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‘Better Call Saul’ Q&A: Michael McKean Talks Chuck and Jimmy’s Parents, Mike’s Past

Better Call Saul” finally put Chuck McGill’s strange condition into words: electromagnetic hypersensitivity. Yes, it’s a real thing, but for the purposes of the show, Chuck’s condition appears to be psychosomatic. Of course, that doesn’t make it any less of a problem for Chuck, or for Jimmy.

Variety spoke with actor Michael McKean the morning after the episode aired to find out more about whether or not Jimmy should feel responsible for Chuck’s illness, whether we’ll ever see their parents on the show, his thoughts on the “sex toilet” and what’s ahead next week for Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut. Plus, we got a little hint of what McKean’s friend and former co-star, Bryan Cranston, thinks of the “Breaking Bad” prequel.

Did the confirmation that Chuck’s illness is psychosomatic change anything for you?
No, because (Chuck) doesn’t see it. It’s not something that was demonstrated to me in the scene, so I couldn’t let it change anything for what I’m playing.

And obviously for Chuck it’s real no matter what.
Yes, of course, it is real.

It was touching to see Jimmy fighting to remove all the electricity from the hospital room. There’s a real bond there.
You see one brother taking care of the other brother in the only way they can. (Chuck) has taken care of Jimmy most of his life; he was getting out of law school when Jimmy was still in high school. Chuck used whatever skills and whatever pull he had to keep Jimmy on the straight and narrow. Now when Chuck needs him, it seems like Jimmy is there for him.

At the same time Jimmy seems to think Chuck’s condition is related to him — when Jimmy’s not behaving, Chuck seems to feel worse. Do you think there’s any truth to that or is it Jimmy’s narcissism?
It’s kind of negative narcissism. Jimmy knows what a black hole he’s been in Chuck’s life, what a problem he’s been. However hard he tries to stay on the straight and narrow, it’s not an easy fit for him. He has a tendency to think of himself as being in the center of whatever is wrong with Chuck’s life. We play these roles in our families when we’re growing up. This one is always with a book. That one collects tropical fish and never cleans his room. For Jimmy, it’s been so negative.

I don’t think it’s been made explicitly clear on the show yet, but have their parents passed away?
I can’t tell you that, because I don’t know.

Have you had any conversations with Vince Gilligan or Peter Gould about Chuck and Jimmy’s upbringing?
You’re going to see a bit of (Jimmy’s) relationship with his father in an upcoming flashback. I read it, but I have not seen it. I can’t tell you much. It’s better to let these things hatch. I think you learn more about characters than you think you’re going to.

One of the episode’s funniest bits was the “sex toilet.” Chuck wasn’t in the scene, but what did you think when you read it?
I remember reading it and saying, “I want to see this.” I haven’t seen the episode yet, so no comment, but I’m looking forward to it.

So you don’t know they also used music from “The Third Man”?
No, I didn’t know that was in there. My wife had somehow not seen “The Third Man,” this was about five or six years ago, and it was playing at Film Forum here in New York. I waltzed her in there, and to watch someone experience that movie and have that music following them around for the rest of the day… It’s such a great movie. Don’t get me started on “The Third Man.” But I’m glad to hear they used it, because it’s pretty amazing.

The show feels inspired by the Coen Brothers in a good way — the way the sex toilet scene played reminded me a little of George Clooney’s basement in “Burn After Reading.” Is that kind of dark comedic approach particularly appealing to you?
I love that it’s playing that way. We’re used to seeing characters thrust into dangerous situations and we bite our nails and sit on the edge of our seats. When it happens in this case it’s amusing. We have that level of amusement. But hopefully the threat of violence and the dire consequences of one’s actions are pretty clear. That it’s really happening. That’s very important to us, that it’s a real peril and not just one played for laughs.

There’s a tendency in TV, primarily because of awards, to want to label shows as either comedy or drama. Do you feel like it’s possible to categorize “Better Call Saul” one way or the other?
No, I don’t think about things like that. I think that way lies madness. (The writers) are making the show they want to make, and that’s a great thing.

I know that when you were filming the show you were also working with Bryan Cranston on Broadway in “All the Way.” Has he shared his reaction since it started airing?
We’ve emailed a little bit. He loves the show and said very nice things about me. There’s kind of an element of “told you so” about it, because he always had such high praise for the years he worked with that company and crew. It is a world-class crew. They’re as good as you get. We compared notes only that far, and I told him it was fun.

Heading into next week, it looks like a big episode for Jonathan Banks as Mike. As a fan of “Breaking Bad” were you excited to find out more about his character?
Yeah. I was told I wasn’t in it, so I read it more thoroughly than I would normally. Ordinarily you kind of look for your parts. You read it, but you’re always concentrating on your stuff and then when you see it you see everybody’s work. In this case it was like reading a short story. It’s really fabulous. Great writing in this one. It reminded me a little bit of Elmore Leonard’s stuff — out here on the edge of urban doom, and all the stakes are very high. And Jonathan’s an awfully good actor. I’ll be watching along with everyone else.

“Better Call Saul” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.

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