GQ

How Bob Odenkirk Worked Through His Demons as an Action Star

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Bob Odenkirk arrived to the Nobody set on a mission. “I wanted to make it right, and I wanted it to maybe destroy my career,” he says.

This might seem like an unusual goal for any actor — let alone someone on as hot a streak as Odenkirk. Though he built his career as a comedic writer and performer, his scene-stealing performance as the slimy lawyer Saul Goodman on Breaking Bad opened up a new lane in his career. In addition to the brilliant Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, Odenkirk has more recently turned up in prestige films like Steven Spielberg’s The Post and Greta Gerwig’s Little Women.

But Nobody is, by far, the biggest and riskiest swing he’s taken yet — a sink-or-swim opportunity to show off a totally different side of himself. Odenkirk plays Hutch Mansell, a middle-aged family man living a life of quiet desperation in the suburbs. When a couple of robbers break into his home, a sequence of events reveals that the seemingly mild-mannered Hutch harbors a dark past in which he was a lethally efficient killer.

Nobody was Odenkirk’s big shot at becoming an action star, and he didn’t intend to waste it. To prove it, he offered to show me an unreleased action short he wrote and starred in called Wish Me Luck, which he shot with a skeleton crew of friends and collaborators about eight months before Nobody was due to film. “Nobody’s seen it, Scott, and you can’t show it to anyone,” he told me.

I watched it. It’s awesome. I am very sorry that you can’t see it, and that I can’t describe it to you (though Odenkirk says he hopes to release it in some form, someday).

And remember: This is the thing he made eight months before he started filming Nobody. If you have any doubts about Odenkirk’s prowess as an action star, they’ll be dispelled by the movie’s first major set piece: A shockingly brutal, no-holds-barred brawl on a city bus that leaves everyone — including, I suspect, many members of the audience — wincing in pain by the time it ends.

But impressive as Odenkirk’s previously untapped action chops are, I expected that from Nobody. What I didn’t expect was that Odenkirk would bring so much of his own vulnerability, drawn from his own real-life experiences, to the movie. “In a weird way, it’s the most personal project I’ve ever done,” he tells me. “I wasn’t sure it would be — but in a lot of ways, playing this part was cathartic for me.”

Here, Bob Odenkirk gets serious about the mental and physical work that went into remaking himself as an action star; the real-life traumas that inspired his performance in Nobody; and getting ready for the final season of Better Call Saul, and whatever might come next:

Bob Odenkirk in Nobody, 2021.Everett Collection / Courtesy fo Allen Fraser for Universal Pictures

The idea for the movie that eventually became Nobody started with you. How did you get other people to buy into your vision of Bob Odenkirk, action star?

I was expecting to get shot down by everyone I know. The first person I call is my manager, Marc Provissiero. And Marc says, “You’re right, Bob. You might be able to do an action movie.” The character of Saul Goodman is indefatigable. He has a lot of heart. He gets knocked down over and over, he never quits coming back, and he’s not above doing something devious. In a lot of ways that’s an action hero — except he doesn’t fight. And that’s how people know me around the world, more than Mr. Show or any of the comedy I’ve done.

Even with the dramatic roles you’ve played in recent years, I have to admit: I had a certain idea of what “Bob Odenkirk in an action movie” might look like, and Nobody is definitely not that. There are jokes, but the tone is darker and more serious than I expected.

I didn’t want any safety valve. “Bob Odenkirk is an action star — but don’t worry, he’s joking.” That would’ve been the safe way to do it. But who gives a shit about that?

From the time I was talking to Marc, I said, “It’s going to be not ironic. I’m not going to wink at the camera. Every time I do anything violent, I want a look of fear underneath the brazen, blazing vengeance. I want uncertainty and fear to permeate my character through the whole movie. I’m not going to be cute, and I’m not going to do funny stuff.”

If I fail, then I’ll be deeply embarrassed — and that’s okay, because I’m comfortable in deep embarrassment. But it’s not worth doing if I’m going to give myself the out of being self-aware, and clever, and making fun of the action. It only works if I go too far.

What did “going too far” mean in this case? I know you spent the past few years doing some pretty intense physical training for this movie.

I was at a party, and Tim Olyphant and I were talking, and he always kills me. He just makes me laugh. I said, “I’m training so hard for this movie.” And he looks at me and he goes, “Just get a stuntman to do it.”

And it was the first time it even occurred to me that I could do that! So I stood there, silently thinking, “Well, yeah. Of course you could do that.” And then I thought, “What’s the point of that? I want to do this.”

Were there any action movies, or action stars, that you looked at as inspiration? Someone who made you say, “Yeah, that’s what I want to do?”

I watch a lot of Bruce Lee stuff on YouTube. I asked if I could do the One-Inch Punch in Nobody, and I was told, “No. You will not be good enough to do that.” And they were right. I am not good enough to do a Bruce Lee One-Inch Punch. I don’t think I ever will be, but I will continue to try.

You clearly put a lot of yourself into Nobody. How much of your own life, and your own feelings, were you drawing from?

