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[This interview contains spoilers for the fourth season of Better Call Saul.]
Bob Odenkirk is spending his time between seasons of Better Call Saul pushing forward on projects that he admits have already been a long time in development and may still not happen for years to come, including an adaptation of David Carr’s The Night of the Gun with writer Shawn Ryan, and the secretive Amazon animation series Undone. He’s even training to do a possible action movie.
He’s also getting ready to return to the awards circuit for his lead role in Saul, which completed its fourth season in October with the latest incremental step bringing Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill closer to becoming Saul Goodman.
With each season it’s becoming harder and harder to believe that Saul was built around a primarily comedic character from Breaking Bad — a part that, at first, felt like a stretch for veteran sketch writer and performer Odenkirk. As funny as Saul still often is, the show more and more lives in a place of romance and frequent sadness, played with remarkable chemistry between Odenkirk’s Jimmy and Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler.
Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Odenkirk discusses his ongoing evolution and dramatic comfort, the satisfying scenes that don’t always get awards attention and why Seehorn deserves more recognition.
You’ve talked a fair amount about how different Breaking Bad was from what you’d been doing, just in terms of being an “actor.” How nervous and uncomfortable were you, really, when you initially went on that set and started acting with those guys, and on that show?
On a scale of one to 10, I’d put myself at a seven. I wasn’t losing my shit. I mean, I’d spent a lot of time in front of the camera, and especially with Mr. Show, there was a lot of different tones that we played. It wasn’t all broad sketch comedy on Mr. Show, and of course I’ve done Larry Sanders, which was meant to be played as real as anything you can play. So I’d had experience with modulating myself a lot. I think the intensity and the focus was another level. Comedy allows you to be ironic, almost, in your performance. In fact, sometimes comedy even allows actors to laugh at themselves as they’re doing it. Sometimes you see a little grin on the face of an actor, even in a movie, and it’s a comedy and it’s OK because they’re being overtly funny, and it doesn’t destroy the fabric of reality. Of course, nothing remotely like that could happen on Breaking Bad. I just dove in. All you can do in this business with these occasional opportunities that you get is just jump in headfirst and give it your all and hope it works out — and it did. I think I was protected because I was working with Bryan Cranston. That would be number one. He just was incredibly helpful and supportive and a focusing presence for me. I think the same is true of Michael McKean [who plays Jimmy’s older brother Chuck] in many of the scenes in Better Call Saul. Rhea Seehorn is such a pro, too. People like Rhea and Michael and Bryan Cranston are a source of gravity that I glom onto, or I kind of build out of their focus. Yeah, it was nerve-racking, but what did I have to lose? I mean, it’s not like this great drama career was gonna go down the tubes. I didn’t have one. I was writing and creating shows, and I had a lot of stature in comedy, and that was fine with me.
Was there ever a point in that Breaking Bad or even into Saul where you felt as if you kind of “got it?” Where you said, “OK, I can be a dramatic actor now. I feel comfortable in this world, and in this mode”?
No. I think I’m still adjusting to it all. I would say that with Better Call Saul, that probably some of those scenes, especially the end of that first season, the scene with Michael [McKean] and I where I tell him I realized Chuck held me back, that was about the most intense thing I’ve ever had to sustain for a full day of shooting. I feel like we really nailed that thing hard. I feel good about what I can do in drama. The interesting thing is, to such a great extent, it’s about relaxing and simplifying the thoughts flowing through your head, really being in the moment as they say, and not having this really complicated kind of “process” that actors talk about, but a kind of zen simplification and relaxing and letting go of yourself. I think I’ve been able to do that a couple of times on Better Call Saul, to great effect, and I feel great about taking that challenge on more. You know, it’s weird. People, when they do these awards efforts, they try to find a scene where they’re very emotive, and get angry, or shout, or cry, or whatever, and that stuff is challenging and all, and God bless all the actors who pull that shit off, but I’m super proud of the scenes that Rhea and I did in the kitchen of her character’s apartment and in the bathroom. There’s two scenes where the characters just tell each other the truth, and that’s very rare. Most of the time, the characters are hiding a little of the truth. These are just two scenes where the two characters just let go and they’re honest about ways in which they’ve been deceptive, or are not gonna follow the path that their partner has picked for them, and then the partner responds in an understanding, open-minded way.
Those scenes are the things I’m proudest of. I wish I could submit those for awards, but everyone would go, “I don’t get it. He’s just a human being.” But I’d be like, “Yeah. That’s the thing. He’s just a real person. He’s living his life and he’s not hiding. He’s saying something hard to say.” To me, in the moment of acting those scenes with Rhea, nothing has felt more unpredictable and real, because in those moments, no one’s hiding and you don’t really know what they’re gonna say. If they’re gonna start being honest with each other, holy shit, who knows what’s gonna come out of their mouth.
A scene I would say does that on an awards-worthy level is the rooftop fight from the penultimate episode. I mean, they’re both sort of laying everything there in that scene, and you don’t know for a second if they’re going to fall into each other’s arms or tear each other apart.
