BY BEN STILLER
PHOTOGRAPHY BY RAINER HOSCH | February 22, 2015 | People
Acclaimed for his ensemble work on everything from Saturday Night Live to Breaking Bad, Chicago native Bob Odenkirk strides into the spotlight as the start of the hotly anticipated new show Better Call Saul.
Bob Odenkirk has built his reputation on a series of smart collaborations: The Naperville native developed the character of iconic motivational speaker Matt Foley for fellow Second City Mainstage performer Chris Farley; wrote for Saturday Night Live, The Ben Stiller Show, and Late Night with Conan O’Brien; and went on to create cult sketch series Mr. Show. In recent years, Odenkirk has gained renown for his supporting roles on award-winning series Fargo and Breaking Bad—and now he’s ready for his biggest role yet: AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul, which sees Odenkirk returning as smooth-talking attorney Saul Goodman. As Odenkirk prepared for the show’s premiere, he and friend (and former SNL office mate) Ben Stiller enjoyed a laugh-filled conversation about staying grounded, taking risks, and how Chicago’s comedy scene taught him to be a dramatic actor.
Ben Stiller: Hey Bob, how’s it going?
Bob Odenkirk: I’m good, how are you?
BS: I?’m good. I’?ve always fantasized about interviewing you. There are so many questions I have.
BO: I hope they’re all Chicago-related.
BS: [Laughs] Of course. Where did you actually grow up?
BO: Naperville, mostly. I was born in Berwyn—doesn’t that sound pretty? [Laughs] I was born in the pretty town of Berwyn, and I lived in La Grange and spent most of my life in Naperville, which is 30 miles southwest of Chicago. It’s a very nice suburb—it’s actually a very old town for that part of the country. When you walk around the main part of town, there are still lanes for horses.
BS: Oh, wow. You didn’?t have one?
BO: I never had a horse. I never lived in the nice part of town where they use horses. [Laughs] But Berwyn is on the train line to Chicago—it’s a one-hour ride. I went to Second City when I was 14. A neighbor was going and invited me to go because my family would never spend money to see entertainment.
BS: What did your parents do?
BO: My father made business forms. Does that sound exciting? Sexy?
BS: [Laughs] So that’s where the comedy came from?
BO: The truth is, he was really funny. He made jokes all the time. He was cynical and [had a] dry sense of humor. He liked bar jokes, like the kind people pass around in a bar or businessmen tell each other. I’m not a huge fan of those kinds of things, but he loved them, and he also loved Hee Haw and Benny Hill.
BS: [Laughs] Benny Hill, of course. I loved Benny Hill too, mainly because they had the fast-motion women running around jiggling?—as an 8-, 9-year-old, that was very exciting. Let me ask you: How old were you when you started to write comedy actually?
BO: Seriously? 10.
BS: Ten years old.
BO: Yeah, when I was 10 or 11 I’d sit down and I would write sketches. [Laughs]
BS: [Laughs] Because the first time we ever met was Saturday Night Live, right? It was 1988, I guess. That’?s when I was there for a very short period of time, and you were already one of the most well-established sketch writers on that show.
BO: Wow. Well, I certainly didn’t feel like it, but I’m glad you felt that way. [Laughs]
BS: You were the guy who knew the ropes and was really, really good at it, and I think you had that reputation there. We first knew each other through the sketch world, and I remember thinking, How is this guy so confident and good at this very specific art form? The fact that you started at 10 years old now makes more sense. You just had a feeling you wanted to do it.
BO: Yeah, I still just do it. [Laughs] It’s crazy—there’s a part of my brain that formed at a young age.
BS: It’s interesting to me that you obviously had this calling that you knew—like, I knew when I was 10 years old I wanted to direct movies also, and I started making Super 8 movies. For me, I was always in New York around show business, so to meet a guy who grew up totally outside of it in Naperville… You still had that same drive and that same connection with it.
BO: I also made a pact with myself that if I didn’t get work by the time I was 30, I would stop. I mean, I’m a conservative guy in my life, and I’m a Chicago guy, and my dreams are somewhat grounded. [Laughs]
BS: [Laughs] “Don’t dream big.”
BO: [Laughs] My autobiography: Grounded Dreams.
BS: [Laughs] “Don’t shoot for the stars.”
BO: Absolutely! Shoot low. Aim low, and you might end up in the stars.
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BS: Seriously, though, did you ever imagine that your career would lead you to what you’re doing now as a dramatic actor?
