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Underrated for years, Bob Odenkirk gets the call for 'Saul'

Interview: 'Better Call Saul' star Bob Odenkirk has an inner anger that propels him.

A few years ago, on a TV show that you likely never watch and probably never heard of but eventually might appreciate, Bob Odenkirk crafted a brief and remarkable performance. In fact, until Odenkirk joined AMC's acclaimed "Breaking Bad" in 2009 as the smarmy underworld lawyer Saul Goodman, became a series favorite and then the leading man of its hotly anticipated spinoff "Better Call Saul," he might have written his epitaph with such praise: Here lies Bob Odenkirk. He was influential, funny, underrated and fleeting.

But about that performance, on the mostly satiric IFC talk show "Comedy Bang! Bang!" Host Scott Aukerman shows a video clip introducing the audience to a 7-year-old bird-calling phenom. Then Aukerman calls him to the stage. And out walks Odenkirk, nodding sheepishly to Aukerman and guest Seth Rogen. The bird caller has aged since that clip but his skills have not, he insists, then demonstrates.

Or rather, Odenkirk whistles a little, explaining, with an authoritative pomposity, "Himalayan snowcock!"

Aukerman: "Great! … I mean, I'm assuming …"

Odenkirk: "You can assume it, because you know I'm No. 1."

Aukerman: "Great …"

Odenkirk, impatient: "Look, I wanted to talk about bird calling and my career, but to be honest with you the job situation in America has not been very good." And for the next five minutes, Odenkirk walks a line between parody and pathos, caricature and generosity of spirit, a disquieting portrait of a man who, once a world champion, is now middle-aged, unemployed and clinging to some sliver of renown.

In other words, another perfect Odenkirk character — blustery, choking on misplaced self-importance — the kind of short-lived creation Odenkirk has been embodying for 25 years, on "Seinfeld," "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Arrested Development." On HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show," he perfected the art of doublespeak as Larry's Hollywood agent. On "Mr. Show," the venerated HBO sketch-comedy series he created with David Cross in the mid-1990s, Odenkirk often played the blowhard in the suit, the fast-talker, the NASA official pushing a PR campaign to get Americans behind an initiative to blow up the moon ("We'll be doing it during a full moon, so we make sure we get it all").

And there were a few times when he seemed on the verge of a breakout: When the NBC version of "The Office" was being cast, Odenkirk was chosen to play the central role of the pathologically awkward Michael Scott ... until Steve Carell became available.

But that's been Odenkirk's life: aesthetically, professionally, geographically on the fringe.

He grew up in Naperville, graduated high school at 16, wrote sketches with his brother Bill (now a writer on "The Simpsons"), briefly broke into The Second City, knocked around Chicago as a stand-up comic.

When Odenkirk left Illinois, he joined the writing staff at "Saturday Night Live"; with Robert Smigel he co-created a slice of Chicago's identity there, writing the famous "Da Bears" sketches. Then he spent a decade helping to create a number of surreal-minded, cliche-adverse comedy shows, "The Ben Stiller Show" (on which he also performed), "Get a Life," "Late Night With Conan O'Brien," "Mr. Show."

Bit by bit, he established an absurdist, nontopical sketch comedy style, once removed from Monty Python, becoming so quietly influential that he was regularly sought by younger comics (including Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, whose Adult Swim cult hit "Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!" Odenkirk produced). A 2013 profile of Odenkirk in Wired simply announced: "The Internet Owes Its Sense of Humor to This Man."

All of which made his second act harder to predict.

As a journeyman character actor, Odenkirk has swung from memorable roles as the blinkered son in Alexander Payne's "Nebraska" to a police chief in the celebrated FX adaptation of "Fargo." But it's "Breaking Bad" that broke out Odenkirk, and it's "Better Call Saul" that promises to be his own showcase.

