There may well be more satisfying career paths in show business, but we're hard-pressed to come up with one that tops Bob Odenkirk’s. Hired, aged 25, as a writer on Saturday Night Live, the sometime stand-up comedian worked alongside Chris Rock, Adam Sandler and Conan O’Brien before striking out on his own. There were recurring roles in The Larry Sanders Show and Rosanne before he created the cult sketch series Mr Show with Bob and David, with stand-up comedian and (later) Arrested Development star David Cross, which ran for four seasons on HBO from 1995.
Next, the Illinois-raised Monty Python fan was narrowly pipped by Steve Carrell to play Michael Scott in the US version of The Office, a career-making break that comes along once a blue moon. That is, until he was cast in Breaking Bad a few months later and life changed forever. His role as loveably dodgy lawyer Saul Goodman was meant to last three episodes. But Odenkirk proved himself a favourite of fans and showrunner Vince Gilligan alike, becoming one of the stand-out character in a show defined by its stand-out characters.
A spin-off Better Call Saul, focusing on the backstory of Saul Goodman/ original alias Jimmy McGill was launched in 2015, when the stakes could scarcely have been higher. By that stage Breaking Bad had concluded and was routinely being compared to Shakespeare, Paradise Lost, Moby-Dick, Dickens and Joseph Conrad, entering the TV Hall of Fame and being frequently crowned the Greatest TV Series of All Time (Sopranos fans, get over it). TV spin-offs invariably fall on their faces. For every Frasier, there are 100 Baywatch Nights.
Happy days then when Better Call Saul – which reunited Odenkirk with Breaking Bad co-creators Gilligan and Peter Gould, plus expertly teased-in ne'er-do-well characters from that first show – turned out to be a total triumph. Talk of “it’s even better than the original” abounds. That may or may not be true – though as we approach ...Saul's sixth and final season, the 21 Emmys, 11 Writers Guide of America Awards and four Golden Globes, plus the dozens of other trophies Better Call Saul has so far raked in, point to an achievement perhaps unique in TV history.
What next? How about Nobody, a super-violent comic book-style action movie in the mould of John Wick (it's created by the same person). It stars a street-fighting Odenkirk in the lead role, dispensing bone-crunching justice, assisted by RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan and Christopher Lloyd from Back to the Future. It sounds ridiculous. It is, in the best possible way.
Odenkirk plays the titular 'nobody', a middle-aged dad who falls victim to a home invasion (ie: burglary) and whose failure to rise up against the perpetrators spurs him to become a lean, mean punching machine. It’s superb fun and it stormed to the top of the US box office in March. To date its made $50m from a $16m budget. The story was Odenkirk's idea, and it comes from his own real-life experience, when his family home was broken into – twice – and he was held at gunpoint. It opens here next week.
Congratulations. You hit Number One in the US box office.
How about that? I am thrilled, tickled, delighted and bedazzled.
Even better, Nobody was your idea.
It started from my idea. I would have to say that the movie you see in theatres is Derek Kolstad’s idea, he’s the writer. But it started from my notion that the character I play in Better Call Saul in many ways has some of the DNA of an action character. He’s indefatigable. He’s devious and clever. He never quits. He often gets pushed around but he’s got this unending well of energy to push back. And, as a result, I thought ‘Well, that’s kind of like an action character. I wonder if I could learn to fight – street fight’. Because I would like to do my own fighting, like Jackie Chan, who’s my favourite action star. And so I started training, fairly early in this whole effort. Because, as you probably know, most proposed films in Hollywood don’t ever get made. I knew I had a long way to go if I wanted to do that, so I started training two-and-a-half years before we shot a thing.
Two-and-a-half years? That sounds terrible.
It was terrible. There are two things that were terrible. Do you work out? Have you been to a gym?
I used to. I hated it.
