Better Call Saul’s Michael McKean talks Chuck’s condition and warns: do not know me too quickly

The on-screen brother of dodgy lawyer James McGill tells us about the Breaking Bad spin-off and his character's battle with mental illness

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Breaking Bad prequel Better Call Saul may have opened up the origins of characters such as criminal lawyer Jimmy McGill – AKA Saul Goodman – and the ever-smiling Mike Ehrmantraut but it has also introduced us to an intriguing new one: Saul’s older brother Chuck, played by Michael McKean.

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A fellow lawyer, we first meet Chuck as a mysterious recluse, one who commands Jimmy to leave his phone outside the house, lights his house with gas lanterns instead of lamps and shrouds himself in a space blanket so as to shield him from the outside world. He has a ‘condition’, it’s said, which is later revealed to be electromagnetic hypersensitivity: a violently allergic reaction to all forms of electronic equipment that Chuck believes is a physical illness, but is believed by doctors to be a psychosomatic one. In Rico, the most recent episode of Better Call Saul, the doctor’s theories are proven right, with Chuck becoming so engrossed in his and Jimmy’s case against an old folk’s home that he absent-mindedly wanders outside – into what should be a world of burning pain – with no feeling at all. But why the sudden change? 

“I think,” says McKean, “that after 18 months [of suffering] he’s finding something in the world that makes him believe he can perhaps climb that ladder again. This is the sort of guy what Tom Wolfe would call, “a master of the universe”. So that’s kind of how he’s thought of himself, and now the universe is sitting on top of him and not letting him up. I think it’s part and parcel of his ego for him to battle his way back single-handedly. He’s trying on his own to deal with this. And we’re also seeing, as his legal mind is dragged kicking and screaming back into practice, that maybe that is therapeutic for him. Or a reason, at least, to fight a little harder.”

In the UK, around 4% of people have reported that they experience negative effects from the electromagnetic fields given out by mobile phones, Wi-Fi routers, TVs and so on. However, psychologists have conducted a number of tests which state that the condition is entirely psychosomatic, with scenarios in which neither the participant or the researcher know if an electromagnetic field is active proving rather conclusive. Better Call Saul fans may recognise a similar scene in episode five, Jello, where a doctor turns on an electronic device without Chuck knowing, and he doesn’t react. So, with such a complex background, how does McKean prepare for a role like that?

“Well, because I don’t feel these things I had to kind of replace them with actual physical discomfort, and actual physical fears and problems,” he explains. “It’s a construct, because a lot of the research that I tried to do kind of dead-ended with a lot of complaints from people saying it’s not taken seriously. So there’s a lot more of that than physical descriptions of the discomforts. And there are so many different symptoms that are felt by so many different people who suffer from this that I almost didn’t know where to start. So I kind of took the baker’s dozen and made them real for myself as much as I could. But still, what any actor does with any part is find out what’s important, and go after it. And I’m going after being master of the universe again – that’s my over-riding arc, to get on top of these feelings.”

It is, as of yet, unclear what psychological problems may be behind Chuck’s condition – “Nobody is just one thing. Do not know [Chuck] too quickly,” he teases – but his relationship with Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy has been one of the larger elements of Better Call Saul. Despite knowing what a shady character he would come to be in Breaking Bad, does McKean think his on-screen brother is a good man? 

“I think he’s clay, and I think circumstances mould him. I also think a psychiatrist, or a child psychologist, will tell you that even if it’s a negative image, a child will cling to his image. If he’s the bad kid of the family, that’s how he’s going to act. If he’s the goody-two-shoes he’ll go out of his way to please people. And I think Jimmy was the bad boy.

Chuck is much older than Jimmy – he was getting out of law school by 23, and here’s Jimmy just getting into high school and is just a complete screw-up. So it’s almost a father-son thing, because of the age difference, and I’m the guy who’s gotta bail him out. I don’t think we’ve seen the episode where there’s a flashback as Jimmy as a little kid but the dad is a distracted guy, a father who probably wasn’t the best father. But here I am, the responsible one – and if you’re the responsible sibling, your parents will call on you to fix everything. It’s just the way of the world.”

Like Odenkirk, McKean comes from a comic background, with him being known in America for the sitcom Laverne & Shirley, and generally as the lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist of the fictional rock band Spinal Tap. As such, it’s not actually the first time the pair have worked together. In fact, on 1995 comedy Mr Show, the two even appeared in a sketch set in a law school… 

“Working with Bob is amazing,” McKean says. “And he’s become such a terrific actor. Whereas Saul in Breaking Bad was kind of on the broad side, he was kind of a bigger than life character with the comb over that only Donald Trump could only admire. But he’s not the clown in [Better Call Saul], he is the protagonist. He’s the guy trying to build something into what people keep telling him is nothing. And there’s this kind of defiance about it, and I think Bob really has a handle on that. Plus, he has amazing timing.”

It’s fair to say that Better Call Saul has surpassed all expectations: both from those who were skeptical about the prospect of a Breaking Bad spin-off, and the others who knew all along that it wasn’t just going to be a pale imitation of its source material. Did McKean ever have any doubts? 

“I knew I had backed a winner, with it coming off probably the best drama series of all time. I actually talked with Vince early on about doing something in Breaking Bad but I was on the stage at the time and couldn’t get away, but we’d been in contact. It just seemed like a very interesting character, one I could sink my teeth into. 

I hear from the writers’ room that there’s a lot more drama in this than they thought. They thought it was going to be more of a comical adventure, but the thing is they had to be honest, to look at the situations and go, ‘What is this?’ And what this is is a story about a guy trying to make it against to odds. He’s hard to root for but we do.”

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Better Call Saul’s penultimate episode, Pimento, will be available on Netflix from March 30th