There’s no better on-screen heavy than Jonathan Banks – he’s had a 40-year career playing cops, wise guys and bad men. He was a villain in Beverly Hills Cop, Nick Nolte’s doomed partner in 48 Hours and the tough detective Frank McPike on the classic TV show Wiseguy. For the last few years, he’s been delivering some of the best hardboiled dialogue on television as the the fixer/enforcer Mike Ehrmantraut on Breaking Bad. “I do always get cast in these world-weary parts,” Banks, 65, says. “But I’m really lucky. What a gift of a character that they’ve given me in Mike. I can say that about my whole career. What a good deal I’ve had.”
This second episode was very Mike-heavy – can you break it down for us a little bit?
In the second episode, as far as decision-making goes, Mike is in turmoil. Two of his guys are killed – one of which he kills. With the heat of the police investigation, the stakes are raised and he’s got to keep people quiet. He makes a decision to kill Lydia. But then he starts breaking a lot of his own rules – the very idea that he lets Lydia go is obviously harkening back to his speech in season three about half measures. And he’s even joining with Walt.
It looks like his dislike for Walter has changed into something else . . .
Mike approaches Walter with great trepidation now, because he knows Walt’s very dangerous. Like he said last night, “You’re a time bomb. I’m waiting around for the boom.”
What’s in his head? Why he might be breaking these rules?
I will say this, Vince Gilligan and all the writers have given me this wonderful character to play. And they have their world of Mike. And I have my world of Mike. They’re very similar, but the writers control Mike with their pens. If Jonathan Banks had anything to say about it, it might be different sometimes.
Mike has some of the funniest lines on the show. He can make tense and macabre scenes very comedic. Isn’t that the writers knowing that you’re so good at deadpan?
Well, I probably carry a fair amount of sarcasm in my daily life. So I enjoy doing them. Like when I said, “It’s the universal sign for keys scumbag.” Or the line last Sunday: “I can see a lot of outcomes to this and none of them involve Miller time.“
Mike keeps telling Jesse to quit the game, but why doesn’t Mike quit?
It’s a totally legitimate question. Why doesn’t he quit? He’s stuck and has to take care of his guys. So that I understand. I understand loyalty. He’s a guy who keeps his word. But, you know, I’ve said this several times: Mike lost his soul a long time ago. He’s tired. He knows it. But he still sees himself as the protector and he wants to protect Jesse.
And we have seen he has family that he cares about, too.
I’ll tell you as an actor what it goes back to. In Season Three, when I let my granddaughter out of the car, and then I’m going to go shoot two people – but I take the balloons. I say, “Run to your mom. She’s waiting for you.” And I said to Vince Gilligan, who was directing that episode, I said, “That may be my granddaughter’s mother. But that’s not my daughter.” I think the dark path that Mike has taken has to do with whatever happened to his son. Now that’s just an actor’s opinion. The audience probably will never find out. But I think, that’s one of the things that happened to him.
I see Mike as a Seventies cop – like a Jim Rockford, if he’d broke really bad. Was there a certain 1970s or 1980s cop character you based this guy on?
Well, almost me if you think about it. I go back to Wiseguy. Although it was the 1980s, that’s going back quite a ways. You know? And that character’s name was McPike but he was a much straighter arrow than Mike.
Interesting that you bring up Wiseguy. You’ve worked on a lot of TV shows and people are saying we are in a golden age right now with Breaking Bad, Mad Men and shows like The Wire. What you think the difference is now from Eighties, Nineties television?
Wiseguy for its time was good. It was really good. And it holds up still. But a lot of the restraints have been taken off now. If you had told me in the Seventies and Eighties that TV would be as edgy or edgier than most films, and more intelligently written than most films, I wouldn’t have believed it. There’s great stuff out there. That first episode of Newsroom, the way it just cooked, I thought it was really good. I enjoy so many things. I enjoy Boardwalk Empire. Homeland is great.
I read that your mom worked for the CIA. Is that true?
She did work for the CIA at one time. She was an office manager. It was back in the Fifties, she raised me by herself on a really blue-collar block. They would security check her. Every couple of years, agents would go to the neighbors and talk to them. Her secretaries, were using typewriters and had to burn their carbons everyday. Here’s a funny story about those times: My mom managed all these girls and she taught them how to deal with sexual harassment in the office. When they were approached in a sexual way back then, there wasn’t a lot of recourse for women. They had these oval backed chairs and she taught her girls to throw their elbows straight back if someone came behind them, and then turn around and face the person who put their hands on them and in a very loud voice address the situation right then. Because in her opinion, if it went any further than it was only going to work out bad for the secretary. Best way to do it was confront it right then. You know, the Fifties and Sixties were bothersome. I don’t have nostalgia for it.
Last question: is Mike, like Walter, a good man who went bad?
I love Russell Crowe’s line to Oliver Reed in Gladiator where he asks him, “Are you in danger of becoming a good man?” It’s one of my favorite lines ever. But you know, obviously Walt ain’t no good no more. Mike knows that Mike could do decent things until the day he dies and it will never make up for the things that he’s done. Mike knows he’s bad. Unfortunately there’s good in him and that’s hard for him to live with, because he knows he could have been good. Whatever “good” means.