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‘Better Call Saul’: How Bob Odenkirk and the Cast Develop Their Characters, One Tiny Bit of Backstory At a Time

Odenkirk and fellow stars Jonathan Banks, Rhea Seehorn, and Patrick Fabian tell IndieWire how the nuanced writing, costumes, and their own intuitions drive their work on the series.

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

In the latest episode of “Better Call Saul,” viewers get an intense peek into the psyche of Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), as the character sat beside the bedside of nemesis Hector Salamanca and told a little story about the fruit tree he loved as a child, and the coati who tried to rob young Gus of its fruit. While it doesn’t offer up any specific biographic details, it’s a feast of a monologue which reveals quite a bit about who Gus is, and why we should be afraid of him.

It’s just yet another exciting insight into the life of one of “Saul’s” characters. That sort of moment, co-star Rhea Seehorn told IndieWire, is why “these shows stand out. There’s never spoon-feeding to the audience, and that includes us not having to reiterate plot-wise over and over. Sometimes you watch TV and they let you know how they feel to make sure you’re keeping up. But on this show, they just completely trust the audience. That they’ll get it, and when something’s meant to be mysterious, they take it with open arms.”

That sense of mystery doesn’t just affect the audience, but the cast. They’ve learned a lot about their characters since the show’s premiere in 2015, but are still piecing it together through the details.

When Bob Odenkirk first started playing the man who would eventually be known as Saul Goodman, “I hadn’t painted a very complete picture of that guy,” he told IndieWire. “I figured he went to strip clubs at night, and then went home as drunk as he could safely drive, and then played a little golf on the weekends, and tried to not think about being alone too much. So I didn’t have much of a guy there beyond a guy who’s like a shark, moving as fast as he could through life.”

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 5 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

In fact, he said, it’s only now in the fourth season that he feels like “we have now gotten to know these guys, so it’s only now that I feel like this season has been the season where both Rhea and I have said, ‘Oh, I don’t think my character would do that’ a few times. Not too often. Because we know them now. And we didn’t know them before.”

Odenkirk doesn’t see that as a bad thing, though. “I think it’s been all to the good. It doesn’t stop production, or stop the show. It just means we have to have a conversation with the producers about who they’ve been. I feel like, at this point for him to do something he has never done is a little… Like, I have to question that. Because we’ve seen him in wildly different modes, and we’ve seen him do vastly different things, and those are all part of who he is. So if he goes out of that world that we’ve already established, I have to ask the question,” he said. “But we always work it out. Whether it’s a logic that has to be explained to us, or different choices that they make with the writing to help us justify a choice by the character — we always figure it out.”

In the earliest days of the show, wardrobe played a big role in helping them figure those things out. “Our costumer designer, Jennifer Bryan, is just brilliant,” Seehorn said. “My very first costume fitting with her, she said, ‘There’s just something about Kim that feels like she’s still buying separates from Marshalls and Ross and stuff. And they’re not matching suits, but she hopes everyone in the office [thinks they do].”

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Rhea Seehorn in “Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

It was an observation that literally inspired tears in Seehorn, because “that’s not in this business. Women don’t always get to have those kinds of conversations in a fitting — it could be much more superficial stuff. This was deep character, and I’m just like, ‘That’s exactly what I think. There’s something about her that’s trying to fit in, and she’s the most herself in front of Jimmy.'”

Patrick Fabian also found himself leaning on the impeccable suits that he was asked to wear for “Saul” for character insight. “I’d love to say that going to school and being an actor for 20 years has given me a head start in a lot of things, and I’ll take credit for some talent, but I tell you what, I put on that suit because that woman has designed Howard’s suit of armor,” he said. “When I throw that on, my work is 70 percent there. It makes me feel like, when I walk into a scene, that I am wearing more money than anybody else has in the room. And it just gives me an attitude and a sense of superiority that I think lends itself to Howard’s character pretty well.”

(Of course, as the audience has already begun to see in Season 4, those suits are starting to get rumpled. “I think everybody pretty much thinks they know Howard and they think they know how in control and how buttoned up he is and I think they’re in for a bit of a surprise this season, what Howard can and cannot be,” he said.)

Patrick Fabian in “Better Call Saul.”As the series progressed, when it came to how Kim’s actual backstory matched with her own ideas, Seehorn said that “more of it’s matched up than I would’ve thought possible. Sometimes I like to pretend that that’s because I am just as smart as them, but that’s not usually what it is.”

Instead, she said, “I took from what they had in the very beginning, of someone who has great economy of language and uses as few words as possible to get her point across, and very ambitious. And I started building the backstory facts from that, including the relationship with Jimmy. And you sort of take the puzzle pieces you give them, and you try to figure out, what notches would fit in those? And it keeps getting built out. So by the time they started adding other pieces, they were always wonderfully surprising in the way that they added a layer, but they also fit. Because I feel like together, it’s this constant matrix.”

