“I don’t consider myself a leading man,” says Bob Odenkirk, the anti-hero in a TV show so of the moment that nearly 8 million tuned into its debut on Sunday night. “I just consider myself a character actor and I have a lot of lines. More than I usually would.”
The amped up persona of Saul Goodman, the shady criminal lawyer from Breaking Bad, who now has his own spin-off AMC show Better Call Saul, peeps out as Odenkirk speaks. But the 52-year-old, who started out in “improv” as a comedian, is a more muted version of the character he plays, more charismatic and attractive than he appears onscreen.
He finds himself commanding record-breaking audiences for a cable TV channel and dominating Netflix ratings and social media, but Odenkirk never expected Breaking Bad’s creator Vince Gilligan to take a punt on little old him.
“People joked about the Saul spin-off during Breaking Bad,” he reveals during an interview at the Corinthian hotel in London. “It was a joke among the crew and cast because the character was so big and brash. ‘Save it for the spin-off,’ they’d yell. ‘Oi, don’t damage the set, we need it for the spin-off.’ That kind of thing.”
Gilligan approached Odenkirk while they were filming the third of five series of Breaking Bad, the drama about Brian Cranston’s cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who takes to cooking crystal meth only to become the biggest criminal kingpin in town – a breath-taking transposition of traditional TV formats which leaves the audience rooting for the bad guy.
At first Odenkirk wasn’t sure Better Call Saul would materialise. “When Breaking Bad ended I didn’t think it would happen, I didn’t once count on it. He asked me several times over the years ‘Do you think there’s a show in this?’ and I would say ‘If you write it, I’ll do it.’”
But while Better Call Saul has been one of the most publicised and eagerly anticipated show’s in TV history, Odenkirk was aware doing it could be a terrible idea. “I don’t revere anything – except my kids – the way some people revere TV,” he says. “But the day Vince came to me and said ‘I do want to do the show’ I knew I had to, and that nobody would be more protective of Breaking Bad than Vince.”
Better Call Saul is a prequel set seven years before the start of Breaking Bad in which Odenkirk’s character is struggling to make a living as a lawyer forced to take on cases that others would reject (true to Gilligan's ultra-twisted style, he represents a trio of students who had sex with a severed head), while looking after his brother, Chuck McGill (Michael McKean), who has a mysterious illness resembling electromagnetic hypersensitivity.
Speaking of the mixed reviews – some critics feel the first two episodes which have already aired on Netflix have been a little slow of the starting blocks- Odenkirk is unfazed: “It’s got too much complexity and integrity to be dismissed as garbage.”
He suspects that as the story arcs to reach its first wave of conclusions around episode 9 that any Better Call Saul refuseniks will be enticed back as fans pick up on all the subtle clues Gilligan litters his work with and realises that you can go back to early episodes to form a more detailed picture.
Either way, those Breaking Badites who are hanging on to see if/when Walter White or Jesse Pinkman are going to put in an appearance are unlikely to be disappointed. Despite Gilligan’s previous assurances to the contrary, Odenkirk believes he will bring Brian Cranston and Aaron Paul back. “I’m sceptical of Vince’s denials,” he says. “He does know where he’s going to use those guys or have them appear. He just doesn’t want to say it yet.”
Making the transition from the larger-than-life Saul Goodman to down-on-his-luck attorney Jimmy McGill came naturally to Odenkirk as the McGill character was there all along, he says. “When you first meet Saul he tells Walter White ‘My name isn’t Saul Goodman, it’s James McGill.’ He’s got the comb over, he’s got the pillars, he’s got the constitution. This is a set. He is living a very phony persona.”
“In Breaking Bad you only see the public persona. Except for a few short glimpses – usually when he had a gun pointed at his head,” Odenkirk says, smirking as he agrees that this happened unusually often.
“To me Jimmy McGill is connected to the Saul Goodman you see in the basement with Walter White at the end of Breaking Bad when he says ‘It’s over, OK. If I’m lucky I’ll end up managing a Cinnabon.’ That’s a real guy, that’s not Saul Goodman. So you did see Jimmy McGill in Breaking Bad.”
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