SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not watched “Fall,” the June 12 episode of “Better Call Saul.”
Michael Mando’s character Nacho Varga has had a slow burn to prominence. “He was a peripheral character in the first two seasons,” Mando says to Variety. “I remember Vince [Gilligan] and Peter [Gould] calling me halfway through seasons one and two and telling me, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll, we’ll get there. We’ll get there.‘”
In the back half of this season, something’s been brewing in Nacho — a struggle between who he was raised to be and who he chose to be, which pits his own honest father (Juan Carlos Cantu) against one of the scariest characters in the “Breaking Bad” universe, Don Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis). In the eighth episode, “Slip,” Nacho took the first steps towards striking a killing blow against Don Hector — embarking on a dangerous mission where he was a breath away from awful death the whole time. In “Fall,” Nacho has to sit down across from his real father and explain that his criminal activity has now engulfed his father’s small business, too. His father, in return, throws him out of the house.
Variety sat down with Mando to talk about these two scenes and his character’s slow maturation. “You know, they say good things come to those who wait,” he jokes.
Tell me a little about Nacho’s arc this season. We’ve learned a lot about his father. And we always knew he had a conscience, but it’s expanded in a really interesting way this season.
Yes, it’s definitely very interesting. I feel in the first two seasons, Nacho is looking outside of himself to gain perspective into his own life. He was looking for an ally in either Tuco or Mike, and he was let down on both occasions. This year, it’s really the story about a man who takes matters into his own hands, and who is put in this situation where he has to make a very clear decision on what his priorities are.
I think there was always a curiosity with Mike. He felt that Mike could be potentially the perfect ally. He was highly intelligent, highly capable, and was by nature a moral character.
I think Nacho hasn’t … He’s always been sort of torn between two fathers. On one side, there’s this rich but vicious cartel father. Then the other side, there’s this God-loving, God-fearing but poor father, financially. There’s an inner battle inside of [Nacho], and he always thought that it would be resolved outside of him. In this season, he embraces the battle, and he makes it a part of who he is. What’s kind of tragic about the character in Season 3 is that he has to cross over to the very dark side in order to save the life of his father.
He’s seen his father struggle his whole life. He’s seen his father make, I would say, high moral choices but suffer in the physical world in terms of the amount of money he makes and the long hours that have taxed him physically. I think there’s a lot of pain inside of Nacho — seeing how much his father had to go through, and how sometimes in this life people who are always trying to do the right thing get hurt by other people who are trying to profit. I think there’s a similarity with Jimmy and his father — but I think the difference is that Nacho, I think, respects his father to the point that he wouldn’t let anybody or anything happen to him. I don’t want to say Jimmy wouldn’t. But the difference is that despite the fact that Nacho might think that there’s a better way, he still will never want to upset his father.
What was it like to film last week’s suspenseful scenes across Don Hector?
Working with Mark has always been a pleasure. He’s been alive twice as much as I have, and he’s been working for longer than I have been alive. What I love about working with Mark other than, obviously, going at it onscreen, is the conversations and the stories that we have, that he shares with me offscreen. He’s one of those last generations that was in contact with the Marlon Brandos and the Al Pacinos and the Robert De Niros of the world, and to feel somehow connected to that through Mark is really something special.
That sounds very different from his character.
He’s a sweetheart who has a wonderful sense of humor.
Nacho’s scenes in “Slip” where he was carefully and diligently replacing Hector’s medication with ibuprofen, and then practicing the drop. It reminded me of Mike’s scenes.
Jimmy’s superpower is his ability to speak. I think Nacho’s superpower is his ability to learn. He has an exponential quality in terms of grafting information and applying it. The other really unique quality that he has is the capacity to act without ego, and for practicality. Most characters on this show are driven by emotion. For example, one of the things that severed the relationship between Nacho and Mike was the fact that Mike acted on emotions of revenge. It got an innocent person killed, as well as one of Nacho’s colleagues. Nacho has always been the observer. He’s always realized that — I mean, one of the most interesting things about this character is that the only respect that matters to him is self-respect. He doesn’t really care what Hector thinks of him or what the cartel thinks of him. He doesn’t buy into that macho mentality.
And yet in “Slip” he’s kind of stepping out of that role of observer, to take on a pretty terrifying and awful task.
Well, what was really fascinating about Nacho in this season is that we discovered that he has unconditional love for his father — and that he’s willing to put his own ambitions and his own dreams aside and risk his life, literally, to protect his father’s safety. What’s doubly interesting is that he does it without wanting recognition for it. He risks his own life without his father ever knowing, at this point. That scene was really a fascinating scene to play because it was just so emotional — in the sense that there were two people’s lives that were at risk, Nacho’s and his father. Everything needed to happen so quickly because if Hector so much as decided to reach for his pocket and didn’t find his pills, that was the end of everything.
