‘Better Call Saul’: Bob Odenkirk On How ‘Accidentally Being The Right Guy’ Brought Him From Comedy to Drama

The three-time Emmy nominee, who just filmed a role in Steven Spielberg's "The Papers," reveals why he was so surprised by that initial call to join "Breaking Bad."
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 3, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Michele K.Short/AMC/Sony Picture

Bob Odenkirk still thinks that Vince Gilligan may have “accidentally got the wrong guy.”

“I mean, maybe he accidentally got the right guy, is the way to put it,” he told IndieWire. “I got this invitation to play the part, and I was like, ‘But why? I’m very thankful for the opportunity, but what have I done to deserve it?'”

After all, Odenkirk was best known as a comedy guy with very little dramatic experience when he first got the call from the “Breaking Bad” creator to play Saul Goodman, a shifty lawyer hired to get one of Walter White’s associates out of jail.

Read More ‘Better Call Saul’: Bob Odenkirk Pitches Himself as an Emmy Campaign Guru to Fellow Nominees — Watch

Odenkirk’s comedy credits, including the iconic HBO series “Mr. Show,” were bonafide, but when it came to that first appearance on “Breaking Bad,” “I actually would not have been surprised if I showed up in Albuquerque and had a producer tell me, ‘Turn around, you’re the wrong Bob Odenkirk. We wanted the one who attended Juilliard,'” he said. “But there is no Bob Odenkirk that attended Juilliard. There’s only the Bob Odenkirk who attended Southern Illinois University.”

Ten years later, that same Bob Odenkirk is nominated for his third Emmy as Lead Actor in a Drama. When IndieWire spoke with him, he’d just gotten back from New York, shooting the upcoming Steven Spielberg-directed drama “The Papers,” which he called “one of the best things I’ve ever been a part of.”

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 3, Episode 7 - Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Notably, he had scenes with fellow Emmy nominee Matthew Rhys in the drama, which covers the events surrounding the Washington Post’s publication of the Pentagon Papers. “[Rhys and I] got along great. In fact, the day we were both nominated, we had a scene together that night, and we had such a good time laughing about it,” Odenkirk said. “He is a very funny guy. He’s very silly, sillier than I am, I think, which is quite something.”

He’s also currently writing a book about his journey from sketch comedy to serious drama, in which “Mr. Show” does play an instrumental role. According to Odenkirk, the series (a collaboration with David Cross) was what initially inspired both Gilligan and “Better Call Saul” co-creator Peter Gould to choose Odenkirk for the role.

It was Odenkirk’s first big “Breaking Bad” scene, though, that led to the idea of Saul beyond a one-off character — it’s something Gould told IndieWire about in 2015, calling out a very specific moment in the action:

There was a moment that told me that there was more to Saul, and basically what happens in the scene is he walks in and there’s a cop interviewing his client. And he more or less chases the cop out, ‘You can’t talk to my client without me! Go get a juicebox, baby face!’ And then the cop leaves, and Bob added this little moment where he takes this little breath like ‘Whew, I’m glad I got away with that,’ and then he gets down to business with Badger. At that moment I knew, well, there’s more to this guy than I thought. He is not just a slickster, there is an inner life to him. 

Two years later, Odenkirk’s reaction to that observation was a bit stunned. “What a neat thing to notice,” he said. “That’s pretty cool. I guess if there was any way to characterize that, potentially — I don’t want to speak for Peter, but it suggests that Saul’s bravado is a front, and he has to make an effort to put that front on, and as a result it means he’s a person making a choice that isn’t entirely organic to his entirety of his being.”

Odenkirk also remembered another moment that indicated there was more potential to Saul’s character, beyond that one second season episode. “It was literally after that first episode on ‘Breaking Bad’ that somebody in the crew made a joke, ‘Can I get a job on the sequel?'” he said. “I don’t know who, because there were too many bright lights in my face, and everyone laughed. But everybody sort of sensed that there was more to this guy than the clown on display.”

Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk in "Better Call Saul"

Four seasons of “Breaking Bad” and three seasons of “Better Call Saul” later, Saul, AKA Jimmy McGill, has become, in Odenkirk’s words, “a very multi-dimensional character with a lot of empathetic sides to his story. Things you can sympathize with, and feel for, and connect to. His striving to win his brother’s love, and respect from the people around him. His desire to take his gifts, whatever they are, and make something, generate something positive with them, and participate in the flow of life. That’s all he wants to do, and he keeps getting pushed down, and he can’t seem to find his place.”

His brother Chuck’s love is a major factor here, especially given the events of the Season 3 finale, “Lantern.” [Spoilers follow.] The final scene, in which a mentally broken Chuck (Michael McKean) accidentally starts a house fire, is perhaps the show’s biggest cliffhanger to date, with Chuck’s actual fate left in limbo.

Odenkirk believes Chuck is definitely dead. That has him musing on bigger questions, given that Jimmy and Chuck had severed their relationship earlier that episode, following many instances of sabotage and backstabbing between the two.

“How does Chuck’s death affect [Jimmy]? … If Chuck is dead, and I believe he is, I don’t think it’s possible to not think you had something to do with that. The way Chuck was booted from his company, which meant everything to him — his status as a lawyer, that was his entire self,” Odenkirk said. “His pride and self image was completely wrapped up in that. Because Jimmy was a part of the many things that happened that got Chuck booted, I don’t know how he doesn’t feel some weight and responsibility for Chuck expiring.”

That said, Odenkirk can’t confirm that Chuck is dead, as the writers “keep their options open. But my gut is that he killed himself, and I’m excited to see what happens next.”

Michael McKean as Chuck McGill, Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill - Better Call Saul _ Season 3, Episode 10 - Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

While much has changed for Jimmy since the beginning of the series, for Odenkirk the biggest difference behind the scenes has been the increase in confidence from the writers. “I sense a stronger voice in every single direction of the show,” he said. “Every character got stronger, and the dynamics of the show increased. Just the shift from a comedy scene to a dramatic scene, from a very private interior moment to a humorously public interaction. I feel like they feel, they know the different places the show can go, and it can go to so many different places, and they don’t hesitate to go and change up the tone.”

As an example, Odenkirk cited the seventh episode of Season 3, “Expenses,” which was what he submitted for Emmys consideration. The episode features some broadly comedic moments for Jimmy early on, but “then it goes to a place where he’s in an insurance adjuster’s office, and he’s breaking down, honestly, truly breaking down because he’s just failed over and over again, and getting pushed and pressured on every corner of his life. Then he turns that around and uses it to manipulate the insurance adjuster.”

It’s a microcosm of Odenkirk’s own journey as an actor, moving from the hilarious to the dramatic, real, and brutal. And it’s also quintessentially “Better Call Saul,” a show that continues to push its own definitions.

“In that first season,” Odenkirk said, “[the writers] were trying to figure out what this thing was going to be, and I think it moved slowly, and it was probably less comic. Now it’s gotten so that the mix is wilder, and more intense. I really love it.”

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