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[This interview contains spoilers for the Monday, Sept. 3, episode of Better Call Saul.]
As soon as he gets on the phone and before a single question has been asked, Bob Odenkirk is already gushing with enthusiasm to talk about the current season of AMC’s Better Call Saul.
“I think that the fourth season, the writers just outdid themselves, and so did all the actors,” Odenkirk says by way of greeting. “I think I did my usual job, whatever you think of it, but Rhea Seehorn and Michael Mando and Patrick Fabian? Holy shit! Watching these guys is so great.”
In a show marked by regular nods toward the main character’s journey from Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman, Monday’s episode features the most blatant acknowledgment yet, in the form of a precredit scene taking place toward the end of the Breaking Bad timeline. In the scene, a fully formed Saul — none of last season’s huckster local advertising teases — readies his go-bag, collects a secret stash from inside his office’s Constitution mural, starts the process of securing his next identity and coaches secretary Francesca through her next steps, which include reaching out to an unnamed attorney. [Patrick Fabian’s Howard? Ed Begley Jr.’s Clifford? Rhea Seehorn’s Kim? Maybe not Kim, since Francesca knows Kim.]
Even without the Saul-centric introduction, it was a strong episode that also features Jimmy at his most Saul-like, selling burner phones to local criminals before getting beat up by some low-level thugs.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Odenkirk discussed his reaction to first seeing the precredit sequence and why he hopes it will sate the appetites of certain Saul-hungry fans. He evaded a question about Saul’s legal recommendation to Francesca, talked about Jimmy’s growing anger this season and celebrated the Jimmy-Kim scenes that form the show’s heart.
What was your first reaction to seeing what and when the precredit sequence was?
“Hooray!” I think that for a certain segment of our audience, seeing Saul again as Saul has been a drive and a goal and a desire, and I would just like to give it to them and then get back to telling this really incredible, rich story of a complex person so that maybe we sate their appetite and they can focus on the wonderful work that the writers and all the other actors are doing, telling a really rich story that did not hinge, to me, on getting to be Saul as quick as possible. Know what I mean? It’s like, “There you go! There’s your Saul! Now let’s get back to this great, incredible, hard-to-predict story that we’re telling.”
Do you have any sense of what kind of viewers or what subset of viewers has that need to get to Saul versus the type of viewer that’s just going along for the journey?
I think that most of our fans are completely on board for what we’re doing. When they compare it to Breaking Bad, they say, “It’s its own thing” and they really recognize how much the writers have created a unique universe here that just runs sideways with Breaking Bad at a certain point. I don’t think there’s too many people, but there’s a few people who just keep bringing it up. I wouldn’t know who they are. I just think sometimes in commentary there’s a desire for it. I think the New York Times reviewer in particular seems to be itching to just get this thing to happen already, and I think they’re missing what we’re doing. I think that showing Saul can maybe make everyone just breathe out a little bit and focus on the great work that is happening in this richly told story.
How good is your own Breaking Bad memory, and how easy or hard was it for you to slip back into Saul at this particular moment?
My memory is not that good for this story, because there’s so many turns in the story and there are so many twists and layers and angles on this character that it can be hard to immediately know where we’re at. I would say that something happens to this guy, Jimmy McGill, that makes him compartmentalize so much of himself — his heart, his empathy, his hope for himself. All that stuff gets locked in a box and hidden underneath his Saul persona. He tries to run from his humanity, and that’s what Saul is. So Saul is actually kinda simple to access. He’s so alienated from other people and from his idealistic self, the self that he was and that he really and truly is. He’s buried it all so much that he’s just a simple version of the character. It doesn’t last, because his little scam as Saul implodes, and I don’t know who he becomes when he’s Gene, that’ll be an interesting thing to see. But as Saul, it’s not hard to slip into that character. There aren’t as many layers as there are to Jimmy McGill.
Sticking with the precredit sequence a bit, Saul tells Francesca that she should tell the authorities to talk to her lawyer and gives her a card. Did you need to know who that lawyer actually was or is going to be?
[Chuckles] Oh, man. Well, I haven’t seen it. I wonder who that lawyer is. [Long pause.]
How about this. I watched and rewatched several times. Can you tell me if you said, “Tell ’em Jimmy sent you” or “Tell him Jimmy sent you” as the instruction to Francesca about that lawyer?
