After bringing his AMC series “Breaking Bad” to its highly praised conclusion and earning an Emmy Award for outstanding drama, creator Vince Gilligan probably could have done anything he wanted for his next act.
Unexpectedly, he opted for a cameo role in the NBC comedy “Community.” At the invitation of that show’s creator, Dan Harmon, Mr. Gilligan will make his professional on-camera acting debut in Thursday’s episode, playing the host of a vintage VCR game with an Old West theme and some deeply confusing rules. (It spoils nothing to add that Mr. Gilligan’s character also appears, in a slightly different capacity, in a closing-credits scene with Gina Gershon.)
Mr. Gilligan, who is now preparing the “Breaking Bad” spinoff “Better Call Saul” for a November debut, spoke recently about his visit to “Community.” In these edited excerpts from that conversation, he talks about what he’s learned from his introduction to acting.
Q.Is this the beginning of your transition into acting?
A.Yes. It’s a steppingstone to porn, which is actually my first true love. [Laughs] Everybody in their heart of hearts wishes they could be Errol Flynn or Harrison Ford, swashbuckling away in a big movie. I always knew I couldn’t act and I couldn’t sing, so I never really tried either. But out of the blue, Dan Harmon called up and said, would you like to do a guest shot on “Community”? And it was irresistible. I couldn’t say no.
Q.How well did you know Dan when he asked you to do this?
A.Not well. We had met at an Emmy party, probably two years before. He’s a great storyteller and a fun guy to hang around with. But he’s busy, I was busy finishing up “Breaking Bad.” And that’s the way the business is. You have a great time talking to someone and then you don’t see them again for five years.
Q.What was he like to work with on your “Community” scenes?
A.As one would expect, “Community” being his brainchild, he’s a hilariously funny guy. Exactly as I was on the set on of “Breaking Bad,” he looked pretty tired the day I saw him on “Community,” but he was a wonderful host.
Q.Did this turn out to be a deceptively challenging assignment?
A.I was so nervous because – not that it needs to be stressed for anyone who will watch the episode – I am no actor. I studied my lines. I tried to picture how Bryan Cranston or Aaron Paul would do it. But I got there and I said to Dan, “Are you sure about this? There’s a very good possibility I may be unwatchably terrible.” And he said, “We know that, too. [Laughs] The whole point of the character you’re playing is that he’s a bad actor. So the worse you are, perhaps the funnier it would be.”
Q.You play the character with a deliberately silly Southern accent. Was this a skill you’ve always had, or one you developed specifically for the role?
A.I swear to God, I did do my homework, however it comes across. I’d watch Gabby Hayes videos and I’d watch Walter Huston in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” I’d be trying to imitate their voices. I’m not much of a mimic, unfortunately, but I had my upbringing in Virginia to fall back on. I used to have much more of a Southern accent than I do now — it seems to have gone away inadvertently after having lived here in Los Angeles for 20 years. I had to dig deep and pull it out from wherever it was hiding.
Q.So there’s an element of self-mockery in the performance?
A.[Laughs] Oh yeah. Even in the South, there’s different substrates of hillbillies and white trash.
Q.Were you bummed that you didn’t get to share a scene with your former “Breaking Bad” co-star Jonathan Banks, who’s now on “Community”?
A.He is such a sweetheart. He’s so crusty on the outside but he’s like a marshmallow on the inside. He knew how nervous I was and that I had never acted. And when he wrapped for the day, instead of driving home, which I’m sure he would have preferred to do, he hung around to run lines with me off camera. That made me more comfortable.
Q.Did you learn anything from your acting experience that made you see your work as a producer or a director in a new light?
A.I learned viscerally what I already knew intellectually. I know acting is a hard gig, but actually having 30 or 40 union crew members standing around, staring at you — they’re professionals and they’re expecting you to know your lines and not make them go home a half-hour or an hour or two hours later than they normally would. So you feel that pressure of getting it right in the first take.
Q.Was it any more difficult in the scene you share with Gina Gershon?
A.Gina Gershon’s an excellent actress, and man, just smoking hot. And just a very sweet, nice person. She very handily grasped the fact that I had not done this before. [Laughs] And I got to hug her over and over again, take after take, which was very enjoyable. I’m glad my girlfriend, Holly, was not there. That would have put a damper on things. [Laughs]
Q.After this experience, are you thinking about how you might more substantially re-enter the world of scripted entertainment, or are you still kicking back and considering your options?
A.I definitely am not giving up my job. We’re plugging away on “Better Call Saul,” I’m here in the writers’ offices as we speak, and we’re breaking our third episode out of our 10-episode first season. Peter Gould and I, we’re running it together, and we’re having a really good partnership.
Q.So you were eager to re-immerse yourself in the world of “Breaking Bad”?
A.Oh, yeah. I hadn’t written a “Breaking Bad” episode since the final episode about a year ago, and then we had to shoot it and edit it all, then there was the victory lap. It didn’t take long for me to start to miss the world of “Breaking Bad,” and I very much want “Better Call Saul” to get off on the best foot possible. I’ll be here every day, and directing the first episode and co-writing the first episode with Peter. I’ll be as helpful as I can at the beginning of Season 2, putting in a couple weeks full-time with Peter, and then gradually pulling back from it. Because Peter is more than ready to run his own show. And then I’ll look for a movie to do or create another TV show.
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