Breaking Bad alum on his surprise Better Call Saul appearance — and whether he'll sing again
Warning: This story contains plot details from Monday’s episode of Better Call Saul.
“Something Beautiful,” the third episode of the fourth season of Better Call Saul, boasted a memorable mix of elements. Nacho (Michael Mando) absorbed a few bullets and nearly lost his life as part of a plot to appear loyal to (and spy on) the Salamancas while pledging further loyalty to Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Kim (Rhea Seehorn) had a far stronger emotional reaction than Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) did when he learned of his paltry inheritance from Chuck (Michael McKean) and breezily read aloud his older brother’s letter from the grave. And the hilarious Hummel heist revealed some severe marital strife in the Neff family.
“Something Beautiful” truly happened, though, when Gus paid a visit to a nearby university to meet with the promising young chemist whose education he was funding. There, hard at work and singing Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements,” was none other than Gale (Billions standout David Costabile), a.k.a. Walt’s short-lived (in all senses) lab assistant, coffee chemist, Gus’ back-up plan, and all-around karaoke legend from Breaking Bad. He gave to Gus the disappointing results of the drug sample purity test and asked his benefactor for the chance to break bad and give him the highest-quality product he deserved. In letting Gale down gently, Gus explained that he was bound for better things. (Alas, with the bullet to the head that Gale ultimately will receive courtesy of Jesse in Bad, we know that his career in illicit chemistry will not be lengthy.) But, hey, those horrors are still a few years down the road. Right now, let’s check in with Costabile about the Gale-force wind that just blew through Better Call Saul.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How long have you been talking to the producers about making an appearance — and when Giancarlo joined the show, was that your first indication that this was a real possibility?
DAVID COSTABILE: I had been in Albuquerque many, many moons ago. I was shooting this series Dig there, and I ran into Peter [Gould, the show’s co-creator], who was finishing the last episode of the first season. We had breakfast together and we were sitting around talking, and I was telling him how excited I was about the show, and he was like, “Oh, we should have you on.” And I was like, “That would be fun! I’d do that.” I didn’t think anything of it because I thought he was being kind. Which he is. And it seemed like the nice thing to do when the last thing that you did was shoot somebody in the face: “Oh hey! By the way, you can come over for dinner if you want!” So I thought that it was just a fake dinner invitation, which was fine too.
And then I didn’t really hear about it, and was watching the show just as a fan. I love their writing, and I love those characters, and I loved the world that they created.… It’s funny you mention it; when I saw Giancarlo, I didn’t even think to myself, “Oh, well, if they’re going to have Giancarlo in it, they’ve gotta have me.” It actually didn’t cross my mind until this moment when you said it. So then when they called and they said, “Hey, are you up for this?” — I’m on Billions and we were shooting Billions at the time — it was never a done deal, just in terms of our schedule and whether I would be available to go and do it. So it was a treat when it worked out. It was great fun, and it was fun to be back and to see crew members. And also to have a scene with Giancarlo again was just a joy.
How easy or difficult was it to slip back into the role while playing someone like Wags on Billions?
It was not easy. When I first auditioned for it a long time ago, I felt really connected to who that person was, what they had written. There are certain auditions that you have or certain characters you get to play that you just are like, “I know who this person is. This person is in me.” I have a feeling there are like five or six characters that live inside of me that maybe you don’t know that are there and then all of a sudden, [you’re] like, “Oh look, I have that guy! I know that guy! I can totally do that guy! You should let me do that guy because I know that guy! Let me do it!”… So coming back to it, because it was so long ago and also so much has changed — the world, yourself, your age — that you don’t want to do a retread, you don’t want to do a memory of what it was that you created then. You want to create something new now. It was a challenge. Also because at the time, I’m playing somebody so radically different. I was going from shoot [Wags] one day, fly to Albuquerque, shoot Gale the next day, fly back to New York, shoot Wags again. Shifting those particular gears was exciting.
What intrigued you about revisiting the character?
When Vince [Gilligan, the creator of Breaking Bad] told me that he was going to kill me, I was sad as an actor because I loved playing that guy, and I was sad as an actor because I had to go get a f—ing job. [Laughs] But ultimately, you just knew from a storytelling point how painful it was going to be, as a fan. I was like, “Oh yeah, you got to kill him. It’s got to be terrible and it’s got to be super-painful and ugly and awful.” And it was.
Audience members and fans of the show are just like, “Oh, I can’t believe that he died. I didn’t want him to die. I wanted to see more.” You really felt like, “Oh, there are more chapters. There’s more story.” You want to see more aspects of who this guy was. And it was a fun opportunity to be able to say like, “You get to sing another song. You get to see where he came from and how he started with Gus.” You also get to have that feeling of when you first met him, like you have the memory of meeting him again, and I thought it was such a clever way that they would introduce the character.
