The veteran actor talks to STACK about revisiting the role of Breaking Bad fan favourite, Mike Ehrmantraut, in prequel Better Call Saul.
Jonathan Banks isn’t quite sure what he loves most about playing Mike Ehrmantraut, the steely enforcer of fast food baron and drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in Breaking Bad and its spin-off, Better Call Saul.
“I’d have to think about that for a long time,” he tells STACK in his trademark gruff tone. “Off the top of my head, my reaction is that Mike is terribly flawed, like most of us are. He has a set of values that might seem aberrant to other people, but at the same time there’s a certain amount of trustworthiness about Mike.”
Banks has been at home in the role for some eight years now, and says that the opportunity to play Mike has been a joy.
“It’s been more than a joy, actually. I’m getting towards the end of a career here, and I’m very fortunate to be able to play him.”
Being given the opportunity to revisit a long running character in their formative years is a gift for any actor, and Banks was “immediately in” when approached to be a part of Better Call Saul.
“It’s risky to do any kind of a spin-off, and often they don’t work. But when you have writers like Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould], the odds become better,” he notes. “And I get to play Mike. I love Mike!
“When we got there I realised the weight that was on Bob Odenkirk to deliver and make it a success. It’s Bobby’s show – I’m the B-story that’s going on, which is the way I like it. And Bob, oh my God, did he ever deliver! Trust me, he was as nervous as a cat when he first started.
“As great as the writers are, and as good as the actors are, we wouldn’t have done a fourth season if Bob hadn’t been able to pull it off.”
With Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill edging closer to the shyster Breaking Bad fans know and love as Saul Goodman, Better Call Saul’s fourth season also reveals a bit more about the enigmatic Mike, who is tasked with the construction of Gus Fring’s super drug lab. And while Banks has his own ideas about his character’s backstory, he says that doesn’t mean the writers take them on board.
“I trust my writers but I do disagree with things. I think Mike has been harder for a lot longer than what they represent sometimes. Whether it was the past in Vietnam, and even beyond that… In this season, Mike is asked about his father and he kind of brushes it off and shrugs, but it’s obvious that he did not come from a privileged background.
“So I have my backstory and the writers have their backstory – but most of all, they have the pen,” he laughs. “So they’re going to have the final word.”
As well as sharing the same high-grade writing, both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul depict the machinations of the drug cartels with a frightening sense of authenticity, as though the writers had gone undercover to conduct research.
“I guarantee you that they did,” offers Banks when STACK asks if this is the case. “Vince is a perfectionist, and so is Peter and a lot of the writers. I’m not in the writers’ room, so I don’t know, but there was a lot of research.
“There’s a reason we shoot in Albuquerque, New Mexico,” he adds. “In smaller cities in the United States the crime rate went down. In Albuquerque, I was told it had jumped 25 per cent last year. It’s poor and there are a lot of drugs in the city.”
Despite the show’s nefarious characters, violent situations and grim subject matter, Banks says that the mood on the set remains upbeat.
“We honestly have a good time. It doesn’t mean we don’t get tired. There are some long, long days – when it gets into that fourteenth hour, you know you’ve gone to work.”