Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: David Costabile has been an active performer on stage and screen since the mid-1990s, but it took a solitary methamphetamine cook/Walt Whitman enthusiast to make him a household face. The role of Breaking Bad’s ill-fated Gale Boetticher would lead Costabile to a string of recurring and guest-starring roles on network and cable series—including AMC’s Low Winter Sun, which finishes its first season this Sunday—though the most attentive of viewers would’ve recognized the guy doing an impassioned rendition of “Crapa Pelada” from stints on The Wire, Flight Of The Conchords, and Damages. Costabile can also be seen in movie theaters this October in the Justin Timberlake-Ben Affleck vehicle Runner Runner.
Low Winter Sun (2013)—“Simon Boyd”
The A.V. Club: Did you want to play Boyd as a silent observer within the Detroit Police Department?
David Costabile: There is something about this that is very true about what I wanted to do. One of the things that he is very keen on doing is really listening not just with his ears, but with his whole self. The whole character is about finding the answers and finding what the truth is. There is a deep distrust of people in Internal Affairs and I think in order to avoid the trap of that kind of negativity, I had to listen to exactly what they’re saying. So when someone comes up to you and says, “Oh, well you’re really weird,” you ask, “I know what that means, but what do you mean? What are you really trying to say?” Because, in the show, you know the answer from the beginning, there is something fun about watching the progression of a character as they really delve into and discover that world. So I was really interested in silent, or at least quieter, ways of investigation.
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AVC: What attracts you to these kinds of outsiders?
DC: I was talking to my wife the other day. I was looking at the pieces of a lot of the characters that I’ve played and so many of them are loners—some by choice, some not by choice—people who are really solitary. One thing that attracted me to Boyd is trying to keep people off balance, because that’s part of his job. By the end I was like, “Maybe he doesn’t like ducks.” And maybe the way he wears his hair, isn’t really the way he wears his hair. Maybe it hasn’t been revealed who that guy is and maybe part of the job is to keep himself off balance. There’s something fun about that particular balancing act—I don’t know if it reads on the screen, but it was something I was interested in and fed me and moved me forward as I was trying to figure it out. The writers certainly haven’t told you what the truth is or what the answer is, and it’s this playful dance. I’m making a swimming motion with my hand that you can’t see.
Breaking Bad (2010-11)—“Gale Boetticher”
DC: Gale was one of those roles where I auditioned for it and I knew who he was and what the writers wanted—at least I thought I did—and it was just one of those ones where you get lucky. The scene was one of the first times you meet him and it’s the discussion of why he does what he does and he recites the Whitman poem to Walter. There was something about it that I connected to on this unique level and I never really doubted it. It was a while ago, and I can’t even remember if I had the whole script or if I just had the scene—so I didn’t really know where he lived and all the generalized and deeper context of how singular Gale is—but there was something about it that I knew and I just got lucky and I felt like I had it in there. It took a while for them to cast me, but cast me they did.
AVC: As time has passed, have you figured out what it was about that scene that you connected with? Or is it kind of ineffable?
DC: Not to get too hippie-dippy, but it is this weird, mystical, freaky thing. The ones that you connect to on the deepest levels are the kind where you have those people deep inside of you. That’s just going to sound freaky, [Laughs.] but I don’t know what it is about him.
When you get around great writing, you have to respond to it. And as good as the writing is, I wanted to be bring comparable acting to it. And those are the kinds of pieces where you have to get out of the way and not do as much acting, but let it be what the writing is. One of the great notes I had—it was the episode where Gale gets fired—the director, Colin Bucksey, said, “Don’t embroider it—just let it be fantastic and it will just come through.” It’ll already be alive inside the writing. You don’t have to put the cherry on top—it’s already there.
AVC: So how have you enjoyed watching the show wrap-up as a viewer?
