The Last Word: Bob Odenkirk on Catholic Guilt, the Replacements and Late-Breaking Fame

"My conscience muscle is a fucking hammer that can crush me or anyone around me at any time," the 'Better Call Saul' star says

'Better Call Saul' star Bob Odenkirk opens up about Catholic guilt, late-act fame and why Chris Farley is "crack funny" in our candid 'Last Word' Q&A. Credit: Illustration by Mark Summers

Bob Odenkirk's 30-plus-year career has included a stint as an SNL writer, a groundbreaking sketch series (Mr. Show), stand-up comedy, and, most recently, Better Call Saul, the Breaking Bad prequel in which he gives a brilliant performance as "morally flexible" lawyer Jimmy McGill. And how has the 54-year-old actor's outlook changed over that three-decade span? "As a young man I was the fuckin' expert on comedy, on who was funny and who wasn't funny and who's a douchebag," he says. "I still feel those things but I don't think I'm so right. I don't think it's even important that I'm right. Over time you start to realize your shit stinks as much as anyone's." The third season of Better Call Saul premieres on April 10th, and as Jimmy McGill transforms into Saul Goodman, Odenkirk talked about his own remarkable transformation as an actor, and much more.

You spent decades as a comedy actor and writer before getting dramatic roles in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. How surprising was that turn of events?
I'm surprised at the opportunity I got. I really am. I'll read a Better Call Saul script and think, "Are they really trusting me with this? Are they seriously gonna let me have this moment that they've written for me with the wonderful filmmakers and sensitivity of this project?" Breaking Bad came out of nowhere. I thought I’d show up and they’d say, "Go home. You're not the Bob Odenkirk we're thinking of. It’s the other one, from the Royal Shakespeare Company."

I did have a gut feeling, years ago, that in a dramatic context I could be really impactful. As much as comedy is my first love, it’s natural for me to get earnest and honest. I have comedy friends who congenitally can't do that, but I can. In fact, if there's a part of comedy I love, it's that it's a transmission device for honesty – sometimes brutal honesty.

What was your favorite book growing up, and what does it say about you?
Probably On the Road. It says I was a kid in Naperville, Illinois, with a desperate desire to see the world and be near interesting people and fringe-y scenarios. Kerouac was Catholic too, and there are Catholic feelings there I relate to.

How did being raised Catholic rub off on you?
I have normal biceps, but my conscience muscle is a fucking hammer that can crush me or anyone around me at any time. I can experience guilt, shame and a critical, even damning, point of view of myself and everyone around me.

You've been called the man who gave the Internet its sense of humor, and Mr. Show is spoken about like the Velvet Underground of comedy ...
Which is to say it's forgotten?

No, the opposite – it wasn't huge in its time but it's been extremely influential. Do you see its influence on young people in comedy?
I don't think I see its influence on people today. I don't. At the time of Mr. Show, it was hard to find a space for a personal point of view in a comedy show, so we were a bit of a template for people who came later. Now it's like, "find the most individual voices and get them out there." That's what say, Netflix, is offering – massive variety. That's very, very different from the world Mr. Show came up in. Back then it was like, "Find one voice and stay with it and don't expand!"

"Chris Farley was crack funny. Somebody explained to me how freebase felt, and that's what it was like to watch him. It was pure, unarguable, unquestionable."

Over the years you had a lot of projects – as a writer, director, and actor – that didn't succeed wildly and sometimes didn't even get off the ground. How much did that get under your skin?
Hmm. You're asking if I was, or am, bitter?

Frustrated?
There's a kind of frustration that anybody who spends time in showbiz gets to experience, outside of maybe Tom Cruise. There's an element of uncertainty and luck that runs through all we do. I had one pilot I wrote at NBC, and an executive called to say it was literally the best pilot he'd read. The same call was to tell me the pilot was not going forward. And he meant every word! You've gotta try not to get bitter. But yes, I've been bitter – and I will be again.

What's the best advice you ever got?
I haven't taken it, but I read one of these types of interviews years ago – the Proustian thing you got going here – with Paul Newman. When asked what he would do differently in his past if he knew what he knows now he said, "I'd work a lot less." That blew me away and I'm still trying to pick it apart. You'd think he would be very happy with the amount and type of work he did. But he was probably indicating that work, no matter the quality, is only worth so much – and not as much as time spent with people you enjoy – or heck, maybe even love.

Who are your heroes?
Not a lot of heroes. Pretty much only the White Rose folks, the German college students and professors who wrote resistance pamphlets against the Nazis in 1942. Most of them got put to death. Sorry to get so serious on you, but the times call for it.

