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Allow Bob Odenkirk to Reintroduce Himself

This Friday, the ‘Better Call Saul’ star officially becomes an action hero. While that may sound strange, it’s just par for the course for an actor who’s already transformed from a zany sketch comic to a master of drama.

Colin Verdi

The three-minute trailer for Nobody is laid out like a standard revenge action movie in miniature. A despondent suburban dad feels emasculated after a home invasion during which he doesn’t fight back against the robbers and loses the respect of his family, coworkers, and the police officers called to the scene. That subdued rage reaches a boil when he picks a fight with a group of drunk hooligans harassing a woman on a public bus. As the man dispatches the drunks with his bare hands, the trailer ticks off another box on the action-movie checklist: Clearly this is someone with a mysterious and violent past.

Such a premise is well-worn territory for genre enthusiasts who know their Death Wish from their Taken, but what makes Nobody such an intriguing entry in the action-movie canon is that the cathartic carnage is delivered by, of all the actors on the planet, Bob Odenkirk.

Whether you know Odenkirk from sketch comedy or as the smarmy “criminal” lawyer Saul Goodman in the Breaking Bad universe, it’s undeniably jarring to see him playing someone who takes out a gun, removes all of the bullets, and tells the aforementioned drunk hooligans that they’re about to get fucked up. And, well, spoiler alert: Odenkirk’s character, Hutch Mansell, delivers on his promise, but not before the actor known for his comedy-leaning roles gets sent through a bus window. (This man with a mysterious and violent past has some rust to shake off.) It’s nothing short of breathtaking.

“It just knocked us all on our ass,” Better Call Saul cocreator Peter Gould says, after Odenkirk previewed the Nobody trailer to the writer’s room. “This guy who made me laugh so much and who was such a fun collaborator, I didn’t expect to see him kicking ass. I didn’t expect to see him shooting automatic weapons and beating the hell out of a whole bus full of bad guys.”

Gould certainly isn’t alone: If there’s something everyone can agree on about Nobody, it’s the collective disbelief that the 58-year-old Odenkirk is taking a (sometimes literal) stab at becoming an action star. “I wanted to play an action hero who gets hurt, who feels pain when he gets hit, and who carries that pain forward,” Odenkirk says over a Zoom call in February. “These are things that I thought I could do uniquely and bring to this genre.” But for someone who already made the surprisingly seamless switch from cult comedian into an Emmy-nominated dramatic performer, Odenkirk’s latest career pivot into an ass-kicking John Wick descendant feels less like a punch line and more like another string in the bow of one of the most unpredictable and exciting actors in Hollywood.

To get a full grasp of how surreal it is to watch Odenkirk snapping bones and crushing windpipes on public transit, consider one of his earliest television appearances, on a 1988 episode of Saturday Night Live, back when he was working on the series as a writer. Tom Hanks was hosting the episode, and the opening monologue played into his reputation as the nicest guy in Hollywood by having the actor diffuse the tension between a 20-something NBC page (played by Odenkirk) who was intimidated by two guys who don’t have tickets to the show. A visibly nervous Odenkirk’s voice cracks as he explains the situation to Hanks, who offers the men the keys to his hotel room so they can watch the episode from there. (They’re so giddy they invite Odenkirk to join them.)

While Odenkirk would win Emmys as part of the writing staffs of SNL and The Ben Stiller Show in 1989 and 1993, respectively, his sketch-comedy peak didn’t arrive until Mr. Show With Bob and David, the HBO series he cocreated with David Cross that ran for four seasons between 1995 and 1998. Mr. Show’s format, loose as it was, sprang from the eccentric minds of its cocreators. The series was so unapologetically weird it practically told the audience to get on its wavelength or change the channel. What Mr. Show lacked in viewership it made up for with cult-like enthusiasm—its absurdist style, with various sketches and characters woven together throughout an episode, took after Monty Python’s Flying Circus, and eventually inspired its own legion of followers. From Key & Peele to The Daily Show to The Sarah Silverman Program, Mr. Show would become a major influence in the comedy scene, and to internet comedy on the whole. There’s a good chance Mr. Show is your favorite sketch comedian’s favorite sketch comedy.

