Bob Odenkirk Mixes Laughter And Law In 'Breaking Bad' And 'Better Call Saul'
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.
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AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Seriously, when the going gets tough, you don't want a criminal lawyer, all right? You want a criminal lawyer.
BIANCULLI: That's Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in AMC's "Breaking Bad" describing the character of Saul Goodman, the slippery lawyer played by our next guest, Bob Odenkirk. "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan and writer-producer Peter Gould enjoyed writing dialogue for that character so much, they spun him off into a series called "Better Call Saul," which starts its second season on AMC on Monday. It's mostly a prequel to "Breaking Bad" with Odenkirk as a low-rent defense attorney named Jimmy McGill before he came to adopt the swaggering, shifty persona of Saul Goodman. Terry Gross spoke with Bob Odenkirk in 2013. They began with his first appearance on "Breaking Bad." It's from season two when Walt and Jesse, played by series stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, were still smalltime meth cookers. The kid who was distributing their meth, Brandon Mayhew, aka Badger, was busted after selling to an undercover agent. In this scene, Badger is being interrogated at an Albuquerque police station when Saul shows up to represent him.
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BOB ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) All right, who do we have?
MATT JONES: (As Brandon Mayhew) Brandon Mayhew.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Brandon Mayhew, all right. Brandon Mayhew. Oh, here we go - public masturbation.
JONES: (As Brandon Mayhew) What?
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) I don't get it. What's the kick? Why don't you do it at home like the rest of us with a big flat screen TV, 50 channels of pay-per-view and a Starbucks? That's nice (laughter).
JONES: (As Brandon Mayhew) That ain't me, man. I was the guy who was selling meth, allegedly.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) OK, all right. I got you - meth, right. I'm sorry, that was a little transpositional error - nothing a little whiteout can't take care of. Yeah, and a felony quantity.
JONES: (As Brandon Mayhew) Just barely.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Yeah, just barely. The cops around here are like butcher, always go their thumbs on the scales, you know? But good luck arguing that in court (laughter). Let me get down to brass tacks. I'm going to get you a second phone call, OK? You're going to call your mommy or your daddy or your parish priest or your Boy Scout leader, and they're going to deliver me a check for $4,650. I'm going to write that down on the back of my business card, OK? Four, six, five, zero, OK? And I need that in a cashier's check or a money order. It doesn't matter. Actually, I want it in a money order. And make it out to Ice Station Zebra Associates. That's my loan out. It's totally legit. It's done just for tax purposes. And after that, we can discuss Visa or MasterCard, but definitely not American Express, so don't even ask, all right? Any questions?
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
What a great start (laughter) for your character. Bob Odenkirk, welcome to FRESH AIR. What did you know about your character, Saul, when you took the role?
ODENKIRK: Well, I got a phone call and my agent said they're going to offer you a role, and you should say yes to this one. And it wasn't like I had been saying no to a lot of roles. But I guess I do say no maybe more than a few other people. So I said, OK, well, what is it? And he said it's on "Breaking Bad." And at the time, the series was in its second season. It was to appear in the last four episodes of the show. I talked to Vince, and Vince said...
GROSS: This is Vince Gilligan, the creator.
ODENKIRK: Vince Gilligan, the creator. I said let me just talk to him. And he goes he's a sleazy lawyer, his name's Saul Goodman. And I go, well, you know, I'm not Jewish. I said, there's a lot of Jewish actors. I'm sure you could find one. And he goes, oh, no, no. He's not Jewish. He's Irish (laughter). He just changed his name to appeal to the homeboys...
ODENKIRK: ...And gain some stature in their eyes.
GROSS: You've said that you based Saul on Hollywood agents more so than on lawyers.
ODENKIRK: Yeah, I don't know any lawyers.
GROSS: So what kind of agents do you know who are anything like Saul?
ODENKIRK: Oh, my God, a lot of them.
ODENKIRK: Yeah, yeah. They talk really fast. You know, Saul's - the character wants to get something out of whoever he's talking to. He's trying to manipulate them into doing what he wants. And I think that's true for a lot of agents. They're aware of a certain scenario that they can sell, you know? When they're talking to you, they're pitching you in a clever way on just fitting into a business proposition that they know, for some reason, that they can sell, you know, to make deals.
