Better Call Saul postmortem: Breaking Bad villain on his surprising return
[SPOILER ALERT: This story contains story details from Monday’s episode of Better Call Saul, titled “Rebecca.” Proceed at your own risk.]
Monday’s episode of Better Call Saul contained its share of revelations and illuminating scenes. Chuck (Michael McKean) fixed a lightbulb (!) in preparation for dinner with wife Rebecca (!!) — played by Ann Cusack — and his new-to-the-firm brother, Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), in a flashback. Kim (Rhea Seehorn) worked admirably to dig herself out of Jimmy’s legal local commercial mess by securing the Mesa Verde account for Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, only to have Howard (Patrick Fabian) tell her to stay in doc review, at least for the time being. Chuck continued his Jimmy jabs, telling Kim a story about how his younger brother pilfered $14,000 from their father’s convenience store just six months before dear ol’ dad died. Let’s see… what else? Oh, right: A bad guy from Breaking Bad popped up. Does the name Tio ring a bell? Yes, Tuco’s uncle, Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) — a key member of the Juarez Cartel who would later suffer a stroke, rendering him capable of communicating only by dinging a bell on his wheelchair — joined the list of Bad characters who have popped up on Saul: Tuco (Raymond Cruz), Ken Wins (Kyle Bornheimer), Lawson (Jim Beaver), and Krazy-8 (Max Arciniega).
In season 4, Tio went out with a literal bang — and took Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) with him: He collaborated with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) to kill the even-tempered drug lord, with whom he had bad blood, via a bell-triggered explosive on his wheelchair. Here, in AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel, we found Tio in much better health as he unexpectedly sidled up next to Mike (Jonathan Banks) in a diner. Mike, of course, was still healing from the calculated beating he took from Tuco, which resulted in Tuco facing an eight-year prison sentence on aggravated assault and gun charges. Tio introduced himself to Mike and apologized for his nephew’s behavior. And then came the real reason for his visit. He calmly asked Mike if he would tell the cops that it was actually his gun that Tuco had grabbed from his pocket, to reduce the charges that Tuco was facing. And he knew a fair amount about Mike — ominously mentioning that Mike was an ex-cop so the authorities would go easy on him — and offered him $5,000 for this lie. “I’m pulling for the best possible outcome for everybody,” he said, leaving Mike with a big decision on his hands.
Perhaps the best possible outcome for you right now is to say Uncle and read what Margolis had to say about returning to Albuqerque and resurrecting Hector Salamanca.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did this come about? Did you get a call from [Better Call Saul creators] Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould saying, “Would you like to revisit an old friend”?
MARK MARGOLIS: It was my agent and my manager who told me they wanted me for Better Call Saul. A while later, I was out in L.A. for some work stuff and I have family out there, and I got a message from Vince asking if I would come over to his office in Burbank to spend an afternoon with him and Peter Gould, and meet all the writers and the post-production people, and then we’d go out for sushi lunch.
What was your first reaction when they asked you to appear on Better Call Saul? Was it an easy yes?
God, yeah. I thought it was wonderful. People had been asking me for quite awhile, “Are you going to be on?” And I would say, “I don’t have any idea what they want to do.” Vince is a strange man with an incredibly complex mind, whether he wanted to bring me on or not, I had no idea. I was thrilled for multiple reasons: He’s a genius, I love working for him, his stuff is so aberrant in some ways. Peter Gould is interesting, the writers are wonderful, I had loved working on Breaking Bad, and I love working in New Mexico, which is an incredible incentive on top of everything else.
Was it surreal to be back on set as Tio? Was it easy to slip back into character, albeit the younger version?
It wasn’t surreal, I didn’t slip right back into it, and it didn’t feel like the same guy. It’s not the same guy. You’ve probably seen people who in their heyday were vibrant, and then you see them after they’ve had their stroke or some terrible ailment, and they’re now confined to a wheelchair — they’re not the person they once were. They seem to be two different people. The Tio of Breaking Bad had the same kind of grit inside of him, but is a whole different disabled creature from what this guy is. I love the idea that this guy can be a bit smoother, a bit more vibrant, a bit more thoughtful. He has multiple choices that Tio in the wheelchair never had.
