Bob Odenkirk On How ‘Nebraska’ Was Therapeutic & Why Dramatic Actors Aren’t Good Comics
It’s turning out to be quite a 2013 for Bob Odenkirk. Earlier in the year, he closed out playing the lovingly despicable Albuquerque lawyer Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad, as the show wrapped its final season, and now he’s in the latest film from director Alexander Payne, the Oscar contender Nebraska. As in Breaking Bad, the focus in Nebraska isn’t on Odenkirk’s character, but once he appears on screen, your senses are heightened and you can’t wait to see what he’ll bring to the mix.
This could be our own likeness towards Odenkirk, who for years through his work in sketch comedy like Mr. Show, The Larry Sanders Show, and countless cameos has become a comic cult figure. It’s his comedic background that gave the perfect mix of funny one-liners with wittiness and sleaze to make us enjoy Saul for all the wrong reasons. However, what makes him believable in serious roles like Ross in Nebraska—the son of bitter alcoholic elderly father Woody (Bruce Dern) who is on a road trip with his other son David (Will Forte) to claim prize money—is the vulnerability that almost all comics have inside them.
Thankfully we’ll only see more of Odenkirk. Quickly following the series finale of Breaking Bad it was announced that his Saul character will headline a spin-off show titled Better Call Saul, and when we caught up with him last week he was taking a break from shooting the TV series adaptation of Fargo, which will air on FX next year. We told you it’s been a good year for him.
This past weekend, I got the chance to talk with Odenkirk about finally getting cast in an Alexander Payne movie, why the film made him think about his own troubled relationship with his father, and the latest on Better Call Saul.
You’re playing a deputy on Fargo, right?
I play a deputy who due to circumstance gets to…I can’t tell you anything. [Laughs] I realized just as I’m talking, I can’t give away a plot point!
Is it somewhat close to the Coens film?
In tone. The goal is to, yes, to get the vibe and the humor and the darkness and the entertaining qualities of the movie. You can be the first to hear a rumor around the set that I cannot confirm, but I heard the Coen brothers, their name is on this as producers. They’re not around but I heard that they were not sure until they read the script and then said, “Yeah, we want to go head and produce it.”
It is great. It’s better than them saying they aren’t behind it. But you know what, when I read it I loved it too. So my part isn’t huge but it’s a great part and it’s a great cast: Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton. But we shouldn’t talk about it, we’ll have to do it again in eight months.
Let’s talk about something you can give a little more detail about, which is Nebraska. Was Ross a role Alexander came to you with or did you have to audition?
I read for it, as I read for About Schmidt and Sideways. I think Alexander knew who I was and had seen me perform. He had not seen me on Breaking Bad until a month ago. He came up to me like three weeks ago, and he was like, “Bob, I’d never seen you on Breaking Bad. You’re great.” [Laughs]
You must have been like, “Where have you been?”
I know. But you know, there’s so much on TV. I haven’t seen The Wire, Friday Night Lights. There’s so many things—
Let me tell you, before you see anything, you have to see The Wire.
I mean, you were on what will become a legendary show, but that is the crown jewel.
Ok. I will.
So, because you had already read for Alexander on two other films and didn’t get the roles, did you come into reading for Nebraska with a different approach?
Oh, no. It was a great story to read and I felt I knew this guy and was excited to read for it.
But this one must have felt good because you got the role.
Yeah. I know. But when it comes to auditioning you just go in for stuff you like and you work really hard and you do a great job and whatever happens happens. It’s like a job itself. You consider it done when it’s done. You try not to walk away focused and hoping. You go, “That’s done. I did that job.” I was lucky to get the nod, and I was crazy lucky because I love this movie and it makes me tear up to think how great this movie is and how much it means to me and how much these people mean to me. I love Bruce, June [Squibb] and Will and Stacy Keach. We were a real family shooting this. And we were a good family, not just any family.
Was it a little special working across from Will Forte because you directed The Brothers Solomon and he wrote and starred in that?
We like each other. We have a personal relationship that’s very organic and wonderful and that’s true with me and Bruce Dern and me and June. Everybody has a good time with their cast. I’m having a good time with this cast [on Fargo], I love everybody on Breaking Bad, it was a special instance on Nebraska of real camaraderie and love between this group.
Why does this movie stand out?
I think it was the nature of the story. How much emotion there is in the story and how even though the character of Woody is a challenging father figure there’s a lot of love in the movie and unrequited love and hope and desire to connect in the story and it’s all stuff you build off of. I don’t know, there’s just a connection. I mean, June and Bruce and I are all from Illinois and that was an immediate connection we had and talked about it at length.
