Bob Odenkirk is the biggest star you’ve never heard of. And when I say big, I mean literally big – as I make my way to our interview, he looms over the streets of LA on billboards advertising the second series of Better Call Saul, a spin-off to the smash-hit Breaking Bad that focuses on Odenkirk’s sleazy character Saul Goodman in his earlier, more innocent years.
A reformed con man turned lawyer struggling to do right in a world that increasingly rewards him for doing wrong, the role of Saul (also known by his real name of James “Jimmy” McGill) has won Odenkirk critical acclaim, including a US Critic’s Choice Award, with the series attracting millions of viewers worldwide and turning the previously obscure 53-year-old comedy actor into a leading drama star.
So yeah, he’s big in that sense too.
“I try not to think about it too much,” he says now, slick-suited and struggling to part from his mobile phone as he juggles his increasingly stretched schedule. “I think it would be intimidating, you know? I look at the job exactly the same, I’m an actor. I just have more lines and I’m on screen more than anyone else. But otherwise it’s still the same job.”
So, despite being one of the US’s most famous faces right now, how come you’ve never heard of him? Well, in the UK his breakout role as the flamboyant lawyer/consigliere of Bryan Cranston’s drugs kingpin in Breaking Bad was relegated to half a dozen episodes shown on 5USA before the show was dropped from UK channels.
Later the creators struck a deal to have the remaining three series shown on video-on-demand service Netflix, an arrangement that remains in place for Better Call Saul, making it a slightly less high-profile or easy-to-find entity here than it is in the States (where the show airs on Mad Men network AMC).
Born in 1963 in Berwyn, Illinois (the same state as Saul’s birthplace), the lifelong Monty Python fan cut his teeth working as a comedian, improv player and radio DJ before landing a coveted job writing sketches for Saturday Night Live.
Odenkirk then struck out to create his own sketch series, working with Arrested Development’s David Cross to create offbeat cult hit Mr Show with Bob and David, as well as acting in various TV shows like Roseanne and The Larry Sanders Show.
He was doing well, in other words – but as he approached middle age, he perhaps wasn’t reaching his full potential. In some ways, he says now, he can see himself in the struggles of corrupt attorney Saul.
“I certainly relate to a guy who is trying to find himself at an older age and doesn’t feel like he’s made his mark yet,” he says. “That feeling of being 40–45, feeling like, ‘Wait a second – where’s my moment? Where do I belong? When can I use my skills so people appreciate it?’”
Luckily that moment came in 2009, when the then 46-year-old Odenkirk burst into the second season of Breaking Bad, becoming an instant hit with viewers. Later, it was Odenkirk’s performance alone that ended up bringing Better Call Saul to screens, as co-creator Vince Gilligan recently told the New York Daily News.
“We started joking about the idea of doing a Better Call Saul spin-off as early as season two of Breaking Bad, because Bob Odenkirk was so much fun in the role,” he says.
So after finding himself catapulted to much greater fame away from his respectable comedy furrow, is Odenkirk ever struck by the change in his circumstances?
“This is a strange experience,” he agrees. “But I don’t think I’ve experienced it in a way a 20-year-old would if they had a role like this. It doesn’t define me nearly as much as you think it might.” Even when there’s a 20ft version of his face staring down at him from across the street?
He shakes his head. “There’s something wrong with me. The first billboards went up for Better Call Saul and I was like, ‘OK, wait a second, I’m the lead in this show!’ But after that it’s like, ‘Gotta go get the groceries, take the dog to the dog park…’”
He sums up with a sigh. “I’ve just been this guy for too long, and I forget that the celebrity thing exists in a way. That’s weird. I’m sorry.”
But of course there’s no need to apologise – while the showbiz life might finally be calling Bob Odenkirk, he’s not quite ready to pick up.