DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. On Monday, the AMC "Breaking Bad" spinoff "Better Call Saul" begins its fourth season. When "Better Call Saul" began in 2015, Terry spoke with writer-producer Peter Gould, who co-created the series with Vince Gilligan. Gould had created the character of Saul Goodman, and since "Better Call Saul" is a prequel set years before the events of "Breaking Bad," it allowed the show's creators to explore Saul's past and the pasts of some other "Breaking Bad" characters as well, most specifically bodyguard and sometimes hitman Mike Ehrmantraut, played by Jonathan Banks.
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TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: So I always wondered, like, how did Saul and Mike get to...
BIANCULLI: ...And prequel to Vince Gilligan's superb series, "Breaking Bad," returns for a fourth season. Today we revisit interviews with "Better Call Saul" actors Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito, and with Peter Gould, a writer-producer on "Breaking Bad" who co-created "Better Call Saul" with Vince Gilligan.
"Better Call Saul" is a spinoff of "Breaking Bad," which was one of my favorite TV drama series of all time. That AMC show starred Bryan Cranston as a high-school science teacher named Walter White, a meek, ordinary guy who makes a slow but steady transformation into a ruthless drug lord and murderer. In "Breaking Bad," one of the breakout supporting characters was Saul Goodman, a fast-talking, faster-thinking lawyer played by Bob Odenkirk.
Saul ended up representing Walter White and colluding on several of his crimes, forcing Saul, as "Breaking Bad" ended, to adopt another identity and flee to Nebraska, hiding in plain sight by managing a Cinnabon franchise at a mall in Omaha. "Better Call Saul" picks up Saul's story both before and after the events in "Breaking Bad." The story of Saul continues to advance in tiny segments, but the vast majority of "Better Call Saul" takes place before there was a Saul, with Odenkirk playing a slightly less shady lawyer still operating under his real name of Jimmy McGill. For its first three seasons, "Better Call Saul" has focused above all else on Jimmy McGill's two closest relationships. One is with his girlfriend and law partner Kim, played by Rhea Seehorn.
The other is with his disapproving older brother Chuck, a much more successful and law-abiding attorney played by Michael McKean. Last season's final episode had Kim and Jimmy closing down their law firm after some tough setbacks and Chuck trapped in a sudden house fire, his fate unknown. I won't reveal what happens to Chuck. But last season, just before that fire, Chuck had basically rejected Jimmy as a brother, dismissing his skills as a lawyer and denying any personal affection for him.
In the new season opener, the usually super-verbose Jimmy remains so thrown by, among other things, what Chuck said to him, Jimmy spends most of his time not talking. But by the second episode, Jimmy has rediscovered his gift for gab. He's interviewing for a new job but as a salesman of business office copier machines, not as a lawyer - definitely not as a lawyer.
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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) It says here you were a lawyer until not that long ago. What changed?
BOB ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Well, you know why God made snakes before he made lawyers? He needed the practice.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Needed the practice.
ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Right? That's pretty much the only lawyer joke I know 'cause all the others are true stories.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, laughter).
ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Look. I know you're looking for somebody with sales experience, and I don't have any, except being a lawyer. Being a lawyer, my job was sales. I was selling the judges. I was selling the jury. Sometimes, I was selling the clients the best deal from a series of bad options. But every hour of every day, I was convincing, persuading. I was selling.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I hear what you're saying. We have a lot of high-ticket items and a clientele primed to say no.
ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Well, my spirit animal is a Gila monster. Once I latch on, I don't let go.
ODENKIRK: In these opening episodes of "Better Call Saul," we see a few more new faces - old faces, really - from the "Breaking Bad" universe. I won't reveal those either because it's all part of the fun. And "Better Call Saul," as it gets closer and closer to merging these two worlds, is as delightful as ever. The last time we saw Bob Odenkirk on "Breaking Bad," Saul Goodman and Walter White were in hiding together, awaiting new identities being concocted for them by a fellow co-conspirator.
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ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Hey, I'm a civilian. I'm not your lawyer anymore. I'm nobody's lawyer. The fun's over. From here on out, I'm Mr. Low Profile, just another douchebag with a job and three pairs of dockers. If I'm lucky, a month from now, best-case scenario, I'm managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.
BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) You're still part of this, whether you like it or not.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) I'm sorry. I don't think so.
BIANCULLI: At the time that it was written, that was a toss-away line. But eventually, it became the way in to continue Saul's story. Terry Gross spoke with Bob Odenkirk in 2013, two years before his character of Saul Goodman was spun off into the "Better Call Saul" prequel. Before playing that hustler of a lawyer, Odenkirk played a hustler of a Hollywood agent on HBO's "The Larry Sanders Show" and was co-creator and co-star with David Cross of the HBO sketch comedy series "Mr. Show."
