Q & A: Bob Odenkirk Talks ‘Fargo’, Challenging Scenes and the Advice He’d Give to College Students
Bob Odenkirk has been on a roll lately, starring in Breaking Bad and its upcoming spin-off, Better Call Saul, Nebraska and now, Fargo.
If you haven’t been watching – and why haven’t you because it’s terrific – Fargo is an original adaptation of the Academy Award®-winning film and features an all-new story and new characters. It stars Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Allison Tolman and Odenkirk as “Deputy Bill Oswalt.”
Odenkirk got his start as a writer and brilliant sketch artist – check out Mr. Show if you can find it. I love that he’s getting all this recognition lately because I think he’s just gold in anything he does, Fargo included.
In this Q & A, he talks about his decision to do the show, the character and his Super Cuts haircut, his career and more!
For all things Fargo, click here. Fargo airs Tuesday nights at 10 p.m. on FX.
Can you just talk about what attracted you to the part, why you decided to do it?
Bob Odenkirk: To do Fargo, I love the movie. I got the script and my first instinct on it was “please don’t ruin the movie I loved,” and I would say by about page eight or nine of reading of the script, I felt, oh man, this is great. This is everything good. They took all the great vibe from the movie. They took the darkness and the comedy and they, well they, Noah Hawley is the writer and he did all this work and he took what you can take and not take the specifics of the movie; and I could just tell it was very entertaining, so I wanted to go in on it and I just worked on my part and went in and I read for it and hoped that I would get it and I did.
And then I was just surprised at how it grew over time as we were shooting it and how my part, “Bill Oswalt,” without giving away too many spoilers or any spoilers, he gets to go somewhere emotionally and it’s pretty great.
You’re such an accomplished comedy performer, a sketch performer with such a long resume doing that kind of work; and now you have this whole second career as an actor in dramas, or at least dramas that have some comedic elements, Fargo would be an example, Breaking Bad obviously. Do you approach the roles differently when you’re preparing for roles in a show like Fargo than in your comedy work and if so, how?
Bob Odenkirk: I wouldn’t say I approach them differently, but they’re pretty fundamentally different. My experience, and it might be just the kind of comedy that I do, which is usually sketch comedy, is that there’s a lot more texture and sort of subplot in drama than in comedy. In comedy you can read the script and you can know the motivations and the reason for the character very quickly and off a simple quick first read. With drama my experiences, and it comes off Breaking Bad, is as you read the dialog, which at first might look like just argument or obfuscation or something, you start to see these inner drives of the characters that were planted there by the writers; and so it’s a more focused and it reveals itself to you, whereas comedy is just kind of right there when you first read it.
How was this shoot different from Breaking Bad or how was it similar?
Bob Odenkirk: The similarities were these are amazing casts of people who are completely professional and grateful to be working in this area. I know I’ve been lucky. I know that this isn’t the norm, so I got to be real careful not to get deluded by these wonderful experiences that I’ve had in the last two years, or four or five years if you include Breaking Bad and Nebraska and Spectacular Now and now Fargo. These casts—maybe one of the reasons is most of those casts, not Spectacular Now, but most of the casts including Fargo are veterans. Do you know what I mean? They really know to appreciate good writing because they’ve seen not so good writing.
So when they’re on a project with a great original voice and integrity to the work, they are thankful and you see it and you feel it all the time every day. It’s not just like the day they show up. It’s like they show up every day glad to be in something that has quality. And so I think I’ve been very lucky, but I got to keep that in mind and not get deluded and think and forget that this is just a special case for these great, great projects.
Since you play a deputy on this show, how has being a part of this show changed the way that you view law enforcement?
Bob Odenkirk: I don’t think it’s changed it much. My godfather was a Chicago policeman and I’ve always looked at law enforcement as a challenging job, an interesting and challenging job. There are so many decisions that law enforcement officers have to make and the incident and the situation changes so much from moment to moment and day to day. I have a lot of respect for officers and what they go through.
We had a couple of officers doing background for Fargo, some real sheriffs from the Canadian sheriffs and I think some retired police as well. I’m going to give you the name of one of them because he’s a great guy and he’s in every episode that I’m in. Anyhow, yes, it maybe deepened my respect just from hanging out with the guys and chatting with them.
