For 12 years, award-winning comedic writer Bob Odenkirk, 60, flexed his dramatic acting muscles playing the iconic role of attorney Saul Goodman (aka Jimmy McGill) in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. In the new AMC+ dramedy Lucky Hank, he switches gears from lawyer to professor as a disgruntled English department chair at an underfunded college in Pennsylvania’s Rust Belt.
1. You play an English professor in Lucky Hank. Did you ever consider majoring in English?
It’s interesting. I wish I majored in English. I didn’t. I majored in broadcasting at Southern Illinois University. I wanted to be a writer when I was that age, which makes me wonder why I didn’t major in English. As far as writing goes, I never took a class outside of the normal English class. Nothing advanced. But I read like crazy. I wanted to be a novelist until I got a glimpse of my writing. I did. I sort of pursued it diligently and then quite naturally gave it up to write sketch comedy shows, which I of course loved very much.
2. What’s on your reading list?
When? This week? I’m reading Dickens and Prince by Nick Hornby — really fun. Real Estate by Deborah Levy. How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton. Five Decembers, a noir novel by James Kestrel. And well, we’ll just stop there. Oh, Rachel Aviv, her book Strangers to Ourselves, I’m into. As well as, of course, The New Yorker, which is the best magazine.
3. Did you have a favorite teacher?
I did have a favorite teacher. It was [Naperville High School] chemistry teacher Mr. [Lee] Marek, who used to go on [Late Night With] David Letterman. Do you remember him? He would do funny experiments. He made Dave laugh. A very clever guy. An open-minded, fun guy. I didn't like chemistry at all. In fact, it’s the only class I ever got a D in, and he gave it to me, but I still loved him and I loved his class. He encouraged my playfulness, my silliness. Additionally, I loved my junior high teachers. They were the ones who really gave me a boost as far as going into show business. They let me do all my reports as performances, as plays that I wrote. I would do them around the school.
4. Your character, Hank, seems to be having a midlife crisis. Having just turned 60, do you know anything about that?
Do I? It’s bound to happen. I think it's a version of the crisis that you have all through life as you reach different levels of growth and change — chapters really — in your life. I think it’s your relationship to life and to how long we live. I had a heart attack a year and a half ago, and that brought it into focus, but I think everybody has some sense of that — or most people do — and it’s really how you revisit your existential presence. Like, how you go, Wait, who am I again? People tend to do it around their early 30s and then around 50 again. Those are just moments where you go [in your 30s], I'm not going to live forever, and do I want to have a family? Or, in the case of your 50s, What do I want to do with hopefully a good chunk of time to enjoy my life?
5. Any revelations from your heart attack?
I had no magical experience of the afterlife at all. It was a complete blank. But what I did have was the sense there was for sure a harsh limit on time. When it ends it ends. So whatever you’re doing that you’re not enjoying — and sometimes [it’s] stuff that you used to enjoy — ask yourself how much longer you really want to be doing it. You become aware of how hard it is for people to change their fundamental way, which of course means yourself. So, if you want to be a different person, if you want to live the rest of this life a healthier person, or a more free person, or a person with less responsibilities, you have to make some choices to allow you to do that. And they’re going to be hard to make. They’re not easy. I don’t even think people really talk about retiring anymore, and that’s probably a good thing, because you don’t get to retire from being yourself, and that’s what you want to change very often — sort of your fundamental drives.
6. Any changes you want to make?
I want to put more space in my life and have less rushing around. I’ve done so many wonderful things in the last 15 years: the TV shows I’ve been allowed to do, and the movies I’ve been allowed to do, and my kids growing up and doing really good. But you can’t enjoy any of it if all you do is rush from one responsibility to the next.
7. It hasn’t even been a year since we said goodbye to Saul Goodman, and yet here you are starring in another series.
It was at least six months before finishing Better Call Saul [and] my wife [Naomi Yomtov], who is my manager along with her business partner, sent me the script. They send me scripts all the time, mostly feature films, but some other things, too, if they think I’d be interested. I read this and liked it very much. I particularly like how different it was from Saul, in his relationship to the world, but also just the tone of it. It’s not a genre piece. It’s a comedy drama, kind of right down the middle. And the more you watch it, the more you’ll see what I mean. Just a unique tone. Something I associate with Alexander Payne films, which I really love, and something that is really hard to do. I’m up for doing something that’s really, really hard — whether it’s me as an action star or anything that sounds like it’s probably not going to work — I’m up for trying it.
8. So you like a challenge?
It piqued my interest to be doing something just out of reach. I don’t understand anything that’s kind of right down the middle or feels like it’s well-tread territory. The thing I know best is sketch comedy, and l would love to do more of that, [but] even there I would have to do something that was a little out of the box for me to care about it for any length of time.
9. What show are you finding really funny right now?
I love the TV show The Bear. I love Severance. Severance is really funny. It makes me laugh all the time. … There’s a thing called On Cinema at the Cinema, which is a parody movie review show. But it’s really all these intriguing backstories of these idiotic characters. I find that very, very funny and smart.
10. You’ve won Emmys for your comedy writing on Saturday Night Live and The Ben Stiller Show. But after playing him for 12 years, how do you feel about many viewers forever thinking of you as Saul?
Obviously, if you’re going to get typecast, being typecast with a character that has that much dynamic range of character is probably pretty great … so I'm good with getting pegged as the guy who played Jimmy McGill.
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