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Breaking Bad’s David Costabile on His Big Return to Better Call Saul

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Spoilers ahead for Better Call Saul season three.

That Better Call Saul is one of the best dramas on TV has everything to do with how meticulously it’s crafted. Though the show is a prequel to Breaking Bad, the only references it makes to its progenitor are those that are strictly necessary. In other words, there’s no fan service, which makes it all the more rewarding when familiar faces show up.

Joining the ranks in this week’s “Something Beautiful” is Gale Boetticher (David Costabile), the sweet-natured chemist who briefly teamed up with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) before being dispatched by Jesse (Aaron Paul) in one of the Breaking Bad’s most wrenching deaths. Though that show provided a few details as to Gale’s life prior to working for Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), this episode provides our first real look at a pre-Heisenberg Gale and how he got drawn into the meth business — plus, another delightful scene where Gale sings. (Even better, it’s a song about the periodic table.) Vulture caught up with Costabile to talk about returning to Albuquerque, getting into character, and going wild for Billions’ Wags.

You’ve been fielding inquiries about whether or not Gale would be back pretty much since Better Call Saul started.
[Laughs.] Certainly since he got shot, yes. Everybody was like, “Is he dead? Is he not dead?”

When did you actually end up finding out that he’d be back?
I had seen [Saul showrunner] Peter [Gould] years ago while they were finishing the first season, and I just happened to be in Albuquerque shooting something else. We ran into each other, we had breakfast and talked, he was like, “Oh, it would be so great to get you back on the show,” and I said, “Yeah, that would be fun.” But I didn’t know what was in the works until they called up and were like, “Okay, this is happening.” So that was many years later, and I was happy to hear from them, I love playing that character. No one was sadder than me when Vince [Gilligan] told me I was going to be killed.

Had you been keeping up with Better Call Saul?
Oh yeah, I loved watching it. Sometimes when you’re on a series, if you join mid-run, you don’t watch. Sometimes you do watch. I happened to watch Breaking Bad from the beginning, so I was a fan of that, and just never stopped. There was no reason to not watch the show, just to see the characters come back, but also to see the world that they were going to create around it. I also just happened to be a big fan.

Had you thought much about Gale in between now and then?
I hadn’t, because he was dead. [Laughs.] There wasn’t much to think about. I had not. Had you? Had you spent a lot of time thinking about what was going on with old Gale?

Just mourning, mostly.

They had you sing in Breaking Bad after realizing that you had some musical background. How did they settle on a song this time around?
I think that is a natural fit because of the elements. Tom Lehrer, who did the song, who adapted it from the Gilbert and Sullivan, I love. My guess is that those guys had thought, for years, that if they were ever to put in another tune, they’d have to get this chemistry song. There aren’t that many songs written about chemistry, so you gotta get the periodic table in.

Had you ever performed that song before?
I had not, stupidly. That’s what I should have been doing while I was thinking about Gale, was actually learning that song, because when they called and said, “Hey, by the way, you’re going to have to perform this song,” I did not have a lot of time to learn it. It’s a tricky song, so it was many, many hours of really pounding it into my brain to get it done. If I had been smart, I would have said, “Oh, hey, you played a chemist! At some point, somebody’s going to ask you to sing that tune, you better learn it.”

It’s established in Breaking Bad that Gale came from an academic background, and we see a little bit of that in this episode. How much of Gale’s life had you worked out prior to meth-making?
One of the things that those guys did, and I really like about it — and also just for myself and my normal process — is that you really want to glean whatever you can from what’s written rather than fantasizing, necessarily, about yourself. Because the writers have spent so long doing it, and because so much of who that person is was clear from what they wrote, you didn’t have to go particularly far afield in order to have your imagination inspired by how full he was internally, what world he lived in. Then, when you got there and put on the clothes and saw the set, it was always an easy fit, and it was definitely one of those roles that, from when I auditioned for it, I knew who that person was. I just knew who it was. You don’t get those very often. Sometimes you get them and you don’t get the job, which is very heartbreaking, and sometimes you get them and you get the job! I really was very excited when I got this gig. I was hoping it would happen, and it did, and it was a great experience because I really felt like I heard all of the struggle that the writers had in terms of creating who this person was. I knew how to play him and who he was. I felt that very strongly.

Can you elaborate as to your process? How do you build off of the script and get into character?
It’s different for every role. One of the things that I endeavor to do is listen completely, to listen to all aspects of what’s happening. That is both on the macro and micro level, so that when you get to work, you see people and you talk to them, there’s a sense of listening, not just with your ears but with your whole body.