I think one of the things I would say is I always try to see my character’s side of whatever is happening, whether it’s “Saul Goodman” on Breaking Bad or in this case “Bill Oswalt,” who is as you can see not helping “Molly” with her investigation, but who has I think a laudable point of view. It might be misguided in this instance, but he’s trying to protect the community and he’s trying to maintain his own faith in the community and the people around him. That’s not helping, but this is what he’s doing, so I love playing “Bill Oswalt.” It’s really a great part and you’ll see as it plays out that it has all these layers to it.
You’re an accomplished writer yourself. Are you ever tempted to get into that writers’ room, and if you did, is there something you would add or change?
Bob Odenkirk: No. I am tempted to stay away from that writers’ room on these complex dramatic shows that I’m a part of. I have too much respect for the sweat and suffering of these guys, who’ve written these shows and they just put so much into it, I’m a little bit intimidated by their talents to be honest.
It started with Breaking Bad, was getting a script and not attempting to manipulate the words at all. My challenge with Breaking Bad and with Fargo was how do I do this part as written literally word for word it was my goal and is my goal, and how do I make those words come to life and be a character and be natural and what do those words mean. I really take them apart, so really I approach these shows purely as an actor and it’s been refreshing and a new way to look at acting. I think it’s allowed me to be a much better actor than I was when I was constantly messing around with the words because I was either the writer on the project or I felt like it was my job.
Is a show like Fargo in your sweet spot because you can come in and work in these huge ensemble casts that are well written and then go off for other parts of the year and focus your creativity on your own creative projects?
Bob Odenkirk: The answer is yes. What a well stated observation about me and how I handle my career. I do have a lot of interests and I really enjoy being a part of these great, great shows, but also having the ability to juggle a couple of different balls in the air while doing it. Of course, I will not be able to do that on my next project, but we’re not here to talk about that, but maybe in a few months you can ask me how I handled that. Wish me luck, will you? I really hear you right. I have a book coming out in October, pieces that I wrote and when I’m doing Fargo, I was able to do these other projects, Birthday Boys and stuff. I’m supposed to talk about Fargo, though.
What do you think about the level of violence in the show?
Bob Odenkirk: I think that it’s heightened. I think that the violence is on some levels fairly outrageous and it’s a little conceptualized and heightened.
And so I think the signal is sent to the viewer that this is a performance, this is a story that you’re being told and you’re not forced to wallow in sort of up close darkness and it’s allowed to be a story point and oftentimes I think a darkly funny one and that comes from the Coen Bros., that tone. It’s a little bit of a distance, honestly, on the violence; it’s not asking you to feel the pain. It’s more like you watch it as a story point and it’s gruesome and it shocks you, but it makes you laugh.
In terms of your last two big roles dramatically speaking, I just wonder if there’s something inherently comedic about these types of guys. Because at the heart of it I think when you look at your character in Fargo and you look at your character in Breaking Bad, they’re always thinking more than they’re saying. Like there’s something in their eyes going on and I wonder if, do you think there’s just something inherently comedic about that, because Breaking Bad and Fargo, they aren’t really funny subject matter at all and yet when we see through your characters, we get a little bit of chuckle.
Bob Odenkirk: I think both these characters that you talked about are trying to play a role. Do you know what I mean? In their own minds they’re like in “Bill’s” mind, he’s trying to be the sheriff and the good man, who’s protecting his community and it’s funny because he’s wrong and he’s floundering a bit and you can feel it. I think people maybe they’re used to me being funny. I don’t know. I just naturally go for small, funny human moments; I just look for that because it’s what I’m trained to do.
I remember seeing you on Conan O’Brien a few months ago and you brought up like a photo of you guys 20 years ago with all the writing staff of the beginning of Late Night, [indiscernible] and yourself. What do you think brought upon this Renaissance in your career in recent years; yours and Louis C.K., for instance? Do you think it’s the variety and richness in TV programming today?
Bob Odenkirk: Yes, absolutely. It’s because there are so many outlets for shows and that encourages unique voices that wouldn’t find a spotlight when there were fewer opportunities, fewer places to go, so people like Louie and I we were on staffs and we were helping other people to do more mainstream material. But now with all these outlets and people are able to narrow casts, I don’t if that’s still a word, but you know what I mean, play to a smaller audience that’s more interested in a strong vision, there’s room for us. There’s a stage for people like us.
If you think back to when we started, both Louie and I, the kind of show he’s doing now there was definitely no place on TV for that; nowhere, not even HBO. There was room in movies for the kind of thing he’s doing in Louie, but no room on TV for it. So yes, I think you’re right that the industry has changed and allowed and made room for us in a place where we can perform and find an audience.
