Spoiler Warning: Do not read on unless you’ve seen “Better Call Saul” season 1, episode 6, titled “Five-O.”
It’s the “Better Call Saul” episode that “Breaking Bad” fans have been waiting for: a hourlong showcase for Jonathan Banks’ badass curmudgeon Mike Ehrmantraut. We finally found out what brought him to New Mexico, what’s keeping him there and a little bit about his life beforehand. In brief: Mike’s daughter-in-law (Kerry Condon) relocated from Philadelphia with her daughter after the tragic death of Mike’s son. It turns out his son’s death was more complicated that his wife knew, and when a pair of Philly PD detectives turn up at Mike’s door, he can’t keep the past a secret any more.
Variety spoke with Jonathan Banks last week to discuss tonight’s standout episode, and a performance so sensational that it could very well land him a third career Emmy nomination.
How did you feel when you read the script? Did you know this episode was coming?
I’m trying to remember … I can tell you how I felt when I did it, which was incredibly lucky to have these scenes written by my writers who over the years have become my friends. They love the character of Mike, as do I. So then it became about trying to do my best job, try to do Mike justice. That’s what I felt like. Do Mike justice because he’s a great character and I’m lucky to be able to play him.
But sitting in the parking booth for those first five episodes, were you thinking “What am I doing here?”
You know, I don’t think so. When (“Saul” co-creator) Peter (Gould) said, “You’re gonna be a parking attendant,” I laughed. I thought, “That’s OK.” Mike shows up in town and you gotta do what you’ve gotta do — you gotta get a job. You get a job, you do it, you’re doing what you’re doing. I knew I was getting out of there. There were footnotes throughout the scripts that would say, “Just wait. Mike’s coming!” So it was fine.
It kind of makes it more fun to hold back for a bit, especially when you get a huge payoff like this. Do you think he deliberately got the job at the courthouse? It’s a smart place to be if he might need a lawyer at some point.
You’ve done more backstory than I have. It probably did not hurt. That’s gonna have to be yours and not mine, but I gotta tell you something, now I’m gonna use it. Mike went to the courthouse because it was an opportune place to be and may offer opportunities. I will credit you with that.
No worries, you can have it.
The director of this episode, Adam Bernstein, also directed some of Mike’s bigger “Breaking Bad” episodes. Did you already have a shorthand?
Adam is my friend. Do we have shorthand? We have huge shorthand. It’s just a joy to work with him.
Was there a scene or moment he particularly helped with?
This is going to sound so arrogant. [long pause] For the most part, as an actor, you nudge me. Especially with this character. I’ll give you one: Michelle MacLaren, one time a couple of years ago when I was feeling sentimental she said to me, “Remember you’re Mike.” I thought it was a simple and good direction. Less sentimentality. As far as Vince, when he directed one of the shows recently — and I think this is the only direction I’ve gotten from him in four years — he was over behind the monitors and I was in that booth. I leaned my head out and shrugged like, “Well, how was that?” And he stuck his head up from the monitors and yelled, “Less stinkeye!” That’s the only direction I’ve gotten from Vince.
That’s not too bad.
It was perfect. I laughed. It cracked me up. And he was right! It was correct!
In tonight’s episode we get to see some different sides of Mike, for one when he loses his cool with his daughter-in-law. He’s been trying to keep her calm and then he just explodes.
You know, it’s because of his son. You can do anything but you must know that this boy, this man was clean. He was good. That’s where Mike’s short fuse is. He can’t protect his son any more. The only thing he can do is protect his reputation.
And then later we see Mike’s emotional side when he tells the complete story of what happened to his son. It’s one of those rare things where you’re so used to seeing a character one way, that to see them express emotion is even more moving. What did you think when you were playing it?
I knew I had to be at the top of my game if I could get there. Now I haven’t seen it. So I’m sure I would say to you, “Well, I would’ve liked to have done that…” or “I could’ve done that…” Maybe. But I do know I walked in there with high expectations for myself about the way I come to it, and the way I come prepared, and what I do. There is no forgiveness in that and no excuse. I must be my very, very best. That may sound maudlin but that’s exactly what I’m thinking.
Was Mike’s granddaughter the only reason he relocated to New Mexico?
That’s the only connection he has with his son — the only connection he has with decency. That’s his son’s daughter. It’s a visceral reaction of love. With my own kids, people tell you you’re gonna love your kids and then all of a sudden the kid is there and you go, “Whoa, I didn’t want to be this much in love.”
This is Mike’s hour, but he does call Jimmy for help. When you’re working with Bob Odenkirk do you ever break when he’s going on one of his ridiculous rants or saying something completely crazy?
I don’t break much. You know, I don’t break because after years and years of doing this when people fall over on the set and laugh at each other or do whatever they’re doing, it’s a waste of time. The crew is standing around. Am I smiling inside? Do I smile and laugh afterwards? I certainly do. But I got a thing about the time element for my crew. I’ve seen — nice people, you understand, nice people — but when they’re really indulgent with the crew’s time, I’m going, “F— that!” You know? That’s bulls—.
You want to be as professional as possible.
If that’s what professional is, but mostly you’re looking at guys who may be working a 14 hour day and their humor level may not be the same as the actor who’s coming in for five or six hours.
While we’re talking about the crew, how big a job was it to bring in all that snow to make Albuquerque look like Philadelphia?
You would’ve loved it. The railway in Philly where the cops get shot is actually a back alley in Albuquerque, and that snow is made out of paper. There’s a huge truck that comes in and they blow it out and there’s a huge vacuum cleaner when they take it out.
It looks great on screen.
It does. In those allies, we were fighting thunderstorms that night. If you get a lightning strike you’re shut down for 45 minutes. I’m thinking, “Come on, the lightning’s way over there…” But sometime last summer a kid on a football field was struck and killed. It came out of nowhere. I thought they were being prudes but they’re weren’t. Those are some long nights.
Going back to Jimmy, do you think Mike knew he would follow through with the coffee stunt?
He hoped. You’re rolling the dice. It’s like turning around to somebody when you’re in line, a complete stranger, and making a comment about their hair hoping they have a sense of humor. You roll the dice, and you hope it’s gonna happen.
There’s probably another level of trust between them now.
They’re both desperate men, and survivors.
I’m not fishing for spoilers here but we haven’t really seen Mike interact with the “Better Call Saul” characters beyond Jimmy. Will that change down the line?
I don’t know, but I will say this. If you think back on Mike in “Breaking Bad,” he never met Betsy (Marie) or Dean (Hank) or RJ (Walt Jr.) or Anna (Skyler), so I’ve given you four major characters Mike never had a connection with. I’ve always liked it that Mike is somewhat separate and out there on his own.
One non-“Saul” question for you: I loved your guest spot on “Parks and Recreation.” Did you happen to see the finale?
I didn’t see the finale but I gotta tell you I wish I had. I guess I can still bring it up because now you can get everything, but what a joy (Amy Poehler) was. I gotta tell you, Amy — she’s just great to be around. She may not even remember me but she made an impression on me. I really liked working with her.
She and (“Parks” co-creator) Mike Schur seem very appreciative of their guest stars.
They were great. It’s funny, you go do comedy and it’s just amazing how hard people work that do comedy. I bet we laugh more on the set of “Call Saul” than they do on almost any comedy that’s produced. It’s just the way it is.
And Bob Odenkirk has to do both.
When you look at the workload that Bob carries. Saul, or Jimmy, either one, they run their mouth all the time. The lines Bob has to put down and remember? It’s daunting, it just is. If you look at it and see what’s going on, Bob Odenkirk’s done a helluva job.