For the first two decades of his career, Bob Odenkirk was a comedy legend—cutting his teeth as a writer on Saturday Night Live, Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Get a Life, and The Ben Stiller Show; co-creating and starring in beloved cult hit Mr. Show; producing Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!; and appearing in dozens of comedies from Curb Your Enthusiasm to Arrested Development. Over the last decade, he's expanded his range and become a formidable dramatic actor as well, playing Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad, and his precursor Jimmy McGill on Better Call Saul.
Saul, which has become one of the best shows on television, ended its incredible and noticeably darker third season last week, and we got the chance to talk to Odenkirk about Jimmy's gradual but heartbreaking turn toward becoming Saul; how Chuck's final actions might affect Jimmy; where he'd love to see the show go in the future; what it's like working with Steven Spielberg; and why he would love to return to Saturday Night Live to host.
[Spoilers for the third season of 'Better Call Saul' ahead]
I spoke to [showrunners/creators] Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould recently, and they were talking about how much they had come to love Jimmy and how over the course of making Better Cal Saul, they had come to really dislike Saul, in a way that they didn't see coming at the start of the show. Have you felt similar? Have your feelings about Saul changed in light of Jimmy? Yes, I would say they have. Only, not quite as much as those guys. I always thought Saul was kind of a shitty person who I wouldn't want to have around me in the real world, and the kind of person I would avoid. And yet, I did find him funny, but less so than those guys, and a lot of the fans.
And now, he represents a great disappointment and honestly, it hurts my heart to have this character of Jimmy McGill choose to live life with Saul's priorities.
We've seen Jimmy waver from the beginning of the show, but this year, in particular towards the end of the season, he reached some of his darkest points yet, especially with what he did to poor Mrs. Landry. In the finale, it seems as though he really had a wake up call after Kim's accident. Now, with everything that's happened to Chuck, how is he going to handle that next season? Yeah, that's a good question. I have to be careful about answering that. The journey and the next step is always in the hands of the writers, but my personal take on it, as a fan let's say, is that I don't see how Jimmy could not feel bad—guilty that is—about Chuck's death. No matter whether it looks like a suicide or looks like a accident. Either way it feels to me, Jimmy would have to think, "I was part of that. I made that happen because I disappointed him so much, or I upset him so much." But also, he feels an anger, an even greater anger at Chuck for Chuck's inability to change and accept Jimmy for who he is. Because I really feel like Jimmy reached out to Chuck over and over and over in this story, and Chuck pushed him away every single time.
So I think there's that hurt, and a feeling of guilt that he probably resents. You know, to become Saul, you kind of have to shut down, and put up walls, so I think he's gonna keep doing that. But I think he's still connected to Kim and he's still wanting to win her affection and respect, and I think that has to go away somehow for him to become Saul.
When he has that final confrontation with Chuck, he seems very stunned, just in a daze by the end of it, after Chuck declares, "The truth was you never mattered that much to me." Did Jimmy take those words to heart? Did he really believe that? I think he finally did. I know it's not true from our point of view as a viewer, but I think, at least in that moment, his brain allowed that that could be the case. And I'm glad that you expressed it the way you did. I haven't seen that episode yet, because I'm waiting to watch it with my wife, but to me, approaching it as an actor, a lot of the things I was trying to do was find a new way to have that interaction between the brothers. Because this happened before. Jimmy's reached out to Chuck before, and Chuck's reached out to him before. And I just didn't want it to be a replay of that same interaction.
So, what I found in it, and with Michael McKean's help, was that this was a moment for Jimmy to be just dumbfounded. Almost like, "what kind of a creature is Chuck? He's not a human being." It's just the first time that Jimmy stops thinking, "He's trying to hurt me," or, "Chuck's right, I'm a shit." He just thinks "Wow, this guy is some kind of thing, I just have to stop trying to figure this person out." And I think that's a neat place to go after Jimmy's heart was broken: to a place of mystification.
Considering that we know that there is an inevitable destination for Jimmy, and for so many of these other characters, do you view BCS as a tragedy at this point? Oh yeah, for sure. For sure. A tragedy with some fun comedy in it! And some, I think, grave danger coming up, some like bad guys and stuff. That'll be fun. But yeah, overall it's a tragedy.
Now, we don't know what happens in the end because in a weird way, it could be a kind of reverse prism of Breaking Bad. If somehow Gene was able to reconstitute himself and his life, and learned from all he'd been through...but I don't know what they have in mind for that character as it goes forward.
But it would be interesting to see, having seen in Breaking Bad where somebody's worst inner drives tear them and their family apart. It'd be interesting to see somebody who also follows their worst instincts—here in the case of Jimmy, because he's pressurized, and takes the wrong lessons from life—it'd be interesting (because he's still alive) to see if he could draw on something that would allow him to reconnect with people in a better way, maybe, than the naïve way that Jimmy approached life.
So you can see some redemption in his future then, in some sense for him? I would love it if they gave us that. It would be an interesting thing. And I know it's not really something that they've written a lot of, but maybe they would make that choice in this case. I don't know.