Can you speak to some of the preparation you did for the role and specifically working on the accent and to what extent all of this was refreshing considering you’re in between playing “Saul.”
Bob Odenkirk: One of the reasons I was interested in it truly was how different he is from “Saul.” This guy is, he’s defiant, innocent and he’s fighting like hell to hang on to his innocence about the people around him; and then “Saul” is cynical and clever and he’s ahead of everyone and builds behind everyone and trying to maintain that. So, yes, just having played “Saul,” I was eager to play something like this and this is a great part for that reason.
What was your other question?
Just the preparation and specifically working on the accent, which everybody is just fascinated with.
Bob Odenkirk: I will just say I hope I did a good job. Everyone in the whole cast from the get go was extremely thoughtful about trying to do a good job with our accents. One of the things we all agreed and we had two different voice coaches, one was on set. One of the things, you notice if you watch videos on YouTube of Minnesotans and the Minnesota accent is that it fluctuates; it comes and goes. It’s not strong all the time and it’s like it can be very strong on some words and then it can kind of be gone completely on other words or even a sentence and so that’s a tough one to do. It’s tough to get it right, but I think what we all tried to do is to not push it too hard.
As far as doing accent, I’m from Naperville, Illinois and I spent a lot of time in Wisconsin as a kid because I was in Boy Scouts and I would go there pretty much once a month. My camp for summer camp there were a lot of Minnesota kids there; I’m not quite sure why, but there were a lot of Minnesota kids who were counselors, so I’d heard this accent as a kid. Wisconsin accent is not exactly the same at all as this strong Minnesota accent, but there is a little bit of crossover. And also, like I said, there were kids from Minnesota at our camp and stuff, so that’s where I’d heard it as a kid and I was familiar with it. And then all I can say is I hope I did a good job.
Does it ever bother you that some of your earlier stuff that’s considered by people who are into comedy to be ground breaking stuff isn’t as widespread as your character on like Breaking Bad, and has being on Breaking Bad, has that exposed some of your older stuff to a new audience from what you can tell?
Bob Odenkirk: The answer is yes to the second question; it has exposed Mr. Show to people. People have gone online; they’ve maybe been a fan of Breaking Bad or my character and somebody else says on a chat room you got to see him, he’s in Mr. Show. He’s in all these sketch shows and then they click on that and watch that, so that’s pretty great, especially since Mr. Show cannot be seen anywhere except illegally on YouTube. HBO refuses to replay it, so the only place it can be found is sort hidden on the Internet and so people go there and become fans and they go look and they see this stuff that I’m incredibly proud of.
Mr. Show was my life and it was my voice and I will always be super proud of having created and run that show with David Cross and the material we did. I’m always happy when people can find a way to see it. It’s not easy to find.
But the question of whether it bums me out that I’m more well-known or people don’t know, actually I’m excited about, I like the idea of keeping these things a little bit separate. I don’t know. I guess I like the idea of being kind of able to do different things and really kind of have people not know. I don’t know whether I’m titillated by that or I think it’s a useful quality. It’s sort of like—I don’t know. It’s just something I always wanted to be able to do was to do a variety of things and do them well and not be…, but to actually do them well. I think it’s cool that people don’t know about some of them and they know some and they don’t know others. I think that’s kind of neat.
You’ve been taking a lot of Midwestern projects and you’re from Illinois. Is there anything about those specifically that drives you to them, or is it just a matter of the writing?
Bob Odenkirk: The writing is what draws me to them. I do think I probably relate to the stories being told in those projects and to the people being presented in those stories, so yes, you’re right. These are Midwestern stories and Midwestern people and I relate to them. I always, by the way, I always feel like I don’t know what Vince [Gilligan] is going to decide, but on this new show, I always felt “Saul” was from Chicago originally. Of course, I sound like a Chicagoan, so that probably forces his hand. But anyhow, yes, I relate to those people and I’m one of those people and that’s probably why I’m attracted to these.
Some of your roles, you tend to add some lightness to an otherwise dark story without being the “comic relief.” Is there anything that you consciously do when playing these roles to keep that balance in check, or are there any challenges to achieving that in your performance?
Bob Odenkirk: Yes, there is a challenge and it is a conscious effort that you have to make or I have to make to try to get it to the right place, so that it belongs in the world that I’m playing in and isn’t outsized too big. I think sometimes I do feel constrained and I want to be funny. I’ve had actually one or two instances where I asked if I could just do a silly version of the scene and then I just do a really crazy version and it’s like I have to get that out of my system; and then I can go back to playing it in a more restrained and lower key manner. But I do enjoy doing both and I think one of the fun things about doing a drama is that you can modulate to a very low level your turns and twists and your little spins and you can get a big laugh out of small choices.
