'Better Call Saul' Star on Nacho's Bloody Road to Redemption

Michael Mando discusses Nacho's hopes to keep his father away from his criminal life, this week's hotel massacre and the advice Jonathan Banks gave him.
Exclusive image provided by Michael Mando
Giancarlo Esposito (left) and Michael Mando of 'Better Call Saul'

[This interview contains spoilers for the Monday, Aug. 27, episode of AMC's Better Call Saul.]

Recent weeks of Better Call Saul have seen Michael Mando's Nacho tearing himself apart, metaphorically and literally.

Last episode, Nacho took two bullets, the second precariously close to several internal organs, as part of an elaborate cover-up in the death of a cohort and then subsequently survived an anesthetic-free back alley surgery. Then, on Monday's episode, he found himself mostly on the outside of a motel massacre orchestrated by The Cousins, though he got some blood on his hands in the process.

Nacho, who has slipped under Gus Fring's (Giancarlo Esposito) thumb this season, ended the episode slumped depleted in a chair urging his father, perhaps the only innocent man in the Better Call Saul universe, not to call 911.

When Mando talked with The Hollywood Reporter back in the second season, he referred to Nacho as "like a peasant who wanted to be king," a man looking to elevate himself. Two seasons down the line, he now speaks of Nacho's need for redemption and the character's desire to keep his father safe above all else.

In this new THR interview, Mando discusses Nacho's bloody few weeks, why it was a personal challenge to simulate being shot and the best advice veteran actor Jonathan Banks has given him.

Between all of the plotting against Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) last season and this season's dealings with Gus, it feels like Nacho has been stressed or backed into a corner for a long time. Do you even remember when this guy was last comfortable?

I think what we're doing and what we've done, especially in episode four, is we're really approaching that iconic moment of the darkest night of the soul. I feel like we've been edging towards it more and more and more, and in episode three and episode four, he has to basically do the ultimate sacrifice, where in order to redeem himself, he has to lose himself. He has to lose everything he's ever worked for in order to chase this greater ideal that is the love for his father. So we've been cranking up to that moment.

So, by that standard, with Nacho waiting for his father in this episode, is it rock bottom?

I think that's the emptiness of his demons. He's gone through the fire in order to save his dad. I haven't seen the episode, so I'm not sure how they cut it, but to me that's the moment where the lover reveals to his partner that he's actually a vampire, where the partner sees him as the monster that he is, and the tragedy is that it's the love that he has for his father that turns him into the monster. His father finally realizes what that love has transformed his child into. The reason why Nacho does what he does, the reason he gets shot twice in the desert, the only thing that keeps him alive in desert heat, during the operation without any anesthetic, when he goes through this incredible bloodbath in the hotel and when he deals with Gus and psychologically finds the strength in order to go back to his father, it's all in order to redeem himself. It's not self-love, it's selfless love, and that lesson transforms him into the very thing that he's fighting and that's the tragedy of it.

I remember talking to you back in the second season, and at the time, you were looking at his arc as one of a peasant becoming king within this world of crime. When did you begin to look at the arc, instead, as something tragic like this?

I think the seed was planted in the second season when Mike (Jonathan Banks) visits Nacho at his father's upholstery shop. To me, that was like a subconscious scene where I realized how much he loved his father. The love that Nacho has for his father is almost like an adoration of a saint. In the eyes of Nacho, his father is the purest, most humble and down-to-earth person in the whole Breaking Bad universe. Here's a man who would not up-sell Mike for profit. Here's a man who would turn down Hector Salamanca, of all people, in order to maintain his integrity. I think that really crystalized to me in season three when I realized that here Nacho is sitting literally on top of a bag of money, he's got everything he's ever wanted, and he doesn't care about any of it and is willing to risk his life with the pills and then eventually with the attempted assassination with the gun in order to save his father and basically leave everything he's ever worked for behind. I think that's when that storyline really crystalized at the end of season three.

How much control do you see Nacho as having over his own fate and his own redemption? Or is control kind of out of his control at this point?

