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Feb 9, 2022
Bob Odenkirk’s Long Road to Serious Success He was a comedian’s comedian — until “Better Call Saul” revealed him as a peerless portrayer of broken souls. What will he turn himself into next? Bob Odenkirk.Credit...Photo illustration by Zachary Scott for The New York Times Supported by Listen to This Article Audio Recording by Audm When Bob Odenkirk’s agent first called him about playing an oily bus-stop-ad lawyer named Saul Goodman on “Breaking Bad” — at the time a little-watched cable show in production on its second season — Odenkirk hadn’t seen a minute of it, much less heard about it. But he readily accepted the gig. He was in no position to turn down good work — even if it was a minor role, intended to last only a few episodes. “I needed money!” he told me. Odenkirk’s pedigree was in comedy, where he enjoyed a paradoxical status: legendary and obscure. He studied improv under the visionary teacher Del Close and performed for packed crowds at Second City alongside buddies like Chris Farley. He had a hand in writing sketches that helped define the ’90s era of “Saturday Night Live.” He acted on “The Larry Sanders Show” (excellent and underseen), wrote for “Get a Life” (excellent and canceled swiftly) and did both for “The Ben Stiller Show” (excellent and canceled even more swiftly) and for one of the all-time-great American sketch series, “Mr. Show,” a cult hit that he created for HBO in 1995 with his friend David Cross. When it ended after four seasons, Odenkirk tried directing feature films with decidedly mixed results, failed to get a litany of other projects off the ground and turned to mentoring younger talents whose love of sketch comedy matched his own. So when the offer came in 2009, he flew from Los Angeles to Albuquerque, watching “Breaking Bad” — about a mild-mannered New Mexico chemistry teacher named Walter White who receives a terminal cancer diagnosis and, in the midlife crisis that ensues, becomes a coldly calculating meth kingpin — for the first time on the plane. “I didn’t even watch a whole episode, but I didn’t need to, I got it,” Odenkirk recalled. He also didn’t bother to memorize the reams of cascading, hucksterish dialogue that the writer Peter Gould had crafted for him, certain that these lines would be cut way down by the time he stepped on set. They weren’t. And, 12 years later, on a Friday night this December, Odenkirk was still in Albuquerque, still playing Saul Goodman. The role had not merely changed his life but, to a significant and not-unwelcome degree, commandeered it. “Breaking Bad” grew into a prestige-TV-defining smash on the order of “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men.” And Saul proved such an enjoyable part of it that, when the series ended, its creator, Vince Gilligan, decided his next TV project would be a prequel, created with Gould and titled “Better Call Saul,” focused on the surprisingly poignant question of how this scumbag lawyer came to be quite so scummy. Image Image “Better Call Saul,” Season 1, 2015.Credit...Lewis Jacobs/AMC My first glimpse of Odenkirk came via a pair of monitors wedged into the open garage of a suburban home, on the northeast side of town. It was a punishingly cold evening, which seemed even colder thanks to a scattering of fake snow arranged outside the house. Crew members huddled in winter coats, and production vehicles sat humming up and down the block. Odenkirk, who’d recently turned 59, was here to shoot a scene from an episode that will air later this year during the show’s sixth and final season. Gilligan himself was on hand to direct, adding to the last-hurrah ambience: “We have to be out of here tonight,” Gilligan told me in the garage, eating a slice of pizza from the catering truck before darting back inside, “so there’s a little time pressure.” It was Odenkirk’s fourth consecutive night shooting in the house, his workday starting around dusk and ending around dawn. But when I said hello to him between setups in a spare bedroom, where he sat reading Mel Brooks’s autobiography, he was feeling voluble and introspective. “This has been the biggest thing in my life,” Odenkirk told me from behind a Covid-protocol face shield, “and it’s emotional to say goodbye to it, and to all these people I’ve been working with for so many years.” He grinned, then added, “I guess people who work on, you know, ‘N.C.I.S.’ would say the same thing. But would they mean it?” If “Better Call Saul” hasn’t been a hit on quite the epochal scale of “Breaking Bad” — few things are — it might wind up being the greater artistic achievement. Odenkirk and the show’s writers are close to pulling off a tricky double transformation: First, they wound Saul back from the two-dimensional opportunity for levity he was on “Breaking Bad” into a tragicomic antihero called Jimmy McGill — the man Saul