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Bob Odenkirk says he’d like to be “surprised” by Better Call Saul’s ending

Foreground: Bob Odenkirk at the fifth-season premiere for Better Call Saul (Photo: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images); background: Odenkirk in character as Jimmy McGill (Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)
Foreground: Bob Odenkirk at the fifth-season premiere for Better Call Saul (Photo: Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images); background: Odenkirk in character as Jimmy McGill (Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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At just 58, Bob Odenkirk has already had enough jobs in Hollywood to fill a lifetime. He started off as a writer at Saturday Night Live, where he penned sketches like “Matt Foley, Motivational Speaker,” later moving over to work on Chris Elliott’s Get A Life, The Ben Stiller Show, and Late Night With Conan O’Brien. He also co-created and starred the landmark sketch series Mr. Show With Bob And David. After that wrapped, he got behind the careers of Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, helping the pair develop both Tom Goes To The Mayor and Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job. He was even considered for the role of Michael Scott on The Office, though that notably went to another sketch icon who had worked with Odenkirk on The Dana Carvey Show.

Then came Breaking Bad, and Odenkirk’s role as ambulance-chasing criminal attorney Saul Goodman. Though Saul was originally only meant to appear in a three-episode arc, creator Vince Gilligan and writer Peter Gould loved Odenkirk’s portrayal so much that the character became a regular in the show’s third, fourth, and fifth seasons—and landed the spinoff series Better Call Saul. It’s there that Odenkirk has truly found his dramatic legs, tantalizing and tearing up audiences as Jimmy McGill, Goodman’s previous self, alongside a cast of heavy-hitters like Rhea Seehorn, Michael McKean, Giancarlo Esposito, and Jonathan Banks. It’s no wonder that Odenkirk has once again been nominated for a Screen Actors Guild Award this year—his fourth SAG Lead Actor nod for Better Call Saul, not including his two other SAG nods for being part of the Saul ensemble. (He’s also been nominated for the Outstanding Lead Actor Emmy and Golden Globe several times over the past six years, but who’s counting?)

With Nobody—in which Odenkirk takes his first crack at portraying an honest-to-god action hero—out March 26 and the SAG Awards coming up April 4, we thought it would be a good time to catch up with the actor. When we talked, he was sitting at his house in Albuquerque, where he’s preparing to shoot the final season of Better Call Saul. You can hear the full conversation on The A.V. Club’s podcast Push The Envelope, or read excerpts below.

The A.V. Club: How was Better Call Saul’s production affected by COVID?

Bob Odenkirk: We were supposed to start shooting this past September. Our show has a very unique production schedule that is rare for reasons of how much it costs. The writers want to be able to write the entire season before they shoot a single frame. Then they want to edit the entire season before it goes on the air. They don’t always meet those markers, but very often they’ve mapped out the 10 episodes, or in this case, 13… They’ve mapped them out and written, say, four of them completely and then they have to start shooting. If we had started in September, they would have probably had five of them written, but the whole season mapped.

But then [Jonathan] Banks and I got on the phone with Sony’s COVID protocol people and they gave us a big lecture. They were great. They were like, “Look, we want you to know what we’re going to do, and we think it’s going to be safe, because here’s what you’re going to do,” but Banks and I both said, “It doesn’t feel great, and it doesn’t feel particularly safe.” Look, Jon Banks is 74, so we didn’t feel it was safe. Now, Jon has gotten the vaccine, which is great. I’m hoping some of the other cast members have it, too. And we will go back, with the protocols, next week. [Saul’s final season is filming now—Ed.]

AVC: What do you think that extra time did for the show?

BO: They got to finish writing the season, which always helps, because if you write something in episode 10 and you want it to matter in episode two, you want to plant that a little. It’s foreshadowing, which, of course, Breaking Bad was so good at. That show was also done this way, on the same production schedule.

You need that time. You need to have written episode 10 so you know that in the third act, this one relationship or this one object or this one point of view can be put into episode two. It’s one of the reasons they also want to edit the entire thing, too, because you start editing and you learn things and then you want to change something in an earlier episode.

It’s a luxury. We get it because the show’s been so lauded and because we came out of Breaking Bad. We’re very lucky. It’s very indulgent seen from afar, but of course, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and all the writers make great use of it.

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AVC: But do you know what’s going to happen beyond the script you’re shooting?

BO: I don’t know. I haven’t read it. I could read it. I’m a producer. I could say, “Give me the scripts.” They offer them to me all right, but I don’t want to know. I want to just enjoy it like an audience member. When I get a script and when I read it, I want to be surprised, in the right way. I want to learn what I learned or my character learns as he learns it. I don’t want to be ahead of it. I don’t want to be playing where the story is going because I don’t know where it’s going.

