'Better Call Saul' Co-Star Michael Mando: Nacho Is a "Peasant Who Wants to Be King"

The 'Orphan Black' veteran talks about being in the center of a Mike/Tuco scene.
Ursula Coyote/AMC
Michael Mando of 'Better Call Saul'

[Warning: This interview contains spoilers for Monday's episode of Better Call Saul, "Gloves Off."]

Monday's Better Call Saul was a treat for Breaking Bad fans, culminating in a showdown between Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Tuco (Raymond Cruz), a head-to-head brought about by Nacho (Michael Mando)'s desire to wipe out his partner in criminal enterprise. Mike, however, preferred to get Tuco sent away to prison rather than assassinating him. Since Tuco is a key part of Breaking Bad and Nacho is only mentioned once in that series, in dialogue (by his given name, "Ignacio"), that decision may end up being important. 

After a threatening interaction with Jimmy in the middle of last season, Nacho faded to the background a bit, a product of the writers deciding to slow Jimmy's transformation into Saul. So far this season, Nacho has mostly been dealing with Mike, though he did briefly abscond with Wormald's baseball card collection.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Mando about sharing Nacho's moral journey, the advantages of Nacho's reduced role last season and how he hopes Nacho's absence in Breaking Bad is handled.

Before you signed on for Saul, had you been a Breaking Bad fan?

I came into the Breaking Bad fan base really late. I actually started watching it during the casting process, and [when] I was screen-tested, I had seen the first three seasons. I ended up finishing it by the time I had the great news that I was going to be in it.

Were you initially reading for Nacho?

Yes, but originally the character was named Eddie and it was a mock scene; it wasn't a scene from the actual series. It was written by Heather [Marion], who was actually was an assistant writer and is a writer on this season. I only had a few words for the character description. They were "intelligent," "calculating," and there was a note from Vince [Gilligan] that said, "Knows when to use violence and when to use words."

So you presumably wouldn't have been able to make the connection between Eddie/Nacho and the one time they mention "Ignacio" in Breaking Bad.

No, I had no idea. When I found out that the character's name, Rhea [Seehorn] and I had the same reaction, we thought that we were being recast. We thought that we were getting smaller roles and were being recast. And I was on set and a lot of the crew on set were the same people who worked on Breaking Bad. We have one of the best crews in the business, and they're such fans for the show and so involved in it, so it was crew member who brought it to my attention, made me watch that scene on his iPhone, and Nina Jack, one of our producers, was next to me. I said, "Is this true?" and she smiled and me and said, "Yes, that's where the name comes from."

Do you feel like there's a different approach that the actors who came over from Breaking Bad have in playing their characters on Saul that's different from the actors who are getting to create characters from scratch?

I can tell you that there's a communal mentality. Bob Odenkirk, he's like everybody's brother. Everybody loves Bob, and Bob loves everybody. Same thing with Jonathan Banks. The only difference, I would say, is that they have a lot more years with their characters, but that being said, they also have another challenge, which is to figure out the character six years before. I think everybody has a challenge. Someone like Jonathan definitely has lived with his character, and you can feel his relationship with this character for six or seven years, and also the relationship that he has with the crew is really interesting, but I think that works perfectly, because there's such a generation gap between Nacho and Mike. That actually helps us in our dynamic, because Nacho and myself feel like they're dealing with something and somebody that's been around for a long time.

Even coming into the Breaking Bad fandom late, did you have any fanboy moments, thinking, "Man, I'm here in a scene with Mike and Tuco"?

You get so immersed in your character and what's going on that when you're shooting it, you're not thinking about that. It actually hits you when you go home and you think of the day and you're like, "Man, I can't believe that just happened." That was really great and I feel very humbled and grateful to be a part of it, and it forces you to have a sense of responsibility for the blessings that you had and to work harder every time that you get a chance like this to give it your all.

You have this fun, different background, because you're from Quebec and your background is mostly in Canadian TV. Does that background make it easier for you to approach a character like Nacho and avoid taking the character in directions that could be stereotypical?

I'm interested by human beings, and I don't judge characters. If I got into this business, it's because I believe in the art form of cinema and theater and film and television. To me, approaching a character is always about stretching our understanding, starting with myself, so my understanding of what these people do, why they do it, to try to go somewhere that hopefully no one's gone before, to try to bring something that no one's seen before. When you're working with amazing writers like Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, they write such amazing, three-dimensional characters that it makes it very exciting for an actor, kind of like a treasure hunt, to figure out, "How deep can you go into the psychology of this person and create a unique character?" I have to give a shout-out, actually, to Jennifer Bryan, who does the costuming, and to everybody involved, because it really is a collaborative effort to bring Nacho to life.