Goodman used to be, who wrestles with near-pathological unscrupulousness while trying to win the respect of a prideful older brother (Michael McKean) and a devoted girlfriend and fellow lawyer (Rhea Seehorn) whose belief in him he can’t seem to help betray. And then they started to turn Jimmy, piece by piece, back into Saul again. The show’s central question is whether a flawed person can truly change for the better, and the implicit answer, given that we know who Jimmy is on his way to becoming, is grim. The result has been a decade-plus, nonlinear experiment in character development spanning multiple seasons of two different series, the closest precedent to which might be Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries. Emmy voters nominated Odenkirk for best lead actor in a drama four times, and you can imagine the shock of those who knew him from “Mr. Show”: How did the guy who did that manage to do this? Talking in the spare bedroom, Odenkirk was dry and earnest, underscoring that the lunatic places he has been able to push himself onscreen are exactly that: places he pushes himself. Now, with the role that made him an unlikely star finally ending, it was clear that Odenkirk was ready to push somewhere new. He’d parlayed a frustrating yet fruitful comedy-writing career into a frustrating yet fruitful comedy-acting career, pivoted to a frustrating and unfruitful directing career, then stumbled into a celebrated dramatic-acting career so fruitful that Alexander Payne (“Nebraska”), Greta Gerwig (“Little Women”) and Steven Spielberg (“The Post”) all cast him in movies. Odenkirk, of course, foresaw none of this, nor that he would write a memoir of his life, “Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama,” to be published next month by Random House — much less that he would star in an action movie called “Nobody,” written by the creator of “John Wick,” which grossed $55 million worldwide last year, about an ex-government assassin who, seeking revenge after a home invasion, leaves a trail of destruction that puts his family in far more danger than the initial intruders ever did. Image Odenkirk in the film “Nobody,” 2021.Credit...Universal Pictures “I’ve done all these different things, and there’s been a great degree of failure,” Odenkirk told me later, adding, “I don’t wanna be a dilettante. I would feel horrible if that’s how I was characterized.” He paused, then assumed a tone of mock grandiosity. “Or!” he said, smiling. “Am I the best dilettante that ever lived?” Inside the house, a cameraman captured a beguiling tableau: There was a glass-topped watch winder, lined with felt and fitted with three fancy-looking timepieces, each traveling in its own hypnotically undulating orbit. A few inches away stood a framed photograph of a dog and, next to this, a squat urn. Framed from overhead, Odenkirk shuffled into the shot and planted himself in front of these things, telegraphing a faint, happy drunkenness, with just a few grunts and an impressive economy of motion. He set down a glass of liquor next to the urn and proceeded to pluck the watches from the winder, stuffing them into his coat pocket. Slowly, the camera tracked forward, making clear that Odenkirk stood on a balcony overlooking a living room — and, a beat later, revealing a jarring sight on the floor below. Lagging behind the camera, Odenkirk casually peered over the balcony’s edge and, spotting the thing in question, reacted with a jolt, his boozy contentedness giving way, abruptly, to a silent-comedy pantomime of terror. “This is the God’s-eye view,” Gilligan called out to Odenkirk, explaining the mechanics of the shot. “We see something a second before you do.” They filmed one take, then another, the sequence short but demanding precisely timed interplay between camera and actor. “It’s really funny,” Gilligan told Odenkirk of his performance. “Let’s do one where you hang out there a touch longer.” “Maybe the camera shouldn’t move till I touch the urn?” Odenkirk suggested. “Yeah,” Gilligan replied, “but let’s perfect this version first, where we see it before you do. That’s how the Coens would do it, and I love those guys.” Much like Coen brothers’ films, “Better Call Saul” is a show about audacious schemers — some of them drug lords, some thieves, some hit men, some cops, one veterinarian and many lawyers — who put elaborate plans in motion that those of us at home are routinely kept in the dark about, left to guess where they’re headed. Saul is, first and foremost, a rhetorical safecracker. Odenkirk realized early on that virtually every time the character speaks, his aim is to entrance people with a slick spell of words until he gets what he wants. “He’s trying different tacks, looking at the person he’s talking to, going down one road, seeing if it’s working,” Odenkirk told me. But one of the dramatic tensions of “Better Call Saul” is that his