Familiar faces crop up on Better Call Saul all the time: Just last night, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) enlisted the services of Ira (Franc Ross), a professional burglar and sometime exterminator who’ll meet Jimmy’s future clients Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in the fifth season of Breaking Bad. But “Something Beautiful” doesn’t stop there. Near the end of the episode, as Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) makes moves to expand his burgeoning methamphetamine empire, he pays a visit to chemist and recipient of the Max Arciniega Chemistry Scholarship, Gale Boetticher (David Costabile). It’s an auspicious encore for a character last seen crooning Peter Schilling against a backdrop of sci-fi cheese: While conducting an experiment and giving Gus the bad news about his meth samples, Gale sings along to “The Elements,” Tom Lehrer’s pairing of the periodic table and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am The Very Model Of A Modern Major-General.” The A.V. Club spoke with Costabile about the painstaking process of committing that song to memory, getting back in touch with a character who’s already died onscreen, and playing the sensitive Gale while also playing the “rapacious scumbag” Wags on Billions.
The A.V. Club: How did you memorize “The Elements”?
David Costabile: That fucking song. Holy shit. I sang it until my brain bled. If you ever get into your head that that’s something you would like to do in your spare time, double think that. I have learned lots of songs, but this particular one is a monster. If I were singing live to you, even a patter song like that, there are times when, if I got lost, I could make something sound as if it were a element of the periodic table and you’d be like, “How did he do it?” But because of the way the song is structured and because of the tempo, the performer can’t miss. You can’t make up shit because you’ll never get back on the beat because each piece, the logic of each one is connected to the other. The only way that you would learn what the logical structure of the piece is is by forcing yourself to learn it, because you would never take the time. It’s so intricate and it’s so fucking complicated in order to get it to speed.
I learned the words and then I would sing it along with Tom Lehrer and I had to figure out how to slow it down [on my computer], so I would sing it slow for two days and then I would increase the tempo where I got to the point where I could sing it at tempo, because you can’t learn a song like that. Or at least I can’t. It’s too frustrating. Because as you’re learning something like that, even if you’re learning just one verse of it, you have to have a feeling of “I’m accomplishing something. I know that I know the first line: ‘There’s antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium.’ Great. That line will never go out of my brain.” And you can do it over and over and over, but you can’t. If the expectation is that you’re going to learn every line like that and by the end you think you’ll have it down, you’re screwed
And there was a real time pressure: We didn’t have a lot of time between when I got cast and when we were going to shoot. And I was also shooting Billions at the time. If you’re sitting around on the beach and that’s all you had to do all day—no problem.
There are all sorts of levels of memorization. I’m actually a pretty quick memorizer, so if I get a script I can memorize something very quickly but very shallowly. It will stay in my brain as long as I’m either working on it or talking about it. But then if I put it down and walk away two hours later, it will be totally gone. If you want to go into something that has to get really deeply remembered like a Shakespeare sonnet or something, this is where it is. The song is a second thought. The thought that he’s doing is the chemistry experiment. He’s thinking about doing that. He just happens to be singing the song. If you stuck a hot poker in my eye and I had to do this chemistry experiment and still sing the song, I could have done it because that’s how deeply held it needs to be.
AVC: Did you come away from it with a better understanding of the elements of the periodic table?
DC: I have a much better understanding of what Tom Lehrer did when he put that song together. I’m happy that I could say all of the elements of the periodic table—except that I couldn’t. I’d have to sing it. I suppose if I slowly did it and took out each word—[Sings.] Antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium, and hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and radium—you’d be like, “Wait a second, you’re slowly singing that song. How come they’re all on note?”
AVC: It feels like such a perfectly Gale moment, to be going about something so complicated while absentmindedly doing something else complicated. It captures so much about him in such a short amount of time. What was your impression when you saw the script for the first time?
DC: There were two feelings. One was, I was furious that those guys had decided to put the song in. And also I was really psyched because that’s a great way to reintroduce this person. If you were a Breaking Bad fan, you would have that feeling like, “Oh, poor Gale.” But if you didn’t know Breaking Dad, you could still watch it and know who that person was. It was a great Easter egg, but it was also a great telling of that story again.
AVC: Had you hoped that Better Call Saul might bring Gale back?
