Bob Odenkirk Brings Some Laughs To 'Breaking Bad'
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli in for Terry Gross.
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BOB ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Oh, hello. I was just working out a multi-million-dollar lawsuit for one of my clients. I know what you're thinking, yeah, a lawsuit sounds good, Saul, but who can I sue? Who can you sue? Try police departments, libraries, construction companies, school officials, cleaning services, financial institutions -local and international - your neighbors, your family members.
BIANCULLI: That's today's guest, Bob Odenkirk, playing Saul Goodman, the fast-talking attorney starring in his own cheesy TV ads, who was introduced years ago on the AMC drama series "Breaking Bad."
Odenkirk is revisiting the character in "Better Call Saul," a prequel spinoff to "Breaking Bad" that premieres Sunday and Monday on AMC. But this time, he's the star of the show. And he and the show's creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, are examining how a low-rent defense attorney named Jimmy McGill came to adopt the swaggering, shifty persona of Saul Goodman.
I loved "Breaking Bad" and love this new show as well. Whether or not you're fluent with "Breaking Bad," you should have a great time with "Better Call Saul." Here's an early scene from Sunday's opener, which takes place years before the events of "Breaking Bad." Odenkirk, as Jimmy McGill, bursts into an Albuquerque courtroom to launch into a passionate defense of his three young clients.
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ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Oh, to be 19 again. Ladies and gentlemen, do you remember 19? Let me tell you. The juices are flowing, the red corpuscles are corpuscling. The grass is green, and it's soft, and summer's going to last forever. Now do you remember? Yeah, you do. But if you're being honest - I mean, well, really honest - you'll recall that you also had an underdeveloped 19-year-old brain. Me personally, if I were held accountable for some of the stupid decisions I made when I was 19 - oh boy, wow. And I bet if we were in church right now, I'd get a big amen - which brings us to these three. Now, these three knuckleheads - and I'm sorry boys, but that's what you are - they did a dumb thing.
BIANCULLI: Before playing Saul in "Breaking Bad," Odenkirk was best known for two comedy series on HBO - as Garry Shandling's agent on "The Larry Sanders Show" and as the co-starring, co-creator, with David Cross of "Arrested Development," of the sketch series "Mr. Show."
Terry Gross spoke with Bob Odenkirk in 2013 and opened their conversation by replaying his first appearance on "Breaking Bad." It's from Season 2, 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 in an Albuquerque police station when Saul shows up to represent him.
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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. Ah, 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 - in 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 Wite-Out can't take care of. Yeah, and felony quantity.
JONES: (As Brandon Mayhew) Just barely.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul) Yeah, just barely, the cops around here are like butchers, always got 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 back of my business card, OK, four-six-five-zero, OK, and I need that in a cashier's check or a money order, 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 for your character.
GROSS: Bob Odenkirk, welcome to FRESH AIR. So we just heard the first scene that you were in in "Breaking Bad." It's from the second season. 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.
And I said, well, let me check around about this. And I thought I'd call a few friends. I'd seen billboards. The first person I called was a writer friend, Reid Harrison, I'd been writing with. I said, do you know anything about this "Breaking Bad" show? And he goes, that is the best show on TV, you've got to do it. That is awesome.
I talked to Vince, and Vince said...
GROSS: This is Vince Gilligan, the creator, yeah.
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. He just changed his name to appeal to the homeboys and gain some stature in their eyes.
ODENKIRK: I laughed at that, and I immediately had the idea for the hair, which was my contribution.
GROSS: Describe it.
ODENKIRK: Well, it's a comb-over. It is a comb-over that is pretty clearly a comb-over, very obvious.
GROSS: With a growing bald spot.
ODENKIRK: Yeah, growing bald spot and yet at the same time somehow a mullet in back. And so it's a tricky little piece of hair engineering that Saul pulls off, but I think it says a lot about his character. Cleaned up on the sides because he's all business, and the comb-over is to try to look younger, and the mullet is to try to look like a relaxed dude but who's also capable of focusing and being serious.
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 is 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 in to a business proposition that they know for some reason that they can sell, which is understandable that that's their motivation, but, you know, you can feel yourself being manipulated or them trying to manipulate you just to make their job work and happen, which is, you know, to make deals. And...
GROSS: Of course you played an agent on Garry Shandling's show.
ODENKIRK: I did. Yeah.
GROSS: And you used some similar tactics.
ODENKIRK: Yeah, my agent - my first agent is the great Ari Emanuel, who now runs William Morris.
GROSS: Oh, 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 that Saul Goodman, the lawyer on "Breaking Bad," is kind of six degrees of separation from Ari Emanuel, yeah, really?
GROSS: Does Ari Emanuel know that? Does Ari Emanuel's clients know that?
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 you - it's more of a back and forth usually. And Saul Goodman has these long monologues.
