‘Better Call Saul’ co-star Michael McKean: ‘I have to treat it like it’s real’

Last night’s “Better Call Saul” gave us more insight into the condition that Jimmy McGill’s brother Chuck suffers from. But an interview today with actor Michael McKean only muddied the issue.

So in last night’s episode, we learned that while Chuck is convinced he is dealing with electromagnetic hypersensitivity, his symptoms are largely psychosomatic. When McKean and I spoke a few hours ago, though, the interview itself was plagued by electromagnetic interference in McKean’s home, which eventually forced him to go to another room. Now, the only symptoms were a bad phone connection (which means a few of his early answers are incomplete), but still… if I were in the mindset of Fox Mulder – who once swapped bodies with McKean’s Morris Fletcher in an “X-Files” two-parter that began his collaboration with Vince Gilligan – I might wonder if darker forces didn’t want me writing about this condition existing only in Chuck’s head.

In addition to electromagnetism, we also discussed McKean’s “Breaking Bad” fandom, long-standing relationship with Bob Odenkirk, and why he didn’t go to the “SNL” 40th reunion last month.

As you prepared for the role, what did you study about this condition, which many people say they suffer from?

Michael McKean: Just enough to let me know that there myriad symptoms. There’s a wide variance of what people are feeling. I really had to assemble something. I couldn’t get a straight answer of whether it was psychosomatic or genuine. I had to play it as something I was really feeling. I used my imagination somewhat. Well, there are some people who are really sensitive to cold. There are people who feel awful whenever they sweat, and there are people who know when lightning’s going to strike. If you’ve ever been around somewhere that lightning just hit, you feel something in the air, and if that’s something that people are more sensitive to, that aura, that sounds kind of spooky, but a genuine electromagnetic field is not nothing. I just had to play that that’s what I was feeling. It is real, and it is giving me all those unpleasant symptoms. If you examine the real afflictions that people suffer from, there are a lot of different opinions and angles, from what I’ve read. But I have to treat it like it’s real, because it’s real to him. A lot of this stuff, we fill in our blanks from our imagination, but I know what it’s like to feel assaulted by ill feelings. You just have to take that and put it on the screen.

You said you couldn’t get a straight answer about exactly how real it was. Do you mean from your research, or from asking (“Saul” creators) Vince and Peter (Gould)?

Michael McKean: Vince and Peter, we talked about. I’m not going to let you in on all our conversations. But I feel that the more it stays enigmatic, the more interesting it is. That’s simple storytelling. I love everything I’ve been given to do on the show. I’ve found everything eminently playable, and I’m having a great, great time.

You’d worked with Vince several times before on “X-Files” and “Lone Gunmen.” Was that the main reason you wanted to do this?

Michael McKean: Well, yeah. And in the interim, he had this show called “Breaking Bad.” I was as addicted as anyone. I thought it was great as any show television’s ever had. Talk about setting yourself up with a really difficult task, and then six years later, you have completely aced it. Aced it! You get to the end, and so many loops are completed, so many loose ends are tied up. You know you can’t redeem this hero, but maybe he can redeem some of his worst actions. It was just wonderful. Vince is a friendly dude, and he really likes actors, which is nice. Not everyone loves an actor. A lot of the times, people are the mercy of who they’re stuck with… When I was offered this, I didn’t have to read anything. I knew they were going to write great stuff for me. So it was nice to step aboard.

(At this point, I note the garbled quality of the connection, and McKean offers to relocate.)

Michael McKean: I have a feeling that there are some radio waves that come through that front room that really knocked me out.

On “X-Files,” or on “Lone Gunmen,” did you interact much with Vince?

Michael McKean: Yeah, he was on the set somewhat. But it was mainly just shooting and working, and a lot of complex cinematography on that show. Great people.

So you wouldn’t be able to say how much, if at all, he’s changed in the interim.

Michael McKean: That’s kind of impossible to say. But I will say that it’s really nice to be a fan of someone and then work for them. That experience, it’s always a big plus. I love to work and I love great writing, but to be on a show that you’re really liking and following, that’s been really fun the couple of times it’s happened. This, as a start-up has been a lot of fun.

As someone who was a fan of “Breaking Bad,” what’s it been like to be appearing in scenes with a character from that show?

