a long talk

Kim Wexler’s Curtain Call

Better Call Saul’s Rhea Seehorn reflects on six seasons spent getting inside ‘an extremely inscrutable character.’

Photo: Joe Pugliese/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Photo: Joe Pugliese/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Photo: Joe Pugliese/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

For six seasons, fans of Better Call Saul have worried about Kim Wexler. The ultracompetent attorney who married Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), the man most likely to bring out the shadier side of her character, never appears in Breaking Bad, which led some viewers to assume she would die before Saul finished its run.

But as Monday’s series finale confirmed, Kim Wexler lives on. In the last two episodes, she confesses to her role in torpedoing the reputation of Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) and inadvertently leading him to the moment of his death. She confronts her own emotions about everything she’s been through during a wrenching breakdown on an airport shuttle. She also reconciles with Jimmy, who finally ends up in jail after owning up in a courtroom to his many mistakes. Kim Wexler’s been through it. But she’s probably going to be okay.

The fact that so many people were so invested in the wellbeing of this woman, a character who didn’t fully take shape in the minds of Better Call Saul co-creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan until they saw Seehorn play her, is a testament to Seehorn’s skills as an actor. So is the Emmy Award nomination she finally — finally! — received last month for her work in the first half of season six.

One of the things that makes Seehorn so formidable onscreen is a quality she shares with Kim: She always comes prepared. But even someone who does their homework can’t always anticipate every curve ball. Better Call Saul threw a few in its final season, including Odenkirk’s sudden heart attack last year, which temporarily altered the production schedule, and some particularly challenging scenes in the final two episodes.

In the finale, Jimmy finally has to deal with some consequences, and the people who ultimately hold him to account are Kim, with the affidavit; Carol Burnett’s character, who calls the cops; and then the judge in his case, who is also a woman. Did you take note of that?
I didn’t think about that. Kim does something when he calls her at the sprinkler place that she has done all along: I think it is out of love to say, “Turn yourself in” and “You can’t be living much of a life.” Kim has no idea that he’s a manager at Cinnabon, but he’s living a life in hiding from the Feds and possibly from cartel people, which is even more of a shell of a life than what she’s living.

In her confession, Kim continues to say one lie. She does not say that she knows Saul Goodman is alive. She stays clear of making his life worse. There are people that are going to see it as, “Well, he was forced into this because she went and confessed everything they did,” but as she says, she’s not really sure they can legally prosecute anything that Kim and Jimmy did. Not the stuff she confessed to. They could come after her for tampering with evidence maybe, but it’s going to be a flimsy case. I do think that she goes and admits all this stuff perfectly willing to be prosecuted and she knows that his widow could bring a civil suit against her. But she has no direct knowledge of exactly what Jimmy has done during the Breaking Bad years.

She knows he was aiding and abetting because she would read the paper. She would have to know what Walter White has done, or Gus Fring. She doesn’t have any specifics to incriminate him with and she never threatens to turn him in. She comes back to the court because ADA Suzanne Ericsen says he is going to incriminate her for things she didn’t do, which is infuriating. The way I started that trial scene was fury, the ultimate betrayal, because for her, there is still love and that’s why she refused to turn him in. The fact that he would be fine with her going to jail is deeply disturbing to her. But then of course, throughout the course of the trial, she finds out that’s not true.

I wasn’t sure if the affidavit would bring law-enforcement attention back to him. I wondered if somewhere in her mind she was like, I don’t want to get Jimmy into more trouble, but I also want him to be caught because I don’t want him to be living like this.
I had not thought of that but I’m sure it’s among the infinite interpretations that Peter wants there to be. He wanted to write a finale and end the series in a way that might answer one question but it’s going to raise two more.

I chose to play that her turning herself in was her saving herself and her advice to him to turn himself in was an attempt to save him, but I didn’t think of it as, “I will now bring some more attention back to the case by bringing his name up again publicly.” I guess part of me was thinking, considering what they’re trying to charge him with, him being responsible for sullying someone’s reputation by calling them a drug addict was the least of his worries.

I want to discuss that courtroom scene, but before I do, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you about the scene on the airport shuttle in “Waterworks” where Kim loses it. You only did two takes of it, is that right?
Yes. With two cameras in the tram. We might have even shoved three in there because he was trying to get as many angles as you can in as few takes. I didn’t know we’d only do two takes until I arrived. I prepared as best I could to have to do many, many, many, many takes. That is not because any of our directors are sadistic, but it’s because the visual vocabulary of the show is many angles on the same thing. So, just technically, that requires you doing it over and over and over and over.

