When Wired magazine profiled Bob Odenkirk in 2013, the headline proclaimed “The Internet owes its sense of humor to this man.” During his three decades in show business, Odenkirk has conceived a legendary Saturday Night Live character (Matt Foley, motivational speaker), co-created an influential sketch-comedy series (Mr. Show, which he helmed alongside frequent collaborator David Cross), and championed a number of new comedic voices (Tim And Eric and The Birthday Boys among them). A whole generation of comedians is indebted to Odenkirk, yet it was a dramatic series that put Odenkirk in front of his biggest audience to date: Breaking Bad, on which he played slick criminal lawyer Saul Goodman. After keeping up legal appearances for a former chemistry teacher’s methamphetamine enterprise, Saul’s own transformation—from a client-less public defender named James McGill to the attorney with the catchiest tagline in Albuquerque—will be traced in the new AMC series Better Call Saul. Prior to the show’s premiere, The A.V. Club spoke to Odenkirk about the man who will become Saul, the value of a good writers’ room, and the upcoming project from the Mr. Show team that’s not a Mr. Show reunion.
Bob Odenkirk: Oh, this is The A.V. Club.
The A.V. Club: Yes it is.
BO: Oh, okay. Good.
AVC: Does that make it cooler that it’s The A.V. Club?
BO: It’s different, for sure, because I’ve done so many interviews with The A.V. Club and I feel like it’s on another level talking to you guys. It’s more personal. There’s a lot of people that you talk to and you’re like, “How do you know me?” For a lot of people it’s only Breaking Bad. It’s interesting. I have a weird, a selective audience. They know me from one thing.
AVC: But here at The A.V. Club, we know you from all things.
BO: You know me from too many things. Actually, I’m a little uncomfortable with people knowing how much different stuff I’ve done. It feels wrong that somebody’s gotten to do so many things. I mean, they’re not all good, that’s true. I can take some comfort in that. But it feels like there’s no way a person could do Mr. Show and then also have Vince Gilligan write a dramatic series for him. No one gets to have that, both those things.
AVC: But don’t you feel like that’s a testament to your perseverance? To go from Mr. Show all the way to Better Call Saul?
BO: I don’t know. I’ll leave it to you to decide what it says. I’m not sure it says elbow grease, though. I think elbow grease is really good to have and to generate from your elbows. It’s testament to Vince Gilligan spotting something in me when it wasn’t very easily displayed. I’ve asked him why he gave me the part in the first place and he says Mr. Show. I personally can look at things like “Prenatal Pageant” and say that I think that performance was pretty modulated and good and kind of deep for a comedy sketch. It was played with complete commitment, but the chances that anyone would notice that outside of my own instincts on it are surprising. Really, deeply surprising. Shocking. So the fact that Vince gave me the chance—it’s a testament to Vince seeing what is on the surface and maybe what it indicates on another level.
AVC: When was the topic of a Saul-based spin-off first proposed?
BO: Literally, the first time I did the character, by the crew. Everybody made jokes about the spin-off. The first time I did the first scene in his office, there were jokes about, “Can I get a job on the spin-off?” [Laughs.] The character was just so big. Most big character parts on a show like this feel more supportive and less outsized and take up less oxygen than Saul took up. And so people joked about it right away. And then Vince first asked me what I thought in a somewhat legitimate way—meaning he seemed to have a serious tone—in the second season that I was on, which was the third season of Breaking Bad. I think the last episode of season three, when Vince was directing, we met in the hallway and he said, “What do you think about that? Because I think there’s a spin-off in there.” And I said, “I don’t know, if you think so, sure.” I didn’t want to push it. I’ve been in the business too long to start plotting and planning that kind of thing. I just go do my own stuff.
AVC: With that idea floating out there in the middle of Breaking Bad, was there ever a point where you felt Saul could be the lead character on a completely separate series?
BO: No, I never thought that until I read the first episode of Better Call Saul. I trusted Vince and Peter [Gould]’s instincts on it, but left just to me, I did not think that. I think other people liked Saul more than I did. I certainly play him with as much dignity and self-belief that I can, but I’ve always been surprised by how much people feel affection for him.
AVC: While making Breaking Bad, what did you know about Saul’s background? Had you conceived any sort of background story for him? And how did that differ from what Vince and Peter ended up creating for Better Call Saul?
