By Robin E. Simmons
Bob Odenkirk, the second of seven kids, has been acting, writing, directing and producing for the last 30 years. His lengthy credits include doing a ventriloquist act for his family when he was nine, working as DJ at WIDB, Southern Illinois Carbondale’s radio station, writing for “Saturday Night Live,” “The Ben Stiller Show” (among many others) to the unapologetically shyster attorney Saul Goodman in the just ended, hugely poplar, ground-breaking series “Breaking Bad.” His current big screen appearance is as a local TV newsman and bitter son of Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) in Alexander Payne’s already acclaimed “Nebraska.” He spoke by phone from Calgary, Alberta, where he’s shooting a new TV series. Below is an excerpt of our conversation.
BOB ODENKIRK: Hey Robin. Let me apologize for the music in the background but I’m in Calgary and it’s very, very cold out so I’m going to step inside..
ROBIN SIMMONS: What are you working on?
BOB: Remember the movie “Fargo”, the Coen brothers’ film? It’s not the same characters but the same dark, comic tone. It’s a series for FX. The Coen’s have their name on it so I think it will be good.
ROBIN: Sounds promising. Do you remember the first laugh you ever got?
BOB: Hmmm… I did a ventriloquist act for my family. I got a dummy when I was about nine and did this little act. I guess I might’ve gotten a few laughs. But when I really started, I was in school and did these short sketches. They had humor in them and were mostly serious with had points to be made but I still got some big laughs. I was in the 7th and 8th grade. They were funny and informative and I got great appreciation from the teachers and the students. In fact, the teachers asked me to go around to other classes and do my sketches.
ROBIN: Was it a life-changing thing to realize people were laughing at your material?
BOB: Yeah. It was the first time that happened. This was in Naperville, Illinois, where I grew up.
ROBIN: When did you come to LA?
BVOB: Well, I wrote for Saturday Night Live from 1987 to 1991. And I wrote for a TV show called “Get A Life” and I knew I wanted to perform. I enjoyed it so much. But as a writer for SNL I did not have that opportunity. So I knew I had to go to LA or Chicago to get better at performance.
ROBIN: Was it always comedy?
BOB: Yeah. But even then I thought I’d make a decent character actor. And as I got older, I realized I could make a profession of it. I’m glad that pother people saw the same thing.
ROBIN: You’ve got the knack, no question about that. If you weren’t acting, what would you be doing?
BOB: My gosh. Well, it’s all I’ve done for a living. Maybe I’d be a teacher. I also think being a fireman is pretty cool. I know, it sounds childish, but one of the things I like about showbiz is how different every day is. I think firemen have the same situation. They get to problem solve. Plus, they get to be heroes.
ROBIN: How did you get the part of “Saul Goodman”?
BOB: Well, that’s a good question my friend. You’d have to ask Vince Gilligan that because I did not audition for it. I did not read for it. It was given to me and I asked him, “What in my past makes you think I can do this?” And Vince said, “Mr. Show.” That was a comedy show I did on HBO with David Cross. I thought he’d say “Larry Sanders,” because on that show I played Sanders’ agent Stevie Grant, a somewhat similar character to Saul Goodman.
ROBIN: I loved that show.
BOB: Cool man. Then you can see why I thought that was the reason I got this.
ROBIN: Did you know producer Vince Gilligan personally before you got the part of Goodman?
BOB: Nope, never met him.
ROBIN: How has “Breaking Bad” changed your life?
BOB: Well, I’ve pretty much worked solid since I was 25, but I never had that kind of sizeable, popular success. There’s kind of a qualitative difference in the opportunities personally and professionally. It’s a business and they want to make money. A show like “Breaking Bad” and performing in that and doing well makes them think that you can be part of a project on a larger scale. And I’d never done that before. And now I have the opportunity to do things like “Nebraska” where a bigger studio is financing it and they want to work with people somewhat “pre-approved.”
ROBIN: Did “Breaking Bad” bring you a flood of parts and a huge amount of personal attention?
