AMC’s Better Call Saul is a series that takes a unique perspective on how it presents its characters, as each one displays just as many faults – if not more – than they do talents. The development of these morally gray individuals makes each one feel more genuine and relatable. There are few individuals that embody that statement in the show more than Howard Hamlin, a charismatic lawyer played by Patrick Fabian. The Nerd Stash recently had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Fabian regarding his character’s development, what it was like to work with Vincent Gilligan and his casting experience. (This interview took place on June 13th, 2017, prior to season 3’s finale).
Your character has seen a lot of development and growth over the past three season, but at the outset, it looked like you were the main antagonist against our show protagonist, Jimmy. Were you aware Howard was going to mold into such a complex character?
Patrick Fabian: From the outset, you don’t know. You’re all so excited for doing the pilot, I don’t think the writers know as well. They have a rough idea but nobody can really see around the corner. We do what we are doing in front of us and you wonder what’s around the corner, but you don’t really know. I remember Vince [Gilligan] letting me know early on though, in terms of characterization, he just reminded me saying, “We don’t necessarily know if Howard is good or bad yet, we know he’s got a certain position, he’s got certain relationships.” Then you have Jimmy, the reason we all started watching it.
We all love Saul Goodman and with the first words out of his mouth, he refers to me as Lord Vader. So when the lead character of a show calls your character Lord Vader everyone goes “Oh so he’s evil.” So it’s hard to change that because everything that I do starts making evidence to support that cause. I think what we’ve seen is that by the end of season 1 people though maybe he’s not so bad after all.
In season 2 though I send Kim to the cornfield, then every goes “Oh he is a dick, nevermind.” Now we are back in season 3 and Howard is just trying to maintain stuff and these last couple of episodes we have seen him have to resort to behavior that is very un – Howard like. I think he wanted to be doing other things but he literally just has to clean up this mess of people who just don’t know how to behave.
The episode “Fall” was titled that for good reason. Howard is desperately trying to keep stuff together, especially with Chuck, trying to do what’s best for the firm and what’s best for him. Ironically the thing that Chuck has complained about Jimmy from the beginning is that he doesn’t respect the law and doesn’t deserve to be a lawyer. Now that’s what Chuck is engaged in, letting his personal vengeance blind him from the right thing to do.
How hard do you think that all is for Howard considering what a mentor Chuck has been for him?
Patrick Fabian: Show wise Howard’s spent three years, three seasons, he spent all of this capital on him! It’s really hard on him, it’s awful. Howard hates being put in a position where he has to behave how he has the past couple of episodes. It also shows you the value that he places on HHM above everything else. If he is willing to do that it also answer some lingering questions we’ve had throughout too like, “Why is he protecting Chuck? Why is he going after Chuck?”
The first obvious answer is that it’s his friend, partner, and mentor. That’s the right thing to do and until we have irrefutable evidence that it is no longer the right thing to do then we are going to continue to do those things, regardless of whether you like Jimmy or Kim or how you feel about the situation from Howard’s point of view. When that no longer becomes tenable, that’s tough.
So you mentioned working with Vincent Gilligan. What’s it like working with him regarding how laced in subtlety and nuance his style is in both Breaking Bad and now Better Call Saul. How often will he work with you developing your character with things like facial expressions and smaller details?
Patrick Fabian: Vince is really good with actors. He very laid back and runs a great set that isn’t filled with any tension, just allowing the actors to work. He’s always game for ideas as well. While he has an idea for what he wants out of each scene he’s always open to interpretation as things go around. His attention to detail is not strictly limited by any stretch of the imagination to just what’s going on in the scene between the two actors, it’s also the visuals.
Part of the reason we love Better Call Saul is it’s cinematic in scope and it’s storytelling visually is so cool. At the very beginning I remember we did a scene, the very first scene we actually had ever shot, I remember we are coming down the barrel at HHM at the conference table with three cameras rolling on my first day on the job and I am sweating bullets.
They do the first take and Vince goes “Cut” and starts walking down the table. Rea [Seahorn] and I both have the same inner monolog of: “Your about to be fired publicly so figure out what your facial expression is going to be, you can break down later.” But he walks all the way down the conference table and grabs a danish that was sitting on the table and moves it about a quarter of an inch. Then he goes back behind the camera and says: “Oh you guys are good, let’s go again.”
I thought I was dealing someone who is clearly a genius because if he’s not a genius, he’s crazy. Maybe it’s a littler bit of both. Needless to say Rea and I did not get fired that day and the Danish made it into the shot. That really just goes to show you the attention to detail he had right out of the gate. Vince, Peter Gould and the writing staff really lay a blueprint out for us to work on, and it gives you signals and signposts as to where your characters are going. Also if you have input on that, there is always a healthy discussion available to be had.
In regards to the facial expression, he’s such a good director that those sort of result-oriented directions aren’t even in his vocabulary. Instead, it’s something beforehand, an idea to be dropped inside your head before the next take. As a result, you get to play with it and that’s one of the best things about working with these guys, it really feels like a collaboration.
What would you say to fans that find Better Call Saul too slow build wise?
Patrick Fabian: We got that “criticism” out of the gates and the fact of the matter is that Better Call Saul is a different show, it’s not Breaking Bad. Everyone was so excited about the show coming when it was announced. Yet it took Breaking Bad five seasons to get to its operatic end, with all that tension and craziness going on, but you just can’t start a show there. Particularly with this show because it literally rolls back time about a decade.
I think an origin story has its own slow burn, but there is this thirsty pre-established fanbase that wants to see drug deals. When Gus came back people were very excited and for a very good reason. But Gus Fring is not Gus Fring yet either he’s still working it out.
