This article contains spoilers for the series finale of “Better Call Saul.”
“With mirth and laughter let old wrinkles come,” Shakespeare once wrote. The sentiment has rarely applied to Mike Ehrmantraut, the cantankerous fixer and hit man in the Albuquerque underworld of “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad.”
Morally conflicted, with plenty of wrinkles but little mirth, Ehrmantraut was mostly a blunt, coldblooded crank — with a soft spot for his granddaughter — in “Breaking Bad,” arriving in the second season and getting killed off three seasons later. But over the six-season run of “Better Call Saul,” which ended on Monday night, the creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould fleshed out a nuanced back story for the character, expanding him into a figure caught between the weight of his own guilt and the desire to protect what is left of his family.
Jonathan Banks, who played Ehrmantraut, is no stranger to the pressure of survival, having grown up in a tough neighborhood in Chillum Heights, Md. After refining his theater chops in high school and college, Banks began a long film and television career, with roles in movies like “Airplane!,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and the 2017 Netflix film “Mudbound.” But the role of Ehrmantraut has been a defining feather in his cap after decades of solid journeyman parts, earning him five Emmy nominations to go along with one he got for the CBS drama “Wiseguy” in the late 1980s.
Banks can be as blunt and direct as the character, albeit with a bit more mirth. Over the course of two conversations this month, he discussed the changes the role has brought in his own life and whether he really did all those crossword puzzles. These are edited excerpts from the conversations.
Have you seen the finale?
I haven’t seen it. But I know what it is. The last scene that Bob Odenkirk and I had together in the desert, and where I say to him, “You regret nothing?” — Mike was still looking for the humanity in this guy. He had just spent all those days in the desert. He’d also been impressed that this guy had been able to pull it together and survive.
So that is a long-winded way of saying that, were Mike living when Jimmy went to jail and fessed up to everything — I wonder, would Mike have been surprised? It might not have taken him by total surprise that the guy finally had a conscience.
You started playing Mike in 2009. Is there anything from your own life that informed these different layers we have seen in him over the years?
I used, partially, people that I grew up with, people that I feared or respected. You know, it always sounds a little too dramatic to me when somebody says, “My neighborhood, I grew up this way; it was tough.” Suffice to say, I grew up not in the garden district. There was a fair amount of rough life. Certainly nothing in the order of “Breaking Bad” or the cartel life, but it was enough that it got your attention. There were a lot of days you walked around afraid — or at least I did.
I got banged around quite a bit, got punched in the mouth a lot. It gives you a certain amount of, I don’t know that it gives you toughness, but it leaves no surprises when all of a sudden you’re in a fight or you get beaten or whatever. As far as Vietnam, the sniper part of Mike’s life: I have several close friends that went. And one of my friends they just put into Arlington Cemetery about a month and a half ago. There are a lot of guys that came back that I know that were hurt badly by their experience in combat. That’s something I never experienced — I borrowed from people that I saw.
I watched the conversations that you and Mark Margolis [who played Hector Salamanca] had as part of a series of actors’ talks for “Better Call Saul”; I got the impression in some of your comments about being a working actor that Mike’s inability to suffer fools is something that you share.
I like to be straightforward. I like to be honest. I don’t like pretense. And I try not to be condescending or pretentious. I like just simple honesty. And honesty is not so simple.
What about all the crossword puzzles? How good were you at them before you started playing Mike?
Terrible, really terrible. In the Sunday comics, there is “find the six differences in between two photos or two drawings.” I have difficulty with that. I’ll tell you who is great at the crossword puzzles, who sits down and just “boom,” is Michael McKean.
You had to do a lot of pretty grueling physical work for this role. Was there anything that was just beyond the pale?
No. I mean, I’ll never let Vince Gilligan up for air when he puts me in the desert at 110 degrees every day. But I get to break his chops forever! It’s wonderful. [Laughs.] And I’ve got to tell you, that desert — the early morning sunrises or the sunsets, or when the thunderstorms would come across that New Mexico desert, or the wild horses would run by? Oh my god. I wouldn’t have missed that for the world.
At any point did your relationship with the role turn into a feeling of ownership?
Yes. Mike is mine. Mike is mine. I caught myself almost for a moment choking up when you asked that. And I think the honest thing to say is if I really think about it, maybe Mike has changed Johnny, too.
I think Jonathan Banks, by playing Mike, became a little more silent, a little less rambunctious. And by silent, I mean, I think I listen a little more than I did 12, 13 years ago. I don’t like to use the word witness, but that’s what’s coming to mind. I think he possibly affected me in that I’m a little more patient. Maybe that comes with age anyway.
Was there ever a time where you got a script and thought, “Mike wouldn’t do this”?
There have been moments that I went, “Oh, I think Mike wouldn’t do that.” But I found, quite honestly, a lot of the times that what the writers were telling me, if I deferred to them, it made sense.
The first thing that comes to my mind is in “Breaking Bad” when Mike left his granddaughter in the park and had to escape. And I was going, “No, Mikey would never leave his granddaughter.” And of course, the reasoning is, the police department — they’re there in the park. They will take care of her, they will return her to her mother. I still have a tough time with Mike leaving his granddaughter in the park.
There’s a scene in “Better Call Saul” last season where Mike is reading “The Little Prince” to his granddaughter, Kaylee. It’s a passage where the little prince says, “My flower is ephemeral, and she has only four thorns to defend herself against the world.” What do you think this scene means for Mike?
I love that scene so much. I love “The Little Prince” so much. It’s a life lesson for that child, obviously, what he’s reading. But as I remember, it touches a lot of chords in Mike as well.
[Long pause.] Innocence. Innocence protection. And the solace of relaxing, just for a moment. I mean, there’s two things going on — not only the book but her. In spite of all his fears and trepidations, the world is good for a moment with that innocent child and that innocent book.
There are two different worlds. And part of his misery is that he can read “The Little Prince” with Kaylee, and then he’s going to go do something that he knows is not good. It’s one of the reasons he despises himself, because he knows better. There are a lot of these characters that don’t know better, or if they do know better they’re not aware of it. Mike is very aware of what he’s doing and knows it is not good.
Mike is one of the few people in this story who sees himself and others clearly, and that comes through in his relationships with the various other characters, good and bad.
He lost his soul when he was responsible for his son’s death. What he tries to get back — and what I’ve also said is his Achilles’ heel — is that he doesn’t want to see people get involved and get hurt. He’ll see the good in somebody, and it usually costs him. Those lines that you well know: “If you’re in the game, you’re in the game.” Mike has no compassion for that once you’re in it.
You know, to talk about bad guys, to admire miserable characters — since man could open his mouth and tell a story, it’s gone on. I have a quote in my kitchen — I’m going to take you over here with me so I can read this to you. [Carries laptop across the kitchen] Here we go: It says, “Now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates.” Mark Twain. [Laughs.]
In the final episode, though, the last scene made me think that the overarching theme within the whole “Breaking Bad” universe — even with Walter White — is that no matter how bad someone goes, love can bring them back to some kind of better place. Do you think that aspect can apply in real life, that somebody can be redeemed by love?
Yes, because then they are no longer lying to themselves. They’re trying to turn around, even if it’s only momentarily — even if it’s five seconds before you die. When you’re a little kid, you need a Popsicle, and you’re trying to figure out how to lie, how to get it any way you can. As an adult, hopefully, at some point it hits you that you mustn’t lie. You got to put your head on the pillow at night and go to sleep. Don’t lie to your wife, don’t lie to your friends, don’t lie to yourself. That sounds pretty trite, but I believe it. I truly believe it.