Post–Mr. Show, Odenkirk remained active on-screen, including guest spots on Curb Your Enthusiasm, Arrested Development, and the Friends spinoff, Joey. But the major through line in these appearances is that Odenkirk was a bit player elevating others, rather than the main attraction. (That he auditioned to play Michael Scott in The Office, though, is one of sitcom history’s great What-ifs?) Odenkirk hadn’t fallen off the radar by any means—in fact, as a creative consultant and recurring guest on Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, he was paying it forward as a sketch comedy icon. Then came the TV series that would change his trajectory as an actor. Though in 2009, the idea of Odenkirk showing up in a prestige drama about a New Mexico high school chemistry teacher with terminal cancer cooking meth to support his family sounded less viable than the premise of a Mr. Show sketch cut for time. “I mean, talk about learning on the job,” Odenkirk says.

Universal Pictures

When Saul Goodman—the wacky lawyer with an even wackier collection of suits—was first introduced around the midway point of Breaking Bad’s second season, the character did fall into Odenkirk’s wheelhouse despite being enveloped in the show’s grim cartel world. Saul was the AMC series trying its hand at comic relief, presented in the form of a sleazy snake oil salesman who had the Constitution plastered on the walls of his law office. As far as subtlety goes, Saul’s local law commercials were like being whacked on the head with a gavel.

The Saul facade wasn’t hard to see through, but even in the early days, Odenkirk brought a subtle nuance to the character that wasn’t necessarily on the page. “The more you watched Saul, the more we saw that there were cracks in this mask and you’d get little glimpses of a human being behind all the bluster,” says Gould, who wrote the Breaking Bad episode that introduced the character. “It just felt like there was more to this guy. And I think so much of that had to do with Bob’s performance.”

Despite so many characters on Breaking Bad facing untimely ends in gruesomely creative ways—sliced open with a box cutter, blown up by a wheelchair bomb in a nursing home, etc.—Saul slipped away from the carnage, his final moments in the show confirming that he’d left New Mexico for Nebraska under a new identity. Of course, that wouldn’t be the true end of his arc, but for Odenkirk, the prospect of Saul leading his own spinoff series didn’t seem like anything more than an on-set joke. “The first time I did the character, one of the cameramen after a take said, ‘Can I get a job on the sequel?’ and everyone laughed,” Odenkirk says. “From that joke onwards, people talked about it, ‘Maybe there should be a show about Saul.’ But I didn’t really believe it was real.”

By the time Breaking Bad was concluding its five-season run in 2013, however, a Saul Goodman–focused series had already been given the go-ahead. While some of the fandom wanted a prequel series centered around Gus Fring, the ruthless fan-favorite drug kingpin with a mysterious past, that hypothetical show would’ve touched on familiar territory to Breaking Bad. A prequel about Saul Goodman, on the other hand, would allow for an extension to the Breaking Bad universe that could break new ground. But more than anything, Better Call Saul was a huge show of faith that Odenkirk could not just be the star of his own show, but could carry a highly anticipated spinoff of an Emmy-winning drama. “If Bob hadn’t been cast as Saul Goodman, I can’t picture us ever having decided to do Better Call Saul,” Gould says.

Five seasons into the show’s run, the gambit has paid off. Better Call Saul is universally lauded as the rare prequel that works—in no small part thanks to Odenkirk’s complex lead performance. The show begins when Saul Goodman is still going by Jimmy McGill, an aspiring lawyer with some good intentions who can’t help but cut legal corners. Initially, the central tension in Better Call Saul doesn’t come from Jimmy conniving with cartel members—that half of the show mostly belongs to Jonathan Banks’s Mike Ehrmantraut—but from the judgmental eye of his older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean).

Jimmy is no saint, and most of Chuck’s instincts about his brother end up being true, even if he can’t prove it in court. But to see Jimmy constantly denied love and validation by Chuck, who knows exactly what to say to inflict the most emotional pain, is devastating to watch—while at the same time revealing new layers of pathos in Odenkirk as an actor. “Bob has a range that’s very unusual: He can go from out and out, outlandish sketch comedy to heartbreaking drama at the drop of a hat,” Gould explains. “That was one of the things that excited us because you have to find the humanity in your main character. Otherwise, why is he worth watching?”

