McKean) prosecute him, but Kim also could have recused herself from the case. She could have not taken the paycheck and just said, "I can't represent you," and not given a reason. But she doesn't, because I think she feels like she deserves it and, in another world that doesn't have a legal system, "deserves" would be a perfectly fine answer. But who cares about "deserves" in court? And I think wrestling with everything in her world that that means, that black and white and good and bad are not the same as legal and illegal, and that everybody's living in these gray margins is really hard for her. And then you see the physical and emotional exhaustion just ratchet itself up. 

And Cheri Montesanto did a beautiful job with the makeup. So I had people tweeting to me like, "Are you actually tired and sick? You look…" It's like, "It's makeup, you people. It's makeup!" You have to let your vanity go. Yeah, just the increasing dark circles and slightly smeared mascara, I understood that this was a very specific kind of unraveling going on with this character, because she's so internal with everything and so adamant to not let other people think she's falling apart, that it was done carefully and painfully for her, I think.

So much of sort of the affection that we've always felt between Kim and Jimmy has been based on the little looks she's been giving him throughout, basically, the first two seasons, those moments where we saw that she was amused by him or approved of him or those moments we saw that she truly did love watching him do these things. And this season, it's been the opposite and it's been these quiet moments where we see the doubt in her face, instead of the love and the affection. How do you know when you're capturing that very, very subtle "I'm not sure if I'm feeling the way I did last week towards you" look?

We have great directors, and we have great writers. And so there are discussions that go on, and it's an incredibly collaborative environment and I'm not talking about improv-ing, but I am talking about really healthy, amazing discussions about character. As everybody knows, they write these eight-, 10- and 12-page dialogue scenes sometimes, with just two people talking, and that's a winding path to take, and Bob and I enjoy very much, when you're playing a relationship of 10 years-plus, in and out of romantic intimacy, but people that know each other extremely well, a lot of times, what's between the lines is even more important than what the lines are. It's what we say to each other and what we choose not to say and what we withhold, and the way somebody looks at you when you're not looking. All those things are as important as the text. And we discuss them. 

And you're right, it's a good observation that, this year, the looks to him, there's still some loving ones and some ones where it's like, "Oh, I enjoy him, I care about him, I love him," but there's all these other moments that are concern and doubt, and even sadness. And for me, some of those scenes where she asks, "Aren't you worried about Rebecca?," this innocent bystander that got hurt in this court case, or "Don't you feel guilt about what we did to Chuck?," I think Kim is wrestling with those feelings. And we know Jimmy is, too, but his outcome is very different. And for me, they felt like lost moments of connection, which has a sadness to it. And as long as you stayed in that moment. It's hard for Kim to even reach out in that scene in the bar, where they attempt to play around, talking about con games again and it just goes terribly sad. She's becoming someone that she doesn't know in that moment and there's that, but there's also Kim, who's not someone who really likes to ask for help or admit vulnerability — that's very difficult for her.

In those scenes, there's also her reaching out, trying to say, "This is eating at me. I think something's wrong." It's this tiniest confession of feeling her own unraveling and he does not meet her. It makes me sad when I read those scenes because I think, if they had just stopped for a minute and said, "Yeah, it's eating away at me," there would have been this discussion that could've helped him not go down the route he's going and help her not go down the road she's going. But they aren't capable. They aren't capable in that moment, and I think as long as you stay present in that you see what you saw, which is concern, sadness, fear and loneliness in those moments.

How well do you always understand on the first pass of the script what Kim's motivations are in certain moments? I'm thinking, for example, when she decides to take on this new client for herself rather than just doing an advisory role in stepping away. Do you immediately understand kind of what her need is there?

More often than not, because the writing is so great and the characters are so complex, more often than not it's more than one reason. It's not crystal-clear, and we have the great benefit of having a really smart audience. So they write and they encourage us to perform in a way that's assuming the intelligence of your audience, instead of spoon-feeding to them how they're supposed to feel or how to figure something out. And even leaving some things dangling, because I mean it's partially a show about the messiness, certainly for Kim, about the messiness of the choices we make and the consequences of that. And so with something like taking on the Gatwood Oil case, there's a lot of factors. I think Kim sees Jimmy in pain and he's desperately trying to make enough money to cover his half of the office. It has become clear to her that he wants to keep this up. And she's also someone who has some serious issues with seeing her own limitations, just even physically. I think she's struggling with having to admit that to herself, so there's a lot of stuff going on.