GROSS: Of course...
ODENKIRK: And, yeah.
GROSS: ...You played an agent on...
ODENKIRK: I did.
GROSS: ..."Garry Shandling's Show."
GROSS: And you used some similar tactics (laughter).
ODENKIRK: Yeah, my agent - my first agent is the great Ari Emanuel who now runs William Morris.
GROSS: Oh, and he was the basis for - what's his name's character...
ODENKIRK: Ari Gold.
GROSS: Yeah, on "Entourage." So he was your first agent?
ODENKIRK: Yes, and he was my basis for my character on "Larry Sanders," Stevie Grant.
ODENKIRK: So Ari's inspired a lot of performances.
GROSS: Wait, wait, wait, wait - so does this mean (laughter) that Saul Goodman, the lawyer on "Breaking Bad," is kind of six degrees of separation from Ari Emanuel?
GROSS: Yeah, really?
ODENKIRK: Absolutely. But also...
GROSS: Does Ari Emanuel know that (laughter)? Does Ari Emanuel's clients know that (laughter)?
ODENKIRK: I hope he'd be proud of it. I think he would be proud of it. He likes being noticed, and I think he gets a kick out of his people's estimations of his various talents. He's a great guy. I really like that guy a lot. Also, if I might add, I did an impersonation of Robert Evans, the great film producer, who is such an entertaining guy to hear talk, you know? If you've ever heard his book on tape, "The Kid Stays In The Picture," it's incredibly entertaining. And when I saw how many lines I had as Saul, which is a lot more than comedy - in comedy, you'll get, like, two lines and then it's a more of a back-and-forth usually. And Saul Goodman has these long monologues.
GROSS: Oh, 'cause he's a talker.
ODENKIRK: He really is a talker. And what he's doing is he's trying to convince you of something. And when he sees that it's not working, he goes another route. Like, he switches it up in midstream until he finds the tact that will get him where he wants to go. And when I saw those longs I thought, you know, I wish I could do some kind of Robert Evansy-type voice with a little melody in it and a little - and that kind of stop and start cliffhanger thing that Robert Evans does when he goes, you know, did I do the right thing? Heck no. Would I do it again? In a second.
ODENKIRK: You know (laughter)? He leaves you hanging there for just a hair, and it makes you so - it makes you listen even closer, you know? And so I thought I'd steal some of that. I don't know how much I did it, but I do the character as Robert Evans as practice. And then I just do it when I get on stage - in front of the camera, I mean.
GROSS: I think I have the perfect scene here to (laughter) to illustrate what you just said about Saul about how if he's not selling it one way, he's going to change directions and just try something else. And this is a scene from season two, episode eight where Saul's been representing the guy who's been dealing meth for Walt and Jesse, the guy who we heard in the first scene. And Walt and Jesse are really afraid that you're going to let your client talk to the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency. And if he talks, that's going to out Jesse and Walt and they're going to be in prison. So they can't allow that to happen. So what they've done is they've basically kidnapped you, taken out to the desert. They've dug you a grave, and they're making you kneel staring into this grave that they've made for you. Meanwhile, they're standing behind you with ski masks on their faces so you can't tell who they are. And then they have guns pointed at your back. You have no idea who they are or what they want or why they've captured you. You suspect that they're representatives of one of the Latin drug cartels. Here's the scene. You speak, or shall I say, whimper (laughter) first, begging for your life.
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ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) What can I do for you gentlemen? Anything just tell me what you need.
PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) This afternoon, an associative of ours offered you $10,000. You should have taken it.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Wait a minute, this is in regards to what's his name?
PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Badger - Brandon Mayhew.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) The uncle - the uncle - that was your guy? No offense, guys, but I don't take bribes from strangers, you know? Better safe than sorry, that's my motto. But I'll take your money, sure.
PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) No, that offer's expired, yo.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) It was kind of low anyways. But, OK, OK, I'll take it. Just tell me what you need, all right? I'm easy. I'm going to keep a happy thought and assume this is just a negotiating tactic.
