Better Call Saul Q&A – Carol Burnett on Marion's Big Moment

Iconic actress Carol Burnett, who plays Marion on AMC’s Better Call Saul, discusses how her admiration for Vince Gilligan’s work led to her guest role, why Marion is so charmed – and ultimately betrayed – by Gene, and how Marion stands her ground in the end.
You've spoken publicly about your admiration for Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, so when you got the opportunity to be part of the show, what was that experience like?
I'm friends with Vince Gilligan. Maybe four years ago, I was going to some event and my driver, Jason, happened to mention that he also would drive Vince and his significant other Holly to their various events. I said, "Oh my God, please, the next time they're in your limo, please tell him how much I love his writing and Breaking Bad." The next time I saw Jason, he said, "Well, I was driving Vince and I told him what you said and he said, ‘Oh my God, I love Carol.'" I was getting ready to do a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Carol Burnett variety show, so I invited Vince, and Vince came with Jason the driver! There was a get-together afterward, so I got to meet him, and then my husband and I got in touch with him and Holly. So she and Vince and my husband Brian and I have had a few dinners together and so we really got to know each other and I told him how much I loved Better Call Saul. I remember there was an episode early on when Michael McKean, who played Jimmy's brother, mentioned to his ex-wife, "If I want you to stop saying something, I'm going to pull my ear the way Carol Burnett does on her show," and I was watching it and I just almost fell off the couch. I was so flattered!
Anyway, when we did get to meet Vince and Holly for dinner, he told me that he had written an episode of The X-Files that my daughter Carrie starred in and he said she was one of his favorite performers and he went on and on and on about how good she was in that episode, and that really touched me a whole lot. I told him how much I was loving Better Call Saul and he said, "Someday maybe." I said, "Listen, I'll go in and say one sentence. I don't care! But I would love to be a part of the show." Over a year ago, he got in touch with me and we had a phone interview with the writers. They talked about writing something for me in the last few episodes and I said, "Absolutely! I'm there." I started last October and I was there for two months and I just had the best time! Bob and I totally bonded. Right from the get-go, it was as if we'd known each other forever. I had a great time with him and Pat [Healy]. I couldn't have been more thrilled or more comfortable.
You're obviously a comedy legend and a very accomplished dramatic actress as well. Did you like the fact that the role of Marion had elements of both?
Oh certainly. You know, I've done a lot of dramatic stuff that didn't even have a comic overture, so I was very comfortable and they made me very comfortable. I never thought about, "Oh gosh, I'm a comedian doing drama." That never occurs to me anymore at all and I'm sure it doesn't occur to Bob because he's been doing Saul for 14 or 15 years. I remember seeing an interview with him saying he was really kind of surprised that Vince would offer him that particular role. But Vince knows that if you can do comedy, you can do drama.
For both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, this creative team has had a lot of success casting comedic actors in dramatic roles. Why do you think those types of performers excel in these particular shows?
I don't know. Vince saw something in Bob Odenkirk, to hire him at first just to do three episodes of Breaking Bad, and he saw how good he was and he just said, "Hey, come back for more.” And then look what happened with the spin-off. A long time ago, back in the covered wagon days, they used to pigeonhole. If you were a comedian, you couldn't [do drama], if you were a singer, you couldn't do acting. … But they don't do it as much anymore. I mean, when I was starting out too, it was like, "Oh, well, that's a television person and they could never do a movie." But Jimmy Garner sure put a pin in that balloon and so did Steve McQueen, and people like that, they started off in television and then they got the chance and finally they'd cross over. What's interesting to me now is that a lot of movie stars are doing television. Because it's not so much action-filled and all that, you're getting really good dramatic writing on cable.
Marion doesn’t really suffer fools, but she’s still a somewhat easy mark for Gene initially. Why do you think she is taken in by him?
She was very sharp, but [Gene] was so charming and helped her. She had no idea who he was or what he did to her scooter, so he was kind of a hero to her to get her home. Maybe she was lonely a little bit and here was this knight in shining armor who came and rescued her and got her home. That's what I drew upon, was that she trusted him after a while and especially in the episode when he showed her how to work a computer. It was all very sweet. He became kind of a chum. That's the way I approached it, that he was my chum, so when she finds out that he's a fake, that really hurt her. That hurt her. At one point, when we were doing the scene, Vince was thinking, "I wish I could have you say you broke my heart," but he said, "I can't do that because that's a famous line from The Godfather," when Michael finds out his brother betrayed him and he looked at him and said, "You broke my heart." Instead, Vince gave me a line, "I trusted you," and that worked just as well.
You mentioned Michael McKean’s character Chuck before. When Marion's talking about Jeff's past in Albuquerque in Episode 12, it reminded me of when Chuck would talk about the way Slippin’ Jimmy behaved back in the day. Was that a parallel you noticed?
