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The Breaking Bad Interviews: Jonathan Banks
Mike Ehrmantraut on half-measures, frowning for the camera and Les Mis

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Warning: Contains spoilers for seasons 1 to 5A.

The Breaking Bad Interviews: Jonathan Banks

What were your first impressions of Breaking Bad?
When I came in, I was just doing a job. My first impression, honestly, the moment I came in, was that I was working with this young actor, Aaron, and I was so impressed that when I got home I said to my wife, 'I worked with this kid today that I think is really, really good.' I've been doing this for 46 years. I got my first pay cheque 46 years ago as an actor, so I've been around a while. And I thought Aaron was just phenomenal. Then, when I left, Bryan gave me a DVD of the pilot show and said, 'Here, see what we're doing...'

At that point I didn't even know whether I was coming back or not. I can't even remember whether it had even been talked about, expect there was that traditional 'You know, this role may reoccur...' thing, which is a bit 'We love ya, buddy' and you don't really pay much attention to that.

Anyway, I watched that copy of the pilot, and it was good. Then, later, they called and asked if I wanted to come back, and Mike became this wonderful, wonderful character.

It's like he's always right...
Everybody wants to be Mike. We may not all want to be killers, but we want to be loyal, we want to get the job done on some level. None of us want to be sleazy scumbags. That said, you don't want to look too closely at Mike, sometimes. I've said it 100 times, but Mike knows he's lost his soul, but that doesn't mean he can't go out and do a good deed.

How did you get the job? Apparently Vince was a fan of Wiseguys and Bob Odenkirk couldn't do a certain day...
That's how the story goes! You know, I have never heard Vince or Bob say that Bob couldn't do a certain day, but I've heard other people say it. Quite honestly, I've never even asked. I do know for sure that Vince was a fan of Wiseguys.

What notes did Vince give you for Mike?
In all honesty - and God, I don't mean to sound arrogant - but he just let me do it. I remember one of the directors, Michelle MacLaren, said something one time because I was getting too sappy and sentimental about something, and she said, 'Remember to be Mike.' (laughs) That was it, really. I don't remember many other notes.

How do fans speak to you in the street?
Everybody wants to be Mike. We may not all want to be killers, but we want to be loyal, we want to get the job done, on some level. None of us want to be sleazy scumbags.
As soon as I open my mouth, I can see the look of disappointment on people's faces. They go, 'Wait, that's not Mike! That's some guy being polite to me!' Well, hopefully I'm being polite to them, anyway. It's 'Aww...' When they ask for photos, I actually try to smile, to look like I'm having the time of my life. So then people say, 'Could you try and look like Mike?'

How old are you? (Empire reveals its age) You're a baby boy. My youngest daughter is 44. That deadpan look is 66 years of life, my friend. I mean, I think that's me.

Did you sit down and watch the rest of the first and second seasons when they called you back for a recurring role?
Oh yeah. I just sat down and watched them all, and like everybody else, I thought 'This is really good.' Actually I just worked with Danny Trejo, on a movie where somebody gets killed every five scenes [Bullet], where I'm the bad guy.

Do you ever think you'll ever get a job quite like this one?
If you tell me how in the name of God another Mike is going to come along, you've got to let me know. I don't want to be pessimistic about it, but how does another Mike roll along? It's a very special moment in an actor's career, it's a very special moment in life. Mike was just... I love Mike.

Many of your fellow cast members say that Breaking Bad is a treatise on the nature of modern masculinity. Do you agree?
Well, I'm not a woman, so I don't know, but I am a human being and I think a level of flat-out mayhem and violence exists in all of us, man or woman.

What was the atmosphere like on set?
It was great. Every day it was great, my friend, every day. Again, I don't want to be pessimistic, but the atmosphere there was also a once in a lifetime thing. And you talk about sentimental and maudlin and sappy, but there you go, absolutely believe it.

Do you have a particular memory of a particular day of work that stands out for you? Like the 'half measures' speech?
Oh, that was a good day of work. That was fun. When Bryan had done his speech at the school auditorium, all these high-school kids were sitting around outside. I was talking to three of them, and it turns out they were honour students, these three guys. And just, you know, good guys. And they appear on the set and I guess they had had some connection with someone in the production. So they were there for the 'Half Measures' speech.

Now this has probably nothing to do with the interview here, but I remember saying to them: 'You cannot know your lines well enough.' Now that's a very simplistic thing to say, but in the world of television, in the world of film, it's amazing how many very, very, very, very talented people get by without learning their lines properly. They needed to prepare more is what I'm saying.

You don't need to go too far or anything. If you really want to get to a character like Mike, you don't have to go out and sit by the curb for days. I didn't have to go shoot somebody to be Mike, but you must draw on something from somewhere and, you know... I'm rambling. I'll go on forever if I start that.

In answer to your question, I'll tell you about a special day's shooting. It was Aaron and I riding around in a car. So Aaron is a young man, as you know. And we're riding around, riding in the car in the desert, just sitting around and, you know what? I don't think for all that time that we ever stopped laughing. We had the best time. And I would try to scare him to death with that car. And, you know, I did. Well, he's still with us, but I gave him a good fright.