PAUL: (Jesse Pinkman) All right, listen to me very carefully. You are going to give Badger Mayhew the best legal representation ever. But no deals with the DEA, all right? Badger will not identify anyone to anybody. If he does, you're dead.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Why don't you just kill Badger? I mean, follow me guys, but a mosquito's buzzing around you, it bites you on the ass, you don't go gunning for the mosquito's attorney. Go grab a flyswatter, so to speak. I mean, all due respect, but do I have to spell this out for you?
PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) We're not killing Badger, yo.
GROSS: What a great scene. And that's my guest Bob Odenkirk as the lawyer, Saul, with Aaron Paul as Jesse and Bryan Cranston as Walt in season two from "Breaking Bad." And this is how you become their lawyer because you realize, like, the way to play this is to tell them, like, you have to tell me everything. I'll help you, but first you have to make me your lawyer by officially paying me. So just, like, put a dollar in my pocket. I'm your lawyer. Now we have attorney-client privilege. You can say anything and I'm going to help you, and you don't have to kill me (laughter). So...
ODENKIRK: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: ...Brilliant strategy.
ODENKIRK: Great, fun scene. We were in the desert at 2 a.m. in a sandstorm in the middle of nowhere. It was freezing too. It was like 40 degrees.
GROSS: Which is good 'cause you should be shaking with fear so...
ODENKIRK: Yeah, it was quite an experience, and it made me happy to be in show business.
GROSS: So the writing is so good...
GROSS: On "Breaking Bad." And, like, with your character, with Saul, there's something so, not only kind of, like, comic and wordy but almost flowery about the way he speaks. Like, he has these guns pointed at his back. He's overlooking his grave...
GROSS: ...In the scene that we just heard. And he's saying - he's calling them gentlemen, like (laughter)...
ODENKIRK: Yeah, yeah.
GROSS: You know, like, Walt and Jesse who have guns on him. And he's saying, like...
GROSS: ...With all due respect.
GROSS: Do you love the kind of almost, like, old-fashioned, flowery way he has of speaking?
ODENKIRK: I do. I do. It's fun to talk like that. It's fun to have a character who's that verbose. And believe me, when I got the first script and there were these long speeches, and I thought as a - just coming from comedy, I thought, well, when they rewrite this speech, you know, the final draft is going to be just a short line - it'll just be a line saying I can't help you, you know? And then I got the rewrites, the blue pages - 'cause they're printed on blue paper - about five days before I shot the first scene. And literally, one word had been changed in all those speeches. And it made me go, OK, well, now, what's really going on here? Why did the writers think that my character needs to talk this much? And then that's when I started taking apart those speeches and seeing that there's often a line of logic that Saul is following and then he's finding it a dead end and he has to go another direction. So it's all about manipulating the person he's talking to.
BIANCULLI: Bob Odenkirk, star of AMC's "Better Call Saul," speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2013 interview with Bob Odenkirk, star of the AMC series "Better Call Saul." Season two begins Monday.
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GROSS: Tell us something about your childhood - where you grew up, what you were known for among friends in school.
ODENKIRK: (Laughter) Well, I am from Naperville, Ill. And I'm from a family of seven kids. And they're a funny group of people. All of them are funny. My brother Bill is a writer of "The Simpsons." He's been there for...
GROSS: Oh, really?
ODENKIRK: ...About 10 years - yeah. But we were far away from the world of show business in Naperville. And so it took me a long time to imagine, even, that I could be a part of this. But it's a very funny group of people, and there was a lot of good times and a lot of laughter in our house and a lot of impersonations of people that we'd met that day. And it's a mostly Irish, some German, Catholic family. And my mother's very funny, though she doesn't really know it. She's a - makes a lot of wisecracks all through her day, and she laughs a lot. And my father was kind of a good joker too. Although he liked to tell, like, bar jokes and he - when I was young, he liked "Hee Haw," which escaped me.
GROSS: Did he actually, like, tell jokes?