So I was prepared. For me, that means not just hoping I can go over to a corner and drum up some painful memory of my real life. I’m all for anybody’s style of working, I just know that I can’t do that for 36 takes. So what I wanted to do was think about the different pieces that she’s crying about here, because it is not just about one moment. She’s crying for the entire Shakespearean tragedy of Jimmy McGill and of Kim Wexler and of their relationship and of Chuck and of Howard and of people that try to be a good person and how hard that fight could be in day-to-day real life.

Then there’s the actual 24 hours that she’s had since getting Jimmy’s call. I think she still loves him. I think she’s terrified for him and flew to New Mexico and lied to God knows how many people about where she was going. Didn’t pack a bag. Didn’t get any sleep. And then, there’s a progression of scenes. Being a stranger in a strange land at a courthouse that used to be her home. Looking at everything that she could have had and then letting Hamlin’s widow nail her to the stake and accepting it. We were insistent — Vince and I in conversations and then also with Peter — that Kim cannot look for sympathy in those scenes. It is not fair for her to be the one that has to be consoled in any way, which is why I’m so stoic in those scenes.

I tried to take in all of those things, then build it. I do a thing where I ask myself, “Well, where does that kind of pain live? Where does that kind of shame live? Is it the feeling of throwing up? Is it when you feel like it’s tight under your sternum? Is it when your chest gets real heavy?” We all know that feeling where you’re not sure you can breathe.

I just tried to pull all of those things, get on a bus with strangers, which made me feel so alone even though my crew was there, and now try really hard not to cry. Literally that was my plan because if you go in there and say, “I hope I can make myself cry for 30 takes,” you’ll fail. That’s too scary. I literally just put the things physically that we have all felt in extreme shame in our lives or extreme pain in our lives and then try to not let them come all the way out. As soon as you get fissures and it cracks a little bit and you fight to squash it down harder, it’ll come back at you harder. Those are the takes you ended up witnessing and then Vince said, “I think we’re good. We’re just going to do two.” And I was like, “Oh.”

I said, “We can do more. I don’t know how many I can do, but we can do more if I didn’t tell the story that’s what you want to tell.” And he said, “No, we have it exactly. We have it exactly.”

Is that a scene you can even rehearse beforehand?
Rehearse in a traditional way? No. That’s more script analysis. Super-technical stuff like, “Let’s go through everything that happened to her today so that I understand exactly what I’ve been doing for the last 24 hours. Let’s go through what went down 24 hours before that. Did I lie? Do I feel bad about that? What did I say?” Because I didn’t know if we’d shoot out of sequence, so it was important for me to imagine how it would feel walking into the courthouse and confessing those things. Is there relief? Is it just shame?

Someone asked me the other day in an interview, “Do you think Kim, over the last five, six years, has been privately crying in a closet like this away from people?” I said, “No.” The decision I made is that this is the first time she’s let any of this out. She would not let herself feel it. One, for fear that the dam would never be able to be closed up again and two, because of the compartmentalizing. You can’t rehearse it in a traditional way, but I did a lot of thinking about it and then gave myself some tactile markers that I knew that I could have as a reminder of my starting point each time when I get on the bus.

It really was late at night and I had the great fortune of being able to have my view straight ahead. They left enough space that I could stare out the window and I could see the Albuquerque skyline. They showed me the route we were going to take, so that was a bit of a rehearsal for me to just understand, “Where are people going to be near me and what will I be able to see in front of me?” And that way, I can rehearse it to the degree of understanding, “Okay, on each take, when we come around that corner and I see that skyline, let that skyline inform the life I could have had. The life that’s lost. And when I softly hear chatter to my left and my right, let that remind you of how utterly alone she is in this world.”

She feels no actual passion about the people she knows in Florida. They’re lovely. They’re nice. They’re great, but they don’t actually even know her real life. There’s one person that knows the real Kim and he is on the lam from the Feds and it was the love of her life and that’s done — I’m blathering on and on. Is any of this interesting? I’m so sorry.

My God, don’t apologize. I always love talking to you because you explain your process so clearly.
I love that. Thank you.

Also, I gripped my purse — it was on my lap and I remember telling myself, “Let it remind you of how sick to your stomach you are with what you’ve done to people,” which immediately made me start swallowing and feel, like, indigestion. I attached different physical things to different memories of Jimmy and Kim, or of the tragedy of Jimmy and his brother. And the fact that he used to be a little kid who had all this potential and he’s a brilliant lawyer. It made my heart ache, and saying goodbye to him in the breakup scene automatically makes me have a lump in my throat.

