September 16, 2019

Bob Odenkirk on ‘Nebraska’ and ‘Breaking Bad’

Actor Bob Odenkirk seems to be everywhere these days, on screens large and small.   Having burst into the comedy zeitgeist with series like “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Saturday Night Live,” he’s best known for playing Saul Goodman, meth-cooker Walter White’s sleazy but scene-stealing attorney on AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”  (No, Saul isn’t Jewish – he just changed his surname from McGill because, as the character put it, “The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys.  They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak.”)

Now Odenkirk, 51, is finally getting his own show, “Better Call Saul,” a “Breaking Bad” spinoff that was recently green lit by AMC; he’ll also star in FX’s limited series “Fargo,” inspired by on the Coen brothers’ esteemed 1996 movie.  And on Nov. 22, Odenkirk will hit theaters in Alexander Payne’s acclaimed new film “Nebraska;” the movie spotlights Woody (Bruce Dern), a curmudgeonly alcoholic who is erroneously convinced he has won a $1 million publishing house sweepstakes and insists on collecting the prize in person. A road trip ensues in which Woody’s sensitive younger son (Will Forte) drives him from Billings, Montana to Nebraska to collect his “prize;” Odenkirk plays Ross, Woody’s ambitious, angrier older son, who is aghast at the idea of the trip.

Last week I spoke to Odenkirk by phone from his Los Angeles office, where he discussed everything from working with Payne, why he’s shocked that everybody loves Saul and his own Jewish wife and kids.  Here are excerpts from our conversation:

Q:  What’s your personal connection to the character of Ross in Nebraska?

A:  I relate to it very directly.  My father had an alcohol problem and the character of the father in “Nebraska” also is an alcoholic, and a kind of difficult, challenging guy.  People in the family aren’t at peace with his crotchety nature and there’s a lot of anger brewing, certainly with my character, who is less forgiving of the father. The feelings of frustration around family are recognizable to me; family can be a really difficult place of contentious interaction, but also a place for a kind of forgiveness and acceptance.  And all of that is in the movie.

Q:  Did you achieve that kind of acceptance with your own father?

A:  Unfortunately, no.  He left the family when I was about 13, but when I was 21 he developed terminal bone cancer and he came home. I did try to connect with him, but it just didn’t happen.  I don’t think there was an overlap in anything that we really cared about in our values or our natures.  But I was just a kid, so I wonder if I got to meet him again as an older man I would maybe be able to make some kind of a connection with him.

Q:  What themes does the film explore?

A:  It examines how we don’t always know each other — even people who are close to us – our fathers or our mothers and siblings; there might be challenges in their lives that they haven’t shared with us.  In “Nebraska,” we learn more about the father and the challenges he grew up with, and I think it leads to an empathy from the brothers.  That may have been true in my own life; maybe if I’d gotten to know my own father better I would’ve developed some empathy towards him but I didn’t have the opportunity to find that out.

The movie is also about learning people’s stories, even people close to you, and how much you can ask a person to change and how much you have to accept them. It’s about the value of accepting people and their dreams and who they are in the moment and not always wanting them to be better or more than they are.

Q:  How is Alexander Payne unique as a director?

A:  I made another film called “The Spectacular Now” that came out this past year, and the director, James Ponsoldt, only shot very little coverage – which means you don’t need different angles to cover the scene, you commit to one angle.  Alexander did that to an extent I’ve never seen before.  And what it does is it encourages you to take every single take extremely seriously, because that could very well be all you get to do of the scene.  It means that you’re performing in a two-shot or a group-shot, so that the energy between the actors and the characters is preserved onscreen, not so much from being pasted together in the editing room.  But it takes a lot of confidence for a director to do that, and after all the movies that Alexander has made he’s gained it.  It’s a kind of calm assuredness that he has; he’s just extremely aware.

Q:  There’s a funny story about how you landed the role of Saul on “Breaking Bad.”

A:  I got a phone call from [the show’s creator], Vince Gilligan, and he was telling me about the character; he said his name was Saul Goodman and he went on and on and at a certain point I stopped him and said, “You know, I’m not Jewish, though my wife and kids are.” And Vince goes, “No, no no, Saul isn’t Jewish; he’s Irish.  That’s just a last name he took to appeal to the homeboys he services, that he’s a prototypical lawyer.”  It’s like if your lawyer’s not Jewish, he’s not really a lawyer – that’s how I think Saul perceives taking on that name.

Q:  What kinds of things did you personally contribute to the character?

A: As soon as Vince described Saul to me — literally in that first phone call — I said, “I already know what he looks like, and if you’ll allow me, I’d like to have a comb-over and a mullet in back and cleaned up on the sides.”  And Vince laughed and said, “That sounds awesome.”

Q:  What do attorneys tell you they think of Saul?

A: They always tell me the same thing:  They say, “I know guys just like Saul“ — of course implicitly implying that they are not a person like that.

I’m very surprised that people actually like Saul.  I stop people who love Saul and I say, “Talk to me, tell me why you love him?”  And they always say that he’s funny, he’s good at what he does, they like how his brain works – it works fast – and he’s fun to watch; he makes a lot of jokes.  It’s surprising to me because he’s totally self-interested; he’s absolutely a selfish guy, although as the show went on he revealed that he’s capable of having a conscience.

Q:  How do you feel about the character of Walter White?

A:  I totally was rooting against him in the last season and a half; he’s just crazed, his ego is so out of control!  The character of Walter White is just an awful person; he is so desperate to make his power known and recognized.  And in the end, he sacrifices his family for his own ego.

Q:  What’s your connection to the Jewish community?

A:  I was raised Roman Catholic – I’m half Irish and half German – but I married a Jewish woman, Naomi Yomtov [17 years ago] and our two children are being raised as Jews.  I did not convert, but when we were looking for schools for the kids we went to the Purim carnival at Temple Israel of Hollywood and I just loved the energy and community there, and that’s where we sent our kids.  I liked the school and I liked Reform Judaism and I like it even more now.  It’s a connection to the ancient principles and beliefs that hold a lot of truth to us now and a belief in God that is complicated and complex and ever changing and growing in the way that a person over a lifetime who’s paying attention will also grow. So it’s thriving and challenging and I get it.  It’s a little hard for me to connect to the ritual aspects, although they are also constantly being studied and brought into the light as it were, just because you need to grow up with them to have them connect with you on a real organic level.  But we observe a lot of the holidays, Pesach and certainly Chanukah, and both my kids were bar and bat mitzvahed, which I found to be really rewarding and deeply meaningful and moving – more than I ever imagined. 

Q:  What do you hope to see happen to your character on “Better Call Saul?”

A:  I’d like to actually have a reason to like him as a person.  You can really take almost any person and hear their story and maybe develop some empathy for them and what they’ve been through, which has made them who they are.  Saul is just such a wildly self-involved, self-promoting, self-engaged person, I’d like to think that there’s something outside of himself that he has feelings for.  I’d like to see a richer character, but I’m sure that will happen because Vince Gilligan and [the show’s co-creator] Peter Gould are great writers and together they are going to fill that character out and we’re going to learn new things about him.