mouth rarely stops running when it should, even when it gets him into trouble. “It’s almost like he thinks the more complicated his scheme is, the better,” Odenkirk said. “Like Huck Finn: I know how we’ll sneak into the house — first, you pretend to be a widow. ... ” Odenkirk laughed. “Like, Hold it, why not just go through the window?” That night’s shoot required something besides verbal acrobatics, though. Gilligan showed me an iPad with a schematic of the set, upon which he’d diagramed Odenkirk’s looping path through the house and the camera angles he devised to capture it. “I think it’s going to be a very shocking and dismaying sequence for the audience and one that does not have the benefit of dialogue,” Gilligan told me. “Bob doesn’t say a single word, and what he’s known for is his mouth,” but “he really made himself indispensable to this show because we realized there’s so much more to him than his mouth.” Like its predecessor, “Better Call Saul” is about a man who descends in fits and starts into his worst possible self, and who finds that descent irresistible in comparison with a straight-and-narrow life spent, as Henry Hill puts it at the end of “Goodfellas,” as “a schnook.” Or, as Saul himself puts it at the end of “Breaking Bad,” as “just another douchebag with a job and three pairs of Dockers,” managing “a Cinnabon in Omaha.” One of the dark jokes on “Better Call Saul” arrives in a series of flash-forwards, when we discover that, after fleeing New Mexico, Saul is indeed living under an assumed identity in Omaha, overseeing a food-court Cinnabon — a drab and joyless existence, shot in black and white. Both shows resemble updated westerns, depicting lawlessness on the onetime frontier of a now-fading empire. And both suggest that the impulse to cheat, cut corners and get over on chumps, if not inflict harm upon them outright, is far from some aberrant pathology in the American identity but rather a constitutive force. One of the more provocative implications of “Better Call Saul” is that Jimmy’s truly unforgivable transgression isn’t that he behaves unethically but that he does so as an uncouth underdog: driving a junky yellow car, wearing garish suits and lacking the decency to launder his self-serving behavior behind a fancy law-school diploma. From behind his face shield, Odenkirk explained that his first impulse as an actor and a writer is to search for layers of buried motivation and stress-test the script for emotional falsity — even when that material consisted of him descending a staircase as quietly as possible, hoisting a makeshift weapon over his head. But he acknowledged that there was “no subtext here.” When he was younger, he said that he could be a “pissy guy” with a “chip on his shoulder,” but after this many years of playing Saul, he’d learned when to trust people like Gilligan and Gould — to simply shut up and do what his collaborators told him. Image Odenkirk’s abiding conviction is that “the best comedy has anger in it.”Credit...Photo illustration by Zachary Scott for The New York Times For five hours I watched as he sneaked around the house, engaging in a weird cat-and-mouse game with another character. “This is optional,” Odenkirk told Gilligan after some sneaking, his brain unable to resist subtextual probing, “but I think part of him enjoys this? The romance of danger?” Gilligan nodded, by way of saying no: “I think you need to play it more like, Ah, I gotta get outta here,” he replied, “otherwise it’ll play weird.” Whenever a new shot was being prepared, Odenkirk retreated to the bedroom to read, chitchat with the scene’s only other actor (rather than risk a possible spoiler, I won’t name him) and make phone calls. At one point he sent for me, and I found him on his cellphone with someone on the crew, proposing a plot that, I soon gathered, involved hoodwinking Gilligan. “They say we’ll be done at 2 a.m., but it’s not gonna happen,” Odenkirk said into his phone, sketching out a subterfuge that he thought would help “motivate Vince” to bring things in on schedule. This required leveraging a 45-minute break in some mildly duplicitous way, and I was amused to see that Odenkirk, making his show about an inveterate schemer, wasn’t above a little scheming of his own. When the call went around the set for “lunch” — at 11 p.m., disconcertingly — there was much left to finish. For some people on the crew, this was a chance to nap, but for Odenkirk it was an opportunity to read the script for the series finale, which Peter Gould had written and delivered to him under strict orders to share it with no one. An assistant on the show said, “I’m supposed to take anyone out who tries to read it besides Bob.” “Peter’s coming to the house tomorrow afternoon, and we’re gonna talk about it — you can’t be there for that,” Odenkirk told me. “But why don’t you come over beforehand?” Odenkirk shares a home in