'Breaking Bad' Favorite Talks 'Better Call Saul' Return: "I Hope They Keep Me Going for a While"

Mike got a visit from an old friend on Monday's 'Better Call Saul.'
Courtesy of Ursula Coyote/Sony Pictures Television
Jonathan Banks of 'Better Call Saul'

[Warning: This article contains spoilers for Monday's episode of Better Call Saul, "Rebecca."]

Ding! Ding! Ding!

After keeping the Breaking Bad camera returns to a relative minimum in its first season, Better Call Saul has begun to bring the two worlds together in earnest this season. The returns started with Kyle Bornheimer's Ken in the second-season premiere, followed by Jim Beaver's Lawson and Raymond Cruz's Tuco on last week's episode. 

Monday's hour featured perhaps the biggest cameo comeback yet, as Mark Margolis reprised his Emmy-nominated turn as Hector "Tio" Salamanca, joining Mike at a luncheonette to make a plea/veiled threat to get some of the charges against Tuco dropped.

On Breaking Bad, Margolis started out playing Tio as impoverished and powerless, debilitated by some illness or condition, communicating only with the use of a bell. Through flashbacks, we saw Tio at different ages as a vicious enforcer to Don Eladio within the Juarez Cartel; we also saw him impress upon his young nephews the importance of family.

Is Hector back for a long run on Better Call Saul? Are we going to see the downfall that left him wheelchair-bound in a remote hideout? We'll have to wait and see.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with the Scarface and Oz veteran about playing Tio in this new context, working with Jonathan Banks for the first time and that time THR helped him get hotel perks in Santa Fe.

My math may be off, but I feel like this is the fourth different age in which you've played Hector. Does that sound right?

Third, it would be. I played Hector initially as the completely decrepit wheelchair-bound guy — that was the first way you ever saw him — and then there were two flashback scenes in Breaking Bad where you saw me as a healthier person who spoke Spanish to the two little kids. Is that what you're talking about?

Well, in my mind, I distinguished between the flashback with the cousins and then the other flashback with Gus and Gus' friend as being two totally separate ages.

Oh yeah! You're right! In fact, I couldn't even remember the thing with Gus and his friend. I was thinking of the two kids and I was trying to remember what the other flashback was. I don't keep up enough with Mark Margolis' work. That's my problem, even though he's one of my favorite actors.

Then I'm guessing that when you were brought in for Better Call Saul, you didn't look back at what you'd done before?

No, I didn't go and look back at it. I understood that this was somewhere between six and nine years earlier and they did a job on me where they made my hair darker and they made my face somewhat younger, but not as young as it had been in the flashback with the kids, because with the kids, they actually used some kind of an elastic device to pull my skin back a little bit and tighten it up, but in this case they didn't.

What is the through-line to the character? What were the things you viewed as being consistent to Hector throughout all of these ages?

Hector knows how to get what he wants. He has ways of trying to get what he wants, and he has steps that he can take to get what he wants, starting with an easier step and then moving on to heavier steps. I went at this from exactly what it was at this time, in this moment, at that hour, in that luncheonette, that I had a family member who was, so to speak, in deep doody and I needed to get him out of that situation. I want to try, in a very pleasant way, to get another man to understand that I'm just asking for some small grace from him to save all hell from breaking loose on this person whom I care about and also to let that guy know that I know a little bit about him, so I'm not just some guy coming out of the blue, so that he knows that there's more to me than I'm even revealing. That was about all that I did. I try to keep things pretty simple. I don't like to complicate things too much. I don't know if that's a shortcoming on my part or not.

When you first heard that they were going to be doing Better Call Saul had you had hopes that you were going to get the chance to come back in this way?

My wife did. She kept asking me, "Are you gonna be on it? Are you gonna be on it? Are gonna be on it?" And I kept saying, "I don't know if I'm gonna be on it. It would be nice. On the other hand, I made it through a year without being on it, so I guess I can go a couple years without being on it." I always say dumb things like that, but they're true. I would get stopped by people, "Are you gonna be on Better Call Saul? I hope you're gonna be on." I'd say, "It would be lovely to be on it." I love New Mexico. I love the people who create the show. I love the whole crew, who are all amazing people to work with. The actors are wonderful to work with. I didn't want to make it something that I was gonna be heartbroken if I didn't work on it. 

