Bob Odenkirk exudes everyman energy. At a glance, the actor — best known as the morally malleable criminal lawyer Jimmy McGill (who later becomes Saul Goodman) on “Breaking Bad” and later “Better Call Saul” — is more suburban dad than Rambo. Odenkirk gets it. In fact, he was pretty sure he would get laughed out of the room when he pitched himself as the next great action star.
It was to his genuine surprise that the idea wasn’t just embraced, but eventually materialized in the role of Hutch Mansell in “Nobody,” a rock-’em-sock-’em thriller directed by Ilya Naishuller that debuts in theaters on March 26.
“I was shocked that each person who heard me say it was like, ‘I see what you mean,'” he recalls. “You have to isolate the comedy stuff from the work I’ve done in ‘Better Call Saul’ and dramas like ‘The Post.’ If you do that, then you see it. If you don’t, it’s laughable.”
His character in “Nobody” appears passive at first, one that’s prime Odenkirk territory, until a traumatic event sets him off on a bloody path toward vengeance. The script, written by John Wick co-creator Derek Kolstad, pays homage to the take-no-prisoners men who have come to define the genre, like Keanu Reeves, Jackie Chan, Jason Statham and Bruce Willis. Odenkirk found it intimidating to compare himself to those action icons.
“I thought, what am I adding to this genre? I’m not adding any handsomeness. What can I add? Well, I can add a sense of humaneness,” Odenkirk muses. “I would like to play a guy who feels each punch and suffers his way through the fight and doesn’t do it on autopilot.”
Odenkirk, calling from the set of the final season of “Better Call Saul,” says his most recognizable character actually influenced his portrayal of Hutch. “Even though Jimmy is cunning and does some devious things, he very much has an open heart. And he gets knocked down a lot, physically, so it’s kind of like an action character,” he says.
Naturally, Odenkirk couldn’t divulge much about the upcoming sixth season of “Better Call Saul.” But for fans of the show worried about the fate of Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) after last season’s finale, Odenkirk didn’t do much to quell fears as he took what felt like longest pause of all time before he began saying, “I don’t know anything…”
What made you want to play an action hero?
I was riding my bike in Albuquerque, shooting “Better Call Saul” Season 2 or 3, and my brother-in-law sent me a screengrab of an advertisement for “Better Call Saul” in China. When I heard they were watching the show in China, I really started thinking, “Wow, maybe I could make a movie that would play around the world.” And action translates. I thought, I’m in good enough shape. I wonder if I could train hard to do an action movie. I shared it with my manager and he said, “I think you might be on to something.”
Did you have input in the script?
I pitched to Derek my basic notions of the character, which were a dad and home break-ins. I’d had two [home break-ins] in L.A. Both were extremely traumatic for my family and both left me feeling like I hadn’t done enough, even though I probably did the right thing by not doing much. It left me with a lot of frustration and anger, frankly, and a feeling that if I have a chance of retribution, I’d try to take it.
Was it cathartic to explore that onscreen?
It was. I recommend to any father who has suffered through a home break-in and felt like they could have done more to make an action film. It really was cathartic, and I did not expect that. I always thought that catharsis thing was kind of B.S., because I played violent video games — not much — but they’ve always left me feeling more violent, not less. But this was different. This was a real expression of these feelings. Even though it’s completely fake screen-fighting, it left me feeling lighter and better.
I’m slightly jealous because I’ve never been able to do a pull-up, and you seem to be able to do them effortlessly. What was the most difficult part of training for this movie? Could you already do pull-ups prior to filming?
I could probably have done one or two pull-ups when I started. If you put a gun to my head, I could do 20 or 25 now. If you give me little breaks, I could do 40. By the way, the trick with pull-ups is you have to lean back and use your back muscles, not your arm muscles. You know those wing muscles in your back? Well, they’re huge and they will get bigger. And they can pull you up. Not easily, but a lot more easily than your arms, which is your first instinct. Lean back and pull up, that’s the trick. What was the question? Oh, the hardest part of the training was the embarrassment. I was at the wonderful 87eleven gym, surrounded by the top stunt actors in the world training, including people like Keanu Reeves and Jason Statham and Halle Berry. I’m a comedy writer, who is gradually sufferingly making my way into this discipline. I was just feeling embarrassed at how bad I was when these pros are 25 feet away.
What’s your process in preparing for line readings like “Give me the goddamn kitty cat bracelet, motherfucker”?
Here’s how you prepare for that. You raise two children, and you lose binkies and favorite rags and favorite toys and the best bedtime books under couches and behind car seats and in between mattresses. And you fish around for those things while you’re living on four hours of sleep. And then you go, where is my goddamn bedtime book?! Then you take that and turn it into a movie moment.
You’re calling from the set of “Better Call Saul.” What has it been like to film during the pandemic?
There’s far less social interaction. We’re in a social business. We get a lot of work done, preparing for our acting and our shooting, by meeting and having dinner or talking on the way to set or to chit-chatting offset during camera setups. Actors mingling, talking about their characters, talking about the story. Without that, there is a big hole and dimension lost. It’s a lot less fun. And it’s harder to do the work, because a lot of work gets done in those social, passing interactions. It’s a real shame. And I can’t get the vaccine yet. We can’t get it soon enough. I hope my number comes up soon.
Since the coronavirus outbreak delayed production, did the writers change anything that happens in the final season?
Well, you’d have to ask them. I don’t know. I know that they gave them more time, and they’ll use every second they have to rewrite and rewrite. They’ve done that. They’re very, very excited about the final season, and that makes me really happy.
Many viewers are extremely concerned about Kim’s fate. On a scale from one to 10, how worried should they be?
Look, no spoilers here. I don’t know anything… [long pause]. You should be extremely frightened for Kim and Jimmy. And I think you should be worried for Kim.
With the final season wrapping up, have you been reflecting on playing this character for so many years?
It’s hard to stay in one [role] for that long. I’ve had big breaks where I walk away from the character for months at a time, but I keep returning. Here’s the great thing about the character I get to play, as opposed to maybe Walter White or Tony Soprano or other long-running lead characters. My character has an incredible amount of variety written into his behavior. There will literally be a scene, like the one we did yesterday, that is such pure comedy that I almost click into sketch-comedy acting mode. And then there’s a scene that’s quiet, subtle, dramatic, personal, deeply felt, earnest, and in no way an exaggeration or a comic take on people’s feelings. Because of that, it keeps it really fresh and great for me. It makes it a much easier character to stay in for a long time.
Speaking of sketch comedy, would you ever revive “Mr. Show With Bob and David”?
We’re working on it right now. We’ve been writing a new show for about four months. It’s not “Mr. Show,” but it’s me and David Cross. It’s going to hopefully be a multi-part narrative comedy. It’s not going to be sketch comedy, but if you know some of the films we made on “Mr. Show,” it’s going to be a version of those — and our sense of humor all over the screen. It has something in common with Chris Guest movies.