Bullets were flying at the end of the last episode of Breaking Bad, with Todd’s uncle Jack and his associate Kenny (who were called off but came anyway), shooting at Hank and Gomie. Kevin Rankin, who plays Kenny, is no stranger to playing the villain. After a string of disabled, gay, and transgender roles on shows ranging from Friday Night Lights to the short-lived Trauma, Rankin actively sought to change his image with the types of roles he pursued. “You have such a responsibility when you’re the good guy, but when you’re the bad guy, all bets are off,” he said. Rankin chatted with Vulture about his white supremacist streak, getting choked by Matthew McConaughey, and where Breaking Bad will pick up next on Sunday.
Last episode ended in a controversial Mexican standoff …
Yeah, it was a heart-palpitation episode. And you know, I’ve seen a lot of complaints that it was the worst shooting in TV history [laughs], that no one’s getting shot, and I have to reiterate, it is a cliff-hanger. So it’s unfair to say that it was the worst shoot-out in TV history when you don’t know what the outcome is. What I can maybe hint toward is that when the episode picks up, it’ll be just where we left off, and there’s no wasting any time. It gets right to the meat of it, immediately.
You’ve played three white supremacist criminals lately: Breaking Bad, Justified, and White House Down. What is it about you that makes people go, “Hmmm, I can see you as a neo-Nazi”?
I really don’t know! I guess I have good auditions? And I guess because I’m as white as the day is long! I sit at home with the shades drawn. Maybe I’m kind of scary looking? I guess that goes along with it. And each time, it was like, “Okay, this is the last one.” But then Justified was such a great opportunity, and then White House Down, how could I pass up that one? It was so much fun. And then Breaking Bad came along. And the challenge was, how to make them different within that realm of that characterization, you know? And they are clichés. If you’re a character actor, you play clichés. So you just try to find your own variation on that. Use your own filter as an artist. And it’s hard to find differences in white supremacists! [Laughs.] But I humanize monsters and make them a little bit less scary, or maybe more scary. I’m the guy that you hate to love! [Laughs.]
How do you make each one distinct?
Well, with Kenny on Breaking Bad, originally he was just the right-hand man of Uncle Jack, a background guy, but then they allowed me to do just little things here and there, to build his character. He enjoys what he does, and he has a really good sense of humor, if you ask him. With Krillex in White House Down, he is just completely psycho. And Devil in Justified, his whole focus is all his money and hatred. Whereas Kenny on Breaking Bad, he likes to have a good time. The hatred? That’s just a cover to make money. Uncle Jack might creep you out a little bit, so will Todd, but I think you can be on the level with Kenny.
He seems pretty rational, at least.
I think so! Part of the fun of the last episode was talking about the meth, and then you have an Aryan brother talking about how purity doesn’t matter! [Laughs.] Also, how the color doesn’t matter. I thought that was pretty interesting.
Do you ever care if you’re going to be killed off? Or how you’re going to die?
We’re all going to die, so it’s pretty cool to have it on film. It’s a good time for everybody involved, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. I’ve never actually apologized for killing anyone, and I always find it poetic who pulls the trigger. Like on Justified, that it was Boyd who killed Devil. I thought that was the best way. And you know when Ava smashed me with the frying pan? She bashed me in the face on the first take! [Chuckles.] Thank God it was a fake frying pan, but it’s still a frying pan!
What are the conversations like when these types of things happen on set?
At the end of White House Down, when it’s got the rain coming down and the sprinklers going off and it’s my final scene? That took, I don’t know, maybe fourteen hours to shoot, and between the takes, there was a picture floating out there of me and Channing Tatum together under a blanket. But Channing and I never got physical — sorry, ladies! Sometimes you just got to talk beforehand about things like, “Okay, I’m going to throw you against the wall and I’m going to yell in your face. How loud is okay?” So you try to find out what’s okay with the other actor, because I’ve been on the other end of being thrown against the wall and not being prepared for what was coming.
Didn’t you originally want to be a stunt man?
Yeah, from watching The Fall Guy! Until I realized he was an actor playing a stuntman, and then I wanted to be an actor. It’s fun taking falls, but the fight scenes can be dangerous, if you can’t control yourself. I’ve gotten my ass kicked so many times, but I’ve rarely done the ass-kicking. Walt Goggins threw me against the wall. In Dallas Buyers Club, Matthew McConaughey put me in a chokehold. My throat hurt for weeks! Because he’s such a Method actor. He’s probably one of the best actors I’ve ever been on set with. It was just unreal.
Oh, I thought your character was Matthew McConaughey’s best friend? Why does he put you in a chokehold?
Yeah, we’re friends, until we’re not. I’m the best friend during his hard-partying days, before he gets diagnosed. But then I become kind of an asshole. And it’s fun to be the asshole.
Your character in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is named McVeigh, which just evokes associations with Timothy McVeigh …
You’re not far off, from the inspiration of what they wrote for the character, but ultimately it turned out to be farther away from Timothy McVeigh than that. But he was a thought. I think that’s why they did it. It’s fifteen years later, and the virus has taken hold. If you can think of what fifteen years of a virus can do, society has broken down. And it’s up to the audience, who is the good guy in that type of film? Are the apes the villains, or are we, the humans? It’s a little murky.