DC: It’s been fantastic. I was a fan from the beginning and one of my very good friends writes on it as well. So I started to watch it around the second season and I got cast and, by then, I was like a crazy fan. My very first day it was Bryan [Cranston] and I on the set, and they’d never shot in the lab before and everybody was excited because it was this big new set and it was very cool. About four or five hours in, I was sitting next to Bryan and I just totally super-fan geeked out on him in such an insane way. And I was just like, “Remember that time in episode 12 of season two when you did that thing? I just didn’t understand how you did it!” And, eventually, after about five minutes of me going off and just totally geeking out, he just walked away and was like, “Okay. See you later.” Then I had to bring it back and get my cool again, which I eventually did.
But now that I’m dead, I can totally geek out on the show. I consume it like I’m eating it and I’m angry that there’s not more and I didn’t really pay attention to how great it was and you know it’s great when you’re eating it and you’re like, “Come on! Just give me more!” [Laughs.] So I’m sure it will also lead to re-watching the whole thing. I think it holds up and I think the last few episodes were spectacular.
Lincoln (2012)—“James Ashley”
AVC: Have there been other projects where you’ve been overcome by your enthusiasm like that?
DC: My first day of Lincoln, when I got to meet the president, it was past a geek freak-out. I couldn’t even believe my eyes. They call you to set, and it was the recreation of the White House and everything was incredibly detailed and the props were amazing and all of a sudden you turn and there’s a room full of extras and they all literally look like they’re from the period. They’re all smoking cigars and pipes and it was like walking into another time zone. Then, all of a sudden, Mr. Spielberg was standing right next to me and he’s like, “Hey, I’m Steven.” And I’m like, “Yes, I know! I’m so glad you had me here,” and he’s like, “I’m glad you’re here. You want to meet the president?” So I walked through these two doors and then, all of a sudden, the President Of The United States, Abraham Lincoln, is walking right toward me and he comes up to me and he’s towering over me and he shakes my hand. At that moment, it was so fucking freaky because [Daniel Day-Lewis] looked so much like Abraham Lincoln that I didn’t know what was happening. I thought at that moment that maybe he’s made some pact with the devil where he’s actually, in fact, Abraham Lincoln. You don’t even think about calling him “Mr. President” or “sir.” You just do. Even to the point where I went back to my trailer and looked at a picture of Abraham Lincoln to make sure that it wasn’t, in fact, Abraham Lincoln that I was talking to.
Sometimes you do things and they turn out better than you hoped and sometimes you do things and they turn out worse than you hoped and this is one of those ones where you’re just like, after two days, you felt like it was greedy to want to be involved longer. You wanted someone else to come on and experience how really crazy and transformational it can feel. The whole world is transformed and the way you think is transformed. They say when you play tennis with a great tennis player you play better; that’s the same when you get to perform with someone who is in a class by himself. It makes you a better actor because of it.
Flight Of The Conchords (2007-09)—“Doug”
AVC: What was one of the projects that you were unsure of that turned out to be great?
DC: When we did Flight Of The Conchords, it was done on such an insane, shoestring budget. It was so crappy. The first day I shot on the pilot, we were on the Lower East Side and where we got dressed was an abandoned apartment. No running water, no electricity—it was abandoned. Abandoned apartments don’t exist in New York City unless they’re way the fuck out in the middle of nowhere, like near the airport or something. One of the PAs came up to me with a box and was like, “Do you want breakfast?” and I’m like, “Sure.” He’s like, “We got a sandwich.” And I’m like, “What kind of sandwich?” and he just had a box with like 10 sandwiches and that was the catering. So I’m like, “Oh, shit. This is going to be terrible.” And then it turned out to be really fun and homegrown in its own way. I didn’t know those guys before the project and now I’ve seen their work and love their songs now and it’s like a total fan favorite—people love that show. And for the second season they got more than just the box of sandwiches and the abandoned apartment. So that was good. [Laughs.]
AVC: Doug’s an interesting character, because the depths of the weirdness of his relationship with Kristen Schaal’s character, Mel, are revealed very slowly throughout the whole series. What was it like to act in that context, and did you have any hand in shaping that aspect of the character?
