On “Better Call Saul,” Bob Odenkirk has walked a careful line between wry comedy and soul-bearing drama. Over five seasons, he has played the unscrupulous lawyer Jimmy McGill on his downward path to becoming the venal Saul Goodman, the character he introduced on “Breaking Bad.”
The role is a professional plot twist that continues to delight Odenkirk as well as his longtime fans who first got to know him as a writer and performer of absurdist comedy sketches on “Saturday Night Live,” “The Ben Stiller Show” and “Mr. Show With Bob and David.”
Now the 58-year-old actor is looking to make another change in his trajectory, one that’s equally, if not more, surprising: starring in the action thriller “Nobody.”
The film, which Universal will release on Friday in theaters and April 16 on-demand, casts Odenkirk as Hutch Mansell, a seemingly nondescript suburban husband and father who is shaken by a break-in at his home, an incident that drives him to violent revenge and a reckoning with his own past.
Amid flying fists, broken bones, car chases and explosions, “Nobody” has the requisite level of humor you’d expect to find in an action movie. But the film, which is directed by Ilya Naishuller (“Hardcore Henry”) and written by Derek Kolstad (“John Wick”), is not a comedy or a parody.
As Odenkirk explained in a video interview in February: “It was intended as a genre movie — pure, unapologetic, unironic. Hopefully we take it to such an extreme that it becomes nothing but a cinematic explosion of fury and elemental rage.”
Beyond his sincere efforts to see if audiences will embrace him in this role — one that required months of fitness training and fight choreography — Odenkirk is also using “Nobody” as a constructive outlet to work through his own real-life experiences as a break-in victim.
Speaking from his home in Los Angeles, Odenkirk talked about the making of “Nobody” and how his comedic chops come in handy when it’s time to plan a fight scene. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Was it as enjoyable to play an action hero as we all imagine it to be?
I wasn’t sure if it would be satisfying or just a weird challenge that made no sense to me when I was finally allowed to execute it. I wasn’t sure if I’d be there on set thinking, “This is way off-base — this is not satisfying in any way.” It was really satisfying and really fun.
Was it the next logical step for you after “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”?
It’s not easy to figure out what connects this to everything else in my career, and I’m not sure I can make it easy for you. When I first approached it, my brain said, “Maybe I could do an action movie.” I’m in good shape; I could maybe learn if I had time. And I think I have the components for an action lead in this “Better Call Saul” character that I play. He’s earnest. He’s indefatigable. He finds a way around everything. He’s always shifting his approach to try to get over the latest wrinkle or issue in front of him. The only thing he doesn’t do is fight.
You were inspired to make this movie, in part, by some very frightening personal experiences. Are you comfortable discussing this?
[His voice softens.] I can only talk about it a little. My family has had two break-ins here in L.A., and the first one was particularly traumatic. The residual feelings of frustration and anger are real and stayed with me. They were something I thought I could build this character out of. I know that violence doesn’t solve anything. But believe me, you have a desire to hurt someone who hurts your family.
In the movie, your character is shamed for not trying to subdue his home invaders. Did a police officer actually say something like that to you?
“That’s not what I would have done.” Yes — implying that they would have done something violent or confrontational. My immediate thought was, “Everybody be cool, get this person out of the house, we’re all OK.”
It’s not really true; we weren’t all OK. And the violation that happened, the damage from that — honestly, there’s parts of it I can’t talk about. I would just say it resonates through our lives. That sense of being victimized by something you can do nothing about and in no way push back against. It really stayed with me, and it still does. But I did enjoy acting out my rage in this movie. It’s all phony baloney but super fun.
When did you start taking concrete steps to get this made as a movie?
It was after the second season of “Better Call Saul” [which aired in 2016]. My brother-in-law sent me a screengrab of a “Better Call Saul” ad on a TV in China. I had already been to Europe twice and met a lot of fans of “Better Call Saul” there. I thought, “I wonder if I could do a movie that could play around the world.”
Did you expect you might meet some resistance to the idea?
Oh, I thought people would say no, right away. I went to one of my managers and I told him my logic, and he said, “I think you might be right.” He started asking around, and he got the same response. People were like, that makes sense.
Was your comedy career in any way a roadblock to this goal?
If you know “Mr. Show,” it’s really hard to make that leap. But the fact is, most people don’t know it at all. They only know Saul Goodman and Jimmy McGill.
You played some memorably explosive characters in your “Mr. Show” tenure, if that helps.
I can go from zero to 80 on the rage scale, and I did it a lot for comedy’s sake. And it’s something my father did, only it wasn’t funny when he did it. I would say I inherited it. But you’ve got to watch out when you have that skill. Too often it’s misinterpreted.
Before this, were you an action-movie fan?
I actually liked Charles Bronson movies and all the “Dirty Harry” movies. My favorite is “Police Story” with Jackie Chan. If this movie works, which is to say people like it and it engenders good will, I would love to do a movie that’s more on that tonal scale of comic action. As much as I hope my friends and fans from the comedy world will enjoy what I did here, if I don’t please people who like action films, then I didn’t really do what I set out to do. I felt like I had to go all the way in that direction.
When did you have to start your physical training for the role?
February 2017. I do cardio; that’s all I did before this. And I had never hurt my back, my knees. Everything’s good enough, it works. It stressed me to drive to the training facility — an hour and 10 minutes, some days more — in L.A. traffic, and think, “You’re training for a movie that’s never going to happen, what is wrong with you? What kind of midlife crisis are you going through?” But I also thought, “If the movie doesn’t happen, well, I’ll be in shape. And I’ll have learned something about my body.”
Were your comedy skills helpful as you and your colleagues planned the action set pieces?
Let me tell you what I contributed to the bus fight [a scene in which Odenkirk’s character faces off against a gang of roughnecks on a public bus]. We always wanted it to be big and brutal — to shake the audience up and make them go, yeah, we’re doing it. I said, “He has to hurt himself.” The first thing he does is miss and hit his head. I also said, “I want to get thrown out of the bus and come back in.” By the way, there’s so many moments in this that you could transpose to normal dad life by dialing down the intensity level.
What happens if “Nobody” is successful enough that these kinds of action movies become the next chapter of your career?
I shouldn’t worry about that. Because I’m in show business. If they come to me with 10 more action movies, I could say, “No, thank you,” to all of them. That’s up to me. Tomorrow I’m pitching an animated comedy show with my friend [and “Mr. Show” collaborator] Dino Stamatopoulos. I have a lot of say in that. I’m older, I’ve done a lot. I know that I’m never happy staying in one place anyway. I’m not too worried about getting cornered.
Is it fair to say you’re taking some delight in the bafflement of all this?
Part of me wants there to be two Bob Odenkirks. Just so I can have a gravestone with two opposite sides. “He brought the pain,” on one side. “My God, he was funny,” on the other. Has anyone ever done that? A grave with two different things? One side says, “Beloved husband, cherished father.” The other side says, “Despised ex-husband, resented father.”
As we’re speaking, you’re about to start work on the last season of “Better Call Saul.” Is the finality of it all starting to dawn on you?
Not yet. I have so much to do, I can’t think like that. I have to save that for somewhere down the line. There’s just too much work ahead of me.
We don’t know how it all ends for Saul Goodman, but we know the road thus far has taken him to a low-profile gig at Cinnabon. Have you made any unannounced stops to Cinnabon lately, just to see what happens?
I have not, but I know what goes into a Cinnabon. My trainer for the action movies would not be OK with me enjoying a Cinnabon. But they are good. Enjoy your Cinnabons, folks, while you can. Someday they’re going to want you to do an action movie and have you eat avocados and eggs for the rest of your life.
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