Interview

Michael McKean Breaks Bad

The actor, probably best known for his comedy roles, talks about his dark and complicated turn as a Confederate officer in "Father Comes Home From the Wars," and tells us about the time Jeff Beck and Eric Clapton had a “Spinal Tap” moment.

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Actor Michael McKean won over legions of fans as the charmingly dumb Lenny on the hit ’70s sitcom “Laverne and Shirley.” Then came another indelible character: David St. Hubbins, lead singer of Spinal Tap… the fictional heavy-metal band he created along with Christopher Guest, as immortalized in the film “This Is Spinal Tap.”

But McKean’s latest role is a far cry from these comedic parts. He’s onstage now at L.A.’s Mark Taper Forum, in “Father Comes Home From the Wars” — a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize for drama.

In it, he plays The Colonel, a Confederate officer who promises his slave freedom… if he’ll serve as his valet in The Civil War. The Colonel is a dark and complicated character. He’s deeply committed to his cause, alternately playful and deadly serious, and — for most of his time on-stage — more than a little drunk. When Rico met with Michael, he first asked how Michael would describe The Colonel.

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Michael McKean: He is a self-made man. And if you are a do-it-yourself-er, you know that “self-made” doesn’t always mean quality.

He’s a morally reprehensible person from the outside, but from the inside — which is the only way you can play a character — he makes all the sense in the world.  And he does feel that his cause — in this case, the Confederate States of America — is the future.

Rico Gagliano: Do you think that he legitimately does? Because he spends a lot of his time on stage justifying owning slaves, and why slavery is justifiable. And I wonder how much you, as the actor playing him, believe that he believes what he’s saying.

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Michael McKean: I do think that he feels that’s the way the future should be. That eventually everyone will come around to the fact that these inferior humans…

Rico Gagliano: As the Colonel would say.

Michael McKean: …Yeah, [he believes] God gave us those people to do our work and to make our economy sound and whole. Every now and then, when we were rehearsing, I would have this kind of thought  — Michael’s thought — it would invade the Colonel’s thoughts, and say, “Jeez, this was only about 150 years ago!”

This is not, like, made up, and it’s not like it happened, you know, in another galaxy far, far away. This is something that was the common stance of a great many Americans not that long ago.

Rico Gagliano: I will say I’m surprised you consider him a 100 percent true believer in the Southern cause. Because, in a way, I’m giving you an opportunity to let him off the hook a little bit.  To say, “You know, maybe, on some level…” because he actually does seem to love, on some bizarre level, his slave.

Michael McKean: Oh, he does.

Rico Gagliano: That’s why he asked him to join him in the war.

Michael McKean: Yeah.

Rico Gagliano: At one point, he breaks down crying, and you get the feeling that maybe he — on a subatomic level, maybe — knows that this is wrong and has to convince himself.

Michael McKean: I think what is really crushing him is the notion that maybe this isn’t the future. Maybe this is just the past, maybe it’s decaying.

My wife and I read to each other. You know, we read novels and take turns reading chapters. We got about 700 pages into “Gone with the Wind.” And finally, we just had to put it aside.  Because we got to a point, finally, where it was like, “Well, boo-freaking-hoo,” you know? “I’m sorry that this is all collapsing around your ears, but you know what, hey, let’s move on, OK?”

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, maybe that society should have collapsed.

Michael McKean: “Maybe you should eat that root and shut up, you know?”

Rico Gagliano: So, you have some sympathy for the character, but not an overabundance, it sounds like.

Michael McKean: I think that there is something kind of pathetic about the Colonel, but he’s not completely unendearing. He’s amusing, let’s put it that way. You’re never going to be on his side, but you will hopefully be amused.

Rico Gagliano: Yes, he can tell a tale, let’s say. Bottom line, you’re playing, nonetheless, a very cruel character here. You also played the let’s say controversial FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover on Broadway. On the TV show “Better Call Saul,” you played the main character’s brother, also not always the most likable character.

Michael McKean: No.

Rico Gagliano: I grew up seeing you on “Laverne and Shirley” or in “Spinal Tap,” playing these more or less genial characters. When did this change come to playing these heavier roles, and why?

Michael McKean: You know, it’s interesting because I’ve played a lot of comical villains.

Rico Gagliano: That’s true.