Is there a lot of similarities to where you grew up in Illinois to the settings in the film?
There’s a lot of similarities to how I grew up but not so much the environment. There’s some overlap but not much. I grew up in Naperville, which was a big town even when I moved to it. It was 20,000 when we moved to it and it rapidly grew after. But we drove through a lot of Illinois and lived in a lot of places that were like these towns and I went to college in Carbondale, Illinois, so I know this part of the country well. But I think more the family dynamic is something I related to. My father had an alcohol problem and was a crotchety, difficult guy and I didn’t really feel connected to him and I had a lot of resentment to him and I guess I can say I still do. So I really related to that.
So in some ways was playing Ross therapeutic?
Therapeutic? A little bit, yeah. [Laughs] The only thing that would be therapeutic is if I could sit down with my dad and figure him out, but I could not figure that guy out. I mean, I could give you a psychoanalysis that’s kind of amateur but I did not know where that guy was coming from. And the disconnect and the gap there, it’s hard, you want to connect somewhat, you know? It’s hard to not feel you ever really came to an empathetic understanding.
This makes me think of the film’s ending. A touching moment, but it left me wishing one of them would have just embraced the other.
I think a hug or something would have gone too far. It would have been too Disney. Alexander is careful, he wants to go just so far and not try to make his characters go so far that you potentially lose the reality. And Woody is a genuinely challenging guy, there’s no soft gooey center to this guy.
Seeing you and Will in this film it made me think that for some reason we as an audience, and this isn’t all the time, but we accept comedic actors playing dramatic roles more often than when an actor known for their dramatic work transitions to comedy. Why is that?
I do agree that people tend to make the transition from comedy to drama or at least “dramedy” easier, much easier. People are more willing to accept a comic toning it down and presenting some honest feelings without irony than they are willing to see a dramatic performer suddenly try to have the juice that you need to do comedy. I don’t know why it is. I think I’m on the side of the audience there. I’m an audience member too and I agree it’s not easy to do but I don’t know why purely dramatic people can’t often give that lightness or nimbleness that you need to do comedy. I don’t know.
Does it come down to that old saying that behind every funny person is someone inside that’s frowning?
I don’t know. A lot of dramatic actors have pain. And by the way that’s not just performers that’s every single person in the world. I think people comment on it with comedy performers because they think their comedy is so funny that they should be light hearted and funny all the times. And then you learn their personal story and often times it’s challenging and sad. This is a rough area. I think you’ve got it right, I just don’t know what the answer is. You know, dramatic performers are a little bit hard for me to analyze. I think there’s a very simple honesty that they project all the time and that’s an interesting thing and I think that’s a hard thing to have, that’s not really something that you can work on; this kind of strange opening to your soul. And I think comedy is a lot of times about a character being a little distanced from the moment, so maybe they have a hard time doing it.
Going to completely change gears. What can you tell me about Better Call Saul?
It could be a prequel. It could be a sequel. It could be both. [Laughs] I know that they thought a lot about a prequel and finding out how Saul becomes the person you see there, or who he is behind that façade. And I know there’s a lot of fans who are curious about what happens to him when he moves to Nebraska. So I haven’t heard any specifics except for a couple of characters that they have ideas for, but I can’t share them with you because I don’t even know if they’re committed to them. I talked to the guys three months ago and they were still in the very early stages. They are writing now every day. We’re going to shoot it in Albuquerque, but that’s all I really know. But he’s a fun character to play. Full of language and jokes and cleverness.
I am actually more excited that you may team with the director of Best Worst Movie, Michael Stephenson. The film is called Girlfriend’s Day and you play a well-known greeting card writer. Where is this project at?
I’m going to give it an 85% chance that it’s going to happen. But it’s not a sure thing. We have a great script and we have some backers who are excited.
Have you seen Best Worst Movie and know of the legend of Troll 2?
Oh yeah, I gave him the script. I saw Best Worst Movie and he called me because I referenced Best Worst Movie on an interview. He sent me an email thanking me for mentioning the movie and I said what are you up to now and he said he’d done American Scream so I went to the premiere and liked it and we had a lunch and I asked him if he wanted to read some scripts I’ve written so I gave him Girlfriend’s Day and he asked if he could direct it and I said sure.
What do you like about him?
Michael delivers humanity and humor in equal measure and that’s what you need. And if he can find that in a documentary where it’s not being written in, you have to find it, then I really trust his instincts.
You’re extremely busy acting, but will we see you go back to directing anytime soon?
No. I think one day I’ll direct again when I have a script I really want, but I have these full time jobs acting and I still keep myself writing so I’m kind of loaded.