Bob Odenkirk Brings Some Laughs To 'Breaking Bad'
"When the going gets tough, you don't want a criminal lawyer — you want a criminal lawyer."
That's how meth dealer Jesse Pinkman describes the fast-talking, sleazy Saul Goodman on AMC's Breaking Bad. Played by Bob Odenkirk, Saul knows how to bend the law, or break it, depending on his clients' needs. He helped Walter White — a high-school chemistry teacher turned meth cooker — launder money, stay out of prison and get connected with a meth drug lord.
Now, in the final season, even Saul is scared. Walt has plenty of drug money stashed away, but he's murdered a drug lord. Worse still, a DEA agent (who happens to be Walt's brother-in-law) may be on to him.
Before Breaking Bad, Odenkirk was best known as the co-founder and co-star, with David Cross, of the HBO sketch-comedy series Mr. Show.
Breaking Bad begins the second half of its final season on Sunday. Odenkirk tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about Saul's comb-over, the character's penchant for long-winded speeches, and his own thoughts on playing the most comedic character in a serious drama.
On creating Saul and his hairdo
"I talked to Vince [Gilligan], the creator. ... He goes, 'He's a sleazy lawyer; his name is Saul Goodman.' And I go, 'Well, I'm not Jewish. There are 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.'
"And I immediately had the idea for the hair, which is my contribution. ... It's a comb-over that's pretty clearly a comb-over, with a growing bald spot and yet at the same time somehow a mullet in back. And so it's a tricky 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 look younger, and the mullet is to try to look like a relaxed dude, but who's also capable of focusing and being serious."
On playing the most comedic character in a serious drama
"It's fun. I'm glad to bring that tone to the show. I love making wisecracks. 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 of 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 challenge for me to not add anything, but to rather try to deliver the material exactly the way that it's written, word for word. I come close. I don't nail it, but I come real close.
"Saul has all the danger at arm's length, which is how he likes it. The people around him may be under the threat of death or arrest, prison, but he himself will never be in the cross hairs. So it's kind of a game to him. He manipulates these pieces on the chessboard, trying to make as much money in the end, for himself, [as] he can. It's a laugh to him."
On Saul's long-winded speeches
"To me it's all a form of sleight of hand, but it's sleight of speech. 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, the final draft is gonna be just a short line. It'll just be a line.' ... 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 of 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 that's when I started taking apart those speeches and seeing that there's often a line of logic that Saul is following, and he's finding it a dead end, and then he has to go another direction. So it's all about manipulating the person he's talking to."
On his early comedy preferences
"For me it's about getting to the core of things and speaking honestly about hypocrisy. There's the kind of comedy I saw a lot of when I was a kid that was almost the opposite: It was this strange kind of covering up of genuine motivation. ...
"All those Bob Hope specials made me cringe when I was a kid. I never found him funny, and all the sexual innuendo just made me crazy, even though as a child I didn't know what sex was about. I just remember watching it and thinking, 'Why don't you just say you're horny instead of rolling your eyes? What a weird thing. We all know what you mean.' It just seemed dishonest in a strange way, and I didn't know why anyone would find it funny. When I found Monty Python, that's what really spoke to me."
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "BREAKING BAD")
BOB ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Oh, hello. I was just working on a multi-million-dollar lawsuit for one of my clients.
(SOUNDBITE OF CASH REGISTER)
ODENKIRK: (As Saul) I know what you're thinking, yeah, 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; your church, synagogue or other religious institution; your employers, your employer's customers, suppliers; companies in other countries, companies that made the drugs that were turned into the drugs that you took. The possibilities are limitless.
(As Saul) But Saul, how can I sue these people and institutions? I have no grounds? Do me a favor, let me answer that question in person. Better call Saul.
GROSS: That's my guest Bob Odenkirk in the role he plays on "Breaking Bad," Saul Goodman, the fast-talking, sleazy lawyer who stars in his own local TV commercials. We get to see Saul again Sunday, when "Breaking Bad" begins the second half of its final season. I can hardly wait.
Saul is a lawyer who knows how to bend the law or break it, depending on his client's needs, which is why when Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher turned meth cooker, needed legal help, he called Saul because as Walt's assistant, Jesse Pinkman said...