BO: No. The only thing I would say is this, Ben: When I was onstage—and the same is true when I was doing Mr. Show with David Cross—at Second City [with] Chris Farley, and we did stuff with Andy Dick, these are people who are great sketch actors. They really are fun to watch. When you walk out onstage, you smile right away because there’s just a funny physical presence, and I never had that. The only thing I thought was that if anybody ever gave me a chance to do drama, I might sit there better than I do in sketch comedy. I asked [Breaking Bad creator] Vince [Gilligan] why he let me have this opportunity—what did he see? I thought he’d say The Larry Sanders Show, and he said Mr. Show.
BS: I find it all based in commitment, and your super-high level of commitment to whatever ridiculous character situations made it even funnier.
BO: And I think that’s why other comic actors often surprise people, and it seems like every year there are one or two great opportunities for a comic actor, and they surprise everyone. The weird thing is oftentimes when serious actors try to do comedy—they think it means, “Act goofy all the time.” Most of what we do in sketch comedy is about what you said: plain commitment, playing like you believe it. I had a great opportunity, and I’m loving these opportunities that I’ve gotten since Breaking Bad. I still don’t think like an actor when I’m not acting; as soon as I walk off the set, I just start going, “What are the comedy bits I could write?”
BS: Most actors walk off the set and go, “Where’s my next job coming from?” The thing about sketch comedy writing is that nobody’s ever going to offer you that—you have to create it. Do you feel the Second City environment had something to do specifically with a Chicago attitude?
BO: Absolutely. I didn’t go through the program at Second City, which at the time was not nearly as official as it is now, but the fact is the attitude of Second City and the ethos of it infuses everybody in Chicago who’s doing sketch or even acting. They’re very serious about improvisation, but more about some of these basic rules that Del Close put forth, like, “Play to your intelligence,” and “Don’t do TV parody,” and “Don’t try to be funny.” They’re trying to make you be an actor and play the reality of the scene and let it be funny because of the humanity of it.
BS: Which was a highly revolutionary idea probably at that time, too.
BO: I met Keith Johnstone, who wrote this book Impro, which is the first book I read about improv and was the book I was actually purchasing at Barbara’s Bookstore in Chicago when I met Del Close, which is crazy—
BO: I was in Calgary shooting Fargo last year, and I found out Keith Johnstone lives there, and I met him and hung out with him twice. He wrote this first book really on improvisation, and he told me that [he] never meant for it to be a comedy. The book was to give dramatic actors the tools to surprise themselves and disarm their brain from plotting and planning—to really just “be in the moment.”
BS: Which is a really valid thing in terms of acting technique. Let me just ask you about the pressure—going into Second City, the audience is expecting to laugh, so there is a knowledge in your head that you have to figure out the funny aspect of what you’re doing. Have you felt the difference as you’ve become a guy who now works outside of comedy—less pressure to have to be funny?
BO: I think when I’m doing a drama, I don’t have to be funny at all.
BS: Do you go to work in the morning like, “OK, I don’t have to make people laugh”?
BO: Even though I’ve done it a certain amount, you’ve got to realize it’s still kind of new to me, Ben. I’m like, “What’s going on?”
BS: OK, because if I’?m directing a comedy and then I put the movie in front of an audience, I know when it?’s working because the audience is laughing at the jokes, and when you do drama it’?s all open for interpretation. It’?s a different sort of criteria for what’?s working.
BO: Yeah, and that’s intimidating to me, and when I walk away from Better Call Saul, there’s a lot of intense s*** going on. There’s a lot of self-revealing and self-discovery and clashing of people’s emotions and desires—I mean, these guys write really intense stuff, and it’s the same writers from Breaking Bad, and I’ve wondered, I hope I didn’t overplay it.
BS: I have to say, I’ve just gotten so much enjoyment out of watching you do this and seeing this other side of what you do so well, and it’s a natural progression because we’re talking about how you approach the work, but it’s very unexpected in a great way. And I’m excited about seeing you as the lead of the show, because that’s a new thing, isn’t it?
BO: Oh yeah.
BS: Is that a different experience?
BO: I try not to think about it. It’s not like a movie—in a feature, you probably feel more weight on your shoulders. I feel like the lead of this show is Vince Gilligan, who did the writing, and I’m one of the supporting players—I really do. I may have the most lines by a lot, but maybe it’s just me psyching myself out.
BS: I do that too; I have to just go, ?It?’s just us in the room here trying stuff,? because otherwise it can be paralyzing.
BO: Yeah, that’s how I felt about it, and you maybe don’t even notice this anymore because you’ve done so many leads, but when you play a side character, you don’t bark much. You don’t go out on a limb; you’re reacting to the leads, and the leads make choices that come more from their psychology and can be kind of impetuous and feel very surprising. I got to, as this lead, do things that were real choices on the part of the character instead of just a reaction to a situation.
