Better Call Saul‘s Rhea Seehorn talks about the acting, scripting, and filmmaking craft behind the smash cable drama
When talking to Rhea Seehorn, you’re immediately taken aback by how excited she is about the end-to-end craft of filmmaking. Previously best known for her role on NBC’s Whitney, Seehorn definitely excels at interpreting the character of Better Call Saul’s Kim Wexler based on Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, and a host of insanely talented writers’ scripts. Yet, it’s clear that her thirst for the overall craft of filmmaking drives her. Throughout our conversation, Seehorn deftly interjected smart observations and lavish praise for the creative team that helps create one of cable TV’s highest rated series.
At a time in her career when Rhea Seehorn could easily rest on the many accolades and laurels she’s received for her transformative season two performance, it’s completely refreshing to see her so dedicated to the task of accentuating her acting career with a broader experience. Like House of Cards‘ Robin Write and others before her, Seehorn has a keen interest in the task of direction, and, based on her intuitive eye, it’s a career direction that would undoubtedly server her well.
As Better Call Saul‘s Kim Wexler, Rhea Seehorn is the unique center of the show, balancing between the flexible ethics of Jimmy McGill and her own infallible moral center – a dichotomy that may well prove the couple’s end. While Seehorn has always been a strong component of the series, her season two performance has elevated her to new heights, putting her on par with Emmy-nominated co-stars Bob Odenkirk and Johnathan Banks as well as critically acclaimed Michael McKean. Her quiet, yet silently powerful, performance imbues the character of Kim Wexler with such clear presence that, even if she’s not speaking, you’re never unaware of her place in the scene.
Through our conversation, I could not help but be hugely impressed by Seehorn’s raw intelligence and insight into the complex series. Here’s hoping Emmy voters remain similarly impressed when the voting window kicks off in mid-June.
AwardsDaily TV: Happy belated birthday, Rhea Seehorn! How did you spend the day?
Rhea Seehorn: Thank you! I am shadowing the director Scott Winant [Emmy-winner for Thirtysomething]. Just trying to learn directing because it’s something I’ve always wanted to learn more about. I usually just watch when I’m on sets for my own shows. It’s informative as an actor just to understand all parts of the machinery, but I’d also like to direct one day. So, it was a great day, learning for 14 hours!
ADTV: That’s great, so should we expect you to take up the director’s chair on Better Call Saul in an upcoming season?
RS: Oh, I don’t know. I haven’t discussed that at all. I have my hands full with my own character. I’ve never aspired to direct myself. Right now, I’m just loving creating Kim [Wexler] on that, and that takes up all of my brain space.
ADTV: So what brought you to Better Call Saul originally?
RS: I auditioned for it with Sharon Bialy, Sherry Thomas, and Russell Scott. They cast Breaking Bad, so they’ve been with those guys for a long time. Sharon and Sherry have auditioned me for other things over the years, so I’ve played a range of characters for them. Casting directors, especially great ones like them, tend to know a larger body of your work than anybody because its all the stuff for which you didn’t even get the part. They really know my approach, the way I work, and the types of characters that they think would be a good fit for me… It was a really fun audition, a really wide-open audition to just do your best and see if you’re the right person to tell the story.
ADTV: I know the way Vince Gilligan [series creator] works so a lot of the character was there on the page. Tell me, though, how did you define the character of Kim?
RS: You know, it is… and Bob [Odenkirk] has said this too… it’s 99 percent in the text. Their scripts are just so incredibly strong, and we have almost no rewrites… which is very uncommon in the business. You can begin to build a foundation pretty much the second you get the script. It’s pretty much all there. Even when I had my very first episode for season one – the pilot, I’m seated in the conference room scene, and Jimmy comes in with the Ned Beatty “You will atone” speech from Network – which is amazing. The first time I speak or do anything is in the parking garage, and it’s really just one sentence broken into two parts… and we share a cigarette. But it’s all there. By that, I mean, even when you don’t have lines, you can read the scripts and get these very fine nuances where you can start to build the outline of your character. You’re forever coming up with new parameters of what edge they can go to and new details to add and then you kind of fill in. It’s a process of deduction.
If you’re sharing a cigarette with somebody and take it out of your own mouth and put it back and you don’t flinch (which was written in the script), then you know you have a history with them. We can finish each other’s sentences, so that also implies a long history. And it’s clear we’ve had this argument many, many times if I know exactly where it’s going exactly when he starts it. That says a lot about somebody, and it says something about their relationship. That’s how their scripts are written. It’s not just the beautiful dialogue, it’s the entire environment that is constantly giving you colors to use. To paint the portrait you’re trying to make… Even though we don’t know anything past the script we have, you have enough to build a three-dimensional person. There’s something that’s magical about their writing where I’ve never come across a contradiction about Kim’s life… It always seems revelatory about her. It just becomes an inspiration to interpret, and they [the creative team] really trust their actors. They all love to see how many thousands of ways you can play a line, and that’s a really wonderful environment to work in.
