Emmys 2012: Mark Margolis, the Year's Only Silent Nominee, Reflects on 'Breaking Bad,' 'Scarface'
The instigator of one of the series' most-shocking moments describes the mad genius of showrunner Vince Gilligan: "He's both Frankenstein and Einstein."
Mark Margolis has the kind of face you can't forget. So when he popped up as Hector "Tio" Salamanca, the mute uncle of a meth maniac in season two of Breaking Bad, fans of the film and TV actor (Scarface, HBO's Oz) were delighted that his nefarious mug would become a staple on the darkly violent series. Their wish mostly came true, as Margolis appeared as a guest star in Bad's fourth season in a flashback (where he spoke a few words) and in the exhilarating showdown with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in the season finale, which saw Salamanca silently lure his longtime nemesis to a nursing home for some deadly vengeance. Margolis candidly reflects on his post-Bad life and why Scarface still haunts him.
The Hollywood Reporter: Congratulations on your first nomination. Are you enjoying the buzz of Emmy season?
Mark Margolis: I'm actually preparing to work on a film in Iceland with Darren Aronofsky, Noah, with Russell Crowe.
THR: You seem to work frequently with Aronofsky, having also appeared in the director's The Wrestler and The Fountain. When did that collaboration begin?
Margolis: Yeah, he thinks he has an obligation! I started with him on his first movie, the $60,000 Pi when he was unknown. I chased him for three months because he kept lying to me about when I'd get my money. I finally threatened to call his mother, who was craft services on the film. Then he finally paid me.
THR: So you had all the right toughness needed to play Tio Salamanca on Breaking Bad. How did you get the role?
Margolis: I first popped up in the middle of season two. I'd gotten the role through a casting lady, Sharon Bialy, I'd worked with on an early HBO film with Eric Roberts and Diane Lane. I was only coming onto Breaking Bad as far as I knew for that one episode, but there's no accounting for taste, and the fans took a fancy to me. Somebody asked me recently, "How did you manage to play such a horrible guy?" and I said, "Have you talked to my friends?" They'll tell you I'm pretty miserable to begin with.
THR: What were your impressions of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan?
Margolis: Breaking Bad is so brilliantly written. I was actually thinking last night that Vince is the Einstein monster of television writing. He's both Frankenstein and Einstein. He's so surprising; he's like no one else I've ever met in the film or TV world. He's just a regular fella from Richmond, Va.
THR: He's also notoriously obsessed with details. Did you witness any of what he calls his "OCD" moments?
Margolis: In the final episode I did with Giancarlo Esposito last year, "Face Off," there was a moment where Bryan Cranston's character had crawled out of a window because Giancarlo's man was coming to inspect the room. Before we started rolling, I was in my wheelchair, and Vince spent a half-hour adjusting a curtain as to how much it should be hanging out the window. Because I have a stupid sense of humor, I said, "Vince, if the whole show is dependent on that curtain, we're in deep shit." And he said, "Mark, it's all about the details." That shut me up.
THR: Your character communicated only though ringing a bell. What kind of direction were you given in terms of how to use your face to communicate?
Margolis: There wasn't much direction. I'm an actor. I was trained by Stella Adler, one of the greatest teachers of the world. I was 19 years old, and she frightened me to death. I was her houseboy for a while. But back to the point: Acting is doing. In life, there are many things we do without speaking. The only thing I knew about playing this character was that he was paralyzed and the only part of him that worked below the neck was his finger to ring the bell.
THR: Did you research how people communicate who have similar disabilities?
Margolis: My mother-in-law, Shirley, was in a nursing home for many years in Florida, tragically, after suffering a stroke. We used to visit her, and she couldn't speak. But she'd get excited when we came in the room, and the left side of her mouth would always do these contortions where the lips would push out, almost like she was chewing tobacco. So I kind of stole that from her. I always say the role is an homage to Shirley, who was actually a 1930s Earl Carroll follies dancer.
THR: You're a New Yorker. How did you feel about shooting on location in New Mexico?
Margolis: I love it. Outside of Albuquerque, it just becomes so gorgeous. Native American pueblo Indian vibe that runs through the whole state, I adore -- I would almost go there if they weren't paying me. I always stay on for a couple weeks and go up to Santa Fe and stay at this La Fonda hotel, which is very gracious, and then I go to Taos, where I have friends. I just adore the state. I'm addicted to New York and I like L.A., as I have kids there. Sometimes I think New Mexico is the one place where I could almost live there. It helps your acting; there's magic in that place.
THR: You've appeared in films and television series for more than 30 years, including one of Vince Gilligan's favorite movies, Scarface, and the HBO prison drama Oz. What are you most recognized for?
Margolis: I've been stopped 50 times a day for 29 years because of Scarface. It's always by weird kids and hoodlums. "Hey man, was the cocaine real?" and I say "Yeah! So was the blood and the bullets." I got stopped a lot for Oz, too. Now I get stopped every 25 minutes by somebody who's a big Breaking Bad fan. But it kind of upsets me. I ask them, "Do I really look that bad in real life?" I mean, I'm an older man, but they made me up on the show to look worse than I normally do. I saw an Emmy ad that AMC took out with all the Breaking Bad nominees' photos, and there's my picture from the show. It's like World's Ugliest Man -- I'm an automatic winner in that category.
THR: What do you most remember about working with Scarface director Brian De Palma?
Margolis: That man … the whole time I worked in that film, he never said a word to me. I could never tell whether he loved me, he hated me, he didn't know I was there. I saw him years later -- he was very nice and we talked. But it was an odd thing.
THR: You're seen as a front-runner in the drama guest actor category. Do you know what you'd say in your speech?
Margolis: Ronald Reagan's first wife, Jane Wyman, won an Oscar for Johnny Belinda where she played a deaf mute. And in her acceptance speech, she said, "I got this award for saying nothing, so I'm going to be very brief." I'm thinking if I win, I maybe should just get up and ding the bell and say nothing but smile. But the oddsmakers say Michael J. Fox is the front-runner, that he might get the sympathy vote because of his illness, which is definitely a sad thing. But I'm 72 years old. I might not make it to the next nominations! Wouldn't that be a sympathy vote, too?