<Another long pause.> I would think it would be “Tell ’em,” so you don’t know. Just to make it harder to solve the riddle.
Was it fun returning to Saul’s particular sense of style?
Super-fun. Things like costumes and the mannerisms and the way in which Saul constructs sentences, the rhythms of his speech, those things really cue me into the character. And, of course, nothing beats the hair as far as making you feel like, “Oh, right, I’m Saul again.” Playing Jimmy McGill is a lot more rewarding than Saul. Saul is fun to play, though.
Are there differences with the hairpiece now?
Yeah. Jimmy’s losing his hair. I already lost a lot of my hair, but he’s losing his hair. Who knows whether it’s stress or just age, but he’s mutating into Saul, and then I’m sure he’s going to strike upon the comb-over at some point.
As unique as Saul’s stylistic choices are, the tracksuit that Jimmy dons for his street dealing is spectacular. Why was that what he needed to find his inner hustler?
They do a lot of great work with costumes and props and every attribute of a person and the world that they’re in. It all helps me to get into character. I’m a little bit colorblind, so I don’t really know what the colors mean to them, but it was a flashy tracksuit, and basically he’s really trying to stand out and in those tracksuits, he does. He’s like a neon sign.
In terms of the transition from Jimmy to Saul or just the transition that Jimmy’s going through personally, when he gets rolled by those low-level street thugs, what do you think he realizes about his own identity?
I think an anger is rising up in Jimmy, and one component that brings it on is that he gets pounded. I think that the way in which that matters is that it’s about getting older, and it’s about realizing your mortality. Jimmy was one of those young thugs when he was a younger man. He almost went to prison, but Chuck saved him from that. It’s that realization of, “Oh, I’m not one of them anymore, and I have a limited amount of time.” He wants to strike back. A lot of what’s happening in last season and this season is that an anger is rising up in Jimmy that makes him want to kick back at the world.
How much does it feel like the anger is also self-directed, almost self-flagellating?
I don’t think it’s self-loathing. I think it’s frustration. The way I feel it, as I play it, is I try to take the story apart and figure out what he’s doing and why. He really made an effort to fit in and to be a contributing member of society and someone to be respected, and it didn’t work. His brother just kept him down, and he could feel like circumstances also diminished his efforts, diminished his achievements. So at some point, the point he’s at now, he’s just like, “I’m just gonna be an anarchist. I’m just gonna take and I’m not gonna be a contributing person here. I’m gonna be a person who takes and steals.” His reaction to a lot of what’s happened is anger.
So you don’t see a vein of self-sabotage to things like his job interview with the copy guys, etc?
From my perspective, I don’t see it that way. It may be the case, and it may be the case from outside. Taking the job at the copy shop and presenting himself as a gung-ho copy machine salesman and working at the phone store, the character has to suck in so much of his natural energy, and he has to mute it so much, and it’s just that he’s had enough of it. He’s had enough of trying to fit in. It didn’t work when he made his best effort, which was everything he did to become a lawyer and to win his brother’s respect. All of that was a monumental effort, and part of him is going, “No! No, I’m not going to keep swallowing all of my natural energy and instinct to try to fit into this world. I have something great to offer as a con man and a shit-heel, and I’m going to show everybody.”
The Kim-Jimmy scenes maybe aren’t always essential on a strictly plot level, but they’re basically the heart of the show. Is it easy to keep focused on the importance of those scenes?
That’s a responsibility of Peter Gould, primarily. For me and Rhea, we are so lucky to have these scenes written for us including, in this season, a couple scenes that you’ve seen where these characters really share what they’re feeling. When Jimmy says, “What the hell’s wrong with me?” he is really laying his heart and his confusion bare to her and her acceptance of that, instead of scolding him, she says, “Let’s get you some help.” She listens to him the way a good partner listens to you if you are cracking up a bit. The characters are maturing and that keeps it fresh. They’re not just running in place. Obviously, Jimmy’s mutating into Saul, and that’s kind of a compartmentalization and a striking back and a thinning out of who he is, but in that relationship with Kim, there’s an honesty and a sharing. It astounds me that they write that stuff for us and let us do it. It gives the characters a safety valve for all of their reactive — not to borrow a word from Scientology — reactions and they can just be honest and open with each other. It’s amazing to get to do those scenes with Rhea. We are both so thankful. The point is that the characters are allowed to grow in our show and be more than just their worst instincts.
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