There are few TV shows better than Better Call Saul, and even fewer TV actors better than Bob Odenkirk, the 54-year-old multi-hyphenate who headlines AMC’s Breaking Bad spinoff prequel as New Mexico’s shady lawyer Jimmy McGill. However, before that drama returns for its third season in April, Odenkirk will appear on the small screen in Girlfriend’s Day, an original Netflix feature he co-wrote and stars in as Ray, a once-great greeting-card scribe who winds up being drawn back into his former professional world after California announces a new holiday. Much underworld trouble ensues, pitched perfectly between film-noir bleakness and off-the-wall absurdity. As such, it’s another ideal vehicle for its versatile leading man, who again elicits surprising pathos playing an outcast caught in a mess of (at least partially) his own making.
For years, Odenkirk was chiefly known for his work in comedy, thanks to his and David Cross’s HBO sketch-comedy series Mr. Show With Bob and Dave (since reborn on Netflix as W/Bob & David), his years as a writer on the likes of Saturday Night Live and Get a Life, and then as a director of big-screen movies like Let’s Go to Prison and The Brothers Solomon. Yet Girlfriend’s Day mostly operates in a vein reminiscent of Better Call Saul, in that it’s a weirdly downbeat tale with Odenkirk as the bad luck-afflicted center of criminal attention. And it further cements his standing as one of our preeminent masters at embodying men who can’t seem to catch a break—or get out of their own way.
The actor spoke with The Daily Beast about his segue into more dramatic material, his love of Chinatown, the forthcoming direction of Better Call Saul, and his anxiety about our commander in chief.
Of all the unexpected things about Girlfriend’s Day, maybe the most unexpected is the fact that the opening narration (providing facts about the greeting-card industry) is handled by none other than David Lynch. How did that come about?
We knew we needed to let our audience know that this was genuinely going to be about greeting cards, and that we were going to take it seriously. You need to remind people that greeting cards are a very real industry, because the film has such a lunatic scenario. The introductory factoid is true: It really is a $3 billion a year industry. It’s not as fringe-y as everyone thinks it is when they first think of it. I’d written a couple of different intros, and we needed a voice that was unique and would suggest menace, but would also be straightforward. We thought about having Bill Curtis [from Anchorman] do it. But I thought Lynch was the perfect voice, because it’s that Midwestern voice, and he’s very matter-of-fact. He’s giving us facts that are true, but it’s also a little unsettling, and that’s what the movie is—it’s a little unsettling. So he was perfect.
Then it’s the showbiz thing—you ask your manager, “Does anyone know David Lynch?” We got ahold of him through his lawyer. I never spoke with him directly, but his assistant said that David is a fan of Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, and that he would be happy to do this short intro for us.
He certainly fits the oddball quality of the film. Where did the idea come from to set a noir-ish tale of murder and treachery in the greeting-card universe?
Eric Hoffman [Mr. Show] wrote the original draft with his friend Philip Zlotorynski, and then over the course of many years—between 10 and 13 years—we’ve been rewriting this whenever we’ve had time, because it always makes us smile. Eventually, I gave it to Ted Sarandos at Netflix, and he read it. Ted has a great sense of humor; he’s the man single-handedly keeping Arrested Development alive. He loved Mr. Show, so I thought he’d understand Girlfriend’s Day—and he did. Once they started making narratives at Netflix, I started pursuing them to make this. I owe it all to Eric Hoffman and Ted Sarandos.
Between Girlfriend’s Day, Better Call Saul, Breaking Bad, and even Fargo, you’ve moved into somewhat bleaker serio-comic crime-fiction roles. Was that always a direction you saw yourself headed in?
No, it wasn’t. When I started, the work that I did in sketch tended to be broader and sillier and more buffoonish. But I think, when you get a little older, it can be harder to pull that stuff off. People don’t want to see you be as broadly stupid—for most people! Some people can still pull it off. Will Ferrell is a master, and always makes you happy. He’s the one guy I’ve seen who can age, and it doesn’t change how funny he is in that broad way that he’s funny. But for me, I’m a more average person [laughs], and I think moving into drama fits with my own energy. With this movie, if you know my early work, I think this is the perfect mix. It’s so crazy that it’s been developed for so many years, because it kind of mixes my sense of comedy with the drama that I’ve done.
That’s especially true with the bum-fighting in Girlfriend’s Day, which struck me as Mr. Show-style comedy.
