Decades before comedian-turned-serious-actor Bob Odenkirk burrowed into dark territory as the title character in “Better Call Saul,” he had an epiphany onstage at Chicago’s Second City while performing with Joe Canale and Chris Farley.
“We were doing an improv,” Odenkirk recalls. “In the middle of it, I looked out at the audience, and I could see how fun it was for them to watch Chris, how much fun it was to watch Joe, and how not that much fun I was. I had this flashing thought: ‘I belong on the drama side of things.’ ”
Premonition notwithstanding, Odenkirk decided to stick with comedy. In the years to come, he won Emmy Awards for his writing contributions to “The Ben Stiller Show” and “Saturday Night Live,” then earned a cult following as co-creator of HBO’s subversive sketch series “Mr. Show.”
Odenkirk finally got a chance to test his dramatic mettle in 2014 when producers Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould asked him to reprise his slippery “Breaking Bad” character, Saul Goodman, in a stand-alone series. Speaking by phone from his home in Albuquerque, midway through production on “Better Call Saul’s” fifth season, Odenkirk remembers that meeting at Chateau Marmont in Hollywood.
“Vince and Peter floated a lot of ideas, but I told them the first job was to make this character likable. In the world of ‘Breaking Bad,’ where everyone else is dealing drugs and doing awful things, this wise-ass lawyer is fun because he’s not afraid he’s going to die any second. But taken all by himself? Saul’s a rat. So Vince and Peter dug down into his past and discovered this incredibly earnest Jimmy McGill character. Before he becomes Saul Goodman, Jimmy’s giving his all to be the best person he can be.”
By “Better Call Saul” Season 4, which garnered Odenkirk his fourth consecutive lead actor nomination, sweet Jimmy McGill has turned sour. Rejected and disparaged by his role-model brother, disbarred for swindling an elderly woman, Jimmy turns down a chance to make an honest living as a photocopier salesman and steals the would-be employer’s precious Hummel figurine.
Before long, he’s selling cellphones from the trunk of his car to street thugs. Why not stick to the straight and narrow? Odenkirk blames it on the reptilian brain.
“Jimmy has a pretty very active amygdala that pops up every once in a while and makes him do something insane,” Odenkirk says with a laugh. “That’s not just random behavior. It’s part of his character.”
Playing Jimmy/Saul in crook mode comes easily to Odenkirk, who cites his unctuous agent Stevie Grant in “The Larry Sanders Show” as a precursor cut from the same prevaricating cloth.
“When Saul’s putting on a show, ranting and raving or pontificating, I just eat that up because those scenes come off to me like pure comedy,” Odenkirk says. “But for me, the meat of the show is a deeper character examination you find in these quiet moments. When the camera’s 12 inches away, you don’t have to push it, the way you do in comedy.”
Odenkirk especially savors the stripped-down exchanges between Jimmy McGill and his formidable lawyer girlfriend, Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn. He says, “As someone who’s been married for 22 years, I love the naturalistic scenes that take place between Jimmy and Kim. When Jimmy comes home late at night after getting beat up, they’re in the bathroom sitting next to each other on the lip of the toilet. Jimmy’s really lost and he says, ‘What the hell is wrong with me?’ It’s a beautifully written moment that trusts me and Kim, me and Rhea, to just be human beings without any protective bravado.”
Jimmy exits Season 4 in a jubilant mood after persuading the legal review board to reinstate his license to practice law with what appears to be a genuine cri de coeur invoking his late brother’s memory. Of course, it’s just another performance.
“Jimmy does have deep feelings inside of him, and he excavates those feelings to crank up the waterworks and manipulate people,” Odenkirk observes wryly. “That’s what actors do.”
“Better Call Saul” periodically flashes forward to a bleak future in Omaha, where Jimmy/Saul, in hiding, manages the local Cinnabon under the fake name Gene Taković.
“I’m curious about what’s going to happen to that guy,” Odenkirk says. “I hope Gene finds some degree of ... equilibrium where he’s not always yearning and striving and falling short every day. Or maybe Saul’s just too angry inside and has to hurt other people. We’ll see where it goes.
“Hope against hope. Because Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are probably not going to write characters who end up in a better place.”