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‘Better Call Saul’: Jonathan Banks Won’t Say Much About Season 4, but Has a Lot to Say About Life and Death

The Emmy-nominated actor told IndieWire that an on-set revelation he had during "Breaking Bad" dictated a massive part of his character's backstory.

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Mike Ehrmantraut might be one of the scariest guys on television, but Jonathan Banks, who’s been playing the character since his introduction in the second season of “Breaking Bad” in 2009, is a beloved figure on the set of “Better Call Saul.” During a day of production last April, Banks wandered through the offices and sound stages where Season 4 was being shot, hugging and embracing everyone he passed.

Banks’ vast depth of humanity was evident when IndieWire met him on the set — specifically, the waiting room outside Howard Hamlin’s office. “I haven’t been here before,” Banks observed as we sat across from each other. “Most of the time, I’m out under a bridge somewhere in the dark with some kind of instrument. I don’t get to be someplace where it’s warm and nice. It’s usually cold and miserable or hot and miserable.”

While Banks didn’t have much to say about Season 4 at that stage, he did talk about the past — specifically how an instinct he had during the shooting of “Breaking Bad” perhaps contributed to a key part of Mike’s backstory. He also dug into larger issues of life and death, as well as his feelings toward Giancarlo Esposito. An edited transcript follows.

When production gets going on a new season of the show, I know they don’t tell you all that much about what’s to come. Do you like that?

I don’t ask that much. They’d probably tell me more if I asked but I like to see the scripts as they come. I don’t want to be thinking down the line somewhere.

So you really try to stay in the moment?

Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I don’t see that there’s any other way to do it. People say, “You know you die in ‘Breaking Bad.'” And my only answer to them is “Well, yeah, but you know you’re gonna die too.” You live.

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

In Season 3, what it was like reuniting with Giancarlo?

He is one of the great loves of all time. What a sweetheart. I mean, he plays this austere, very precise character and that’s not who he is at all. He’s this full of life kid… Giancarlo is just, Giancarlo’s wonderful, with one of the most positive attitudes about life, about how you approach it and what you do. Live it fully, yeah.

What’s your favorite thing that you’ve gotten to do as part of this show?

Well, I think Gordon Smith is writing the one that we’re doing right now. And when Gordon wrote the backstory for my son and I really got to act [in Season 1, Episode 6, “Five-O”], that was my favorite moment.

That’s an incredible episode. Was that something they told you in advance: “By the way, you’ve got a big showcase coming up?”

This is how that went down. Years ago in one of the “Breaking Bad” episodes, I let my granddaughter out of the car and I had balloons, mylar balloons and I gave her a few of them. And then I send her up and say, “Your mom’s waiting for you, go on.” And then I take those balloons and go and black out a place and then go and shoot people.

I said to Vince, who was directing that episode, “That’s my granddaughter, but that is not my daughter.” I said, “Whatever has happened to Mike, happened because of his son.” So three, four years later, Peter said to me, “Remember when you said that about …” And here came the episode.

It must be nice, when you’re playing a character like this, to find out a key part of their backstory lines up with what you’d imagined. 

I was in utter and complete agreement that you can have this guy, this tough guy doing whatever he’s doing  — but how did get here? And they gave me how he got there, which I was in complete agreement with.

Is there anything you feel like you still need to know about Mike?

Yes. That little boy came from somewhere.

You mean Mike’s son.

Yeah. Who is she? Who’s that woman? Where was that heartbreak, what happened there? I have a few theories.

Do you feel like the writers have their ideas?

I don’t know if they even concentrated on it yet. If the bug’s in their ear? For sure.

I’m along for the ride at this point. I just am. Wherever we’re going, we’re going. When I disagree with something, I’ll say so. But I mean, when they had him in the group therapy session with the daughter in that depressing room that you would have slit your wrists if you had to go into that group therapy. I went, “What are you doing, you’re putting Mike in a group therapy session, oh no, no.” Well, they said, “It’s for the daughter-in-law.” I went, “Okay, yeah.”

Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut - Better Call Saul _ Season 4, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

“Better Call Saul.”

Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Just the concept of putting Mike in group therapy speaks to the idea of taking a character out of their comfort zone.

Yeah, and boy was that ever out of my comfort zone. It’s certainly out of my comfort zone. And that’s not to say that I condemn that, if people have that need that, however they get to where they’re going. It’s just, I really have a hard time with understanding, for me, Johnny Banks, when you’ve been in great pain or you’ve inflicted great pain on someone, that you somehow can make it okay. No, no, you can’t. Not in my mind. But it’s partly who you are, you keep going on, you keep going on for whatever reason.

I think suicide is cowardly. If you wouldn’t do it to another human being, why would you do it to yourself? But at the same time, who am I to judge someone else’s pain, their darkness? I have no idea how much pain they’re in, none, none. But I do think Mike would have eaten his gun had it not been for his granddaughter.

You know where there’s a line between you and him.

Yeah, yeah. I will tell you this, I have friends that have lost a child that had they not had … Dear friends, had they not had other children, I don’t know if they could have gone on.

Having played this character in this universe for so long, do you find yourself getting surprised by him?

No. There’s a short answer, no. A very brief short answer. No, they write this full dimensional, wonderful rich character for me. I’ll do Mike’s backstory forever. Because they’ve given me so much to work with.

I’ve never seen a scene with him where I was like, “Mike wouldn’t do that.” He always seems very centered in whatever he’s doing.

Yeah. I feel that way. My version of Mike … Mike’s been dark a long, long, long, time. They gave us the Vietnam veteran sniper and who was he before that, even as a kid. You think about the things you did as a kid that you regret or the hurt that you may have inflicted on someone. And we all have sometimes much greater degrees of that. So how dark? I haven’t even decided yet but I promise you, he’d been dark a long, long time. So then to hook up with Gus is, it’s a decision, yes. But is it any darker than other places that he’s been? No, it’s not.

Mike’s a character who knows how to handle things — the number of times we’ve seen him in a legit panic have been very, very few. Is it nice to play that? 

Yeah. It catches me a little off guard in that I could no more what, put tracers on a gas cap then fly to the moon. But playing that character and that precision, I like that. I like that because again, I go back to dimensions, look what else I’ve given him. Look what else they’ve given this character.

I feel like every once in a while I have to remind myself where he ends up at the end, because there is such a shift to him, especially when you see him with his granddaughter here.

But that’s his decency, that’s the only decent thing left in his life.

Right.

Listen, he killed his son. In his mind, he killed his son. So his only decency, maybe in a lifetime, for him, is that last chance with this young, little soul that he wants to be truthful. He wants her to be kind.

In the meantime, he’ll teach her how to use power tools.

Yup. And help him do something bad.

New episodes of “Better Call Saul” Season 4 premiere Mondays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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