Better Call Saul‘s third season ended in haunting fashion on Monday night, in a way that left Jimmy McGill seemingly closer than ever to becoming Saul Goodman. And Saul star Bob Odenkirk has very complicated feelings about that.
On the one hand, he knows that this is where the story is going, and that he signed on for exactly this journey. On the other hand, having spent three years of playing a complicated but ultimately good-hearted guy, he’s not wild about going back to playing Saul Goodman, whom he describes as “a shallow asshole.”
Yesterday, I spoke with Odenkirk about what Chuck’s fate means for Jimmy, why he’s not particularly looking forward to playing the full Saul Goodman when the time comes(*), how he would have felt if he had known going in that Saul would be as dramatic as it turned out to be, the split between the Jimmy and Mike shows, playing a scene with Gus Fring, and more.
(*) I should also put in a quasi-spoiler warning for his answer to my second question, in that Odenkirk is a bit looser-lipped about conversations with bosses Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan about what the show’s future might be. He’s still speculating, and nothing is definitive — the show technically hasn’t even been renewed yet, even though it’s surely coming back — but Odenkirk seems to have some idea of how much we might see of him as the full Saul Goodman, and as Gene from Cinnabon. Also, in a later answer, he treats Chuck’s fate a more definitive than the writers have so far, though that may just be a result of him not being in the writers room as they’ve discussed whether to unring that particular bell.
How did you find out about Chuck’s fate?
I got a phone call from Vince and Peter. No, first Michael told us in a casual way, because he had gotten a call, and then everybody was talking about it on set and stuff, and then a few hours later I got a call from Vince and Peter, who are very considerate and very sensitive about these big choices in the story, and they were thinking that they were breaking the news to me. I was clear that we had all talked about it. I think they didn’t realize how Michael would be able to handle it. Michael’s done so much stuff, and so many different jobs, and while he saw the value of the great great writing of this show, and his part was so important, and such a wonderful part for him, and he did it so well, and I think he would’ve liked to carry on doing it for years to come, but he’s also a writer himself, and he knows that story has to be paramount, and this had to happen in this story. He took it great, like the kind of experienced actor that he is, and he shared it with all of us, and then Vince and Peter called to let us all down gently. Look; there’s things about this show that are inevitable. You have to be a grown-up about it. It’s gonna end at a certain point. I don’t really know right now, but sooner rather than later, it’s gonna end, and the character’s going to become Saul, who’s kind of a shitty guy. He’s going to go from being a dimensional, empathetic character to a shallow asshole. And that’s the journey that we all agreed to. All these things are going to happen. It’s a big deal, but these are things we’re all knowing are coming down the pike.
With the way you describe the transition from one to the other, if there winds up being an extended period of time where you’re playing the Saul of Breaking Bad, are you looking forward to that? Or are you going to miss playing this guy you’re playing right now?
This is a more rewarding part than that. So, yes, I would miss the part that I’m playing now. I don’t think there is an extended period of time that we’ll be enjoying Saul’s ridiculousness. I think there will be a story to tell there, though. We’re not quite there yet. With Chuck gone, that is one of the two big things that are connecting him to humanity, and the other being Kim. When those pillars fall away, he’s in freefall. We’re fairly close to that. And then there’s some story to tell as Saul. Peter and Vince and I talked, and as a viewer myself and a fan of their storytelling, I want to understand what happened with Saul and Mike, and Nacho and Lalo, who I’ve never met, none of us have met, that leads to all the stuff that goes on in Breaking Bad.
Also, frankly, I would like to see what happens to Gene, the character Saul is post-Breaking Bad. I hope they’ll give some story to him. I think they will. They’re talking about it. So I don’t know how much time is left, but I will and do already feel bad about saying goodbye to the very likable and, I think, good-hearted Jimmy McGill.
Rhea (Seehorn) says she has speculated about where Kim is during the events of Breaking Bad, while Michael has said he never liked to think about Chuck’s future. Is this something you’ve spent a lot of time speculating about?
I feel like Kim has to be out of Jimmy’s life for him to have to be Saul. I don’t know if she has to be gone from the earth. But I also feel like for him to behave as Saul, even with her, let’s say she lives across town and she can see his billboards and stuff, I think that would be an embarrassment to him. So I don’t know what happens to her that he carries on becoming this guy in such a public way. Maybe she just rejects him, and it’s his way of making her feel bad. I don’t know. This will be interesting to see what happens. These guys are good writers. All the desires and motivations will be acknowledged in some way. But they can’t be together. I’d be shocked if they are together, Kim and Jimmy. The weird thing is, if Chuck had lived, becoming Saul would be a great way to fuck with him. Putting your billboards up over town, that would be a great way to wave that in his face and make him embarrassed.
You referred earlier to Jimmy being a much nicer person than Saul is, but in the season’s ninth episode, what he does to Irene feels like one of the worst things anyone has done to anyone else on either this show or Breaking Bad. How did you feel when you saw that in the script?
