To illustrate our cover story about the meltdown of big law in the wake of the financial crisis, we chose a character who epitomizes the lawyer at his most ruthless (and, increasingly, desperate): Saul Goodman of “Breaking Bad,” who was photographed by Art Streiber. Saul, played by Bob Odenkirk, is the tacky, crooked attorney who traffics in drug busts and fraudulent insurance claims, smooth-talking his clients—and himself—out of a string of impossible jams. With the first of “Breaking Bad”’s final eight episodes set to premiere August 11, we spoke to Odenkirk about his inspirations for the character, whether Saul survives the end of the series, and rumors that he’ll be starring in a “Better Call Saul” spin-off.
Laura Bennett: Did you model Saul Goodman on any actual lawyers?
Bob Odenkirk: I’m happy to say Saul Goodman is not based on observing lawyers in any proximity. My mother-in-law is a lawyer.
LB: I’m sure she would be very flattered if I said she was your inspiration for Saul.
BO: She’s a very sweet lady and she does really great work for families in San Diego and San Jose. I actually based Saul on Hollywood agents. The energy of the character and the playful duplicity.
LB: I don’t know how much you’ve been told about our upcoming cover story, the one you’ve bravely agreed to pose for. But basically it’s about the moral decay of white-shoe law firms in the post-recession era, their descent into hotbeds of backstabbing and greed.
BO: I don’t think Saul is that far off from a lot of real people who decide that it’s above their pay grade to think about things on a deeper level, who think that the world is just a bunch of systems and it’s their job to navigate those systems to their benefit. I don’t think they wake up grinning maliciously. They don’t think about what’s right and wrong, or the meaning of things. They just think, I’m gonna get shit done. I think that’s what a lot of people think capitalism is: It’s meant to be an anarchist system that allows me to get whatever I want to serve myself. Oh jeez, I shouldn’t pontificate.
LB: How do you imagine Saul’s backstory? What was he doing before he became a criminal lawyer?
BO: He probably went through college very fast. I feel like he got his degree in three years, he passed his bar on the second try, and he worked really hard to just barely get over the hurdles. He was like, let’s get this done fast. And as many shortcuts as I can take, I will take them. And I will be an official lawyer, as official as any lawyer coming out of Harvard or any other big place.
LB: You think Saul reads The New Republic?
BO: He definitely does not read The New Republic. I think Saul reads GQ. I think he reads—is there a magazine that alerts you about when there are new strippers in town? He would read that. A stripper alert magazine. He would read USA Today if he were in the airport and were bored.
LB: The first time [“Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan] approached you with the script, what was your impression of Saul?
BO: My first thought was that they had the wrong guy. Because I’ve done mostly sketch comedy and I honestly thought—are you sure there isn’t another Bob Odenkirk who graduated from Yale drama school? Everything fed into [my excitement about the script]: showing up on the set, seeing the amazing set. That office is designed to intimidate and impress people who maybe aren’t that astute about the law and such.
LB: That set is so funny. Do you remember your initial reaction to the pillars and the Constitution backdrop?
BO: Well the thing is, it turns out, it’s not even that over the top! The guy who designed it, Robb Wilson King, is a great set designer. He went around town in Albuquerque and looked at law offices to get the idea of what to do. I have a photo of a law office in Albuquerque that I really think inspired him. I went for a bike ride and I saw this house that was a miniature White House. And it turned out it’s a law office. When you get up close, let’s just say it’s very homemade. I took a picture of it.
LB: I’ve heard there are some very intense scenes coming up between Walt and Saul. How did Saul change as a character over the course of season five?
BO: He’s trapped now, and he’s scared. He is doing less joking around, though he still comes up with a smartass remark once in awhile. It’s fun to play Saul when he’s in control and he’s putting on a show, and it’s a little less fun to play him buttoned-down and scared.
LB: What does Saul think of Walt?
BO: Saul is deeply afraid of Walt. On a level that Saul has never feared a client before—and Saul mostly works with drug dealers and roustabouts. It took Saul a long while to understand just how dangerous Walt is. This is a big change from when Saul met Walt and thought that Walt was the golden goose who was going to crap gold eggs for him forever and ever.
LB: Going into season five, did you know whether Saul was going to make it out alive?
BO: Every single script I’ve picked up, I look for his death scene and I just hope they don’t have to make one of those full-size death masks of me so they can make a decapitated Saul head. I can’t stand getting my face covered in latex.
LB: How did you feel about the way the Saul plot line wrapped up?
BO: I think it’s great. Absolutely believable and appropriate. Cannot tell you why I think that, though, without giving too much away.
LB: What was it like wrapping your final episode?
BO: I did not feel deeply sad at the final episode for Saul. I have always considered the work to be a crazy gift I’ve been given. Also, and maybe this is because I’m a writer myself, I am acutely aware that one of the reasons the show is so good is that it was hurtling towards an ending, not just lingering and mucking about.
LB: There are rumors that plans for a “Better Call Saul” spin-off were recently upgraded from “exploratory” to “full speed ahead.” What does that mean?
BO: It’s still hypothetical. It is. Vince is thinking about it, but we’ll see what happens.
LB: But it’s less hypothetical than it used to be?
BO: Let’s just say some of the blogs reporting it are really premature.
LB: What’s your dream Saul spin-off?
BO: Saul Goodman should be mayor of Las Vegas. He could work in any city. It’s just that in Vegas he could be the mayor one day. He’d really be an upstanding citizen.
Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic.