Before his death in March, SAG-AFTRA President Ken Howard conducted an interview with Bob Odenkirk, star of AMC’s Better Call Saul. The two discussed Odenkirk’s rich and varied career that has seen him move back and forth through comedy and drama, acting, writing, producing and directing. The editors wanted to ensure that members were able to read the interview and have included it here.
Ken Howard: You got your start performing improv at Second City in Chicago, but from there you were quickly hired as a writer at Saturday Night Live. What was the culture like working there in the late ’80s and early ’90s, and how did that experience inform your career?
Bob Odenkirk: My career, even in its early stages, had the strangest trajectory. I actually got hired at SNL before I worked at Second City. Second City was an early inspiration for me, though. Growing up near Chicago — I’m from Naperville, Illinois — I saw a Second City Mainstage show when I was around 14; it featured Don Depollo, Jim Belushi and George Wendt, and it put the notion somewhere in the back of my head that adults do this (act, get laughs), for a living. But when I decided to commit to trying to make a career of it, I avoided Second City because it was too much of an institution to me and I knew that, with my quirky sensibility and personal drive, I wouldn’t fare well in a place that had so many layers to it. I needed to fight it out in the wilds on my own. Now, to answer your question: when I think of the culture of it all, I just think we were in CHICAGO — so the drives were primarily to do something cool and unique, not to make money or be in “showbiz.” Del Close, the famous improv guru, was the leading mind in that town, just starting Improv Olympic and the Harold; people in Chicago, especially people around my age at the time, were serious about doing something new and challenging with this form. I liked that, but also I had no aversion to just being plain ol’ funny with it all.
KH: You gained somewhat of an early cult success yourself, working on your own show — Mr. Show with Bob and David, starring yourself and David Cross. You worked with a number of other super-talented and, at the time, up-and coming performers: Sarah Silverman, Paul F. Tompkins, Jack Black, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Tom Kenny. What was the camaraderie like on that show, especially with so many talented forces at play?
BO: Wonderful. In fact, trying to find a scenario with that kind of joy and camaraderie was something that drove the creation of Mr. Show. After The Ben Stiller Show on FOX, which had myself, Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo and Ben as the cast, I was sad that I’d probably never have that much fun again; I couldn’t imagine it. But with Mr. Show, and again, recently on W/ Bob & David for Netflix, we were able to put together a group of writers and performers who genuinely value each other and make each other laugh. This kind of situation is a motivator to my whole career. Many actors look at their careers and try to build some trajectory to fame and fortune. I think about that stuff, too, but more than that, I am driven to try to recreate these fun groups and situations where I can laugh my ass off all day.
KH: You auditioned for the role of Michael Scott on The Office, which went to Steve Carell. As we both well know, rejection is a key part of every working actor’s career. How do you handle rejection as an actor and what do you do to move past it?
BO: I handle rejection well — but only on the surface. I lie to myself that I don’t care and then the pain lingers way too long. The healthiest thing that I do is immerse myself, immediately, in more work, developing shows, putting up something somewhere, maybe doing stand-up. That’s good, to just be doing the work of performing. But I’m not real good at acknowledging that I am disappointed and maybe even pissed off at rejection — and I think that it kind of sits there under the surface for too long. You gotta let it go, but maybe do some scream therapy first. I’ll never be good at it.
KH: Going from a supporting character or guest star to a lead like you did on Breaking Bad and now on Saul may just be a secret, or not so secret, dream for many of our fellow members. What has this transition been like for you and were you dreaming of one day having a show named after a character you played?
BO: I am just starting to think about it, but not too much. “How does it feel to be No. 1 on the call sheet?” people ask. I don’t know, I never looked at the numbers all that much. I guess it means I have more lines, but then again, Saul had a ton of lines, even in Breaking Bad. Maybe I am just protecting myself here, but my job is the same: Be the person as simply and honestly as I can, same as when I was No. 8 (or 42) on the call sheet. If there’s a difference it’s that it seems to me the lead character can reveal a more personal and conflicting interior life than a character part would get. But then, I’ve had some very textured character parts as well; in Fargo series one, Noah Hawley wrote depth and surprise into nearly all the parts.
KH: In Better Call Saul, Jimmy McGill or Saul Goodman is really one man living with two very different identities, the criminal and the lawyer. From an actor’s perspective, how do you approach that role?
BO: Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould and all the writers have written a complex person here — but they do the hard work of making sure it tracks long before I work on it. When I get the script, I start taking it apart, following the story and the character logic that is apparent. If something bumps me, I will call them and they always have an answer; an answer that they’ve come to after thinking seriously about every choice they make. They do the hard work. It’s amazingly astoundingly wondrous to have such a rich part and to get to play a person with so many sides, some sympathetic, some infuriating. I won the lottery here and I know it.
KH: You’ve made quite a name for yourself on the other side of the camera as a writer, director and producer. Do you have a preference for the hat you wear and do you feel that your work in one area has informed your work in another area? Has your work as an actor made you a better director, for example?
BO: Yes. I do think it helps to see all the sides. Just to give you empathy for what the challenges are. Directors should take an acting class. Actors should try directing. Everyone should suffer trying to make a budget work. As far as what hat I prefer to wear, acting in a well-written drama is a deeply rewarding challenge. Doing comedy as a writer and performer is perhaps less deep but a massively fun experience. I will avoid choosing one over the other for as long as I can.
KH: Because of your work in other areas, are you a member of other unions as well? What does being a union member mean to you?
BO: I belong to SAG-AFTRA, WGA and DGA, but SAG-AFTRA is most important to me in this phase of my career. Being part of this union means that there is a place and time that actors can have some impact and not be played one against the other. We desperately need that. In this new, wild-west, untamed frontier of channels, platforms and shows, we need to gather and exchange information and stand together as a group at times or we’ll be chopped into little tiny pieces.