I think that’s all the prep you can do. After that, you rely on the gift that I’ve had of seven years, six seasons of some of the smartest people in the whole business telling me that when I do my homework of creating Kim and I think the thoughts, that it’s enough. That scene is terrifying on paper. I have the great fortune of the support system that I have that made me feel I’m going to be enough when I get there.

Seehorn and “Saul Good” writer-director Peter Gould talk during filming of the courtroom scene. Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Tel/

In the courthouse scene in the finale, I’m curious if there were different ways that either you tried to react or that Bob delivered that monologue. That speech felt reminiscent of the one Jimmy gave at the hearing about getting his law license back, where he seems emotional but it’s just an act. What was the approach to that scene for both of you?
We went back. We were done shooting except for some small pieces and we went back and redid the whole thing because Bob decided he didn’t like the approach he gave it. There are multiple ways to do that scene. I would rather him articulate exactly what he found was the shift, but to me, when he came back and did it again, there needed to be that question of like, is he contrite? You said something that I absolutely knew that Kim had to be playing, and that the audience would know she was playing, which is, “Is this real this time?” Someone that’s a professional scam artist, it’s like, “How do I know when he’s not bullshitting me?”

Her final look to him, Peter and I talked about it and Bob and I talked about that there’s great compassion, fear, love, worry for him in that moment when he exits the courtroom. But it needed to not be the same thing that you see when I go and have the cigarette with him. We knew we needed to hold something back for that.

Bob brought something wonderful to that [cigarette] scene. The joy of these scripts and getting a scene partner like Bob is you do all your work but then you get there knowing that you’re now going to be affected by how he chose to play his side. The way he was doing Jimmy that day, he was so worried about Kim being too scared for him and wanting to let her know that he’s going to be okay. I just thought it was such a beautiful act of love.

Was that the last scene you shot? 
The last scene we shot was the smoking.

How did it feel when you finished?
That’s one of those things where it’s like, “Oh, what a great gift when your own emotions match up with what your character is supposed to be feeling, saying goodbye to people.” But it’s really, really important to me to, as Peter calls it in the writer’s room, kick the tires if anything looks too easy. So I’m like, “Okay, let’s really make sure that Kim’s feelings would match up to what I may feel when I walk onto that sound stage knowing it’s the last time I’m walking onto this sound stage working with these people.”

I don’t mean to sound like I’m not organic in the moment. It’s just how I work, that I do a lot of homework so that I am free to let it all go when I get there and then be organic and respond to whatever. So I just tried to go about thinking like, “Okay, saying goodbye to somebody is a very real thing that one can use, but even more so the idea that she can’t let it go right now. It would be inappropriate for Rhea to bawl through this scene, but it would also be inappropriate for Kim to bawl through this scene.” I stayed very close to the set between takes and I didn’t go and chat with people. I often goof around even on difficult scenes and just go in and out. But we had press there, and in-house people doing DVD commentary stuff on the last day, and people crying over in the corner saying goodbye to each other, and I needed to stay away from it all.

It’s been extraordinary, just the most beautiful way to become a better actor. Everything that I’ve gotten to learn from doing this character, from doing this writing, being challenged by these scripts and also this direction, and also Bob as my scene partner. He is tireless in his pursuit of truth in a scene, as am I, or at least I try to be.

Kim and Jimmy’s shared prison cigarette was the final scene shot for the series. Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television/

Obviously you had the unfortunate situation of Bob’s heart attack while you were filming these final episodes. How did that affect how you felt going through the remainder of the show?
I’m sure physiologically and neurologically there’s no way that it’s not a part of the matrix that’s in my brain when I’m performing with Bob. Almost everyone has lost someone that they are very, very close to and been like, “If I could have just had one more day, if I could have just said one more thing.” And you never get it. And I got it. And so did Patrick Fabian and Bob’s beloved family that I adore and the whole world, apparently. We found out how much the whole entire world loves Bob Odenkirk. No surprise, but now it’s in writing.

Because he had some rehabilitation to do, I actually shot at least a week and a half of stuff that was always supposed to be without him: the walking up to Gus’s house, the driving scenes. Bob being Bob, he was immediately worried about holding up production. And I kept telling him, “This was an extremely well-timed heart attack. We don’t need you right now. Please lay down for five seconds.”

It was really hard when we had to return to the scene that [the heart attack] happened in. Thankfully, we had shot our close coverage. We were turning around on Tony Dalton when it happened. So it probably was weirder for Tony. Bob and I had to watch [the scene again] because he doesn’t remember the entire day. Fourteen hours of shooting: nothing.