DC: I don’t think I did. That was definitely one of those ones where you had to take a very soft focus of what was happening. It never came as a surprise when his backstory was revealed and it seemed very much in keeping in what I really thought of Doug, which was that he really loved Mel and he wanted her to be happy and was kind of okay with what she wanted to do. I also don’t think he was a particularly jealous person and I think if you know that, as you’re put in more and more situationswhere it really calls for you to become a jealous person, it was very fun to play against that and engage and be like that’s just not on the table, it’s never going to happen. And I think because of that they started to find more things to reveal about who he was and where he came from. They had discussed maybe doing a movie and that there’s definitely more stuff for Doug and more revelations of who he was.
Do you remember the montage where Doug adopts Jemaine? I really wanted it to be that Doug is just going to go ballistic. Like, really the kind of guy who doesn’t drink a lot, but when he has one drink he does the Will Ferrell thing where he’s streaking down the street by the end of the show. So there was just that one thing that I demanded, that Doug is really going to hit the roof when he has that one drink. He really turns on his wild side and I think it’s something he keeps under wraps, but he’s not really ashamed of it.
AVC: One of our readers left this comment on a Low Winter Sun review: “No matter what role he’s playing/how excellent he is, in my mind David Costabile is always Doug’s identity before or after he met/left Mel.” What are your thoughts on that?
DC: [Laughs.] Wow. That’s both fantastic and terrible at the same time. I think that’s good. That’s a diehard Flight Of The Conchords fan right there.
The Wire (2008)— “Thomas Klebanow”
DC: I was lucky enough to get cast, and after about maybe four or five episodes I started to watch—which was good because I would’ve been way too intimidated to be involved with the show by the time I got there if I’d watched before. So I was very glad to know very little about it, but once I got there and realized the caliber of the acting and the writing—that show was spectacular. It was a really good thing that I didn’t know what I had lucked into.
And it was a great experience working with David Simon. Because that’s one of the first longer roles I had had in television, I didn’t know how lucky I was to be around someone like him. David is a very honest person who does not suffer fools, and it was an incredible treat to be around someone who is not only so outspoken, but also so extremely talented in what he does. There was just a great authority that he brought to all those worlds—particular to the newspaper world. There were so many old newspaper guys there in addition to David. You’d get a really deep sense of who those people are, who reporters are, what journalism is, and the loss they were experiencing because of the demise of newspapers. So you realized the depth of experience, the depth of knowledge, the depth of certitude those people had about what they knew and what they wanted to say. It was incredible; it was fucking awesome. Once I started to really know what the show was going to be I realized I had to try to hold up my tiny end of this epic story.
AVC: Klebanow was based on newspaper editor Bill Marimow—what was it like to play someone modeled after a person with whom David Simon has had a public feud?
DC: Well, you know all of those guys knew this guy I was playing and he was a very idiosyncratic guy and they’d all do impersonations of him. It was a very idiosyncratic impersonation and I was like, “Let me do that, I want to do that. That seems like so much fun.” And David wouldn’t let me and I think rightly so because on some level he didn’t want it to just be about a particular feud or this guy in particular, but rather what the guy was doing. So, on some level, I was sad because it would have been marked to see what it was, but on some level it was better because it serviced the whole story rather than a single character.
We were primarily with the other journalists. They kept everybody separate from us—we were very much alone except for the people that had direct interactions with the cops, so we didn’t really get to know the criminals or the cops. Dominic West had directed an episode, but we were really on our own. So it was fun, too, to have the firsthand knowledge of David and the other journalists. They actually brought us to a 4 p.m. meeting, where they were deciding what the paper would be the next day. It was totally fascinating and awesome to go and incredible that the Baltimore Sun would let us do it—because it doesn’t particularly come off that great. But there is something about journalists, because they want to know what the story is rather than feeling like it’s a black eye for them. It’s a black eye for all of us that the paper business has faded away. I love newspapers.