Terrible. It felt terrible. I called Peter Gould, who has kind of taken the reins of the show, and I said, “Goddammit, man. This is sad. All that’s left is for me to go shopping for lime green socks, and this is Saul now.” And he goes, “Well, two things. One, this is the story we said we were going to tell,” so kinda tough shit. And secondly, he said, “It’s not entirely true that he’s all the way there now.” But in some fundamental way, in the telling of that little story, that was a big break for this guy into becoming a mercenary, selfish actor in the world, and something he wasn’t really entirely before. It bummed me out. Because when we play these characters, you do have to do the things they do, and you have to come up with your mental justification for it, and try to play it as the choice that you justify. It’s shitty to play a shitty person. It sucks to play someone who is being a jerk.
Peter has said that the writers didn’t expect to like Jimmy as much as they do, and Vince did an interview this week where he said that if they had known going in it would be this tragic, he would have been less excited to make it, even though he loves what the show is now. How would you have felt when they approached you a few years ago if you had known this is what the show was going to become?
I think I would have been more intimidated. I was lucky to be able to approach every scene as a fresh thing without some big fear of what was to come, or some template being laid down for this emotionally fraught character and this intense personal inner struggle. If somebody had said, “That’s what you’re going to be playing out,” I would have said, “Boy, I’m not sure I’m up for that. I’ve never done it.” I would have been way more intimidated than I was, which was, “The writing’s going to be good, I know these guys are great writers and they’re going to care and do their best, and all I gotta do is play each moment honestly and see what it adds up to or not. If it doesn’t add up, then we’ll have given it our best shot.” I wasn’t scared, but if you told me what it was going to be about, and how to go to these places beforehand, geez, I don’t know. I might have said, “I don’t think I can pull it off without more comedy in it.”
Was there a point where you began to accept that whatever they threw at you dramatically, you could handle? Or are you still not at that point?
I feel more confident after all that they’ve given me to do. I’m not ever doing anything entirely alone. I’ve got Michael McKean or Jonathan Banks or Rhea Seehorn across from me, and that helps immensely, just as in Breaking Bad, having Bryan Cranston or Aaron Paul in a room with you giving focus or direction. One of the great things about acting is there’s a Zen-like quality to it. All you’re ever doing is the moment that you’re playing. And that makes it less frightening. I’ve been a writer and I think with writing, you feel more of this fear and concern about managing the entire piece that you’re doing. Whereas with acting, however much it’s intimidating you, it’s an activity that you’re only ever doing moment to moment, and that makes it a little less intimidating.
In the first season, you were in 90 or even 95 percent of the show, and these last two years, it’s been a much more even split, and almost two separate shows: Jimmy McGill the lawyer, and Mike Ehrmantraut the drug enforcer. Beyond your workload being lighter, how has it been watching the show evolve into these two separate but related things?
I love it. The dynamics of the show are one of the unique, amazing things about it. I hope that we can meld the two. They’re gonna have to come together, and I think it can be done. I think these guys are definitely up to the task, but it will be neat to see that happen, and I think it will happen in the next season now. So I’m looking forward to that. But I agree with you, there is a bit of a big divide, between the two stories and the tone and the temperature of the two stories. I think we’re pulling these two things off. I talk to fans, I get feedback, and I feel like this weird, strange, juggling act of the show, everyone’s game for it.
I’ve said it before, and it’s a weird kiss-assy thing to say, but I mean it: the audience is a big part of whether what you do works. We have this amazing audience that was groomed by Breaking Bad, and by watching that show and knowing what to look for and how to watch it. Because we’ve got this awesome platform to launch from, that dialed everyone in to an extent, people have let us do this. But however good our work is, or how hard we work, you’ve gotta give it up to the audience for giving us a chance. When I say that, part of it is, people on our side of this thing, there’s a lot of talk about the audience: “People won’t like this, people won’t tolerate that.” There’s a lot of conjecture about what the viewers will tolerate or like. But we don’t fuckin’ know. It’s all guesswork, it’s all using your gut. I would have said this show was too offbeat, idiosyncratic, and closely-observed to win the affection that it’s won. I would’ve underestimated its appeal by a lot, if we’d known what we were doing beforehand, but we didn’t. Nobody knew what we were doing. We had no idea what we were setting out to do; we just started doing it.
When Gus first comes up in Breaking Bad, Saul doesn’t seem to know who he is, and tells Walt, “I know a guy who knows a guy… who knows a guy.” Do you think Saul could have been lying to Walt?
I think I don’t know the answer to your question. You’re the first person to pose it to me. I’ll be as curious as you to find out what interactions Saul has with Gus and that puts him in that mindset about who Gus is. It’s one of those corners that Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan seem to like writing themselves into and sweating out a solution. And I wish them luck.
But were you pleasantly surprised that they were able to come up with even as much interaction as you had with Giancarlo in that one episode this year?
Oh, yeah. That was so fun. That scene where I’m sitting there being a dummy, trying to do this undercover job, and there’s Gus behind me, the most evil character in the world, walking around behind me, and we all know who he is, and I don’t, and I’m an idiot. That was really fun to do. There was a lot of silliness in my performance, that was really fun to play: a guy who’s not good at undercover work and is just having fun and wanting to be good, and is just a moron. The way I was walking around with my eyes glued to the subject and not really behaving like a real person, and the I leaned on that soda machine because I was really not paying attention, that was some great comedy butted up against pure evil forming around me. It was a great moment.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com