Emmy Nominee Jonathan Banks on 'Better Call Saul'’s ‘Sorrowful, Wistful’ Mike Ehrmantraut
Better Call Saul’s Jonathan Banks secured his second consecutive Emmy nomination Thursday morning for playing hired muscle and loving grandfather Mike Ehrmantraut on AMC’s Better Call Saul. Luckily, Banks’s delightful off-screen personality is much closer to Mike’s latter occupation than his former. We spoke to Banks during the lead-up to the nominations to get his take on what the Emmys mean to him and how he keeps delivering powerful performances after so many years playing Mike on two award-winning series.
This is the first official year of AMC’s post-Mad Men era. How do you feel about carrying on as one of AMC’s high profile Emmy torchbearers?
Well, I love it. I love working for AMC. You know I’ve been with them now for a while, so I’ve gotten to know a lot of the people there. If you’d ever told me that I was going to know a great many people at a network, I just couldn’t believe it, but I do. All the way through, the people there, they’re nice people. It makes it kind of great working for them, and that goes all the way across the board. Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, it’s been a very, very good experience. Is it great that it brought me more notoriety? Yeah it’s great, but the experience itself, it’s worth more.
Better Call Saul is going into its second year of Emmy eligibility. Have you been getting a different kind of attention for the show now that it’s more established?
It’s now viewed as a separate entity [from Breaking Bad] and people appreciate it as a separate entity. So that is a lot of the feedback that I’ve gotten from people. They go, “Oh man it’s its own show. It’s really good!” How nice is that?
As far as supporting actors in other shows go, is there any performance that you’ve really admired this year?
Well there’s you know, all those guys that were nominated last year. These are wonderful actors, and I feel like I’m in great company. What can I tell you?
What do you think of this year’s Emmy field?
I’ve got to tell you honestly, I literally don’t pay much attention to it, because over the course of years there’s a lot of disappointment involved. If you pay attention to all the award shows and you’re hoping that you might get nominated or get an award, I don’t think it’s a very good way to spend your time [Laughs].
Mike’s storyline was mostly independent of Jimmy’s this year. Did it ever feel like you were the lead actor in a Mike Ehrmantraut series that just happened to be going on alongside Better Call Saul?
What a flattering way to put that. Listen, I’ll tell you one thing I’ve always liked about Mike’s character is that Mike is separate. Mike was separate in Breaking Bad as well. I mean, he lived off in his own world and I enjoy that.
After all this time playing Mike, I guess you would probably have a pretty good feel for the character. How do you find the inspiration to continue bringing him new layers of complexity?
Well I think that’s probably because I really don’t know the character as well as I want to know him. I discover I have my own backstory that I do constantly, apart from what the writers do. Then the writers throw it out there and I elaborate on it. But I think I’ll be doing Mike’s backstory somewhere until the day I die. What a great character. What a sorrowful—wistful would be one word, noble in some ways—character, and I was lucky enough to play it. And I enjoy it. Who was Mike in love with twenty years ago? Who loved Mike? Where did Mike come from? What was Mike’s past? It was revealed that he knew something about weapons and he knew that the old wooden stocks would warp in Vietnam. There’s a lot back there.
So you have extra things just in your mind that aren’t necessarily vocalized in the slow burn of Mike’s character development on the show?
Oh absolutely. You’ve never seen Mike touched gently except by his granddaughter. You’ve never seen Mike touched—literally, physically touched—by an adult, a woman, with a gentle touch, ever. I have a feeling it’s not dissimilar to the Beast in Beauty and the Beast. When he’s touched he almost collapses under kindness. It’s the one thing that he almost can’t stand because he’s lived in such a violent world.
Where would you like to see Mike go next between where he is now and where he ends up on Breaking Bad? What do you think could still be on the table for him?
This is where sometimes I differ with the writers. I think they’re leading you to how he became a hired gun. But I think that Mike has been in a violent world for a long, long time. It’s just a moral dilemma of, “Am I going to take money for my ability to be violent?”
So he already has that talent for it, but it’s the idea of whether or not he wants to embrace it?
Yeah, or whether he will give in to it. Because he’s brighter than Jonathan Banks, let’s put it that way [laughs]. He’s more intelligent than Jonathan Banks and he also has morality and is very aware of selling his soul.
Mike is separate from other people in a lot of ways, but you have amazing chemistry with the other actors on the show. Are there any particular actors you really click with on the set?
I can honestly, without being coy, I can tell you that would include everybody. I enjoy them. Bobby [Odenkirk] is fun. My irritation, Mike’s irritation with Saul— poor Jimmy— it’s fun to do and Bobby and I crack up. I can’t help it. Bobby does make me laugh.
He seems like an interesting guy.
Oh my god, Bobby Odenkirk. Look what he’s done! I mean everybody goes, “wow, jeez, it is its own show! It’s done this, and it’s done that.” But to put all that on Robert’s shoulders, and he delivers. I’ve said it a hundred times. Jimmy and Saul both are just motor mouths, they talk all the time, and the writers write to that. That, when you’re doing a television show in seven or eight days, that’s a lot of dialogue, and that’s a lot of homework and a lot of preparation. And he did it; he brought it.
Mike is kind of on the other end of the spectrum. He’s not a big talker.
In that sense, as far as memorizing lines. Mike’s stoic. You look at Mike a lot. Mike is perfect for the visual arts [laughs]. Perfect. There are a lot of unspoken things about Mike, which make him wonderful.
We had the big cliffhanger with Mike at the end of last season with the message and the car horn. Do you have any ideas about where that might be going?
I didn’t until I heard everybody speaking about Giancarlo Esposito [who played Gus Fring on Breaking Bad], and I’m thinking “Is Giancarlo going to come back?” Giancarlo is a friend, but you know what, I haven’t even bothered to call him to ask. I’m not even sure if Giancarlo knows whether he’d come back or not.
Have you spoken to any of the writers about your character’s future in Season 3?
You know what, listen, Peter Gould or Vince [Gilligan] or the other writers and I, we might get together and have dinner every once in a while, but I literally, and I’m proud of it, I never talk about business. If I go out to eat with somebody, I want to go out to eat with them because I like them. I don’t want to know about the business stuff.
Your Better Call Saul costar Michael McKean told us that he doesn’t like to revisit or analyze his previous performances. Do you feel the same way?
I think maybe part of that comes with age. There comes a point where, well at least I can only speak for myself, you don’t beat yourself up too much. I’m doing the best I know how. I hope you like it.