going full keanu

How Bob Odenkirk Actually Transformed Into a Badass for the Ass-Kicking Nobody

The Better Call Saul star spent nearly two years training with the John Wick team to go full Keanu. Photo: Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Before Bob Odenkirk ever contemplated undergoing an extreme physical makeover, transforming from TV’s most morally lax/physically wimpy criminal attorney into a convincing movie ass-kicker, the Better Call Saul star experienced three very real brushes with life-threatening peril. Odenkirk says he was inspired to concoct a relentless, crisply homicidal inversion of the kind of guy he’s known for playing in Nobody (out Friday) — a normcore suburban dad whose failure to protect his family during a home-invasion robbery unlocks a hidden and apparently limitless capacity for mayhem and ultraviolence — after his own home was twice burglarized, and on the heels of “an incident in Chicago” during which (the actor will only cryptically divulge), “I had a gun held to my head at 2 a.m. and I gave all my cash to this person.”

“I think most people watching this movie will not realize the level of autobiography there is in it,” Odenkirk, a 58-year-old father of two, tells Vulture via Zoom from New Mexico, where he’s wrapping the sixth and final season of Saul. “I had two home break-ins in Los Angeles. One was particularly traumatic. Just a typical dad scenario. What do you do? I grabbed the baseball bat; in the movie I grab a golf club. I think I did the right thing, as I told myself, and I told the police a thousand times since then. But it doesn’t feel like I did the right thing. Nobody is very related to my actual experience of having someone in the house, threatening my family, trying to keep the damage to a minimum.”

In Nobody, that seeming inability to man up in the face of danger loses the character the respect of his wife and teenage son, but helps him relocate a kind of murderous righteousness that got lost in his domestic day-to-day. Refusing to play Odenkirk’s Everyman-gone-haywire for irony, the film’s most visceral jolts come from watching the actor, fairly convincingly, chew up and spit out assailants in a hail of fists and bullets — often being chewed up and spit out more than a little bit himself in the process.

From start to finish, Odenkirk’s process of learning to realistically inhabit the physicality of a shooter of Uzis, breaker of faces, and thrower of grenades — an all-around nasty brawler whose hidden finesse for assassination and disembowelment is gradually revealed as he takes on the Russian mob — took nearly two years. A veteran sketch comedian and Emmy-winning TV writer who broke into public consciousness with the absurdist-comedy showcase Mr. Show and wrote for Saturday Night Live and The Ben Stiller Show, he is best known for playing the sleazy lawyer Saul Goodeman on Breaking Bad from 2009 to 2014. Odenkirk came up with the movie’s premise about a “dad feeling beaten down by life, who is incited by a home invasion to reconnect with his skills and let loose his rageful instincts,” and fleshed out a script with Derek Kolstad, the writer behind the blockbuster John Wick franchise. In further Wick-ian synergy, Odenkirk and his producing partners pitched the project to 87North: the production company operated by David Leitch, co-director of 2014’s first John Wick installment as well as such concussive stunt cavalcades as Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Hobbs & Shaw

Then, for about a year and a half, as Nobody sought financial backing and distribution, Odenkirk trained regularly at 87Eleven, the L.A.-based action laboratory–slash–training facility that Leitch co-founded, where actors such as Charlize Theron and Brad Pitt aren’t so much taught stunt choreography as they are broken down and rebuilt as functional martial artists. “With Bob, it was like, ‘We have an opportunity to take someone who doesn’t have a cinema history of playing action characters — or any experience in action movies — and transform him,’” says Leitch, a producer on the film. “We were trying to get the movie set up and Bob was willing the movie to happen in a lot of different ways. A lot of it was like, ‘I’m going to keep training and be ready so when the opportunity happens, I can do the choreography. I can be this guy. I can be this character.’”