"We were huge fans of 'Mr. Show,' and Bob was someone we wanted to see more of," said writer Peter Gould, who co-created "Better Call Saul" with Vince Gilligan and conceived the Saul character. "We were only familiar with Bob's comedy work, but as 'Breaking Bad' got darker, Saul had to come along, and bit by bit (Odenkirk) showed a real generosity and gentleness that balanced the more nefarious aspects of the character. We found out that Bob was really one hell of an actor. Which, frankly, we didn't know right away."

Odenkirk talked by phone last week from Los Angeles; this is an edited version of a longer conversation. (A note: We have spoken several times over 20 years but we're not friends. Odenkirk calls everyone "buddy.")

Odenkirk:Hey buddy, how's it going? Did you see the show? Did you like the show? What did you think?

Tribune: Weirdly charming, considering it's a "Breaking Bad" spinoff.

A: That's a good way to put it! If everyone could just scale their expectations and comparisons to "Breaking Bad," they would find it likable fun. But you have to stop constantly asking yourself if it is like "Breaking Bad," or if it's not like "Breaking Bad." Nobody watched "Frasier" and kept wondering when Frasier was going to the "Cheers" bar — or did they? I have done a good job of not reading reviews, but I did read one and the person liked it but you could also feel tension behind the words, how the show was not "Breaking Bad."

Q: That might be because Saul was the one "Breaking Bad" character who changed the least.

A: Absolutely true. You mostly saw him in his public persona. You don't see the human being so much. But everyone does that to some extent, right? We put on suits, get our hair done, go out into the world and say, "This is who I am." Which may or may not be you. If you're smart, the door closes on that other person when you go home to family. You're more humble in private. This show is about Saul after that door closes.

Q: Listening to that , I wonder: Do you even think of yourself as a comedian anymore?

A: Oh buddy, good question. I try genuinely not to think of myself at all. But I guess I am an actor ... technically. So I think now about having a commitment to the moment, to the scene. I take that seriously, that ability to modulate the performance. But I guess I should leave it up to the audience to decide this question. I don't mean to be difficult. I think I am definitely trying to act. I think I have done a good job. I have been hearing good things from Peter and Vince about me on "Saul." But I haven't watched it yet! My biggest concern on a set these days is if I am too big. I am constantly asking them to use my smallest take.

Q: Too big as in too broad.

A: As in, with comedy, you play emotions in a simple way: You have a simple motivation, to hit a note and make a joke work. Your character has one side, and that simplicity works so people can just enjoy the joke. In drama, there are multiple sides, conflicting desires and you hold these at the same time. You think you know what a character wants but maybe they are sending vibes in a subtextural way about different motives. Which is why, when you watch a drama then go back later, you see complications you missed the first time. Everything Walter White does has new textures the second time. If Bryan (Cranston) hadn't been aware of the levels in his character — subconsciously, at the least — he couldn't give that same conviction.

Q: Which is interesting because when I think of the comedic roles you've been known for playing, you're also working multiple levels. You're this guy in a suit, self-inflated. But also sad, desperate.

A:Yeah, well, thank you, but that figure is a comedy staple. Gary Shandling, when he gave me the opportunity to play that (smarmy) agent in "The Larry Sanders Show," set how people think of me. So a lot of characters I have played have been duplicitous, very self-interested. Do it well and that's what Hollywood wants. I get a ton of offers to play sleazy agents and lawyers and I say no to all of them now. I'm not even sure it's the best thing I can do, but I think I may get more options now. Vince and Peter added so many dimensions to Saul and made him someone you empathized with. Then "Fargo," that gave me the chance to play a dim, naive guy who is kind of clinging to his naivete, having a desire to stay that way. You don't get those roles often. Also "The Spectacular Now" was a complete change, a character who wasn't a fool at all.

Q: But even an "SNL" character like Matt Foley, which you wrote decades ago for Chris Farley, seems to come not from ridicule but a sincere sympathy with kind of hapless people like Foley.

A:It does, absolutely. I'm not making fun of these people. Foley, I always thought there was a movie in that character. There's a story there, definitely a warm feeling for a loser who lives in a van down by the river and uses himself as a bad example of what not to be, and makes money off of that job. And of course there was no one more sympathetic than Chris. That would have been a great little movie. But only with Farley.

