ROCK ISLAND — Director Cory Johnson has taught theater at St. Ambrose University for nearly 30 years, but she's learned a thing or two about her art and craft from Augustana College students Keenan and Tristan Odenkirk.
The articulate, energetic brothers — Keenan graduated this year with a degree in computer science and theater, and Tristan is heading into his junior year majoring in theater and business management — have worked closely with Johnson in the Mississippi Bend Players, a summer-stock company, and the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.
“I found both of them to be very different in their approach, equally pleasant and inspirational,” said Johnson, who led MBP's current production of “The Glass Menagerie,” in which Keenan plays Jim, and last summer's “Brighton Beach Memoirs,” in which Tristan starred as Eugene. “They're really thinking actors. They bring ideas to the table; it's not, 'Just tell me what to do.' "
The brothers are sons of a 1983 Augie graduateof famed film and TV actor Bob Odenkirk (“Better Call Saul,” “Breaking Bad”).
Keenan and Tristan are among 12 full-time summer interns for MBP, a professional company based at Brunner Theatre Center at Augustana, and they plan to make acting a career.
“Keenan is moving to Chicago; he's got it in his blood,” Johnson said. “Their family history says it can be done.”
“Their comic timing together is kind of without rival,” she said of the young men, who were cast in June's MBP production of “Big River.”
Bob Odenkirk, an Emmy-winning 55-year-old native of the Chicago suburb of Naperville, has told the boys: “If you can do something other than this (acting) -- and this was advice to anyone -- unless you have a passion for this that is so overpowering for you personally, if you can do anything else and be happy, do that other thing,” Keenan recalled recently.
“I've taken that very seriously. I got two majors and two minors in college, and I spread myself out as far as I could.”
“In terms of my expectations of getting roles, having to fight for my own reputation and success, I don't expect a leg up,” he said of family connections. “I don't think I'll end up getting one, frankly. At the end of the day, we didn't get into this because we thought it would be easier than becoming an accountant or whatever. We did it because we have a passion and a pride in it.”
“If you're not going to end up trying to do what you want to do, what's the point in doing anything else?” Tristan said, noting he wants to pursue film.
Independent of the influence of their two Hollywood uncles -- the other, Bill Odenkirk, is an Emmy-winning TV writer and producer for “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” -- the brothers acted in many Shakespeare plays in grade school and got hooked.
“He's a huge inspiration to us,” Keenan said of Bob, who first found fame as a writer, for "Saturday Night Live," Ben Stiller, and “Mr. Show With Bob and David” in the '90s.
“Watching his comedy now, in my opinion, it was way ahead of his time,” Tristan said. “It's brilliant. He produced the 'Tim and Eric Awesome Show' on Adult Swim, which is popular with people my age.”
Bob Odenkirk has played attorney Saul Goodman for several years, starting as a secondary role in “Breaking Bad,” from 2009-2013, and now as star of the spinoff “Better Call Saul,” which has aired since 2015.
“For all of his silliness and nonsense he shows during 'Breaking Bad,' you see under his veneer the personality he's hiding,” Keenan said. “That makes him aggressively compelling.”
“His film acting in many ways has been very good,” Tristan said, citing “Nebraska” (2013) and “The Post” (2017). Bob supplied the voice of Winston this summer in Pixar's blockbuster “Incredibles 2,” and co-wrote and starred in a Netflix original movie, “Girlfriend's Day,” last year.
Tristan is equally admiring of his middle brother. Their older sibling, Alex, also graduated from Augie in 2015. He's into cross-country, math and stand-up comedy, but not theater.
“Keenan's dedication to this has paved a path for me to succeed,” said Tristan, who starred as Dr. Givings early this year in Sarah Ruhl's period drama, “In the Next Room or the vibrator play." “A great deal of Keenan's drive and success at this is his work ethic, being able to sit down and really think about a show. Whereas I tend to step in and discover it as I go along.”
In 2015, Keenan won a Kennedy Center Festival award for Augie's production of "A Green River.” And this past winter, he performed in two regions for the festival (St. Ambrose and Augie compete in different regions), working toward an Irene Ryan acting scholarship.
Out of 300-plus students in each region, Keenan earned second place for one region and third place in the other. He got a National Partners of American Theatre Classical Acting Award for the Illinois region for a performance of a monologue from Shakespeare's “Much Ado About Nothing."
At the Kennedy Center Festival, Keenan and Tristan did a scene together from the new play “Beginner's Luck.” They will act in the MBP world premiere of the show. Directed by Augie graduate Phil McKinley, it will open Aug. 3. It was written by PJ Lasker of TV's “Golden Girls” and “Barney Miller” fame.
The two will play different personalities of the same man, a former child actor now on the skids, divorced and looking for work, with a kid of his own.
The roles reflect Keenan's and Tristan's actual characters -- Keenan will play the “adult part of his brain,” he said, and “Tristan is the child part of the brain, his obsession with fame and being the center of attention.”
“He's more a worrier, and I'm more relaxed,” Tristan said. “He pushes me to work harder. I'm more open to taking chances, having fun with it.”
“I'm big into creating an environment where it can be fostered, built over time,” Keenan said. “He is explosive with it. The second there's just a little bit of inspiration, he'll be on it aggressively. He just rockets forward.”