Bob Odenkirk on creating Breaking Bad’s Saul Goodman — and dreading becoming him again
To slip into the slippery lawyer that counsels Walter White in Breaking Bad, Bob Odenkirk channeled legendary movie producer Robert Evans. “The first script, I had so much dialogue, I thought, ‘How am I going to make this entertaining to listen to?’” he says of his rehearsal process. “‘Well, that guy is really entertaining to listen to, so let’s see if I can steal some of the fun, strange cadences and the lyricism in his voice.’ I was trying to keep in mind his way of taking you to the brink of a choice — and then dropping the hammer with the choice or the turn of the story.” The garish pinkie ring also helped him to get into character: “That’s such an affectation that I don’t relate to,” he notes, “and the ways in which it was a foreign thing put me in a different person’s body.”
His favorite scene from his four-season run on Breaking Bad came in his first free-wheeling, shady-dealing appearance in season 2. As he tells Walt (who’s pretending to be Badger’s uncle), he’s actually Irish and only uses the name Saul Goodman because “the homeboys” want to be represented by “a pipe-hitting member of the Tribe.” “It was so goddamn well-written,” recalls Odenkirk. “I loved that first scene where he introduces himself. It was so different in tone from anything I had done… I couldn’t believe how much Saul there was. I’m aghast, alarmed, at my own confidence in playing the character. I mean, I didn’t know what the f— I was doing. I was just taking a run at it, and more than half expecting to be told, ‘You can go home now. We’re going to get a real actor.’ I was amazed at how completely I embraced the character and dug in. The monologue is really fun, where he’s telling Walter White that he’s a fraud and that it’s a front. And he’s just enjoying himself. That was really fun to play, and I fully understood how much fun it was at the time.”
As for his most challenging scene as Saul, Odenkirk points to his final appearance, which came in the show’s penultimate episode: As everything comes crashing down around Walt, Saul decides to skip town and start over with a new identity, but while the Cleaner (Robert Forster) finalizes the arrangements, Saul is forced to share a room with Walt, who also is in the process of being disappeared. “I didn’t have many scenes in Breaking Bad where Saul dropped his front,” says Odenkirk. “He was mostly in ‘work mode’ and putting on a bit of a show, and that was a scene where he was not. I mean, the jig was up. It maybe felt like I didn’t know who he was if he wasn’t that phony presentation that he was putting on. I just played it honestly and I didn’t have a lot of character for him, because just like everybody else, I didn’t know what his personal life was. I still don’t really know what it is, but I really had no idea about what his past was.”
He also had no idea how much his career would be altered by his stroke of Bad luck. Thanks to all of that scene-swiping and hilarious hucksterism as Saul, the veteran comedian suddenly found himself in a new echelon of Hollywood. “There was a massive screeching, turning of a corner,” sums up Odenkirk, who next stars in the big-screen thriller Nobody. “At the time it didn’t feel too fast, but it was a pretty quick turn and big turn — and committed turn — to make to make into drama, and to having people interested in me to do that kind of work, which I didn’t have before. I got to start with the best writing there is on TV. That’s pretty crazy. However good I was, I was 10 times better because of that writing — and it got me Fargo and it got me Nebraska.”
It also landed him his own Breaking Bad prequel spin-off in Better Call Saul. Not that he jumped at that opportunity when creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould started broaching the possibility. “I always thought it was a huge risk, and all I wanted was them to do it for their own reasons, and not because I asked them to do it or pressured them to do it,” he says. “So I basically backed off every single time it was suggested to me. I think Vince might have thought it was kind of weird to suggest to an actor, ‘What if I create a show for you?,’ and have that actor look at him and go, ‘I dunno. It’s your free time. Do what you want with your time.’ [Laughs] I didn’t want to be hoping, counting on it, and I didn’t know what it was. We didn’t really know who the character was when we left Breaking Bad.” As he notes: “My first question when we talked was, ‘How do you make him likable?’ Because I didn’t like that guy. I mean, I like watching him — like a car wreck when you’re not in it. It’s intriguing. It pulls you in. But he’s a bad guy.”
The trio managed to avoid spin-off turn-off and create a sympathetic if flawed fellow out of Saul, nee Jimmy McGill. Odenkirk, meanwhile, has been nominated for three lead actor Emmys for his work on the series, which itself has landed three drama-series Emmy noms. “They made him such a likable guy, and yet kept it organic,” says Odenkirk of Gilligan and Gould. “It’s not a completely different person, but I really like the guy.” As season 4 approaches, however, the actor feels an inevitable dread. “I’m having to confront the fact that he is becoming Saul, and I don’t like Saul,” he shares. “If he was my friend, I would say, ‘Don’t go that route.'” But for the guy who plays him to perfection, the road to hell has been paved with good drama.
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Tread not-so-lightly in this direction to check out the gallery from the big Bad photo shoot.