Yahoo! TV

'Breaking Bad' Star Michael Bowen on Becoming Uncle Jack: 'I Nearly Killed Myself'

Yahoo TV

View gallery

.

Michael Bowen as Uncle Jack in "Breaking Bad"

How long did it take you to realize Michael Bowen, the actor playing the murderous Uncle Jack on "Breaking Bad," is also the actor who played Buck in "Kill Bill"? And Danny, the Other, on "Lost"? And Mark Dargus in "Jackie Brown"? And the Valley dude boyfriend (in a pink tuxedo) in "Valley Girl"?

Lots of viewers have been blown away by Bowen's fantastic, Emmy-worthy performance as the ex-convict uncle of equally deadly Walter White associate Todd, only to be blown away again when they realize how many previous roles the character actor has played.

[Related: How to Navigate the Craziest Night of TV Ever]

Bowen — the son of '60s painter and counterculture activist Michael Bowen and actress Sonia Sorel, and half-brother to actors Robert and Keith Carradine — says playing Uncle Jack has led to a lot of fan response, including from police and women, which surprises him. "He's so wrong, so it's interesting," the actor said with a laugh. "I'm impressed with the viewing public. It's nice to know that there are sophisticated thinking people out there who understand that it's art." 

View gallery

.

Deborah Foreman and Michael Bowen in "Valley Girl" (1983)

Uncle Jack will certainly be a factor in the series finale — which Bowen will watch live with the rest of the show's cast at Aaron Paul's million-dollar charity event at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery. In anticipation of Sunday's "Breaking Bad" ending — and fans' dread over its impending departure from our TV world — Yahoo TV talked to Bowen about his cool, calculated interactions with Walter White, Uncle Jack's warm fuzzies for Todd, the wardrobe item that helped him create Uncle Jack, and how he continues to transform himself so completely for his roles.

A lot of viewers are surprised when they realize you're the actor they also know from "Lost," "Kill Bill," "Echo Park," "Magnolia," "Walking Tall," "Jackie Brown," "Django Unchained" ... all the way back to "Valley Girl." Even though you frequently play bad guys, you make them distinctive to the point that people don't always recognize you immediately. What's the secret to that?

You know the definition of luck is being prepared when an opportunity arrives. Like with "Echo Park," I had been driving my girlfriend, and my first kid, nuts at the time, doing this German accent I was practicing for an Audi commercial. Then I got this call [to audition to play an Austrian bodybuilder], and I just rattled off [pages of dialogue] with that accent, and they were all blown away by it like it was some revelation, so I got that. (Laughing) Then I had about three weeks to work out really hard. I went to the gym, went nuts, and got in good shape. I didn't use any drugs like steroids or any of that crap. It was just meat, eggs, water. Boom, boom, boom!

See Bowen in "Echo Park," as a bodybuilder:

Then the flipside of that is Uncle Jack. I nearly killed myself, because I weighed 180. That's my happy, walk-around weight, between 180 and 185. But [to play Uncle Jack] I went down to 163. I was filming "Django Unchained," too, and I couldn't eat any food. I'd go to the lunch table, and I'd get a piece of broccoli and half a piece of chicken, take the skin off. That was it. But there's a specific look that ex convicts have. There's kind of a gray color to them, kind of a leathery feel to them. I tried to get all of those physicalities in there for Uncle Jack. I was essentially malnourishing myself. I got a blood test, and my vitamin D was way down, so it was kind of an idiot move, but it looks good on the character. They don't have access to great food in the penal system, so they come out with this specific hard look, and I hope I got close on that. And it was definitely a choice, but I'm never doing that again.

What was your first meal after you finished playing Uncle Jack at that weight?

A huge, quadruple In-N-Out burger.

View gallery

.

Michael Bowen as Danny Pickett in "Lost" (ABC/Mario Perez)

How did the Uncle Jack role come about for you?