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "BREAKING BAD")
AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Seriously, when the going gets tough, you don't want a criminal lawyer, right, you want a criminal lawyer.
GROSS: Saul has helped Walt stay out of prison, connected him with a meth drug lord and helped him launder money. Now in the final season, Walt's got plenty of drug money, but is he safe? He's murdered the drug lord and others, a DEA agent who happens to be Walt's brother-in-law may be on to him, even Saul is scared.
The creator of "Breaking Bad," Vince Gilligan, has talked about the possibility of a spinoff series for Saul starring Odenkirk. Before "Breaking Bad," Odenkirk was best known as the co-founder and co-star, with David Cross, of the HBO sketch comedy series "Mr. Show."
Let's start with Saul Goodman's first appearance on "Breaking Bad." It's from Season 2, when Walt and Jesse 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 at an Albuquerque police station when Saul shows up to represent him.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "BREAKING BAD")
ODENKIRK: (As Saul) All right, who do we have?
MATT JONES: (As Brandon Mayhew) Brandon Mayhew.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul) Brandon Mayhew, all right, Brandon Mayhew. Ah, here we go, public masturbation.
JONES: (As Brandon) What?
ODENKIRK: (As Saul) 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.
JONES: (As Brandon) That ain't me, man. I was the guy who was selling meth, allegedly.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul) 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) Just barely.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul) Yeah, just barely, the cops are on here like butchers, always got their thumbs on the scales, you know. But good luck arguing that in court.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul) 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.
(As Saul) 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. After that, we can discuss Visa or MasterCard but definitely not American Express, so don't even ask. All right, any questions?
GROSS: What a great start for your character.
GROSS: Bob Odenkirk, welcome to FRESH AIR. First of all, I'm so excited about the beginning of the end with the final half of the final season of "Breaking Bad."
GROSS: How does it feel, like you know what happens at the end, and we, the fans, don't. I don't want to know, don't tell me, I'm not going to ask. But you're walking around with this like big secret.
ODENKIRK: I don't know how it ends.
GROSS: You don't know how it - that's not true.
ODENKIRK: Only my part out of the last episodes, and I threw the rest away.
ODENKIRK: And I dumped it from my trash, yeah, because I am a fan of the show, and I want to see what happens at the end.
GROSS: Wow, so I can't pry it out of you even if I tried and wanted to.
ODENKIRK: You couldn't do it, and I couldn't tell you, and the interesting things is I have read almost all of it because I only did that with the last episode and a half. I didn't read any parts that I was not in.
GROSS: OK, so you've given us a clue here, I don't want to make too much of this, but we know you're not in the final episode now.
ODENKIRK: No, no, I didn't say that, only the parts I was not in.
GROSS: Oh, I see, so maybe you're even in the final episode, but you didn't read the other scenes, oh, it could be.
ODENKIRK: Could be, very clever detective work.
ODENKIRK: You've got to listen between the lines. So I felt the same you all feel, which is how is this going to end. I want to watch it, I want to be surprised, I want to enjoy it, and I don't want it wrecked by me reading it. It's never as good as it is to see it because the directors do such a great job, and the actors bring so much, and there are always layers and shadings to it that I didn't see when I read it, although it is an excellent read for a script.
GROSS: 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, Reed Harrison(ph), 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 is 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: 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.
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, and 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, he's trying to convince you of something, and when he sees that it's not working, he goes another route. Like he switches is up in mid-stream until he finds the tack 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 Robin 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "BREAKING BAD")
ODENKIRK: (as Saul) What can I do for you gentlemen. Anything, just tell me what you need.
PAUL: (as Jesse) This afternoon an associate of ours offered you $10,000. You should have taken it.
ODENKIRK: (as Saul) Wait a minute, this is in regards to what's his name?
PAUL: (as Jesse) Badger, Brandon Mayhew.
ODENKIRK: (as Saul) The uncle, the uncle, that was your guy? No offense, guys, but I don't take bribes from strangers. Better safe than sorry, that's my motto. But I'll take your money, sure.
PAUL: (as Jesse) Nah, that offer's expired, yo.
ODENKIRK: (as Saul) 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) 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) 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) We're not killing Badger, yo.