The details about her life that have emerged over the years, such as coming from a small town in the midwest, seemed to extend naturally from what had been established previously. “There was something from the very beginning that felt outsider-looking-in to me from the beginning about her,” she said. “And also, immediately I was like, well that matches with the relationship with Jimmy, even prior to dating this history that goes back to the mailroom. There’s something about being on the outside and trying to fit in that I think they share.”

Also important was the question of Kim’s age. “I did the backwards math there and said, so if you’re in a law firm coming out of a mailroom, at a time when usually it’s intern-high school age or college age, and she was older than that. And she’s trying to move up, so if that’s what you’re clinging to, then let’s make where you came from as far from that as you can.”

While Jonathan Banks is also learning more about Mike as the series progresses, he told IndieWire that he never gets surprised by what the writers choose to add. “They write this full dimensional, wonderful rich character for me. And what that does [for me] as an actor — I’ll do Mike’s backstory forever. Because they’ve given me so much to work with.”

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 5 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Jonathan Banks in “Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Even when the writers take Mike in a new direction that doesn’t necessarily make sense to him, it eventually comes together. “When I disagree with something, I’ll say so. I mean, when they had him in the group therapy session, with the daughter in that depressing room, where you would have slit your wrists if you had to go into that group therapy, I went, ‘What are you doing, you’re putting Mike in a group therapy session, oh no, no.’ Well, they said, ‘It’s for the daughter-in-law.’ I went, ‘Okay, yeah.’ But then they extricate me from that because I lay into those people eventually.”

Added Banks, “My version of Mike … Mike’s been dark a long, long, long, time. They gave us the Vietnam veteran sniper and who was he before that, even as a kid. You think about the things you did as a kid that you regret or the hurt that you may have inflicted on someone. And we all have sometimes much greater degrees of that. So how dark? I haven’t even decided yet but I promise you, he’d been dark a long, long time.”

As Season 4 progresses, we’ve seen Mike fully commit to helping set up Gus’s enterprises, and as Banks says, “to hook up with Gus, it’s a decision, yes. But is it any darker than other places that he’s been? No, it’s not…Playing that character and that precision, I like that. I like that because again, I go back to dimensions, look what else I’ve given him. Look what else they’ve given this character.”

Banks’s instincts when it comes to the character, it’s worth noting, weren’t just backed up by the direction the writers took Mike — Banks (as he told IndieWire) actually had an impact on key backstory elements. “Years ago in one of the ‘Breaking Bad’ episodes, I let my granddaughter out of the car and I had balloons, mylar balloons and I gave her a few of them. And then I send her up and say, ‘Your mom’s waiting for you, go on.'”

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 5 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Jonathan Banks in “Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures

As he continued, “I said to Vince, who was directing that episode, when I sent my daughter up and it was from a distance … I turned to him afterwards and I said, ‘That’s my granddaughter, but that is not my daughter.’ I said, ‘Whatever has happened to Mike, happened because of his son.’ So three, four years later, Peter said to me, “Remember when you said that about …’ And here came the episode [Season 1’s “Five-O”].”

Until Season 3, Fabian hadn’t even known that the other Hamlin in the firm name Hamlin Hamlin & McGill referred to the father of his character, though he had assumed that it was the case. “I had a line [in a scene with Kim] talking about my father wanted me to hang another H on the wall. That’s such a loaded line of so many things. Of father and son issues, wanting to be your own. All that sort of thing. Familial obligations,” he said. “And since we don’t see Howard release that very often, that’s a moment where it also tells me if he’s willing to even say that line, that shows how much affection he has for Kim, how much he looks at her as either a protégé, or a daughter, or a mentee, and all those sort of things. That’s the kind of economy in the writing that I think I’m able to use and find that really tells me a lot about Howard.”

Fabian noted that when they first began shooting the series, creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan “were still sort of finding out what they thought. They knew kind of what he was, but the great thing about being on a show for a long run is that the writers start writing to some of your strengths.”

So at the beginning there was some uncertainty as to how Fabian felt he should play Howard. “We were doing something in the very beginning of the very first episode and I think I was sort of leaning into it. And when I say leaning into it, it’s a gentle way of saying I was completely overacting. I was playing this sort of Snidely Whiplash, twirling my mustache sort of thing,” he said.

“And then Vince came over to me because he was directing that particular episode and he said, ‘You know what? I’m not sure if Howard is a bad guy. And I don’t think you should be either.’ It was a great note to drop in, I think, for any actor, at least for me, to not make assumptions and not run to the end of something that you don’t know is there yet. To really take it one step at a time.”

New episodes of “Better Call Saul” Season 4 air Mondays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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