When I tell people I’m interviewing Bob Odenkirk everyone makes the same joke. “Oh wow,” they say. “So you’re going to call Saul?” Yep, that’s right, I reply the first, fifth and fifteenth time, I really am. After all, who better to call? It’s not my friends’ fault that they can’t resist the gag. For millions of Breaking Bad fans, left bereft by the end of the drug-dealing saga last year after five astonishing seasons, Bob Odenkirk is Saul Goodman, the slimy, fast-talking lawyer who stole any number of scenes and has now earned his own spin-off series – named, you guessed it, Better Call Saul. Though before that – shock, horror – comes a non-Saul TV role, in Fargo, the small-screen spin-off of the Coen Brothers’ Minnesota-set crime drama, which kicks off tonight.
The real Odenkirk is far from slimy; he’s funny, laid-back and down-to-earth, traits possibly attributable to the fact that success has come late in life. He was 48 when he was cast in Breaking Bad, having previously enjoyed a varied three decades as a comedy writer, actor and producer, which included a stint writing for Saturday Night Live and appearing in his own HBO sketch show, Mr Show.
However, to most TV viewers, he was the guy who popped up everywhere from The Larry Sanders Show to Entourage, to the chorus of “wait ... where do I know him from?” Saul was a career transformation and one that Odenkirk remains slightly baffled by. “Vince Gilligan [the creator of Breaking Bad] really went out on a limb for me,” he says. “I always knew I liked acting and performing but I considered myself a writer first.”
As it was, when Gilligan first contacted him, he thought it was a mistake. “It sounds really stupid but part of me really thought they must have the wrong guy. I couldn’t quite get rid of the idea that I’d show up and they’d say ‘not you, we were thinking of a different Bob Odenkirk – the one who was at the Royal Shakespeare academy’.”
Filming on Better Call Saul begins at the end of May and the actor is as much in the dark as the rest of us as to how the new story will unfold – or so he claims. “I talked to Vince and was told a very complex and incredibly involving story that took about half an hour for him to explain. It was utterly gripping and then at the end he said ‘Of course none of that is in the show’,” he says, laughing. “I was all ‘wait put that in, it’s awesome.”
What we do know is that the show will be a prequel detailing how Saul made it to his gloriously gaudy office in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Odenkirk says it will be lighter in tone if only because “things couldn’t have been more desperately bad and scary than they were in Breaking Bad… but really I’ve kept myself out of the decision-making – as far as the story goes I’m just planning to act my pants off, that’s really my only plan.”
That plan has served him very well in recent years: Odenkirk has also been making inroads on the big screen with juicy roles in Alexander Payne’s haunting Nebraska and superior teen movie The Spectacular Now. And now comes Fargo, for which he swapped the parched landscape of New Mexico for filming in the snowy wastes of Calgary, Canada. Amid a starry cast that includes Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, Odenkirk plays Bill Oswalt, a seemingly incompetent provincial deputy sheriff who finds his patch beset by murder and violence. It is, he admits, something of a palate cleanser.
“Part of the appeal was certainly that Bill is the polar opposite of Saul Goodman,” he admits. “He hasn’t got a plan. He’s very innocent, possibly the most innocent person in the whole show, and that was a lot of fun to play. I needed something different before I returned to the comb-over.”
As a writer himself – he will publish his first book, a collection of comic essays called A Load of Hooey, in October – Odenkirk clearly picks his projects for the scripts and Fargo’s is a humdinger, filled with well-drawn characters and, like the film, wringing humour from the collision of quaint, small-town characters and grisly happenings. “Well, jeez, do you think this could be, like, an organised crime thing, you know, a hit or the like?’ says Oswalt’s likeable deputy Molly on finding a local businessman with a knife through his head in the first episode.
“When I read Fargo the thing that appealed was that there was a lot of cleverness,” says Odenkirk. “It’s not just a remake of the film but [showrunner] Noah [Hawley] understands what made the movie so entertaining.”
As new scripts start flowing in, he feels the important thing that Breaking Bad did was make him a viable prospect financially. “I was seen for roles all the time before Saul – Alex Payne saw me for a couple of things before Nebraska, we’ve known each other for years – but [Breaking Bad’s] success allowed the front office to consider me seriously – because now they knew who I was.”
One has to wonder what it must be like to land such a career-defining role at a stage in life when you are pretty certain who you are. Odenkirk laughs. “I absolutely think that if I was a young actor and had this opportunity ahead of me it would just have been unbelievably and romantically huge and even more frightening… but I’m married, I have two kids who are nearly grown and so I can keep things in perspective. Saul will probably last longer than most of the projects I’ve done but I don’t let it define me in any way.”
You believe him. There are few actors out there who seem entirely comfortable in their skin, but Bob Odenkirk is one of them.
‘Fargo’ starts tonight on Channel 4 at 9pm