Better Call Saul has continued to tip the scales each season from comedy to tragedy, a tonal shift that coincides with the series peeling away more layers from the character destined to become Saul Goodman. (The sixth and final season, which is currently in production, is set to air in early 2022.) He might’ve been cast in this small-screen universe as comic relief, but the more his character embraces his own version of breaking bad, the more Odenkirk has excelled. “Being able to find unexpected depths in a character and also plumb the lowest abyss that might be in a character and in their soul, I see him do it day in and day out,” Rhea Seehorn, who plays Jimmy’s romantic partner, Kim Wexler, says. “Bob can get in touch with a lot of extreme darkness and pain.”

While Better Call Saul doesn’t have a Primetime Emmy to its name, the Television Academy has at least recognized Odenkirk’s acting chops: He’s been up for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series four of the five times he’s been eligible. (The fact that Odenkirk didn’t get a nomination last year for the show’s penultimate season, despite several incredible scenes that would belong on any actor’s highlight reel, should be a criminal offense.) Leading a critically acclaimed drama has also given Odenkirk the opportunity to carve out another niche in Hollywood: the award season role player.

Since Better Call Saul’s first season aired in 2015, Odenkirk has moonlighted as Washington Post editor Ben Bagdikian in Steven Spielberg’s The Post, as well as Father March in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. Both films were Best Picture nominees—another recent movie the actor appeared in, Dolemite Is My Name, also garnered award season attention—and while Odenkirk isn’t billed as the main attraction in either, he more than holds his own against the likes of Meryl Streep (twice!), Tom Hanks, Saoirse Ronan, Florence Pugh, and Laura Dern.

Despite his new calling as the guy who acclaimed filmmakers tap to round out their award-worthy ensembles, Odenkirk maintains that he never considered what kind of doors Better Call Saul could open for his career. “It’s not even like I avoided thinking about it, it didn’t occur to me,” he says. But what connects all of his dramatic roles, from Better Call Saul to The Post to Little Women to his latest and most physically demanding work in Nobody, is finding parts of himself within the characters. “You can connect to a character through something you wanted and tried to achieve,” Odenkirk says. “Or maybe in the case of Hutch in Nobody, a degree of rage and frustration that almost anybody’s going to feel about life—and certainly life during a pandemic.”

One thing Nobody definitely has is a degree of familiarity. The script is by Derek Kolstad, writer of the John Wick films, and might as well be self-plagiarism, since it’s predicated on a man with a mysterious past annihilating a bunch of nameless, Eastern European goons. But what actually helps elevate the material is Odenkirk’s presence. Two of the most successful revenge action movies of the century, Taken and John Wick, require the audience to suspend their disbelief that the actors who once played a Jedi (Liam Neeson) and a Messianic figure who knows kung fu (Keanu Reeves) are actually wolves in sheep’s clothing that no one would think twice about messing with. Odenkirk, meanwhile, more aptly looks the part of a meek, middle-aged suburban dad in over his head, which makes Nobody’s fight scenes all the more thrilling.

Hutch moved away from a life of violence on behalf of the American government to settle down with a family, but he overcorrected a little too much. Hutch’s pent-up rage over the mundanity of domestic life is brilliantly captured by director Ilya Naishuller in an opening montage of the character’s weekly routine, which includes always being a few seconds late to take out the trash on garbage day. By the time there’s a break-in at his house, and Hutch is stopping himself from hitting one of the robbers with a golf club—a sensible decision perverted into a slight on his masculinity in Nobody’s tongue-in-cheek, overly macho worldview—all he needs is a reasonable outlet for venting his frustrations. And, of course, a chance to show off his particular set of skills.

As Odenkirk sees it, Hutch is at a breaking point where he doesn’t even care if he lives through his violence as catharsis. “In the movie Death Wish, it was like a death wish to have that guy approach you, right?” he says. “But in my movie, you think my character has the death wish, he’s trying to get killed doing this, and I think he might. He’s a little unhinged.” That feeling is expressed with a wry smile on Hutch’s face when those belligerent characters first step onto the bus, culminating in the first of Nobody’s action sequences that have a John Wick–like energy. In other words: clean compositions that give the viewer a good idea of all the beats in the fight choreography and confirmation that Odenkirk is really doing his own stunts. “I wanted to do my own fighting, which is, I guess, rare, because a lot of actors laughed at me and said, ‘Why don’t you just have a stuntman fight in your place?’” he says. “But I wanted to do it, because I love Jackie Chan films and I love that he does his own fighting.”

