This is not a trip going way, way back. In fact, it’s but a brief leap to 2017. But given the recent heart attack suffered by that fine actor, comedian and all-round good guy Bob Odenkirk – he’s fine, he says – while he was filming the final season of Better Call Saul, it seemed only appropriate to revisit.
Wind Back Wednesday finds the actor in Sydney, missing a trademark piece of face furniture, but not his wit.
It’s important to recognise a part of Bob Odenkirk, although it is not visible today as he sits in a black-on-black outfit, his hair neatly parted.
No one rocks the moustache as a sign of defeat better than Odenkirk-as-Gene, the third iteration of the character we met as Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad, have come to know as his precursor, Jimmy McGill, in Better Call Saul, and who now is the sad sack fast food vendor on the run from all that Saul and Jimmy have wrought.
Moustache acting is underrated.
“I believe so,” says Odenkirk, a small smile playing at the corners of his mouth, today free of any upper lip hairiness. “I believe that the existential sorrow that a moustache imputes to a character – is that the word, impute? – no, that it brings, that it casts upon a character, has not been explored quite so well as I have.”
What does he bring to moustache acting that others haven’t managed?
“Well I guess a moustache could be an argument for masculinity,” he says. “But it could also be a person who is just hiding, not able to finish … shaving. Just giving up.”
Gene is not Odenkirk’s only quality moustache role of late. He also sported one as the not-in-control police officer, Bill, in Fargo.
While Bill hasn’t given up on life, as Gene seems to, they’re both submissive characters in some ways, once possibly in charge of their lives but now buffeted by the winds.
You could call those characters one of Odenkirk’s specialties, but the 54-year-old actor, writer, director and comedian who grew up as a Monty Python fan has a broader resume than fascinating sad sacks.
With his early career moves in comedy writing and occasional appearances (for Saturday Night Live, The Ben Stiller Show) morphing into longer roles in The Larry Sanders Show and the sketch comedy series he created with fellow comic David Cross, Mr Show, Odenkirk has moved back and forth between writing, directing and acting.
He’s also published two collections of his writing and is working on a mini-series based on the writings of former New York Times journalist David Carr. Consequently he looks at scripts with something more than a jobbing actor’s eyes.
“The one thing I look for is that there is a second dimension to the character.” Odenkirk says. “Fargo is a great example of character where you see his self-awareness later, much later. In Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman doesn’t seem to have a lot of self-awareness or that other dimensions, although he does one or two times in the course of the run.
“But if you just get a feeling that the character has some self-awareness and that there is some conflicting-ness to the character, an extra dimension, that’s a really good sign that you’ve got a good part and a thoughtfully written piece.”
It’s interesting he describes Saul Goodman and even Jimmy McGill as lacking self-awareness, as you could argue they are all too aware of their ambitions and weaknesses.
“Saul is a good one; he has self-awareness. I guess the question is beyond being aware of what kind of awful character he is portraying, he’s choosing to portray, does he have another side to him that regrets that, that has feelings about that, a struggle with that? That’s a good sign,” says Odenkirk. “If a character is kinda struggling with their shortcomings, that’s like the key. They can be true obviously of the lead character very often, but it can be true of secondary characters too. Everybody can have that dimension if a writer really cares. That’s what you look for.”
The allowance for secondary characters to have depth and exploration is one of the hallmarks of both Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul and Fargo, shows which are sustained by an audience belief in the continuing growth of the characters around the lead.
For example, there is no way that a Jimmy could have been created without an audience believing that Saul had more dimensions to him than the huckster and shyster.
Odenkirk reveals that Vince Gilligan, who created Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, had envisaged a spin-off of Saul Goodman’s story not long after the character – who had been intended as a three episode “fun way to get exposition out” – appeared.
One of the show’s writer/directors, Peter Gould, told him that the way he was being played brought “some self-awareness in, a likeability that they hadn’t seen in the comic version of the character”.
In other words, a fully rounded, “real” person, but maybe even more than that, someone being played by an actor who could create this character “backwards” as the prequel spin-off developed.
“I think all the pieces were there in the script. I think he is an excited person who gets carried away with his plans, and that’s something we saw in Breaking Bad,” says Odenkirk, who is happier deflecting attention to Gilligan and the shows’ writers.
“He is a guy who is pursuing money and manipulating the situation and the people around him. Those were things that we saw even in the first episode of Better Call Saul.”
There is though that extra dimension Odenkirk spoke of, that you see in quieter moments such as a telling but almost throwaway line in the first episode of Better Call Saul’s third season where he says “for 10 minutes today, Chuck [his older brother played by Michael McKean] didn’t hate me”.
That line, the subtext and history in that, is worth the episode alone – and it’s a pretty good episode – as you see another moment of emptiness, of realisation dawn in the move from Jimmy to Saul.
“It’s almost like you take that broad, crazy, intense character and they just moved him into environments where an inner person would come out. Whether that’s with his brother or just alone,” says Odenkirk.
“You take any character, take them out of their bigger context, and put them in a room alone or eating or just thinking and you’re going to get a different version of the person. You’re going to get more inside that person’s head.”