Terry began by replaying Odenkirk's introductory appearance as Saul Goodman on "Breaking Bad." It's from season two, and Goodman has been dispatched to represent Brandon Mayhew, aka Badger, who's been arrested for selling meth to an undercover agent. Badger works for Walter White. And Saul Goodman interrupts Badger's interrogation to introduce himself to all of us.
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ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) All right. Who do we have?
MATT JONES: (As Badger) Brandon Mayhew.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Brandon Mayhew. All right. Brandon Mayhew. Here we go. Public masturbation.
JONES: (As Badger) What?
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) I don't get it. What's the kick? Why don't you do it at home like the rest of us with a big flat-screen TV, 50 channels of pay-per-view? In a Starbucks. That's nice (laughter).
JONES: (As Badger) That ain't me, man. I was the guy who was selling meth, allegedly.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) OK, all right. I got you. Meth. Right. I'm sorry. That was a little transpositional error. Nothing a little Wite-Out can't take care of. Yeah, and felony quantity.
JONES: (As Badger) Just barely.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Yeah, just barely. The cops around here are like butchers - always got their thumbs on the scales, you know? But good luck arguing that in court (laughter). I'll meet you down at brass tax. I'm going to get you a second phone call, OK? You're going to call your mommy or your daddy or your parish priest or your Boy Scout leader. And they're going to deliver me a check for $4,650. I'm going to write that down on the back of my business card, OK? - 4-6-5-0, OK? And I need that cashier's check or a money order. Doesn't matter. Actually, I want it in a money order. And make it out to Ice Station Zebra Associates. That's my loan-out. It's totally legit. It's done just for tax purposes. After that, we can discuss Visa or Mastercard but definitely not American Express, so don't even ask, all right? Any questions?
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GROSS: What a great start (laughter) for your character. Bob Odenkirk, welcome to FRESH AIR. What did you know about your character, Saul, when you took the role?
ODENKIRK: Well, I talked to Vince. And Vince said...
GROSS: This is Vince Gilligan, the creator.
ODENKIRK: Vince Gilligan, the creator. I said, let me just talk to him. And he goes, he's a sleazy lawyer named Saul Goodman. And I go, well, you know, I'm not Jewish. I said there's a lot of Jewish actors. I'm sure you could find one. And he goes oh, no. He's not Jewish. He's Irish. He just changed his name to appeal to the homeboys and gain some stature in their eyes.
GROSS: You've said that you based Saul on Hollywood agents more so than on lawyers.
ODENKIRK: Yeah, I don't know any lawyers.
GROSS: So what kind of agents do you know who are anything like Saul?
ODENKIRK: Oh, my God. A lot of them.
ODENKIRK: Yeah, yeah. They talk really fast. You know Saul's - the character wants to get something out of whoever he's talking to. He's trying to manipulate them into doing what he wants. And I think that's true for a lot of agents, as they're aware of a certain scenario that they can sell, you know? When they're talking to you, they're pitching you in a clever way on just fitting into a business proposition that they know for some reason that they can sell to make deals.
GROSS: Of course, you played an agent on...
ODENKIRK: I did.
GROSS: ...Garry Shandling's show.
GROSS: And you used some similar tactics.
ODENKIRK: Yeah. My agent - my first agent is the great Ari Emanuel, who now runs William Morris. And...
GROSS: Oh, he was the basis for what's his name's character...
ODENKIRK: Ari Gold.
GROSS: Yeah, on "Entourage." So he was your first agent?
ODENKIRK: Yes. And he was my basis for my character on "Larry Sanders," Stevie Grant.
ODENKIRK: So Ari's inspired a lot of performances.
GROSS: Wait, wait, wait. Does Ari...
ODENKIRK: But also...
GROSS: ...Emanuel know of it? Does Ari Emanuel's clients know that?
ODENKIRK: I hope he'd be proud of it. He's a great guy. I really like that guy a lot. Also, if I might add, I did an impersonation of Robert Evans, the great film producer, who is such an entertaining guy to hear talk, you know? If you've ever heard his book on tape "The Kid Stays in the Picture," it's incredibly entertaining. And when I saw how many lines I had as Saul, which is a lot more than comedy. In comedy, you'll get, like, two lines, and then it's more of a back-and-forth usually. And Saul Goodman has these long monologues.
GROSS: Oh, 'cause he's a talker.
ODENKIRK: He really is a talker. And what he's doing is he's trying to convince you of something. And when he sees that it's not working, he goes another route. Like, he switches it up in midstream until he finds the tack that will get him where he wants to go. And when I saw those longs, I thought, you know, I wish I could do some kind of Robert Evans-y type voice with a little melody in it and a little - and that kind of stop and start cliffhanger thing that Robert Evans does when he goes, you know, did I do the right thing? - heck, no.