ODENKIRK: Yeah, he told joke jokes, you know...
GROSS: Joke jokes?
ODENKIRK: ...Like you pick up in a bar.
GROSS: Do you remember any of the joke jokes he told?
ODENKIRK: I don't. I don't. I never liked them. I never liked the jokes. My dad I didn't like that much either but...
GROSS: Oh (laughter).
ODENKIRK: ...I tolerated him.
GROSS: So when you became a comic, having had your father tell a lot of jokes but not...
GROSS: But you not liking joke jokes...
ODENKIRK: But not my kind of jokes.
GROSS: Yeah, exactly. So what did that make you want to turn to when you become a comic?
ODENKIRK: Well, nothing consciously. I just did what I did. I didn't think about that, except I always felt like comedy was about honesty, you know? And somehow, saying how you really feel about things, you know, because for me, it's about getting to the core of things and speaking honestly about hypocrisy and stuff. But there was a kind of comedy I saw a lot of when I was a kid that was almost the opposite. It was like this strange kind of covering up of genuine motivation. All those Bob Hope specials just made me cringe when I was a kid. You never found them funny. And all the sexual innuendo just made me crazy, even though as a child, I didn't know what sex was about. But I just remember watching and thinking, why don't you just say you're horny, you know...
ODENKIRK: ...Instead of rolling your eyes? What a weird thing. We all know what you mean. You know, it just seemed dishonest in a strange way. And I didn't know why anyone would find it funny. When I found Monty Python, that's what really spoke to me.
GROSS: People like your character so much that you were on a recent cover of The New Republic.
GROSS: And the cover was for a story about how big law firms are having a hard time making big money now. And so...
GROSS: ...There's a picture of you on the cover in your full Saul Goodman persona. And the caption reads are you downwardly mobile, terrified of your colleagues, unsure of what your kids look like, realizing that after selling your soul for the promise of a cushy life, your whole field is going to hell? You must be an attorney. I'm wondering if you get a lot of reactions to Saul from lawyers - if they like your character or if they're offended by your character.
ODENKIRK: I've heard more than once people say I got to tell you, I know lawyers like Saul, which is always funny to me 'cause it occurs to me that maybe they mean to say they're like Saul (laughter) - or not me but all the other guys in this profession.
GROSS: So one more question. When...
GROSS: ...People see you on the street - people who are fans of "Breaking Bad."
GROSS: What do they say to you? Is there a commonly said thing?
ODENKIRK: Well, they all say better call Saul.
ODENKIRK: But some of them - and this is so weird, Terry.
ODENKIRK: And this is like - I think this is because it's so much more famous than anything I've done. It's so much bigger. So I - this is where we trip into the weird place of sort of a version of success or fame that is so strange. I get this - I got it today on the way into this building. I get this - I'm going to shout this out, so I'm going to back away from the mic.
ODENKIRK: OK, so that guy - this has happened more than once. That guy doesn't know my name, only knows me from "Breaking Bad" but doesn't know "Breaking Bad" that well and has seen it enough to know I play some - I don't look like the character. So he knows it well enough to recognize my face, even though he doesn't know the show that well. That's a weird place to get to. He doesn't know the name of the character, so he hasn't watched the show that closely. But he knows it well enough to recognize my face even without the hairpieces in and the suit and all that other stuff.
GROSS: So what do you say in response?
ODENKIRK: I go, uh-huh.
GROSS: (Laughter) And then keep walking?
ODENKIRK: And I keep walking.
GROSS: (Laughter) And what if somebody really does know the show and they say, I love you in the show, I love the character of Saul?
ODENKIRK: I say thank you so much. I'm so lucky to be a part of that show.
GROSS: Right, well, I'm so lucky to be able to watch you and it (laughter). Thank you so much...
ODENKIRK: Thank you so much.
GROSS: ...For talking with us. It's really been a pleasure.
ODENKIRK: I appreciate it.
BIANCULLI: Bob Odenkirk, the star of "Better Call Saul," speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. Season two of the AMC spinoff of "Breaking Bad" begins Monday. Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the newest superhero movie "Deadpool." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.