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Bob Odenkirk broke into the comedy consciousness as a writer on Saturday Night Live, The Ben Stiller Show, and Get A Life, but he’s most closely associated with Mr. Show, the genius sketch show he co-created and co-starred in with David Cross. After that show’s slightly premature end in 1998, Odenkirk ended up behind the scenes again, directing three feature films (Melvin Goes To Dinner, Let’s Go To Prison, and The Brothers Solomon) that mostly met with indifference. He’s also helped shepherd young comedic talent, including Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, whose Tom Goes To The Mayor and Awesome Show, Great Job might not exist without him. An unusual call came a couple of years ago, when Odenkirk was asked to do a guest spot on AMC’s excellent Breaking Bad as a sleazy, over-the-top lawyer named Saul Goodman. The character initially seemed at odds with the show’s dark tone, but Odenkirk revealed previously unseen dramatic chops in an episode titled “Better Call Saul,” in which his character proved just as layered as anyone else’s. He’s back and more important to the show than ever in season three, which begins March 21. Odenkirk recently spoke to The A.V. Club about landing on Breaking Bad, what he’s got cooking for the future, and what he’s learned to cook in the last decade.
The A.V. Club: How did you end up on Breaking Bad? It doesn’t seem like an obvious fit, based on what you’d done before.
Bob Odenkirk: I got a phone call from my agent, and he said, “This guy Vince Gilligan is going to call you and ask you to play a part on his show. It’s a really great show, and you’ve got to do this one.” I’d never seen it, but I’d seen the ads and stuff. It looked pretty cool, but also very different from anything I’d ever done. I called a friend and said, “What do you know about Breaking Bad?” And he said, “Aw man, it’s the best show on TV. I love that show.” So then Vince called me, and he said, “I want you to play a sleazy lawyer. His name’s Saul Goodman.” And I said, “Well… You know I’m not Jewish, right?” And he goes, “Oh, he’s not Jewish. He’s Irish. He just took a Jewish name to impress the homeboys and the drug dealers.” So I was offered it, which was really generous of Vince. I’m not real sure what Vince saw in me, such that he thought I’d be able to do this part well, because I’m not sure he knew Mr. Show. I gave him a DVD last year, and he was like “Hey, that’s a great show, man!” I was like, “Wow. You didn’t know it before you hired me?” Maybe he saw me on Larry Sanders. I don’t know.
But when I got the script to play Saul Goodman… Usually when I play a character part, there’s five or 10 lines, maybe. You drop in and you move on. And this thing was pretty huge, with these monologues and stuff. And then, of course, I watched Breaking Bad, and it’s so heavy-duty, and everybody’s so present and strong in it, and I really had to work on it. You know what’s amazing about that? I’ve had more fun performing in Breaking Bad and in the parts I’ve done since then, even the Internet videos I’ve shot, and I just got a part in Rob Riggle’s new sitcom pilot for CBS. But I’ve had more fun performing since taking Breaking Bad, because Breaking Bad made me have to take my performing seriously, which is not really something I ever did.
I’ve always thought of myself as a writer first and secondly as an actor, and I’ve always treated my performance that way. This was the first time where I said, “I really just have to take all of my energy and focus. I’m playing this guy and thinking about how to make him interesting, and who he is, and why he talks the way he talks.” All the things you think about when you act. I had a great time doing it. It was neat to be able to just focus on one thing so strongly. It’s made me more interested in performing. I hope I get more opportunities.
AVC: Were you worried—or was Vince Gilligan worried—that the character was too over the top, considering how dark the rest of the show is?
BO: I think he’s very sensitive about that. The first thing I did, and the first thing you see Saul in, is this commercial. Nothing has come close to that fake TV commercial. So that might have been a slight overplay. It was just like a used-car-dealer commercial. I feel like since then, I’ve found the level of reality for Saul Goodman that works within the universe of Breaking Bad. The other part of it is this: Saul Goodman is based on a lot of real guys. You know his office with the pillars and the Constitution behind him on the wall? It’s based on a real guy. They scouted a real lawyer’s office in Albuquerque for that. He doesn’t have those pillars and stuff, but he does have those decorative accoutrements that exist just to make him appear to be a cartoon lawyer. So when people say it might be too big, I don’t know; it’s kind of based in reality. There’s a lot of guys like that. The other thing I always think when people say, “You know, the character is really funny,” is “Yeah, well, he’s funny, but he’s not funny like the comedy that I’ve done. He’s funny in relation to the fact that every other character in Breaking Bad has a gun to their head.”
