The King of Dramedy: Bob Odenkirk on ‘Nebraska,’ ‘Breaking Bad,’ and ‘Better Call Saul’
Bob Odenkirk hates the word, and so do we. But honestly, aren’t his roles in Alexander Payne’s Nebraska and Breaking Bad the apotheosis of the ‘genre’?
Bob Odenkirk loves dramedy.
In part, that’s a joke. (Read on and you’ll see why.) But it’s also a pretty accurate assessment of the last few years in Odenkirk’s life and career.
The Berwyn, Illinois native got his start in comedy—collaborating with Robert Smigel, writing for Saturday Night Live, performing in sketches (The Ben Stiller Show) guesting on various sitcoms (The Larry Sanders Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm), and creating, with David Cross, his own cult classic (HBO’s legendary Mr. Show).
But when Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan hired Odenkirk to play the darkly comic crime lawyer Saul Goodman in 2009, everything changed. Odenkirk was so sharp, so funny, and so believable in the role—and so beloved by fans—that Gilligan and fellow Breaking Bad writer Peter Gould decided to give him his own spinoff. Titled Better Call Saul, it was quickly snapped up by AMC.
Since then, the dramedies have kept on coming. In August, Odenkirk starred in Sundance favorite The Spectacular Now; the same month he joined FX’s upcoming miniseries adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. And now, Odenkirk returns to theaters as Ross Grant, the anchorman son of a confused alcoholic, in Alexander Payne’s haunting, hilarious film Nebraska. It’s his deepest, most soulful—most dramedic?—performance yet.
Earlier this week, Odenkirk got on the line with The Daily Beast to discuss Nebraska, Better Call Saul, and why he enjoys fake movie fighting. Excerpts:
Nebraska is very different from a lot of your previous work. Were you surprised when you were invited to audition for Alexander Payne?
This is the third Alexander Payne movie that I’ve read for. I read for About Schmidt and Sideways, too.
I didn’t realize that.
So Alexander knows of me from years ago, and I guess he thinks I have a certain quality that he can work with. I would always read for an Alexander Payne movie and I always will. I loved the script. I loved the part. I thought it would be a good fit for me. But I guess it is different from what I’ve done. You’re right.
I’ve seen Nebraska four times, and I think somehow I wandered into a classic. My heart is full thinking about it—the story, the images.
How would you describe your character, Ross Grant? What’s he like?
They call him a go-getter in the movie, and he is a go-getter, especially for that part of the country in a depressed situation. A lot of people have given up on having to achieve anything because it’s just too damn hard, but Ross is still trying to make it. He’s the hippest, coolest guy in his town in Montana. He’s an anchorman.
You said you thought Ross would be a good fit for you. Why?
Well, my dad was an alcoholic, and I think the way Ross perceive it and the feelings that he has are very similar to the ones I had about my father. Which is a lack of forgiveness, and an anger, and I think a justified frustration with the old man. I think Ross handles these situations the way I would have handled them.
Was it difficult emotionally to play a part that hit so close to home?
It was easier.
It was easy to play somebody who has the same feelings I have, because I think—I know, really—that Ross is justified in having these feelings. I think you always have to feel that way about the character—to see why they feel the way they do. No matter how awful that character is sometimes, you have to feel that what they want is justified to them at that moment. For me that wasn’t much of a leap with Ross.
You got your start behind the scenes as a comedy writer. Did you always know that you wanted to be in front of the camera?
Yes. I’ve always enjoyed acting and I’ve always wanted to do it. When I left Saturday Night Live after four years, I told Lorne Michaels, “I really want to be a performer. I know I have to get much better than that, and the only way I’m going to do it is by going to work at it.” And I always thought I was better in what people call “dramedies” than, say, sketches. I mean, I’m a sketch writer, I’ve worked on a ton of sketch shows, and I love sketch comedy, but sketch comedy is best played by people with a simpler energy than I have on screen. People who have a more likeable, simpler energy.
How would you describe your energy?
I think I have a complicated presence, where when you watch me you wonder “what are the ulterior motives?” Things like that. That lends itself more to drama than comedy. Comedy’s more fun. I’ve done plenty of sketch performing, though. I did a show at Second City with Chris Farley and Mr. Show with David Cross. I’ve performed with Jack Black. But these are people who when I’m on stage doing comedy with them I think, “Oh, I wouldn’t be looking at me. That’s the fun over there. Not me.” I had a good time in sketch comedy and I think I did some things very well, but in general my energy probably belongs in “dramedy.” Which is a horrible word.
