Better Call Saul
When rumors of a Breaking Bad spin-off began doing the rounds, Saul Goodman wasn’t the character most expected him to be—least of all his off-screen alter ago, Bob Odenkirk.
“I just assumed it was a sick joke, then kept going,” he wholeheartedly, yet humbly laughed. “And the joke had legs. Even when the rumors became actual conversation with [show creator] Vince Gilligan, I still thought: ‘C’mon, you’re not going to get me on this! I’m not falling for that one.’”
But the 52 year-old former comedy writer, who previously scripted Saturday Night Live and Late Night with Conan O’Brien, was, for the many millions of fans of Bad, the breakout star. So examining the early years of the sleazy criminal lawyer, with more than a dabbling in underhand tactics, seemed like a no-brainer for all involved.
Cut to the U.S. series premiere in the States which broke the record for a cable TV show—over 6-million viewers tuned into see Saul as his prior guise: Jimmy McGill, and how he morphed from hapless defense attorney struggling to get by, to the criminal mastermind favorite in Breaking Bad.
The journey itself has been astonishing for the man in the middle of the action. And as he sits down to discuss his newfound status as one of the more powerful stars on the small screen, Odenkirk, married to manager/wife Naomi, mother of their two teens, Nathan and Erin, is still aghast at his newfound celebrity status.
But one imagines he’ll accustom quickly. In a structured pale blue/grey suit, he chats about his relationship with Bad stars, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul; why he doesn’t want an Oscar; and the memories of the Benny Hill Show.
STRIPLV: Congratulations, sir—highest ratings for a cable series premiere! What was it, 4.5 million?
ODENKIRK: That’s in the demographic. We got six million altogether.
STRIPLV: Well, is that in itself, daunting or satisfying?
ODENKIRK: I didn’t even think about that. Obviously, I wanted it to do well, but record-breaking or what that would mean... it’s intimidating afterwards. It’s wonderful to experience and people are so eager to see it because Breaking Bad was so liked, and when things are liked that strongly, they become precious to them. So I’m thankful that people are responding well to Better Call Saul and responding to that. I’m thankful for that.
STRIPLV: “Breaking Bad” fans were elated that there was going to be something to help fill their void, but it turned into much more than that, didn’t it?
ODENKIRK: There’s a lot of fun in the show and I hope that will keep them. He’s often getting his ass kicked round the block and I hope that’s something fun for them to watch.
STRIPLV: Were you concerned the show was going to less Frasier and more Joey?
ODENKIRK: Yes. (laughs) Definitely.
STRIPLV: How did you allay those fears?
ODENKIRK: I’ll tell you one way. My daughter said to me, and she hadn’t seen Breaking Bad, and we were talking about the show and she said: “Well, Dad, if it’s not good, how bad can it be?” And I said, “It’s going to be written by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, so that’s all you need to know.” Like, it’s going to be good, it’s going to have integrity. It’s going to have quality, and complexity. Will it win as many hearts as Breaking Bad? It was a world-class show of its era. But can you shoot for that every time? Can’t you just shoot for a really good show? Vince could do anything after Breaking Bad. Anything! But he’s not going to re-tread something because it’s easy, or because he can soak people for money—because he could do that.
STRIPLV: What’s it like then, delving into the character of Jimmy McGill and moving away from Saul? They’re like two different characters in a way.
ODENKIRK: We actually worried we were going so far from this character that we were presenting a different person. But we only see Saul Goodman in his office or doing his job. You never see the person behind that. Until that last scene in that basement cellar room with Walter White, remember when he said, “It was over!” That was the only time you saw when he wasn’t working. We’re all different when we’re away from our job. He’s very different away in his private life, away from his job, but he’s still Saul Goodman.
STRIPLV: What about Walt or Jesse possibly making an appearance? Everyone wants to know...
ODENKIRK: There’s no Walter White or Jesse in the first season of Better Call Saul. But I’ve been told by the writers that there’s quite a chance as the seasons go. They really wanted to establish the show on its own and create its own world—not because we dangle Walter White in front of them.
STRIPLV: So it’s nice to have the focus off them and on yourself?
ODENKIRK: It’s all about me. (laughs) It’s the Bob Show now. I don’t want those guys coming back!! (laughter)
STRIPLV: Are you close to either Aaron or Bryan?
