Bob Odenkirk on Better Call Saul: “Can we call it formidable sleaze?”

The star of the Breaking Bad spin-off talks truth, justice and the Saul Goodman way

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A Saul Goodman bobblehead doll sits by my keyboard as I write, complete with lurid yellow tie and Bluetooth earpiece. It’s yet one more loving tribute to Albuquerque’s most agreeably sleazy lawyer, who also boasts his own action figure and leisurewear bearing the logo: “Keep Calm and Call Saul.”

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Saul, as played by Bob Odenkirk, was the break-out character from the greatest box set show ever made – and with good reason. He was a motormouthed legal schemer with a decidedly low level of clientele, yet a battered nobility lurked somewhere within. His cheeseball panache was irresistible: the terrible late-night TV commercials, the grandiose white columns inside his mini-mall office, the licence plate on his white Cadillac that read, “LWYR UP”.

“If you’re committed enough you can make any story work,” Saul advised his meth-dealing clients Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) as they pondered ways to launder money. “I once told a woman I was Kevin Costner, and it worked because I believed it,” he boasted.

Now the low-rent lawyer has been rewarded with his own show, Better Call Saul, a prequel set six years before Breaking Bad. If there’s any pressure about the step from sidekick to leading man, Odenkirk isn’t showing it. He greets the gaggle of international journalists who have made the trip to Los Angeles for the press junket with unhurried folksy charm: “How’s life?”

At 52, he has come a long way since his days as a stand-up comic in t-shirt and jeans, and as a writer on the long-running US comedy sketch show series Saturday Night Live. He recently played a deputy sheriff in the TV series Fargo, with Martin Freeman, but Odenkirk admits he turned down Better Call Saul because he didn’t want to be away from his family. His wife Naomi is a respected talent manager and producer in Hollywood, and he has two teenagers.

“When my son heard I wasn’t doing it, he said, ‘You’re going to disappoint a lot of people.’ I said, ‘I’m going to disappoint a lot of strangers.’ He said, ‘Well, actually, a lot of them are my friends.”

Odenkrik didn’t ask Breaking Bad’s creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould to write a spin-off show for him. “It had to come from them organically,” he stresses. Gilligan elaborates: “It started as a joke. While filming Breaking Bad we would say, ‘In a few years when we’re doing the Saul Goodman Show…’ Then we started to realise, we’re making this joke an awful lot.”

Gilligan enjoyed writing the character’s reams of snappy dialogue, but also clearly had a lot of affection for Odenkirk. “Oh, we liked him so much from the get-go!”

There’s a likeable everyman quality to Odenkirk. He grew up in Illinois watching Monty Python and acquired a taste for performing on college radio. He has been multifaceted at times, writing, directing and editing his own comedy forays, such as HBO’s Mr Show, but it brought out the perfectionist tyrant in him.

“I was kind of a jackass about delivering my opinion. I decided it was time to try being a team player.” He says he’s a better actor when that’s all he has to worry about.

“All I did was act the moment.” 

Still, the track record for spin-off TV shows is decidedly hit and miss. For every Frasier, which ran for 11 seasons after Cheers ended, there’s a Joey, which was cancelled two series after Friends finished. What usually makes a sidekick character appealing is their freedom from the moral obligations of the hero. The so-called “third lead”, such as Roger Sterling in Mad Men, who has all the fun and sex.

But Saul Goodman’s sex life was none too smooth. He caught his second wife in bed with his stepfather (“It’s a cruel world, Walt. Grow up”), but he was always the most self-aware, least hypocritical character in Breaking Bad. So how will the new show compare? Intriguingly, Better Call Saul reveals more about his life story, and how he became the man he is.

“He’s actually an idealistic guy as a younger person,” says Odenkirk. “He’s a person with principles, but they’re all somebody else’s principles. So this is about him finding his own principles.”

Of course, Saul Goodman isn’t his real name. When Saul first appeared in season two of Breaking Bad, he admitted his real name was McGill –“a fellow potato eater”– and he used a Jewish name as a ruse to drum up business. 

Odenkirk is touchingly protective about his character. “Sleaze doesn’t seem to be a good enough word for what Saul’s doing. It’s not a rich enough word. Sleaze is so surface and it feels like you can see through it so easily. Can we call it formidable sleaze? He’s actually kind of legit. He knows the crux of his job: that truth is malleable.

“Whether you’re talking about an ambulance-chasing accident lawyer or a environmental lawyer, the job becomes about perspective and spin and characterisation. They’re all trying to win their argument. So Saul’s a good lawyer naturally. It comes across as sleaze because he’s adapted his character to his world.”

Odenkirk says he drew more on Hollywood agents and producers than criminal lawyers for inspiration, paying special attention to the gravel-voiced showmanship of the legendary permatanned Hollywood producer Robert Evans, the one-time head of production at Paramount.

“When I started reading the scripts and I saw those long monologues Saul gets into, I thought to myself, ‘Who speaks at this length who’s fun to listen to? Robert Evans! I loved his books on tape, and I read his memoirs [The Kid Stays in the Picture]. He’s just so much fun to listen to.

“Evans poses these rhetorical questions and then answers them [“Was I angry? You bet your ass I was”]. He puts so much melody in his voice – and then he stops. And then he starts. And then he goes like this [deep voice]…I’d rehearse my monologues in the voice of Evans. I wasn’t doing an impersonation. It was a great way to help form Saul’s character.”

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Better Call Saul episode one is available on Monday 9th February at 7am on Netflix UK