Last night millions of Breaking Bad fans breathed a collective sigh of relief when Better Call Saul debuted on AMC, and was not only good, it was great. The highly-anticipated spinoff to what is almost universally recognized as the best TV show ever was met with great apprehension, but here’s some good news for you – if last night’s episode was great, tonight’s is outright excellent. Bob Odenkirk, as always, is on fire as the blustering Jimmy McGill, and he does a remarkable job of portraying a man we can see becoming Saul Goodman, but who very much is not that man yet. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould made a bold and brilliant choice to create a series that hinges on Odenkirk’s talents, and if these first few episodes are anything to go by, that gamble will pay off in spades.
I recently joined a small group of journalists to interview Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks about the series. They talked about how the close Better Call Saul is to the world of Breaking Bad, that Gilligan and Gould are constantly stepping up their games, learning their characters’ back stories, how the show is funny to watch, but was very intense to act in, and more.
So after all the talk about doing a spinoff and that it was a prequel about your character, were you surprised by all the surreal touches Better Call Saul has more so than Breaking Bad?
BOB ODENKIRK: Yeah, it’s a very unique show. I don’t always believe Vince Gilligan when he says things like [doing a spot on Vince Gilligan impression] “I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know where I was going to go.” He’s very humble about his own inspiration and his own creative genius, but in this case I think he and Peter Gould really did discover the show as they went along and allowed themselves to range wherever they wanted in time and in emphasis – what character’s story we’re following, where it’s going. I think they surprised themselves, and honestly, to psychoanalyze Vince a little, I think he likes to paint himself into a corner and then find a way out. His therapist would have to tell us whether that’s true.
Look, he’s got a character Saul Goodman, right? We know where he ends up, so we got to end up there in some way, right? Because we’ve already seen him already. When he was doing Brian Cranston, when he was doing Walter White, Mr. Chibbs to Scarface, it could have been any version of Scarface that he wanted, we’d never met that Walter White when we started. We’ve already met a certain kind of Saul Goodman, so he has to go there, so he’s already in a corner because he’s got to go to this one place that we’ve all seen. Anyhow, I think through the whole first season and in every episode, he was discovering this story – he and Peter, because they did it together – as they went. And it goes to crazy places. And I’ve heard from a producer that every episode feels different from the last one. There’s a lot of variety in it.
JOHNATHAN BANKS: I don’t know that Vince paints himself into a corner, or that Peter does, what I do know is their incredible dedication to try to make something good every time they write. They’re stepping up the game. And these are two guys who have been friends a long, long time. It would be very easy for them to sit back on their laurels, but that is not what’s happening here. They up their game. They constantly up their game. Do you realize that they’ve been locked in that room, they’ve been in that room, they’ve been writing and writing and writing, and all the sudden it gets to come out. People ask them questions and away they go.
Since these people are in a different time period, how did it feel when you got the first script to realize that you were going to be able to flesh this character out and that you had a whole new playground to work with? And did you know these backstories beforehand?
BANKS: I’m coming back to life. I have had for years, my idea of what’s going on and what’s happened – I can’t tell you what that is – so for me it was more of an opportunity – because that was the first thing that Peter said to me on the phone, “Do you remember when you said…?” So I kind of knew. I love my character and I try to be true to my character. So that pretty much answers it. I want to be true to Mike.
ODENKIRK: The other thing is Mike had more backstory in Breaking Bad, right? My guy had whatever backstory I had in my head, and I shared it with Vince. I did say I think he’s from Chicago, and as it turns out he is, but a lot of things I had in my head he did not go with. But Vince and Peter and I sat down in the months before this even happened and talked about who the character might be. So there was a series of conversations when the character was built and rebuilt as the show was envisioned by Peter and Vince, not by me, but we would sit down and once they started that writer’s room and really working, I came in and they told me the story that became this show.
ODENKIRK: Well, I sat there – first of all, Vince talked for forty minutes. He doesn’t do that.
ODENKIRK: He went on and told me this story, and it blew my fucking mind. So many idiosyncratic details that rang true and such an interesting, involving journey, and as it turns out that story – and at the time he said, “I’m not sure about any of this” – and then went and talked for forty minutes. I went home to my wife and I said, “Oh my god, this is a whole new world he’s invented.” So I got to know the character kind of slowly over these months, because they would share it with me, I would come in and meet with the writers and they would tell me what they knew. It’s not like I got the first script and I hadn’t heard anything since we made the deal. So it was all building. I had time, but there is a whole lot. It’s a different guy.
Jimmy, as we see in Better Call Saul, is kind of like Walter in that he’s doing bad things for a good reason. Talk a little bit about how the character develops.