Yeah, I hate it too. At least, I used to hate it. I have learned to appreciate the energy that it can give you. The worst part was driving to the gym. If you’ve been to LA you know about LA traffic, right? It’s famous for sucking. Every time I needed to do this training there was this feeling of ‘the movie will probably never get made’. The other part was that I was training in a gym that was filled with the best stunt actors in the world. It’s one thing to be terrible at something and learn on your own time, in your own space. But to be put in a place where the person next to you is the best in the world at that thing… it can really turn you red with embarrassment and make you suffer. Because you’re so bad at what they’re so good at.
Gym anxiety is a real thing.
I think I’m pretty good at suffering embarrassment to tell you the truth. It’s one of the reasons I got into performance. The first time I went on stage in Chicago, it was an improv night at a club called CrossCurrents – and I remember starting to get the stage fright cooking. I thought, right then, in a very distinctive moment, ‘You don't have to do this. If you’re gonna do this, if you’re gonna go out there, you can’t get scared of failing. You have to be willing to compartmentalise that fear and bid it goodbye’. So, I think I’m pretty good at suffering horrible, embarrassing, self-doubt and uncertainty. It’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to do what I do at all, you know? I mean, it’s just an ability to know that it’s probably gonna fail and I’m gonna look terrible and stupid… but it doesn't matter. I’ll just show up again tomorrow! I don’t care! I was born with such a small appetite for dignity.
Your character in Nobody is called Hutch Mansell. What a name.
I’m told that name means something. Do you know what it means?
A ‘mansel’ is a term for a… hold on, I’m going to look it up for you, right now. I think it might be Old English… [Googling] ‘Mansel, last name, origin’. It means, like, the boarders of your home. [Reading] ‘Mansel was a status name for a feudal tenant who occupied a manse. An area of land sufficient to support a family…’ [It’s actually Anglo-Norman French – Linguistics Ed.]
So, it’s a reference to his home being violated.
Yeah, and the initial spark of the character is that he’s a dad who has a home invasion and who does nothing. And he’s left with feelings of frustration and rage and a deep kind of existential uncertainty of his role as a father. And that is true to my life. That’s what I brought to the table. I thought I could build a character from that because I’ve experienced it, and I know what it feels like. I know what it feels like to walk around for literally years afterwards feeling anger and rage towards the person who violated my home and traumatised my family.
Was it that bad?
Well, did you see the bus fight scene [in Nobody, launched with Mansell shouting ‘I’m gonna fuck you up!’]? Derek [Kolstad] took the idea of the intense feeling that’s hiding inside this guy, and he turned it into a movie. A powerful filmic opera.
Until recently Hollywood was happy to let middle-aged men look like middle-aged men. Now with John Wick, the Taken films, The Equalizer and Nobody they’ve become ripped fighting machines. Thanks very much for that.
Sorry. I apologise. But it’s good to be in shape! You can enjoy the things you enjoy even more. Except when it comes to ice cream and cake. Although, by the way, I eat ice cream every day.
My favourite is mint choc chip.
But I mix it up a lot. There’s five different flavours in my fridge right now.
Mix it up, how? How many scoops?
This is the trick: I eat about three quarters of a scoop.
In total? I’m sorry – that is not how you eat ice cream.
But how much do you need? You don’t need much. Listen: it’s all a mental game. When you start diminishing your serving size you can have it every day. I can buy all the ice cream I want. And, by the way, it’s not optional. I have to have it every day. That’s a rule I have for myself.
When Falling Down came out in the Nineties there was a backlash against the OTT violence and Michael Douglas’ “D-Fens” character, seen to encourage the stereotype of the Angry White Male. Have you had any of that with Nobody?
Not yet. You’re the first person to reference that [laughs]. I think that one of the reasons might be that the story Derek cooked up is so fantastic that it changes the game a bit. It certainly made me feel better about the violence in the movie. In that it escalates from a sort of realistic situation to a very unrealistic movie situation.
I laughed a lot. Is that the right reaction?