AMC

Fortunately for Hutch and his death wish, beating up some assholes on a bus is only the beginning, since he just so happens to hospitalize the younger brother of a powerful Russian mobster named Yulian (Aleksey Serebryakov). This is also where Nobody really leans into the John Wick–ness of it all: After one of Yulian’s lackeys pulls up Hutch’s top secret government file, which vaguely confirms he’s an unstoppable killing machine, she smartly peaces out of the rest of the movie. (A reminder: After finding out his son killed John Wick’s dog, the main villain of the first movie basically tells him to plan his funeral arrangements.) By the time a bunch of nameless Russian bad guys try and fail to assassinate Hutch at his home—a fun set piece that, again, Kolstad is shamelessly pulling from his own résuméNobody might as well be called Bob Wick.

The fact that the baddest motherfucker on the planet also looks like Bob Odenkirk is one of the many ways that Nobody is winking to the audience about its own gleeful absurdity. But while Nobody is laced with dark humor, including a recurring bit when Hutch opens up about his feelings to an incapacitated henchman who ends up dying before he finishes his monologue, the film was a new challenge for Odenkirk in that his character isn’t in on the joke. “It’s a different thing tonally,” Odenkirk says. “It doesn’t make any sense that I could do Mr. Show and also do Nobody.” He takes a pause, which, over the rigid confines of a Zoom call, can make a few seconds stretch out into an eternity. “I hope I pulled them off.”

Nobody probably won’t be joining some of Odenkirk’s recent big-screen projects at the Oscars, but as far as giving viewers a pulpy B-movie with a handful of methodically crafted action sequences, it more than delivers. Most importantly, the film confirms that “Bob Odenkirk, Action Star” isn’t just a gimmick. Whether his character is beating up people with his bare hands, throwing kitchen knives at home intruders, or shooting goons through the windshield of a vintage muscle car, Odenkirk fully commits to the role with the typical disposition of an action hero. “He’s very clearly, as anyone can see at this point, someone who achieves great things when he sets his mind to them,” Seehorn says about her costar. “It wasn’t surprising to me that he pulled it off.”

While it’ll be more difficult to measure Nobody’s success with theaters nowhere near pre-pandemic levels of attendance, in an ideal world, Odenkirk doesn’t want the film to be the only time he dips his toes in the action pool. If he gets another crack at being an action hero, he’ll lean more into his natural comedic instincts—something more attuned to one of his favorite movies, Police Story. “It’s got a sweet quality to it, some physical humor, and a lot of clever fighting,” Odenkirk says. “I’d love to do a movie like that.”

In the meantime, though, there’s still one more season of Better Call Saul left to film—one which should close the book on the conman who’s spent nine televised seasons keeping Albuquerque’s seedy underbelly out of prison. (It will also, hopefully, offer some answers about what happens to Kim Wexler, as well as how Saul Goodman working at a Cinnabon under the name “Gene Takovic” fits into the bigger picture.) But just as Saul Goodman was originally envisioned as a three-episode arc in Breaking Bad before blossoming into a tragic and compelling antihero of his own spinoff series, the role has launched Odenkirk’s second life from career comedian to a jack-of-all-trades actor.

“Deep down I knew it was a facade, but it lasted longer than I expected,” Hutch says in Nobody about his life of domesticity. But the line could just as well have come from the star of Better Call Saul reckoning with the unstable duality of trying to be both Jimmy McGill and Saul Goodman. At this point, it doesn’t matter what kind of mask Bob Odenkirk has to slip on for a role: Whether he’s an investigative journalist in a historical drama, a loving father in a period piece, a shady lawyer in an Emmy-nominated TV series, or the gritty hero of an action movie, his acting sure as hell doesn’t feel like a facade. Nowadays, if an acclaimed filmmaker needs to find a dependable and versatile actor to round out their ensemble, they Better Call Bob.

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