ODENKIRK: Would I do it again? - in a second. You know...
ODENKIRK: ...He leaves you hanging there for just hair. And it makes you - he makes you listen even closer, you know? And so I thought I'd steal some of that. I don't know how much I did of it. I do the character as Robert Evans as practice, and then I just do it when I get on stage, when I'm in front of the camera, I mean. It's not in a theater yet. Someday...
GROSS: So wait...
ODENKIRK: ...Though, right?
GROSS: I think I have the perfect scene here (laughter) to illustrate what you just said about Saul, about how if he's not selling it one way, he's going to change directions and just try something else. And this is a scene from Season 2, Episode 8, where Saul's been representing the guy who's been dealing meth for Walt and Jesse, the guy who we heard in the first scene. And Walt and Jesse are really afraid that you're going to let your client talk to the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency. And if he talks, that's going to out Jesse and Walt, and they're going to be in prison. So they can't allow that to happen.
So what they've done is they've basically kidnapped you, taken you out to the desert. They've dug you a grave, and they're making you kneel staring into this grave that they've made for you. Meanwhile, they're standing behind you with ski masks on their faces so you can't tell who they are, and they have guns pointed at your back. You have no idea who they are or what they want or why they've captured you. You suspect that they're representatives of one of the Latin drug cartels. Here's the scene. You speak - or shall I say a whimper?
GROSS: ...First, begging for your life.
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ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) What can I do for you gentlemen? Anything. Just tell me what - what you need.
AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) This afternoon, an associate of ours offered you $10,000. You should have taken it.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Wait a minute. This is - this is in regard to what's his name?
PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Badger, Brandon Mayhew.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) The uncle. The uncle - that was your guy? No offense, guys, but I don't take bribes from strangers. You - better safe than sorry, that's my motto. But I'll take your money, sure.
PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Nah, that offer's expired, yo.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) It was kind of low anyways. But, OK. OK. I'll take it. Just tell me what you need. All right? I'm easy. I'm going to keep a happy thought and assume this is just a negotiating tactic.
PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) All right. Listen to me very carefully. You're going to give Badger Mayhew the best legal representation ever - but no deals with the DEA. All right? Badger will not identify anyone to anybody. If he does, you're dead.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Why don't you just kill Badger? I mean, follow me, guys. But if a mosquito's buzzing around you and it bites you on the ass, you don't go gunning for the mosquito's attorney. You go grab a fly swatter, so to speak. I mean, all due respect, but do I have to spell this out for you?
PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) We're not killing Badger, yo.
ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Then you got real problems - OK? - because the DEA is going to come down on your boy like a proverbial ton of bricks. I mean, I don't think I'm going out on a limb here. But, hey, he's not going to like prison. He's going to sing like Celine Dion regardless of what you do to me.
GROSS: What a great scene. And that's my guest Bob Odenkirk as the lawyer Saul with Aaron Paul as Jesse and Bryan Cranston as Walt in Season 2 from "Breaking Bad." So one more question - when people...
GROSS: ...See you on the street, people who are fans of "Breaking Bad,"...
GROSS: ...What do they say to you? Is there a commonly said thing?
ODENKIRK: Well, they all say, better call Saul.
ODENKIRK: But some of them - and this is so weird, Terry.
ODENKIRK: And this is like - I think this is because it's so much more famous than anything I've done. It's so much bigger. There's, like, fringe awareness of the show where people know the show, know the characters on the show, but they've probably not really seen it. Or they've only seen a few minutes of it. So this is where we trip into the weird place of sort of a version of success or fame that is so strange. I get this. I got it today on the way into this building. I get this. I'm going to shout this out, so I'm the back away from the mic.
ODENKIRK: (Yelling) Sal.
ODENKIRK: OK. So that guy - this has happened more than once. That guy doesn't know my name, only knows me from "Breaking Bad" but doesn't know "Breaking Bad" that well. He doesn't know the name of the character, so he hasn't watched the show that closely. But he knows it well enough to recognize my face even without the hairpieces in and the suit and all that other stuff. That's a weird place to get to.
GROSS: So what do you say in response?
ODENKIRK: I go uh-huh.
GROSS: (Laughter) And then keep walking?
ODENKIRK: And I keep walking.
GROSS: Thank you so...
ODENKIRK: Thank you so much.
GROSS: ...Much for talking with us. It's really been a pleasure.
ODENKIRK: I appreciate it.
BIANCULLI: Bob Odenkirk speaking to Terry Gross in 2013. Two years later, his character of Saul Goodman was spun off into his own AMC series called "Better Call Saul." After a break, we'll hear Terry's 2015 interview with writer-producer Peter Gould, the co-creator of "Better Call Saul." This is FRESH AIR.
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