BS: Did you talk about that a lot with Vince?
BO: No, I didn’t talk to him at all. People always ask me if I improvise the character, if I write any of my lines—I don’t write anything, and I don’t improvise. I do it as scripted. I try to hit every word exactly as written. It’s a challenge, but in the end I feel like I discover more interesting stuff than I would have come up with on my own, so that’s what I’ve done in this part. Hey, should I recommend some places in Chicago?
BS: Please do! [Laughs]
BO: Well, you’ve got to go to Second City—you’ve got to see the e.t.c. show—but there’s a bunch of improv and sketch comedy in Chicago that’s really kind of off the map. The Annoyance Theatre, ImprovOlympic has got a new space of four theaters in it—TJ and Dave are there. Have you ever seen TJ & Dave in New York?
BO: Oh my god. Pasquesi and—
BS: I met Dave Pasquesi because the first time I went to Chicago was in 1988 after I left Saturday Night Live, and I did this movie called Next of Kin there with Patrick Swayze, and I had, like, five lines in the movie—?I got killed off in the first 20 minutes?—but I was there for three months, and that’?s when I reached out and met Andy Dick for the first time?. You know that movie Elvis Stories? Pasquesi was in that. We went to Kingston Mines, the great blues club. But tell me about the Pasquesi show.
BO: Well, it’s called TJ & Dave. They’ve been working together for years, and it’s really amazing, and they have their own theater now in Chicago.
BS: Oh, cool. Pasquesi’?s one of the funniest people ever, too, and he’?s an amazing improviser.
BO: Yeah, and these two guys together—it’s the best improv can be. What else? It’s freezing in Chicago.
BS: That is one of the things I could never get over in Chicago—how friggin’? cold it gets, and that wind comes in from the lake.
BO: Me, too. Every year, there’d be a couple days where you’d go, “Well, human beings should never live here.” When the city burned down—what do they call it, a “learning” moment? A teachable moment! [Laughs]
BS: [Laughs] So, how often do you go back?
BO: Well, my mom still lives there, and two of my sisters live there. I go back a couple of times a year. I’ll do stuff at Second City. I haven’t seen the new Annoyance, but I can’t wait—it’s supposed to be a great space—and I’ll eat at Al’s Italian Beef, and get to a place called That’s-A-Burger on the South Side. I still eat meat. And I go see a Cubs game.
BS: They just signed a new manager.
BO: Good. Well, as long as they’re playing at Wrigley Field, I don’t care who’s on the team—I don’t care if anybody’s on the team.
BS: [Laughs] Are you going to write any more comedy books?
BO: You know, Ben, that book I wrote last year is just a bunch of stuff that was in my drawer, and I was going to put it out, but not for a couple of years. But I’m glad it came out, A Load of Hooey. I was thinking about calling it A Child’s Load of Hooey, because I could write a bunch of really silly stuff that you could read to your kids.
BS: [Laughs] That would be great, actually—as parents, you’re always looking for fun stuff that you like to read to your kids. Do you have any idea in your lifetime how many sketches you think you’ve written?
BO: Well, I don’t know how many I’ve written, but I know I’ve written seven good ones. [Laughs]
BS: Only seven? Really?
BO: [Laughs] Oh, I don’t know. I mean, I’ve contributed to so many… It’s just what I do when I’m free to do anything. David Cross and I are working on hopefully a new miniseries of sketch shows.
BS: Yeah, I saw a picture that was tweeted by [Paul F.] Tompkins and it looked like everybody was in a room—
BO: We had so much fun, but Ben, when The Ben Stiller Show ended, I thought to myself, My goal in my career would be to one day have as much fun as we had making that show, waking up and getting in my car and picking up Andy Dick, picking up Janeane [Garofalo], driving down to whatever set we were on… It was the greatest; it was so amazing—that feeling of “When are they going to tell us no? Isn’t someone going to come out here and see us doing this and say, ‘You can’t have that much fun for a living’?”
BS: We’ve got a lot of great memories. I’m very excited—really, Bob—about this show.
BO: I’ve only seen the first episode, but it made me smile the whole way, which was great. [Laughs] I’m excited to see it myself, and I can barely remember what we did.
Styling by Gaelle Paul/Walter; Schupfer Management; Grooming by Sydney Zibrak; Video: Nardeep Khurmi; Sittings editor: Danielle Yadegar
January 22, 2019
January 22, 2019