It was a cold, dark night when Vince Gilligan's much-lauded drama Breaking Bad went off the air in 2013. The sun came out two years later when Gilligan debuted his follow-up Better Call Saul, a prequel that focuses on Bad character Saul Goodman. The show wraps up its second season this week, and according to Saul himself, Bob Odenkirk, it's "The Rhea Seehorn Year."
I recently spoke with Rhea, the show's female lead. We chatted just after news broke that AMC had renewed Better Call Saul for a third season. In the Emmy-nominated drama, she plays Kim Wexler, a whip-smart attorney ambitiously climbing the ladder at a large law firm where she first met Jimmy McGill (Odenkirk), the man who will one day become the titular Saul. The AMC show is a prequel to the now-legendary Breaking Bad, which was also created by Saul showrunner Vince Gilligan.
Although Saul has yet to reach the ridiculously high stakes present in each episode of Breaking Bad, it brilliantly balances comedic and dramatic elements. As Wexler, Seehorn showcases her chops through a nuanced performance that’s rarely flashy but always compelling. Each week, a layer of her beautiful blonde exterior is rolled back to reveal a hardscrabble work ethic, razor sharp wit and an emotional connection with Jimmy McGill that transcends the boundaries of television.
We talked about the TV shows she grew up on, what she's watching now, and how the special relationship between Kim and Jimmy is created each week.
MH: Have you been to New Orleans before?
RS: I went to Mardi Gras once when I was still in college. I can’t say that it was my favorite thing. I remember thinking, “This is not the city: this is a party.” Then, I came back later and spent a week there and just had the best time. Now, I’d love to go back for Jazz Fest!
MH: I don’t feel like Mardi Gras stands out that much. The traffic is worse then, but that’s pretty much the way the city is all the time, at least in spirit. Fun film story: I met with Nina Noble and her team on HBO’s Treme to shoot that film’s pilot in New Orleans. We were in this meeting with the New Orleans Police Department and other city officials, and they told us they wanted to do a second line down the street in the Treme neighborhood. Do you know what a second line is?
RS: No, what’s that?
MH: A second line is where a group of people — not necessarily anyone special - get some instruments like a trombone or drums, grab some beers and then play music. It’s a walking parade. In fact, one of the film studios in New Orleans is called Second Line Stages.
RS: That is awesome! I love that.
MH: And they start with like five or ten people, but then people along the way grab a beer from their house and then join you, so at the end it’s like 100 people. And we had to tell production, “Even though it’s a fake second line, real people are going to join you. So, you have to be sure to release all of them.”
RS: I love that. I watch that show Togetherness on HBO. How about the Slow Roll they did when he goes home to Detroit? That is a real thing! I watched a little post-show discussion they did and found that people in Detroit who wanted to revive their city gathered, and started just biking at night with lights on their bikes. Almost an artistic statement, but also to artistically discuss the question of, “How do we reinvigorate different parts of the city?” When they shot a scene like that for the show, real people got on their bikes and joined.
MH: That makes so much sense, because Jay and Mark Duplass are part of the show and they are from the New Orleans area.
RS: Then they definitely know something about second lines! It’s kind of the same thing. It’s local camaraderie for the sake of community without political purpose or agenda.
I grew up partially in Virginia, but I also grew up in Japan and Arizona. I find that the South - for all of the bad things that are sometimes associated with it - has a “village” mentality. There’s a community quality there that is without agenda.
MH: There is just a slower lifestyle down here. Which is sometimes beneficial and sometimes not.
RS: Haha! When I visit my family in Virginia, they tell me, “Just slow it down, slow it down.” New York’s even faster. Even down to the foot traffic and the way public transportation helps to create a group or herd mentality. When I moved out to Los Angeles, I found that there’s a different fast-paced quality here that has its own kind of anxiety built in, but people are a little more relaxed with their time. It’s a subtle difference. People will say, “We’re meeting at 1pm,” and it’s completely acceptable to show up fifteen or even thirty minutes late. And everyone always says the same thing. “Traffic” or “I was in six meetings.” Super late is still rude, of course. But in New York, punctuality is sort of seen very differently. Because of public transportation, everything thinks, “We all had to ride five trains, so I don’t want to hear it.”
