Rhea Seehorn knows the value of listening. With a career spanning three decades, Seehorn is a performer who can deftly navigate both comedy (Whitney, American Dad, Veep) and drama (The Closer, Burn Notice, Better Call Saul), but no matter what role or genre she's tackling, she consistently prioritizes her character's ability to listen.
"It's so important to be able to receive information. To me, that is two-thirds of the performance. I try to keep in mind how I'm listening, how the character is receiving the information around them, and what the impetus to speak is about," she says.
While Seehorn has worked steadily throughout her career, she broke through with the role of Kim Wexler when Better Call Saul premiered in 2014. The show — and Kim's role in the story — quickly became hot topics of conversation for fans of the series as well as its predecessor, Breaking Bad. A collaboration between what the writers were putting on the page and Seehorn's beautifully restrained performance, Kim became an enigmatic and intensely private character.
Seehorn says that the evolution of Kim Wexler felt "a little bit like a dance" creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan and the writers were "watching what I was doing and responding to what I was doing," while she "kept drawing things from the scripts and quietly went about building what Kim was doing."
An unknown character from the Breaking Bad era, Kim's fate has been widely discussed and debated throughout the six seasons of the show. Here, Seehorn takes a moment to reflect back on her career, including how she brought the iconic Kim Wexler to life, what she learned from her role on Veep, and where you can find her after Better Call Saul comes to an end.
You've been acting for about 25 years now, starting with a role with Homicide: Life on the Street. Do you remember anything about your very first day stepping onto a set?
I do! Partially to get more comfortable with walking onto a set, so that I didn't freak out if I ever got a part, I did background work even before that. I think the first time I was ever on a set was on Major League 2, which was shot at Camden Yards. All the DC theatre community actors, we'd audition for anything Barry Levinson or John Waters, or things using the Capitol and government buildings, we'd try to get in on those. So, Homicide was a big get, and I was a huge, huge fan of the show. And what I remember is that everyone was just lovely on it. My memory is just how warm and inviting everyone was on the set.
That sounds like a great first experience. Over the years you obviously accumulated quite a résumé. But you really broke through with the role of Kim Wexler on Better Call Saul. During the first season, you asked that there be no personal photos in her apartment, and you have said that you immediately got the sense that she was a child of an alcoholic parent. How would you say you tuned in to Kim's character so quickly?
It isn't that I cemented this fully drawn character from the get-go. It was much more collaborative than that, even though it wasn't us sitting down and having conversations about her. [But] for me, it was about the economy of language that they gave her at the very beginning. She was in scenes where she wasn't speaking a lot. And when she did speak, it was extremely precise and very economic, including almost no contractions in the first season. So, I thought, "Well, who is a person who doesn't say things like 'wanna' and 'gonna'?" That became a key. The fact that she was so precise in her language, that informed me to go, "Well, if you're somebody who absorbs a lot and only speaks with clarity of the exact amount that you need to speak, and nothing more, then maybe you're that precise in your movements and your gestures." And so, I started to create this character that, I think, uses not speaking as a position of power, not a position of weakness. She started to become someone that doesn't want people to be able to read what she's thinking and plays her cards very close to the chest.
The reason that I thought she was raised by an alcoholic, that just came from that first script. There's a scene in a parking garage, it's one sentence, and I believe it's Jimmy saying, "Couldn't you just…" and Kim saying, "…you know I can't." And then she walks away. It also had in the script that he takes a cigarette out of my mouth, smokes it, and then puts it back in my mouth. And it wasn't written that I flinch; it wasn't written that I smacked his hand away. So, I thought, "OK there's a certain level of intimacy there. Whether or not it's sexual, these are these are people that know each other very, very well." She's completing his sentence; that's how well that's how often they talk and how close they are. She also immediately establishes a boundary with him, and then walks toward the elevator and rights the trash can that he tipped over. She doesn't even have to think when she cleans up people's messes or she's trying to maintain boundaries while being self-sufficient. And so, I was just like, "Oh, yeah, she was probably raised by an addict."