“Dramedy.” It’s the dumbest word. Like “infotainment.”
Lately it seems like you’re really hitting your stride and getting more roles in these dramatic but blackly comic shows and movies. Have there been challenges in transitioning from mostly comedy to these more dramatic parts?
I don’t think there were special challenges. I think the challenges were I entered this as a writer. I did that for 30 years. I think the hardest part is trying to perceive yourself more primarily as a performer. If people compliment me on anything I’ve done as a performer, I can’t help but say, “The writing’s good.” Vince Gilligan is why Saul Goodman is good. Not me. I got to do him. And Bob Nelson and Alexander Payne are why I’m good in Nebraska. That’s just because I come from writing.
You mentioned Breaking Bad. The show is over now. How has it changed your life?
It was the juiciest, most awesome role, with people who were unbelievable professionals, like Bryan Cranston. And they were professional, in every way. I could watch technique in acting, I could watch how to handle someone on set, I could watch how to handle a show. It was just an unbelievable work experience and a joy.
To get that at 48, when I got it, was a crazy gift. It’s changed my life in a very basic way, because while I’ve had success among a small group of comedy fans, I’ve never broken out in comedy or in this other tone, “dramedy”—Oh god, that word again. Please title this interview “The Ins and Outs of Dramedy.”
“A Masterclass with Bob Odenkirk.”
“Odenkirk Loves Dramedy.” “Odenkirk Can’t Stop Saying ‘Dramedy.’”
But seriously, the fame of Breaking Bad—that has been a quantifiable change. A change in quality and quantity in my career, because a lot of Hollywood works on the principle that if a lot of people like something you’ve done then you’re allowed to do it again on a similar scale. So because Breaking Bad was crazily successful and influential, then now I’m allowed to be in these bigger projects that maybe people would have liked me for before but I couldn’t get into because I hadn’t crossed that threshold yet.
Speaking of future projects, how about Better Call Saul? When did Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould tell you about their idea for a spinoff? What did they say? What was your reaction?
Vince has been talking to me about it for three years.
Yeah. Really for three or four years. I think the second season I came back, which was the third season of Breaking Bad, that’s when he started to think there was a show in this character. He’s had it in his mind for a long time. Then Peter and Vince really started talking seriously about it, I would say, two years ago: What will the show be? What could it be? They told me some of the other characters and situations, and it was very intriguing—very new and fresh. I’m thrilled. Over the moon. I don’t talk about it much because I’m still trying to figure out if I’m dreaming right now.
The character of Saul Goodman is so incredible, but I’m curious about how you build a show around him. What’s the latest? What can you tell us?
I don’t know. Literally I met with them two and a half months and they talked to me about a character or two that they have in mind. They were going to detail them a little bit. But they weren’t even committed to those characters. They might not even make it to the show. I can say they were looking into revealing Saul’s personal life, where he came from, some of the things that motivated him … but I can’t say any more because I don’t even know if that stuff is true anymore.
Everybody blogs or reblogs the stuff I said about it being a prequel or a sequel. Basically I was saying nothing.
But I’m not saying nothing, because in our very few conversations, we have talked about … Vince has this idea for a prequel. But of course fans are curious to know what happens to Saul next, when he’s in Omaha. So there is a sense that it could be both. Maybe they’re mixed. I’m going to learn more in about two weeks. They’re working. They’re hiring writers.
So it’s “to be determined.”
Yeah. The other thing about this is the first day I got on set and I was sitting there about to do my first scene as Saul Goodman, I remember my brain just immediately started going, “How much time do we have to shoot this scene? Is the lighting right? Are there any things missing here on set? What else do we have to shoot today?” All the things that come from having directed and produced. A lot stuff I’ve done I’ve produced. And then it dawned on me that that was not my job. That was all I had to do—to be this guy. I didn’t have to wonder if we were behind schedule. I took no responsibility for it, and it was incredibly freeing and allowed me to focus in a way I’ve never focused before.
So I’m approaching this spinoff effort the same way. I told Vince I might have an idea or two about it, but you guys do it. I’ll do whatever you guys send me. I’m excited about getting a script and being surprised.
One last Breaking Bad question. Looking back, what was your favorite scene or moment?
I love getting into fights.
I love pretend fighting. Like in Nebraska, too. Every fake fight I’ve been in—even though I mostly get my ass handed to me—is a joy. You’re completely an adult just being a kid. Here you are fake fighting. It’s super fun to think that’s your job even for a few seconds.