BOB: It got me a huge amount of personal attention. I got some nice parts, but not unlike what I was offered before — or at least offered to read for. I read for two Alexander Payne movies before this — “Sideways” and “About Schmidt.” I think the success of “Breaking Bad” can help you be given the job. But, oddly enough, Alexander Payne had never even seen “Breaking Bad.”
ROBIN: The one guy in America…
BOB: Ha! Popular success does change your personal life a bit. I think it depends on how much you want to let it. I am recognized many places I go. Sometimes it seems like everywhere. But I try to limit the impact of that.
ROBIN: Fame itself is a bizarre and nebulous thing.
BOB: Yes it is. I’ve had so many friends get famous around me like Chris Farley, Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler. These were people I knew before they were famous and I watched them cope with it. I didn’t really envy them. But there are sides of it that are lots of fun. More than I thought it would be. But you have to modulate it. If you lose the ability to be a person… If you need that social approval and energy all the time, well, that’s why some celebrities have entourages. It’s nice to go to parties and have people around you that are happy and up, but it’s also nice to be able to walk around alone. Just be yourself and be a person.
ROBIN: Is there a future for Saul Goodman?
BOB: Yes, definitely. “Better Call Saul.” Not sure exactly what it’s going to be yet.
ROBIN: Would you define “Nebraska” more as comedy than drama?
BOB: Equal parts comedy and drama. Right down the middle. Of course, part of it depends on what you come in with. Where your head’s at. “Breaking Bad” was similar. Sometimes it was desperate and other times it was hilarious.
ROBIN: Tell me about Ross Grant, the character you play in “Nebraska.”
BOB: Bruce Dern plays my dad Woody Grant. He’s been an alcoholic and a difficult father. And I play one of his son’s, Ross, a local TV news anchor who is described in the movie — somewhat derisively — as a “go-getter.” But honestly, my character is still trying to put his life together and make something out of it. And he’s resentful of his father and angry at his failure of being a parent.
ROBIN: While shooting the movie, was there room for improvisation or was it word-for-word?
BOB: Not a bit of improv! I’ve done a lot of improve and in comedy sometimes it helps you find more humor in the scene. But this was a job strictly as an actor and I found it a rewarding challenge.
ROBIN: What was it like working for Alexander Payne? Did he give a lot of direction?
BOB: No, but that’s because he cast the movie very carefully. They brought the right tone and vibe and he let them work. It’s a very controlled operation. Payne is an incredible artist at the top of his form. I’ve never worked with someone as confident and sure of himself and calm and focused. He’d do three or four takes and you’re done. And he doesn’t shoot from multiple angles and he doesn’t shoot coverage [additional material for editing options]. He has as certain an awareness of what he wants and where he wants to go as anyone I’ve ever seen.
ROBIN: Payne is from Nebraska, isn’t he?
BOB: He’s not only from Nebraska, he still lives in Nebraska. He has a home outside of Omaha and he also has a home in LA. But I think he lives a good part of the year in Nebraska.
ROBIN: So he has affection for Nebraska rather than a need to mock it?
BOB: He loves it. The people and the place. Yes, there are funny characters and people behaving stupidly — but probably less so than in LA.
ROBIN: I spent time in Nebraska. There were times when I found it weirdly desolate and quite strange.
BOB: Well, in the movie you’re going to feel that vibe. I think for Alexander Payne the quietness and desolation are physical representations of the people and that’s significant in their lives. But it’s a beautiful film and it’s coming from someone who genuinely loves the people and places of Nebraska.
ROBIN: Did you notice a difference shooting in black and white as opposed to color?
BOB: There were subtle differences. You’d have to ask Payne’s cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. The finished film has a look that’s very reminiscent of Walker Evans or Ansel Adams. I do know they made specific choices in wardrobe that enhanced the black and white, but I’m not sure what they were. Wardrobe was a big consideration.
ROBIN: I love black and white. It’s classic and timeless.
BOB: It’s shot in Cinemascope©, by the way. That’s a beautiful widescreen format, like many old school westerns. I’m moved and thankful I could be a part of this truly artful project.
“Nebraska” opens at Cinemas Palme d’Or November 27.