I don't think he's out of control at all. I think if he were out of control, he would have died a long time ago. I think when you're surrounded by predators, I think the ultimate lesson is that if you make yourself a sheep, you will be eaten by the wolves. Nacho realized, I think very early on, that there is no time for reactionary, ego-driven attitude. I think that's the one thing that he despises most about the Salamancas is that they think with ego, they're always thinking of power and greed and there is no sense of morality to them at all. It's very hard to think of Nacho without thinking of his upbringing, and his upbringing really is his father. He's being pulled apart by two forces. One of them is the ruthless education of the cartel and the other is the moral compass of his father. These two forces have created a very interesting character who lives sorta in between the light and the darkness and has been asked to make a choice. This choice is obviously the light and, tragically, in order to get to the light, he has to go deeper into the dark.

If that's true, the guy he kills in the hotel massacre — can Nacho come back to the light after that?

That's the big question, and there's definitely going to be a transformation through the horrible things he's gone through in episodes three and four. I think that in a way, it's almost worse than death. [Showrunner] Peter Gould told me that what he saw in episodes three and four and what Nacho goes through is worse than what you would do to a character if you just killed him. He faced the extreme of psychological, emotional and physical pain, and he understands that this is something that can happen to him again. Or, more importantly, he understands that this something that can happen to a father. When a bone like that cracks in you and it heals, and you give it time to heal, it heals much stronger and it heals a little bit differently. I'm really curious to see how Nacho recovers from all this and what kind of a person he'll be. To me, the most important thing is that I hope he never loses his objective, which is truly to redeem himself and assure safe passage to his father and get the hell out of the cartel.

Going back to the third episode and the very elaborate body-disposal plan that starts the episode, Nacho obviously expected the first gunshot, but I couldn't tell on the second. Was it entirely a surprise, and what was he actually expecting?

He definitely knew that they were going to shoot him in the shoulder. He was expecting that. He turns his head, puts his hand to his face. He particularly gives his right shoulder in a very specific way, and that tells the audience that he knows exactly where he's gonna get shot, he's protecting his face and he's ready for it. Him turning around is the cue. The second one is a complete surprise, because he asks to make the call, and as he's turning around to take the phone, he surprisingly gets shot. He was expecting that he would make the call.

I can tell you that that was some of the most excruciating stuff that I've gone through as an actor, because I've been shot in real life. When we were doing those scenes, they were using full caps, so it's as loud as it can get. We were in the desert by ourselves, and those gunshots would echo like thunder. I had a very strong squib on my stomach that I hadn't tested yet, that we hadn't tested in rehearsal or anything like that. They're usually perfectly safe. I was so anxious at that moment that I had dug my earplugs really deep into my skull and then as we rehearsed, I realized that I couldn't find my earplugs anymore and had the medic pull them out. I had them in my fist. I was walking around the desert in character, they yell action, the scene starts, I'm walking around, and at the moment where I ask if I can make the call and I turn around, I realized that I still have the earplugs in my hands. When that gunshot goes off, my ears just shot off.

I can't hear a single thing, and I'm thinking back on that moment where I was shot myself, and the squib hits me so hard and you see the blood all over for the first time and I fall to the ground, and there's a part of me that's thinking, "We should cut," because I feel like something went horribly wrong. (Laughs.) But then there's the sort of actor part of me that's thinking, "No, no, no. You've gotta use this. This is as good as it can ever get." We ended up using that take.

That sounds terrifying, but you had that little laugh at the end. When you get done with that take, how long does it take for you to get past the harrowing side of it to find your ability to laugh about it?

I can tell you this: For the rest of the day, I could barely hear what anybody was saying, because my ears were shut up from the gunshots, and I realized that when you can't hear what anybody says, you become a very good listener and people start talking to you more and more. That was a really interesting day for me. Those past few episodes feel to me like a dream that I was fortunate enough to wake up from, and I cherish those memories very much.

The hotel massacre in this fourth episode, it's just almost entirely from Nacho's perspective as he's reacting and as The Cousins go through decimating everybody. On the set, what were you actually responding to? What did they give you to work off of?