Nobody’s director Ilya Naishuller (the Russian-born stylist of filmic violence responsible for the 2015 sci-fi–action splatterfest Hardcore Henry) first encountered Odenkirk at 87Eleven in 2018. His first impression of the actor could be fairly described as “one of these things is not like the others.” “In one corner there was Keanu Reeves training for John Wick 3, and he was throwing 12 guys. In the smaller corner of the room was Bob one-on-one,” Naishuller says. “Bob was sweating. It was hard for him. He’d fall down, he’d get back up, he’d shake it off. He’d go again. He’d fall back down and just do it over and over and over.”

Odenkirk confirms his training with 87Eleven stunt doyen Daniel Bernhardt was hardly a symphony of bodily harmony: “The hardest part was not the physical exertion. It was the embarrassment. Here I am training in one corner. Next to me — we can all see each other — is Keanu, who’s really good at this stuff. Halle Berry is there on some days. Jason Statham came through. There are real fighters; the guy who taught me knife fighting trains Navy SEALs; a lot of them are the best stunt people in the world. And here I am over in the corner, doing the basics and sweating and looking terrible. So the hardest part was just this feeling of, like, ‘What am I doing? I’m never going to get there.’”

The actor underwent firearm training at Taran Tactical, the same facility where Reeves honed his gun-shooting and speed-reloading skills for the Wick films. And for a solid two months before cameras rolled on Nobody, Odenkirk spent every waking moment off the Better Call Saul set at an Albuquerque mixed-martial-arts gym, perfecting his fighting form. “I would have never in a million years thought this comedy actor had this fire inside him,” says Nobody’s second unit director, Greg Rementer. “He already had the basic understanding that comes with 10,000 hours of bending your knees, twisting your hips, throwing a punch. Then we spent a lot of time developing the style that we wanted Bob to fight like. I’d say, ‘I want to see him do this kind of judo throw.’ ‘I want to hit him in the face.’ ‘I want him to hammer fist them.’ With Bob, we believed he could stomp and break a knee. He could hammer fist and it felt more in his vocabulary.”

According to Leitch, even after such a protracted training regimen, no one on the production team was quite prepared for just how swole Odenkirk had become. “We were just getting ready to shoot, doing some makeup and wardrobe tests, and Bob took his shirt off,” the producer remembers. “And everybody was like, ‘Damn, Bob. You’re ripped! It’s like Cape Fear up in here, man!’” (He adds: “We didn’t do the traditional shirtless shot that you do in every action movie for Bob.”)

All that prep was finally put to the test in Winnipeg, Canada, in 2019, during filming of Nobody’s introductory action setpiece: a rumble on a public bus, where Odenkirk’s character, Hutch, impulsively decides to take on a quartet of mob goons (two of them played by Bernhardt and the film’s stunt coordinator Kirk Jenkins) in a frenzy of knock-down, drag-out, hand-to-hand combat. “Up walks Bob. I’m not kidding you: He looks like he wants to rip their heads off,” says Rementer. “And I looked at Kirk and Daniel and said, ‘Guys, good luck. He’s going to kick the shit out of you. He’s not going to pull his punches.’”

Odenkirk, for his part, felt the burden of a certain performance anxiety. “So much rode on the bus scene,” he says. “When we talked about doing an action movie, I knew I didn’t want to do an ironic one. I don’t want to be cute about it. I don’t want to soften it for myself. Like, ‘Oh, is he really trying to sell himself as an action star? Not really.’ I’m not winking or being cute about it. So yeah, I was nervous about that. Everything was riding on us getting that right — on me.”

Over the course of three nights shooting the bus scene, however, the filmmakers say Odenkirk found his groove absent the use of any stunt doubles, his character getting punched in the back of the head, stabbed, and thrown through a plate glass window en route to wiping the floor with every last one of his aggressors. “We made sure he’s human. That he gets hurt. That he misses. And gets hit in the face. Not only does that allow the audience to connect on a different level. It grounds the story,” says Naishuller.

“Bob really brought it,” adds Rementer. “That’s why it’s such a visceral scene. He’s screaming, drooling, ripping, punching. Carrying it. It’s there. He was fully committed. Like he was going into his first cage fight.”

How Bob Odenkirk Transformed Into a Badass for Nobody