In terms of pacing this season though, things have really ratcheted up, between introducing Gus and having Nacho take more of a forefront in terms of what’s going on. I’m ok with that pacing though because I consider Better Call Saul to be a show that is in the same closet of Breaking Bad, but the shirt is just on a different end of the rack.
How does Better Call Saul’s tone compare to its predecessor Breaking Bad?
Patrick Fabian: They are just different animals. Also, the guys who are making it now in Peter and Vince are a decade down the line of what they’ve wanted to do and so things are different. It’s still going to spawn from the same beautiful well, it’s just going to be a different fountain, a different drink. The fact that I’m in it, Rea’s in it, [Michael] Mando is in it, and Michael McKean stars in it just makes a different cocktail.
The same can be said even when you start dropping in all these other characters that used to live in the Breaking Bad universe, and that show is also still so unique in its own right. Everyone wanted the show to bring back Jesse, but Jesse is a seventh grader when all takes place. As a result, there is no bringing back “Yo Bitch” in the beginning of Better Call Saul, it wouldn’t make any sense. I do understand that sort of wish for that but, hopefully, we’ve struck a nice balance for fans of each show, without having to kill everyone off to make it exciting.
There’s a scene that takes place in Hacienda in which we know the fate of each character there and it doesn’t end well for any of them. Yet there they are doing stuff and that deliciousness is something that can only be afforded if you turn back time. In the same vein, when you turn back time you have to work with the constraints that gives you.
Walter White is still just a chemistry teacher at this point. So if you want to see him at this point in Better Call Saul it’s not going to have the same effect. He’s not Heisenberg yet, but I think people want that. The good news is though is that we have our own fans, ones who that started with Better Call Saul and those who came over from Breaking Bad.
Did you actually watch Breaking Bad when it was airing?
Patrick Fabian: [Laughs] Uh no I did not and the reason was that my wife and I were expecting our first child around the time of its release. She was around nine months pregnant and we watched the pilot and she turned to me, rubbing the miracle of life in her belly and said, “Yeah I’m not on board with this.” We didn’t watch it obviously while raising a child, then we had another kid and our household programming instead was Clifford the Big Red Dog, Jake and the Neverland Pirates, kid shows.
At some point, we discovered how great it was, but didn’t know how the hell we were going to catch up on this show between work and raising our 1 and 2-year-olds. So by the time I went and did the audition I knew who they were and how it was award winning and stuff like that but I had not watched a single episode except for the pilot.
How do you think that affected your audition process and the way you approached your role for Better Call Saul?
Patrick Fabian: It probably helped me in all honesty. I really didn’t have the pressure in my brain of just what it was I was auditioning for. When I drove to the audition I knew that the two casting directors were the same ones that did the casting for AMC’s other hit show The Walking Dead, which was probably in around Season 3 or 4 around that point.
As I am driving there I thought, “I’m not going to get this Better Call Saul job, they’re going to give it to a movie star, they are going to give this to anybody they want.” Instead, I went into it with the mindset of, if I do really well maybe I could get a two-episode part on The Walking Dead and get eaten by a zombie! Realistically speaking that wasn’t a farfetched goal. Breaking Bad had just won all of these awards and it’s not a knock on whether I think I am good or anything like that, it’s a business, those things happen all the time.
So my expectations were that they were just going to hire somebody that is famous. That is the genius of Vince and Peter though, not the genius that they hired me – although I do think that is very smart – but that they didn’t feel obligated to do that. They took their winnings from Breaking Bad and shoved them right back into the table and said let it ride and that’s just about as ballsy as it gets. To stay in house, make a prequel, and be willing to dance with the reputation of Breaking Bad just shows such supreme confidence and willingness to continue telling this story.
I was thrilled when they said there were interested in me and immediately watched the show after I got the job, then I got scared thinking what have I got myself into. It’s turned out really well though and I can’t thank Vince, Peter, the Wardrobe designers and my costars enough. It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had in my life.
Better Call Saul is, even more so than Breaking Bad, know for having a lot of focus on side characters. Is there a certain character that Howard has not interacted with yet that you’d like to see him have a scene with?
Patrick Fabian: When we got picked up for season 3 one of the first things I did was call Jonathan Bank [Mike Ehrmantraut] because I’ve become good friends with him. So I said hey we were picked up for Season 3 like we had made the JV squad in cheerleading in high school, I was so excited. I told him I really hope we have a scene together this season!
So Jonathan says to me [Mimicking Bank’s deep, relaxed vocal patterns], “That’s very nice Patrick, but I just want to remind you of something, you don’t want a scene with me. We know that I make it to Breaking Bad and we know that Bobby [Odenkirk] makes it to Breaking Bad. You, Rea, Mando though, we don’t know so much what happens to you.” I was like, oh shit. You know what, you are right. So every time I get a script the first thing I make sure I don’t have a scene with Jonathan Banks.
One last question for ya. If you had to pick one Lawyer to represent you from the Better Call Saul, who would it be?
Patrick Fabian: It would not be Jimmy, I can tell you that. I would pick Kim Wexler to represent me, absolutely. That doesn’t mean to throw Chuck under the bus, but I would pick Kim because I groomed her and she probably has soaked up the best of me. She is also younger, so I’m smart enough to see that she probably sees it from a better angle. Plus Howard loves that Kim Wexler, he’s got affection for her and I don’t mean love in a romantic way, I mean in more a very strong materialistic she is my protege kind of way. In spite of all the shit she has now thrown at me I think Howard always does wish her well.
Once again, Patrick, I appreciate the time you have given me!
Oh absolutely man, thank you so much for taking an interest. I don’t get to have my fantasy job unless you and the fans tune in and watch it!
Better Call Saul just finished it’s the third season! So be sure to binge-watch the entire thing, then check back here for our review of each episode and discuss it in the comments!