Albuquerque with Rhea Seehorn and another actor from the show, Patrick Fabian (who plays the manicured law partner Howard Hamlin). I arrived the next morning and found Odenkirk in the kitchen, wearing jeans and running sneakers, showing no signs of the all-nighter he pulled. The house was built in the 1940s, Odenkirk said, by a contractor who specialized in office buildings, which accounted for its slight resemblance, from the outside, to a dental clinic, down to a ribbon of ornamental glass bricks installed beside the front door. Photographs of his wife, the comedy manager Naomi Odenkirk, and their two children hung on the walls alongside pictures of his roommates’ families. (Seehorn got the master bedroom, downstairs, while Odenkirk and Fabian claimed bedrooms upstairs.) Odenkirk decided to live with fellow cast members a few years ago, to help alleviate the isolation he felt when “Better Call Saul” began. “It’s about loneliness,” he said, when I asked if the roommate arrangement reflected some method-style immersion. Making the first season, Odenkirk lived by himself at a condo owned by Bryan Cranston, the star of “Breaking Bad,” who vacated it when that show ended. Odenkirk likened that experience to living “on an oil rig,” his mind gnawing at its own edges after draining shoots. “It gave me great sympathy for someone like James Gandolfini, who talked about how he couldn’t wait to be done with that character, and I think Bryan said similar things: ‘I can’t wait to leave this guy behind.’ I finally related to that attitude.” This surprised Odenkirk, at first: “I always used to scoff and roll my eyes at actors who say, ‘It’s so hard.’ Really? It can’t be.” And yet, he discovered, “the truth is that you use your emotions, and you use your memories, you use your hurt feelings and losses, and you manipulate them, dig into them, dwell on them. A normal adult doesn’t walk around doing that. Going: ‘What was the worst feeling of abandonment I’ve had in my life? Let me just gaze at that for the next week and a half, because that’s going to fuel me.’” In Odenkirk’s case, this meant dwelling on painful childhood memories, “putting myself back to being a 9-year-old,” he said, “and my dad wakes me up at 2 a.m. to tell me he’s leaving and he’ll send me money to pay the bills, and I’m thinking, I don’t know cursive enough to write the check, so how am I going to pay the bills? ‘Let me just make myself that kid again, because I’ll take that feeling of loss and fear and play it tomorrow!’” He added, “If there was one thing that let me do this, it was some access I have to the emotional, even traumatic spaces inside me that maybe isn’t the most healthy person to be.” Growing up outside Chicago, in the town of Naperville, Odenkirk was one of seven siblings. He readily discusses his father, and his loathing for him, referring to him in his memoir as “a hollow man” with a short temper, who spent his days with drinking buddies when he was around at all and who did an abysmal job of caring for his children. “It’s not that I didn’t love my dad,” Odenkirk told me. “He just wasn’t around, and he was a kind of a blank, shut-down guy, and he did things that were tortuous to me and my older brother, because he was drunk. He was always telling us, ‘The family’s broke, I don’t know what we’re gonna do and where we’re gonna live.’ And we’re little kids! Like: ‘I’m 5! I can’t help you with that!’” Odenkirk’s response was to dissociate, “reading” his father as though he were some literary grotesque out of Dickens. In his memoir, he describes his father’s death — which came when Bob was 22, by which point the two were fully estranged — with remarkable coolness: “Saying goodbye to him was a shrugging affair.” When I asked if the wound had really cauterized so neatly, Odenkirk said: “I’ve often felt like I must be hiding something, or not acknowledging something, or can’t see something. There’s no question I wish I had a father figure in life, especially as a kid, especially a good one. Wouldn’t that have been nice? There are definitely things I’ve had to deal with there, because I had nothing, an emptiness.” Odenkirk says that the “tension and trauma” his father generated is “one reason my brothers and sisters and I are so close.” His younger brother Bill earned a Ph.D. in chemistry before Bob assisted him in achieving his own dream of becoming a comedy writer, on shows like “The Simpsons” and “Mr. Show.” Their older brother, Steve, is a banker in Tucson, Ariz. Other siblings have pursued various careers: water-table tester, retail worker, funeral director and real estate agent. “Bob was born with a really independent streak,” Bill Odenkirk told me, “more so than anyone in our family. He’d probably argue that he’s had to discover who he is, but I feel he was born with a very strong sense of what he didn’t want to do and what he did want to do, which was