Michael McKean: You know, in “The Brady Bunch Movie,” I was the… you know, I was the anti-Brady.

Rico Gagliano: That’s right. This is really just an extension of that character, I feel, in a lot of ways.

Michael McKean: The thing is, I just… you know, when you play the fool, sometimes you’re the fool that they want to see doused in cement or something at the end. And, you know, if it works at the box office, then they offer you a lot more of those. And I’ve always been strong enough or solvent enough not to go with… I like to do something that I haven’t done before.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, I guess my question is: did you consciously choose that path, or did people start saying “Hey, that guy would be a good heavy every now and then?”

Michael McKean: No. No, the first time I was ever really cast as a serious villain was in a movie that no one has seen. It’s called “Man Trouble” with Jack Nicholson, Ellen Barkin, Beverly D’Angelo, Harry Dean Stanton — amazing cast.

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, how did we not see that movie?

Michael McKean: Because it’s kind of a mess. I mean, through no fault of mine, certainly…

Rico Gagliano: Oh, yes, present company excluded.

Michael McKean: No, but I mean, I played a fairly scary guy, and the director, Bob Rafelson, asked me when I read, “Do you play a lot of heavies?” And I said, “Never.” Which was the truth. I had never played anyone who was consciously creepy like that.  And he goes, “Perfect,” and he cast me on the spot.

So, I don’t think it was anybody’s first idea, but, you know, when it happens, still, it’s the same thing. You find out what your character is after, and then you go get it.

Rico Gagliano: Do you maybe, on some level… I can imagine liking [playing bad guys] more, because bad guys are so… in some ways, they’re more driven and less tortured, maybe.

Michael McKean: I think Alan Rickman, when Alan Rickman came along in “Die Hard,” we went, “Oh, yeah! We want all of our bad guys to be like that!”

Rico Gagliano: You would play him in a second.

Michael McKean: Not because we liked him or wanted to cuddle with him, but because he was so damn competent and confident, you know? Tony Soprano: that’s not a good man.

Rico Gagliano: No.

Michael McKean: But fascinat[ing], and we did root for him in this kind of funny way. I haven’t really played anything like that, but I’d love to give it a shot.

Helen Mirren — I worked with her very briefly in a movie. She was playing a pretty crappy person, and I said, “Boy, this is a really terrible woman here.”  And she said, “You know, whenever I have anyone to play who is really awful to other people, I try and imagine what was done to her that made her this way.”

Rico Gagliano: Last question, and I’m going to be very disingenuous here. In this play, you’re first seen playing a banjo.

Michael McKean: Yep.

Rico Gagliano: So, I take that as license to ask you about “Spinal Tap,” a documentary about a fake heavy metal band, of course.

Michael McKean: [Laughs.] Right.

Rico Gagliano: That movie made you a hero to actual metal bands. I’m imagining you didn’t hang out with heavy metal bands before that movie came out.

Michael McKean: Not too much.

Rico Gagliano: And I’m wondering… I would love to hear just a tale about finding yourself running with that crowd.

Michael McKean: Well, I don’t know whether I have one of those exactly. We heard a lot of cases where rockers would come up to us and say, “How did you know about what happened to us on tour?”

And I said, “Well, we took a couple of wild guesses!  We didn’t know that your girlfriend became your manager and used astrology to re-plot the tour. We just made a guess.  And we had our make-believe girlfriend do that.”

But my favorite post-“Tap” moment is — Jeff Beck has become kind of a friend.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, wow.

Michael McKean: And Chris Guest’s look as Nigel is very similar to the way Jeff Beck carries himself.

Rico Gagliano: Is that right?

Michael McKean: Yeah, I think so.  Similar hair, and, you know, kind of…

Rico Gagliano: Yeah, I can see that. Did he consciously do that? Did he base the character on Beck?

Michael McKean: I don’t know. I don’t know, but Chris is no fool when it comes to guitar players. And everyone… I mean, Jeff is, like, the stuff.

So, he told us about a moment.  B.B. King’s 75th birthday, I believe. Big concert at the Apollo in New York. Beck and Clapton were going to do a guitar duel, and they got lost backstage.

Rico Gagliano: Just like “Tap.”

Michael McKean: They got lost under the stage at the Apollo. They just, suddenly, they looked at each other, and they said, “We’re in that movie!”

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