Making this movie was a great opportunity to let out some deep-seated frustration. And, you could say, vengeance.

How so?

My family has had two home break-ins. And there’s a separate incident that’s also somewhat represented, which I was held up with a gun in Chicago many years ago.

What happened?

I was doing Second City. I was really out-of-my-mind tired. It was, like, 1am on a Thursday, and I’d been up since 10am on Tuesday. I’d started the day in New York, stayed up all night writing at SNL, did the SNL readthrough, flew to Chicago, did the show at Second City, and then drove home. I was with my girlfriend at the time. And I got out of the car, and a guy put a gun to my head and said, “Give me your money.”

So I got the money out, gave it to him, and then he said, “Get your girlfriend out of the car.” And I said, “No.” Now, admittedly, I was bleary-eyed, blinkered, and not thinking straight. Everyone says that you should do what they ask. But I was just exhausted. And I said, “No, get the fuck out of here. Look at how much fucking money I gave you.”

Stop me if this is too personal, but you mentioned you and your family have had your home broken into as well. What can you tell me about those experiences, and how they led to Nobody?

We had a break-in at our house that was disturbing. I kept the damage to a minimum. I didn’t do anything. I picked up the baseball bat, but I talked everyone out of it, and the police came and got the guy out of the house.

There was an incident involved that I don’t want to go into — but it resonates through our family still. And you can’t help but resent that. You feel like, You asshole who did that to me. You just chose to do that to me and my family one night. And I don’t get to do anything. I just have to take it.

By the way, I’ve got to say one more thing.

Please do.

The police officer in Nobody [who arrives after the break-in], saying, “That’s not what I would’ve done”? I had a police officer say that to me.

That’s awful. I’m sorry. How do you even react to something like that?

I didn’t know what to say. I guess my brain immediately went, “What? You wanted me to shoot at people in my house? What? I thought I did the right thing. Are you serious, officer? You know what you would be showing up to if there had been an interaction here? You’d be showing up to a really bad situation. A much worse situation.” I didn’t say any of that stuff, because in the moment, you’re overwhelmed. But I couldn’t believe he said that. It was just fucking bad.

I think about those things a lot. Just like we all think about traumatic moments in our lives. They kind of haunt us. But I do think, There’s not much I would do differently. I think the one thing I didn’t do right was that we should’ve had a therapist come over — that day — and sit with us and the kids and talk about what happened. Right away. Like, within hours. Instead of going on with our day, which is what we did. That was a mistake, because it didn’t acknowledge the impact that we’d all suffered. We pretended, to some degree. “Let’s just compartmentalize this. Everyone’s okay, let’s just go on with our lives.” And that’s really not okay.

But in a movie, you get to play it out. This is a genre movie, and it’s meant to be a rip-roaring thrill ride. But it’s interesting how much the story builds from stuff that I relate to.

Bob Odenkirk in Nobody, 2021.Everett Collection / Courtesy fo Allen Fraser for Universal Pictures

Did making Nobody give you a different perspective, or a different way to process those experiences?

When you train for a movie like this, you train for real. The guy who trained me with knives trains SEAL teams, so he’s showing me how you really do it. And every one of those people — if you ask them what you do if there’s a confrontation — they say, “If you can get away, run away.” Every one of them. And these are the pros. These are the guys who can do something. So I learned that those fantasies you have in your head as a dad — “What would I do? How can I confront them? What should I learn? What martial art should I learn?” — the first martial art you should learn is running. Running away.

The final season of Better Call Saul is on the horizon. I know secrecy is part of the deal here — but have you started filming yet?

We start next week. [This interview took place in early March.] We had a filming delay because we were concerned about COVID. Now, a couple of the cast members are fully vaccinated, and the protocols have been practiced on other shows. We feel like we’re in a good place to get started.

But the good thing is the writers have had this time to find their way through the whole final season. We were supposed to start shooting in September, and they used every extra minute.

Between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, you’ve basically lived in this universe longer than anybody else. Have you gotten any better at predicting what’s coming next?

I think there’s going to be a big turn in the end that I can’t predict. I don’t know what happens with Kim, and I don’t know what happens with Gene Takovic [the false name Jimmy is living under in the flash-forwards that open each season]. Those are two huge choices that could go so many ways, and I just have no way to predict what they’ll do.

Where do you hope Jimmy will end up?

I have campaigned that he grows as a person and finds some place to put his talents, such as they are. And does not operate out of resentment and striking back at the world — as he seems to, so often — but rather, finds a different way to interact with the world. But I don’t know if they see that as a possibility. Or at least as one that will play as well in a TV drama.

What are you hoping to do after the final season of Better Call Saul? Another action movie?

Well, I’m maintaining my training from this movie. I hope to get to do another action movie. You know, if this movie plays well and I get to make more action films, I would like to make one that’s close in spirit to my favorite action film of all time: Jackie Chan’s Police Story. That’s just something you could watch with your whole family, and also, the fighting is kind of clever. It makes you smile.

And if I got to make that movie? I would get a One-Inch Punch in there.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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