What resonates with you about shooting this scene with Jonathan? And did you read Tio’s proposition to Mike as a straight offer or also as a veiled threat?
I’m trying to get something that I need to get because of someone I care about, somebody who is in deep doo-doo if I don’t get it. I’m trying to be a reasonable person. Jonathan’s character doesn’t know who I am, and I know more about [Mike] than he knows about me. He has never seen me before, he doesn’t know my history, and I’m just trying to be an reasonable older relative of a young hothead who got in trouble, and I want to make things right without bringing in all the authorities and some horrible thing happening to my poor beloved [nephew] where he’s going to away for a decade. The only little piece of threat stuck in there is letting [Mike] know that I know that he was a cop, which is a little surprise piece — I don’t think I planned to put that in there, but when he’s resists by saying, “Then the gun charge is going to fall to me,” [I react like,] “Really? Well, you’re bullshitting me because I happen to know that you’re in a position where they’re not going heavily on you. I’m not going to tell you why I know that, and you can sit and wonder about that.” On the other hand, I had never met Jonathan on any of the three seasons that I was recurrent on Breaking Bad. I never even ran into him in a hallway or on the set. So it was an awesome thing to finally run into him, because I’m a major fan of his. It’s awesome to be in a scene with Jonathan; it’s almost frightening. My son had said to me, “Try to hold up and not let him blow you away.” Jonathan is a minimalist: He does so little, and so much happens without him saying next to anything. He just stares at you, and you can see 10,000 things going on behind his eyes.
What did you love most about that scene?
Being in the scene with Jonathan. [Laughs.] It almost makes you vibrate in a way; it’s like Brando’s dead, so all I have left is Jonathan. It was on some level like that. I worked with many actors, I worked with a couple movie stars. All of them are pretty good. I’ve only been with a couple of people who actually blew me away. I did something with Geoffrey Rush once, and one other or two other or three other people, the rest of them are terrific actors. But Jonathan Banks, there’s something awesome about him, almost frightening, and it gave me a little internal tension that may have been good for what was going on. Maybe.
Will you back to resolve that story line? We left it on a cliffhanger.
I don’t think I’m allowed to say. They swore me to secrecy. When I was out in New Mexico, they were hiding me in different hotels where I had never been because the people knew the Breaking Bad hotels. And yet anywhere I went, somebody would say, “Oh, you’re out here to do Better Call Saul. I’d say, “I am not,” and they’d say, “Well, what are you doing out here?” I’d say, “I’m doing a cowboy movie.” “Oh, yeah, what’s it called, what it’s called?” So I finally said, “Riding High.”
I look forward to that movie.
They swore me to not say anything. They actually cut out that part of my brain out that would remember whether I in fact did any more episodes. Yeah, that sort of has to go somewhere though, doesn’t it?… If I get what I want from Mike, then I guess Tuco owes me big time.
I know you can’t say anything about when/if he will return, but do you know the master plan of how your character fits into Better Call Saul?
I know where it goes up to a certain point; I don’t know where it goes ultimately. I assume later he’ll just have me fall on my face having a shaking stroke, and that will be me in the wheelchair. To get rid of me and get me back in a wheelchair, all [Gilligan] has to do is have me fall over, get hit by a car, get shot, have a seizure, eat something that’s poisoned…. [On Breaking Bad], I never knew what was going to come next until I got the script. And the script often didn’t come until five days before you were going to do it. I don’t know what he wants to do with it. In fact, the whole time I was doing this episode of Saul, everything in the script was redacted, things were crossed out. I couldn’t even see who was who. In the scene, I’m talking to Jonathan about getting this kid out of trouble who got in a fight with him, and at the time, it was all redacted. So I called up the office, and I was talking to this lady I know very well who’s the travel coordinator and I said, “Am I talking about Tuco here?” She said, “I’m not at liberty to answer.” I said, “Come on, it’s my scene!” When I got the script, it didn’t say Tio Salamanca or Hector. They were six steps past the CIA in terms of redacting. I had to ask questions. They wouldn’t tell me until the last moments who was who or what was what. I found it a bit strange. I’m not dumb, so I could figure, they’ve got to be talking about Tuco. But I didn’t know because I didn’t know the previous episode. But she absolutely would not tell me. Until I got out to New Mexico, that was the first time I found out who I was talking about.