Everything that was shot in the car, most of the close-ups, I was reacting to nothing. It was all literally happening in my mind. That was a challenge at first, but then I realized quickly that this whole journey is a psychological journey. I realized that what Nacho was really fighting off is his worst fears. He's a guy who has always looked outside of himself for approval, especially when he left the safety of his father. He's looked to Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), who called the cops on him. He looked to Tuco (Raymond Cruz), who's someone that you can't reason with. He's looked to Mike, who went behind his back and killed a cartel member and put his life in jeopardy. He looked to Hector, who's a dead-end, and even to Gus, who you'd think has something in common with Nacho and would have a conversation with him. All these characters have, at least from Nacho's perspective, closed the door on him. In the past few episodes, he's alone with his demons and he has to find a way to stand on his own two feet and become his own man at the price of his own life. So I thought it was very adequate that it was all taking place in his mind.

That's an interesting thing that you mention, because Nacho has been passed along from character to character and you've been passed along from steady scene partner to steady scene partner, from Bob Odenkirk to Jonathan Banks to more with Giancarlo Esposito this season. How has that steady transitioning been for you as an actor?

I love all those guys very, very much. They're all much older than I am. Jonathan Banks has been acting for longer than I've been alive. I think it's the same thing with Giancarlo. I think Bob Odenkirk has been at least writing comedy for as long as I've been alive. Same thing with Mark Margolis, with Hector. So these guys are much, much more experienced than I am, and to sit there in the ring with them and to go toe-to-toe is very, very humbling. I come at it with full-force, but at the same time I come at it with a lot of humility knowing that these are masters that I'm dealing with. I can tell you that I've learned an incredible lesson from each one of them.

Any of them particularly stand out?

What I've learned from Jonathan Banks — we were in season two and we were shooting a scene and he was watching me from afar. After the scene he said, "Come here, I wanna talk to you, kid." He said, "Listen, I'm gonna tell you something…" He doesn't like throwing compliments around, but he said, "I know you're good and everybody in the crew knows you're good, but you don't know that you're good, and I bet you that you can't sleep at night." He said, "Until you believe in yourself, it doesn't matter what the whole world will tell you, you'll always have a sleepless night." Surely he was right. That really made me understand the importance of self-confidence. I felt like he had gone through it himself and he doesn't wish it upon me, that torment of always aiming for that perfection, without ever the fulfillment of feeling whole. That was a wonderful lesson from Jonathan Banks.

I'll tell you another and it's from Raymond Cruz, who plays Tuco. We were out in the desert. It was my first time shooting, and we had to close the set because there was a sandstorm. I asked Raymond, I said, "What's your advice? You went through Breaking Bad. Do you have any advice for me?" He sorta paused, looked around, and he said, "You see all these people around you here? You see how hard they're working? You have somebody taking care of your costume. If a button falls, someone sews it back on. If there's too much sun, someone brings you an umbrella. If you're thirsty, someone runs and brings you a water bottle. Do you know why? Because their livelihood depends on how good you are in front of that camera. So when they yell action, on those days where you're thinking that you're really, really tired, remember that you're not just doing it for yourself. You've got hundreds of people whose job security depends on what you do. You have a huge responsibility not only to yourself and your family, but to all these people and all these people's families. You make sure that, being that last line of defense, that you're working at least as hard as the hardest working person on that crew. And you should be working even harder."

At this point, knowing what you know about Breaking Bad and given what you've mentioned about Nacho's redemption arc, do you see any way that he survives this story? Do you think he deserves to survive it?

I don't think Nacho has ever seen himself as a bad guy, especially not in the universe that we're in. If Nacho's a bad guy, then who's the good guy? Walter White is not a good guy. Jesse Pinkman is not a good guy. They've all killed innocent people and buried them and sold meth to children. There are no good guys in this world, and Nacho, I think, has never seen himself as a bad guy. But the line between morality and justice have always been very much at war within himself, because he's always asking himself if what he's doing is right. I believe that he has crossed that line where he has walked away from himself and already sacrificed himself in the pursuit of a greater ideal, which sorta makes him like those samurai heroes back in the day … in the Japanese films that led to the Western iconic anti-heroes of the spaghetti Westerns. Those characters, just like Nacho, they're very quiet. They don't speak a lot. They're very much like a samurai without a master, who have lived a life of crime and at some point get a calling where they have to make a moral decision and then sacrifice themselves for that cause.

I believe that Nacho is going to stay in that vein. I think to him what's more important than surviving is seeing through his sense of moral justice, which is that his father and his family deserve to survive because they're innocent. They deserve to be safe, and if it's at the cost of his own life, then so be it.