BO: I didn’t have a lot of backstory for him. Vince and Peter and I, when we talked about the character, we talked about the character’s parents, we talked about different motivations floating around in our heads. But those guys thought a lot more about the character than I did. I placed him in Chicago, because I’m from Chicago and I feel like the kind of wheeling and dealing he does and the kind of comfort he has with perceiving the world that way comes from growing up in a place like Chicago, where a lot of places are run with that kind of backstage manipulation.
AVC: What do you get to do with Saul on Better Call Saul that you didn’t get to do on Breaking Bad? What are some of the facets of the character that are coming out in this show that didn’t exist on the previous show?
BO: The lead character will make choices that a side, secondary character doesn’t make. He’ll make more choices that come out of the personality of the character and the psychology of the character. Just the persona as it’s presented the first time you meet him—there are deeper motivations that come to the fore. And they can almost seem like they come out of nowhere. Of course, if it’s well-written—and Vince and Peter are good writers who care and think deeply about the subjects they’re writing. There’s always a meaning to it, and it always ends up making sense. If you think about Walter White in Breaking Bad and some of the choices he makes that seemed impetuous, in the end, as you got to know his character, and his psychology, they all fit.
AVC: From what we see of Jimmy in the courtroom in the early episodes, he’s a very showy, performative kind of attorney. Did Vince and Peter and you discuss that theatrical quality of his lawyering?
BO: No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. [Laughs.] No, no. That’s just how it’s written. And I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I mean, a character who loves to talk as much as he does and loves to spin a story as much as he does, how else would you do it?
Everything I do comes from the script. Which is not to say it’s all written into the script, but whatever choices I make physically, or presentation, comes from just reading the script and thinking about who he is and putting it on its feet and walking around in my empty condominium in Albuquerque talking to myself and doing the lines. So it really comes from Vince and Peter and the character they’ve created, and then I interpret. I guess I’m the one who’s talking to you, but I can’t think of another way to do him.
AVC: Was there a feeling of familiarity to shooting this first season?
BO: It did feel familiar; it did not feel wholly new at all. We had a few cast members from Breaking Bad—Jonathan Banks, and then there are guests who pop up. And we had a lot of the crew of Breaking Bad. We’re shooting in Albuquerque, same place. We’re shooting on the same stages that Breaking Bad had. So yeah, it felt familiar and that was good. There was definitely a comfort level to it.
Having said that, there are so many more sides to this character. He gets so rich with so many interesting layers that there are times when—and I know Vince and Peter have expressed this—there’s still Saul there. You still see Saul, but it doesn’t feel like they just went off and cooked up a different guy, you know what I mean? You’ve seen three episodes, and don’t you think there’s plenty of Saul in there?
AVC: There is. What I like is when he gets caught up in the ethically challenging scenarios and you can see where the Saul Goodman in him is pulling him toward the ethically wrong choice.
BO: Mm-hmm. So I definitely think that you see Saul in there, but there are just so many more layers to it. You can see how they’d be a little concerned that they almost invented a new guy at some point. But as I said to Vince, in Breaking Bad we only saw Saul in his public persona. And I think everybody has a public persona. We all present ourselves.
AVC: To that end, do you feel like Jimmy is a fundamentally good person?
BO: Yeah. For sure. And that, I think, kind of turns out to be true of a lot of people. Even if they end up doing awful things, you can empathize with their motives when you know them. When you get to know the person, you can understand why they make those choices, even if they’re bad. And oftentimes people do have good drives that are sympathetic and can even be seen as selfless and good-hearted. I mean, look at Walter White: He had cancer and toiled as a school teacher and had no money for his family and just wanted to leave them something. In the end it was really interesting how conflicted it got, and how there was a long road to self-realization that he was driven more by his ego in the end, than by his initial sentiments. Having said that, it’s hard to say whether those initial motivations were completely honest and true and then, as time went by, and he discovered how much he enjoyed being important, powerful, dangerous—the self-satisfying aspect, the ego-gratification. In the end, when he says “I did it for me and I liked it,” that doesn’t mean when he started that he didn’t have that awareness.
I think Vince Gilligan is—I don’t think it’s going out on a limb or psychoanalysis to say—fascinated by transformation. In this case, he’s written a show about a guy becoming Saul Goodman. And he’s curious why people are the way they are and, when they change, how they change. And I think what’s really cool and respectable about his hard work is that he clearly doesn’t think it’s easy for people to change. And that’s something I agree with. I think it’s very hard to fundamentally change.