That episode, where you drop off the money, is a real fan favourite.
But again, I must tell you it's thanks to Michelle MacLaren, who directed that, and directed me in so many other episodes. She was patient with me 'cause, you know... I can be, well... Hey, listen, if I don't like it, I'll tell you. If I'm tired, I'll tell you. If I'm hot, I'll tell you. But Michelle, what a director she is.

Can I ask you about your final day shooting? I gather there were black armbands for your passing, for Mike's passing. Was that kind of in jest or kind of not in jest?
Yeah. It was not in jest. There were a lot of tears on the set that day, my friend. A lot of tears. My crew were sent by the angels. And that I would like you to quote, because I've been saving that one.

I think I'm less tough about it now than I was then. I knew I had to get out of there. Because I didn't wanna break down. I didn't wanna break down.

The Breaking Bad Interviews: Jonathan Banks

In your last scene, you deliver your line and then you tip over. Was that your idea?
The tipping over was me, but you've got realise what that camera shot is. Michael Slovis, the director of photography, is way back up on the hill and I didn't even know he had a camera back up there. I thought he was catching me from the side in profile. And the impact of that at a distance... he was exactly right. That was exactly the right thing to do, and the editors and Vince making that choice about that being the angle that you let it go from, that you let him die from, that's pretty cool. That really is pretty cool.

When I knew what was coming, when we were doing my final episodes, I contributed less and less because I know that what was going to happen. I was almost preparing myself for that end. Now up till that point, I had opinions, I'm going, 'Mike wouldn't say this! Mike wouldn't say that!'

For example, there's a scene where Aaron and I are cleaning up blood. The script said Mike should say, 'Who killed who?' And I said to [writer] Tom Schnauz who was on the set - he's very protective and he also wrote that episode where I die, by the way - but I said to Tom, 'I'm not a grammar junkie, but it's "Who killed whom?" It's not "Who killed who?" You can't dumb Mike down, Tom.'

And he said, 'No, he'd say this, he'd say that.' And I said, 'Aw, come on, dude.' So there we are, battling away about whether Mike would say whom or who, and of course we've given each other endless shit about it ever since. But, you know, I never ever, ever, ever, ever wanted to dumb Mike down.

I really had to adjust to things towards the end. Here's another moment for you: the idea that I left my granddaughter in the park. I was about to shoot the scene, standing next to my friend Charlie, who's one of the crew on the set, and he's just waiting there with a light panel next to me as I stand by the tree and look out. And I was still dead set against leaving my daughter in the park. And yet you have to justify that. You have to say, 'It's a park, there are police, she will be all right, she will taken home.'

But I turned to Charlie to get the emotion, Charlie who was just off-camera - oh shit, I'm reliving it now - anyway, I said, 'Charlie, would I ever leave my baby in this park?' And Charlie said, 'No, sir.' And that's where the emotion came from. And then I turned back to camera. So you talk about a collaborative effort...

That's a really heart-wrenching moment. You can end up feeling quite sick, watching Breaking Bad. The very end of the train episode, for example.
If you want to, you can pick apart holes in the show, but that's not the point of it. The way it's delivered... it's done in such a fluid, confident way that it doesn't encourage you to do that.
That I really did have an argument with. I said, 'There is no way that Mike is gonna watch that kid on that bike or know that that kid on that bike is killed and then not go ahead and kill the guy.' I thought that was just totally uncharacteristic of Mike. But that's me. You know, there are going to be arguments during any creative effort... there are going to be opinions, you know. There just are.

If you want to, you can pick apart holes in the show, but that's not the point of it. The way it's delivered. It's done in such a fluid, confident way that it doesn't encourage you to do that. But I do take your point, I guess they obviously had plans for Todd [Jesse Plemons].

Is there a plan for a reunion now that everything's done? Especially considering you haven't been part of the final eight episodes.
I'm not aware of one if there is one. You know, we had our wrap party in Albuquerque and I did not go. I was shooting a pilot for NBC and called Bloodlines and I didn't go. I wasn't going to go there because I know I would be hurt if I went there. I would have had a lot to drink. And then to get up and go to work and back in LA - that would have been a mistake, I think.

And it hurts to go back. Let me tell you something, my friend, it really hurts. You can't... it's hard always going back. Especially to a place and a group of people that you love so much.

And let me tell you something, bud, here's the deal. You know, you choose your favorite book and you remember the time where you didn't want that book to end. And how that makes it such a great book. I feel that way about Les Misérables. I got to the end of this Victor Hugo's tome and thought, 'I don't want this to end, I don't want this to end, I don't want this to end...'. If you can pull that off with a television series, that ain't so bad.

It's like that moment in Les Mis where Hugo is waffling on about Waterloo, and you're wondering where he is going with this...? Then it all makes sense with one final mention of Thénardier going through the dead soldiers' possessions.
Exactly that. And as you go through that Waterloo, the information that is passed on has not become significant yet, but then there's the thing about the sewers in Paris later. What a book.

But anyway, I'm telling you Les Mis is great. It is great. And Breaking Bad, Breaking Bad gives me that same feeling.


Empire Breaking Back Interviews THE BREAKING BAD INTERVIEWS
Head back to the interview hub for more exclusive interviews with the cast and makers of Breaking Bad

Interview by Ali Plumb

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