So much of this show, and Breaking Bad, is about how incremental moral compromises lead to these devastating conclusions. But when Better Call Saul was first being discussed, it was described as more of a comedy, with a procedural, Rockford Files feel. Do you ever wonder what it'd been like if it'd kept that sort of prism? Yeah, yeah, I'm up for that version of the show in the future. I'm not kidding!
I actually said, "What if we finished this and then somehow figured out how to do that procedural with the character in, sort of, a better place? A more balanced place?" But a fun procedural with a shady lawyer who knows the ins and outs. Yeah, I think that would be a neat show to see. I'd do it.
I would definitely watch it. You said before "what if we finished this," which seemed to imply a closing of a chapter on Saul. Do you see Chuck's death as the breaking point, or middle point, in the series? No, I would say the three-quarter point. Yeah. I think it's not the end but it's close to it.
He's pretty far along. Once you start compromising in a really fundamental, even mean-spirited way—and he's very conscious of the choices he's making—that's kind of the difference I see in it.
Jimmy did a lot of things that were wrong, he had a lot of collateral damage in his world, but he was very naïve about it, or carried away, or just kind of oblivious to those kind of things. And in this last season he did some stuff that was very pointedly self-interested and destructive. And he just carried on doing it even though he was fully aware of the bad parts of it.
My colleague said that he thought he saw you in Williamsburg last night, I was curious whether you live around there. No, I'm here doing a moving, shooting that Steven Spielberg movie, The Papers. I'm staying in Williamsburg for a few weeks.
Oh interesting. How has it been working with him? It's inspiring, it's an inspiration. We all get jaded in this business, and somehow he has not. And being around his energy, his inventiveness, his joy and his skill, it makes you just go, "Oh, right. That's what you're supposed to do." You're supposed to do what you love, and it's a wonderful thing to get to do it, and it's so easy to forget all that when you just get beat up by the business. But, he's still, somehow, maintained it.
Is this the biggest production you've been a part of? Yeah, for sure. But it's a small movie for him. It's not a big Steven Spielberg movie production-wise. It is very human-centric. It is human-sized, and I think he loves that about it.
You seem to be in town a lot—I also spotted you at the SNL finale a few weeks back. I didn't want to bother you at the time, but it also got my mind buzzing: why haven't you hosted SNL yet?! Oh! Laughter
I wanted to go up to Lorne Michaels just to ask him, "Why has he not hosted yet? He has to host." Well, we'll see what happens. It's Lorne's call, and I would love to do it. It would be a great honor, and it would be a crazy closing of the circle for me.
I know you used to write for SNL back in the early '90s. What was that experience like for you? Oh, well it was too complicated, and a lot of that was my fault. I'm actually writing about it in a book that I'm writing right now. And I brought too much baggage to an already complicated job that had high-pressure attached to it, as it always does. It's a weekly show, they have to get that thing out and it's just a very demanding effort.
It was hard for me. I loved writing comedy, I still love writing comedy, but I really wanted to write a more personal, sillier, individually-rewarding thing than what the job of SNL is, which is to use the stage and this scenario, this platform, to satisfy a larger audience.
I eventually got to do what I love, which is Mr. Show. But for SNL I was able to be a contributor to a lot of pieces that other people envisioned. And that was helpful I think. But overall, I think I wasn't very effective there, and it was a frustrating place for me, as it is for many people.
A square peg in a round hole sort of situation? Yeah, it's interesting. I was talking to Robert Smigel about it, who was one of the most effective writers ever. Just the way he talked about the show—the show was what he wanted to serve, whereas I wanted to serve myself.
I had much less interest, even awareness. It took me so long to figure out, oh right, this show has requirements, it has needs. And it took me a few weeks to realize that, and of course you should realize that right away, but I just didn't. I approached comedy from a very personal place.
Look, I learned a lot there, I got a lot out of it. I got way more out of it than they got out of me, so I guess I won.
Well, they still got one of the most famous characters, Matt Foley. Yeah, they did. That was my biggest contribution. Everybody has their own personal interaction with the show, and most people are young when they get there, so they're still forming who they are, so that adds to the complications for anyone. And I was even a little bit more difficult than all these other people. Anyway.
In the end it was a great thing and I got a lot out of it. And I wish I could've contributed more, and better material, to it. I think it's a great, great show. I just think I wasn't ready to be as helpful as I should have been.
Have you kept up watching it in recent seasons? Oh yeah. I think that show is the best it's ever been. I think the last two years are the best two years of the show.
Is that because of the political material, or the new writers/cast? The writers. Because, they've also done just good sketches that aren't political. It's just good, smart writing. And then of course politically, I think what's great about it is they're able to analyze and offer perspective on our situation that a daily show, as funny as it is, can't do. They can just go a little deeper, and it's really great. And they are taking advantage of that opportunity. It's really wonderful to see.
It definitely sounds like this would be a full circle thing. You get the show in a different way now. Well, we'll see what happens.