Breaking Bad, Damages, The Wire, Flight of the Conchords, Suits: These are television shows on which David Costabile has played recurring characters in the past five years. He’s been a killer cop on Damages and an oily editor on The Wire — and he was whatever the hell Gale Boetticher was on Breaking Bad: an eager-to-please oddball, libertarian, chemistry nerd, music nerd, meth cooker? Let us all agree that Gale was one of the great TV side characters in recent years, and we’ll be fine.
Costabile, who started his professional acting career on and off Broadway, is also booking movie roles these days. Next year, he’ll be in Runner, Runner, a thriller about online gambling starring Ben Affleck, and he has a small part in Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects. Currently, he appears in a substantial role in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which goes into wide release on Friday. He plays James Ashley, a Republican congressman who worked with President Lincoln to pass the 13th Amendment. I talked with Costabile about working on such a huge movie, his love of Bryan Cranston, and how he’s managed to be on most television shows that are on the air. This conversation has been compressed, and if you are behind on Breaking Bad, there are spoilers below.
KA: You play Congressman James Ashley in Lincoln. How did that happen?
DC: I had been in a musical Tony Kushner wrote many years ago, Caroline, or Change, so I knew Tony well. We did a reading of the movie two-and-a-half or three years ago. There were, I don’t know, 65 people in the room, and we did it at the Cooper Union in New York, which is where one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates had been. It was really incredible, one of those mind-boggling insane things.
KA: Did you know who Ashley was? I have to confess, I had no idea who had proposed the 13th Amendment.
DC: No, I did not. You’d have to be deep in American history to know who my character was. He actually had a lifelong support for abolition. In the movie, his views seem much more centrist, but he was actually quite a radical abolitionist. He was not a Johnny-come-lately to that movement.
KA: It’s a crazy cast — Daniel Day-Lewis, Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, a million others. What was that like?
DC: It was so heady — not just with Daniel, and it was such an overwhelming transformation to be around him. On the very first day of filming, about six hours into filming that day, I really was alone by myself checking in and saying, that’s not actually Abraham Lincoln. You started to get into a weird dream state. It wasn’t just that he looked so much like him. You just felt like he was there — I was, like, did he make a deal with the devil? Because I feel like I’m meeting Abraham Lincoln. And that was incredible. And then working with Sally and Tommy — it was such a bounty for me.
KA: One of those people is known as a cranky person. And it’s not Sally Field.
DC: Ah! Hahahahahahahahaha! I don’t know if I could speak exactly to that? How does one say that! Someday when you and I are having a drink, we can have a real discussion.
KA: OK, OK. Steven Spielberg. Does he direct in some unique way?
DC: One of the incredible things about working with him was how at ease he is — and because he is so at his ease, how at ease he makes you feel. You walk in, and you’re so nervous and so excited: Oh my god, I want to do my best. I want to be able to fulfill this role and do this work that I find very moving and that I feel very committed to and passionate about. He’s such a kind and generous person that the same sort of generosity that I want to bring to any portrayal of the role, he is there to meet you. He made me feel relaxed, which was quite surprising, given the stakes of who we were working with.
KA: What’s your favorite scene in the movie? I thought that the scene of the passage of the bill was so exciting. And surprisingly exciting, given that we know that the 13th Amendment did, in fact, pass!
DC: And people are just saying “yes” or “no.” Like, wow. How did he do it? How did he make it so exciting? I guess to me, my favorite scene now is the fight that he and she have, the fight between the president and Mary. The big fight where she says, “You’re angry with me that you never got me into a madhouse.” It’s an exquisitely written scene, and the two of them are — it’s like watching a battle of the Titans, they are just spectacular in it. Also, there’s something to me about how Tony knows how to make the personal political, and the political personal on such a deep level where there’s no difference between those two things. The way Lincoln ends up solving the fight, when he says, “I have to do what I have to do; you have to do what you have to do; and Bob has to do what he has to do; and we each have to let ourselves do that” — it’s such an intense psychological and emotional state to live in. And then you see how that moves him into the political decisions he’s made in his life. I understand it now, I understand how you can do something so beautiful as abolishing slavery, or something so horrid as to continue this horrible war. It’s a striking scene.
KA: You seem to have broken through on Broadway in 1997. What were you doing before then? Were you a struggling actor, or —
DC: I moved to New York in ’92 and got my graduate degree in acting from NYU — they have a great acting program. I graduated in ’95.
With Bryan Cranston, left, on Breaking Bad.
KA: Your ubiquity on television, particularly cable television, began in 2007 when you were on both Flight of the Conchords and Damages. You played a very terrible person on Damages, the Bearded Man. How did the ubiquity begin to occur?
DC: I also did a season of The Wire. As my father liked to say, you play the biggest dipshit on TV. Friends of mine were the creators and executive producers of Damages, people I knew from graduate school. They knew that I could do this, they knew I had a deep sense of evil in me, they knew a sociopath was in my grasp. The part of the Bearded Man was a great thing for me because people didn’t know that I could do that. I was the kind of guy who it was, like, are you a funny guy or are you a dramatic guy? And I’d say, I’m a both guy.
KA: OK, Breaking Bad. For god’s sake. That was a very different part for you — you got shot in the face, you sang “Major Tom” as karaoke. Gale! How did you do it?
DC: The scene that I auditioned with was the scene where they’re making meth and I’m talking to him about why I do it and who I am. There was such clarity about who this guy was; I knew who he was for myself so deeply.
I was a total, insane Breaking Bad fan. On the very first day, I was working with Bryan [Cranston]. For the first three hours, I was totally keeping my cool, being like, it’s so great to meet you. About three hours in, I cornered Bryan, and I was like, OH MY GOD, IN EPISODE 12 IN SEASON 2 WHEN YOU WATCHED HER DIE IT WAS INCREDIBLE I FUCKING LOVED IT WHAT DID YOU DO YOU ARE SO INCREDIBLE. He was, like, you are a freak.
Gale sings “Major Tom”!
KA: I assume you still watch the show. Did you have any heads-up that Gale’s inscription to Walt would be what allows Hank to find out that Walt is Heisenberg?
DC: I did know that was coming. Yes. Just because I know people who are the writers.
KA: Do you get recognized?
DC: For sure I’m an acquired taste. People who’ve had that acquisition, who’ve acquired it, are quite surprised when they see me. Because I look like Everyman on some level, I would say I get recognized once or twice a day. I recently did a part on the show Suits, the USA show, and there’s a very large, rabid fan base. Suits fans. I’ve never met a more diverse audience: across gender, race, class. It’s incredible. People who are high-powered lawyers to doormen. A Chinese immigrant cable installer who barely spoke English — loves Suits!