It's so fascinating that you were talking a lot about silence and being present in your role as Kim because my next question was about exactly that. Back in 2018, you told a story at the AMC Summit in New York City about how you and Bob Odenkirk went on a mostly-silent road trip together during the first season of shooting because Bob had to rest his voice. It's so interesting because silence is so important between your two characters, but also in the show as a whole. How important would you say the skills of silence and listening are in your role as Kim and in acting in general?
Bob was starting to lose his voice in those first couple of episodes because he was talking nonstop. So, he needed to rest his voice. But we had already planned that when I arrived in Albuquerque, we were going to drive to Santa Fe and just spend the day together, having lunch and getting to know each other because we knew we were going to play these scenes where they told us that they were unsure of the specifics of the relationship, but that it should be about a 10-year relationship. But then Bob said, "I'm so sorry, but my doctor has told me that he wants me to use the weekend to completely rest my voice." I said, "OK, no problem." But I don't have Kim's superpower of not filling in silences. I wish I did! I felt like it would be really rude for me to be talking the whole time when he can't talk. So, then I said, "OK, I won't talk either." And it turned out to be this huge gift. Because, really, this relationship [between Jimmy and Kim] has gone all the way over that hill and into the territory where they can sit in silence and smoke a cigarette or eat Chinese food or brush their teeth. All of those things ended up being the fabric of who they are. So, we were able to get to that place where it was okay to just be silent. I couldn't have asked for a better way to get to know each other that day.
During your tenure on Better Call Saul, you also worked on Veep. While that show was not very big in reveling in silence, your role as Michelle York required you to go toe-to-toe with Julia Louis-Dreyfus while she was spewing some hilarious, yet venomous dialogue — as was Selena's thing. What was that experience like?
I can't even say how amazing it is to be an actor with a group of people that I think are the best in the business in drama, and then go over to this cast. It was the best of the best in comedy, just like a team of aces, that whole cast and all the writers. It was so, so nice. Honestly, just keeping a straight face while Julia Louis-Dreyfus was riffing with [Veep showrunner] David Mandel, trying to figure out what the best phrasing of a line about "jizzing on your Little Mermaid back tattoo," or something, and Tony Hale was standing there doing things like, "Preach!" in the background. I was dying. I had to seriously do the work in character because my character is obviously horrified, but Rhea Seehorn was just loving the front seat to the genius that was happening. It was such a fun, amazing experience.
It's so funny because Selina was the president, so your character just had to take her abuse. So, again, this role was kind of exercising those maxims of listening and silence.
Yeah, but from a much weaker place than Kim Wexler. [Laughs]
You were also on the set for the final day of shooting on Veep. Is there anything you can tell me about that day?
Andy Daly and I had been recurring characters on the show. He wasn't as new to the cast in the way that I was, but he also wasn't part of the full series. And the last scene of Selina in the future, she's with her "Amy replacement" — that's now me — and Andy Daly's character is there, too.
So, all of these directors and writers and cast members that have been with the show for years and years and years assembled to watch this final scene be shot. And Andy and I felt like we were crashing this very monumental, intimate party of these people that had worked together all this time. I didn't want to get in the way, because I was a huge fan of the show as well. I was just like, I cannot believe that I'm getting to be a part of their final season, and now their final episode, and now their final scene. But David Mandel was so lovely about it. He was embracing me the whole way. What a gift to be invited to that kind of ceremonious close to that great show.
Better Call Saul just finished shooting, and I'm sure that was a different experience for you, because you were a vital part of that cast for so long. Obviously, no spoilers, but what was that last day of shooting like for you?
It was very sad. My last day that I drove away from set, that was my last day of shooting. I bawled all the way back to the house that I shared for multiple seasons with Bob and Patrick [Fabian]. And it was very emotional. It's been seven-ish years of my life, six seasons. All I can say about the ending, and the next six episodes, is that it was everything I could have wished for as far as the thoughtfulness that Peter Gould went about these last couple of episodes, and the complexity of story that he needed to tie together.
Vince Gilligan says that character should dictate plot, not the other way around. I had such an emotional response to that, as well, because I was buoyed by the fact that these geniuses in the writers' room were saying that I was the one to help them tell that story. It was a pleasure, and I'm very excited for people to see it. I found it devastating. Psychologically, I'm still thinking about the things that the writers were bringing up in the last few episodes.