It’s obvious that Fargo is a very different form of a dramedy than is really common on TV, so after being a part of such a well written and different dramedy, how do you predict that Fargo will compare to Better Call Saul in terms of balancing drama with comedy?
Bob Odenkirk: Wow, that’s a good question. First of all, I haven’t read anything from Better Call Saul, so I don’t know anything except the vibe I’ve gotten. I guess I’d have to say the vibe I’ve gotten is that that show is going to be pretty intense and dark, so I think Fargo might be more overtly comic and lighter than Saul, but that’s just conjecture based on guesswork based on wishes on the wind.
But the thing is, like I just told the last interviewer, when things get dark around me in character, I find moments to play things to make things funny. It’s good; it’s something to play against. It’s really a great vibe to have around you and find these funny little moments, so I think I’ll be making it funny.
How far in advance did you know what was going to happen to “Bill;” and in general as an actor, how far in advance do you like to know where the plot is going?
Bob Odenkirk: I actually don’t like to know anything about where it’s going. I feel like my job as an actor is to play the character in the moment that I am doing and not have a sense of what could happen next and be as surprised as the character is by that when it happens and not lay any groundwork that comes from foresight that a real person wouldn’t have about their fortunes. Did I answer your question?
Was there anything about this role that you added that wasn’t originally scripted for you?
Bob Odenkirk: I put the moustache on and I got the Super Cuts haircut, those weren’t in the script, but other than that, I did it the way it was written to me. You’d have to ask Noah Hawley if I added something that he didn’t write or intend. I know that he changed things in later episodes and he was writing Episode 8, 9, and 10 when we were shooting the first couple and so maybe I did spin the character; I don’t know. That would have to be something he’d have to answer, but the only things I added were the moustache and the Super Cuts haircut and everyone was very accepting of that.
Was there anything really challenging for you while you were filming?
Bob Odenkirk: I have some scenes that in the latter half of the season that took some concentration and effort, but that’s incredibly rewarding. I think that acting is no fun unless it’s hard. I’m not titillated by acting or being an actor unless I have to work hard because otherwise you’re just a prop that talks, but if you have to struggle to feel those feelings and to understand where the person is, the character you’re playing, and you can feel like you can get there with some truth and dignity for the character, even if it’s an undignified scenario or situation, then that can feel really great. It really can be a trip into another person’s experience and it’s really rewarding.
So, yes, I would say there are some scenes in eight, nine, and ten that where you see a whole ‘nother side of “Bill” and those were work, but they were great. I’m not intimidated by it; I’m thankful for it.
If you could teach a college course of your creation, what do you think you would teach?
Bob Odenkirk: My God, that’s going to take me a second to think about. I think that I would want college kids to recognize the difference between the legends that are printed about people and their achievement in their careers and their lives and the realities. I would encourage college kids to try to see and take apart the kind of stories they hear and are told and tell each other about making it, becoming yourself, becoming important or becoming fully who you are or fulfilling your life and the realities of life and stories.
Because I think for me show business was an impossibility when I was in college, it was just something that I didn’t even consider until my last year of college, even though I’d been writing comedy and performing every single day in college. I had radio shows. I had performances I did. I made tapes. I put groups together, but I never thought I’d do it for a living because I don’t even know anyone who ever did that and it seemed like an impossibility. And even when I got into it and even when I wrote for Saturday Night Live for four years and even when I came to LA, I still thought of it as not real and that was in a good way. Obviously it probably made me work hard because I felt like this is almost an impossible thing I’m trying to do, so I have to work really, really hard to try to make it happen.
But it also had its negative sides to it and I think that a realistic, an ability to be real about your chances and about what people do to make it in any business is helpful to a college kid to make good choices. It’s to not make anything seem too hard because you are capable of almost anything you want to set out to do, but also obviously it’s not good to believe it’s too easy, but the kind of kid that I was in college didn’t think that what I’m doing now would be anything like easy. And it isn’t easy, but it’s also not impossible and, as a result, you can make plans and you can make an effort to get those things that you want; you can make a realistic plan to do it. You should open your mind up to what you can do because these things are all possible and in the end when you finally arrive at them, they’re not as glamorous as they look from afar, either, so just trying to make these a realistic vision or achievement and effort and pursuing your dreams.