GROSS: Oh because 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 mid-stream until he finds the tact that will get him where he wants to go.
And when I saw those lines I thought, you know, I wish I could do some kind of Robert Evansy type voice with a little melody in it and that kind of stop and start cliffhanger thing that Robert Evans does where he goes, you know, did I do the right thing, heck no.
ODENKIRK: Would I do it again? In a second.
ODENKIRK: You know, he leaves you hanging there for just a hair, and he makes you listen even closer, you know. And so I thought I'd steal some of that. I don't know much I did. I do the character - I do it as Robert Evans as practice, and then I just do it when I get onstage, when I'm in front of the camera, I mean. It's not in a theater yet. Someday, though, right?
GROSS: I think I have the perfect scene here to illustrate what you just said about Saul, about how 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 2, Episode 8, 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 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...
GROSS: ...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.
AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) This afternoon an associate 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) Nah, 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: (As Jesse Pinkman) 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 the mosquito's buzzing around you, it bites you on the ass, you don't go gunning for the mosquito's attorney. You go grab a fly swatter, 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.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Then you got real problems, OK, because the DEA is going to come down on your boy like a proverbial ton of bricks. I mean I don't think I'm going out on a limb here, but hey, he's not going to like prison. He's going to sing like Celine Dion regardless of what you do to me.
GROSS: What a great scene, and that's my guest, Bob Odenkirk, as the lawyer Saul with Aaron Paul as Jesse and Brian Cranston as Walt in Season 2 from "Breaking Bad." 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.
GROSS: So a brilliant, brilliant strategy.
ODENKIRK: Yeah, yeah, great, fun scene. We were in the desert, 2:00 a.m., in a sandstorm in the middle of nowhere, and it was freezing, too. It was like 40 degrees. And...
GROSS: Which is good because you should be shaking with fear.
ODENKIRK: Yeah, it was quite an experience and made me happy to be in show business.
BIANCULLI: Bob Odenkirk speaking to Terry Gross in 2013 about his role as Saul Goodman in "Breaking Bad." His new show, "Better Call Saul," a prequel to "Breaking Bad," premieres on AMC with two episodes Sunday and Monday. We'll hear more of his conversation with Terry after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with Bob Odenkirk, star of the new AMC series "Better Call Saul." Terry interviewed in him 2013 about his role as the sleazy lawyer in "Breaking Bad."
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GROSS: You're the most comic character in a show that's about really, like, horrible and often tragic things and, you know, really terrible people.
GROSS: And I mean there's some comic elements in the rest of it, but your character's like so funny. What's it like being, like, the comic character in plots where everything is always going wrong, people are getting killed and getting addicted and getting lied to and so on?
ODENKIRK: It's fun. I'm glad to bring that tone to the show. I love making wisecracks, and in that way I'm impersonating my father, that's how I look at it, who made a lot of jokes and cynical wisecracks all the time.
It's how the character is written. I don't improvise a single word that I say as Saul. In fact, it's been a fun challenge for me to not add anything, but to rather try to deliver the material exactly the way it's written, literally word for word. I come close. I don't nail it, but I come real close.
But also until the last season, the one that we're in the middle of right now, Saul is a bit - he's got all the danger at arm's length, which is how he likes it. The people around him may be under threat of death or arrest, prison, but he himself will never be in the crosshairs. And so it's kind of a game to him, you know? He manipulates these pieces on the chessboard, trying to make as much money in the end for himself as he can, and it's a laugh to him.
You know, when Jesse gets beat up by Hank and ends up in the hospital, Saul walks in and immediately starts making wisecracks about Jesse's appearance, you know, telling Walt, you know, you're the pretty one now - Ringo, meet Paul; Paul, Ringo, you know? And it's all a big joke, you know, because Saul's not going to get beat up by anyone.
In the fifth season, Saul jokes a little less, but he still makes wisecracks but not quite so many because he really is scared, and he's really become aware of how dangerous Walt is because Walt is a lot more dangerous than you think he is when you meet him.
GROSS: So the writing is so good 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.
GROSS: Like he has these guns pointed at his back, he's overlooking his grave in the scene that we just heard, and he's saying - he's calling them gentlemen, you know, like Walt and Jesse, who have guns on him, and he's saying like with all due respect. Do you love that 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 to me it's all a form of sleight of hand, but it's sleight of speech. And believe me, when I got the first script and there were these long speeches, and I thought, just coming from comedy, I thought, well, when they rewrite this speech, you know, the final draft is going 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, because 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 speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. His new series, "Better Call Saul," premieres Sunday and Monday on AMC. We'll continue their conversation in the second half of the show and hear about his fond recollections of working on "The Larry Sanders Show" and his not-so-fond memories of working as a writer on "Saturday Night Live."
Also, a review from David Edelstein of another spinoff from TV, a big-screen movie starring SpongeBob SquarePants. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
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