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Better Call Saul’s Rhea Seehorn on why Hollywood shouldn’t doubt comedy stars can do drama

“Like I’m going to insist on wearing clown shoes during the hospital scene?”

Better Call Saul
Rhea Seehorn stars as Kim Wexler in Better Call Saul.
AMC
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

When she joined the cast of Better Call Saul — AMC’s slyly funny, darkly tragic Breaking Bad prequel about the life of unscrupulous lawyer Saul Goodman before his path intersected with Walter White’s — Rhea Seehorn was probably best known for her work in sitcoms, particularly NBC’s Whitney, on which she starred from 2011 to 2013.

Seehorn herself wasn’t sure she’d get the part of Kim Wexler, a lawyer on an upward trajectory who has a deep friendship and romantic history with the series’ protagonist. For one thing, Better Call Saul was one of the most heavily hyped new shows in development when it was being cast in 2014. (It debuted in 2015, and its third season premieres on AMC on Monday, April 10.) The female lead in a Breaking Bad spinoff? That was going to go to a big name, right?

“I just thought, well, they can get absolutely anyone they want to, so I guess it won’t be me,” she recalls with a laugh on the latest episode of my podcast, I Think You’re Interesting.

She also discusses how hard it was to break out of comedy and get people to even consider her for dramatic parts in Hollywood, where actors are often slotted onto one side of the comedy/drama line. After 12 years in theater, where moving back and forth across that line is much more common, Seehorn had spent 10 years in TV comedy when she auditioned for Better Call Saul and was frustrated by how she’d been pigeonholed.

Fortunately, she says, the show’s creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, saw things differently:

Vince and Peter don’t put people in a box for doing comedy. When I was doing theater, I did just as much drama as comedy. Not everybody that’s a dramatic actor has comedic timing, so it’s not always a back and forth, but versatility is certainly seen as a virtue, an asset.

Not so when I got out here. I was blown away by the whole, “Well, she’s a sitcom actress, right? We’re not calling her in for this drama.” I could not get called in for a drama, and if so, it was kind of cursory.

At one point, there was feedback. I went in for some one-hour show, and I did the callback, so now I’d done the scene twice, this very serious, wrenching scene. And the feedback was still, “They love her, but the producers really liked her from” — I forget what sitcom they had watched — “so there’s this worry that she’s going to later on down the road try to bring a comedic element to this.” Like I’m going to insist on wearing clown shoes during the hospital scene or something? It was the weirdest thing to me!

But Seehorn also attributes landing the role of Kim to how much history she’d built up with the casting directors who worked on Better Call Saul, whom she’d previously auditioned with many times, for other projects. Even though she’d rarely gotten the parts they had called her in for — indeed, they often warned her she probably wouldn’t get a part they had called her in for — she had built up a rapport with them through her work ethic, one that eventually paid off:

By the time Better Call Saul came up, Sharon Bialy, Sherry Thomas, and Russell Scott, the casting people that I adore, they’ve seen a body of my work larger than has ever seen the light of day, because they’ve been calling me in for 10 years. I’ve done a huge body of work for them for parts I didn’t get.

This is what I would tell anybody in this business, especially if they are starting out: There is a reward for bringing your A-game every time.

I went in for parts for Sharon that they told me flat out, “They have offers to three names. I really don’t think you can get it, but they do want to see some people just in case.” Figure out what you love about this character, what’s interesting about this character, and give a three-minute performance that you would do in your driveway for the mailman if he’ll sit still. ...

Love it, despite the result. Love it whether or not you get the job, so that when you leave, what you did was a three-minute black-box performance, one night only, for some of the best casting directors in town, and maybe even the producer or director if they can be there. And they’re gonna cast who they wanna cast, but at least leave the impression that, like, “Holy shit! Wow. That was a very interesting take on that character.”

I do think that cumulatively it put Sharon in a position to then tell Vince and Peter, whom she knew from Breaking Bad ... “When you go through 75,000 [audition] tapes, stop at number four. I think you might be interested in the way this girl works.” I don’t know what Sharon said exactly, but I have to think that it matters, the work you put in for 10 years prior.

You can listen to I Think You’re Interesting on iTunes and Android apps, or at its official page. To hear more interviews with interesting people from all branches of the entertainment industry — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out our archives.

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