AVC: You’ve played Saul/Jimmy for a while now. How well do you think you know that character? Do you know how he thinks?

BO: I think I know him really, really well. It’s to the point where, to me, the character I’m most curious about in our show is Kim Wexler [Rhea Seehorn], not Jimmy.

It’s been fun getting to know Jimmy. I hope the audience has liked it, too, and that they found him an intriguing character. I don’t think we know who [Jimmy alias] Gene Takovic is. We don’t know what the experience of Breaking Bad did to him, or how the experience of being in hiding has affected him. I imagine that with Breaking Bad, he was really thinking he had it made with Walter White as a client, and that actually doomed his whole enterprise. Being in hiding, I can only imagine, is really distorting to a person’s sense of self and can fuck you up, so I don’t know what those two experiences may have done to him. We’ll get to find out.

AVC: We sort of know where Jimmy’s story is going, but we don’t know about Kim.

BO: We don’t know what’s going to happen and we don’t know who she is. Who is this person?

AVC: And speaking of Gene, what has working a 40-hour-a-week job at a Cinnabon done to a guy who was once Jimmy, who lived for the game? 

BO: I feel like the guy’s having a nervous breakdown. That’s what that whole collapse was. His body is rejecting the situation now.

I don’t know what happens to him. I don’t know if he comes out somehow better or just implodes.

AVC: You said in an interview recently that Jimmy McGill is one bad move away from flipping the switch and turning into Saul Goodman. Is Kim the only thing holding him back or is it partially his own morality?

BO: It’s Kim. He’s got something in his life that is worth keeping one foot in the straight world—but it’s not much, though. You can tell he’s about ready to go.

AVC: He went through some awful stuff this past season. In the past, Jimmy had a kind of hubris where maybe he thought he was smarter than these drug dealers, or that at least he could talk himself out of any kind of situation. Last season, he realized that’s not the case.

BO: Yes. And yet we do know that he embraces the character of Saul Goodman, because we go to Breaking Bad. So there’s some kind of journey he goes on in this season where he either compartmentalizes or somehow reenergizes his Saul Goodman side with the PTSD that he’s living with from this adventure in the desert that went off the rails very quickly. Anybody else would stop and say, “Maybe I should rethink my approach to life and the law and who I am in the world,” but I guess he doesn’t.

I don’t know what happens next. Where he is at the end of season five is a guy who is trying to find his feet again. He’s scared and he’s wobbly.

AVC: And he doesn’t have his brother there anymore to back him up or to act as this only tenuous connection to the real world. Kim’s the whole connection, and that’s a lot of pressure to put on one person.

BO: Yeah, these two are too into each other. In a real relationship, you really have to take responsibility for yourself. It’s one of the things you learn. Sometimes it takes a couple of years into your marriage, but you realize, “oh, my life is still my own. I still need to own it and live it and learn from it.”

I think these two are a little too up each other’s asses. They’re just hiding away together a little too much.

AVC: Better Call Saul was on President Obama’s list of the best shows of 2020. What do you hope he’s getting from the show? Is it weird to think, “The former leader of the free world is watching me do my job”?

BO: It’s a tribute to the writing of the show, I think. [Obama] is a smart guy who likes peeling back the layers of the onion to look at everything, including politics and human behavior or life on Earth, and our show is a show with a lot of layers to it. I think he appreciates human drive and emotion that Peter Gould and his amazing group of writers do with our show. At least, I would guess that’s what he’s liking.

Also, it’s kind of funny. I mean, Saul is kind of a joke. Hopefully you empathize with him, but you can also laugh at him. It’s perfectly fine.

AVC: You have been nominated for an Emmy for four of Saul’s five seasons, as well as multiple SAG Awards. 

BO: Don’t forget the Golden Globes! And the Critics’ Choice!

AVC: Right! So that brings me to my question: Do you keep track of those accolades, and what do they mean to you, personally? Do you love wearing suits?

BO: Do I like wearing suits? Well, my feelings about that have wavered over the years. I would never wear a suit willingly, but, you know.

It’s an honor to be picked out of the grand, massive array of TV and movies and amazingly good TV… just stunningly great, smart, well-written, well-played, beautifully shot TV. It’s astounding to be chosen this many times out of that huge, huge number of excellent projects, so that means a lot. Really, being nominated is kind of everything. Maybe I’d feel differently if I won, but being nominated is such a big deal and feels so special that I think I can stomach dressing up a little bit.