If you had never watched Breaking Bad, you would know exactly who this person was from seeing him in that first moment of singing the song. And if you are Breaking Bad fan, you would have a memory of him — the first thing I did wasn’t to sing songs, but it was a later memory. So it’s tapping into something deeper. It’s a crazy, twisty way of really reintegrating the audience member into some memory of some character, and I thought that was very inspired. And clear. All of us as Monday morning quarterbacks are going, “Oh yeah, that’s what I would’ve done,” but of course you would not have done that, or we all would have made Breaking Bad. They’re brilliant and we are hand servants. So ultimately, there was the opportunity to tell any part of that guy’s story again.
NEXT PAGE: Costabile on singing that song — and Gale’s next appearance
That’s quite a mouthful of music dialogue that they gave you in that scene. It’s very impressive. How long did it take you to learn that?
Thank you. It took me f—ing forever. I forget how many days before I shot the show that they sent me the script with the song. It was not long. It was maybe a week. It was some horrifically short number of days. They’re very clever because the first song I ever sang with them, “Crapa Pelada,” they gave me a long time, and they had somebody from the Italian Embassy talk to me because it was in a Neapolitan dialect that doesn’t really exist anymore — an ancient Neapolitan dialect that they explained exactly the nuance. I had many, many weeks to learn it.
Then when I sang “Major Tom,” there was a whole two weeks, and now this one, they’re just like, “The hell with you, learn it, know it, get here.” But it’s a diabolical song because in addition to the song being a monster, it had to be something that he is doing in an offhanded way while he’s doing something very specific that he also is expert at. So it’s like a double expertise. It really is like walk[ing] on a tightrope while juggling six balls — and at the end of that, then do the scene with Giancarlo. So learning it was just a monster. I mean, I was walking down the street, riding the subway, riding buses, in the airplane, just mumbling to myself the song over and over and over and over and over and over and over. But I learned it, and I will tell you that that song is not going to leave my brain sack. It’s in there, it ain’t coming out. You can call me in five years and be like, “Hey, dude, sing that song again,” and I’ll be like, “I got it. [singing] ‘There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium/and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium/and nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium/and iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium/ europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium…'” See? It’s in there. Doesn’t go away. Not gonna go away.
You’ll be back again on Saul. What shadings of Gale can we expect in future installments?
We know that Gale is alive. Gale does not die between now and then…
Maybe you could just tell us something — or even give us some adjectives — that could be used to describe his next appearance.
[Pauses] There’s hope.
When we meet him in Breaking Bad, he seems excited to be getting his shot; maybe this is his first time actually cooking. But maybe it’s not. Will Gus will change his mind from what he said in that scene and allow Gale to start experimenting sooner than later on Better Call Saul?
What you see in the scene is what drives him towards whatever it is that he’s willing to do or eventually does. His interest in the chemistry of it and his interest in the relentless pursuit of purity or excellence is a thing that is central to his focus. It is less about, “Oh, I’m going to be a drug dealer.” When he looks at the product that he’s analyzing and he’s just like, “It’s not enough to not be your best self. You have to try as hard as you can try.” Wherever the story goes in terms of what he does or when he begins to manufacture, I don’t think that that will change. And that, as a storytelling point, is a great promise that was clearly fulfilled in the later part of the story of Breaking Bad. His focus wants that to be the core of himself, but also the core of others and the people that he’s involved with. I think that’s also what attracts him in a way to Gus, because he can see and sense in Gus someone who has that kind of integrity, that need to be as rigorous and demanding of himself as he is of the people around him.
On that level, he’s almost inoculated by or is able to not even pay attention to the product that they’re making. You even saw it later when I got fired by Walter. It wasn’t just about losing the job, but he had met somebody who also felt the same way as he did about not just chemistry, but also just, “I demand of myself that I am accountable for my inadequacy, and I won’t stand for it.” And then this person walks in and he’s like, “Yo, bitches!” it’s in the level of a nightmare that is unforeseen.
Gale was an accomplished karaoke performer in Breaking Bad. We got a taste of his singing chops here, but he’s got a long way to go. Will we also see his slow rise to musical power on this prequel?
That is a damn good question. Singing that Tom Lehrer song — of all the tunes, I would say it’s the second-hardest song I’ve sung for them so far. But the people there have excellent taste in music, and they know that they’ve got me on the hook to sing. So one would have to assume that they’re going to exploit that particular aspect of the story.