The Envelope: Bob Odenkirk’s love of strange humor leads straight to ‘Saul’
Bob Odenkirk stands in the writers room of “With Bob and David,” the reboot of the celebrated comedy series “Mr. Show” that he’s making with David Cross to arrive on Netflix later this year. Pointing at the bulletin boards loaded with Post-it notes sporting the titles of every sketch (“An Extra Beatle,” “Amazing Moms!”) that will run in the new series’ four half-hour programs, he then reveals two other boards containing the names of even more ideas that didn’t quite make it to air.
Odenkirk delights in the rejects (“Heaven Bucks,” about a guy who gives away all his money on Earth and, as a consequence, doesn’t get any of the special currency needed to buy stuff in the celestial kingdom) as much as the sketches that get made. Listening to him talk about his love for strange stories, twisted humor and, most of all, words and language, makes it clear what a perfect fit he is for the character of Jimmy McGill, the small-time lawyer who becomes late-night-TV legal pitchman Saul Goodman in the “Breaking Bad” spinoff, “Better Call Saul.”
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Odenkirk, 52, can be just as nimble with his speech as his television alter ego, though he’s not as verbose, insecure or interested in seeking notoriety beyond the things he considers important. Outside of “With Bob and David,” Odenkirk is lying low these days until he returns to Albuquerque in July to start filming “Better Call Saul’s” second season.
“A lot of actors if they had that time would look for roles harder than I do,” Odenkirk says. “But when you think about building your career, both financially and artistically, what do you want more than ‘Better Call Saul’? So if I’m smart, I will take the time and focus on doing a good job on the second season and do the same with the third or fourth, if there is a third or fourth. Because it’s just probably not going to get better ever.” He smiles. “How could it?”
Odenkirk seems genuinely “flabbergasted” by both the success arriving at a more “seasoned” age (“Let’s put it that way,” he says, “otherwise it’s too depressing”) and at how readily the “Breaking Bad” audience embraced “Better Call Saul.” The show’s first 10 episodes offered a complete journey, beginning with the premiere’s striking, six-minute silent intro, which showed Saul, relocated post-"Breaking Bad,” managing a Cinnabon in Nebraska and then continuing through the season-long origin story of how betrayal by his brother Chuck (Michael McKean) makes Jimmy forgo the straight life, ignore his better angels and become, in the words of Jesse Pinkman, a criminal lawyer.
As an actor accustomed to playing comic characters that, particularly in sketches, tend to be one-dimensional by design, Odenkirk had to adapt to the day-to-day, energy-absorbing rigors of inhabiting a complex cat like Jimmy. All those scenes with McKean’s Chuck, for instance, required Odenkirk to show Jimmy struggling with idolizing, resenting and being concerned about his brother, all to different degrees and often in the same moment. Plus, given Jimmy’s gift for gab, Odenkirk would sometimes have to memorize monologues five to six pages long, speeches he wanted to commit to down to the last hesitation and apostrophe in order to understand the rhythms and logic behind the character.
“The amount of dialogue that Bobby had to remember ... it was a load,” says “Saul” co-star Jonathan Banks, who like Odenkirk moved over from “Breaking Bad.” “His throat was bad that first show. He was not talking at all, except when he was on camera.”
Remembers Odenkirk: “Part of it was that I damaged my vocal cords before we even shot. I wish I could tell you that this happened in playing a part, but I think it happened due to L.A. traffic.”
The ability to deliver a line both self-aware (Odenkirk readily owns up to his anger; like the rest of us, he’s working on it) and self-deprecating is a rare gift. “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston calls Odenkirk a “student and master of comedy,” but also more “observant” and “not the kind of guy who naturally wants to be the quarterback of the team.” When Odenkirk called Cranston, asking for advice before “Better Call Saul” began filming its first season, Cranston gave him a motivational pep talk, telling him to embrace his newfound responsibility. Seize the day. Carpe diem. That sort of thing.
“Bryan was giving me this ... Joel Osteen speech. ‘You can do it!’” Odenkirk says. “Now, I love Bryan Cranston, but he didn’t understand my point. I said to him, ‘Thank you. Do you remember “Mr. Show”? I’ve done that thing where everybody looks to you. What I want to know is how do you do it, the schedule, the sweat of it all.’”
For Odenkirk, “Saul’s” practicalities involve 41/2 months in Albuquerque, away from his wife, Naomi, and two teenage children, Nathan and Erin. He repeatedly expresses gratitude to them for taking on more responsibility in his absence. (“The kids had to nag themselves too because I’m not around to do it,” Odenkirk jokes. Sort of.) He made it home once during the first season, but only once, because “Saul” often shoots six days a week and he’s in almost every scene.
That’s where Cranston’s motivational ministry came into play.
“Putting everything else in your life on hold, this ‘Better Call Saul’ acting becomes a little bit of a meditation, like you kind of recede and disconnect from the world,” Odenkirk says. “It’s a vacation from yourself. It really is a way to get away.”
When he returns to this particular sabbatical for “Saul’s” second season, Odenkirk expects to find Jimmy in a different head space. He says a fan noticed that Jimmy had a hint of a smile on his face in that first episode as he watched the old Saul Goodman commercials, like he missed having that kind of fun.
“I thought this was an astute observation,” Odenkirk says. “I shared her observation with [show runner Vince Gilligan], and he smiled and said she was on to something. I think Season 2 will have Jimmy cutting loose a bit, and I’m looking forward to that.”
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