MH: You’re on one of the best shows on TV right now, Better Call Saul. So, I want to know what TV shows you grew up watching.
RS: I was obsessed with Nick at Nite from around age nine to fifteen. I watched a ton of TV! I know now you’re never supposed to say, “Oh my God, you let a TV raise your kid!” But I completely sat in front of that TV. I guess we can discuss whether I turned out okay or not.
I was completely obsessed with Nick at Nite and at the time, it was all reruns of classic television. I didn’t know until I was older that many of those shows were not in their first run. I thought I was watching I Dream of Jeannie and Bewitched in their first run! I don’t think I knew that they were old shows. I loved them! And many of the 1970s sitcoms I was obsessed with, like Maude and anything Bea Arthur touched, including Golden Girls later. Taxi, Barnie Miller, Soap and Benson. I would watch these all with my mom and my dad. All in the Family, Rhoda, Mary Tyler Moore Show. I loved their timing. Half-hour shows have gotten kind of a bad rap, and half-hour sitcoms especially. However, they can and certainly should be very character specific. There is great drama and humor that’s very character driven in those shows. I was fascinated with all of that.
Then, I transitioned to one-hour dramas and movies. Endless hours of movies. I worked at a video store. Remember those?
RS: My sister was a manager and I was an employee. I don’t recommend that arrangement if you have an older sibling…because you will be abused. Haha! But I got to watch as many movies as I wanted for free. And I did that through all of high school. I’ve always been utterly enthralled with and immersed in television and film. I love them and I love books, too. I love storytelling.
MH: Even a show like All in the Family, which was a comedy, had some really dramatic stuff in it. Not to mention politically sensitive.
RS: Yeah! And not just during the “very special episodes,” which is a lot of what they do now where they say in advance, “It’s going to be a sentimental episode.” They dealt with real issues that they tackled all the time. There are some really smart shows on the air now doing that. There’s a lot of really challenging three-dimensional characters that did not have being likeable as their first priority.
MH: What were the movies you really liked growing up? What were the core that really formed you as a moviegoer?
RS: I loved John Hughes films. I watched them over and over. Every single John Hughes film I’m obsessed with. And Cameron Crowe’s films — which I would sometimes mistake for John Hughes films! I found out Say Anything and One Crazy Summer are actually not John Hughes films.
But I loved them. I identified with different parts of them at different times. Harry Dean Stanton always reminded me of my dad. I loved the humor, I love the real stories. The characters were amazing.
I also loved Paris, Texas, which is one of my all-time favorite films. The movie Brazil. I think about Brazil all the time on Better Call Saul, especially when I’m in the “document dungeon” that Kim is now working in on the show. I tell this to Peter [Gould] all the time: “Part of me wants to pull my desk through the wall.” Remember that scene in Brazil where the offices are so small and gray that the desk is shared through a wall?
RS: I think there’s elements of Terry Gilliam’s work, and at a panel the other day, they were saying that they reference the documentary Crumb. There are these fantastical elements in our show that are just slightly outside of naturalism, and I enjoy them so much. It’s a poetic step outside of total realism. Which is just fun. It’s really fun to inhabit that world. It’s tricky, tone-wise, but just such a joy.
MH: I think Breaking Bad, and now Better Call Saul, do that very well. It’s expressed a lot in the cinematography. You can have this really grounded scene that’s pretty realistic, and then you’ll have character moments with very dramatic lighting that are artistic elevations of the show.