Let’s talk a little about Nacho’s scenes in tonight’s episode, “Fall.” Are Nacho and Gus communicating now, or do you think that shared look is just that they understand each other?
To be very honest with you, I have an idea what is going on in my head, but Vince and Peter haven’t committed — or at least haven’t told me exactly what’s going on. From my perspective, I definitely feel that there’s a connection between Gus and Nacho. I’m not saying that there’s a connection where they work together or they know each other, but they’re both able to see the third dimension of what is going on. To spot someone in that realm of consciousness is — It’s almost very hard to look away. It’s like seeing someone flash a mirror at you and to catch a glimpse of that light and just be like, I thought I was the only one. You know what I mean?
That sense of recognition.
It’s scary because they operate very deep in the subconscious, especially in that gangster world where everyone seems to brand their machismo.
It’s interesting that Gus is also Nacho’s father’s age, and Mike is also a father-figure. Is your sense from the end of “Fall” that his relationship with his real father is over?
I’ll be honest with you, that was probably the hardest scene I’ve maybe ever shot in my life so far. It was so heartbreaking for me, and we had shot it in many different ways. There was a take of it where I just couldn’t restrain tears. It was really, really, difficult to say those words and to mean those words without breaking into tears. Here it is for the first time in three years, we see Nacho in his father’s home. His father’s in his pajamas — completely vulnerable. Nacho just poured himself a glass of milk, which is the symbolism of youth. He is sitting in the kitchen table where so many conversations have happened. Even though we don’t really see it in the take, the props department had decorated the house with pictures of me and Juan Carlos Cantu as children. There were literally pictures of me as a child on the wall.
Here I was telling my symbolic father — my personal symbolic father — that I was going to need him to give me the upper hand in life, and that he was going to need to trust me regardless of the fact that I have gone behind his back. That I’m asking him to do something that is outside of his moral code, and essentially that I am humiliating him in the eyes of another man, but that he needed to trust me. It’s heartbreaking because there’s a moment in life where, I guess, a young man sort of becomes his father’s keeper. And to do it in this particular way is just heartbreaking.
What was fundamental for me — what we talked about, Minkie [Spiro], the director, and Gordon Smith, the writer, who were both really wonderful — was that it was very important that Nacho not break down in front of his father. He had to be the backbone. He needed to be the backbone in that moment. I think it was at that moment that I realized the strength of that character. because it was very hard for me.
The second thing that was very important, that I’m really happy Gordon and Minkie kept in there, that we found during rehearsal — I felt it was imperative that Nacho, after his father kicked him out, that he would grab his glass of milk, gently pour it back into the sink, put his chair back at the table, and walk out slowly without arguing. In other words, he is still doing the house chores at home.
It was really, really a completely heartbreaking scene to play. Especially the fact that it had to break internally, not outwardly.
It’s almost like there’s a spiritual element to his relationship with his father. where his father is the definition of good and very high Judeo-Christian morality. There’s this thing where there’s like an emotional bone that Hector had been sort of bending, bending, and bending, and at that moment, it snaps. But what’s dangerous about characters like that is that once you break that bone, just like a real bone when it starts to heal, it usually heals a lot stronger.
These two tense scenes. It makes me wonder how much longer Nacho has for this world.
The thing that really fascinates me about this character is that I don’t think he cares anymore to ask himself that question. I think in the first two seasons, we saw someone who was — especially in Season 2, desperately trying to stay alive and to stay afloat and to continue his ascension. In this season, I think he’s really made a choice. He knows that he could potentially die, and he’s okay with that. What’s great about a character like that is he has made higher moral choices that go beyond his desire to survive. [Nacho’s story] is a very tragic story about a young man who has made a decision, at the time, thinking that he was going to make something of himself. It’s about someone who wants to be somebody in this world. It’s sad because at a young age, he thought the only way he could do that was to do what the people who had the most money around him were doing. He gets caught up in a struggle between light and darkness that ultimately starts eating at him and threatens to take everything that is good in his life away from him. He has to commit himself to darkness and sort of drown whatever good he has and become a monster that he’s trying to avoid in order to save the part of light that he still has, which is his father. There’s an element of Greek tragedy there, where it’s very fatalistic. You become the thing you’re trying to avoid in order to save the thing you wish you were.
That’s very beautiful.
Thank you. I’ve always felt it was like someone being lowered into this dark cave and who walks in very slowly and says, “I’m just going to pick the gold coins that don’t have any stains of blood on them.” As he gets deeper and deeper into the cave and picks more gold, he looks down at his hands, and he realizes that he’s knee-deep in blood. He can’t recognize how he got here.