Yeah, absolutely. Right from the start I said ‘I want to do an action movie but I don’t want it to be ironic’. I didn’t want to give myself a safety valve of winking at the audience. ‘I’m gonna try and sell them on my character’s utter commitment to his rage and violence’. There’s tons of laughs in this – it’s not the same as Die Hard. In Die Hard the character knows he’s gonna win. He’s smirking and laughing and he’s got his arm around the audience’s shoulder saying ‘How about this? This is fun’. My character is completely unaware he’s in a movie. And you’re laughing because it’s so audacious.
Derek Kolstad also created John Wick, with which Nobody shares some DNA. Have you discussed the films with Keanu Reeves?
Yeah, I talked to Keanu Reeves. Very briefly because the gym I was talking about is where he trained as well. He was preparing John Wick there, for many of the weeks that I was preparing for this. He was very complimentary to me and the work I’ve done. He’s a pretty cool dude. He’s famous for being a very generous and sweet guy. I’m a big fan of his and I love Bill and Ted and I also like John Wick very much. But tonally those two movies [the John Wick franchise and Nobody] are different.
A John Wick/ Nobody crossover would be cool.
Aren’t the two movies from different studios? John Wick is Sony, isn’t it?
Oh, so it would be a Marvel-Sony-Disney copyright situation.
Yeah, a Marvel-Sony-Disney situation that would need all the lawyers in the world to figure out.
If only you knew a good lawyer…
Not Saul Goodman.
Nobody’s success presumably means it’s been green-lit as a franchise?
That’s above my pay-grade. I’ll tell you this: I’ve stayed in training. I’m ready to go whenever I get a call-up.
That’s not a ‘no’.
It’s not a ‘no’, that’s for sure. I enjoyed making this movie and I’m just so thrilled at the reaction it’s got.
You’re filming the final season of Better Call Saul now?
Yes sir. We started about three weeks ago and we finished the first episode this week.
You’ve previously said that you take Better Call Saul one script at a time.
I don’t jump ahead. I don’t want to know! I only want to know what’s next for me. Just like the character does, I try to be surprised, as he makes these twists and turns.
You genuinely, one hundred percent, don’t know how this final season is going to end?
I do not know. I mean, come on. Why would I do that to myself? I’m going to be playing this character and we’re going to be shooting until November. And if I already knew what was happening, I would be depriving myself of so much excitement. I want for there to be a new thing every three weeks [when we’re filming] and to find fresh energy and excitement.
How does the feeling of the shooting the final season of Better Call Saul compare to shooting the final season of Breaking Bad?
In a general way there’s a similarity with the writers of the show. [Creator of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul] Vince [Gilligan] is there side by side with [Better Call Saul co-creator and co-showrunner] Peter [Gould] as the final season is put together. If you remember Breaking Bad there was so much that built up and then in the last season [Gilligan] starts knocking things down and starts lighting fires and burning everything down – and that’s what's happening here. It’s really going into overdrive. And it’s pretty exciting.
One of the many joys of watching Better Call Saul has been seeing its slowly layering itself over the story of Breaking Bad.
Well, I’ll tell you one thing. It’s not a spoiler because technically I don’t know what it means. But my friend Peter Gould tells me when Better Call Saul is done it will shed new light… you will see Breaking Bad and the story of Breaking Bad in a different way. It will be different from what you think you know. I always considered Saul a bit of an ancillary character in Breaking Bad and so I’m surprised to hear that. But I would never underestimate Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s ability to twist a character or a story point to mean something entirely different.
I imagine they’re not going to mess it up now.
Oh, yeah. I think they’re gonna nail it. They’re very confident now. One thing that’s been helpful is that the pandemic limitations have given the writers more time to consider their choices, and to take their time writing. We were supposed to begin shooting in September  but there was a sense that we didn’t feel safe enough. We have a fairly older cast in this show and this extra couple of months has been well-used by the writers. I’m just thrilled at the confidence that they have.
