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photo courtesy AMC
Vince Gilligan (right) with "Better Call Saul" co-creator Peter Gould
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photo courtesy AMC
Starring Bob Odenkirk, the new show explains how down-on-his-luck, small-time attorney Jimmy McGill morphed into the colorfully corrupt CRIMINAL lawyer Saul Goodman.
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photo courtesy of AMC
Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill
Say you’ve created a formula for a product that has its fans addicted, calling it the best ever and wanting more. What do you do for an encore? For Breaking Bad’s cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin Walter White, there were no second acts to his deadly baby blue, but for Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, the answer is Better Call Saul, a prequel series that premieres this Sunday (Feb. 8) on AMC. Starring Bob Odenkirk, the show explains how down-on-his-luck, small-time attorney Jimmy McGill morphed into the colorfully corrupt criminal lawyer Saul Goodman, who provided Breaking Bad with welcome comic relief.
A graduate of Chesterfield County’s L.C. Bird High School who was born in Farmville, Gilligan started out in TV writing for The X-Files and has now become a recognizable celebrity via his appearances on late-night shows such as The Colbert Report and Conan. He maintains close ties to Richmond, as his parents both live in the area. With just a few days left until the series premiere of Better Call Saul, Gilligan spoke to us for a phone interview from his office in Los Angeles, talking about everything from that Walter White Super Bowl ad to an RVA reference that he snuck into the new series.
Richmond magazine: Auto insurer Esurance resurrected Walter White from the dead for 30 seconds for a Super Bowl ad. Did you have anything to do with it?
Vince Gilligan: I wish I did — it was wonderful. There’s an even funnier 60-second version that’s on Esurance’s website. … I had nothing to do with it except that the Esurance folks reached out to Sony, who obviously owns the copyright to the character ... and said they’d like to do this. And Sony very nicely and respectfully reached out to me, which I appreciated because they don’t have to, and said, “Are you OK with this?” And I said, “Sure, if Bryan Cranston wants to do it, by all means!” It was a funny script. And Bryan was wonderful in it.
RM: We loved your hilarious cameo on The Colbert Report’s finale, joining the celeb-studded sing-along of “We’ll Meet Again” while chained to a typewriter, a callback to your previous appearance on the show.
Gilligan: I was so flattered. … I made sure to show up in the same clothes I had been wearing in my last appearance and they chained me up in the basement. The thing I was most nervous about is I am probably the worst singer in the history of the world and I had to not just sing, but sing a song that’s a very hard one to sing … even for a decent singer. I was really nervous and self-conscious, but I felt better once I realized halfway through that they didn’t give me a microphone. I’m looking at the camera guy like, “Wait a minute, they never put a mike on me,” and then I realized why: Because they knew I couldn’t sing worth a damn. [Laughs.]
It was fun. Stephen sang along with me — he was there with me and he sang very loudly to mask my insufficient voice and make me feel better and more comfortable. He’s a wonderful guy, and you know … we’ve talked about his days in Virginia because he went to Hampden-Sydney College. I grew up six miles away from Hampden-Sydney in Farmville and he and I realized that back in about 1983, when Kurt Vonnegut came to the Hampden-Sydney campus to lecture, [Colbert] and I were both there sitting in the audience. I said, “Man, I wonder if we were sitting next to each other and we didn’t even know it?” Because at that point, he was in college and I was probably a junior in high school in Chesterfield County and so we were both there that night listening to Kurt Vonnegut. I figured, man, that’s a small world.
RM: You snuck some Richmond and Farmville references into Breaking Bad. Are you doing that again in Better Call Saul?
Gilligan: As a matter of fact, yeah, there’s a reference to a wonderful restaurant that’s now defunct, Davis & Main, that my girlfriend, Holly, and I loved. It’s out of business now so I figured it was fair game. But folks watching the show are going to have to wait a while to hear that reference. It’s at the end of the season. And I won’t say exactly how we reference it — it’s not necessarily as a restaurant or anything like that. Folks who live in Richmond who remember Davis & Main will be pleased when they hear the reference.
RM: When were you last here?