You're the second Saul actor I've talked to this season who has singled Jennifer out. Talk about what costumes and external things have done for your crafting of Nacho.

What's great about it is when you get cast, you don't know anything about the show. You have a few words. You know that he's Hispanic. You know that he's intelligent. You know that he's ambitious, he's calculated. When I did my screen test, Vince Gilligan said something to me that led me on a long and exciting research path. He said to me, "This is the kind of guy who wouldn't squash a bug with a sledgehammer." That, as well as the way the scenes were written, told me that he had the capacity to listen, and that despite how angry he could be or how much his life was in jeopardy, that he was open-minded to admit when he's wrong and choose the best course of action. In the second season, we realize he comes from a father who maybe had some shortcomings in terms of the language, an immigrant father but a very loving father who has a strong sense of morality, probably one of the most moral characters on the show.

When Jennifer Bryan and I were working, we took a look at boots that Vince liked that were made out of crocodile skin and that led me down the path to think, why crocodile? He also has a snakeskin earring. What is it about reptiles that's so important? You realize that they're the longest-lasting creatures on earth. Crocodiles have that thing between the conscious and the subconscious, and that also opened up a whole lot of interest. And Nacho wears gold, and why that metal, as opposed to Tuco, who wears maybe white gold? And he has a Jesus cross on his wrist, which is the only piece of material that doesn't have any bling on it. It's made out of wood and non-metal materials.

You mentioned the father and his morals, but on this show and on Breaking Bad, a lot is made of the different codes of honor that different criminals have. How honorable do you see Nacho as being?

Nacho, he doesn't have the cartel bloodline, and that has pushed him to be an outsider. He's been marginalized by this underworld that he's been a part of ever since he was very young, and I think that's forced him to be an observer. It's forced him or given him the opportunity to look at the way the leaders in these organizations are running the operation, in contrast to the way his father is running his business,  and to realize that there must be a better way to conduct business, even in the criminal world. I think he has that mentality, a very good business outline where he realizes that everybody could be profitable if everybody learned to work together and to be fair together and to work with a certain code of ethics. So in that sense, his mentality is very close to organized crime or even a corporate mentality.

How does it reflect on his willingness to take action that he has to bring in Mike to handle this Tuco situation?

Contrary to Tuco, I don't think Nacho has a desire to impose power over others. I don't think he gets a kick out of hurting other people. But destiny's pushed him into a situation where his life is in jeopardy, his family's life is in jeopardy. And he's realizing that he probably needs to start taking complete control of his destiny and finding a way, like a lone wolf, to find a new pack or at least a new set of dynamics where he can continue to prosper without being killed or having the people who are close to him be hurt.

Nacho was set up as this big adversary for Jimmy in season one, but then the writers have talked about how they had decided to slow down Jimmy's transformation to Saul, so Nacho's presence slowed a little. Were there conversations you guys had about the revised arc and how Nacho was going to get brought back in more this season?

I have to say, working with Vince and Peter has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my career. I was so lucky as an actor and as an aspiring producer to not be in the first season as much as we had initially anticipated, because it gave me the opportunity to go on set every day or every other day to watch Melissa Bernstein and Nina Jack and all of our directors and writers work, to watch Jonathan and Bob and Rhea and Patrick [Fabian] and Michael McKean, without having the pressure of actually being in the episode. So I'm very fortunate that it happened like that. In terms of conversations about the character, it was very little. We all, the whole cast, put our faith in the hands of Vince and Peter. We have the utmost belief and excitement in what they're going to create. What that does, is it amps up the tension, because you're turning the pages every episode not knowing what in the world's going to happen, and you're playing those scenes having absolutely no idea what the outcome will be. And that amps everything up, because you realize, just like in real life, that your actions have consequences, and you realize that you have to be extra careful on what's going on. It's not one of those things where you know that you're going to come out of this alive. In this case, you don't and you do know that Vince and Peter are watching the rushes and that, in some way, is perhaps influencing the writing and vice versa. You're treading a thin line.

I asked Rhea Seehorn about this as well. We know the Breaking Bad world is coming up at some point and that Nacho or Ignacio was mentioned fleetingly once. What are your hopes for where Nacho might be in that timeline? And what are your fears?

Shooting this season, toward the end of the season, I realized that Nacho is like a peasant who wanted to be king, he's like a prince among thieves who's looking for guidance or looking for someone who will help him elevate himself. I think in many ways I realized this was a coming-of-age story. He's someone who was marginalized and an observer for a long time and who suddenly realizes, "I have to take my life into my own hands completely and I'm responsible for everything that I do completely, and I can't depend on Mike or anybody else to do what I need to do." So I would love to see Nacho completely take full responsibility and to go full-out and if he has to, unfortunately, leave this reality and go to the next? I would like it if he would completely take control and do it on his own terms.

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