Q: I get that outlook from the early scenes in "Better Call Saul," where Saul, in the future, after the events in "Breaking Bad," is watching his old cheesy lawyer commercials. There seems to be a feeling of generosity in you toward people who, unintentionally, create cheesy TV commercials.

A:Right, because I remember those kind of commercials around Chicago. Not lawyer ones. Car ones.

Q: "Bob ROHHHHHHHHRRRRRman!"

A: I love those kind of things and I have seen them a lot recently and they are without shame, just cuckoo. Though I don't think I would play that kind of thing any different now than if I played it when I was younger. The truth is I always thought I would do better at dramatic acting than I did at comedy. When I was on a comedy stage in Chicago, at Second City, for example, I would look across at people who were just on the surface more fun than I was. Farley was like that. He had a simpler energy. People were in love with him the second they saw him on stage. Andy Dick too. You smile the minute you see them. But me, I would wonder what I was doing up there, being silly. I had a real anger inside, a slipperiness. People would have to figure where I was coming from. I remember being onstage and thinking I didn't belong up there: "You should be doing drama, you would fit in better there." But I never pursued that. I never auditioned and only when I did audition for Alexander Payne, I was invited to. I did a play in Chicago — "Line" at the Prop Thtr. And then I had kids and I still liked comedy. I had too much going on. I didn't knock on a million doors.

Q: When you moved to Chicago you were angry?

A:I was intense, definitely an angry guy. That can be a good thing. It can mean your commitment is though the roof, which can be fun to watch from the audience's perspective. Because it's always fun to watch someone get frustrated or want something desperately and not be able to get it. But I had to modulate that.

Q: Speaking of anger: When you were at Second City, you were a waiter at Ed Debevic's.

A:I worked there for a bit more than year, until right before I left Chicago and became a writer on "SNL." But I didn't participate in their (corny, pseudo-gruff) shtick. It would come across as too real from someone like me. It's one thing for an older waitress to say "Sit down honey! I'll get to you when I feel like it!" When I said it, the person would feel uncomfortable. It would not feel like a joke. So, ironically, I was a nice guy there.

Q: Do you think it was good for you to not have come out of a cult success like "Mr. Show" as a gigantic young star? Was it better to have had this following without being a household name?

A: It gave incredible latitude to my career. Basically, I haven't been pigeonholed by massive success. (Laughs.) I didn't become famous on a large stage for doing one thing, which meant I had to gain respect for everything I did. The bad part of that success is that you audition and you can't get though the (casting) approval from the studio because you're not famous enough. But the good part is good: I am taken seriously with new things because, paradoxically, I haven't been massively successful. I am perfectly good with that.

Q: For a while you were quietly known for mentoring young comedians. Are you still sought out?

A: Yeah, I am. But I do a lot less than I did even two years ago. When you have an opportunity to do your own work, as I do now, you should take advantage of that moment. But when things get slower? I think it's important to consider other people's questions and maybe, if you have the abilities they need, provide them with a shortcut. That's how I look at the mentoring: If I had learned certain things faster, or the right person could have noticed me, or I had understood to put my energy into the right things, that would have saved me years. If I see a young actor doing comedy, they seem better suited to drama — I could save them years.

Q: You've said that?

A: I really have. Some people, they go down a path in their career, maybe that path is ending, or they are pushing a project clearly not going to work, so I want to be honest. A guy wrote me the other day, a guy I like, who works hard and has been talking about a feature he wants to get made — he writes likable, sweet relationship stuff. But few people are cut out for being studio screenwriters; you need a certain personality to suffer that road. So why not write a 10-minute show? One you could sell to Amazon or Hulu, which need material like crazy. You'll get an answer faster, you have a better chance of getting a yes, and more important, you establish your voice. Which is key. That's the advice I give. Sometimes I do more. I don't see it as charity. I see it as what I am already thinking about, all the day long, all the (expletive) time, buddy.

'Better Call Saul'

9 p.m. Feb. 8, AMC

cborrelli@tribpub.com

Twitter @borrelli

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