ADTV: So, I reached out to Twitter to get a sense of what people would like to ask you. One of the questions I’d received was around Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul comparisons. There are a lot of fans who consider Better Call Saul a better show than Breaking Bad. What are your thoughts on the comparison?
RS: Hmm… You know what, I don’t bother comparing them. I think it’s odd to compare them. I’m a huge Breaking Bad fan, still am. There are narrative links to it doing origin stories of two main characters… but the whole thing [Better Call Saul] is definitely its own show. And that’s more of what I focus on. We make sure it’s its own vehicle. Even though there are recognizable similarities, I think most people would agree that it has its own life, its own world that is slightly different. Vince has said this before, for instance, that in Better Call Saul you’re following a character who’s desperately trying to be good versus a character who is allowing his sociopath to come out… I don’t compare them. I just really celebrate that I feel like they’ve made this very rich tapestry that has these seeds that we know that blossom in this other show, but yet it’s its own thing. It would die in the shadow of Breaking Bad if it wasn’t.
ADTV: So, to me, season two feels like Kim Weller’s coming out party. Season one was mostly about the drama between the two brothers [Jimmy and Chuck], and now in season two, you’re a third part of that triangle. What was your first reaction as you started reading some of these scripts as you realized your role was being dramatically increased in size and scope?
RS: Well, I’ve been asked quite a bit what did Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould] tell you about the season and that I was going to have all this stuff this season. But we didn’t. There were no talks, and you get it script by script. It doesn’t come down to counting lines or counting scenes… I mean, look at the Jonathan Banks character, just a brilliant character who says almost nothing… So, you just want to be present in the world, and I knew my character wasn’t going to be a tertiary object because they just don’t write people like that. I mean, even in season one, I relished that she was always three dimensional and always had a point of view in the scenes I was in. By the time I got the stuff for season two, my favorite thing I started to notice was that Kim’s decision not to speak was a reflection of her power.
She’s very observational and much less reactionary than a lot of the characters that she’s around. Kim’s very pragmatic and level-headed. It’s fun to see that that’s not a weakness to be silent in scenes and be observant. Because we work on an episode and then about three days later get the script for the next one… it never occurred to me that it might be this whole season that unfolds with this information about her. You just play it scene by scene, and that’s how you present you have to be when you’re in their material. You never really know what’s around the corner for any character. As a fan of their writing, I love how they answer one question and raise two. It’s fun to keep up with that, and I just want to make sure that I interpret this great story as best as I can.
ADTV: One of my very favorite moments for you in season two is how you engage in these con games with Jimmy. I fantasize that it’s Kim’s version of “breaking bad” a little. Why do you think she engages in those games with Jimmy?
RS: I don’t know yet. I certainly have my own opinions, and it was discussed (in the script and with the director Thomas Schnauz) is she good at them and why is she good at them? You see she just didn’t choose to participate in them, she’s actually pretty good at it. There’s a lot of possibilities there… I never believed Kim loved Jimmy because she had her head in the sand. I always believed that she knew who he was – maybe not every single detail or line that he crossed – but she could have possibly seen him do cons or was aware of the scene he came from. It didn’t feel unfamiliar to her. She’s kind of enticed into it the first time and then she initiated it the second time. But it didn’t feel completely unfamiliar to her. I don’t know where that comes from yet. I’m still learning that. It certainly was fun to show that side of her and for her to grapple with what are the boundaries for her between what’s okay and what’s immoral. There’s legal versus illegal, moral versus amoral, and ethical versus unethical.
I feel like all of the characters in Better Caul Saul feel like they know how to hang on to right and wrong, and they keep finding out that it depends on your perspective. It depends on the situation. It depends on life. It’s much more upsetting to find that all of that lies on a spectrum, that it’s not just black and white. So, that was another reason that it was fun for me to play those scenes. She’s toying with that. She’s toying with not being able to hang on to that anymore, and she’s enjoying watching Jimmy be great at them too. Kind of like the audience. We as watchers of the show are enticed by Jimmy succeeding at these cons. But I don’t know right now what any of that means for Kim.
ADTV: There’s still a lot of discovery there.
RS: There is [laughs]! The good news about me not having a lot of answers is that I can’t accidentally spoil anything.
ADTV: That’s true. Vince keeps a tight hold on his direction for the series, I guess.
RS: Well, he honestly doesn’t know. He and Peter aren’t lying when they say they didn’t know things were going to happen or that they don’t know the ultimate direction of the series. They really don’t know.
ADTV: I like that though. I like letting the characters drive the story line rather than have some artificial endgame that you’re driving toward. It feels more organic that way.
RS: It does! It does. And I didn’t realize until I was in talks with them how uncommon that is. It’s a pretty big gamble to not be sure if all your pieces are going to fit in the end. Those are two smart dudes as well as the whole writer’s room.
ADTV: I can’t even imagine. So, I have two iconic moments for Kim that I want to talk about. One is when you’re rainmaking, trying to drum up new business. How was it for you filming that scene?
