Bob Odenkirk Is in Control

The “Better Call Saul” star and comedy-writing vet is continuing to find ways to redefine his craft

The first time Bob Odenkirk received a “Breaking Bad” script—Season 2, Episode 8—his initial inclination was to tweak his lines. It was Odenkirk’s debut appearance as Saul Goodman, and the sleazy, scheming lawyer’s notoriously verbose soliloquies and turns of phrase didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Thus, Odenkirk’s writerly instincts overtook his acting brain. 

Before he joined the AMC drama in 2009, Odenkirk spent much of his career as a writer. He cut his teeth at “Saturday Night Live” starting in the late 1980s; “The Ben Stiller Show” and “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” in the early ’90s; and later as the co-creator, executive producer, and star of cult HBO sketch series “Mr. Show with Bob and David.” Serving as a series’ creative mind afforded him artistic control over the words on the page—power he didn’t wield in Vince Gilligan’s world of meth cooking, drug trading, and the moral low ground. 

“I was just about to make a note to change something, and I thought, No, that’s not what this is. This is an acting gig. I’m not the producer; I’m not the writer,” Odenkirk remembers. “Let’s pretend I was an actor for a minute. How would I treat this?”

Instead of viewing the dialogue as an obstacle, Odenkirk used the words to piece his performance together. No longer was Bob Odenkirk the writer struggling to grasp another scribe’s text; Saul Goodman, as written on the page, became a living being through Bob Odenkirk the actor.

“An actor can’t go in their office and act and, 15 years later, somebody sees it and goes, ‘Let’s just put that movie out that you made alone in your room’…. I knew I was not going to rely on other people to give me work, so I focused on writing.”—Bob Odenkirk

The multihyphenate’s method for tapping into Saul, and eventually Saul’s younger self, Jimmy McGill, on “Breaking Bad” prequel “Better Call Saul,” paid off in dividends. Odenkirk has earned four Golden Globe nominations, four Screen Actors Guild Award individual nominations, and five Emmy nominations for “Better Call Saul.” He’s quickly emerged as one of the most lauded dramatic actors of the decade, landing roles in the critically acclaimed “Nebraska,” “The Post,” and “Little Women,” and on the small-screen iteration of “Fargo.” Tiptoeing farther from his comedy roots, Odenkirk will next become an action star in the Universal Pictures thriller “Nobody” playing Hutch Mansell, an unassuming suburban dad whose desire to inflict pain and chaos surfaces after a home robbery. 

Not bound by his past, or his past insecurities, Odenkirk has hit his stride—and not a moment too soon. He has long grappled with his identity in show business. Despite writing and performing comedy for over 20 years at the time, he never considered himself a “real” actor until getting cast as Saul. After “Mr. Show,” he languished in development hell, writing movies and television series that never came to fruition. There were bit parts on “Everybody Loves Raymond,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” and “How I Met Your Mother,” but straight acting was intimidating, he admits over Zoom. Unlike comedy, in which an actor can hide behind the veneer of being in on the joke, dramatic roles require an actor to relinquish himself to the character and the story. 

“There’s an element of comedy where the performer is very self-aware of their largeness, their bigness, what’s funny about them,” Odenkirk says. “In that way, they’re like a puppet master manipulating themselves to be funny for the audience and for themselves. You [can] almost hear it in their voice that they’re entertained by themselves.”

Odenkirk was surprised when he got the offer for “Breaking Bad.” He hadn’t auditioned, but Gilligan and writer Peter Gould, who conceived the character, were both fans of “Mr. Show” and frequently played clips of the sketch series in the writers’ room. “This is a fast-talking, chameleonlike character, and Bob just had this enormous catalog of characters that he played on ‘Mr. Show,’ ” Gould says. “It felt like: This is probably our guy.”

As “Breaking Bad” progressed, a joke emerged among the show’s writers: Whenever a fun Saul moment would arise that didn’t quite fit into the greater “Breaking Bad” narrative, the writers would suggest it be shelved for “The Saul Goodman Show.” After a few years, the quip became an imperative, and “Better Call Saul” became a reality; the show was announced shortly before its predecessor’s finale.

It became clear that the world needed more Saul—and more Odenkirk. 

The first two seasons of “Better Call Saul” were among Odenkirk’s most challenging and rewarding years as an actor. Undeterred by sprawling, multipage monologues and the contradiction of portraying Jimmy’s earnestness despite his cons and duplicity, Odenkirk dug in his heels and felt he was making true progress in his career. Coupled with the cast’s rigorous rehearsals and communal living arrangements (Odenkirk and his wife bought a house in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he, Rhea Seehorn, and Patrick Fabian live while shooting), Odenkirk was able to blossom while fully immersed in Jimmy’s world. 

“I really wanted to see if I could be a human being even when I was doing this ultraviolent stuff—which is to say if you cut to my face in the middle of a fight, there’s some kind of feeling about the fight.” —Bob Odenkirk

“He’s become more confident as a performer—and he has every reason and right to be, because he only gets better with every season,” Gilligan says of Odenkirk. “He’s not afraid to lean into the silences more than he might’ve been way back on ‘Breaking Bad.’ The Saul Goodman/Jimmy McGill of the fifth season of ‘Better Call Saul’—there would be entire scenes where he doesn’t say a word, and I think that would’ve made Bob a little nervous 10, 12 years ago. Now he relishes it, looks forward to it.”