RS: Yeah. There’s realism in the beats and some beautiful naturalism and realism in the way characters express themselves to each other. The [creators] let you act it instead of say it. People identify with that more: that people are not saying everything. Usually, in real life, you have to push somebody really far to actually pinpoint their emotions, or articulate why they are angry. We tend to dance around our feelings, or just act them out. And certainly with relationship like with Kim and Jimmy, they write it so well and it’s written to a letter. We don’t change anything. As brilliant of an improv person as Bob Odenkirk is, those scenes are fully written and beautifully so. The writers make this strong foundation and then Bob and I rehearse it over and over so that what can come alive is what’s between the lines. I think that’s what happens when you do have an authentic relationship. Nothing’s at face value when you know somebody that well, and people have really responded to seeing that on screen. It’s the look between the lines and thinking, “What did you mean by that?” It’s having a shared history, and Bob and I remind each other of that. Whenever a character brings something up, it’s very possible it’s not the first time they brought it up. What happened last time they talked about it? Was there an argument? Did it go well? Did it not go well? When you speak to a friend of yours, and you pick what movie to see tonight, you have a shared history about last time you picked a movie. Was it a good one or a bad one? And a smirk or a joke or anything there could communicate that.
They are just so lovely on our set. Our directors and our writers are so encouraging and they create an incredible environment to build that kind of realistic relationship.
MH: You work a lot with Bob Odenkirk, who plays the lead Jimmy McGill, the man that will at some point become Saul Goodman. Your character Kim is his very complicated love interest. The most romantic scenes in the show to date, in my opinion, is when Kim is at the nail salon after hours, and Jimmy is painting her toenails. It’s kitschy and yet romantic. You can see some of that unspoken history that’s there, even though it was early in the show’s first season. What was it like to put those scenes together?
RS: We always start by meeting and running the lines together over and over. Just lines. We’re not cementing any kind of performance. We wait until we’re playing with the director to solidify everything, but first we just go over and over it. It gets your brain simmering. When you walk away from that, you’re thinking about what is a reference to the past, and what’s a reference to the future. What’s something that could be taken a different way? Then, we get there, and we do the scene many times and in many different fashions. Another great thing the writers do on this show that comes across so authentically to viewers is that there’s not one obvious arc in many scenes. They take a roller coaster and become very serpentine. You can get almost in an argument, and then it peters out, then it’s a little funny and it starts being ok, and now it’s not!
We ran many versions of that. We tried it a million ways. And then Bob and I, along with the whole great cast, are actors that enjoy not overly planning how you are going to say every line. Because you get there, and you realize it’s all in the other person’s delivery. It becomes this amazing game of volleyball, and that’s when those moments happen between the lines. You think you know what you are getting ready to say — as we often do it real life — but then Jimmy delivers his line with a slight sadness. And suddenly I can’t come back as prickly as I planned to. Then, I say my line with a smirk and it makes Jimmy deliver his line back to me in a different way. That’s when I think the audience starts to breath with us. You’re watching a volley back and forth. Nothing can really be planned at that point.
Then, our great directors and our great DP Arthur Albert that will do what’s (oddly) unheard of in television right now, which is hold the shot in a wide or a medium, rather than in an extreme closeup for those moments. Then you are really breathing with the characters, and you can see the whole thing. It’s great. It’s like theater.
MH: One more question. One thing I have noticed about you—in red carpet videos, in EPK interviews, everywhere— is that your eyebrow game is always on point.
MH: So, I’m wondering... what are Rhea Seehorn’s last-minute makeup tips?
RS: Well, of course, hire great makeup artists! That’s so funny. My eyebrows move independently of each other, which I sometimes have to watch because it can be just a whole circus going on up there, and then people aren’t paying attention to my lines. And I also have a very rubbery face, which is good, but with Kim, I actually have to calm it down. She doesn’t let everyone know what she’s thinking nearly as much as I do in real life. She’s very poker faced. But I’m very aware of it for these interviews, because I can finally let them become unleashed!
MH: Keep up the great work on Better Call Saul. It’s appointment viewing for me and all my friends. You guys are doing great work.
RS: I love that! I think it’s a group kind of show to watch. And thank you for watching!
You can follow Rhea on Twitter at @RheaSeehorn. Special thanks to Odessy Barbu for the photos. They're incredible.