The first seven episodes of the season did see Kim taking a hard turn. These seeds of transformation had been planted for the past few seasons, but now everything is moving quickly. How did you prepare for that transition?
We get our scripts one at a time. So, it's all a bit incremental. It's all a series of slight wrong turns until one day you wake up and you've screwed yourself. But that's life. As I was saying with your first question, even when I first started doing the show, I was just doing the information in front of me. Now, during the sixth season, there was a lot of information to draw from because the show allowed characters to evolve, and the writers were so artful and precise in it all being incremental.
One of the great questions they raised on the show is: What's nature and what's nurture? And you are supposed to be asking yourself, "What were these things? Was this always Kim and she's just now revealing herself? Was she suppressing this side of herself or did she become this because of the circumstances she was put in? Who would Kim be if she never met Jimmy? Who would Jimmy be if he never met Kim?" And I think the answers are complex and human. It's all of those things.
Some fans of the show have been surprised to see this shift in Kim, and I'm wondering if you have any reaction to their reactions.
A friend texted me saying that, when they watched episode seven, it was the first time he didn't like Kim. He was struck by her coldness to Howard Hamlin and the Machiavellian way in which she insists on not accepting that there are consequences to her actions. It was the first time my friend was like, "I don't like her. I don't like who she's become." And I was like, isn't that fascinating?
The writers did such a great job of implicating the audience. Because you were laughing, and you thought it was fun and cute when she was pulling cons earlier in the story, and people were like, "I love slippin' Kimmy!" But now it's like, "Oh, wait, I don't like where this went. I don't like what's happened." It's because some of her character assets that were heroic qualities have now become character flaws. Like, [when she says to Jimmy in Season 2], "You don't save me, I save me," that concept has bled all the way into a land where she didn't tell Jimmy that Lalo was alive, and now Jimmy's blindsided by that. Her internal narrative and compartmentalizing has become this thing where she's not taking in that Howard is still a person who doesn't deserve to be hurt. Her sense of right and wrong isn't just that the good should prevail, but that the bad should pay for it, and this is egotistical to say the least. And at the end of the incredible midseason finale, there's this scene where her guilt is just laying up at her feet. I don't want to say where we go from here, but psychologically you can't not be affected by something like that.
Switching gears a bit, you actually directed an episode of Better Call Saul this season. The episode even included a scene in which Kim meets Mike Erhmantraut for the very first time. How was the experience of both directing yourself and acting in a scene?
Logistically, it is difficult to direct yourself. Anybody that says otherwise is crazy. For lots of reasons, you're running back and forth. Like, somebody just touched up my makeup, but now I have to sprint across a parking lot to check a monitor in the hot sun. There's also the idea that I want to be present as Kim Wexler in the scene for my scene partners, and I don't want to be watching them with a director's eye.
As both a director and performer, they gave me an infrastructure on the show to give me the best chance of succeeding. That was everything from department heads willing to do off hour meetings to getting my script a little bit early so I could make sure that I was completely off book and could prep myself as an actor as fully as possible before I switched hats and did director prep.
As Better Call Saul winds to an end, you have a few other projects on deck. The Cooper's Bar shorts on AMC are very fun, and you have a movie called Linoleum coming out in the next few months. What can you tell me about that movie?
That was such a beautiful film. Linoleum, starring Jim Gaffigan and Colin West directed and wrote it, and he's such an amazing voice in film. I was just in love with the script, and I had discussions with Colin about it. It can be deceptive because there's a little bend of sci-fi, and then you realize as it unfurls that it's very emotional. My family saw it, and they were surprised at how emotionally invested they were by the end of the movie and how they felt about what is basically a love story. I think it's such a beautiful film. I shot it in Kingston, N.Y. on one of my hiatuses during the pandemic in a bubble of people just trying to make the movie happen. Jim and I got along so well, and had a blast making it.
Cooper's Bar we also shot during the pandemic. That is an actual backyard! Doing a short form series and broad comedy was just so fun. And then there's another film called Wyrm that I did a while ago, and I have a very small part in it, but I saw this short that Christopher Winterbauer made and was making into a feature and I had my reps contact them and I said I would play a background janitor, anything, just to be in it. It's a beautiful film about coming of age but in a very different and specific way that I don't want to spoil.