When you walk onto the set and you see the potato clock, or a picture of [Gale] on Mount Everest, or the skis that are relaxing in the background, covered in dust, it’s a way of listening to the designer or the decorator or whoever has put the time and thought into the objects. There are so many different people that are involved in creating this, and once you get in the clothes, there’s a whole other world that’s opened up to you about what they’re saying, what they’re speaking to you about, what their hope for this character is. That kind of listening is very helpful in terms of how you allow your own imagination to take play inside of something that is fixed. The words are fixed, the scene is fixed — what’s happened, why they’re there, where they’re going to, where they’ve come from — all of those things that are normal, average ways of considering a character inside of a scene. The trick then is, inside of something fixed, how do you find something that can be vast? Sorry, that’s an esoteric question to maybe a practical question. I suppose if you gave me a very practical acting scenario, I could come up with how you might start to work on it.

Well, you said that you had a very clear idea of who Gale was from the get-go on Breaking Bad. Coming back to him now, it’s obviously a different point in his life. Were there specific details that made your performance different then as opposed to now?
There are a couple of things. One was the song, which is a great entrance into that. What’s smart about why you would put this particular song there instead of something that was as unique as “Crapa Pelada,” which is the first song that I sang on Breaking Bad, this is something that you would imagine the chemist would sing. A music enthusiast who loves chemistry would come up with that song, and would of course know that song. So that was a great breaking-in point.

When I got to the set, this is really the first time you see him doing a chemical experiment. He was not manufacturing something; he was doing a science experiment. That was also very helpful and informative about getting to a place where it’s earlier in his life. There are also aspects — I dye my hair, I dye my beard, because it’s much greyer than it appears on the TV. [Laughs.] And those aspects are actually quite helpful to giving yourself less knowledge, and focusing you on what it is that you’re doing right then, rather than worrying about, “Oh, look what happens to him,” or “Where does he get to?” There’s all sorts of things are inspired by that. His hopefulness, his naïveté, and maybe he’s not as solidified in his own belief system. You want to put yourself at a crossroad of evolution, because you know where he goes, but you don’t know where he came from.

Speaking to that innocent vibe, how much did it affect Gale’s little interaction with Gus? As an audience, we know that Gus is playing him.
I think he believes in a rigorous pursuit of quality. One of the many reasons that he loves chemistry is because there’s an endless pursuit of that kind of purity, and the rigor that you need to apply to yourself in order to achieve that is central to who he is as a person. That’s what he wants, that’s what he craves, and that’s what he pushes himself towards all the time. When Gus finds this person, he thinks that’s a great opportunity for his own pursuits — to actually see somebody who’s less concerned with the effect that he’s having on the world, because he really is concentrated on this one pursuit, which is what he even says in the scene. “You’re meant for greater things. This is not your time right now. We have to wait. We’re not ready yet.”

Gale does look slightly less cherubic with facial hair. Was that part of a wardrobe decision or because you’ve also been shooting Billions?
[Laughs.] It was a constraint of my work on Billions at the time. For that episode we shot, I was in the middle of production, so we had to adjust.

I don’t know if you’ve been keeping track, but the love for Billions and Wags has blown up over the last season. There’s articles titled “It’s Finally Wags Season Again,” or “The Best Part of Billions Is Wags, Baby.” What do you make of that?
That sounds fantastic! Who could disagree with that? It’s a very fun character to play. I can always do the most fun things, say the most fun things, and get to be as outrageous as I want to be. I couldn’t be happier playing that role. I’m also very excited that that has really landed with audiences. It’s super fun. How that character started out was quite different. He was going to be a strong, silent type. We shot that in the pilot, then the writers realized they had to go in a completely different direction, so we cut most of what I had done in the pilot, then spun it around. Luckily, it keeps spinning. People should go out and buy the T-shirt and the cutout figure.

I’ve seen the cutout on your Instagram.
Do you have one? Get yourself one! It’s fantastic! And I’m like six-foot-five in the thing. I am not a six-foot-five person, but in my cutout, I’m giant. It’s awesome.

You’ve played a lot of pretty iconic roles. Is there anything that you get recognized for more often than others?
It depends on where I am. I was recently in Ireland, and the SuitsBreaking Bad continuum was very strong over there. Because Billions is only playing on paid TV over there, not a lot of people have it, but other ones are on regular TV. If I go to midtown, it’s all Billions, all the time.

Do they quote your lines back at you?
People sometimes do, and then I kind of look at them because I may not remember those. Once they go in and they come out, it’s done. You gotta erase the hard drive. So I’m like, “Wow, did I say that?” There was one thing I had seen recently, there was some trailer where I said something appalling. I couldn’t believe it. I was like, “God, did I say that? I’m terrible!”

This interview has been edited and condensed.

David Costabile on Gale’s Big Return to Better Call Saul