Gilligan: Gosh, I was back in Richmond over the holidays. It’s wonderful being there. I miss it. I don’t get back as often as I like. Man, I tell you, Richmond has become a real foodie destination. There’s some great restaurants there, some wonderful restaurants, and we had some absolutely great meals at Heritage and The Blue Goat. … I couldn’t get over how many great restaurants were there. It was great being home in Richmond. My visit was far too short, and hopefully I’ll get back there sooner rather than later.
RM: We know that Jonathan Banks is reprising his role as the curmudgeonly problem-fixer Mike Ehrmantraut. Will we see appearances from any other Breaking Bad characters?
Gilligan: You might indeed. I have to be coy here, and part of the fun of this show in making it a prequel is that the sky’s the limit in terms of possible cameos. The events of Better Call Saul take place six years before Breaking Bad, so it’s theoretically possible that anybody and everybody who was on Breaking Bad could be on this show, right up to and including Walter White. I can tell you for sure, because I don’t want to get anybody’s hopes up falsely, that neither Walt nor Jesse will appear in the first season of Better Call Saul. We’ve been real upfront about that because we didn’t want to lead anybody on artificially. It’s very possible that in future seasons they will. We want to leave all of our options open. We love the idea of seeing some of these great characters from Breaking Bad, but we would never want it to become a stunt. We would want to do it as a little fun Easter egg for the audience, but we would never want people expecting it ... so we have to have a little self-discipline in how we parcel out those kinds of appearances.
RM: Speaking of expectations, Breaking Bad fans are really excited about Better Call Saul and their expectations are sky-high. They know it’s a different show, but will they be expecting Breaking Bad?
Gilligan: We are very proud of this show. … It is not the same show, and that’s intentional. First of all, Breaking Bad was lightning in a bottle; it was a very rare and special thing, and we would never fool ourselves into thinking we could capture that exact same lightning in that exact same bottle ever again. But having said that, this show, which is intentionally as different as possible from Breaking Bad, nonetheless exists in the same universe, and there are similarities in that regard. But the one thing I can say is that Peter Gould, who created the show with me — he and I and our writers and directors and our actors, we’re all very proud of these first 10 episodes. I am, in fact, delightedly surprised at how good these episodes turned out. … We’ve put in every bit as much hard work as we ever put into Breaking Bad in order to make this of a like quality. Hopefully folks will respond favorably to it.
RM: How will this incarnation of Saul differ from the slick, fast-talking shyster fans loved in Breaking Bad?
Gilligan: We thought he would be pretty similar to the Saul we knew in Breaking Bad, but I have to say, and I’m very happy to be able to report this, he’s actually pretty different. This surprised us in the writers’ room as this came to pass, but this guy, his name is Jimmy McGill, first of all. That’s Saul Goodman’s real name. And when we meet him, six years prior to the events of Breaking Bad, he is Jimmy. And Jimmy is … capable of being surprisingly heroic. He’s actually pretty self-sacrificing from time to time. He is not the greedy, amoral guy that you were probably going to be expecting to see from his appearances on Breaking Bad. … Jimmy McGill [is] surprisingly likeable. He’s surprisingly heroic in his own, cockeyed way. Of the two, Walter White or Jimmy McGill, I’d much rather have a beer with Jimmy McGill.
We thought the show, Better Call Saul, would be funnier than it is. … We thought it would be a straight-up comedy, and it is very comedic and there are some very funny moments in Better Call Saul, but I think something about it that will surprise people greatly is how dramatic it can be. There is one episode in particular of this show about halfway through this season that is as crushingly dramatic and serious and dark as anything we ever did on Breaking Bad. This show … is not an out-and-out comedy, and Bob Odenkirk rises to that challenge marvelously. He is a fine dramatic actor, and he is capable of subtleties and shadings in his dramatic acting that I honestly didn’t know he had in him. And it’s just been such a wonderful surprise to see what he’s capable of, and therefore as the season progressed and we saw what a fine dramatic actor he truly is and can be, we started making things more dramatic for him. We made things harder for him. And he rose to the occasion every time in every episode. I think people are going to be surprised at how dramatic this show can be.