ODENKIRK: They’re really great, great guys, but because I was never on set too long during Breaking Bad, like in and out in the same day most times, I never had the chance to bond with them like that. So obviously when I see them, it’s great. They’re so incredibly busy, you could never catch them for a free minute, I’m sure.
STRIPLV: You’re relatively new to all this attention from the press now? How does that make you feel?
ODENKIRK: Weird. Very weird. It gives me anxiety. Like this, or appearing on a chat show myself, I feel like: ‘Why are you aiming the camera at me? That’s enough of me talking, I don’t want that weight.’ This feels very intimidating to me.
STRIPLV: You don’t appear that intimidated.
ODENKIRK: (laughs) It’s all internalized.
STRIPLV: So are you a star now? Are the movie offers coming through?
ODENKIRK: I wouldn’t know. My wife is my manager and she has a partner endeavor and I guess they would know if I am.
STRIPLV: Are they not telling you?
ODENKIRK: Probably not. Why aren’t they telling me? (laughs) Right now, I’m doing my own show, aptly called Mr. Show, and more Saul.
STRIPLV: Isn’t that kind of restricting?
ODENKIRK: Not at all. You want to know why? So many actors, you talk to them and their whole career is about positioning. ‘I want to do this, and I want to do here. I want to do comedy and then I want to do a musical to show everyone I can sing. And hopefully it’s leading to somewhere.’ For me, everything I’ve done has been leading to Saul. This is it for me. People ask me, do I want to win an Oscar and I say: “I don’t know.”
STRIPLV: Would the role be better than this?
ODENKIRK: I can’t think of a role in the last year, even in movies, that’s as good as Better Call Saul.
STRIPLV: That means you’ve peaked.
ODENKIRK: That’s all good with me. If I can maintain this, I’m more than happy with that. I’m happier to work on Saul than win an Oscar. I’m serious.
STRIPLV: But were you happy to come back to New Mexico to shoot on a much more time consuming script?
ODENKIRK: That was one thing I wasn’t so happy about. I have a wife and teenagers in L.A. and I didn’t want to leave it all to her. I didn’t want to give her the whole responsibility. And they’re good kids, never get into much trouble, but you know, there’s a lot going on. When I did Breaking Bad, I would fly in and fly out on the same day. I never got to know the community. That’s not the case now. I’m out there for days, weeks at a time, which is an adjustment, but we’re working on it. It’s taking some tweaks and conversations, but ultimately, everyone involved knows it’s worth it.
STRIPLV: Where did you grow up?
ODENKIRK: Outside Chicago in a town called Naperville. It’s a very old town, maybe 138 years old (laughs) in the Midwest.
STRIPLV: When did you first get the bug for acting?
ODENKIRK: It was probably for comedy and stand-up and writing, which is where my background lies, instead of acting as such. And I don’t know, I’d say my dad probably. He was one of these guys who made up jokes all the time; cynical ones. He was a really funny guy.
STRIPLV: Didn’t he like Benny Hill, I read somewhere?
ODENKIRK: Yeah, where’d you read that? Yeah, he liked that fast motion comedy, I guess. I wasn’t as into it, but he liked it.
STRIPLV: And you started writing comedy sketches when you were ten?
ODENKIRK: You’ve done your research. (laughs) Ten, eleven maybe. And then I got to Second City [Chicago comedy club and school] and honed my craft, as it were, with guys like Andy Dick and Chris Farley.
STRIPLV: And then you embarked on a career in stand-up? Not easy.
ODENKIRK: It’s actually easier than you’d imagine. With acting, you’re waiting for the part to come to you. You’re waiting for that call. But with stand-up, you’re writing your own material. It’s all down to you, no matter what.
STRIPLV: So does it feel weird to have no hand in Saul, then? Or is that what you’re working towards?
ODENKIRK: I could never dare to tinker with the genius of Vince Gilligan. That would be incredibly foolish of me.
STRIPLV: How does it feel doing a Benjamin Button on this show? You’re getting the chance to look younger?
ODENKIRK: You know what? They’re going to use CGI. Isn’t that cool? When you see me as Jimmy, I’m just me. I’m just trying to pull that off with the performance. But then you’re going to see him young. With CGI, they’re going to clean that all up. I hope it makes me look younger, and looks real, more importantly. And if it does, I implore everyone to try it.