Breaking Bad and its improbably great new spinoff, Better Call Saul, both stories of lives knocked off-course, have sparked a similarly radical metamorphosis for Saul star Bob Odenkirk. Before taking what was supposed to be a small role on Breaking Bad as cravenly corrupt attorney Saul Goodman, Odenkirk, 52, was a cult-favorite comedy writer-performer (of Mr. Show fame) with near-zero dramatic acting experience. Since then, he's been in Alexander Payne's Nebraska and FX's Fargo, and now displays more range than ever as a younger Saul, a.k.a. Jimmy McGill, in a show he says co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould started planning as early as 2009. "I think it was the last episode of the third season," says Odenkirk, "that Vince came to me in the hallway at the offices in Albuquerque and said, 'What do you think about a spinoff? I think there's a show in this.' "
You seem keenly aware of how unlikely all of this is.
Absolutely! I promise you I thought I was up for three episodes of Breaking Bad — well, they wanted me for four, but I could only do three 'cause I was in How I Met Your Mother. They actually added the character of Mike because I couldn't make that fourth week, and they needed another character to get that information across, so that's amazing right there. Thank you, How I Met Your Mother. People liked Saul right away, but I always treated it as a lucky thing that maybe not many people would notice, because the show wasn't even doing that well. Breaking Bad was almost canceled after the second season! And believe me, when Breaking Bad ended, I didn't sit around praying to the patron saint of spinoffs. [Pause] Which saint is that? Saint Radar?
Or Saint Joey.
Saint Joey. I just went and wrote a book, worked on some movie scripts, did a tour with David Cross, and then did Fargo. I was shocked that it happened. I think it's because I had done so much. A younger person would go, "This is my big break. I have to sculpt it into a career," and I'm like, "No. I'm in the middle of my career." Not that I don't perceive it as a potentially massive and meaningful kind of step up.
Spinoffs don't have a great track record – to what extent was that on your mind?
Everybody associated with this project knows exactly what you’re talking about and approached it with – I wouldn't say trepidation because we're braver than that, I think we’re all a little bit of a showbiz veteran group and that toughens you up a little. But we all approached it with great care in the sense of just how much of a risk it was. The way to counter-balance those concerns is "are we pursuing an idea because there's an original inspiration to it?" And I left that question to Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, and their answer was a pretty assured, "yes." And keep in mind, they started thinking about this years ago. It didn't come out of finishing Breaking Bad and being lost for another project.
Breaking Bad fans seem inclined to trust Vince and Peter.
The thing is, they work so motherfucking hard, man. They scrutinize their own ideas and their own instincts and their choices are so hard that they know what they're doing three levels down. That first episode has so much confidence on display; that opening story was just confidently and calmly told. I think it really sends a signal of like "don't worry." You know, "We're not dancing as fast as we can here. We've got something to say and we've got stuff coming down the pike...you can just stop asking questions and get to the story." And, still, I'm thrilled, amazed and astounded at how well it has played for people. It's so much fun to have this many ideas, that much story, that many surprises in one hour of TV.
Did you ever feel bitter about show business?
Yes, and it's a mistake; you have to fight it. You have to let that shit go, because that shit will fuck you up. When my manager Bernie Brillstein passed away in 2008, he'd been my manager for 13 years, and I had nothing but failure for the last five years of it.
What do you mean by failure?
I made some money acting and guest-acting, shot some commercials, and I wrote some pilots that I was proud of, but none of them got picked up. The funny thing about Bernie is he would get mad. I would be like, "Well, c'mon now, they didn't pick it up for good reasons. I get it." He'd be like, "Fuck them! They're fucking assholes. It's great!" And I loved that. But you just keep going. I didn't do a great job overseeing some movies that were in my hands, and the hardest thing is when people notice, they're like, "You didn't do a very good job." And you go, "I know."
Did you have dramatic ambitions before Breaking Bad?
I wouldn't say I had driving ambitions, but I had instincts. Even back when I was onstage at Second City with Chris Farley, I remember consciously thinking I should probably be on a dramatic stage, because Farley is so fuckin' funny [laughs]. But I know how hard it is to be an actor. That life is not something I wanted to risk – because, you know, I can write. It may not be Shakespeare, but it makes me happy, and you can count on it. You can give me a blank sheet of paper and a pen and I can make something that people will laugh at. For a working-class, Midwestern guy, that's where I'm gonna always gravitate towards. But yeah, I thought I could fit in well doing this kind of thing if ever I had a chance. Of course, I could never have predicted how great this role would be for me. It really is insanely good. The mix of comedy and the inner turmoil of the character is something I really feel close to.
You once said you didn't necessarily like Saul.
I like Jimmy. Saul was clearly a front, and I wasn't sure how much of it he liked. He seemed to enjoy being a showy cheeseball, and now that I know Jimmy, I think he is just a taste-challenged individual — but he's from Chicago, and I get it, coming from a place where you don't know what you're supposed to look like. He's an earnest, sweet guy whose brain naturally cooks up dishonest solutions to the challenges in front of him. Jimmy stops seeing the blind spots because he's too happy and excited about his plans, which I think is pretty true of a lot of people, you know. He gets carried away with his inspiration.
And then he ends up in that Cinnabon.
Now, he's not dead. He's in the Cinnabon but who knows what might happen next? I like to think that there's more even after that. I can't promise you a story from Vincent and Peter, but I feel like you do get another chance if you hang out long enough and don't get bitter.
There will be no Mr. Show reunion. There will be a new sketch-comedy show featuring the great and special Bob and David.
Have you ever gotten a note that you were being too funny on these shows?
No, but sometimes I do a comedy version of a scene first. For instance, the montage where I'm doing law in the second episode, that's all just me being utterly silly and ridiculous, if you could hear what I'm saying. The same thing happened in the movie Nebraska. I had to do, like, a local news report, and I honestly couldn't do it. So I goofed around for four takes, and I was finally able to do it straight 'cause I just had to get that shit out of my system. The part of my brain that is silly is massive.
I'm still not clear on why Mr. Show isn't on HBO Go.
I don't really understand it. There’s some kind of a fee, some kind contractual expense, that has to be paid, and nobody wants to pay that fee. It was sold and resold a couple of times – that's what I've been led to believe. It seems like HBO owns it on some level, but they don't own it on another level.
In the past you've suggested that HBO just doesn't like the show.
From my point of view, they’ve always had mixed feelings about our show. It never really seemed to fit for them. Every network is entitled to have their point of view about who they are.
You're working with David Cross on a new show. Is this a Mr. Show reunion?
There will be no Mr. Show reunion. There will be a new sketch-comedy show featuring the writing and performing of the great and special Bob and David. And please use those terms because it's like King of Pop — the Great and Special Bob and David. It will not be called Mr. Show, it will not have the set, the music, the logo or the construction. There will be a change in pacing and probably a more integrated bunch of ideas. And yet we are still the same people. Better Call Saul is not Breaking Bad, but it's written by the same writers and you can see connections, right? It hopefully will be quite the same as far as the relationship between the two shows.