You're the second of seven children. Did coming from such a large family force you to grow up fast?
I have an overdeveloped muscle in my conscience and a maturity that might be a little hyperactive, but it’s all in defense of an immaturity that I try to protect. Mr. Show is the best example of my inner voice, which is immature anger and childish silliness. I worked very hard to keep as much as of that as I could in my life. It's one of the reasons it’s a little hard for me to know where I stand in the world right now. The times are too serious for my sensibility. I can't begin to goof on it. Once we get a sane person in the White House I'll get really silly again.

So Trump is too scary to be funny?
He's super funny if he's powerless. But he has real power. Who knows what's gonna happen. I just hope all the guys around him are a little more grounded. I'm praying for Pence. Put that in the thing.

You think Pence is going to be better?
No, I don't. I just want everybody around Trump to say, "Chill out, dude. There's no rush to do anything, my man." We should give Trump an award every morning and every night. Like, take two hours to get him cleaned up every day and rush him into a room and give him a big award and ask him to make a big speech. Then do the same thing around 3 p.m. "Oh my gosh there's another award! You have to come get it! Right now!" And then fly him somewhere for it. Fill his time with that.

In the movie Nebraska, your relationship with Bruce Dern's character seemed to mirror your relationship with your own father, an alcoholic left your family when you were 12. True?
It mirrored it exactly. Absolutely. What do you want me to say? I can't clever it up – the things I got to say in Nebraska are the things I would have felt and do feel about my own dad. Which is ... fuck this guy. He wasn't there for us, and he doesn't get to be forgiven by me or accommodated by me. He can go somewhere else for that. My dad died when I was 22, but even if I was still alive I would still feel that way. It's not like I don't think people should be forgiven, but you can't get it from everybody.

You seem to be voracious reader. What are you reading now?
I just finished Book Three of My Struggle by Knausgård and I'm looking very much forward to Book Four. I'm bewitched by his pathetic life, which is pathetic in the way that all lives are pathetic. I marvel at his writing about ... almost nothing. I'm re-reading Night of The Gun [the memoir by the late New York Times writer David Carr] because I'm working on an adaption for a miniseries. I'm reading Catcher in the Rye again because I've got an 18-year-old son who I wanna empathize with. I wanna get in touch with those feelings of Holden Caulfield – and myself when I was much younger.

I'm reading Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube by Blair Braverman. It's a memoir. I'm not sure where it's going, which is one of the reasons I like it. I'm reading Pretend I’m Not Here by Barbara Fineman-Todd. It's a journalist's story and I'm reading a lot about journalism and what motivates people to do it and what they aspire to. I'm reading Mary Astor's Purple Diary by Edward Sorel, which was recommended by Woody Allen in a New York Times Book Review [piece] a few weeks ago. It's great, great, great, fun writing. I'm also reading Hogs Wild by Ian Frazier. These are pieces collected from his New Yorker work, mostly. He's not unlike Knausgård in that he's able to transmit such human feeling without overtly trying and it's really something to enjoy and be puzzled by.

That's a lot of books to be reading at once, Bob.
Sometimes I will stick with one book for two days straight, but mostly I'll go back and forth – read one book in the morning and another book at night. Somehow, I don't find it confusing.

"The best thing about fame is everyone smiles at you. You walk into a coffee shop and see a person smiling: 'Is that for me? It is!' I wish everyone could experience that."

What did you learn writing for SNL in the late Eighties and early Nineties?
I was surrounded by amazing sketch writers – Robert Smigel, Jim Downey and Jack Handey in particular. Those three people wrote fairly different styles of sketch. Just observing them got me thinking about what a sketch is and what it can be. People ask me what's advice for young writers and one of of the things I say is try to get in a room with people who are better than you. If you're the best person in the room you gotta get out of that room.

But SNL was a frustrating experience for me. The show has its own needs, and I always wanted my own show. I envied the first cast and first writers – like, you guys got to have your own show! And nobody else after you gets to have that.

What about Vince Gilligan and the writers for Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul – what did you pick up about writing from them?
The old rule with screenplay writing is to not direct the actors through the stage directions, but just write dialogue and simple physical movements. But [the BCS writers] do no hesitate to write something like, "We remain on Jimmy's face. We can see the confusion and uncertainty over what he just said." They'll write something that directs a kind of a subtext into the performance. That's against the old rules, but as an actor I think it's wonderful. It means your dialogue doesn’t have to carry everything. It's something I think should be explored in writing circles. You could go too far with that, but they don't.

