Star Bob Odenkirk reflects on the show's success and his unlikely journey from cult comedian to television icon. Interview: Ed Power
Saul Goodman is such a perfect small screen creation it’s surprising to discover the character is a product of happenstance. The slippery lawyer achieved a cult following on prestige television tour de force Breaking Bad and now has a Netflix show, Better Call Saul, which has just returned for its third season. But he was never intended to carry his own franchise, explains actor Bob Odenkirk.
“The part was supposed to be three or four episodes in the second season of Breaking Bad. At the time I was recurring on [sitcom] How I Met Your Mother. I could only do three episodes of Breaking Bad. The fourth week I was needed on How I Met Your Mother.”
But fast-talking Goodman had struck a nerve with viewers and Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan felt he ought to stick around. It was a canny decision. Goodman has become one of TV’s outstanding anti-heroes, an irascible bundle of contradictions you end up cheering despite your better judgement.
That’s especially true on Better Call Saul, a prequel where we learn how the hard striving, can’t-catch-a-break Jimmy McGill becomes the riotously amoral Saul, with the sandblasted grandeur of Albuquerque, New Mexico as backdrop.
The best television, Odenkirk believes, is serious about the complexity of the human condition. “Walter White comes across as a person driven by circumstances,” he says, referring to Breaking Bad’s chemistry teacher-turned-avenging nihilist. “A logical person who cares about his family. At the start, all the things that drive him seem to be good things.
“Then he does crazy things over the course of the series – things that are completely unnecessary. As you get to know him you realise he is driven more by his ego and his own sense of damaged entitlement.”
The last season of Better Call Saul ended with Jimmy/Saul in a pickle. In order to help his girlfriend Kim (Rhea Seahorn) win a big legal contract he has doctored a document belonging to his brother Chuck – the vainglorious head of a rival firm (Spinal Tap’s Michael McKean). The deception has made Chuck look bad – but now he has obtained a recorded confession from Jimmy regarding his complicity (unbeknown to the once and future Saul).
“I’m sure people relate to the deeper motivations,” says Odenkirk, in a public interview at a Netflix showcase in Berlin. “The resentfulness between brothers – the desire to win appreciation and the affection of the people you love. I’m sure that goes on across the world.”
This is low-stakes stuff but completely absorbing. At every turn, Jimmy has sought his sibling’s approval – even as the stiff and stilted Chuck has nursed a resentment of his brother’s natural charm. Their relationship is clearly hurtling towards a dark place – and with Breaking Bad godfather/ fast food impresario Gus Fring to be introduced this season too, the plot threatens to grow curiouser and curiouser.
“There’s a big movement into the character of Saul Goodman,” Odenkirk said at the premier of the new series. “This is the first time he presents himself as Saul Goodman, which is actually kind of fun. There’s more of an internal movement of this really sweet character, Jimmy McGill, who kind of shuts himself down and does some very callous things that are very Saul Goodman-like. It’s just sad. It made me feel bad.”
Odenkirk seems mildly frazzled by the success of Saul. His background is in alternative comedy and before he was booked for his supposed cameo on Breaking Bad he eked a living performing Monty Python-style skits. These won a cultish fanbase and he had even his own HBO series, Mr Show. He never dreamed of anything bigger.
“I was very happy writing comedy sketches, directing… I loved performing. However, the life of a performer, with the hopes getting dashed constantly – it wasn’t something I wanted to sign up for with my ego. I would write and create my own projects. I would do auditions if they came to me – but I wouldn’t pursue them. Then came this offer to to Breaking Bad – Vince Gilligan had given me the opportunity because of Mr Show.”
He didn’t crave fame and was happy getting by. “It was okay. My deal with the universe was, if I could just make a living doing what I love… If I can afford food and a place to live, I’ll be very happy. I never anticipated the success or the opportunity presented by Better Call Saul. I never pursued it. And I still don’t factor it in to what makes me happy. Trying to do something I love is what motivates me.”
Better Call Saul is worth watching for Odenkirk’s flailing performance alone. Nonetheless, the series isn’t simply a one man show. Interwoven with Jimmy’s unsuccessful attempts to be taken seriously as a lawyer is the origin story of Mike Ehrmantraut, later seen as a criminal with a heart of gold in Breaking Bad. Jonathan Banks’ performance, understated where Odenkirk shoots over the top, brings a cool balance to Saul. He deservedly received an Emmy nomination for the season one episode that revisited the death of Mike’s son.
“I was aware that I had got something that was very special as soon as I got it,” he told me last year. “Because, like all actors, I enjoy what I do. If you give me those words to say… that’s why I started to do it in the first place, 49 years ago when I got my first pay-check. When Bryan Cranston [Walter White] got up at the Emmys or the SAG Awards one year and said ‘I’m so proud to be an actor’… I felt the same way.”
“The thing about a great character like Mike… for me anyway, I’ll be doing his backstory ‘til the day I die,” he continued. “I’ll still be coming up with Mike-isms forever. I gotta tell you I haven’t been Mike now for three or four months, and I’m relaxed back into the insanity of being Jonathan. As soon as I work with the character again, work with Mike, my mind is very active.”
One reason Odenkirk feels he has succeeded as a dramatic actor is because he gives off a “complex energy” on screen.
“In drama, you make choices based on deep psychological drives,” he says. “The thing that works for me, I think, is that I have a naturally complex energy. With a dramatic role it helps if people stop and wonder whether or not you’re lying.”
Better Call Saul season three is on Netflix, with a new episode released weekly. Girlfriend’s Day, written by and starring Bob Odenkirk, is also on Netflix now.
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