Better Call Saul is a show built on a dichotomy, and Rhea Seehorn has found herself at the center of it. As a Breaking Bad prequel focusing on Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman back when he was going by his real name of Jimmy McGill, the AMC drama (its third season begins tonight at 10; here’s my review) should be water in the desert for fans thirsty for anything even vaguely Walter White-related. But Saul creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have done such a surprising job of turning Jimmy into a charming, sympathetic character — Saul Goodman using his powers for good, man — that the inevitable transformation into his BB self feels far more tragic than anyone was expecting.
A lot of Jimmy’s appeal hangs on his relationship with Seehorn’s Kim Wexler, another lawyer who entered the business through the side door, and who can’t help enjoying her boyfriend’s con man side — so long as the cons are small time and not bringing any risk to her new solo law practice, which shares an office with Jimmy’s. It’s clear at this point that Kim is the primary thing — maybe the only thing — keeping Jimmy from going full Saul. But rather than become a target of scorn from Breaking Bad fans who want their man to turn heel already, Kim has been embraced by both the audience and the creators, who essentially turned Seehorn into the series’ third lead last season, devoting more and more time to her attempt to establish her own practice away from Howard Hamlin (Patrick Fabian) and Jimmy’s imperious brother Chuck (Michael McKean).
At the TV critics press tour in January, I spoke with Seehorn about what it was like to go from being a Breaking Bad fan to Saul Goodman’s girlfriend, why she feels Kim has been treated differently by fans than Skyler White, what she thinks Kim might be doing during the rise and fall of Heisenberg, and a lot more.
Were you a Breaking Bad fan?
From the beginning, or were you a Johnny came lately?
I can’t remember where I was living at the time, but I didn’t have cable. So it definitely was a wait to binge. Then try to get people to watch it with me, and everyone was already on the train and not willing to go back. So watched it on my own. I probably started watching when everyone else was in season three.
What did you think of Saul, as a character?
Great character, as all the other characters that they write are. Even though he was a bit of a comedic leavening agent at first. One of the great things they do in the show and still do, the writers, is nobody is just black and white. So he wasn’t all bad. There was another texture there. And even though he was only there every now and then, it’s surprising wen you go back and realize how little he was in, screentime-wise. And yet he occupied a whole space in your brain and that’s what I’m getting at. That’s what they do so well on the show, I think. There are no tertiary, meaningless characters. Everyone is three dimensional and then of course Bob’s performance as well and Peter Gould’s creation of that character, you wondered where is that guy going when he leaves? And I remember thinking, that’s the kind of character you think, who are your friends? And where do you live? What do you do? And so when they announced there would be a prequel, I was like, “What a perfect character to do that with.”
What is like going from fan of a show, to co-star of a show set in that universe featuring several of the characters?
It’s amazing. It’s a dream come true in any way that I think any fan would think that would be, and then when you add to it an actor, if that’s actually your trade and these are the people at the top of their game as far as storytelling. Just basic storytelling is what they are so brilliant at. And that gets clouded with a lot of other stuff sometimes on television. At its core, if that’s what you’re doing right, then the whole show just sails. And that’s what they do, so as an actor I was thrilled. I had no idea who my character was, or would turn out to be, or in what capacity, or how big of a part she is, but as per this whole conversation, it’s like even if you have one line, you’re a whole human in their stories. So I was jumping for joy.
When the show starts out, you’re playing a character who is not impressed by Jimmy. She likes Jimmy but she’s not in any way—
Would you say that? She does not suffer any fools, but I think she does love the parts of him that we as the audience do. I think that’s one of the access points to him is seeing him through Kim’s eyes. I don’t know if the wool is pulled over my eyes.
But Rhea feels about Saul going into this job very differently from the way Kim feels about Jimmy. How long did it take, if at all, for you to adjust to, “I’m now a part of this. I’m an actor working with Bob,” as opposed to “Oh my God, I’m here with Saul”?
