As the slick and shady criminal attorney Saul Goodman on the acclaimed AMC series Breaking Bad, Bob Odenkirk routinely provided a welcome jolt of comedy to the pitch-black drama, but now that the character takes center stage for his own spinoff Better Call Saul, will a fully realized Goodman still be as funny?
"He's got slippery ethics – he doesn't know how to apply the ethics he has," Odenkirk says of his role in the hotly anticipated series, adding that making Saul more complex will provide even more opportunities for humor, including darkly amusing new aspects of his persona,
"I think [executive producers] Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould] have a great time creating highly conflicting ethical situations where your personal drive juxtaposes with good behavior, and the character has to navigate a complex and sort of ever changing prism of ethical choices," the actor says. "Saul Goodman is not who he is. That's a creation of his, as he tells Walter White the first time he meets him. It's not his name, and this whole thing is a presentation."
Odenkirk joined the press for a brief glimpse into his evolution as he turns Saul Goodman – and himself – into a leading man.
With your character front and center in this series, do you feel any additional pressure?
There should be, right? I should be sweating in my boots, but I’m not – and you know what I think? I think that the star of this show is Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and their writing. In the end, when people talk about these shows that they love, they’re talking about the story and the characters. So I mean, I kept waiting to get all sweaty and nervous. I have a lot more to say in the show. My character speaks a lot more, and that’s a job. I sat with Bryan Cranston and said, "How do you do it?" What I meant was, "How do you learn all those lines? How do you manage your day?" And he told me. He talked to me about it.
What did Bryan tell you?
He said, "You work all the time. You work constantly." And he was right, but it helped me to understand. He said, "I woke up. I had a healthy breakfast. I looked at my lines for the day. I got to the set. At lunch I prepped for the next day and then I came home." And he told me, "Make sure you get dinner before you leave the set, because you don’t have time when you get home. You need to eat and work on your lines for the next day. And then on weekends you structure your weekends ..."
It’s really like being an athlete or prepping for a marathon or something. My weekends were very structured. I had free time Saturday morning and then Saturday afternoon got right into a longer view of what’s coming up in the next week. What are these scenes? What are the feelings in them? What’s happening? Maybe make notes, write questions, call Vince or Peter. Then on Sunday I would have a little bit of a workout. Then I would have a dialogue coach, just as an acting partner, come over and put these scenes on their feet. If the actors were in town for, say, a big scene, they would come over to my apartment in the afternoon. We would stand up and walk around and do the scenes – especially the hard scenes, emotional scenes or complex ones.
So Bryan talked to me about structure your day so you’ve got good energy, you know your stuff. These are scenes that are worthy of rehearsal and they’re worthy of questioning and learning and working them, because as you do them, the more you do them, you start to find new emotions in them and textures that you don’t see the first time you read them. So that’s what Bryan talked to me about and it’s really, like I said, it’s like prepping to do some athletic competition. You have to eat right, you have to get your sleep and you have to plan out your rehearsal and your prep so that you show up ready to go.
What got you especially excited about giving Saul his own show?
Well, we all talked about making him a sympathetic guy – because I don’t think he’s entirely sympathetic, that’s for sure. I was surprised at how many people liked him in Breaking Bad. I mean, right away people liked Saul. Why? He’s a shifty guy who’s out for himself. I think they liked how funny he was. He made wisecracks a lot. I think they liked how he was kind of good at what he did.
He had a confidence but I thought there had to be more dimensions and clearly, Peter and Vince agreed because you’ll see what they’ve added. I mean, look, if you think about Saul Goodman, how his office was like a set, it was artificial. It was a facade. Those pillars were a facade. He was inside a strip mall. His character was a made-up character that he made up to sell to the public. [Here], the new element was him behind the scenes. What happens when he’s not in the suit, in front of the facade? Who is he then?
And we’re all different when we’re home alone or with our family. We’re a different person and they brought that forth. They explored it and brought it forth and I loved that they did that. I loved that they didn’t just make this, not that they would, but some people would just go, “Let’s see him in his office with a bunch of crazy gangsters and he’s fast talking and making wisecracks.” There’s a version of the show – I suppose it could be entertaining – where he’s just a clown. They dug deeper.
In making Saul more sympathetic, do you feel you could potentially de-funny him?
No, I’m me and the way Saul is funny is me. It’s my energy. I think it comes from Chicago. It comes from my family, which is kind of a cynical voice. It’s a Midwestern skeptical, cynical, down-to-earth kind of skepticism. I think my whole family has it, even the ones [not in entertainment], a lot of them. Only one is in show business: My brother Bill is a writer for The Simpsons, but that’s still there. He’s still acerbic and self-deprecating and kind of tough in his assessments of the world and that’s fun to watch and funny. That can be funny. I mean, there’s very emotional scenes, but I still get to be very funny, I think.
Better Call Saul kicks off with a two-night premiere event, Sunday and Monday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on AMC.