Bob Odenkirk on Why Better Call Saul Is for ‘Everyone Who Doesn’t Get on the Wheaties Box’

Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

It’s hard to think of a more anticipated spinoff than Better Call Saul. Coming just a year and a half after the demise of its predecessor, Breaking Bad, the new show, which premieres this Sunday on AMC, jumps back in time to the early days of Saul Goodman. Created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, Better Call Saul is, in effect, a question in the shape of a story: How did title character, played of course by Bob Odenkirk, wind up as the desperate and morally dubious character we saw on Breaking Bad?

Back in December, New York spoke to Odenkirk for an in-depth profile. Here’s more — about the leap from supporting actor to leading man, family-work balance, and what drives Saul — from the interviews for that piece.

How are you feeling about the high expectations people have for Better Call Saul?
Well, listen, it’s gonna take some time for people to adjust to Better Call Saul. It’s more of a novel. Plot is a little bit more secondary to character in this. I’d be curious how Vince compares the two. He always says he didn’t know what would happen in Breaking Bad as he wrote it. I’m a little skeptical of his humility sometimes. I’m just saying I wonder if there’s some protecting of himself going on there. There’s a difference between not knowing what direction it’s gonna go in and not knowing anything. You didn’t not know anything. But he and I didn’t talk about the direction of the plot, ever. And I’m guessing he knew less about Saul than he did about Breaking Bad.

Since character is primary, what more have you learned about Saul Goodman?
His schemes have holes in them, and that’s funny. And if theres a carryover [from Breaking Bad] to Better Call Saul, it’s schemes that have holes in them — and the humor of them — because there’s all these little schemes that he has and plans to try to overthrow somebody who’s oppressing him. And they’re clever. But there’s always a trapdoor in there, and he doesn’t see it. And the audience smells it coming and smiles. Even if you’re behind him, you just feel like, Dude, it’s not gonna work.

Yet we’re also seeing Saul develop.
You’ll see a character who’s younger and who has skills, and he suspects, I have these skills, I think I can be very effective, and they’re skills of cleverness and scheming and talking. But he has not found the place for them. I think that’s a journey that a lot of people go on. Americans love people who find themselves at the age of 14 and go to Harvard and graduate when they’re 16 and become a doctor. It’s all about that! It’s all about the 17-year-old basketball star. And the rest of us are 30 and are like, I don’t know what I do yet! And then sometime around 50 we go, I know what I do, I’ve been doing it for 20 years. And then we’re okay, hopefully. But that journey where you find yourself is for everyone who doesn’t get on the Wheaties box, the people who aren’t the wunderkind that we’re obsessed with. And I think Saul is a guy whose journey is a lot like a real person’s journey: I know I can do something. I just know I have some skills. I just don’t know where they belong. So we meet this guy who’s got hopes, and he’s really trying to find his place.

There’s still a sizable cult audience out there who knows you as a comedian from your Mr. Show days. Are you able to draw on any of your comedy background for more dramatic parts like this? How are your comedy skills transferable to drama?
I figured out a different way of attacking a script. I mean, it’s not that different from comic acting, except that in comic acting, I would argue, most of the time there’s little to no subtext. If there’s subtext, it’s like one layer. And with dramatic acting and certainly the kind that Vince Gilligan writes, there’s three or four layers — what the person wants, what they’re telling the other person they want, what they think they want versus what they should want. And in comedy, you’re rewarded for being big and direct, and if there’s subtext, even that is played kind of overtly for fun. So, before I did Better Call Saul, I wrote down on a piece of paper, like I needed to be reminded, “Every scene is an emotional scene.” Even after Breaking Bad, I still needed to remind myself, because I do other things. It’s a little bit like spring training. You have to refocus. And I’ll have to do it again next year. But you have to remind yourself that this isn’t just words, this isn’t just an argument, just logic — there’s a desire here and an emotional need.

Is playing the lead character rather than a supporting character a particular kind of acting challenge?
Look, I’m proud to be the lead character, but I almost don’t think of it as the lead character — it’s the character with the most lines. But there is a difference, and here’s the difference: As the lead character, your character often makes choices that are more personally driven from their psychology than driven by the plot and reacting. Walter White is a good example of a guy who could’ve gotten out, and if you look at his story on paper, he’s trying to protect his family, he’s trying to keep them together and to serve his family — that’s his stated motivation. And yet at these junctures where he could’ve quit and walked away, he does not. He even makes choices within those stories that are reckless and do not serve these motives that he’s declared and that we believe drive him — that is his inner psychology. And he admits in the end that what drove him more than whatever he was using to justify his actions was really his his ego. He’s bullshitting himself. But a character actor very often has those declared motivations, and that’s all they ever have. They don’t do these things that come from an inner psychology. They don’t have it.