ODENKIRK: You’re onto something by the way, which is – I was thinking a lot about what’s behind the show. What are the themes? And clearly Vince is interested in transformation, right? Jimmy McGill to Saul Goodman, how do you become that? How does a person mutate and why? What are the influences? What are the things that drive inside them that push them and pull them forward? And then they make these choices and become a different person, and that’s what he’s doing again.
ODENKIRK: Yeah, and then the other thing is – there’s transformation – and then the other thing is ethically slippery, conflicting situations. Vince is very, very smart about story and he knows how involving and engrossing it is to watch a person want to do the right thing and the right thing is very hard to ascertain. Walter White – “I want to support my family. I want to leave something behind. They have nothing and there’s a new baby, and I’ve got fucking cancer, and I’ve been a teacher, I have no money to leave to them.” We completely sympathize with his goal. What can I do that makes money fast? I’m a chemistry teacher. I can make meth. And then there comes the ego of “I can make it better than anyone else, and now I’m proud of this thing that I didn’t make to be proud of.” So this show is filled with similar chemistry, human chemistry, conflicting ethical choices and we empathize with the character’s desire, and they want to do the right thing. Maybe the right thing at the moment is just to save their own ass, but because we as people – that’s life, right? That’s the problem with life. I want to do the right thing, but if I do this it will hurt this person and if I do that – it’s very hard to make choices.
When you first got the scripts and dove into it, did you feel like you were returning to the same world as Breaking Bad? Did it feel completely different? Where does it fit in to that universe?
BANKS: I was, and hopefully with no judgement, just looking around on the soundstage, what it was, and like we’ve said many times, there are a lot of ghosts, what I’m really aware of is that it almost doesn’t matter anymore, because I am so aware right now that we have another show that we’re so excited about. So all the excitement, and all the energy from the Network, and Peter and the actors, it feels so good, because you know what? It ain’t going to be for lack of trying, and it ain’t for lack of talent – and I’ll exclude myself – but it ain’t going to be for lack of talent and want. I have not heard a jaded word from anybody, from the time we started shooting until right now.
ODENKIRK: You know, I think it’s different from Breaking Bad in the way that Vince has brought up – there’s no clear gun to my head. Walter White starts by learning he has cancer, so there’s a clock ticking. On the other hand, Vince and Peter are so good at putting a character in a dangerous place, raising the stakes. The first episode, and I remember reading it, and getting to the end and that last moment, the last ten seconds are like “holy shit!” It’s that Breaking Bad feeling of “Are you fucking kidding me?” It’s a good thing they’re showing the second episode the day after their showing the first, because everyone watching would be like, “I’m going to steal the fucking tapes. I got to find out what happens.”
They’ve got those story moves, those writing abilities and talent to create those great high stakes moments and that great roller coaster ride that you enjoyed in Breaking Bad, but the rhythm’s different, the look is different – I’ve only seen one, and I don’t want to step out of my territory – but they use different camera choices. You should talk to Vince and Peter about it, I’m not sure they’d be willing to list them now, they might want to wait until everyone sees it, but they literally do something with the camera that they didn’t do with Breaking Bad ever. So visually it has its own language. And storytelling-wise, they’re just masters of making your heart race, and that happens again with this show.
You both have a lot of experience doing comedy and drama, and I think there were a lot of people who thought this show would lean more into the comedy.
ODENKIRK: Well I’m not a good judge of that, because I play the character. I just play it as honestly as I can and I believe in what he wants, and I walked away thinking, “Oh my god, that was such a serious show. It was so heavy.” But then I watched it, and it was so fun!
It absolutely does have funny moments. The two of you in the parking garage.
And enjoying it, clearly.
ODENKIRK: It’s so fun, we’re a great team. But part of it is that because the characters, their world is real to them and to you as an actor, and the stakes are real, but you forget that watching it you’re not in there, so you get to laugh at these people in the worst fucking life-threating shitty totally fucked situations. It’s funny. I forgot that we have that perspective, so watching the first episode I immediately am like, “Oh this guy, oh Jesus. Oh no, don’t do that.” I forgot that’s how you watch it. You watch him get into trouble and you can enjoy that, it’s entertaining as hell. It’s funny. It made me laugh, and not just at a funny line, and there are a lot of funny lines, but you laugh at the person digging their own hole. You’re like, “Don’t do that!” I forgot about that glee, and it’s everywhere in there. So to me it’s very funny to watch. To play it is definitely serious.
BANKS: This is totally off the subject, but I’ll tell you over the years – and I’m beating a dead dog – but I’ve got forty-seven years professionally acting, and I think about the situation right here that we’re in – press, the actors, the show’s going to start – and I’m sitting thinking “Man, if you don’t like this, then you’re not going to like nothing.”