DC: I definitely hoped. I was like, “Oh, that could happen.” But I had no inkling that they would. I had run into Peter [Gould, co-creator and showrunner] years earlier—in Albuquerque of all places—when they were shooting the first season and we had a very brief conversation and he was off-handedly like, “We should have you on the show.” And I was like, “You should, dude, because I love playing that character.” I thought it was just him being nice. I was like, “Oh, that makes sense.” If there was a character that you had written and then subsequently decided to kill, that was beloved in the previous show, you would think that person might say, “Hey, why don’t you come back and be on the prequel?” And you’d be like, “Sure, why wouldn’t I come back and be in the prequel? That seems like a likely thing to do since you fucking shot me in the fucking face!” But I did not expect it at all.
AVC: What was it like to reconnect with the character?
DC: It was strange. It was a long time ago. I was a very different person, it was a very different world. And there was no trick to get into an earlier version of who that person was. It was made a lot easier by having the time that I spent on the song. I was imagining what Gale would do in order to learn that song, and that sort of long, slow meditation that it took to memorize the song also gave me a long time to consider him.
The easiest and most immediate thing that pulled me back into the world was to see Giancarlo [Esposito, who plays Gus Fring on Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad] and to be able to be in a scene with him. His character is so forceful and he as a person is so kind and generous that both of those things, they push you and pull you at the same time. That dynamic is very helpful in terms of really feeling like you are connected to a world and scene and circumstances and action. That was a great help: “We’re here, we’re doing this. I’m with someone I know and he knows me”—not just me the actor but also that character. There’s somebody reflecting back to you: “What you’re doing is in fact what we both remember.”
AVC: You shot this concurrently with Billions—what was it like to vacillate between your character on that show, Wags, and Gale?
DC: Fucked-up. Crazy. Weird. Mind-numbing. Totally head-spinning. I flew out [to Albuquerque], I did it in one day, and then flew back that night and had to be on set at Billions the very next day. It was really like, “What the hell has happened?” I have spent now many, many, many hours playing Wags and that is the thing that is closest to the surface and when you have to go back into the vault and literally resurrect this person and this part of you and this character— the story, the way you tell the story about this person—I had to shake the cobwebs hard in order to get there. And then to immediately switch gears back to playing a rapacious scumbag definitely threw me for a loop. I’ll tell you that.
AVC: How secretive did you have to be about the appearance?
DC: No one could know anything.
AVC: How does it feel now that it’s out in the open?
DC: It’s going to be good. I love the Easter eggs in the show. Did you watch Breaking Bad from the beginning? Or did you come to it later?
AVC: I came to it later.
DC: Like most people. So you actually probably have a much clearer idea—I watched [Breaking Bad] from the beginning and I’m like, “Whoa, whoa.” It’s a long story that continues on and when you get little pieces of it back, it’s really exciting. It’s a really fun experience. It’s a different way of telling stories too, that there is a whole separate story that they’re telling. And inside that story is another story—like matryoshka doll storytelling.
AVC: I went back and watched the flashback at the top of “Box Cutter” before this interview, and it dawned on me that in both that scene and your scene from “Something Beautiful,” Gale and Gus discuss the purity of the samples.
DC: That aspect of him has always struck me as something so central to why he does what he does, and what he’s interested in in the world. The rigorous pursuit of excellence and how demanding one has to be of oneself and unaccepting of one’s inadequacy. The push to move towards only 100 percent purity. That remains true about this character. I think that that was something that was always inside of what they have written and slowly revealed. But I think that those writers are smart enough to have made something that is so integrated not only to Gale’s arc, but also the arc of the whole piece. It’s great storytelling.
AVC: With that flashback, and now this scene, you’ve been able to play Gale twice after he dies.
DC: [Laughs.] I haven’t even thought about it that way. That’s awesome. Double resurrection. I’ve never actually had to resurrect myself twice. Feels good. I guess, the next role: Jesus of Nazareth.
AVC: This is something you probably can’t answer, but what can you say about Gale’s future on Better Call Saul?
DC: Literally nothing. You can call Peter and ask him. He would definitely know. He’s all-knowing. All those guys are all-knowing about how long Gale gets to live or die, whether he’s got to resurrect another time. Whether what we saw on Breaking Bad is actually his resurrection.
AVC: There’s just so much time to explore between “Something Beautiful” and that scene in the superlab.
DC: Are you suggesting spin-off? I like the sound of that.