A Conversation with Breaking Bad’s David Costabile

The actor who played Gale Boetticher shares his memories of working on the show — and his thoughts on its impending finale

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This is the third part in a weeklong series of Breaking Bad-related stories, all leading up to the series finale airing this Sunday. Tomorrow: A TIME writer explains why she can’t watch Breaking Bad

Part way through Breaking Bad’s third season, viewers were introduced to Walt’s lab assistant Gale Boetticher, one of the quirkiest characters in the entire series. Though Gale only appeared in a mere seven episodes, he had an incredible impact well beyond his untimely (and grisly) demise.

Gale was played by actor David Costabile, who, in addition to his memorable turn on Breaking Bad, has had meaty parts in everything from Flight of the Concords (Mel’s long-suffering husband) to The Wire (the top editor at the Baltimore Sun) to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (a congressman).

TIME spoke with Costabile about what it was like to have played such a memorable role in one of the most popular shows of the new century.


TIME: The first time you read Gale’s scripts, what was your initial impression of the character?

COSTABILE: Sometimes you just get lucky, and you really have a deep feeling for who that person is. The scene I auditioned with was the scene where you meet Gale for the first time — where he, basically, tells Walt why he does what he does and recites the Whitman poem. It was just one of those things where I had an instant, deep love for [the character], but I also just knew him. Sometimes you get lucky with those.  And then the second lucky thing is: sometimes you actually get cast in those parts.

With great writing, there is great clarity. Even for the short amount of time Gale was with us, he had quite an impact, and I think that’s primarily because of the writing.

He’s a complex figure. Gale is engaged in an illegal and dangerous enterprise, but he’s a very gentle soul. Is that how you saw him?

Absolutely. When you first meet him and he’s testing the boundaries with Walter — at that point, he had yet to go all the way in. There was a real sweetness to him. To both of them. They both shared a deep passion for chemistry, for science and the acquisition of knowledge across the board. Cooking meth was just a way for him to really live a full life.

 In that first scene, we learn Gale went into the meth business because he can immerse himself in the magic of chemistry without the nasty politics of academia. But did Gale consider the possible horrific and deadly ramifications of the drug business?

No. I think he certainly chose to not encounter it, and I think he probably didn’t have a lot of experience with people who smoke meth. He didn’t really have any idea how horrific the effect can be on a person’s life. I think he really was mostly interested in the fact that he could get paid to be a chemist. And be a chemist in a way that was back to what he originally thought it could be — pure. But, in fact, it couldn’t have been less pure. I think he was misguided, and was willfully ignoring one’s effect in the world.

In those early scenes where Gale and Walt are running the lab, playing chess, drinking coffee, there’s a really lovely odd-couple relationship there. Those must have been fun scenes to shoot.

It was very fun. In addition to being an extraordinary actor, Bryan Cranston is a really generous guy, and also very funny. He has a deep sense of comedy, and it came out a lot during those days we filmed that. Initially, the majority of what I used to do was comedy, so it was very fun to be able to play with somebody who has such an incredible range as he does. We had a great “chemistry”.

Did they tell you right away that Gale would be killed off?

Not initially. And it was quite a sadness when I was informed that my doom was imminent. But I did get to do lots of very fun things, and sort of give a little rise-from-dead there at the end. I probably knew about halfway through. I think sometimes one has to be sacrificed.

The two scenes in Gale’s apartment have been some of the most talked about because of Gale’s little eccentricities. Who came up with all of the details of Gale’s private life — and how did you prepare for those scenes?

Speaking as a fan, there’s something about the production design of that show that’s flawless. You never really feel that there’s an off-note to it. When I walked into Gale’s apartment, every piece made total sense: skis, a potato clock, a crazy telescope and a turntable, a Stephen King novel and pictures of me on Mount Everest. There’s such a deep, intuitive sense those designers have about the world they’re creating, it all makes sense.

I got the song he’s singing along to about a week prior. One of the writers on the show is a friend of mine, and Vince Gilligan asked him if I had any special skills. He told Vince I sang. The music supervisor found that tune, “Crapa Pelada,” but had no idea I actually spoke sort of restaurant Italian. I knew enough and had been trained enough to sing Italian, but it was in this crazy Neapolitan dialect, so I must have sung that song for myself about a thousand times. It was a challenge, let’s say.

Then there’s Gale’s karaoke tune “Major Tom.”

That was another great challenge because we did it in one day, and everybody decided they were going to hang out and watch. I was standing in front of a green screen, looking at a sock to make it as if it was a karaoke machine. It’s a long song, too.

[youtube-custom http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wugY6HNLOCo size=”medium”]

That’s another song I can honestly say I sang many hundreds of times. The bandana around my deck was a last-minute addition by a costume designer, and it was quite well played.

You’ve worked with Tony Kushner, David Simon, Vince Gilligan, been directed by Steven Spielberg in Lincoln. Do you have a favorite professional experience — or is that like choosing between beloved children?

That’s a rough one. I will say for sure getting to work with Tony and Steven Spielberg in the same go and having your scene partner be Daniel Day-Lewis is a pretty heady mix. You reel from how lucky you are. That was a great experience for me. But yes, it would be like choosing between favorite children if I had to exclude David Simon or Vince Gilligan.

Can you tell us a little bit about your new AMC show Low Winter Sun?

I play an internal affairs police officer investigating another officer for shenanigans prior to a murder. Once his case begins to go cold, he has to find out why it’s gone cold. He’s really interested in finding out, not only what the facts are, but what the truth is. It’s a great challenge to be able to listen to what the real answer is, past all of the bluster and distaste that many of the characters on the show have for mine. I don’t want to spoil it, but if his patience is not rewarded, it might not go so well for him.

Breaking Bad has been such a phenomenon and affected so many people, and Gale was a very important part of that story. How do you feel now that it’s coming to an end?

When the show won an Emmy this year, I felt really proud to have been on it and happy for those people. It was very rewarding to feel like you got to be a part of something that has a deep cultural significance, but that people really love. I was just in Ireland, and people just couldn’t believe when Gale walked into a pub. It was a role I hoped would be significant, but it really did have an impact on people. It’s quite something.

Watching the episode this past weekend, I got really sad. Because you love the story, you want it to keep going. But there has to be an end.