RS: That was amazing. That entire montage… ten or eleven phone calls… Forgive me, it’s largely done in post… Oh, that’s another thing, you can film it all, and then you see what Kelley Dixon [editor] does with it. That’s a joy to see. It was like watching magic all over again because the post… putting in the Spanish version of “My Way…” Just brilliant. So, eight to ten phone calls plus the pocket dialogue that is either overwritten with music or you only either gets bits and pieces of it… And then they wanted it to reflect three or four days of time passing, meaning there’s costume changes, and then Kim doesn’t have an office so she’s going to be looking for somewhere to set up shop somewhat privately. But we shot all of that in one day with just me for about fourteen hours… it was amazing.
John Shiban directed it, and Ann Cherkis wrote it. I start with that beautiful scene where I say, “You don’t save me. I save me.” to Jimmy… But all of those phone calls were done on a single day, and the whole thing was like a pit crew. You had to change the costumes. Change the props. The post-its were a practical nightmare with names being cleared, numbers being cleared, and the colors staying the same so that they would match if you went in and out of these scenes. They would also have to be put in the same place each time, and there’s this beautiful crane shooting the scene from outside. And I have to do the phone calls over and over without a scene partner physically there. I mean, you do with the person on the other end of the phone. I actually wrote the other half of the phone calls, and I made them all different just to keep my head on straight. There’s a difference between a friend of a friend versus the dude I used to hang out with in law school or the mother of an old college friend who now works at a law firm. I wanted all of those phone calls to feel different, and that was really the only way to keep myself straight as far as the performance of it. And then if you’d turned around to see behind the crane, there’s the pit crew making it all happen. It was this beautiful circus.
ADTV: And it works so brilliantly.
RS: Oh, thank you for the compliment. One other thing I want to add about the scene is the use of the wides [wide angle lenses] and what a great call that was. These scenes are just beautiful, and they’re so much more than the extreme close-ups that TV is obsessed with right now. They’re so much more beautiful and painterly and monumental. I feel like the viewer is oddly more a part of the scene that way even though you’re physically farther from the action.
ADTV: Totally agree. I’d written a piece a while back about the cinematographer being the unsung hero of the show… It’s just amazing work. It is painterly.
RS: Yeah, I read your piece on that, and you were right. It is another character on the show. This line Arthur Albert walks… his framing… his composition… walks this fine line in being as much a part of the story as anything else and yet he’s not intrusive. I don’t watch it and get pulled out of the scene. It’s always illustrative of the narrative we’re telling.
ADTV: Another brilliant scene that I sort of consider your “money” scene for the season was the confrontation between Jimmy and Chuck at the end of the season where you’re effectively choosing a side between the two. Tell me a little about what was going on in your head while you were filming that scene.
RS: The scene confronting Chuck was maybe one of the most fun times to be on Twitter ever [laughs]. People were SCREAMING… That’s Peter Gould’s writing and directing in that one. And, of course, Michael McKean is giving a tour-de-force monologue. That whole scene and the dynamic is so complicated and constantly unfolding. I feel like a show is smart when it makes its audience feel smart, and this scene does that. You’re being asked as a viewer to keep up… I mean, on one hand, Chuck’s such an asshole for accusing Jimmy of this and the whole time you know he did do it. He’s absolutely correct, and yet you’re mad at him for saying it! And Bob’s [Odenkirk] over there brilliantly playing this guy who cannot figure out if he’s getting busted and what does Kim think and he can’t ask her otherwise he’ll get busted. I mean, I get to play this huge roller coaster of emotions in this one scene again without saying a word. It’s a very Kim moment, and I love them for protecting that part of her. I love all of the directors on the show for encouraging, inspiring, and allowing the performance that I bring to it.
Kim plays her cards very close to her chest, and I’ve never been told that I’ve got to indicate to the audience exactly what I think. I’m so glad because you do get told that sometimes… I think she hears this scam, the more details that come out, the more it sounds like something Jimmy would do. And she realizes it, knows his intentions were in the right place, but the execution is so off as usual… Playing her thought process before she spoke was as fun to me and as important to me as an actor as when she finally says something to Chuck. I spoke to Peter for a while about when she finally confronts Chuck and how it couldn’t be a yelling and screaming moment because that wouldn’t feel like a Kim moment. She makes a choice to protect [Jimmy], but there’s an absolute truth to what she’s saying to Chuck. That’s part of these multiple layers to these scenes that are so fun to play… The emotion of the scene doesn’t really happen until she gets to the car when she punches him [laughs].
ADTV: OK, one last question. When you’re not watching Better Call Saul, what are you watching?
RS: Catastrophe. Umm, I love TV. I watch so much TV. House of Cards. Peaky Blinders. I was obsessed with Togetherness on HBO and was very sad when that was cancelled. There’s so much great TV that I want to watch and just don’t have enough time.
Watch full episodes of Better Call Saul season two on amc.com. Episodes are also available on streaming content providers. Better Call Saul returns for season three in 2017.