I went in with a bunch of other guys, and I read for Sharon. [Casting director] Sharon Bialy brought me in on two other occasions for this show. She put me in a movie years ago, a couple of movies. I'm kind of a regular of hers. I don't know, something told me, "Wear your leather jacket. Slick your hair back, and become ice-cold." The funny thing is, I'm driving back home [after the audition]. I live 80 miles away, and I'm driving back home. The call came in 20 minutes after I left the audition. It was wardrobe saying, "Could you bring your jacket?" (Laughing) I joke it was my jacket that got the job. But it is the jacket Uncle Jack has been wearing.

 [Related: 'Breaking Bad': 7 Lessons Showbiz Can Learn From the Gamechanging Series]

Did you know the role would be a recurring one when you debuted Uncle Jack in "Gliding All Over"?

When we did that one day, that one scene, it felt so precise, so perfect, so magic, that I just had a feeling. I had a feeling. Bryan [Cranston] gave me a big hug. He said, "I think you're coming back." Sweetheart that he is. We were just talking about personal stuff in between takes ... that I had four kids and I'm freaked out about paying rent and this and that. It was just a regular conversation with a regular human being. It was just a perfect day. Michelle MacLaren directed it. Moira [Walley-Beckett] wrote it. ... That writing was just intense — hard, hard stuff. I said, "Man, I feel at home here. I feel like I'm with artists."

Have you, for yourself, imagined more of Uncle Jack and Todd's [Jesse Plemons] backstory than we've seen?

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely, absolutely. Jesse and I worked on that often. We created a backstory. He's my nephew. We felt like he was in danger, as a little boy, because his mom, my sister, was a drug addict with serial boyfriends, who were abusive to the little guy.

[Related: 'Breaking Bad' Generates 23 Million Facebook Interactions Since Final Episodes Premiered]

We would talk about that quite a bit. I love Jesse. The reason I got into doing this, got into this business, is because it's a business — as Dick Van Dyke says — where you never have to grow up. I don't mean that as in being irresponsible. I'm saying that you get to play. You get to create. Sometimes I'd be sitting down, in the hotel, I'm sitting there, and Jesse comes up and sits down and he's practically crying. He just goes into this whole riff [as Todd] ... Why didn't I rescue him two days earlier? We had that going for us, and it felt so good, and it helped the reality and validated and created this underlying texture that's always there.

View gallery

.

Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) and Todd (Jesse Plemons) in "Breaking Bad"

Does Uncle Jack think of Todd more like his son?

Absolutely. As far as Jack is concerned, Todd is his boy. I took him out of the hellhole, and I brought him into a safer world. His feet never touched the ground for the first four years of his life, because one soldier is carrying him after another. That's how he was raised, so he had a chance. It got him out of hell, where he wouldn't have any chance of anything, and brought him where he was safe, and he would have a chance to grow up to be the wonderful, beautiful, strapping psychotic he is.

And Uncle Jack is very proud of Todd. Todd is the one person Jack genuinely cares about, and would not harm.

When we're at the diner [in "Confessions"] and Todd is telling the story about the train heist, Uncle Jack is looking at him and going, "Look how confident he is. Look how beautiful he is. Look how he can talk, and he's confident. He's not a scared little kid. We're doing all right." He's got a quality that Jack hadn't foreseen. He's disarming. It's an unforeseen asset for future ventures. It's a quality that I didn't expect, but everything he does, I'm like the proud papa. Everything he does, I'm looking at him through rose colored classes. I love him dearly, and that's my motivation, throughout any interaction we have.

[Related: Will 'Breaking Bad' Join TV's Best Finales of All Time?]

View gallery

.

Michael Bowen in "Kill Bill: Vol. 1" (2003)

Uncle Jack is one of the few people who is neither intimidated by nor especially impressed with Walt and everything he's done. How did you prepare for those scenes with Bryan Cranston, where Uncle Jack plays it so cool?

