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'Better Call Saul': Jonathan Banks on Mike's revelation and what's next

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[SPOILER ALERT: Do not read this story before watching “Five-O,” Monday’s episode of Better Call Saul.]

Welcome back, Mike—we’ve been waiting for you. And can we get you something for that wound? It looks kind of painful….

America’s favorite fixer from Breaking Bad had been spotted only occasionally in the first handful of episodes of Better Call Saul, and was mostly confined to a small, emasculating booth. But Monday’s episode of AMC’s intriguing, slippery, hard-to-define prequel proved to be a showcase for our (hit)man of mystery. We learned what darkness brought him from Philadelphia to Albuquerque. We watched him exact intricately plotted revenge on the dirty cops who offed his son, Matt. And we saw him wrestling with the guilt that he’s been harboring for corrupting his son (“I broke my boy”) while he confessed everything to his daughter-in-law, Stacey. Yes, we caught a glimpse of the rarest of sights: the normally shut-down, closed-mouth Mike Ehrmantraut at his most vulnerable, showing remorse, speaking words other than “lawyer”, shedding tears. It made for one of this season’s most surprising and transcendent moments (see also: that sadsack Cinnabon flashforward, JImmy & Tuco’s Day in the Desert), and it was a thrilling but imposing task for the man who plays Mike with chilling, understated precision: Jonathan Banks. “I was so wound tight and so wanted to do it justice that I think I took a breath at the beginning of the episode and I probably let it go at the end of the episode,” says Banks. After you exhale, read what else he told EW about filming “Five-O.”

First question. Congrats on another Emmy nomination? Nahhhh. You know, that’s really counting the chickens before they hatch.

That was perhaps the best episode of the season. Were you just itching to get to this one? Mike had been stuck in that parking booth for so long, everyone was really waiting for something to happen—and for a chance for him to shine. That’s exactly the way I felt. Do I trust my writers? Did I know it would come? Yeah. I knew it was coming. But I was getting pretty antsy. It was time to do something.

In this episode, we spend time with his daughter-in-law, Stacey (Kerry Condon), and his granddaughter Kaylee. You’ve hinted that you pitched Vince Gilligan [Breaking Bad’s creator who co-created Saul with Bad co-exec producer Peter Gould] an idea for Mike’s backstory while shooting the mylar balloon scene with Kaylee in season 3 of Breaking Bad—and that they referenced that when they called you about joining this show. What exactly did you pitch and what did they say when they called? I let my granddaughter out of the car with the Mylar balloons and I said, “Go to your mother.” And Vince was directing that show, and I turned to Vince and said, “That’s my granddaughter—that’s not my daughter… However Mike has lost his soul, it has something to do with his son.”  And Vince, in his own style, went, “Well… hmmm.” Anyway, a few years later when Peter called me about Better Call Saul, he said, “Do you remember when you said that about your son?”

How much of Mike’s arc did they pitch you when you signed on to Saul? And how long have you known about this particular story? He had mentioned what I said about my son and essentially said, “Do you want to do Mike? Do you want to do a prequel?” I said, “Sure, I want to do it.” That’s how much of a pitch it was. Because I trust these guys. How long did I know that this specific story was in the pipeline? Probably not until we started shooting. 

What was your initial reaction to this script—the Hoffman-Fenske angle and his confession to Stacey? I loved it. I just went, “Yeah. Now let me do justice to Mike.” That is what I thought: “I must do justice to this character.”

What can you hint about Mike’s story moving forward? It all comes down to [the Better Call Saul writers’] pens, and I am not one of those guys who calls up all the time. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with that. I kind of stay away until I have a script, and that’s just the way I’ve always been.

Right, but you’ve shot the rest of the season. Well, you’re gonna have a lot of fun in one of them with Mike. It’ll be a little lighter, but it’ll be a lot of fun. They wrote a scene for me that just cracks me up that I love. I will give you a spoiler—it has something to do with pimento cheese.

That is tantalizing! At the vet, when he’s getting his bullet wound treated, he turns down an opportunity for some shady work. Is his arc going to be about his attempt to live a cleaner life, which ultimately will fail? Is that the inherent tension? I really don’t know, and I’m not being coy… Yeah, he definitely had a failed attempt at a clean life, but there’s a prequel to the prequel in Mike’s life. Even before Philadelphia, there was something else going on. That’s just me doing my own backstory for the character. And I haven’t really decided—I will be doing Mike’s backstory 20 years from now, you know? So, I’m never going to be satisfied with what I come up with, completely.