And then in that scene I just try to be present in the moment with Bob, who's such a generous, talented, amazing actor to have as a scene partner because every time we would do a take, we delivered the lines just slightly differently to each other and it means something different if somebody's able to look you in the eyes when they say a line versus another take where they look away, or they come off too sharp and your character then recedes or backpedals. And so they let us do take after take of just these performance things, but you go into it with a multitude of reasonings for what your character might think or do in that moment and then we try them all.

In the penultimate episode, that first scene at the oil derricks, particularly after Chris Mulkey's character leaves, in like a minute Kim goes through this wave of emotions that's pretty impressive. How long did you actually get to shoot that, or was that like 10 minutes on an afternoon some day?

That was a day-and-a-half.

Wow. Okay, that's actually a lot.

Yeah, there were a lot of factors to that scene. There's this beautiful wides, these iconic gorgeous almost Western-like wides that they are famous for shooting, and Minkie Spiro directed that. And Marsh Adams was shooting and it was incredible. It was also one of the coldest days, with a massive sandstorm and wind chill factor happening, that I'd ever performed in. Everyone's out there doing it and so there were weather elements that were difficult as well. 

The pump jack that was built and put out there suddenly stopped working, so there's a crew of people that had to be taken out in postproduction that was just manually operating this enormous pump jack. And then there are other pump jacks that were put in in post and the sandstorm stopped on the second day we were shooting, and at first I felt very relieved and then I realized, "Oh right, we have to match the wides we shot yesterday." So then I see coming down the road those huge, massive fans that you have to make it look like there's a storm in movies. That comes wheeling down, I mean they were like a story and a half high. It comes wheeling down the road and I was like, "Oh right, we have to match that windstorm from yesterday." And then they turned that on and sand's blowing in my face and at one point Chris Mulkey and my lips were numb trying to talk. There was a lot.

But my favorite thing about that scene is that they, like they do all the time, they allow the scene to actually unfold almost in real time. By the time she realizes, "My car's stuck," they just filmed somebody in character as Kim realizing it, almost calling someone, then saying, "Screw it, I'll do it myself," as Kim is wont to do and then figuring out how I'm gonna dig it out. Really rocking the car, which I did, back and forth, trying to get it out of a rut, and then running after it. The whole thing is filmed almost in real time and it's such a great thing that they allow that kind of breathing room onscreen, and it makes it so that people are really with your character by the time something happens like it almost runs into the pump jack. And it's really fun to play that surprise.

When we spoke last season, you emphasized that because we never actually went home with Saul on Breaking Bad, that you were optimistic that Kim could still be in the picture, that that relationship could have sustained. Given what we've seen this season, do you remain optimistic?

(Laughs) I'm, um … uh … now I'm just more curious about what's gonna happen. I feel there are actually more avenues. Are a lot of them happy endings? Probably not. Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould] don't write a lot of those, but what kind of tragedy it will be or what kind cross is it that gets us there, I feel like there's even more avenues opening up in my head. I think it is absolutely a valid, tragic, catalyst event if something horrible happens to her or were to happen to her. But it's equally tragic if she's around. I was thinking the other day, I was like, "If she's there in his life and actually abides by the Saul Goodman he eventually becomes, what kind of erosion happened to Kim Wexler and her morality? Who is she and what happened?" That's also horrific in my head. We don't know her backstory. I don't know how much is yet to be revealed about her. Or is she not there [on Breaking Bad]? And is that a happy ending if she's gone to save herself. I don't know! The only thing I feel optimistic about is that it will be very interesting, very complex and very character-specific, because I have the great fortune of having Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan doing this.

Does that become a different perspective when you look at scripts? Rather than reading ahead with hope, do you now have dread or terror about the bad things that could be coming?

As an actor and even as a fan of the show, I try to stay very present in the moment-to-moment within the episode-to-episode, and what's so terrible for these characters is that each step of the way, they do have hope for each action ... like, "Taking Chuck to court will finally fix this, that I can finally get this albatross off me and somehow I will stop feeling guilty about Mesa Verde and somehow the world will be right, because even though Chuck is an incredible legal intellect, he has become morally unsound and mentally unsound in her opinion. So if we make him stop practicing, we're doing the world a great favor, right? Oh crap! Look! Now there's fallout from Rebecca. Oh wow! She's an innocent bystander, that sucks. And now Jimmy doesn't seem to have an conscious about it and I somehow found myself with a second case and still refusing any help whatsoever!" At each step of the way, they had optimism about, "I can fix this. I can fix this." And you just keep digging a hole. So I don't really look at it like long-term. I wonder if she is happy. I don't even know what "happy" means to Kim at this point or that point in the future.