The long-awaited Breaking Bad spinoff, Better Call Saul, premieres Sunday, Feb. 8, on AMC (before settling in to its regular Monday night timeslot). As I wrote in my feature/review on the show in the print TIME last week, the show represents a challenge that’s arguably tougher than creating a great TV drama: following it up with a pretty-good drama. I’ve seen the first three episodes, and they pull it off: Saul is a show with different ambitions and a different kind of protagonist from Breaking Bad, but it’s solidly entertaining, with a familiar streak of dark humor.
Making the show was also a new challenge for star Bob Odenkirk, who appears in nearly every scene of these early episodes, a tall commitment even by cable-drama standards. I talked to him by phone from Los Angeles before I wrote my piece (see also my earlier interview with Vince Gilligan), and here’s some of what he had to say:
Can you talk first about shooting the series just personally in terms of workload? How this was different from when you were working on Breaking Bad?
Bob Odenkirk: Oh, the workload is exponentially, by a factor of one thousand, greater. I mean, my part in Breaking Bad wasn’t that large. I would fly in, do my part, and go home sometimes the same day. Flew to Albuquerque, shot, and then came home. This time, I moved there for four and a half months and there were whole weeks where I was in every scene. So yeah, very different. I had to work harder by a lot.
Does it to any extent feel like you’re playing a different character, in that you’re playing Jimmy McGill before he becomes the Saul that we knew?
That is something Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould] thought about, and I thought about it too. I don’t think that they’ve broken the story or character logic they established in Breaking Bad. You see in Jimmy McGill tons of Saul Goodman moments. You see him talking, thinking, behaving like Saul Goodman many, many times in every episode. But I do think that they’ve added so many layers and they’ve taken us so far behind the persona of Saul that there does come a point where you almost ask, Wait, is this a different guy? It can feel that way. It’s just so much richer, but you could isolate throughout every episode moments that you could just say are from Breaking Bad. They’re pure Saul.
I think that the real answer to that is: how different can a person’s persona be from their public face? Which is to say Saul Goodman as we met him is very different. I think that’s realistic–how differently do I behave in church, at my office, at a family gathering, when I’m working versus when I’m alone? We all have different personas and different ways of being depending on the circumstances and where we find ourselves.
How long ago did you start talking about doing the series?
It goes all the way back to almost the first time I played Saul. Everyone joked about it on the crew but then Vince about it in my second season [season three of Breaking Bad]. I was walking down the hall in Albuquerque, he was doing the closing episode of season three, and he said, referencing the jokes everyone was making: What do you think about a show just about Saul? I said what I’ve always said, and said every time he said it afterwards, which is, if you write it I’ll do it. I didn’t want to put any pressure on him with some hopes that I had. I just wanted him to feel confident about his own inspiration.
Having watched the four seasons of Breaking Bad that you were in, I know why it’s such a pleasure to watch this character. But as somebody who plays him, I assume you’ve got to find what you connect with in him. Like what do you like about Jimmy McGill?
I like that he is indefatigable. You can’t stop him. He’s struggling to do the right thing and the right thing isn’t easy to figure out. And I like his journey. I like what Vince and Peter are examining here, with a person trying to become themselves and fit in and be appreciated. I like his stoicism. And honestly having watched only one [episode] I like – it’s funny and sad to see a guy you like struggle so much. It’s funny to see him digging a hole as he tries to dig himself out of a hole.
You’ve seen just one episode?
Do you like to watch your own shows in general?
I’m going to watch them when they air. I love the idea of getting to watch them like a viewer and be surprised by what is happening, you know, when something that I’ve forgotten happens. I look forward to it. I can’t wait to see the show!