performing and being out there doing something other than a conventional job.” Which, Bill added, “wasn’t the thinking at our house.” Bob’s role at home was the resident ham, putting on shows in the kitchen for his mom and siblings. By adolescence, the negative influence of his father and the positive influence of “Monty Python,” which began airing on PBS in the 1970s, instilled in him a mocking disrespect toward authority: “With any authority figure, I had so much resentment, and of course that was all unfair and unhelpful — except, maybe, in my comedy.” His abiding conviction, in a paraphrase he attributes to Eric Idle of “Monty Python,” is that “the best comedy has anger in it.” Image “You have to be a guy who doesn’t fit and says, ‘I’m doing my own thing and you guys don’t get it!’” Odenkirk said.Credit...Photo illustration by Zachary Scott for The New York Times Odenkirk’s belief that truly great jokes carry some irreducible amount of anger — and that this anger’s noblest function is to torpedo pieties and hypocrisies — helps explain his lifelong commitment to sketch comedy. Sketch can be irreverent verging on assaultive, not merely in terms of content, but on the level of form itself. An audience goes into a sketch ready for all manner of rapid-fire experimentation, a wildly porous fourth wall and extreme narrative deconstruction. There are internal laws of physics governing a good sketch, keeping everything on the right side of total nonsense, but these laws tend to be mutable, ephemeral and contradictable to a degree seldom seen in, say, sitcoms or feature films. For a few minutes, everyone agrees to inhabit a world radically untethered by the kinds of rules they teach in screenwriting classes. In any given sketch, as Odenkirk put it, “there’s a disrespect for the form itself.” You can end a sketch by trashing it, he said, “and that’s perfectly fine and wonderful.” For this reason, he said, “most people have a phase of liking sketch comedy, and it ends around 30. And I get it, because it’s just ideas and ideas and ideas, and somewhere around that age, life clicks in and people can’t take 10 more ideas every night. They go: ‘Can you just have the friends show up and do the same thing and behave the same way? I have enough going on in my life.’” That sketch comedy is a young person’s game, he went on, is compounded by its driving ethos that “the world is a bunch of clowns. As a young person, you get such delight out of someone saying that. You’re so happy to hear it, for a couple reasons. One, part of you is an angry young person. And another, which I can see in my own kids, is the intimidation factor of the world. It’s a safety mechanism of saying: ‘I don’t have to feel intimidated by this insurmountable world that I’ll never make my way in. I can just call it all [expletive].’” Odenkirk was describing a perspective that he is proud to have only partly outgrown. Even as he has worked in other forms, his commitment to sketch comedy has been unwavering, whether this has meant shepherding younger acts like Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim or reuniting with David Cross and most of the old “Mr. Show” roster for “W/ Bob and David,” a resuscitated version of the show that they made for Netflix in 2015. (The first episode featured a time machine, capable of traveling in real time only, fashioned from a porta-potty.) “Nothing Bob does creatively is more important to him than sketches,” Cross told me, praising “the ability and patience he has to go, ‘This seems like a really awful idea, but let’s dig through it, and there might be a nugget we can take everything else away from, start from this tiny, dismissible joke and build out from there.’” Image Odenkirk with Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim in “Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!” in 2008.Credit...Adult Swim On “Mr. Show,” which refracted the silliness and social bite of “Monty Python” through a Gen-X prism, Odenkirk frequently sublimated his anger into deranged satires and loopy parodies. In one celebrated sketch, called “Thrilling Miracles,” he played a sadistic daytime-infomercial cookware pitchman who, it emerges, thinks that saucepans talk to him and scalds a kindly homemaker with boiling milk. In another, he played a tracksuit-wearing mob boss named Don Corelli: a tyrannical paterfamilias who insists to his lackeys that “the highest number is 24” and threatens violence against any who challenge this inane edict. Other sketches achieved an anarchic silliness: In “The Story of Everest,” which Odenkirk co-wrote with Jay Johnston, he plays an aged father who guffaws and bellows and speaks in an old-timey voice as his son, back from a triumphant ascent of the mountain, keeps losing his balance and falling into wall-mounted shelves lined with his mother’s thimble collection — over and over and over. Odenkirk’s path