It’s all in the script. Even that first episode — which is one of my favorite things I’ve ever shot — I think all I say is, “You know I can’t” after he asks me, “Couldn’t you just?” We share a cigarette and I fix the trash can and that’s it. The whole character for me is in that and so is the whole relationship. And they didn’t say a lot to me. I guess the simple answer is, it’s an easy jump because of the quality of writing and performing. I understand how to step into Kim’s shoes. And even more so now after doing it for three seasons. And Bob is 100 percent Jimmy when he’s playing that character. And we give, as everyone on our show does, we give it 200 percent. And not at the risk of sounding like a crazy person, it’s not that I’m unaware that I’m on a television show. The constructs they give you are so tightly done that it is pretty easy to say that I’m not Rhea anymore. There is a very richly drawn story to step into. It’s easier than you would think to let go.
In the first season, you didn’t have a lack of things to do, but you certainly was not as prominent as you were last year. Did Peter and Vince tell you anything going into the second year that they were going to write a lot more for you?
No, nothing at all. And not even episode by episode. I was like, “Oh I’m in this one a little more” and then the next one, “Oh,” and then we got to episode five and I had the huge montage scene and all of that. “Rebecca” which was such a lovely episode. But I never knew anything.
So at what point did you come to accept that this is no longer a two-lead show, and you’re almost the third lead here?
Oh, I don’t know if I look at it like that. But it’s an interesting thing. As a supporting character who loves her job as a supporting character, suddenly some of it was a little bit of an A story. I was proud of it and I was gracious for it and I tried not to dwell on “holy crap I hope I don’t mess this up” kind of feeling, or I would have just freaked out. And I was definitely gracious in telling them, “This is a beautiful script. Thank you for trusting me with this,” and you get a little nervous about how they just trusted you with this. But at the same time from the get go, from the time she had one line, they not only wrote but encouraged me to play in performance a character that is 100 percent linked to Jimmy but is not an ancillary woman. She is a woman that exists.
And Peter said this on a panel one day: That there is something about her that reminds him of the Barbara Stanwycks in the old movies, in that she is with the men she’s with because she chooses to be and not because she needs to be. And she is a woman of her own agency. So when you started to see her go and do things on her own that are for her own purposes, it wasn’t that surprising. It just kind of just blossomed in its own organic way.
How long did the phone montage take to film?
We only had one day for the majority of those phone calls and that was tough. It was tough. And there was a pit crew of people helping me if they had turned the cameras around at any given time. I had clothes that had to be changed into, Velcro. It had to look like ten phone calls, on a loop, over and over because they didn’t know which parts they would extract. And Kelley Dixon edited it so brilliantly, but it had to look like, I think,four days, five outfits, five locations, ten phone calls that are spanning a time. And it was just ripping clothes off and shoving me back in. Now you’re in a skirt, now you’re talking to Chris and ugh then it’s a pink post it. But it was great. I wrote out the other side of these conversations to keep myself sane. So I always knew what the other person was saying to me.
It’s really remarkable. She’s just making phone calls, trying to get business and it’s as compelling as most things that this show or the other show did with something exploding.
To show somebody working their ass off instead of just to say that they worked their ass off is amazing on television. It’s kind of weird that that’s shocking on TV, but suddenly people found it riveting and I was so thankful for it.
There’s the whole other side of the show with Mike that, at least through the second season, that Kim is in no way a part of. On other shows that have separate worlds like that — Noah Emmerich on The Americans doesn’t like to read any parts of the script that his character doesn’t know about.
I do believe we have some people in our cast that do that. I read the whole thing. They’re written like novels. I can’t not read it. These scripts, you would not believe it. Even the screen directions and the tone direction, they don’t hamper you as far as your performance. They’re not acting directions like parentheticals that you see sometimes in scripts. Like, “(Surprise)” — you see that in scripts at the time. They’re not like that at all. They’re not hemmed in performance and interpretive wise but they are elegant and without fat. They are beautifully written novels. There’s no way I couldn’t read it.
So as a fan of the original show, some days you’re reading a script, and here’s Tuco, here’s Hector Salamanca healthy and well. How do you react when you see these things?
