Michael McKean is known for many things. He starred in Laverne & Shirley and This Is Spinal Tap. He’s won a Grammy and been nominated for an Oscar (both for the music in A Mighty Wind). He was a regular on Saturday Night Live. And back in 1996, McKean made a memorable guest shot on Star Trek: Voyager, playing The Clown – basically fear itself – in the episode “The Thaw.” The character was appropriately creepy, even disturbing, as he terrorized the Voyager crew, particularly Harry Kim.
McKean’s next project is Better Call Saul, AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel series, which will debut across two nights – Feb. 8 and 9 – and casts McKean as Chuck, the enigmatic brother of small-time lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk). StarTrek.com recently picked McKean’s brain about Star Trek and Better Call Saul, and here’s what he had to say.
How did Voyager come your way? Was it an offer or did you audition?
MCKEAN: It was an offer. My manager called and said, “Do you want to do a Star Trek?” I said, “Let me read it. It sounds possible.” I read it and thought, “That’s the damn scariest clown in the world. That’s a good thing.” Immediately, I thought about Lon Chaney’s quote about clowns, how the scariest thing in the world would be to answer your door at night and see a clown standing in your front yard. So, to be able to play that, even though I was just a computer program, was a lot of fun. I had to be very scary, and I don’t often get a chance to be scary.
Had you ever experienced anything like the makeup and costume you wore for “The Thaw”
MCKEAN: No, it was pretty elaborate. It was about two and half hours in makeup. I’d actually worked with Tim Curry, and I asked him how long the makeup took for his evil persona in Legend. He said, “Well, the first time we put it on, it was 10 hours.” I said, “What are you talking about?” He said, “That was for the test. Ten hours.” Eventually, they got it down to six and a half hours for the makeup and wardrobe and the fake hoofy-feet and all the sh-t he was wearing. That would probably drive me insane. But when Star Trek came along, it seemed like it would be fun. The first time I saw the way the makeup was, this kind of split-screen, horizontal Harlequin thing happening, I was impressed. The outfit was made to look like brain tissue, that wrinkly grey thing. So I thought, “I could do this.” And it was fun. Michael Westmore, who did the makeup, was great. The only thing that bothered me was that they had to keep redoing my lips, because my lips are really crazy-sensitive.
You had nice bits with most of the cast, oddly enough except for Ethan Phillips, who you were just on Broadway with last year in All The Way…
MCKEAN: That’s true. That’s right. I worked with everyone but Ethan and I had a good time with them. I thought the director, Marvin Rush, did a real good job with the visuals. And it really wasn’t a CGI episode. There was something great and banal about the way it looked. It was like watching an old episode of Batman, where there’d be four walls, but one would be pink and one would be green and one would be… In other words, the craziness, the madness of it wasn’t helped by a lot of visual effects. It was more like, “Wow, this is what a room in Hell looks like.” It looked like someone abandoned designing the senior prom and went off to murder a bunch of strangers. It has this real grim look to it. I loved that.
The idea that fear exists to be vanquished drove the story. How satisfied were you with the finished episode?
MCKEAN: I liked it very much. As an actor, I don’t really ever watch anything I’m in more than once, if ever. There are things I’ve done that I’ve never seen because I’d be thinking, “Oh, I could have done this” or, “I should have done that.” But for this one, I really liked it. I’d like to see it again sometime. I’m sure they’re available somewhere, on Hulu or Netflix or something like that. I loved the finish, especially. Now, when I run into Kate (Mulgew), we always have this little kind of face-to-face exchange, because that where we really first met. But I loved that whole “I’m scared” thing. I liked the writing in that moment. And I really liked Marvin, too. He was a nice guy and he did a good job.
Better Call Saul is about to premiere. Were you looking to do another series when that came your way?
MCKEAN: We’re always looking for the series that’s going to take care of everything, you know? I’ve done a few pilots over the years. I’ve been in a couple of pilots that didn’t go and in a couple of shows that went but didn’t last. Usually you go into it grudgingly. “Oh, it’s pilot season. Let’s try this.” In this case, I was doing All the Way on Broadway with Brian Cranston, and we’d done the play together before it even got to Broadway. One day he turned to me and said, ‘You’re going to get a call from Vince Gilligan. He’d like to work with you again. There’s this part. It’d be a really great part for you.’ Bryan’s not really connected with the show, except that he and Vince are friends. I said, ‘Oh, that sounds very interesting.’ Once I got the call from Vince’s people, I said, ‘Why wouldn’t I do this?’ I didn’t know anything about it, but it sounded like a great idea to spin off the Saul character. So I said yes and we filled out all the paperwork and everything. And then I got on the phone with Vince and he told me what it’s all about.
Most of your scenes in the first two episodes that we saw are with Bob Odenkirk. Can we assume that, going forward, it’ll be many more two-hander scenes between Chuck and Saul (or Jimmy, which is Saul’s real name)?
MCKEAN: Yeah. Out of all my scenes in this shoot, I’d say about 75 percent of them were with Bob and I, Jimmy and Chuck. A lot of it is that balance thing. A lot of it is that the roles are slightly reversed when you meet them in that Jimmy is sort of taking care of Chuck in a number of ways. What does that mean for the rest of everyone’s lives? Jimmy wants to get out on his own. He wants to start his own firm. He wants to use whatever he’s learned, whatever currency he as a relative of a bigger firm. He’s a mixer. He wants to lay everything out. He’s also trying to stay legit, and in the world that Vince has created here, it ain’t easy to stay legit.
And isn’t there some bizarre connection between Better Call Saul and Star Trek?
MCKEAN: It’s Bob, Bob Odenkirk. I’ve long been an admirer of Bob’s. He’s awesome. He was on Saturday Night Live just before I was and he was still around some because he was friendly with everybody on the show. So I’d met him a few times. Then, I ran into him at a Star Trek event, something I wouldn’t normally go to. But it was a big screening, a celebration of Gene Roddenberry’s life, at Paramount.
So that’s the connection.
MCKEAN: Right. And, by this time, Mr. Show had come on, and that had revolutionized sketch comedy by bringing it back to the main idea of the revue, of the great comedy revues of the past. I told him, “Man, at our place we worship at the shrine of Mr. Show.” He was very sweet and we had a nice conversation, and then they called me to do an episode. I’d also met David Cross, who I thought was a brilliant stand-up comedian. So it was a really nice experience doing Mr. Show, and here we are.