AVC: It’s funny that you say that, because it seems like Saul Goodman’s dramatic turning point was when he was going to be killed.
BO: You mean that’s when he became more real to you?
AVC: Yeah, that’s when the persona turns off a little bit, and he’s not joking around anymore, and a darker side is revealed. I think people really responded to that. I think maybe you can earn a little more leeway on being funny if you do a scene like that so well.
BO: Well, thank you. I do a lot of out-and-out comedy that just exists to be funny, though when people say that Saul Goodman’s funny, I say, “Well, he’s kinda funny. Not that funny.” He’s funny in relation.
AVC: Do you get even more involved this season?
BO: Oh yeah, I’m in 10 episodes this season. It’s really fantastic to be included in that group. I mean, Bryan Cranston is so powerful in that character, and Aaron Paul is amazing. Anna Gunn, I mean, just being on the set and watching these people… I’ve never been that close to people playing strong, heavy drama, and it’s great to see. Because they’re pretty normal people. They’re pretty easygoing. Bryan is a really great guy, friendly and all, and then he has to play this incredibly tortured character, and he just slips right into it. It’s really amazing. It makes me feel bad. When I sit with his character for any length of time, I always start to think, “Oh, you poor guy.” [Laughs.] The back of my brain is going, “Ah, I’ve got to help this guy out. He’s so fucked.”
AVC: That really comes across in the second episode, where you’re talking to him in his hotel room. You say something to him right as you’re about to leave—
BO: “Don’t hang yourself in the closet.”
AVC: Do you think Saul Goodman will lead to more, similar roles?
BO: As I said, I’m going to do a part in Rob Riggle’s CBS pilot, but that’s a very funny comedy with a four-camera setup, a traditional sitcom. So it’s not really in line with this. I don’t know. It would be great if it did.
AVC: Do you want to give me the rundown on all the projects you’ve got cooking?
BO: I’ve got to tell you, mostly what I’m doing is being a dad.
AVC: How old are the kids?
BO: They’re 9 and 11. It’s really nice, because it’s just so much easier now than it was even three years ago. They’re just self-possessed and smart and good kids. But that’s been a lot of work. That takes up a lot of my time. My wife is a manager. She manages some incredible talent, including Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader and Jenna Fischer. So she’s a busy woman. So I’ve learned how to cook. How about that? Is that what this interview’s about? Is that where we’re going?
AVC: What are your specialties?
BO: [Laughs.] I’m very good at making chili and shepherd’s pie and baked penne with ricotta. For years, I didn’t own a plate or a fork or a knife. I just ate out every meal for five years when I was younger. I didn’t know how to make a hamburger 10 years ago. And I mean that. I really didn’t know how long you cook them. Anyhow, I spend a lot of time hanging out with my kids and helping them do homework and taking them to softball games and stuff.
One of the things I’ve kept busy with is doing what I did with Tim And Eric, which is I’ve found a couple people here and there to help them construct shows around their talent and sell it to networks and develop their ideas for TV shows. One of them is with John Roberts at MTV. John is popular on YouTube: He plays his mother, and he plays a girl named Deborah, a high-school girl. He’s a really funny guy and a great actor. We developed a show for MTV, which just finished shooting yesterday. I’m excited about that. Michael Showalter directed it for me. I’m developing a show with a kid named Andre Hyland and his friends that’s really neat, for Comedy Central. We’re going to shoot that next week.
Then, most recently, I’ve developed a show that is really for my fans and for all Mr. Show fans, and it’s for the FX network. I’m writing it with my friend Tom Gianas, a Second City guy who worked with Human Giant and is most recently directing Nick Swardson’s sketch show. Tom and I are almost done with the script, and, depending on what happens with the CBS pilot I’m involved with, I’ll hopefully get to shoot that at FX this year. I was even going to work with David [Cross] on that. For a short while, it looked like David’s Channel 4 show, The Increasingly Poor Decisions Of Todd Margaret, was not going to go past the pilot. He shot the pilot, and then they did not order the series. In England, Channel 4 shows all the pilots they make, even if the series doesn’t get picked up. So they showed his pilot. He thought the series wasn’t picked up. He actually came to L.A., and he and I started talking about how he could be a part of my show, and we even started talking about a live tour. Then he got a call from Channel 4 saying, “We played your pilot. It got great reviews, great word of mouth. We changed our mind. We want you to do the series.” How great is that? Why don’t they do that here in America? So for a short while, it looked like David was going to be a part of that show. Still, David and I are hoping that we’ll get to tour in two or three years. We’ll write another live show and tour with it.