ODENKIRK: (as Saul) 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 down 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: A 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.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bob Odenkirk, and he plays Saul Goodman, the lawyer, on "Breaking Bad," which begins the final part of its final season on Sunday, August 11. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Bob Odenkirk, and he plays Saul Goodman, the lawyer on "Breaking Bad," which starts the final part of its final season on Sunday. 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 of 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 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 then he has to go another direction. So it's all about manipulating the person he's talking to.
GROSS: Bob Odenkirk will be back in the second half of the show. He plays lawyer Saul Goodman on "Breaking Bad." He's also in the new film "The Spectacular Now" and is in Alexander Payne's upcoming film "Nebraska." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Bob Odenkirk, one of the stars of "Breaking Bad," which returns Sunday for the second half of its final season. Odenkirk plays Saul Goodman, the sleazy, fast-talking lawyer who represents Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Saul has helped them launder the money they made cooking meth and cover up their crimes and murders. Saul's office is in an Albuquerque strip mall.
In your office on "Breaking Bad," there's a large blown up...
GROSS: ...copy of the Constitution on your back wall.
GROSS: Describe your office.
ODENKIRK: Well, it has a facade that I sit in front of, of these Roman columns that are made of Styrofoam. And later in episodes, Saul actually moves the columns aside. And you can see they...
GROSS: 'Cause he's trying to see if the place is bugged.
ODENKIRK: Yes. You can see they weigh nothing and they're just total facade. And then in the shape of a, you know, in an oval shape - I suppose to invoke the Oval Office or something - is a half oval behind him with the Constitution on it and the pillars around it. But you may think that is a ludicrous setup, but Rob Wilson King is the set decorator who designed that office, and when I walked into it I, I was like wow, this is a strong choice here. And he said, well, we went around to some local offices and we were inspired by them and this is what we came up with. And I thought there's no one, no one does, goes this far - do they? And then last year I was riding down central in Albuquerque - I like to ride bikes around any city I'm in; it's a great way to see things and move kind of quickly, and I passed a replica of the White House. You know, it's got like eight lawyers and it's called the White House. And it's a miniature kind of a, yeah, White House, but only not.
GROSS: I want to play another scene that you're in as Saul Goodman on "Breaking Bad."
GROSS: And this is a scene where things have gone really bad. Walt has been beaten by the drug lord he works for, Gus. And now he's afraid for his life and for the lives of his wife and children. So he rushes into your office to take you up on an idea that you'd previously suggested for a way out. You speak first.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
ODENKIRK: (as Saul Goodman) What the hell happened to you? What you...
BRYAN CRANSTON: (as Walter White) Saul. Saul. This man that we spoke of before - this, this person that you said could, could disappear me - give me a whole new life...
ODENKIRK: (as Saul Goodman) Yeah.
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) And make sure that I'm never found...
ODENKIRK: (as Saul Goodman) Yeah.
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) Yeah. I need him, Saul. Gus is going to murder my whole family.
ODENKIRK: (as Saul Goodman) Christ.
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) I need this man now. Saul! Now, Saul!
ODENKIRK: (as Saul Goodman) Yeah. Yeah. You understand there's no coming back from this. You're going to get new socials, new identities. You can't contact your friends or relatives ever again.
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) All right. Yes, yes, I understand.
ODENKIRK: (as Saul Goodman) How are you going to sell this to that wife of yours and your teenage son?
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) I have got no choice.
ODENKIRK: (as Saul Goodman) You're wanted by some pretty scary individuals - not to mention the law. You're a high risk client. You're going to need the deluxe service. It's going to cost you.
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) How much?
ODENKIRK: (as Saul Goodman) The last quote I got on the deluxe was 125 grand. But you've got four people to vanish. Give me at least half a million, and he accepts cash only.
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) I've got the money. Now come on. Here. This is a vacuum cleaner repair company.
ODENKIRK: (as Saul Goodman) What did you expect, Hajji's quick vanish? I don't even know the guy's name. You just call that number and you leave a message, you tell them that you need a new dust filter for a Hoover Max Extract Pressure Probe, Model 60. I wrote it right on there. He'll call you back in five minutes.
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) OK. OK. Fine. And how long does it take for him to arrange?
ODENKIRK: (as Saul Goodman) The guy works fast. I mean that's the game here. You got to have your family packed and ready to go before you make the call. He'll tell you where to meet him; he'll put you up in a safe house until everything is set, but you've got to bring the money. He doesn't lift a finger unless he's paid in full.
