‘Better Call Saul’ Star Michael McKean on Chuck’s Testimony in Tonight’s Trial Episode, ‘Chicanery’

The actor behind the frustrating but sympathetic Chuck McGill on "Chicanery," which pits the two McGill brothers publicly against each other

Better Call Saul Michael McKean
Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictur

This interview contains plot details for the May 8 episode of “Better Call Saul,” “Chicanery.” Do not read if you haven’t seen the episode.

In tonight’s excellent episode of “Better Call Saul,” Chuck McGill (Michael McKean) tries to execute the final blow against his brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk)’s law career by using last season’s secret recording to attempt to get Jimmy disbarred in the state of New Mexico. Jimmy and Kim (Rhea Seehorn) already spent last week’s episode prepping for this hearing; in “Chicanery,” “Better Call Saul” constructs an unexpected midseason reunion, as almost all of the major characters are in the room at the same time, passing judgment on Jimmy’s moral character. Directed by Daniel Sackheim and written by Gordon Smith, “Chicanery” is a gripping episode that showcases the strengths and weaknesses of both McGill brothers through an exploration of both men’s inconsistencies with the truth — especially when it works in their favor. This chicanery is oddly the McGill family heritage, even though Chuck spends most of the episode trying to prove he’s better than Jimmy.

By the time Chuck takes the stand, there’s the weight of two-and-a-half seasons of resentment on his shoulders. McKean has always given an extraordinary performance as Jimmy’s older brother, but in “Chicanery” his foibles are at their most pathetically illuminated: His plotted referendum on Jimmy’s character turns into an unexpected referendum on his own. Chuck’s electromagnetic sensitivity — a psychosomatic illness with debated roots in pathology — has from the beginning been his character’s odd, ever-present condition. Jimmy uses Chuck’s main weakness against him, planting a cell phone battery on his person to “prove” that Chuck’s illness indicates more about his psychological state than his physical one. Strangely, after a half-season rooting for Jimmy to throw off the yoke of his brother’s unfair oppression, the younger McGill brother’s triumph feels more like a tragedy. Variety spoke to McKean about his brilliantly sympathetic portrayal of the frustrating, unlikeable, and unfortunately quite prescient Chuck McGill, both in this episode “Chicanery” and in the series as a whole.

Sonia Saraiya: Tell me a little about the prep for this remarkable episode. There’s this long courtroom scene with a few monologues. And Chuck’s attitude, his affect, really changes from the beginning to the end.

Michael McKean: You’ve seen it once more than me, because I haven’t seen any — I’ve only seen the first two episodes. For three years running, I made a 10-hour movie each year, and though I don’t remember what goes where, I roughly have an idea. I know what happens in this episode, because it was a lot of work and a lot to learn.

Anytime you are faced with a big block of stuff like that, there’s no real way to systemize it that’s not personal. Everyone’s going to have their own process for doing a big chunk like that. I was in New Mexico and when I wasn’t on the set I had some days where I was just pacing around my apartment and getting the stuff together in my head. It’s just a matter of learning your lines — learning kind of roughly what you’re going to do with it and what your character wants is the primary job, of course.

Dan Sackheim, who’s the director, he was very sweet to run it by me and say, look, this is a huge scene. Would it be okay if we shot everything going this way, and then everything going this way — the logistics of it. And I told him, thank you for asking, but it really doesn’t make any difference to me. You’re the eyes, I’m the subject. That’s kind of how we cooked it up, and I think it worked out okay. Gordon Smith was the writer on that episode and there was a lot of input… and it was long days for everybody, not just for those who had the talking to do. There was a lot of coverage on it. And yeah, I think it worked out okay.

I think it did, too. I know that you’re doing a great job as Chuck, because I always want to punch him in the face. But it’s interesting: In this episode, my own instinct to make him the villain was really challenged. He’s both very frustrating and at the same time very sympathetic.

I really can’t imagine playing a character I have no sympathy for — mainly because that’s not my job. We are subjective. Our sympathy goes out to other people. We’re capable of feeling sorry for ourselves, we’re capable of feeling that someone else is getting breaks that we’re not — all those paranoid delusions, or sometimes they’re very accurate. We do things, rather than sit there and judge ourselves and compare ourselves with other people. It’s not how life works. So everything I’ve done, everything that Chuck has done, has been for various reasons very self-motivated. But he’s also trying to kind of sculpt his life, and Jimmy is the guy who keeps knocking the chisel out of his hand. Before Jimmy came to town, before the brothers were reunited, things went a lot smoother.  Everything was great. I was a master of the universe, and there was a great collision of events and this is what I’m left with.

We still don’t know what the connection between Chuck’s illness — psychological or not, psychosomatic or not — we still don’t know what bearing Jimmy’s presence or absence has to do with that. It’s a complicated issue, and I just try and keep it simple. I mean, Chuck is trying to redesign and fix his life, and get it back the way it was. It’s pretty simple.

In “Chicanery” there’s this climactic, revelatory moment with the charged battery about the “true” nature of Chuck’s illness. I think viewers are going to have a lot of differing interpretations about what it means. What were you thinking about when you were playing that?