Law & Order: Criminal Intent (2003)—“Professor Roth”
Law & Order (2010)—“Glen Dolan”
Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (2011)—“Bruce Clarkson”
Person Of Interest (2011)—“Judge Samuel Gates”
Elementary (2012)—“Danilo Gura”
The Good Wife (2012)—“Zachary Hines”
AVC: You’ve appeared on three different Law & Order series. Does that count as a New York actor’s grand slam?
DC: [Laughs.] If I had done it in the same year, it would have, or if I had played a criminal, a lawyer, and a judge—or maybe a cop, a judge, or a criminal. But I never got the grand slam. Maybe it’s like a sacrifice fly and a double.
AVC: What if we count all of the one-off roles you’ve played on network dramas in recent years? Because you were the villain on an episode of Elementary—what was your Good Wife role?
DC: Lawyer. And I was a judge on Person Of Interest. That was the most fun. There’s nothing like playing a judge. We did it in the Bronx Courthouse, which is this really awesome, spectacular, old building. We were shooting something, and they put you in the big room on the big chair at the top of the desk. I walk in and nobody stood up. And, in a really loud voice, I shouted. I just shouted, “RISE!”—there might have been about a hundred people in the room and everybody in the room stood up at one time. And I was like, “That’s awesome! I made all of you stand up!” I ruined the take and we had to do it over again, but I really enjoyed that. I scared the shit out of those extras, I’ll tell you that.
AVC: There’s this proliferation of original content across different mediums on cable and networks and streaming. Is that process creating more opportunities for you?
DC: My particular flavor has skewed to the network and cable world. I would certainly assume there are many, many pieces for many, many actors, which is great. But the money is lagging behind in particular areas, so it’s harder because the time is so limited, you want to be able to make a living—sometimes those things are not as front and center as they would be. In my experience, the new media stuff seems like a younger person’s game, rather than a middle-aged character actor’s game.
For me—and I don’t know when, necessarily—a tipping point came. Breaking Bad, even something like The Wire—where everyone says it’s the greatest show on television—very few people came to it while it was airing. A lot of people came to it later and it gets to that critical mass where people say, “You have to watch this show.” Once enough people had gone through that with Breaking Bad, there began to be a tiny tipping point where people recognized me and were like, “Let’s go get that guy. We know who he is.” I think for studios and networks, it’s easier if people on the street are like, “Oh, it’s that guy.” People in the business know me and they know my name. And they try to get me a job.
The Cleveland Show (2012)— “The Prof”
AVC: This is the one voice-acting job on your IMDB page. Is that an avenue you’d like to pursue to a fuller extent?
DC: My God, are you kidding? It was like the greatest thing ever. [Cleveland Show co-creator and cast member] Mike Henry commutes between Richmond and L.A., and we were shooting Lincoln in Richmond and I had gone into the recording studio to do an ADR session for Person Of Interest. The engineer told Mike that I was in town and they cast me because they were all huge Breaking Bad fans. I had this experience with Mike, which was backed up when I visited The Onion office: The people at The Onion said, “There’s only one television show that the people at The Onion don’t slag off on and that’s Breaking Bad.” So that was like high praise, frankly.
I was totally excited because I’d never done animation work. Every actor I know pretty much wants to be a rock ’n’ roll star and we’d all give it up to be in a rock ’n’ roll band, but we’re never going to do that. But being in cartoons: That’s as close as you get without being an action figure. If you become an action figure, then it’s all done. You might as well give it all up because you’ve reached the Promised Land. If I could do more animation, I’d do it in a heartbeat.
AVC: So whose your ideal cartoon character?
DC: God, like a Pixar monkey or something. Any monkey, really! Who doesn’t love monkeys?! I mean do you know people who don’t love monkeys?
AVC: It’s a universal truth: People don’t slag off on Breaking Bad and nobody doesn’t like monkeys.
DC: Exactly. Those are the two truths that we know. Ask your brethren at The Onion.