Is this really it for the world of Breaking Bad? How about a prequel to the prequel? Jimmy McGill: The High School Years…
I’m trying to pitch them on a baby Mike [Ehrmantraut; former policeman-turned-hitman from both shows] animated show. The character played by Jonathan Banks. As an infant.
I’m not sure if you’re joking or not.
I’m only half-joking.
So, he would be a pre-school guy with… what? Ambitions to be a cop?
No! No! A baby! A baby who can talk!
Like Boss Baby?
Yeah, yeah. A talking baby who gets into all kind of scrapes.
Is this because Jonathan Banks is bald… like a baby?
Yes. It’s because he’s bald. Yes.
I’m thinking of the Look Who’s Talking films now.
Yes! Similar to that.
Is their anything you’re going to keep as a souvenir from Better Call Saul?
I have thought about this. He’s got a lot of crazy cufflinks but I don't use cufflinks. I don’t wear ties if I don’t have to. I love the Esteem, the Suzuki Esteem car that I drove [‘The only way this piece of crap is worth $500 is if there’s a $300 stripper sitting in it,’ as Jimmy/Saul memorably explains in Season 1, Episode 1]. I really, truly enjoyed driving that little hunk of metal. I did tell my son I was going to get him one of those for his first car, and he thought that was pretty cool. So, I’d like that.
How do you imagine Jimmy McGill’s future panning out, after Breaking Bad?
You know, this is an argument that we have. It’s one-sided because Vince and Peter refuse to account for my argument that sometimes people do learn the right lessons from their mistakes and their traumas and problems. I’d like to think that after all he went through with the story of Breaking Bad, where he was gonna become wealthy by representing a meth kingpin, that he somehow decides to fly right and maybe use his various talents to help people who really need help. I don’t think that’s where he’ll end up but I think people sometimes do make a better choice based on experiences that they’ve had. But I don't think they agree with that theory.
Their glass seems pretty half-empty.
Their glass is always half-empty. And it’s draining fast.
Saul Goodman is hardly as bad as Walter White though, is he?
No, he’s not. And the character we’ve gotten to know in the course of the show is a good-hearted person. I like him. If you dig deep down Jimmy McGill is a good guy. But, like Walter White, he does have an ego and his ego is hungry for respect and appreciation in a way that I don’t think the world ever really can satisfy in a person, except in incremental moments. And I think it’s a foolish thing to pursue. And I would love to see him have that realisation. I don’t think he will.
Both Hutch Mansell and Saul Goodman get themselves into a world of trouble. What’s the most trouble you’ve ever been in?
Huh. [Thinks] I’m a pretty good Catholic boy.
Your first joke as a stand-up was about being Catholic…
Yes. ‘I was raised Catholic, which means I’m atheist’. I think I got lucky by never going too far. I’ve never been arrested. Gee… I’m trying to think of something that qualifies. I never cheated on my wife. I don’t have anything good for you.
Yourself aside, who’s been the best Bob in show business? Bob Dylan, Bob Hope, Bob Marley or Sideshow Bob?
The others are greater than I. So it would have to be Sideshow Bob.
There’s a family connection with The Simpsons, of course.
That’s true. My brother Bill worked there for many, many years and enjoyed it a lot. He did great work there.
Most of your work has comedic elements to it. Would you like to go back to something that was pure comedy?
Yeah, I do want to go back to doing some pure comedy. I am writing something right now with my old friend David Cross and my brother Bill, from The Simpsons. We’re writing an extended piece that’s somewhat of a Christopher Guest-type multi-part series. I don’t want to give away any more than that. But it’s extremely silly and great.
Yeah. And I’d love to do an action movie in the spirit of Jackie Chan’s Police Story. A very funny action film that you could watch with your kids and yet it’s not really for children. The violence in it is fun and clever. One thing I wanted to do in Nobody, that they wouldn’t let me do, was the one-inch punch. I’m going to get that in the next one.
Ah, so there will be a sequel.
Oh, I hope so.
Nobody is released in UK cinemas on 9 June
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