AVC: How did you feel about the couple of Chicago performances you did with David last year?
BO: They were fun, but I don’t want to do things that are so ramshackle anymore. We had new sketches we wrote, which makes me feel good. I don’t like doing old stuff. So I was proud of that. We just didn’t get to rehearse it enough. It’s not a lot of fun for me anymore to just put things up and rush things out there. So I thought it was a little bit less well put together than I would like to do. So if we do a tour, we’re going to work on it and rehearse it and make a show that’s really worth doing, not just what we can do in a short amount of time with what we have. So the Chicago shows were fun, but we only had a day and a half of prep.
AVC: What are you envisioning for this FX show?
BO: I can’t tell you too much, but it allows me to play myself, to play a guy who’s middle-aged and having a difficult time being relegated to the outskirts of show business. [Laughs.] At the same time, I would get to play characters in it, too. I’m always looking for an idea that lets me develop characters and also lets me comment on social issues and people in the world, because that’s what I love to do. I love to come up with new characters, people to make fun of, things within the world that I see that I want to comment on. So it’s been a little bit of a struggle trying to figure out a TV show that lets me do that. With Mr. Show, we could do that, because we just jumped from sketch to sketch, but we couldn’t really develop characters that well, because it was just sketches. So this thing is a real great hybrid. It lets me do both.
AVC: What happened with the pilot, David’s Situation, that you guys did for HBO in 2008?
BO: We had a great time, we got great laughs, the energy in that night was amazing. You were there, right? You saw it. It was really fun, right? But you know what? When we cut it together, it was good, but it wasn’t great. More than that, after that night, after that performance, David and I both went, “Oh my God, we’ve got to do a show together.” You saw how much energy there was, how exciting and fun it was when he and I were working together, even just my short minute on the screen, and being there in front of everyone. I was directing, obviously, but the interaction… It felt like we had missed an opportunity, even though it was really good in a lot of ways. So we said to HBO, “Thank you for letting us make that, but what we learned from that was that we really need to be up there in front of everybody together to make the most of what we can do.” They sort of said, “Well, we already gave you our money, and you can’t have more.” [Laughs.] It’s okay. I think if we did a tour, I think maybe after David does this show for Channel 4 and maybe after I do a few projects here, in a year or two we can plot another attempt to scale the mountain.
AVC: Is that what Mr. Show feels like at this point, the mountain?
BO: I don’t know. The one thing I’d never do is Mr. Show 2. I would never do a sketch show that was set up the same way as Mr. Show, because I think we did that very well. I would have liked to have done another year or two of it, but we just couldn’t make that happen. Mr. Show was artistically very rewarding and successful, but it wasn’t actually successful. [Laughs.] I think some of our fans missed that. They didn’t notice that it didn’t do well enough to stay on the air. You can say, “Well, maybe it should have been promoted better, the network could have gotten behind it more,” but, you know, whatever. It just didn’t really work. I’m not worried about trying to compete with it. David and I, when we write together now, it’s no less exciting or fun or funny, I think, than when we worked together years ago. We haven’t worked together mostly because he lives in New York and I live in L.A., and it’s just not very convenient. We’ve written a lot. It just hasn’t all gotten made.
AVC: Do you think you’ll direct a feature film again at some point?
BO: I do think I will. I think I’m a really good director. I think it uses all my talents, and I think I need to choose my material with greater care. Not to knock the people who’ve given me the opportunity; I appreciate all the opportunities I’ve gotten, but one of the things I think I really learned from the features I got to direct is that your job as a director is everything about the movie. It’s to pick a story that’s really worth making, and make sure that the basic components are there. You’re not just a part of the team. You’re really in charge, and the responsibility falls on you if all the components aren’t there for a worthwhile film. Past directing gigs, I treated like a gig, like, “This is a really great opportunity for me to think about how to shoot this script or whatever,” but I didn’t take on the responsibility of making sure that all the components were there for a good movie. You can’t guarantee that you’ll make a great movie, but you can make a greater effort than I made at trying to see that the basics are there. I look forward to making another feature, and I think I’ll be able to if I can just avoid cancer, but I don’t want to just make a movie because someone will let me. Not that people are knocking down my door. But I really want to make the right one next time. I think people saw the films that I made and said, “Well, this doesn’t seem like Bob to me.” They didn’t really seem to represent my sensibility that well. I understand that criticism. I really do. I think that the next time I make a feature, it’s going to look like it came from me.