Studying up on these guys, these particular groups [white supremacists] ... are terrifying. They are, in the correctional system, probably the smallest minority. Like, one hundredth of one percent, something ridiculous, and they commit 25 percent of all the violent, gruesome murders in prisons. That is a strategy. That is for a reason. That's their philosophy. ... They study Sun Tzu. This is all stuff I got from three or four different documentaries. Yeah, there are groups of morons, but that's not who I'm talking about. There's one quote, and I'm paraphrasing, but one of the guys [in a documentary] said, "It doesn't matter where you are. It doesn't matter if you're outside the prison, inside the prison. You can be in the warden's office. We'll get you in there, and we'll kill the warden, too."

[Related: Forget Science — It's All About Math for Bryan Cranston in Choosing His Roles]

That is who Jack is. That's what he came from. He may be a bit intrigued by Walt, but Walt is entertaining in his bravado. Plus, Walt has small hands and his hands are soft. These are a couple things that I put in my focus. Also, Uncle Jack is intrigued with him in the same way that a sniper, a hunter sees the target, sees the animal in the scope.

You and Aaron Paul worked together on 'The Last House on the Left,' and his character killed your character in the movie. Did you two talk about that and how the situation is so flip-flopped with your "Breaking Bad" characters?

No, we didn't really talk about that, specifically. I think we talked about the baboons that would run through the shot every once in a while and ruin the shots. We were filming in South Africa. I love Aaron. He's got this kind of funny humor, you know? He's joking and joshing, messing around between setups, and then — boom! — within a millisecond he's just deep in, tears running down his face. Then we break for lunch, and he's joking around again. I love working with Aaron. He's so happy to be able to do what he's doing.

View gallery

.

Michael Bowen and Michael Keaton in "Jackie Brown" (1997)

Were you a "Breaking Bad" viewer before you joined the show?

Yeah, I've been a fan for years. My kids, actually, they're the ones who showed it to me. I said, "What's it about?" [My son' said, "It's about a guy who is dying of cancer, so he starts to make meth." I said, "Excuse me?" I watched it. It was just profoundly good. I felt like I was spying on somebody. There was reality coming out of it. It's very rare that that happens. With [cinematographer] Michael Slovis and everybody involved, it's a bunch of artists. It reminds me of the people I went to San Francisco Art Institute with. Everybody should pay attention to that. It's OK to make high-quality, movie like shows. It's OK.

[Related: Betsy Brandt 'Felt Sick' Shooting Last of 'Breaking Bad']

What are your plans now that "Breaking Bad" is ending this week? Would you want to do TV again? Are you interested in doing a comedy?

Absolutely, I love TV. I love the pace of television. I love that. I even like the first-month jitters on a new show, when there are multiple calls being made back to the office and everybody is freaking out because one hair is out of place. And I would love to do comedy. It's more intimidating than the other stuff. Comedy is frightening. I don't understand the system. Is there a system? I don't know. There's a sitcom system, and then there's Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters-type timing. Sometimes I can get on a roll and things are coming. It's usually after a 12-ounce Red Bull, but I've entertained that. I've always loved Leslie Nielsen. I've loved his career, how he played heavies and leading men and was just one of the funniest human beings.

What would you say about the finale? What would you tell fans?

I'll be honest with you. I don't know anything about it. That was a choice on my part. You have an option to just get your scenes or get the whole script. I just choose to get my scenes, unless a phone call or something directly affected me. I think it's fine. Jack doesn't need to have that color in his reality, so I don't know what happens. But I'm rooting for Walt.

[Related: Catch Up on 'Breaking Bad' With Our Recap]  

Really? Even though Uncle Jack is probably on Walt's hit list?

Absolutely. I think it's just a remarkable character, and I want him to succeed. I want him to save his family. I want him to have some success.

The 75-minute 'Breaking Bad' series finale airs Sunday, Sept. 29 at 9 p.m. on AMC.

View Comments (235)