to “Mr. Show” was bumpy. In the late ’80s, Lorne Michaels hired him for the “S.N.L.” writing staff, where Odenkirk wrote one of the show’s most famous sketches — about a self-hating motivational speaker named Matt Foley, played by Chris Farley, who lives “in a van down by the river” — and co-wrote another, about schlubby Chicago-area dudes obsessed with “Da Bears.” But Odenkirk says that the triumphs were few and that he struggled to find his stride. He incorrectly assumed that he and his cohort, that included Robert Smigel and Conan O’Brien, could radically remake “S.N.L.,” when in fact they were there to serve the prerogatives of an institution. “My inability to grasp what was happening around me, and what that show was, speaks to my myopia and the kind of myopia you need to have when you’re young and doing creative work,” Odenkirk said. “You have to be a guy who doesn’t fit and says, ‘I’m doing my own thing and you guys don’t get it!’” Image Odenkirk in various “Mr. Show” sketches from 1995 to 1998. Clockwise from top left: “Prenatal Pageant,” “24 Is the Highest Number,” “Thrilling Miracles” and “The Story of Everest.”Credit...HBO That attitude was bred into Odenkirk by Del Close, the acting teacher, in Chicago. Close’s earlier students included Gilda Radner and Bill Murray, and his later students included Tina Fey and Stephen Colbert. Close died in 1999, but he remains an enormously important shadow figure looming over contemporary comedy — one who never enjoyed a fraction of the mainstream success of his best-known disciples. In “Comedy Comedy Comedy Drama,” Odenkirk quotes Close as saying, “I belong in struggling organizations,” which he took to mean that there was more freedom to experiment if you remained a scrappy upstart, pleasantly installed on the culture’s fringes. Odenkirk internalized that lesson. His brother Bill told me: “I think I have a wider love of comedy than Bob. He’s more of a purist and someone who wants his comedy to be more challenging and more to the bizarre side of things.” Until “Breaking Bad” came along, Odenkirk had in fact conducted his career almost entirely on the fringes, leaping from one struggling organization, as it were, to the next. When he writes in his memoir that “I had no intention, ever, of making it big,” you believe him, instead of suspecting false modesty, because while he’s inarguably ambitious, that ambition has always seemed to point somewhere other than mass adoration. It’s important to remember that, while “Breaking Bad” finally did confer fame, the show wasn’t a hit until a few seasons in, when Netflix began streaming it and put it in front of millions more people than had seen the original broadcast, on AMC. In that light, you could argue that Odenkirk never left the fringes for the mainstream; rather, the mainstream finally came to him. Odenkirk stood with Rhea Seehorn at the kitchen island in their house, talking about the finale of “Better Call Saul” — very carefully, because I was there. Odenkirk read Gould’s script the night before, and Seehorn didn’t try to hide her curiosity. “You have 13?” she asked, eyes wide, referring to the episode number. “You like it?” “It’s a lot in there, a lot to think about,” Odenkirk replied. “I think I like it, but I was pretty wiped out when I read it in the middle of the night. I think it’s a challenging way to go, to finish the series. It’s not flashy. It’s substantial, and on some level it’s things I hoped for, for years, in this character’s brain. On the other hand, yeah, I have to read it again. But what I like about it is, it’s not cheap. It’s not easy. It doesn’t feel cartoonish. It’s pretty great, I think. It’s pretty great.” He added: “I would wanna end with this kind of character-development focus. That’s what it’s about, instead of something that just has guns in it. I guess there’s a few guns, but they’re not like in other episodes.” He turned to me, explaining: “I spend a fair amount of time doing crimes this season. Just stupid crimes.” By the end of the fifth season, Saul has embraced full criminality, symbolized by an unsavory pilgrimage through the New Mexico desert, with the wonderful Jonathan Banks, who plays the baldheaded heavy Mike Ehrmantraut, at which point his metamorphosis is nearly complete: from a morally elastic but ultimately well-meaning guy into one who decides his good intentions have been punished so relentlessly that he should probably set them ablaze once and for all. Of Season 6, Seehorn said: “It’s quite funny, and then very dark — brutally dark. They turned the volume up on all of it. Whatever direction someone was already going in, they made it more extreme.” Image Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn in Season 3 of “Better Call Saul,” in 2017.Credit...Michele K. Short/AMC Seehorn and Odenkirk interacted with an easygoing, lived-in affection — one that they’ve been building for