I get as excited as probably any fan that could get a hold of the scripts would. And I think that when I see the Mike character and the Jimmy character, I still think that. And now I think that when I look at Chuck. And it’s fun seeing these newer characters be so real to me too. And I’m a bit of a boob. I still get excited every time I get the script. And they make fun of me because I highlight, you know Kim Wexler, Rhea Seehorn, because I’m just thrilled. I’m thrilled every time the gate goes up when we go into ABQ Studios.
Have you ever gone or even thought about going to set or location on days when it’s not you but, say, Mark Margolis is going to be there?
I would go almost every day. Even when I’m not working.
I do. Unless I have to fly home for something, or I’m studying. If I’m not there, I’m studying.
Do you ever go full fangirl and start pumping them for stories about Breaking Bad, or is it they’re your co-stars and you’re a professional?
It’s never lost on me that I’m watching people that are some of the best at what they do in the business. And I just don’t want to miss an opportunity to absorb that. These are people at the top of their game and I enjoy watching them. And many of them come to watch my scenes. We’re extremely supportive of each other. And there’s also something to be said for staying in — it’s a very particular tone on the show. It’s somewhere between realism and hyper realism. Sometimes there’s extremely realistic dialog and sequences and then it’s somehow operating on a planet just next to this one in a way. And there are poetic moments and stuff like that. And it’s kind of like listening to a song that you are being asked to sing and you need I on your headset right until you go. I like hearing that sound over and over.
You said before that while watching the original show, you wondered who Saul’s friends were. Do you allow yourself to think, now that you’re playing this role, what Kim Wexler is up to during the events of Breaking Bad?
I am curious. It used to make me a nervous wreck when I first started. But now It’s kind of easy to leave it in the hands of the writers. Our whole writing staff, they’re so great. And they’re going to do whatever is best for the story. Of course I would love to be a part of the storytelling as much as I possibly can. And I know that a lot of people are like, “Well we don’t see Chuck and Hamlin and Kim in Breaking Bad, so they’re dead,” but I think that’s really underestimating our writers. I mean, it could be, but there’s a million other things they could do too because like I said, you never went home with Saul. And would you tell Heisenberg that you had a woman that you loved?
No. And even seeing Bob create this incredible three-dimensional portrait that none of us knew could be under the mask of Saul means there’s something more almost like a Rashomon effect. Now, when I go back to watch Breaking Bad, as I will when I’m finished, I feel like there’s going to be more even in the the scenes that are already done. You know what I mean? Where you’re going to be thinking like “Oh yeah and he’s suffering from the guilt of XYZ.”
And he loves Ice Station Zebra, which is Kim’s movie!
Yes! Yes, yes, yes. So there’s stuff like that, that makes me believe that pretty much any possibility is open. I do.
One of the few negative things you can say about the original show — and it’s not even something the show did, but the way the audience responded to it — is the way certain fans turned against Skyler as a Heisenberg impediment. It was really unfortunate and at times ugly, and Anna Gunn has talked about that. Kim, at this stage of the story that we’ve seen, is an impediment to Jimmy becoming Saul; she’s the only thing keeping him even sort of vaguely on the straight path.
You can argue Chuck is as well.
That’s a good point. But fans of this show largely seem to hate Chuck, where nobody I’ve encountered really dislikes Kim.
Oh, no? How lovely.
So why do you think that is?
I think it’s because she enjoys the parts of him that the audience enjoys, too. I think it’s nice. I came to the Anna Gunn / Skyler thing very late. I didn’t know anything about that until later when reporters started bringing it up. And I went back and read everything she said, and it broke my heart because I did watch in a vacuum. I was unaware of it all. She is amazing in that role, and 100 percent reacts authentically to what her husband is doing. And to behave in any other way, I can’t imagine how it would be anything except not real. And that’s a very rich role and is a tough spot to be in whenever you are, as you said, the impediment to your hero or your anti-hero. People get mad. They should love to be mad at it instead of be ugly. So that’s unfortunate. I don’t know, I don’t really know what their response to me is.
Have you given any thought to the idea that while Kim loves these things about Jimmy, she doesn’t want to be a part of them, and there may come a point where she has to express her disapproval in such a way that it could generate that kind of reaction?
