In “Better Call Saul,” which premieres Feb. 8 on AMC, Bob Odenkirk revisits the character of shifty lawyer Saul Goodman, first introduced in hit series “Breaking Bad.” But in the prequel, which is set in 2002, he’s been reimagined by showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould as Jimmy McGill, a struggling lawyer still trying to find his way in the world.
What’s the story of “Better Call Saul”?
It is the story of a character coming to an understanding of himself, who is searching for his place in the world. He’s trying to be an ethical guy and live by traditional standards of behavior. But he finds himself good at breaking that code and crossing that line, and he’s not sure how to use it. He doesn’t feel much acceptance in the world he’s in, which is a traditional legal world of an old firm that he finds himself in the universe of. So he doesn’t know his place.
Were you immediately onboard with the idea of “Better Call Saul”?
The gift of playing Saul Goodman in “Breaking Bad” was more than I could have asked for, and I certainly wouldn’t ask for more. We talked about the challenges of how do you make him likable, genuinely likable. Not just, ha ha that scoundrel. Because if he’s really going to anchor the show, you have to be on his side.
Do you have anything in common with Jimmy McGill?
I feel like in a lot of ways the feelings he has are things I can access from my own life pretty well. Even though I can’t relate to the specific circumstances of his condition, I do relate to the drives and frustrations.
Did you have any anxiety about stepping into the lead role?
I think the anxiety people think would be my anxiety were if I were creating the show. I did not create this show. I did not create this character. It was not on me to create it. No, it was a really awesome acting job to me. I think that if there’s any intimidation to it, I’m only just now starting to feel it. Which is the intimidation of the world’s going to see it. The world’s going to judge it. My face is going to be out there, a lot.
As a writer, did you want to be in the writer’s room? When I visited, it seemed like you were having fun there.
Yeah, because I got to leave! I was like a grandparent with a grandkid. It’s tons of fun to be the grandparent. I love seeing the writers. I know how much pain and sweat goes into it. I know how hard they’ve worked because I can read their scripts and tell how much concentration and concern have been put into these scripts — and I don’t have to do any of it. I continue to write short comic pieces — David Cross and I will do a “Mr. Show” special. But that’s sketch comedy. I feel pretty confident in that world. It’s not that that doesn’t have its pressures, but I know it. I would never try to write this. I’m only intimidated by it. It’s not in my wheelhouse.
What was it like working with showrunners Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould?
You can see how Vince approaches everything. He has an open mind. He’s not looking to force the answers, ever, which makes it very hard for him. Because he and Peter can’t be satisfied until they feel it’s an organic solution to the question at hand. So it’s a very long, slow process for them.
How did that play out with the development of the show?
I think Vince and Peter always seem to like to write themselves into corners. They get off on it. They started this show in a corner, which is how do we create a more fully formed character, a deeper character who is not this guy but will end up being this guy. They have to head somewhere. But it’s not obvious and it’s not easy. Episode eight was a really turning point – they were stuck and went through a few outlines. It’s a great example of their puzzle-making process. If some part of that solution rubs them the wrong way, they can’t let it go and they can’t let it slide. They have to figure out why it’s not right. I’m very lucky to be acting out the designs of these guys. They’re the master builders. As an actor you take the script and you take it apart. With a really good script, you find the answers in there. And that’s what’s true of their scripts. You ask questions, and the answers are in there.
Were you happy with the final result?
It made me really happy. I have an ability from producing and writing to kind of distance myself from the performance. I was kind of smiling through the whole thing and enjoying this guy and being with him and what was going to happen to him. And thinking, “Oh my God. You’re in so much trouble.” It’s not like he’s stupid, but he has blind spots that are caused by his enthusiasms [laughs]. He has a lot of energy, and he has some skills. He just doesn’t know where to place those skills quite yet. So he gets carried away with himself. So as a viewer, you’re like, “Oh, dude. That’s not going to go well.” That’s how I felt watching it. I smiled, “Ah, he’s in so much s—t. Please get out of trouble.”