Odenkirk shares a home in Albuquerque with Rhea Seehorn and another actor from the show, Patrick Fabian (who plays the manicured law partner Howard Hamlin). I arrived the next morning and found Odenkirk in the kitchen, wearing jeans and running sneakers, showing no signs of the all-nighter he pulled. The house was built in the 1940s, Odenkirk said, by a contractor who specialized in office buildings, which accounted for its slight resemblance, from the outside, to a dental clinic, down to a ribbon of ornamental glass bricks installed beside the front door.
Photographs of his wife, the comedy manager Naomi Odenkirk, and their two children hung on the walls alongside pictures of his roommates’ families. (Seehorn got the master bedroom, downstairs, while Odenkirk and Fabian claimed bedrooms upstairs.) Odenkirk decided to live with fellow cast members a few years ago, to help alleviate the isolation he felt when “Better Call Saul” began. “It’s about loneliness,” he said, when I asked if the roommate arrangement reflected some method-style immersion. Making the first season, Odenkirk lived by himself at a condo owned by Bryan Cranston, the star of “Breaking Bad,” who vacated it when that show ended. Odenkirk likened that experience to living “on an oil rig,” his mind gnawing at its own edges after draining shoots. “It gave me great sympathy for someone like James Gandolfini, who talked about how he couldn’t wait to be done with that character, and I think Bryan said similar things: ‘I can’t wait to leave this guy behind.’ I finally related to that attitude.”
This surprised Odenkirk, at first: “I always used to scoff and roll my eyes at actors who say, ‘It’s so hard.’ Really? It can’t be.” And yet, he discovered, “the truth is that you use your emotions, and you use your memories, you use your hurt feelings and losses, and you manipulate them, dig into them, dwell on them. A normal adult doesn’t walk around doing that. Going: ‘What was the worst feeling of abandonment I’ve had in my life? Let me just gaze at that for the next week and a half, because that’s going to fuel me.’”
In Odenkirk’s case, this meant dwelling on painful childhood memories, “putting myself back to being a 9-year-old,” he said, “and my dad wakes me up at 2 a.m. to tell me he’s leaving and he’ll send me money to pay the bills, and I’m thinking, I don’t know cursive enough to write the check, so how am I going to pay the bills? ‘Let me just make myself that kid again, because I’ll take that feeling of loss and fear and play it tomorrow!’” He added, “If there was one thing that let me do this, it was some access I have to the emotional, even traumatic spaces inside me that maybe isn’t the most healthy person to be.”
Growing up outside Chicago, in the town of Naperville, Odenkirk was one of seven siblings. He readily discusses his father, and his loathing for him, referring to him in his memoir as “a hollow man” with a short temper, who spent his days with drinking buddies when he was around at all and who did an abysmal job of caring for his children. “It’s not that I didn’t love my dad,” Odenkirk told me. “He just wasn’t around, and he was a kind of a blank, shut-down guy, and he did things that were tortuous to me and my older brother, because he was drunk. He was always telling us, ‘The family’s broke, I don’t know what we’re gonna do and where we’re gonna live.’ And we’re little kids! Like: ‘I’m 5! I can’t help you with that!’”
Odenkirk’s response was to dissociate, “reading” his father as though he were some literary grotesque out of Dickens. In his memoir, he describes his father’s death — which came when Bob was 22, by which point the two were fully estranged — with remarkable coolness: “Saying goodbye to him was a shrugging affair.” When I asked if the wound had really cauterized so neatly, Odenkirk said: “I’ve often felt like I must be hiding something, or not acknowledging something, or can’t see something. There’s no question I wish I had a father figure in life, especially as a kid, especially a good one. Wouldn’t that have been nice? There are definitely things I’ve had to deal with there, because I had nothing, an emptiness.”
Odenkirk says that the “tension and trauma” his father generated is “one reason my brothers and sisters and I are so close.” His younger brother Bill earned a Ph.D. in chemistry before Bob assisted him in achieving his own dream of becoming a comedy writer, on shows like “The Simpsons” and “Mr. Show.” Their older brother, Steve, is a banker in Tucson, Ariz. Other siblings have pursued various careers: water-table tester, retail worker, funeral director and real estate agent. “Bob was born with a really independent streak,” Bill Odenkirk told me, “more so than anyone in our family. He’d probably argue that he’s had to discover who he is, but I feel he was born with a very strong sense of what he didn’t want to do and what he did want to do, which was performing and being out there doing something other than a conventional job.” Which, Bill added, “wasn’t the thinking at our house.”