CRANSTON: (as Walter White) Okay.
GROSS: That's a great scene with my guest Bob Odenkirk and Bryan Cranston from "Breaking Bad." You know, I love it when like, you know, Walt comes in and he's telling you that like his wife and children are in jeopardy, you know, that Gus might have them killed. And you go, Christ. It's like oh, now what?
ODENKIRK: Yeah. Well, you know, Saul's just thinking, oh, this thing's gone to the dogs now. This great - I mean I think when he...
GROSS: More work for me. Yeah.
ODENKIRK: Yeah. When he met Walt, he thought this is my golden calf here. I'm going to be rich off this. This is what I've been waiting for, and he's going to handle himself and he's not going to do anything crazy and it's going to be great. And so that's the oh Christ too, is Saul's realizing like this is just like every other thing he's tried; this guy can't keep it together.
GROSS: What have you learned from working with actors like Bryan Cranston?
ODENKIRK: I think a lot of sketch comedians and certainly standup comics who occasionally perform feel kind of embarrassed about taking acting seriously. They think of acting as something they'd be embarrassed to admit they made an effort at, you know? And I think that being around actors who come from an acting craft background - like Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston - don't feel any embarrassment at all about making an effort and taking the time and prepping for their part and trying to get in the headspace to play that. You know, the other night we did an interview and Betsy Brandt and Dean Norris literally came to tears talking about their relationship on the show - about that husband and wife relationship and how emotional it was. And I've seen, I've been in scenes where I've seen Aaron Paul take, you know, five minutes to get himself worked into an emotional state of intensity and anxiety and sadness and fear and get himself there in a physical way in order to play the scene. And that's just something that comic actors and the people that I come out of would kind of - they would probably make fun of that.
GROSS: Tell us something about your childhood - where you grew up, what you were known for among friends in school.
ODENKIRK: Well, I am from Naperville, Illinois and I'm from a family of seven kids. And they're a funny group of people, all of them are funny. My brother Bill is a writer of "The Simpsons." He's been there for about...
GROSS: Oh really?
ODENKIRK: ...10 years. Yeah. Mm-hmm. But we were far away from the world of show business in Naperville, and so it took me a long time to imagine even that I could be a part of this. But it's a very funny group of people and there was a lot of good times and a lot of laughter in our house and a lot of impersonations of people that we'd met that day. And it's a mostly Irish, some German Catholic family. And my mother is very funny - though she doesn't really know it. She makes a lot of wisecracks all through her day and she laughs a lot. And my father was kind of a good joker too - although he liked to tell like bar jokes and he, when I was young he liked "Hee Haw," which escaped me.
GROSS: Did he actually like tell jokes?
ODENKIRK: Yeah. He told joke jokes, you know, like you'd pick up in a bar.
GROSS: Do you remember any of the joke jokes he told?
ODENKIRK: I don't. I don't. I never liked them. I never liked the jokes. My dad I didn't like that much either, but...
ODENKIRK: ... I tolerated him.
GROSS: So when you became a comic, having had your father tell a lot of jokes but not...
GROSS: ...but you not liking the joke jokes...
ODENKIRK: But not my kind of jokes.
GROSS: Yeah. Exactly. So what did that make you want to turn to when you become a comic?
ODENKIRK: Well, nothing consciously, it's just - I just did what I did. I didn't think about that except I always felt like comedy was about honesty, you know, and somehow saying how you really feel about things. You know, because for me it's about getting to the core of things and speaking honestly about hypocrisy and stuff. But there was a kind of comedy I saw a lot of when I was a kid that was almost the opposite. It was like this strange kind of covering up of genuine motivation. All those Bob Hope specials just made me cringe when I was a kid. You never found them funny and all the sexual innuendo just made me crazy - even though as a child I didn't know what sex was about, but I just remember watching and thinking, why don't you just say you're horny, you know...
ODENKIRK: ...instead of rolling your eyes? What a weird thing. We all know what you mean, you know, it just seemed dishonest in a strange way, and I didn't know why anyone would find it funny. When I found Monty Python, that's what really spoke to me.