You’re right. That’s a pretty great scene, obviously. They are yelling at each other — so you’ve got your yelling — but the truth is you got two people being honest. It feels like you’re eavesdropping on a couple and just months of deception and frustration are coming out. I agree. That’s a pretty great scene, but do you know the scene where they’re in the bathroom, and he says to her, “What the hell’s the matter with me?” and she says, “You should go to the therapist.” He looks at the [therapist’s] card, and he really thinks, “OK. Maybe I will.” It’s so simple and that honesty is as great as a scene where they put it all in the open and bleed all their feelings out. I’m so lucky to be in a show that has this kind of range in the writing. On one page I’m doing a New Orleans accent, conning somebody, with the silliest voice I’ve done since Mr. Show, and five pages later, the character is ripping open his wounds and letting loose on the person he loves most in the world. I mean, it’s just an incredible opportunity I have. It’s crazy. I don’t want to talk about it because I’m afraid it will jinx it.
Speaking of that New Orleans accent, which was so very wonderfully bad, at the same time, Jimmy’s both a very good actor, and he’s a very bad actor. Which of those sides sort of comes more naturally to you, and which is more fun to play?
I think he is a guy who’s a good actor in that he is very capable of committing himself to whatever reality he thinks will win him the moment. That is kind of an actor skill, like, just total commitment, even to the craziest thing, commitment that’s so great that the person who knows it’s not real goes, “It might be real.” Just the commitment fools you. Forget the logic of what he’s pitching you, the commitment sells you on the thing. It was so fun to do that voice and that phone call. I didn’t want to take it too far, but I didn’t hold myself back. I leave that to the editors and the director to tell me if I’ve gone too far. I feel like he was laying it on thick. He had some really good moves in it, like that thing where he’s yelling at the guy, “Clarence! Put the robes away!” Like anytime when you’re doing a fake phone call and you’re talking to a third person who’s in the room with you, that really messes with the reality of the person listening to you. They have to believe you’re in the world, because there’s more going on. I snuck in so many things that made me laugh, like “Who dis?” “Who dis?” No one says, “Who dis.” But it’s so bold! If you’re the person making the phone call, and the person that answers goes, “Who dis?” It sets you back on your heels. You don’t even know how to start.
Is that the kind of thing where there are tons and tons and tons of outtakes from that scene of you just going off into your own world?
Oh, yeah. I went crazy. They didn’t use everything I did. I called the window curtains the “windy curtain.” “It went up the windy curtain.” I did all kinds of stupid shit. Now my dad grew up for a while in Louisiana, so I actually have access, in my head, to a little bit of Louisiana accent, because he did have it once in a while. On certain words, he would pronounce in that way, because my grandfather, he worked in the shipyards there in World War II.
The meanest thing that Kim says to Jimmy in that rooftop fight, which was just so great, is the closing line, “Jimmy, you’re always down,” which was pretty cold-hearted. Did that observation feel particularly true to Jimmy this season, and does it feel like the point we reach in the finale kind of reverses that downward slope and points to a more up version of Jimmy?
The “Jimmy, you’re always down,” is a brutal thing to say, and kind of true. He knows that that’s kind of true of him, that he’s always looking at the downside. He’s definitely looking at the glass half empty. He didn’t start that way, but that’s where he’s been for a while. Everything is a slight to his ego and to his efforts. Then the ending, in embracing the Saul Goodman character, which is what he’s doing, he feels like he’s owning his power. He’s not apologizing for the con man inside him. He’s embracing it fully, and it’s a great, energetic feeling to just give in to that bad impulse and those talents — it’s freeing for him. So yeah, that’s where that good energy comes from. It’s a shame that he feels so good about being that guy and making that choice, but I feel like he has now embraced it fully, and now next year, we can just start with full-on Saul Goodman energy and we’ll see what happens. I have some thoughts about it, but I have to share them with Peter Gould first.
You’ve talked about how it was easier to play Saul than Jimmy because there aren’t as many layers to Saul. So as the show’s arc, as it were, bends toward Saul, how do you as an actor work to maintain those layers that you like about Jimmy and keep Saul interesting for you to play?
Well, I leave it to Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould to keep Saul interesting for me to play. They come up with the plots. They put the character in challenging situations, but I haven’t had to do it yet, is my answer to you. Saul, in Breaking Bad, would pop in and pop out. Those are fairly short scenes, maybe three or four pages at a crack. It’s a fun energy to bring to that world. We never saw him backstage, you could say, in Breaking Bad. We never saw him out of his office, at his home. We don’t know where he lives. We don’t know what happens to Kim. So for all we know he has somewhat of a separate persona, even in the Breaking Bad years, but I feel like he’s given himself over to this dark side and it feels good to not be having this inner struggle anymore. So, it may be less interesting to play him, but I would not bet on it, based on Peter Gould’s writing and the work that they’re gonna do. There will be other complications that create interest and involvement for the character when he gets working with Mike and these bad guys.
You’re such a regular awards season player, and I think it’d be great if Rhea Seehorn joined you on a lot of these nomination lists. Do you sort of have a plea or an argument on her behalf?
Yeah! (addresses a hypothetical awards voter) You should give Rhea an Emmy right now and a Golden Globe as well and a SAG for sure. Sometimes it’s hard for people to receive award nominations when their character is a tight-knit character. I always felt like it took a long time for Jon Hamm to win an Emmy because his character was actually emotionally dead. So like, he’s not a character that’s gonna cry. Well, you know, Kim is an incredibly tightly wound character who is buttoned down and keeping it together with incredible willpower. So, I think in this season, we’ve really gotten to plumb her depths and see a lot of emotion and a lot of feeling and thoughts cross her visage in different scenes. If you don’t give it to her, I’ll boycott you, is what I say to all the organizations. She really should win. She should get nominated, but she should win. I don’t know how many times I’m allowed to vote, but I’m gonna tap out my SAG card.
A version of this story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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