Listen, everything that is happening to Chuck is really happening to Chuck. That’s the only way I can play it, because the script told me from episode one — Season 1, Episode 1 — that this is something real. Because when Jimmy wasn’t around, when nobody was around except the viewing public, he was still feeling these things — and he was genuinely feeling them. What they are made of, whether it’s physiological or psychological, is beside the point. I had to play like it’s real, and so the revelation of the battery in the courtroom scene, I have to play that that’s real too.

Then it just becomes a matter of word and action. I mean, my action was very clear. I want to get my brother out of the state, out of the law. I don’t want him to go to jail, but I would love for him not to be a lawyer in New Mexico anymore.  Chuck is motivated by very, very basic impulses and he carries them out the best he can — and he is in turn afforded his own psychological or physiological shortcomings. Like I say — I keep saying the same thing —  it’s got to stay simple, it’s got to stay real. If a person is thrown into a place of turmoil where he is beginning to doubt his sanity, that’s kind of what I have to do.

I think that [“Chicanery”] ends on kind of an upbeat note. Whenever there was a person in trouble who learns to ask for help, it’s got to be a major step and it’s got to be a positive step.

As with many psychosomatic illnesses, Chuck’s seems to be tied to his most fundamental frustrations. That both Jimmy and his ex-wife Rebecca are present in this episode indicates that.

Well, Something that we don’t really talk about: Why did Jimmy decide to become a lawyer? He was kind of living scam to scam. But the idea that he would go into the law — it very much suggests that there may be something heroic about Chuck in his eyes.

Meanwhile you see at the beginning of this episode, with the fake revamping of the building, of his home, of Chuck’s home. The fake restoration of the devices and the appliances. There’s something about it that says — that implies that Chuck will take the artifice over the reality, if the artifice works for him. That is something that is very, very central to any good attorney’s playbook. There was a famous lawyer named Melvin Belli, who once handled a case where a worker’s arm was mangled in an industrial accident. The guy was suing the company for not having proper safety. And every day Melvin Belli brought into work, wrapped in butcher paper, some object, and it sat on his desk during the entire trial. It looked like somebody’s arm wrapped in butcher paper. It wasn’t, it was just a bunch of newspapers, and he never mentioned it, never referred to it — but every day, every day the jury saw what could’ve been a mangled arm wrapped in butcher paper on this man’s desk. The guy won. That’s a case of using artifice.

Now, this, the fake revamping of the home is definitely that kind of artifice. And here is a man trying to maybe progress toward a better relationship with his ex-wife and maybe even rekindle that story — and he’s doing it through fakery! Jimmy, who had fakery as his means of survival, is becoming more genuine. It’s a very interesting kind of crossover that happens there. Anyway, it’s kind of an interesting thing in retrospect. It’s not one of those things you think about while you’re doing, because your character has to be simpler than that. Your character has to just want what he wants, and he’s not going to psychoanalyze his actions as he goes. He’s just going to perform them.

Chuck’s real bugbear is that Jimmy became a lawyer. Some of that is that it’s his turf. But some of it seems to be that he sees the law as something sacred, something beyond reproach.

Well, it’s funny. A lot of those things that we pay lip service to, we believe them for public consumption, but we don’t mind working in the shadows if it gets us what we want. You see that with American politicians and I’m sure politicians all over the world, over and over again. There are people in Congress right now who swear that they are for their people, and last week they voted to screw a lot of them, but it doesn’t change their approach. They still call themselves patriots and they will still call anyone they disagree with a traitor. Artifice is something that we live with every day. The law is about convincing 12 strangers to think your way, and to help your client — or your state if you’re a prosecutor. When a person swears, puts his hand on a Bible and swears, that doesn’t literally mean that God’s going to take him off the earth if he lies. Because people lie under oath all the time, but it’s this artifice that we live by, it’s these fables that we tell ourselves. And lawyers … I have friends who are lawyers, but a lot of them make a living really not so much seeking the truth, as manipulating it — and making the truth and its absence work in their favor. I think that his artifice is just kind of one deep further than the artifice of many.

Chuck seems to believe in his bones that even though he does all this stuff, he’s still better than Jimmy.

Yeah. Oh, absolutely. He’s definitely a better lawyer than Jimmy. He is! And he’s smarter than Jimmy. It’s like all those things are true, that’s not an opinion. But that’s not his problem. If Jimmy were like that level of lawyer — but on the level — if he were a decent lawyer, not a great one, but if he had come from another place other than the guy I just bailed out of jail. Then [Chuck] would probably have a different opinion. His opinion would be, You know what? Jimmy will be fine. He’ll have a little office, a little shingle, and he’ll make a living, and he’ll be off my back. That’ll be wonderful. but there is something about the shortcuts that Jimmy took, and the allies that Jimmy lurks in, that make it unacceptable. Yeah, I’ve thought a lot about this.

We’ve only seen Chuck’s relationship with Rebecca in snippets. Do you think her presence in that room changed the way that Chuck’s testimony on the stand went?

Yeah, I suppose. Like I say, it was already some months ago and that scene was … there’s so much going on there. But when it becomes clear that she’s there, that that’s really her sitting out there — the curiosity of what she’s doing there does throw Chuck a little bit. When you see your ex, you can’t process absolutely everything all at once. I couldn’t tell you to any degree of certainty what difference it made, but I’m still just a guy on the stand answering the questions to the best of my ability. Yeah.

Can you give us an idea of where Chuck’s headed now?

Nope. I cannot. Absolutely cannot.

Not even —

Not even, no.