I appreciate you asking me—and many, many people have asked—about creating the character, but I really do feel like I just sit down with the script, and Peter and Vince have sculpted this guy, and they take such care with the words. You can ask them about almost any line that they write, why is it structured this way? And they can tell you why it is written exactly that way, in that order. And then you realize, “Oh my God, they’ve written it, deconstructed it—more than once—and they settled on this.” That’s amazing. The character, for me, just derives from their hard work.
AVC: Have you asked them those kinds of questions in the process of making Better Call Saul?
BO: I’ve asked them a few questions, not too many, though. On the set or when you read a script, you might stumble on a line, and what you find out is that oftentimes a character has a bit of a blind spot, so they phrase their statement or question in a way because of the blind spot. So when you read some, and it’s like, “Why does he ask this way?” Especially when you know what’s happened or what’s going to happen, you retroactively rephrase it in your head, because you already know the truth of what’s about to happen. You have to remember that the character doesn’t already know what’s going to happen. It’s all colored by their limited awareness.
AVC: And sometimes on a show like this, it’s not that they have one blind spot—it’s almost a series of blind spots.
BO: Yeah, yeah. It’s true. These are rich characters. They’re very well thought out. Sweated over by these guys. I go into that writers’ room as much as I can, [but] I don’t want to bother them every day. It’s six people who are just concentrating all day. And I was thinking about my writing, sketch writing, and what Vince does and Peter, and I thought, you know, “I play checkers really well.” [Laughs.] Chess bugs me. Like the minute you start telling me how the knight moves I’m like, “What? He moves sideways too? Oh, forget it.” [Laughs.] It’s too much math already. And those guys, they don’t just play chess, they play Mr. Spock chess—they play the three-level chess. They’re thinking on these deep levels of motivation and drive and stuff. Speaking as an actor: God bless it. Thank you. Speaking as a writer, yeah. You stay over there, I’ll stay over here. [Laughs.] I’ll take my checker board and keep having silly fun with it.
BO: We’re not going to do a Mr. Show reunion—I mean, not called “a Mr. Show reunion.” And not done for the purposes of celebrating what we did 20 years ago. We’re not going to do any event on TV about the thing we did 20 years ago.
However, we are working on new sketches and a new show together. And we want to do multiple episodes of it. And yet we’re limited. [Cross has] sold two series in England and I have Better Call Saul to attend to. So we have limited time, but we do want to do a new series of sketch comedy that’s new sketches and new energy, and we are laughing our asses off writing it. Not only is this group of writers great together, they’ve all gotten better by leaps and bounds from when we first wrote. I mean, the fact that [Scott] Aukerman and Tompkins want to be a part of it with their own careers on full blast, moving forward with their own shows and all that they’ve learned about writing—it’s amazing that they want to be a part of it. My brother Bill, who’s been at The Simpsons for so many years and he’s doing great work there. Brian Posehn, who has so many projects going. These guys have all gotten so much better than when we first worked with them. And still they’re excited to be in the room together.
When you have a good room, that’s a special thing, and rare. And I think they all appreciate that. Maybe that was one of the best rooms I’ll have ever worked in, as far as talented people challenging each other and also having a lot of fun. And so we’re all happy to be back together. We’ve done two group sessions so far writing. And David and I have continued to do the work that we did on Mr. Show, where we just generated a lot of material and we’re just having a great time. I can’t wait to make stuff and share it with everybody. So right now we don’t know where it’s going to play. We just don’t know. But we’re trying to nail it down quick. We’re talking to people now and everybody knows how fast we have to move on this. Because people have jobs and they have to know what they’re going to do in February and March.
AVC: Anything else you wanted to say?
BO: Thank you for taking my efforts in dramatic performance so seriously. But don’t let it distract from the fact that [Better Call Saul] is a lot of fun. [Laughs.] One of the things that I said to Vince and Peter, that they took very much to heart, is that Saul Goodman is tons of fun when he’s in pain. And they went and ran with that. And I think my gut instinct on that was right. There’s something really fun about watching him suffer. [Laughs.]
AVC: This character is best when he’s in a corner.
BO: Isn’t he? And I said, get all the way down to—obviously life-threatening situations are wonderful—but something as small as banging his leg on a table [Laughs.] is fun to watch. There’s something about this guy in pain that is great.
I want people to know it’s fun and not just this sweaty, dramatic effort. I watched the first episode and I was grinning ear-to-ear just watching this character get deeper and deeper into shit. That’s what I want people to know. I don’t want to lose sight of that. C’mon: It’s entertaining.