It's a weird thing with Jimmy McGill: You find yourself rooting for him even though you know things are not going work out so well.
It's important to rediscover your hopes for him. Because he does get eviscerated more than once. Each time it happens, you're like, "you gotta give up buddy." But he finds some way to rediscover his hope and faith in other people. It's important the audience sees value to that and sort of empathizes with that.

What's the most indulgent purchase you've ever made?
Ah, shit. This one is bustin' my ass. I'm gonna look so pathetic. I just don't spend money on anything that indulgent. I was gonna get my kids a shitty used car, but then I realized as I was teaching them to drive that they were driving in the most dangerous city in the world, so I should just go spend the money on something safe. It's not the high-end Subaru, though – it’s the model with no extras.

What music still moves you the most?
There's no question it's the Replacements. Nothing comes close. I play it still them all the time – most of all I play Stink! and Sorry Ma, Forgot to Take out the Trash. And I play it for my kids! My daughter especially likes it.

Their music has a lot of anger in it. A pissed-off, teenage, youthful anger. There is something vampiric about listening and reaching back into your past for a jolt in the present. Also, there's a lot of pain. It's interesting that Bob [Stinson] was the one with the most aggrieved background, but Paul [Westerberg] wrote those lyrics that are really heartbreaking. "Go" is a great song, from Stink, that is full of alienation and sadness that I still find easy to access and probably always will.

Did you read the Replacements bio that came out last year, Trouble Boys by Bob Mehr?
Such a great book. What a moving, sad, funny story. He's got Bob Stinson's story for the first part, which is just heartbreaking. Then, after Bob leaves the band, you've got the Paul Westerberg mystery: Who is this guy, and why can't he finish as good as he starts? He goes in with great intention – "I'm gonna do it this time, I'm gonna play by the rules" – and then he sabotages himself every single fucking time. And yet there's such brilliance there. It's a great book, man. A great book.

Who's the funniest person you ever saw perform?
Chris Farley was crack funny. Somebody explained to me how freebase felt, and that's what it was like to watch him. It was pure, unarguable, unquestionable. It wasn't about cleverness. There was a lot of pain in Chris, but it was an expression of joy and humanity, and it was powerful. The best thing I ever got to be around in comedy.

You had a hand in his Matt Foley, motivational speaker character, right?
One night we did an improv [at Second City], and he did a coach-type character. It was the [Foley] voice – "You kids, get it together!" I went home and wrote that sketch as you've seen it. The catchphrase, the story behind the character – that was me. It was the perfect marriage of performer, concept and writing.

Are you and David Cross going to make another season of W/ Bob and David?
David and I hope so. He's in England often, with a new series that looks amazing called Bliss. But we love workin' together. We make each other laugh. I think it'll happen. And I don't think it will take five more years for it to happen. I think it will happen in an impromptu way. He'll have three months off, I'll have three months off and this will get done.

Can you tell me more about your Night of the Gun adaptation? 
I'm working with Sean Ryan and Eileen Myers. Sean created The Shield. AMC is working with us. We need to get past the first step of a script that they like as much as we like. If we do, I think we’re off to the races and we get to tell the story of a really interesting, funny, messed-up, intelligent, very intense guy and his crazy life. And also the things that mattered to him, which is journalism and what it could be. I think David [Carr] would want to talk about chasing down the truth and how you can do it and how we have a responsibility to it. He was a tough dude, and he used his toughness to try to get at powerful people and get to the truth of things. It mattered to him. I think there's a Catholic aspect to that, a pissed-off Catholic emotion that I relate to. I'd like to try to get that part of the story out alongside the insane adventure that he lived through.

I've read a lot of sobriety memoirs. Night of the Gun was my favorite.
We want it to be about that, too – very much so, in the way that David wanted it to be both about sobriety and be a sobriety memoir and be a response to many that came before it.

Have you become less pissed off as the years have gone by?
I think I've become less opinionated, or less proud of my opinion. As a young man I was the fuckin' expert on comedy, on who was funny and who wasn't funny and who's a douchebag. I still feel those same things but I don't think I'm so right. I don't think it's even important that I'm right. One of the things that comedy does is judges the world around you. It's fun to play that role, but over time you start to realize your shit stinks as much as anyone's. I dunno if I'm less angry because I can still listen to the Replacements and feel the same feelings and I still can read Catcher in the Rye and feel the same feelings I used to. I'm glad I can do that.

What's it like going out in public now as opposed to before Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul?
Mr. Show had a great and special audience that was also limited. I could be in public and tell which people knew who I was by how many piercings and tattoos they had. The best thing about this bit of fame I have now is everyone smiles at you. You walk into a coffee shop and you're in your own head and you see a person smiling. "Is that for me? It is!" I wish everyone could experience that. Everyone in the world.