So it was wonderful when I found out. Also that I got to work with Jonathan Banks, whom I never met ever when I was on Breaking Bad. We were never even in the same place at the same time. I never met him and he's awesome. It's almost frightening for me. I figure I'm gonna bomb.

Funny thing. I told you I love New Mexico. A couple years ago, I was nominated for an Emmy for the episode I blew Giancarlo [Esposito] and myself up in, and I was interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter. They wrote a very long article about me, something like "Non-Speaking Character Gets Nominated for Emmy" or something like that. It was a really nice article, a full page, and one of the questions was, "As a New Yorker, how is it for you to go out to New Mexico?" and I mentioned that I love New Mexico, plus every time I go out to work in Albuquerque, my wife and I always go up to Santa Fe and we stay at La Fonda, one of the oldest hotels in America, and they always give us a wonderful place to stay. Anyhow, as a result of that little mention in The Hollywood Reporter, the La Fonda Hotel has always given me a marvelous room at a marvelous rate and I thank your magazine. They did a wonderful thing for me just in that one little paragraph.

When you saw the script for that send-off episode with Giancarlo, did you immediately know how well that was going to play? 

Not at all. People always ask if Vince [Gilligan] called me to tell me I was going to be on Better Call Saul and he didn't. I found out through my agents and managers. But that was the one time Vince ever called me. He called me two months before. I knew it was coming. He called me early in the morning and I said, "You're calling to tell me you're gonna kill me." He said, "Yeah, wait'll you hear how we're gonna do it." But yeah, I thought that was marvelous. It also gave me some stuff to do that I very much enjoyed doing. When Giancarlo came for me to apologize and to suck him into thinking I was being contrite, there was a whole thing where I just looked around practically in tears about to finally confess what a bad boy I was to have done that to his buddy and then taking great delight in sticking it to him. 

You mentioned never having worked with Jonathan Banks. I sort of have this impression that you guys are similar actors, similar career character actor kind of guys. Was that the case? Did you have an immediate rapport when you sat down together?

Well, he's got a house in Malibu and I don't. He's got an edge. I'm just joking, but he said it was the only good investment he ever made in his life. I think he bought it many years ago, and I wish I had done it. To me, it was wonderful to get to work with him. He's always been one of my favorite characters on both Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul. There's something about that guy. He's very magnetic. There have been tons of great actors on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. I don't think there's ever been anybody that's really bad on either of the shows, but there's something about Banks. I'm doubly big on him, because I'm a big fan of "less is more." Picasso, where it took him like three strokes to paint a bird when he was younger, he could do it with one stroke by the time he turned old. Jonathan Banks, he does so little and yet so much is coming at you. They talk about, in film work, how the camera reads thoughts; it can see the eyes and what the thoughts are, as opposed to stage work. And Jonathan Banks is the ultimate example of that or expression of that. He sometimes will just sit there, the face doesn't move, the eyes are staring at you, and it just sends you to a million places. He's an amazing actor, and it was an honor to work in a scene with him.

Having done this episode, how much do you know about the steps between where Hector is here and where we find him when we first meet him in Breaking Bad?

I certainly don't know what led to Hector ending up in the wheelchair. I've always assumed it had to be a stroke, some kind of an illness or something. [He's] in such bad shape, in such a terrible place. The first time you see me in Breaking Bad, I'm out in a crap shed out in the middle of nowhere. It makes trailer park trash look like the high end. Why did I end up all the way out in that mess if I was such a formidable cartel leader? You'd think even an old gangster, when his health fails, will still have enough to keep him in half-decent shape. It wasn't until later on when the nephews come along to put me at least into a nursing home and even that wasn't a great nursing home. So I do not know. I think about it, but I don't know how I came to fall into that place.

Are you thinking that's part of the Better Call Saul journey?

I hope it gets answered over the course of three or four seasons of Saul. Personally, because I always look at the worst, I very much fear that they'll find a demise for me very quickly. They'll have me fall down, foaming at the mouth and then you'll see that he's carried out and you know that that's where he's gonna end up. I hope they keep me going for a while, but I have no idea. Mr. Gilligan has a very interesting, unusual, brilliant, genius mind. Vince has a way of getting you to look to the right while he actually pulls off something to the left. He gets the audience to think something's gonna go a certain way and then he takes it a whole other way. 

Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on AMC.

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