Right. It’s like the perfect mix of Mr. Show’s silliness with Better Call Saul/Breaking Bad’s dramatic weight. The movie is so loony in its scenario that, if you didn’t play it with some weight and earnestness, it would just float away.
Were there any particular crime films you thought about while developing Girlfriend’s Day?
Ray’s broken arm specifically reminded me of Nicholson’s busted nose in Chinatown.
Yes. And how about that scene with me and Stacy Keach, where he’s eating dinner? You know the scene in Chinatown, when [John] Huston’s eating the fish, and he says, “I hope you don’t mind—I like ’em with the head on.” In our case, Stacy Keach says, “I hope you don’t mind if I eat liver and beets. Exquisite!” And in Chinatown, Huston says, “Just find the girl,” whereas in ours, Keach says, “Just write the card.” So yeah, Chinatown is the main touchstone of this silly, silly movie. I love that film so much. I bet I’ve watched it more than any other movie. By a lot.
What is it that you so love about Chinatown?
Obviously, the first couple of times you see Chinatown, the mystery is really mysterious. Like, you can’t put it together. It makes sense and all, but it really is hard to connect all the dots off-screen.
It’s definitely convoluted.
It’s really convoluted, but it pays off on multiple viewings, because it all works—and I think our film is also really convoluted. But I promise you, because I’ve thought about it so much and I rewrote it so many times, things connect up. I think Chinatown works on multiple viewings because you still have a lot to learn, even on your fifth and sixth viewing. Plus, the performances are great, and the direction is amazing. Polanski’s direction is somehow energetic and at the same time is as calm as can be. It’s just a wonderfully told story. Nicholson’s the best.
Last year, you said Donald Trump was going to be funny until he won the election, at which point he’d stop being funny (and since then, you’ve lent your support to efforts to get the Electoral College to vote against him). I assume you’re not laughing now. How are you feeling about the new president?
I’m feeling worried. I’m obviously more of a liberal than I am a conservative, although you might be surprised at some of the positions I hold. But it’s not a liberal or conservative thing that is my concern with this president and his policies. It’s the instability that he brings to every moment of his life, and to our world, and our nation. That’s always been what concerns me the most—his unstable personality.
So far at least, have you been happy with how pop culture has been dealing with him?
I think people are doing great. I think Seth Meyers is, and Saturday Night Live is more amazing than it’s literally ever been. I think it’s as important right now, and as effective and as well-written, as it’s ever been. I’m amazed and really happy with watching the show and seeing the work they’re doing. So yes, I think pop culture is doing its part. But this is a pretty serious scenario that we find ourselves in, and I don’t know what’s going to solve it, or move it into a better place. I’m not sure. I just think time, and everyone paying close attention, is going to help the most.
At least Saturday Night Live’s six-year-high ratings seem to indicate that some people are paying attention—and that the show is reaching them.
And it’s smart satire that they’re doing. I really feel like they’ve taken the mantle, and become the main place where America can get some perspective on this—where they can laugh, but it’s also pointed.
I’m sure you don’t want to divulge too many secrets, but anything you can tell us about the direction of Better Call Saul’s upcoming third season?
Saul Goodman, to me, is kind of a guy who’s shut down a lot of his emotional life, because I guess his feelings have been hurt, and he’s decided to play tough with the world. In this season, some pretty bad things happen to Jimmy, and we see him starting to shut down those connections, the way his emotions flow. He starts to shut down in this season—not completely, but it’s like you feel these gates closing around the character, and he’s just getting darker and tougher.
It’s wonderful because that is the journey we’re on, and we’re getting somewhere. But it’s also kind of sad to play him, and to feel a person whose response to disappointment is to close himself off more and more from the world, and from hope.
Do you ever find yourself being driven mad by Jimmy’s behavior? He’s a guy who’s so easy to root for, and yet he’s also exasperating.
Yes. You want to give advice to him. It’s like the way you feel about a friend or a sibling who maybe has…you know, we all have different broken responses to our circumstances. It’s like having someone like that in your life, that you’re close to, and you want to instruct them on not making the same mistake again and again. So I do have those feelings, and I think what’s important for me, as part of a creative team in this effort, is that this desire to fix him is the same desire you have when you watch [Breaking Bad’s] Walter White. You say, “Don’t do that! Just take the money and go!” But he’s on a path, and he’s going to stay on it, and you can’t change it. And the psychological truth that these guys establish and follow is pretty strong and deeply thought out. So, similar to your friend or your family member, you just have to bite your tongue, and suffer, and let them go on their road and root for them.