It's funny – now that you bring it up, I remember it, but I wasn't thinking about that at the time. But you're absolutely right.
Although Marion is initially charmed by Gene, she does see a glimpse of something a little strange going on in the garage in the previous episode. Do you think the wheels start turning in that moment or is it in this episode when she really starts to put it together?
I think it was really Episode 12. That night when she looked out the window, like "What is this?" it disturbed her a little bit, but I don't think she thought anything was really horrible with Gene at the moment. I think that happened when she had the phone call with him and he let it slip that he knew all about Albuquerque, whereas he had said before he'd never been there. That planted the seed, like, "What's going on here?" and that's when she went to the computer and discovered who he really was. She's not a fool, so she picked up on that. She was sharp and when he said that – like he'd never been to Albuquerque, then he's talking to her about the law in Albuquerque, boom, that's when it hit. And what a disappointment. She actually, in her own little way, kind of loved him and he did break her heart. She trusted him.
Does she feel angry at herself at all because she got taken in by this con man?
Yeah, of course. When you trust somebody implicitly and think they are your friend and then he turns on you, not only are you hurt but you're really pissed off! So, she turned on a dime there. She was very happy to turn him in. She was really, really hurt and angry.
Things get pretty tense between Gene and Marion when she threatens to call the cops/Life Alert. Do you think Marion was ever afraid for her life? Why do you think she pushed the Life Alert button anyway?
He looked a little threatening, but she knew he wasn't going to kill her. She wasn't going to go down not fighting and that's why she yells into the Life Alert and turns him in. And he, true to form – Gene doesn't have it in him to really harm anybody physically, to kill her or even hit her or anything like that. So, I don't know? Maybe he would've. But at that time, I think her anger overcame her fear.
Alison Tatlock talked about how you were impressed by the number of women working on the show. What was that experience like for you?
On Episode 10 it was all women that were behind the scenes. I hosted an all-women's dinner in Albuquerque. It was really fun. I said, "All the ladies, we're all going to go to dinner at this lovely restaurant that everybody recommended in Albuquerque." But Vince and everyone said, "We don't want anybody to know yet that you are going to be on the show." They didn't want to announce it yet and so it was a big secret. So, we go into this restaurant and I walk in with some of the other ladies and we're headed for our table and there's Bob Odenkirk with some friends from out of town at the restaurant. I went, "Hi!" And Bob, he was thrown because it's supposed to be a secret that I'm in it, and he got up and said, "Oh, it's so nice to see you here!" Then he said he sat back down with his friends and said, "That's nice that she happens to be in Albuquerque. I guess she's shooting something." It was kind of awkward. I remember the next day I went on the set and said, "Bob, I am so sorry. I should have just walked right by you," and he said, "No, it's okay. They didn't catch on." It was funny. But it was supposed to be this big secret until recently when they did announce that I was going to be on.
Way back, as I always say in the covered wagon days, it was Lucille [Ball]. Lucy. That was it. Then later on Marlo [Thomas] was able to have her own production company. But that was it. Now to see Tina Fey and Amy [Poehler] and Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman – all of them having these production companies and doing really wonderful stuff – it's a joy. So, I wasn't surprised that there were so many women working on the show, but I was surprised that they were all women on Episode 10. I thought that was fabulous!
How did working on Better Call Saul compare with the other work you've done over the years?
I have done a lot of work. A lot of different shows. A lot of guest appearances. Some were 10s and some were 5s, if you want to rate them. I would say this was an 11. I had the best time and there wasn't one day that I didn't laugh. I was really thrilled too when I got to meet Rhea Seehorn. Jonathan Banks even came over, had dinner, and he came and visited me on the set. I just felt like I'd known all of these people forever. I'm a real die-hard fan. You wouldn't realize it because I'm in the business – I'm really a fan and I got really excited when I got to meet Bob and Rhea and Jonathan. Then I went to the ceremony when Bob got his star on Hollywood Boulevard. We had to make that kind of a secret. People would say, "What are you doing here?" I said, "Well, I'm a friend of Vince's and I'm a big fan of the show," because we couldn't let anyone know then that I was on. Then I got to meet Giancarlo [Esposito] and Tony Dalton and then Patrick Fabian. I was in heaven! I've got pictures of them on my phone with me.
As a die-hard fan, are you sad to see this show come to an end?
Yes, I am. But all good things have to come to an end, and I think it's always good to end when you're on top.
The series finale of Better Call Saul airs next Monday at 9/8c on AMC and AMC+. For more on this episode, read our Q&A with writer and director Vince Gilligan and for more on the entire final season, read all our cast and creator Q&As here.