This interview was conducted for the Comedy/Drama Series issue of TheWrap’s Emmy magazine. #selfinterview produced in partnership with Verge.
Of all the characters who survived to the end of “Breaking Bad,” the sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman did not seem one of the likeliest to get his own spinoff series. But creator Vince Gilligan opted for Goodman, played by comic actor Bob Odenkirk, to be the focus of “Better Call Saul,” his first series since “Bad” ended in a blaze of gunfire and Emmys.
“Saul” has a lighter tone than its predecessor; it takes place years before the Saul Goodman we meet in “Breaking Bad,” when he was a struggling, fast-talking lawyer named Jimmy McGill, whose specialty is drumming up work in retirement homes. Odenkirk plays McGill (or Goodman-to-be) as a good-hearted hustler with big plans but little inkling of what awaits him down the road, and his sly performance won him the Critics’ Choice Television Award in a hotly contested category.
TheWrap: You’ve been doing TV and comedy for years, but does “Better Call Saul” feel like a breakthrough of sorts in your career?
Bob Odenkirk: Yeah, for sure. It’s a huge leap. Even being on “Breaking Bad” wasn’t nearly what this is. Because in “Breaking Bad,” I played Saul Goodman, and he was like a persona that this person was putting forth and showing the world. He was intentionally one dimensional — he was a phony, a façade.
So the opportunity to play a character at multiple levels, to have the richness of his history, to have a multi-faceted inner life, and one so well drawn and so detailed as this, is crazy opportunity. It’s more than I could ever have dreamed somebody would give me a chance to do. Real actors, people who train for their lifetimes, hope for a role like this, so for me to get it is a crazy bit of lottery winning.
But it must have been scary, too, because you’re doing a spin-off to one of the most acclaimed series of all time.
Yeah. It was scary, and we all took it very seriously. Obviously I wouldn’t have been surprised if the whole audience has just given us a stiff arm and said, “We loved ‘Breaking Bad,’ but we’re not going to give you a chance.”
But it was written by the same guys. Vince Gilligan created “Breaking Bad,” and I think it’s his prerogative to write the Saul Goodman show, if that’s what he wants. For me, it was always a matter of, is this what Vince really wants to do?
I didn’t push him to do it, and when he would tell me that he was going to do it, I would always say, “Look, if you want to do it, I’ll be there.”
And I’m fine with getting my ass kicked, because that’s part of show business. You try things and sometimes they work. When you take a big swing you can get hit really hard. That’s what this was, was a big swing. We took it seriously, and the good will and open-mindedness that we got from critics and the audience was very surprising.
What was your first reaction when Vince first told you about the idea?
My reaction — the fear, the hope — was tempered by what you said before, which is that I’ve been doing this since I was 25, when I got my first job as a writer at “Saturday Night Live.” I’ve been a professional in show business for 25 years, and I’ve had success, and I’ve had a lot of failure, and I’ve been through all of that stuff. I can go through it again and it won’t faze me.
Have you learned things about the character doing this show that you wish you knew when you were playing him on “Breaking Bad?”
Yeah, I have. But the thing is, Vince and Peter [Gould] didn’t know it. They cooked up this character, they explored his back story only after deciding to write a show about him. So when they wrote Saul Goodman, they didn’t have this back story planned out.
But the reason I wish I’d known is that I like him a lot more than I liked Saul Goodman. Now, I enjoyed playing Saul. It was fun, it was a hoot, but I didn’t like the guy. He was a sleazy dude, and I don’t like people like that.
But you like Jimmy?
I do. I like Jimmy McGill. And I relate to him. I relate to the things that drive him, I relate to his personality. He’s kind of unstoppable, he’s not going to quit even though he’s not getting a lot of positive feedback from the people he loves and the people he cares about and the people he’s trying to prove himself to. He’s not getting any kind of support, really.
But he doesn’t quit. He senses inside himself, I have skills, I know I can contribute, I just don’t know where to put my energy. And somehow I can’t get the world to reward me. So I relate to that, and I think a lot of people would. And I think that the journey that he’s on is one that’s very relatable, in that he’s trying to discover, What is this skill that I have, and where do I belong?
What was the most challenging thing you had to do this season?
Well, there were a lot of challenging scenes, but I had great writing and I had great actors to work with. There were scenes in this season where the character is really down and is really dealing with the feelings of betrayal, and you have to get to that place and stay there for a couple of hours. You have to go to that place, push everything away and stay there.