What can you say about the backstory you’re creating in your head? I think that there’s probably a military service involved in it. I think that there’s probably a war background, and a sad one at that. Most countries we go into, we abandon after it’s over. At least in the last few wars-or last many years, now—we abandon people. We abandon the South Vietnamese; we don’t even acknowledge the Laotians, the Cambodians. I think that’s part of my backstory. I know a guy who left a little orphan that he fed, that trailed after him. And as he got onboard, the kid is still on the shore and cried. And as dramatic as that sounds, that’s a true story.

This was the first time that we saw Mike cry. The stone finally cracked. How was that written in the script? Did you try it different ways, with some more emotional than what we saw on screen and some less? The tears are not written into the script. People talk about takes in television, “Well, you get another take….” The reality of it is that when you have something that is that valuable a piece—and I had been given that gift of that piece—yeah, you might have a second take, but you know what? The night ends, it’s over, and then it is on film forever. That’s it. You do a play, you may not be pleased with every night, but you get to come back and do it on another night again. I had a limited amount of time to do justice to my character, and I did the best I know how. I haven’t seen it yet. When I see it, I’ll probably say to you, “Well, I might have changed… I wish I had… dah-dah-dah.” You’re never really completely satisfied, I guess.

What was the most challenging scene—and your favorite—to film in the episode? I’m assuming it was that one…. The most challenging and my favorite is talking about my son—it’s the monologue. It’s the most challenging, and at the same time, I don’t know that fun is the right word, but it’s the most rewarding.

There’s not a lot of Saul (Bob Odenkirk) in this episode, but the scenes that you do have together are great and show the potential of this pairing in the coming weeks. Did it feel like the show was starting to really click in for you guys when you shot those scenes? And what flavors can we expect from them? I really like working with Bobby [Odenkirk], and Bobby and I, obviously, have worked before. Mostly, Mike is irritated with Saul, but at the same time, he’s amused by him. I think he’s truly amused by him.

At the end of the episode, after he confesses to killing Hoffman and Fenske, Mike says to Stacey: “The question is: Can you live with it?” We know a bit about his relationship with Kaylee through Breaking Bad, but how would you describe his relationship with Stacey moving forward? What does his revelation do to her? That [quote] means, “Can you live with it? Can you keep your mouth shut?” And it’s got to be whatever Kerry, the actress, gives to me, playing that character, because there’s no reason she should forgive Mike. I don’t really think Mike expects forgiveness, because Mike can’t forgive himself. He participated in the death of her husband—his son. The only thing he’s begging for is to be part of her life, and because he wants to protect her, too. It’s not just Kaylee—that’s his son’s daughter. But he owes his son’s wife a lot, because it was her husband that died.

This case is not closed. Can we assume the Philly police will be poking around more before the end of the season? And does that notebook factor in? Some of that I can’t tell you. Just remember that Mike’s also pretty damn smart.

Will we be seeing more of Mike on a weekly basis now? That’s been one thing that fans are itching for. The last show of the season, I think I’m light, and I might be light in another one. But yeah, there will be more Mike.

What feels different about playing Mike this time around? And how has it been different than you thought it would be back when you signed on to the show? Maybe it’s because I’m not very bright, there’s not a lot of difference. Mike was hard, and Mike’s been hard for a long time. Mike was hard when Mike was 20 years old—and with good reason.

The tone of the show this season has veered between light and dark. And this episode, as promised, was as dark as something you’d see on Breaking Bad. Did it feel like a Breaking Bad episode to you? Yeah, absolutely. Mike is the thread in many ways to Breaking Bad and the darkness. You can’t be around Mike and it’s not going to be dark, you know? Every once in a while, there’ll be sarcastic humor and dark humor, but Mike’s a dark guy.

By the way, a lot of things had to go right during Mike’s plan to take out Hoffman and Fenske. A had to lead to B, which had to lead to C and D. (Mike uses a string to break into the car, plant the gun, stumbles out of the bar “drunk” where the cops pick him up, etc.). What was your take on that? I loved it. There’s a certain amount of MacGyver in Mike, for lack of a better term. (laughs) By the way, I mastered that thing. I did the slip knot, got it through the window. Now, in order to do that, you have to have enough of a nub on the button to pull it up, and whether you tear it out or whether you do it with a hanger to get it in there, you gotta be able to get through the rubber molding. But I did. I actually did it.

Have you tried it since then? No. But I’ll try to go out and steal an old-model car tonight, all right?

Just don’t get arrested. I don’t think I will.

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