Michael McKean: Great. Bob is also Bob, I’ve known him for probably 20 years. I’m such a fan of his. He’s just a great guy. That’s pretty fabulous. But Chuck had no bearing on the story of “Breaking Bad.” We don’t know what Chuck’s fate is. Where is this guy now? Where is Kim? How come we’ve never heard about this law firm before? The fact is, Saul was a supporting character on “Breaking Bad,” and they never explored his personal life. One super thing about Vince and Peter’s work is that everybody’s got a story. The next episode, we’re looking into Mike’s story a lot more. Nobody’s just one thing, and that’s just the way it is in real life. And Vince is smart enough to go, “You know who else has a life that might be worth looking at? Saul Goodman.” This isn’t so much a spin-off show as it is another adventure in the universe of “Breaking Bad.”

Have you thought much about where things between the brothers might be by the time of “Breaking Bad”? Does Saul just abandon Chuck when he goes into hiding?

Michael McKean: No. I would never do that. I’m living it in real time. The fact that the writers don’t really share a lot until about two weeks before they shoot. They know that I’m delighted with surprises. Sometimes, they give me a phone call and warn me, “On page 19, you’re going to get a little weird.” It’s kind of delightful, and not to know anything more than that is even better. I not only don’t know what’s coming, but I prefer to not know what’s coming, because that’s the way to live in a series. You gotta live like the future’s a real thing.

At times in your career, like on “X-Files,” you get brought in to add a comic flavor to something fairly serious. Here, you’re probably the most straightforwardly dramatic character in what’s a relatively light show. How has that switch been for you?

Michael McKean: Yeah, I suppose so. It’s nice that I’m playing a character that I understand and that is somehow close to me, aside from all the craziness. I’m not that crazy, and I don’t suffer from electromagnetic hypersensitivity either. But beyond that, I have a feeling that there are things about me; I just understand this character, I feel. They haven’t sent me pages where I have to say, “Guys, I don’t think that’s what he’d do.” And that’s because they’re good storytellers and I trust them. It doesn’t have any bearing on how I play anything. I have to play it that it’s real, and that I don’t know what’s around the corner.

There’s an interesting moment in last night’s episode where, after Jimmy gives Chuck the speech about how he’ll be good and stay on the up-and-up, Chuck’s physical condition almost instantly improves. How much do you think his attacks are triggered by anxiety about what his brother is up to?

Michael McKean: I’m not trying to be evasive, but because my character doesn’t really think of it in those terms – from the inside, he doesn’t see that he feels better because of this – then I can’t say that that’s what’s really happening. I’m kind of trying to dodge the question, because it doesn’t make sense to Chuck. It’s like if you say to somebody, “Why did you do that?,” and their answer is, “I didn’t do that.” That’s kind of what it would be. And if you do ask the writers, tell them not to tell me.

You and Bob didn’t overlap at “SNL,” as I recall.

Michael McKean: He had been there right before I was there. I was only there for 26 shows. But our paths kind of crossed. He had a lot of friends, and was hanging out. I wasn’t much of a hang out guy, as I am today. A lot of people knew each other, and some didn’t work at “SNL” anymore, like Smigel and Bob, so we knew each other slightly. But then when “Mr. Show” came on the air, I lived my life going from “Mr. Show” to “Mr. Show.” if I could have binge-watched, I would. So I ran into him at some “Star Trek” event or something at Paramount, and I told him, “Man, I worship at the shrine of ‘Mr. Show,'” and about a year later, I got an invite to be on the show. I had known David Cross a little bit. And then a long dry spell, and I didn’t see him at all until I did “All the Way,” that play I was doing with Bryan Cranston.

And when you did “All the Way,” did you try to talk to Bryan about the “Breaking Bad” experience?

Michael McKean: Well, you gotta remember that everybody wanted to talk about the Breaking Bad experience with Bryan. And I didn’t want to be one of those. And then I would go away to Albuquerque for three days, and then come back, and there was a lot of love for Bryan, so we would talk about it in those terms. We were doing the play in Cambridge in 2013, when the last season of “Breaking Bad” was on, and everybody had his ear for at least a couple of minutes, so we talked about other things. It was not until “Saul” started getting put together that we talked about stuff. He mainly reiterated what he always said about it: you’re not going to get better writing than this. It’s so good. He’s right, of course.

As you noted, you were only on “SNL” for a season and change. Did you feel like you wanted to be part of the big reunion?

Michael McKean: I was invited to come, and it just seemed that I’m such a footnote to a footnote to that show. So we decided to stay indoors, which was great, because it was down to 3 degrees that night. It just seemed to me that I didn’t want to seem like a seat filler. And I run into the people I want to run into apart from events like that.

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com