NPR’s Scott Simon speaks with TV star Bob Odenkirk about the fifth season of “Better Call Saul” and the challenge of playing an established character backwards in time.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
“Better Call Saul” is flooring it to its season finale on Monday. Saul is Saul Goodman, of course, the Albuquerque illegal legal eagle, a shady guy in flashy suits, raspy voice and fading hair who holds office hours in a carnival tent and gives out cut-rate legal advice and cellphones with his number on speed dial.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, “BETTER CALL SAUL”)
BOB ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Next. No. 1 on the speed dial, that’s your lifeline. Cops pick you up. They threaten you. They look at you sideways. You press that button, and I’m there.
SIMON: Saul Goodman, previously known as Jimmy McGill and later as Gene Takavic, is wrapping Season 5 of “Better Call Saul,” a spinoff from AMC’s highly acclaimed “Breaking Bad,” and, like its forebearer, has won a slew of Emmys and Peabody Awards. Saul is portrayed by Bob Odenkirk, of course, who joins us from his home in Los Angeles. Thanks so much for being with us.
ODENKIRK: Thank you for having me.
SIMON: “Better Call Saul” is a prequel, but it’s a prequel that uses the same actors, including, you know, yourself and Giancarlo Esposito playing the people they were sometimes a decade before.
SIMON: Now how challenging is it, in a sense, to play a character backwards?
ODENKIRK: Well, you know, I was lucky. And I think also the writers would agree that in “Breaking Bad,” you only saw Saul at work, so you only saw his persona that he admits right from the get-go is a phony one that he’s invented. So the hardest thing to do is actually to play the character in an earlier time in his life, playing someone who’s naive and doesn’t have the self-awareness that comes with time if you’re lucky and you keep your eyes open. But as the seasons have gone, he’s gained in self-awareness and he’s grown and he’s easier to play, I would say.
SIMON: We did a little nosing around talking about younger versions of yourself. You used to host a midnight-to-4 a.m. comedy show on a radio station at Southern Illinois University.
ODENKIRK: (Laughter) Yeah, that’s where I started in show business. I…
SIMON: Midnight to 4 a.m. in Carbondale.
ODENKIRK: Yes, “Prime Time Special,” it was called. It was not on primetime, and it was not special. And a friend of mine, Tim Thomas, was my partner in that. And we did sketch comedy and we improvised, and we just goofed around. But we did write and invent characters, and it was a beginning – a humble beginning, which is the only way I could ever start in show business is with humility, and also to carry on in the business because I’m from a good Midwestern family that does not believe in showing off (laughter). And so, yes, I started at Southern Illinois University with a comedy show. I actually started at Marquette University. I went to four colleges.
SIMON: You were in such demand?
ODENKIRK: Well, I was 16 when I went to college, and I was so young I felt I wouldn’t fit in, so it took me a while to actually find a college that fit me and gave me the room to be the immature person that I was. I was precocious. My mom also put me in school early as a little kid, so it was all abbreviated.
SIMON: May I ask – ’cause you, like so many other great talents, are a product of the vaunted Second City in Chicago – what was it like when your mother saw you onstage?
ODENKIRK: Yeah, it’s weird. I mean, really, she’s a very humble person and, I think, struggled for a long time with the notion of show business. And, I mean, we certainly laugh a lot in our house, and she’s a funny person, my mom. And I don’t know if she sees how much of what I do comes from her and her sense of humor. I think she’d find it a stretch, but I think a lot of what I do does come from her.
SIMON: Saul is not an admirable guy in the scheme of things in the universe.
ODENKIRK: No, he is not.
SIMON: But he’s – sometimes he’s hard not to like, isn’t he?
ODENKIRK: Yeah. I mean, they’ve done a wonderful job in writing this sequel show. Two points I brought up – one, I was 50 years old at the time, so he can’t be too young in the show. And secondly, you got to make him likable because Saul Goodman in “Breaking Bad” was a lot of fun in relation to every other character. So Saul was a breath of fresh air in that world. But taken alone, he is, you know, he’s a schemer and, I think, a hard person to root for. So they invented, you know, Jimmy McGill, the person who he really is, who is a very likeable guy and has good instincts and tried to follow them, but he doesn’t succeed at that and his fallback is to become a scoundrel.
SIMON: “Better Call Saul” has been inked for a sixth season, the last. Do you think you know how Saul winds up?
ODENKIRK: No, I don’t think I do. I would like to see him become a better version of himself, but I don’t know if the people who write this show perceive people as ever doing that (laughter). But there’s always hope. It would be interesting to see it. I’m not sure it would make fun TV, but I’d like to see if it could. But I’m not in charge.
SIMON: Bob Odenkirk – the fifth season of “Better Call Saul” wraps up Monday on AMC. Of course, the rest of the season can be streamed, and don’t we all have some time on our hands right now before the finale? Bob Odenkirk, thanks so much for being with us.
ODENKIRK: Yeah, thanks for talking.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “BETTER CALL SAUL: THE SONG”)
JUNIOR BROWN: (Singing) …With a spray paint can. Blue lights start a-blinking (ph). Those handcuffs click. You know who to call, and you better call quick. Saul, Saul – you better call Saul. He’ll fight for your rights when your back’s to the wall. Stick it to the man, justice for all. You better call Saul.
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