I think award shows are the social aspect of showbiz. When you start and you’re young, you can sort of look at them with a snide eye, like it’s a bunch of rich people patting each other on the back. And, look, it is. Not all of them are rich, though. Still, it’s good to tell people about shows.

For example, I love Pen15. Now, how do you get people to know about Pen15? Do you give it awards? That helps say the name, and you put it out there. Otherwise, how is a little show like that going to be found? You don’t want to find it 10 years from now after it’s long over, and they didn’t get to do many seasons because not enough people watched. It’s the same thing with Undone, this show I’m on.

You know, I think Better Call Saul belongs in the category. It needs to have the attention brought to it, because Better Call Saul is a bit of a challenge to watch. The journey is incremental and you have to watch with sensitivity. You have to watch closely. You can watch a scene, but if you don’t watch it closely, you might think not much happened. But if you watch it closely, you can see, “oh, I see what happened. There was a transfer of status. There was a suspicion that grew.” And so giving awards to these things makes people pick them out of the massive lineup of options, and that’s a good thing.

So I’m willing to dress up. Also, I’m ugly, so dressing up is a good thing if you’re going to be in front of a camera.

I don’t know. I just think of it as a social event, and I like the people in this business. The other night I was on the Globes and there was [Jason] Bateman and Matthew Rhys. I know both those guys and I love them. They’re great guys, and I don’t get to see them enough. I would love to hang out with them once every five months, but once a year on TV is great now.

AVC: You’ve recently started your own production company, Cal- Gold Pictures, and you have a deal with Sony. What do you hope to develop under that umbrella? Projects you’ll star in? Projects for other people? All of the above?

BO: Stuff for me, but also lots of projects for other people.

Essentially what happened was I always write. When I’m not acting, I’m writing or reading a book. I’m usually writing two or three projects, either movies or TV shows, but because I’ve been acting a fair amount in the last few years, it’s very hard to keep projects going. You just kind of lose some steam. You go off to act for three weeks or maybe you’re doing it for months in the case of Better Call Saul, and things fall by the wayside. It’s very hard to follow through on ideas.

So with this production company, I got a great executive, Ian Friedman, who used to work at Comedy Central for a long time. We’re able to pursue projects either that I invented or that other people brought to us, and he’s able to keep them going while I act and stuff.

AVC: You have such an impressive background in writing. Do you think writing helped you become a better actor?

BO: The way I approached acting at first with Better Call Saul—which is where I had a really big acting part and it needed a lot of attention and I had to grow a lot in that endeavor—was as a writer, which is to say that I break down the script. I’m sort of reverse-engineering the script to figure out who the person is.

My writing years helped me a lot with figuring out my way into acting, but acting is a very different thing. Acting is a kind of a mindset. It’s like an athletic event. You prepare for it and then you have to be present to do it. That’s sort of the most important thing. It’s a weird marshaling of your energy towards this one moment in the day or multiple moments in a day of shooting, and it’s a strange kind of self hypnosis. You’re focusing on your being, and when it’s done, you have nothing to show. It disappears and then it’s on screen and then someone edits it and you hope it turns out good.

That’s unlike writing, where if you sit down for two hours and write well, you can look at the things you wrote and see what was kind of good. You have that sense of achievement from looking at the stuff that’s really right there on your desk or desktop computer.

Acting is strange. It’s like running a race. You run the race and then I don’t know that I even ran that race. It doesn’t exist anywhere. I mean, it exists on tape, but you know what I mean. It’s an activity you partake in and not a thing that you make. It’s just kind of fundamentally, weirdly different. It took a lot of time for me to adapt myself to the stresses and focus needed for acting.

Writing feels like more like woodworking. It’s a thing you do and then you can point to it even if no one reads it. Of course, you want people to read it, love it, but even if they don’t, you did something today.

Acting feels like a very strange thing. I keep thinking about athletes, like when you hear about top athletes and how hard they work to train for whatever race and then the race happens and then what happens? It’s gone. That’s what acting is like.

I still think writing is a far more reliable endeavor to put your energy into than acting. I got very lucky because I was offered this part that was really demanding but that also taught me a lot because of how demanding it was. Then because of the skills that I learned, I got to grow because there was so much work to be done and [the work] had such dynamic range. I grew as an actor because it was so fucking hard. I mean, that first season [of Better Call Saul] was so hard. I was riding my bike around Albuquerque today just remembering how brutal that was. It was just emotionally draining and tense and anxiety inducing and uncertain. It was just fucking really, really hard. Maybe one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.