Four years and four Emmy nominations into playing Better Call Saul’s good-hearted lawyer Jimmy McGill, Bob Odenkirk is currently deep into Season 5, with McGill continuing his metamorphosis into the Saul Goodman we know from Breaking Bad. Despite playing Goodman for several years, Odenkirk says his deep work with the character began with the McGill incarnation in Better Call Saul. And as he works on the new season, Odenkirk’s passion for the character only grows stronger.
As of this year, you’ve spent a decade with Jimmy McGill, first meeting him as Saul Goodman before coming to see how the sleazy lawyer of Breaking Bad came to be. What has this journey been like for you?
Well, I don’t know if I count playing Saul on Breaking Bad as being a big part of this journey [laughs]. It was a pretty one-dimensional guy in that show. It was a lot of fun to play and a wonderful project to be included in, but this thing started for me on Better Call Saul, in a big way, and it’s been a real, true adventure to places I have never been. It surprises me and challenges me, and it’s crazy. I can’t understand it very easily.
What first impressions did Season 4’s scripts leave you with?
The most interesting thing was how Jimmy deals with the death of his brother Chuck, who is the most important person in his life. His whole life is geared for trying to win his brother’s affection and respect. That’s what he’s done with his 30s, and it means everything to him. So when his brother commits suicide, and he thinks back on the interaction they had—which anyone would do their last interaction—and the last thing Chuck said to him was, “You didn’t mean that much to me. You never meant that much to me,” I think inside, some switch goes off, and all that pain and all the loss he feels is just immediately buried under a big, “F*ck you. I’m not going to feel bad about you, for you, anymore, ever again.”
And, of course, it’s a lie. Jimmy is broken in such a way because of Chuck’s choice that he’ll end up being Saul pretty much full-time, I think, in his life. And that’s really only a part of who he is, the scammy guy who’s just a dealmaker. That’s just a small part of who he is, but he ends up putting all of his chips in that stack and going all in on being Saul because he’s just angry, and he doesn’t want to think about who he really was—Jimmy McGill, a good guy who wanted to do right for a long time and wanted to be respectable, do something good with his weird talents.
How did you understand the way in which Jimmy processed the news of his brother’s death? The relationship between the two had always been complicated, to say the least.
You know, Jimmy’s reaction to Chuck’s death may not even be considered unhealthy, and I don’t think it’s that rare. It’s a full and complete compartmentalization of all those feelings, of all the loss that he could feel if he thought about it. It’s a mechanism of self-preservation, to just push all that away and decide that Chuck’s passing is almost an incidental fact and nothing more, and it’s time to go on and chase the next best thing you can find.
There are things that Jimmy does that are strange—leaps in his psyche that aren’t easy to put together in a mathematical way, when you’re breaking the script down—but I think we all have that in us. You could call it inspiration, or you could call it a lizard brain moment. But that’s one of those moments…especially when Howard Hamlin comes to his apartment and expresses the feeling that he, Howard, had been the cause of Chuck’s suicide, because he wouldn’t let Chuck back into the law firm. There is a choice there. I could tell him, “You’re wrong. We all had something to do with it, and it was Chuck’s choice in the end.” Or he could share his own feelings of being a part of that, or he could do what he does, which is make a leap inside himself over that chasm of grief, and say, “F*ck you. Yeah, sure, it was your fault—fine. It wasn’t mine. I had nothing to do with it. Go ahead and feel bad.”
Those are weird moments, and they’re strange choices, but I don’t think they’re entirely impossible, or rare even. I mean, someone can die—someone close to you, who you love—and you can feel like, “I should be sadder.” And conversely, someone you don’t know can die, and you can start to weep [laugh]. And you’re like, “I didn’t even know him, but it affects me so much.”
When Bill Hicks died, that changed how I was thinking about my life, and I’d only said hello to Bill backstage at a talk show. I’d never actually talked to him; we just both said, “Hi,” we both knew each other’s work, and that was the end of it. But when he passed away, I made choices in my life that were different than everything I’d done before.
This season, Jimmy tells Kim he’s keeping his nose clean when in reality, he’s getting into trouble. Why do you think he refuses to stay on the straight and narrow, even with his love for her?
