We almost lost Chuck McGill, and with him, Michael McKean from Better Call Saul’s ensemble. Last week’s penultimate episode climaxed with the irritable attorney working himself up into a electromagnetic-hypersensitivity tizzy, passing out from an ostensible panic attack, and bonking his noggin on a countertop for good measure. He appeared dead or, at minimum, in dire straits. And since, unlike his younger brother Jimmy, Chuck’s future is unwritten, there was good reason to fear tonight’s finale might be McKean’s swan song.
Fortunately for us, but not so much for Jimmy, Chuck recovered just fine from his little fall. In fact, he appears to have awakened from his ordeal with single-minded purpose to rid the legal profession of his adversarial sibling. A few hours before the season-two finale, “Klick,” commenced, and less than a day removed from the versatile actor’s opening night in an L.A. staging of period play Father Comes Home From the Wars, McKean spoke with us from his Left Coast home about Saul’s Dickensian scripts, sympathizing with his characters, and how Chuck might greet the social-media age.
Opening night of a play and then Chuck’s big finale in 24 hours. Are these times where it just feels like life is good?
Yeah, that’s exactly what it felt like. I haven’t seen tonight’s show, but I have a feeling it’s good. I’m done with that for a little bit, so it’s been nice to have this play to do.
And both the play and Saul are, in effect, about America.
Oh, absolutely. [Saul] is a story about the law profession to a certain extent, but it’s about the way people interrelate and entrap one another with dirty tricks and manipulate the already corrupted. It’s a very well-explored universe.
Chuck wasn’t always mapped out as being so adversarial to Jimmy. When was it revealed that he’d be getting so down and dirty?
I don’t know whether I saw it that way. It’s like I’ve been reading a serial novel, like having Dickens write for you. I’d usually hear two shows ahead where it’s going and what they want to do. And they always start that way: “What we want to do.” And they’re going to do what they want to do anyway, but they respect actors and everybody else so much that they present the future of the show as this option, and it’s always great. And when they tell you the upcoming beats of the story, you’re hearing it from great storytellers. It was like that at the very beginning. I accepted the role, and I didn’t know what Chuck’s affliction was. I just knew it was something that kept him in the house. They found something for me to do that is active and keeps it going.
Do you feel like Chuck’s condition is as much a way of asserting control over Jimmy as the result of other, unspecified circumstances?
That’s hard to answer. All siblings are complicated, and lawyers are no exception. I hate to give a short answer to a long question, but there are so many brother situations in our real lives, as well as in movies and TVs and plays, and if it’s not complicated it isn’t interesting.
In a scene that has you on a gurney and being bandaged, poked and prodded, do you explicitly trust that the end result will be stylistic?
I’ve been around the block long enough to know that if they take a bunch of different angles of something and have someone running alongside with a hand-held to get the whole of an action, that they’ll have plenty to work with. And our editors, they must drink a lot of Red Bull over there. They’re so amazing, and they turn it around so fast. I don’t see it cut all together until months after, so it’s not like I watched them work, but that stuff I’ve seen them do is so impressive.
Does a lot of the direction for Chuck just advise you to act anguished?
[Laughs] If it were only that simple. Actions are about fight or flight, and if you’re trapped between those two, it’s lizard-brain acting. [Chuck’s] having a bad time, that’s for sure.
I’ve been wondering whether Chuck’s condition was agitated by Jimmy and eventually drove Rebecca away, or if Rebecca’s possible death induced his disorder.
I don’t know the answer to that, because I don’t what happens to Rebecca. I’m in the dark about what happens in our next 10 chapters, so I can’t help ya.
I know Chuck was originally called by a different name in pre-production. Can you shed some more light on that backstory?
It was Dr. Thurber, like James Thurber. I don’t remember where they got that idea. I think I was already signed, and they were telling people, “Yeah, he’ll be playing a character called Dr. Thurber,” and I thought it was hilarious.
And it’s sort of ironic that Chuck is so electro-phobic, yet you are an avid user of social media. If Chuck did decide to join Twitter, what do you think his first dispatch would be?
It depends. I don’t think he’s a wit, so he’d probably throw some fancy Spinoza quotes in, just to remind you how brilliant he is. And then it would finish with something very honest like, “Help me.”