I guess so. Many of the fans I interact with on Twitter — and I love our fans — there’s something they’re getting in the writing and the way I’m approaching it and the direction in the performance where she’s never nagging him to be something he’s not, even when she’s telling him to take the Davis and Main job. I think there’s a difference between being his counsel and his mom. And it’s not a nag thing. Season one, he says, “I want to sit at the big kid’s table. Why doesn’t anyone take me seriously? I’m allowed to be at a big law firm too.” So when he’s offered that, Kim basically just comes to him saying, “You said you wanted all of these things, so now you have the chance and you’re floating on a raft.” And then also to look at the possible consequences of your actions and make your decisions carefully.
And there’s something about that I think that the audience responds to, even though we know where he ends up, I think they almost are on board with the warnings that she gives him. Because we wish it could be some other way. And I don’t know if they’ll turn on me. My hope is just to play the character as authentically as possible. But you’re right: other people have done that and not had a lovely response from fans. For right now, I don’t know; I’m just very thankful. That’s all I know is I’m very grateful that they’re somehow responding to what they think is a real three dimensional person.
It’s really funny, though. Before the show debuted, all anybody would talk about is, “When is Gus going to appear?” “When are they going to have a Walt cameo?”
“When’s Jimmy gonna be Saul?”
And they were so excited. But even by the end of the first season, the reaction seemed to be,”I really like Jimmy! It’s going to be awful when he becomes Saul.”
I know. That was kind of amazing. And people are thrilled with the new characters. And I’m just so fortunate. It’s like you read a great book, and then they started to write a second book, which is its own thing. Which I think is a smart decision to make sure it’s not just in the shadow. From the get go they were very obvious about even the first opening black and white scene with Gene at Cinnabon. It’s very clear: this is not some weird stepsister of Breaking Bad. And people just got on board and started loving it for what it is. And then it’s sort of fun when a Breaking Bad thing comes in because we know these stories have to merge. So now its fun and exciting in a different way because we’re rooted and grounded in a whole different thing we created.
When you read the finale script of season 2, and the note is on Mike’s windshield, did you start speculating this could be Gus?
I had like three guesses. It wasn’t just Gus. I also thought that it could be his daughter-in-law, or Nacho. I wasn’t sure. And then I found out about the “FRINGS BACK” thing on Twitter like everybody else.
So what was your reaction to that, and then what was your reaction when they actually brought in Giancarlo?
I was so thrilled. He’s such a great actor. It’s been thrilling whenever we got to any events and get to meet Bryan Cranston or anybody from the show because I’m such a huge fan. They’re so gifted, so talented.
What, if anything, has Bryan said to you? Is he watching Saul?
Yes, he said he’s a big fan. Which is great. He loves it. He has been very complimentary about the show in general and been very sweet to me about my work.
Saul is kind of a bifurcated show at this phase. There is the Jimmy story and then there is the Breaking Bad prequel starring Mike Ehrmantraut.
And then some intersecting.
You exist in the Jimmy show. Which means you don’t really interact with any of the other actors or characters from Breaking Bad.
As far as we know.
Through what we’ve seen. During the first two seasons, was there ever part of you that thought, “I really want to be doing something with Jonathan Banks?” Or Mark Margolis? Or do you think, “If I start doing that, then I could actually be at risk of getting bumped off”?
Jonathan and I hang out a lot off screen, and I love him. We always laugh that it would be very fun to have a scene where the two of them meet, even if it’s just one episode. Because we kind of feel like it would just basically be a stare off. They’re both very silent characters, and there’s a lot of not speaking until forced. Or just at a bar, where we just drink. But it would be fun to act with any of those guys because they’re great. Honestly, the most thing I hope for is I just pray to God my writers continue to have the love and respect they clearly have for the Kim Wexler character. It is so obvious to me how much they devote to making her a real person and when things are revealed about her, if you find out things about her, even last year when I was like not only is she being roped into the con she seems to be good at it. Like what is that? Everything is always an organic seed. Like it’s planted and as long as they keep going in that direction, I’ll go wherever they want me to go. And that’s thrilling, that’s thrilling to no know as much as if I was watching the show.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com