years, onscreen and off, but that deepened last summer, when Odenkirk collapsed on set in front of her and Fabian. It was a heart attack, and as he lay there without a pulse, it was their screams that alerted a medic. “I’d known since 2018 that I had this plaque buildup in my heart,” Odenkirk said. “I went to two heart doctors at Cedars-Sinai, and I had dye and an M.R.I. and all that stuff, and the doctors disagreed” on treatment, with one suggesting he start immediately on medication and the other telling him it could wait. He listened to doctor No. 2 and was fine — until this year, when “one of those pieces of plaque broke up,” Odenkirk said. “We were shooting a scene, we’d been shooting all day, and luckily I didn’t go back to my trailer.” Instead, he decamped to a space where he, Seehorn and Fabian liked to retreat during downtime: “I went to play the Cubs game and ride my workout bike, and I just went down.” He added, “Rhea said I started turning bluish-gray right away.” The soundstages “Better Call Saul” calls home are “massive,” Odenkirk said. After a few agonizingly long minutes, the show’s health safety supervisor, Rosa Estrada, and an assistant director, Angie Meyer, arrived, administering CPR and hooking him up to an automated defibrillator. It zapped him once, then once more, producing an irregular pulse that quickly disappeared. “The third time,” Odenkirk said, “it got me that rhythm back.” An ambulance took him to Presbyterian Hospital in Albuquerque, “and around 5 a.m. the next morning they went through right here” — Odenkirk showed me a scar on his wrist — “and blew up the little balloons and knocked out that plaque and left stents in two places.” Later that morning, Odenkirk’s wife and children arrived in Albuquerque, staying with him at the hospital as he recovered for the next week. Odenkirk has no memory of any of this. He cobbled together his account from Seehorn and the others who helped save his life. “That’s its own weirdness,” Seehorn said. “You didn’t have a near-death experience — you’re told you had one.” Seehorn asked Odenkirk how the night shoots had been going, commiserating about the disorientation of keeping nocturnal hours. “I had to do it with Vince,” she said, “when I go out to — ” here, she whispered something Kim does this coming season, that, if I heard correctly, was just enough of a spoiler to omit here. “My character doesn’t usually do things at night,” she told me. “Not outside. She’s like an indoor cat! But this year I had things to do that usually only Bob does.” Seehorn is a deft, sensitive actor, and her performance opposite Odenkirk, along with Michael McKean’s, constitutes the show’s emotional core. Whereas “Breaking Bad” explored an operatic birth-of-a-supervillain premise, “Better Call Saul” works in a more muted — and, to me, more affecting — register. Seehorn’s Kim is a Type A striver with a rebellious streak; she wants to do work more meaningful than representing a regional bank and finds something alluring in Jimmy’s reckless heterodoxy. Meanwhile, McKean’s Chuck McGill, a revered senior partner at the type of high-powered law firm that necessarily represents an array of high-powered malefactors, looks down on his brother with mistrust and scorn and tries to get Kim to do the same. These three characters love one another, and help one another, and yet they continually hurt one another too, in ways that can be as devastating as they can be small. Contrasting the two series, Peter Gould told me that “Better Call Saul” is “about a guy who, in a lot of ways, really wants to be loved and feels rejection tremendously, more than he wants to show. Walter White maybe finds out that what he really wants is power, and he’s very happy to have people fear him, but Jimmy wants love, and even when he’s trying to intimidate people, there’s an undercurrent of wanting approval and acceptance. And it’s something he never quite gets.” Odenkirk pointed out the window toward the Sandia Mountains. If we hustled, he told me, we could fit in a hike before Gould showed up. We drove to a trailhead Odenkirk knows and loves, he traded his sneakers for hiking boots and we began climbing. “We might want to hustle just to warm up,” he said, proceeding to charge up 1,015 feet of elevation on a snowy mountain trail a matter of months after his collapse. As we walked, I mentioned one of my favorite things he did in recent years. It’s a sketch on Tim Robinson’s excellent Netflix series, “I Think You Should Leave,” in which Odenkirk plays a sad-sack guy enjoying a lonely meal at a diner, who desperately pressures a stranger and his child, one table over, to help him pretend that his life isn’t as bleak as it is — to corroborate the fantasy that he has friends, owns “every kind of classic car,” including “doubles” and “triples” of some, that he doesn’t live in a hotel and that he married an ex-model whose