At home in Los Angeles while speaking with Backstage, Odenkirk is only a few weeks away from the start of shooting the sixth and final season of “Better Call Saul.” Any bittersweetness is eclipsed by looming COVID-19 safety measures that might impede his process, like the inability to rehearse on set. 

“Often, [when] we were working in a new set, one that was only going to live for an episode or two, we wanted to get familiar with it and walk through it a couple times,” Odenkirk says. “We figured out the blocking we could pitch to our director when they arrived. They can use [them] or not use [them], but oftentimes, they would use our instincts. That kind of thing isn’t going to happen.” 

Beyond navigating a set in the time of coronavirus, Odenkirk is preparing to embrace a new tonal shift altogether: high-octane action. “Nobody,” in theaters March 26, pitches Odenkirk as an unlikely antihero with ample fight scenes, action sequences, and rugged snarls. When his character, Hutch, the patriarch, refuses to defend his family against home intruders, he loses the respect of his wife (Connie Nielsen) and teenage son (Gage Munroe), which ignites a long-dormant lethal rage he’d stowed away since starting a family. Over the course of 90 minutes, Odenkirk single-handedly takes down a group of ruffians on a bus, destroys a Russian mob hideout, and suffers many blows to the face. 

“He’s become more confident as a performer—and he has every reason and right to be—because he only gets better with every season.” —Vince Gilligan

To prepare for the role, he endured two years of training to handle the physical aspect of the choreography, transforming his body in order to perform nearly all of his own stunts. As for the emotional component of the job, Odenkirk took an actor’s approach to the fight sequences. Rather than inhabit superhuman strength and serenity while throwing punches, he wanted to respond in earnest to the chaos of the moment: pain, delight, annoyance, and all.  

“I really wanted to see if I could be a human being even when I was doing this ultraviolent stuff,” he says, “which is to say, if you cut to my face in the middle of a fight, there’s some kind of feeling about the fight.”

Early in Odenkirk’s training regimen for “Nobody,” director Ilya Naishuller remembers observing his leading man homing in on this method of full-body-action acting. In one area of their rehearsal facility, Keanu Reeves was working with trainers ahead of “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum.” In a smaller room, Odenkirk was practicing with two stunt coordinators; he hadn’t quite mastered the art of onscreen combat yet, Naishuller says, but the essence of Hutch’s rage and anguish were palpable, even while cameras weren’t rolling. Naishuller pulled out his phone and started recording. “I still have videos on my iPhone where it’s close-ups of him doing his thing,” Naishuller says. “I remember being so excited.”

The physical demands of an action thriller proved no match for the challenges presented by an oft-humorous script meant to be delivered without any satire. While lines like, “Give me the goddamn kitty cat bracelet, motherfucker,” delight an audience, as a performer, Odenkirk instead needed Hutch’s blind fury to play as authentic. For an actor with comedic roots, fighting the easy laugh was no small feat. 

“When you joke about these big feelings, you soften them,” he says. “You’re saying, ‘I don’t really mean it; I only kind of mean it.’ You give yourself an out, and you don’t have to sell to the audience—that I’m so wrapped up in my anger that I can say, ‘Give me the goddamn kitty cat bracelet, motherfucker,’ and mean every word of it and not hear in my own voice the ridiculousness of that.”

The story of “Nobody” is ultimately one of a man addicted to violence and the thrill it inspires. The same could be said of the trajectory of an actor yearning for the delight of creation, and how all-encompassing that desire can be, even while life continues in the periphery. For Odenkirk, there’s the balance of fatherhood, the depth of giving himself fully to Saul (“When I play Saul—especially [in] a challenging scene, an emotional scene, an intense scene—it feels like I left my existence and took a break from it, which is really cool”), and the comfort of writing. 

Despite his success as an actor, Odenkirk still feels most at ease when he’s writing. The craft was there for him as he slogged through fruitless development periods; it was there amid his acting success, including his co-writing of 2017’s “Girlfriend’s Day” on Netflix, which he also starred in; and it’s there for him during the pandemic as he writes a memoir (which comes out in 2022) and drafts scripts for his new production company, Cal-Gold Pictures. And unlike acting, in which a performer often needs an opportunity to showcase their abilities—that is, unless they author their own material—writing can be an isolated creative pursuit. 

“An actor can’t go in their office and act and, 15 years later, somebody sees it and goes, ‘Let’s just put that movie out that you made alone in your room,’ ” Odenkirk says. “I knew that from the start, and I knew I was not going to rely on other people to give me work, so I focused on writing.”

All actors, he says, should have their “thing” independent of performing—a respite for when the work is scarce; and the work will be scarce at times. Acknowledging the lows—the projects that should’ve worked but didn’t, the jobs that almost were but weren’t—as well as the highs helps paint a clearer picture of a life in show business. For Odenkirk, that picture featured a man on the edges of the frame, finally now in focus.

“We don’t tell the stories about things that don’t work, but they take years of your life. I’m trying to tell those stories, because if you’re thinking about a career as an actor, you really have to see everything.”

This story originally appeared in the March 18 issue of Backstage Magazine. Subscribe here.

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Photographed by Ian Spanier on 2/16 in LA

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