You know his face, even if you don’t know his name: he’s unctuous newspaper editor Thomas Klebanow on The Wire, the beleaguered husband of a superfan on Flight of the Conchords, and a profane hedge fund bigwig on Billions. Or maybe you recognize him from Breaking Bad, and its prequel Better Call Saul, where he’s a tragic chemist with a penchant for breaking into song. Everywhere actor David Costabile appears—in every varied role he seems to effortlessly inhabit—he steals the show. Offscreen, Costabile, A89, doesn’t pretend to understand his good fortune. Armed with a drama degree from Tufts, he performed Shakespeare in Albany with fellow Jumbos before earning an MFA from New York University in 1998. He then appeared on Broadway and got his big TV break with The Wire. “It was never part of a plan,” Costabile said. “It wasn’t like if you follow this path, you’ll get to be on some of the greatest television shows of your lifetime. That [expletive] is just straight-up luck.” We asked Costabile to tell us about some of his many indelible roles.
1. The Wire
As the awards-mongering Baltimore Sun managing editor, Costabile personified series creator David Simon’s loathing for a certain kind of modern journalism. “As a lover of newspapers and someone who continues to read them physically every day, it was fun to play somebody my father referred to as the biggest [expletive] on television,” Costabile said. “In life we all have to find what particular jigsaw puzzle piece we are. Sadly, I happened to be the weaselly [expletive].
2. Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul
Fans of the Emmy Award–winning Breaking Bad were delighted when Costabile’s gentle lab assistant, Gale Boetticher, returned for the prequel. Aware of Costabile’s Broadway background, the writers challenged him with complex musical numbers meant to illustrate the character’s idiosyncratic precision, upping the ante from Breaking Bad’s breakneck “Crapa Pelada” to Saul’s tongue-twisting “The Elements.” That character “just hooked me in a way that was so open-hearted,” Costabile said. “You’ve got a bunch of people inside of you if you’re a performer. I knew what [the writers] wanted and I knew how to find it.
3. Flight of the Conchords
In this sweetly off-kilter HBO comedy about a New Zealand musical duo, Costabile portrayed Doug, the put-upon husband of the band’s most obsessive fan—a far cry from roles such as the homicidal cop he depicted on FX’s Damages or his scheming lawyer on USA’s Suits. “It is such a relief to play such totally different characters,” Costabile said. “You feel like you’re eating from the whole buffet.
Indeed, gorging on a buffet is the perfect metaphor for Costabile’s gonzo performance as Mike Wagner on the Showtime series created by Tufts alum Brian Koppelman, A88. The combustible “Wags” is a profane hedge fund COO with an insatiable appetite for drugs, prostitutes, and public meltdowns. “When we shot the pilot, I was going to be the strong, silent Upper East Side WASP,” Costabile recalled. “They ended up cutting almost everything I did. When we picked up and started again, they just said, ‘Go completely the opposite. You’re the attack dog—attack.’ That was something they knew I could do.”