It was also very hard the first time he got back on his exercise bike. The entire crew went silent.

Oh, gosh.
He was getting off it when it happened. Just so everyone knows, and Bob’s insistent about this, the exercise bike did not cause the heart attack. It’s plaque that just moves one day. It’s actually the fact that he’s constantly staying in the best shape of his life because of doing Nobody, that’s why he survived so well.

The scene where you share the cigarette and then Kim leaves the prison: In your mind, was that the only visit? Do you think she will come back and visit him again? 
Now this is very purposely written to be open to interpretation, and there will be multiple interpretations. I asked Peter’s permission. I said, “Do you want me to not answer people what my thoughts were?” He said, “You can say whatever you want to.” Mine is fully infused not with Kim’s thoughts, but with Rhea’s thoughts, and I am a hopeless romantic. I think definitely that’s not the last visit. They are going to see each other many times. I actually think that she goes about trying to reduce his sentence in a legally just way, not cutting corners. What their relationship is after that, I’m not sure of, but I think they stay in each other’s lives. I do.

Do you feel like there’s more of Kim’s story to tell?
Sure. I have the benefit of playing an extremely inscrutable character, so we have tons of secrets we could find out about her. Who knows? I know [Vince and Peter] both have said that they want to step away from that world, at least for the moment and probably for a while. So if they decide to revisit it, I hope I’m not too old. If they want to revisit it, I would revisit it in a heartbeat.

Is Kim happy in Florida? I think she might be content but not happy.
Agreed. I think her starting to volunteer at the legal office, the pro bono office, and her visiting Jimmy are signs that she is just beginning to think that she deserves to live a more authentic life and hopefully find passion and real value.

It was important to us to not have her return to the jail cell with blonde hair, or even with brown hair in a ponytail. It is not supposed to look like it’s just a reset. It’s a very, very long road ahead, but I do think that she went back and confessed because she decided, yes, it’s atoning for your sins more than just living this shell of a life. But I also think it was a decision to breathe again.

In the scene where I’m walking away from the prison and he does finger guns, we actually filmed me doing them back to him.

Oh, really?
We did it in a very ambiguous way. It wasn’t like wink, wink or blow a kiss. It was very small. But Peter decided — and these are things you just don’t find out until you are looking at them on the screen and looking at the whole episode — that it looked a smidge too much like she’s saying, “I’m back in the game. Let’s scam again.”

Before we finish, I do want to say congratulations on your Emmy nomination. That is long overdue.
Thank you.

Have you given any thought to anything about that night yet? Or does it still feel too far away?
I’m probably supposed to be thinking about it more than I am. It sounds dumb, but I’m really enjoying being nominated.

Why is that dumb?
Well, I think people always say that so that you think they don’t care about winning, but I honestly just am enjoying that part. The only part that terrifies me — I’m not terrified of losing, but I’m terrified of public speaking. So if I do go up on stage, you’ll see me in real fear, which is why my acceptance speech for the HCAs, I’m shaking through the whole thing. But for me, it was pretty good. It was intelligible at least.

That is so interesting that you don’t like public speaking. I guess it’s different when it’s your words as you versus you reading somebody else’s words as a character.
It is different. I had to do some acceptance speech — listen to me, I had to. I had to because I won an award. What a pain in the ass. I should say I got to do a speech. This was quite a few years ago when I was even worse. And they said, “Well, just pretend it is a character that you’re playing and then play that, so then it’s not you.” Then it just came out super-fake, super over-rehearsed because it’s like, “I’m playing a me that’s accepting an award.” It was so stupid.

It’s the same reason I used to be horrible at curtain calls, really bowing in a weird way and just making the dumbest smiles. Howard Shalwitz, one of my greatest mentors in theater, the artistic director and creator of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in D.C. — it’s still one of my greatest achievements that I’m a company member there — he came up to me and was like, “Rhea, I need to talk to you about the curtain calls.” And this is embarrassing, but I thought in my head, I know, because I’m so humble. I was like, “In those moments, having the focus on me, it’s just hard for me, because I don’t want it to be about me.” And he’s like, “That’s great. But listen, the curtain call is actually not for you. The curtain call is for the audience to be given a moment to appreciate the performance and tell you what they thought of it, and you should accept it with graciousness because it is for them. It is not a moment about you.” He wasn’t being mean at all, but I never forgot that. And I did my curtain calls like a normal human after that.

Kim Wexler’s Curtain Call