face he first saw hanging on a poster in his garage. It’s a fantastic sketch that, despite its preposterousness, undoes any neat distinction invoked in the title of Odenkirk’s memoir between “comedy” and “drama.” To tweak Odenkirk’s paraphrase of Idle, it’s comedy with despair in it. With snow crunching underfoot and conifers looming above us, I asked Odenkirk if he thought he could have mustered a performance like that before “Better Call Saul.” Image Odenkirk in “I Think You Should Leave.” Credit...Netflix “I think I’ve gotten more capable of striking a tone of melancholy and making it honest in a comedy piece,” he said. He thought back to his days acting opposite Farley, at Second City. “I actually remember being onstage with Chris and Jill Talley once, doing an improv scene, and thinking to myself, If I was in the audience, I’d be watching them, not me. And I kept thinking, as we were doing the scene, If I was in a drama, I could be the funniest guy, and the way you’re watching Chris Farley in this scene, you’d be watching me. And there was a part of me that thought I could do it, maybe one day. But then I didn’t try. It was just a stray, existential thought that I noted and never acted on, because I love sketch comedy. I thought, It’s fine if you like Chris more than me. It’s fine if you like David Cross more than me. I like those guys more than me!” The best-loved sketches from “Mr. Show” contain only hints as to the depth of Odenkirk’s dramatic talent. But he reminded me of one, “Prenatal Pageants,” in which he plays the beaten-down father of an unborn child whom he and his wife enter into a beauty contest for fetuses. This role could be a total throwaway, but for some reason Odenkirk decided to play it with depth, supplying a sketch aimed at our image-obsessed society with a palpable sadness: This is a simple, slow-witted man, who takes a string of demeaning jobs in order to enter his unborn child into beauty contests. “I remember doing that and saying, ‘I’m immersing myself in this character at a level I don’t normally do, and it feels very true,’” Odenkirk said. Cross told me: “One of the things that made ‘Mr. Show’ stand out is there’s pathos to a lot of those characters. I’ve been saying this for years, but there’s a humanity to some of those characters that you don’t really see that often in sketches.” Odenkirk had been thinking about that particular performance recently, he said, in the context of an upcoming project: a faux-documentary series about cults, co-starring Cross, in which the two will play gurus. “We’re trying to go to another level with it,” Odenkirk said, adding that, after the “Mr. Show” reboot for Netflix, they decided that “we needed to move into a new area, but one that connected to our comedy.” Cross described the show as having “elements of seriousness and drama to it, not like a ‘Law & Order’ episode, but these guys are gonna be real human beings.” Playing them would require a kind of “emoting that we might have once been a little gun-shy about,” Cross added, “but not anymore.” Odenkirk said his ambition was to “do our comedy, but maybe take all that we’ve done in the intervening years and put it to some use, of digging into character and playing it with some sensitivity, having some levels but also be funny.” If you tried to unite the various strands of Odenkirk’s career, you could do worse than to say that they are by and large about “damaged men,” as Cross put it to me, living in (deranged by?) an America in decline: buffoonish authority figures he lampoons with wit and venom, underdogs he invests with a complicated, warts-and-all tenderness. Perhaps it’s because Odenkirk came of age in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, but this was true of Matt Foley on “S.N.L.,” true of any number of “Mr. Show” characters, true of Saul Goodman, true of Jimmy McGill and true of the bruiser he plays in “Nobody” — a guy whom Odenkirk regards, much like Jimmy, as a cautionary tale. (The movie was inspired by two real-life break-ins that Odenkirk declines to discuss in any detail.) “My hope is we get to do a trilogy, and he ends up with nothing,” he said. “He destroys everything he loves.” We reached a vista, some 9,500 feet above sea level, overlooking Albuquerque. “Better Call Saul” would keep Odenkirk here at least until mid-February. “I wanna stay under the radar,” he said, imagining what came next, “and get to be this guy who gets to go over here and then gets to go over there. Because some of these things I’ve done feel opposed. They don’t live in the same Venn diagram. But I think that’s cool.” Odenkirk thought about this for a second. “I like being able to get away with it,” he said. “And that’s something that gets harder if people know you too well.” Prop Stylist: Jess Danielle. Hair and makeup: Cheri Montesanto. Advertisement
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