When you trying to get back in the skin of this character, were they any special touches — physical or otherwise — you brought back or were told to add?
When I sat down with [Mike]. I wanted to try to stay very, very easy and calm. That was the only thing I thought about. Somebody said I seem a little shaky, like you can see an illness coming on. I don’t know what that was. I certainly didn’t want to be shaking. They shoot scenes many times — maybe there was one where I shook a little and they decided to stick it in because they could lay that into why I had a stroke.
What do you remember about shooting your death scene with Gus on Breaking Bad?
In the last moments leading up to blowing up the bomb, he was giving me this last opportunity to show that I was contrite, an act of contrition, that I was willing to own up to having done a terrible thing. As I recall, I did a whole look around the walls and ceilings, practically ready to cry to him that I admit I had done a terrible thing. And it was the most fun I ever had because I was sucking him right into where I was going to blow him to pieces. I got a real thrill out of it, because on the one hand, I was this sad, little old man, and on the other hand I became what —when they were working on the atomic bomb in the ‘40s, when [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, one of the main scientists, saw the power of the bomb, he took some line from [The Bhagavad Gita] where he said, “Now I am become death.” And I had that in my head: “Oh, I am poor little man…. I am become death and you’re dead.” I just loved sucking him in and then sticking it to him. He was always doing nasty things on me. I know Giancarlo from when I was pretty young and he was about 18 — we did a play with John Malkovich in New York, and I’ve worked with him on other things. I love him. But the way his character dealt with me, I just got a big thrill out of that. I love that last episode. If I had to die off the show — I didn’t want to go off it; I knew I had to go off it — it was just a lovely way to go.
That was exactly my next question: When you read that script, what did you think of that ending? Sounds like you thought it was perfect.
I knew it had to come. In fact, six months before that, I had called up Vince about an idea I had about a way to kill me off, because I knew he eventually had to do that. It wasn’t going to go on forever.
And what was your idea?
Mine was a weird one. New Mexico has these guys called Penitentes. They’re a devoutly religious Hispanic order. They live like monks in a building. They don’t have much to do with the outside world; they pray all day. When Easter comes, they actually do the 14 Stations of the Cross, of the crucifixion of Jesus. They go out into the wilderness flogging a guy who’s pulling a cross, they take him up in the hills, they put the cross at the top of the hill, they dig it into the ground and they put him up on the cross, tie him up there, and crucify him. In the old days, a couple of times I heard they nailed a guy onto the cross, and I think in one case, someone actually died. They do this every year, so my idea was for Gus to haul me out into the wilderness, take me out of the nursing home and crucify me like the Penitentes do up in the hills, and that’s where you see me. Vince knew nothing about the Penitentes, but he got very interested in them, whether one day he’ll use it. And they do exist out there. This ritual goes back over 1,000 years to Spain, and it was brought to the New World by the Conquistadors. And in New Mexico where they have these families that go back 500 years, there are people who are Penitentes who still engage in this.
I saw that Tio’s bell was auctioned off at one of these Breaking Bad memorabilia auctions. But you must have another bell, right?
Sony auctioned off all the props. My feeling was that the prop that was worth buying was the meth lab in the RV, because if it was still working, you could get your money back, no matter how much you paid for it. That’s my joke. Somebody paid $65,000 for the Walt Whitman book. The second highest bid was my bell. Somebody paid $26,000 for that! They obviously have too much money. It must be in a glass case. If I can find out who they are, I will agree to come to their next big soiree and ding the bell while the party goes on for $15,000. I have a little bell that a friend gave me, but you can buy that exact bell — it’s ornate, it’s a gold thing — they sell for about $16. Somebody once took me to an autograph show and he brought 16 of those bells, and I signed some for people. But I have one concierge bell that a friend gave me. It’s on a little cabinet by the bathroom. I rarely ding it.