As far as television shows go, it doesn’t get much bleaker than AMC’s Breaking Bad, the show about a down on his luck chemistry teacher played by Bryan Cranston who discovers he has lung cancer and decides to begin cooking Crystal Meth with an ex-student burnout [Aaron Paul] to make money to leave his family after he passes. Of course, summarizing the plot wouldn’t do the show justice. It’s beautifully shot, at times disturbing and often feels so painfully real that you stop breathing for what feels like minutes without realizing it. Midway through Season two, Bob Odenkirk came on board as Saul Goodman, a sleazy TV lawyer whose catchphrase “Better Call Saul” is littered throughout benches and billboards everywhere. In a show full of desperate people doing desperate things, Odenkirk’s character stands out as a ray of comic relief. Lightening tension with greasy one-liners and shocking insights into the lives of characters he barely knows. We talked to Odenkirk about his role and his inspiration for the smarmy yet somehow likable Saul Goodman character.
How did you get involved with Breaking Bad?
I picked up my phone when it rang and it was my agent asking me if I wanted to do a part on there. I guess [creator] Vince Gilligan just thought of me for the part and so I was invited to be a part of the show, which blows my mind.
Were you watching it before you got the call?
I had not seen it. I had seen the billboards, but I had not seen it. So I went and called a friend and he said it was the coolest show on TV and I said yes right away. I said yes off of my friend’s recommendation.
Was it weird to play such a sleazy lawyer?
No. I’ve played sleazy characters before. I actually thought, Oh yeah, I can do that.And then he said the guys’ name was Saul Goodman and I said, “Aww geez, I’m sorry I’m not Jewish!” And they go, “He’s not Jewish, he’s Irish. He just took that name to impress the homeboys.” I said, “Wow, that’s awesome. I wanna be that guy.” My kids are Jewish, my wife’s Jewish…I got invited to be a part of this super cool party that they were already having and it’s awesome. It’s one of those addictive shows—so involving and intense. It’s so great. It’s so well-done. It’s Vince Gilligan, you know, and you gotta give Bryan Cranston so much credit for being a powerhouse in his role. The writing and Bryan are the co-stars.
I heard you were only supposed to be on the show for a little while, but your role expanded.
Yeah. I’m in it until Saul either gets rich or gets nine shots to the dome
Breaking Bad is a black comedy and you play a pretty gross dude, yet you’re still the lightest, most easy going person on the show. It must be strange to inhabit a fictional story about cooking meth and be the happiest character.
It’s fun to be that lighthearted note on a show that’s so heavy-duty and dark. But you know—this is the thing—my character has the least at stake of any character. It’s not really my plan or anything, it’s in the story. Walter White has his family at stake, everything he loves is at stake and Jesse—Aaron Paul’s—character, has nothing in his life. It’s not like he’s got a career to fall back on. This is everything these guys have, and with Walter White it is literally everything he has in his world. With me, this is just a chance for my character, Saul Goodman, to make a lot of money. If he just doesn’t have it, he’s gonna keep going on. So you’re right, he comes off as a lighter character and I think people appreciate him in this story.
Your scenes are a chance for the audience to take a breather for a minute.
It’s true. It’s fun, too. It’s fun to see him try to manipulate everybody around him. I love playing Saul. His manipulations from one paragraph to the next, you just see a guy running through his arguments for whatever, it’s all about what he wants, you know? It’s like a kid negotiating with a parent. It’s all about getting what I want.
You completely nailed the slimy TV lawyer in a way I’ve never seen anyone do before. Where did that come from?
I think it just comes from thinking about who he is and reading the lines. These guys are real by the way. My website, Better Call Saul, the guys at Breaking Bad wrote for me, Peter Gould wrote it. And it’s really funny. That’s based on real lawyer’s websites. They’re not as outrageous in their arguments and such, but they present themselves…it’s very much like a used car dealer. “Over here! Come to me! I’m the one!” They’re shouting at you to use their legal expertise instead of the next guy’s. There are real guys that operate on this bottom feeder level of the law, of the justice system. The billboards you see—the office I’m in, the set designer told me how they went to one of these low rent lawyer’s offices to think about who he is. The purpose of the office is to impress people and make them believe I am powerful and intelligent, two things that I am not. I guess I am kind of powerful, and the way in which my character is intelligent is not really in book-learning, but in street knowledge of how the justice system works and which judge to talk to.
Your character has good criminal sensibilities.
He’s got the most savvy, which he knows. He knows with Walter White, he’s got a guy who doesn’t know anything about how this works. About how the system really works, so he’s got a guy who is generating these drugs and is helpless. It’s a great possible opportunity for Saul.
You’ve had a pretty notable career, but does anyone come up to you and recognize you as Saul Goodman?
One time, last year. The show has die hard fans. I think the thing is, I’ve mostly been known for sketch comedy, so for people who like intense drama like Breaking Bad. I guess some of them don’t watch that much comedy? Although, Breaking Bad is pretty goddamn funny. I was at the screening of the first episode and there were loads of laughs throughout. It’s so dark and the things people say… you can’t help but laugh because it’s so rough.