GROSS: My guest is Bob Odenkirk. He plays lawyer Saul Goodman on "Breaking Bad," which returns with its final episode Sunday. More after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to our interview with Bob Odenkirk. He plays the fast-talking lawyer Saul Goodman on "Breaking Bad." Odenkirk's first big break was getting hired on "Saturday Night Live" as a writer.
Was it ever frustrating for you at "Saturday Night Live" to, you know, to be on it and yet not really be known?
GROSS: You weren't a performer. Yeah.
ODENKIRK: Absolutely. I always knew I wanted to perform. In a lot of ways I became a writer so that I could perform. And I also knew that when I got hired at "Saturday Night Live" that I was nowhere near ready to perform on a national stage and without much scrutiny. And after four years of writing there, I was no nearer to it either - even though every summer I would perform. It was - and I told Lorne, I said I have to leave because I want to be a performer and I have to go get good at that. And you know, I don't think he, I don't know if he cared one way or the other what my excuse was. But yeah, it was hard. It was hard because it was, you know, I love performing and it was a little unsatisfying, no matter how well it went for me at any one week at "Saturday Night Live," it was unsatisfying to not get to do what I had written or, you know, be a part of it in that way. So yeah, so I had to, I knew I had to go and, you know, I wish I had been a more effective writer at "Saturday Night Live" and there's certainly plenty that has been spoken about that place and written about it, but it was a great place for me to learn and try to become, you know, a little bit more socially adept because I was incredibly awkward when I got hired there and...
GROSS: What was your problem?
ODENKIRK: I had a huge chip on my shoulder.
GROSS: What do you mean?
ODENKIRK: I, you know I just - I was really cynical about people and I was a difficult guy, and I probably didn't communicate that well. So it's already a difficult place to work and there's already a ton of pressure and it didn't help that I wasn't the most pleasant person to work with. I mostly worked with Robert Smigel and some with Conan O'Brien and I did make friends over the years and I did become a more effective writer towards the end. But I needed to leave there and I think do the things that were motivating me, like performing and writing my own sketches.
GROSS: Did "It's Garry Shandling's Show" come after that?
ODENKIRK: It did. I was a writer and an actor on "The Ben Stiller Show"; that was produced by Judd Apatow and Ben. And all my friends were in that show - Ben, Janeane Garofalo, Andy Dick. That was a great, great joy and fun to work on. And Garry Shandling was one of the celebrity guests, actors or performers - whatever - he came in. The show, "The Ben Stiller Show," was linked up with these interview pieces, and Garry came in, so he knew us and I went to audition for - to play the agent on his show. And because he knew me, I think that helped me have a leg up and to play the part of Stevie Grant on "Larry Sanders."
GROSS: Let's hear a clip from "The Larry Sanders Show," in which you played Larry Sanders' agent. Of course "The Larry Sanders Show" star Garry Shandling as late-night TV host Larry Sanders, who hosts a show kind of like "The Tonight Show." And as his agent you've been represented him for years but now Larry's been under fire from the network. He's insecure about the future. You've been hedging your bets while you're negotiating for his contract by also signing one of his potential rivals, Jon Stewart, who is played by Jon Stewart.
So in this scene you're backstage with Larry Sanders - Garry Shandling - right before he is about to step on stage to tape as late-night show, and you're discussing the negotiations.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE LARRY SANDERS SHOW")
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie Grant) Hey. There you are. Sorry I'm late. I was at a photo shoot.
GARRY SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) Oh, for which client?
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie Grant) No, it was for me.
SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) Oh.
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie Grant) It was for "Entertainment Weekly," the 50 most powerful people in Hollywood under 30.
SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) I thought you were 32.
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie Grant) Yeah.
SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) Well, congratulations.
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie Grant) Thank you.
SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) So did you talk to the network?
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie Grant) Oh, you mean did I kick the (bleep) of them and stuff their head in a toilet and flush it 19 times? Yeah.
SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) And?
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie Grant) One year. No bump.
SHANDLING: (as Larry Sanders) How many times did you flush their head down the toilet?
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie Grant) What are you trying to say?
GARY SHANDLING: (as Larry) What do you mean?
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie) Well, it just sounds like you're trying to imply that I didn't do my best.