What did your wife [talent agent Naomi Odenkirk] think about your taking the role? 
She’s got good instincts. She’s really good, but when they offered this job to me, she said, “I’m taking myself out of that decision.” She said, “If you want to do it, we’ll make it work at home.” Because my first concern was how was I gonna make it work with two kids and I’m not there and she has a business. So she said, “I’m not gonna say if you should do it or not.” And she didn’t. She didn’t want to pressure me. My instinct? She wanted me to do it. But she knew that she had to make it okay for me.

Are your kids excited for their dad to be a star?
They really didn’t know what I did until they were 7. They just told people, “He does comedy.” Because they couldn’t see almost anything I’d done. Then they started to become aware of people noticing me when they were around 10, 11, 12 — people waving or smiling. So they experienced all that in a very conscious way, and I think it was fun for them. My son has never loved it, but it’s as good as it could be for him. My daughter loves it; she thinks it’s hilarious. He just didn’t like sharing his dad with people. He literally really felt like it was intrusive and he was losing something by other people having any claim to my attention. He cried the first time he came to a film set. He was 3. But this thing with Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul has been fun for them. My daughter loves that people know me. She smiles every time someone recognizes me. But I don’t think she’ll watch Better Call Saul.  She has no interest. I mean, my son likes what I do because he likes those shows, not because of me. He genuinely likes Mr. Show, Tim and Eric. But he never says to me, “You’re good in this thing.” It’s always like, “Mr. Show is good.” He does love it, though, and that makes me really happy.

What does it mean for you to have your first big lead role come 20 years into your performing career?
I’m very lucky that this happened when I was older. Because you can’t help but be at the very least distracted by it. And it can be really rewarding to your ego to have people nod to you, recognize you, smile at you, say, “Good job, I like your show.” To have strangers say that to you as you walk through life is a great boost of energy, a little pat on the back all day long. And I get how young artists and performers get addicted to it — I mean, you just like it. Obviously, the bad part is you want some privacy sometimes and you don’t want to have to be a public version of your self, you want to be a private version of your self. I’ll just try to be a little humble here and say you lose that,  possibly, for a few years. With a few exceptions, it’s fun.

What are the exceptions? 
Like when I couldn’t find my daughter on the beach in Mexico and I’m running and sweating, and inside my heart is gonna burst, and people are like, “Saul!” Then I’m like, “Fucking A, shut up!” But otherwise, it’s just fun. And I think people mean it: “Good luck on your new show.” “I hope it’s gonna be great.” “I can’t wait.” The goodwill towards Better Call Saul — people are being very generous and hopeful about it being a winning project. And I feel that’s simply because Vince ended Breaking Bad before everyone was sick of it.

So, about the specifics of Better Call Saul —
It’s crazy. AMC said, “We’ll send you a sheet on what you can say.” And then I get it and it’s like, nothing. It’s like three quarters of a page that says, “Just tell them it’s going to be intriguing.” That helps, huh? I’m curious if you asked Vince about Better Call Saul, “Do you feel like you know what the show is? what he would say. Because he was discovering it as he wrote it with Peter Gould. But one of the producers said every episode is different. Each episode has a different flavor and a different emphasis.  I don’t even know the tone. I’ve only seen one. And from shooting it I can’t really know. Dude, it’s one scene here, one scene there, and they’re not even shot in order, so I can’t tell you. It has just a ton of variety in it, in a weird way.

I’m dying to know: Will Bryan Cranston ever show up on Better Call Saul?
He could appear on it. So could Aaron Paul. So could Dean Norris, so could any number of people — because the show takes place before Breaking Bad. I will say that time slips around a lot. They did say I could say that Bryan and Aaron don’t appear in the first season. They said that’s okay for me to say. But there are other surprises of that ilk — once you look up the word ilk, you’ll be thinking about that for a while.

Bob Odenkirk on Saul Goodman’s Strange Journey