Listen, I think he’s impatient. He’s a restless soul. A lot of people are, and it’s almost considered a plus, or a positive, in our modern society. “You should be wanting more, and if you’re not wanting more, I’m sure you feel like there’s something wrong with you.” But he does have a restlessness about him that he cannot calm down—and that, I think, causes a lot of his behavior, and choices that cause all kinds of trouble for him.
He also seems to have that mentality of not wanting to belong to any club that would have him as a member.
Yes, of course. Absolutely. He can’t get satisfaction from his brother, and he’s obviously not satisfied with himself. Whatever he is, is not good enough in his eyes, to himself. So, that’s the bottom line. He’s trying to make Kim proud of him, trying to make sure that she loves him, trying to make people think highly of him. It’s driving him, but the bottom line—as the Buddhists will remind us—is inner peace. It’s you being at peace with yourself. He’s so far away from that, it’s a joke to bring it up in the context.
Which episode did you submit for Emmy consideration this year, and why?
I submitted the final episode of the season. There’s a wonderful scene where the character is trying to be reinstated as a lawyer, and he feels like he’s done the bottom-line stuff that he needs to do. He’s worked a regular job, he’s studied the law. He really feels like he’s done what he needs to do, and he was told that he doesn’t seem contrite, or honest. “He’s not sincere,” is what they say, so he needs to go in front of the board and establish his sincerity. So, it’s like every aspect of the character comes together to form this moment, where his real feelings are being used as fodder for a scam. So, it’s a pretty amazing thing that Peter Gould [and Thomas Schnauz] wrote. I give [them] the credit for writing a scene where, in a weird way, every aspect of Saul and Jimmy McGill—all his background, all his deeper feelings—all come into play.
Last time we spoke, you lamented the fact that your co-star Michael McKean had yet to be nominated for an Emmy for his turn as Chuck. This season, he finally was. How did you feel, seeing him earn this recognition?
It was the most wonderful thing. I love Michael so much as an actor. He’s taught me so much, and he’s provided me so much power onscreen to draw from, and to think about and consider. Man, oh man. That guy deserves this nomination, I think he deserves the award, and I hope everyone gets a chance to see some of his work, because any episode that he was on Better Call Saul will show you what an amazing actor he is. I’m really just thrilled that he’s gotten this attention.
What have you found most challenging about the work you’ve done on the series of late?
It is hard for me to play when the character does something really wrong. When he’s doing his small-time scams, those are pure fun. When he’s being earnest, I feel wonderful, and I feel grounded and comfortable. When he’s really hurting someone, I don’t like him, and it is hard to go and do those things sometimes, because I want to like him. And I know I’ve played scenes where he’s very capable of empathy, although I would say that might be the hardest thing for him, is empathy. That’s probably the hardest thing for him. He’s very self-focused…
…And cynical, in some sense.
Well, he is cynical, but he’s cynical in the way of an idealist who’s had his balls kicked too many times. A true cynic is not disappointed in the world; a true cynic is fine with how everything is. They have no conscience, they don’t feel regret, they don’t have regrets, because they just expect the world to be sh*tty, and they expect themselves to be a sh*tty person every day, and that’ll fit perfectly. And a cynic that we often identify as a cynic is a person who’s really an idealist, whose feelings have been hurt. Every day, they wake up and they’re just angry, and they lash out. They overstate their feelings, because they’re just so disappointed in what they’re seeing around them. So, it’s weird, right? Because that person really is secretly hurt inside.
You’re shooting Season 5 of Better Call Saul right now. What can you tell us about it?
It’s the best season we’ve ever done, it’s going to blow your mind, and I’m not kidding about either of those things. It’s f*cking awesome. I can’t wait for people to see it. It’s just shattering in every direction, and I love it.
Obviously, you’re still in the thick of work on the series, but you and Giancarlo Esposito have both hinted that Better Call Saul has only one or two seasons left in it. What are your hopes as you move into the next chapter of your career?
To keep doing stuff that surprises me and everybody who knows me, and also to have a few laughs along the way. Laughter, I don’t believe it’s medicine. I just believe you’ve got to have it [laughs].