SHANDLING: (as Larry) This is about Jon Stewart, isn't it? I am telling you, ABC has just made him an offer, and the network is just using me as a negotiation tool. Who represents him, anyway?
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie) I do.
SHANDLING: (as Larry) You do?
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie) Yeah.
SHANDLING: (as Larry) Since when?
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie) Since today.
SHANDLING: (as Larry) I thought you had a photo shoot and a meeting.
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie) I had to eat lunch, Larry.
SHANDLING: (as Larry) With Jon Stewart.
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie) Yeah.
SHANDLING: (as Larry) I see. Don't you think that's a tad of a conflict?
ODENKIRK: (as Stevie) Not for me. Hey, that's what life is about, Larry. It's about conflict. You have to learn to balance things out, right? You know, and I think I do a pretty good job.
SHANDLING: (as Larry) Well, excuse me. I have to go be on television.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as announcer) Larry Sanders!
GROSS: So that's Gary Shandling and my guest Bob Odenkirk in a scene from "The Larry Sanders Show." Bob Odenkirk plays Saul Goodman, the lawyer on "Breaking Bad" which starts the final part of its final season Sunday. People like your character so much, that you were on a recent cover of The New Republic. And...
GROSS: ...the cover was for a story about how big law firms are having a hard time making big money now.
GROSS: And so there's a picture of you on the cover in your full Saul Goodman persona, and the caption reads: Are you downwardly mobile? Terrified of your colleagues? Unsure of what your kids look like? Realizing that after selling your soul for the promise of a cushy life, your whole field is going to hell? You must be an attorney.
And I'm wondering if you get a lot of reactions to Saul from lawyers.
GROSS: And if they like your character, or if they're offended by your character.
ODENKIRK: Well, most - I've heard, more than once, people say, I've got to tell you. I know lawyers like Saul - which is always funny to me, because it occurs to me that maybe they mean to say they're like Saul.
ODENKIRK: Or not me, but all the other guys in this profession. You know, yeah. So I think it strikes a tone with them. I don't know - who was telling me? David Carr from the New York Times was telling me he met a lot of jailhouse lawyers in his various tribulations with the law, and that Saul struck him as a fairly good-hearted one and an honest rendition.
GROSS: So, one more question. When people...
GROSS: ...see you on the street, people who are fans of "Breaking Bad"...
ODENKIRK: Mm-hmm. Yes.
GROSS: ...what do they say to you? Is there a commonly said thing?
ODENKIRK: Well, they all say better call Saul.
ODENKIRK: But some of them - this is so weird, Terry.
ODENKIRK: And this is like - I think this is because it's so much more famous than anything I've done. It's so much bigger. There's, like, fringe awareness of the show, where people know the show, know the characters on the show, but they've probably not really seen it, or they've only seen a few minutes of it.
So this is where we trip into the weird place of sort of a version of success or fame that I - that is so strange. I get this. I got it today on the way into this building. I get this. I'm going to shout this out, so I'm going to back away from the mic.
ODENKIRK: OK. So that guy - this has happened more than once. That guy doesn't know my name, only knows me from "Breaking Bad," but doesn't know "Breaking Bad" that well, and has seen it enough to know I play some - I don't look like the character. So he knows it well enough to recognize my face, even though he doesn't know the show that well. That's a weird place to get to.
He doesn't know the name of the character, so he hasn't watched the show that closely. But he knows it well enough to recognize my face, even without the hair pieces in and the suit and all that other stuff.
GROSS: So what do you say in response?
ODENKIRK: I go, uh-huh.
GROSS: And then keep walking?
ODENKIRK: And I keep walking.
GROSS: And what if somebody really does know the show, and they say I love you in the show, I love the character of Saul?
ODENKIRK: I say thank you so much. I'm so lucky to be a part of that show.
GROSS: Right. Well, I'm so lucky to be able to watch you in it.
GROSS: Thank you...
ODENKIRK: All right. Thank you so much.
GROSS: ...so much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure.
ODENKIRK: I appreciate it.
GROSS: Bob Odenkirk returns as lawyer Saul Goodman this Sunday, when AMC's "Breaking Bad" begins the second half of its final season. You can see Odenkirk doing one of Saul's tacky local TV ads on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, our book critic Maureen Corrigan is won over by the new novel "The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P." This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.