Only a handful of actors have careers that follow an upward trajectory for more than a few projects, but actor Jonathan Banks has spent the better part of four decades ascending Hollywood. Starting in the 1970s, Banks moved from episodic television appearances to film roles in Airplane! (1980), 48 Hrs. (1982), and Beverly Hills Cop (1984). The latter role would earn Banks his first on set knockout, which he discusses in detail with Awards Focus.
Banks’ rise to global fame would come in the form of Mike Ehrmantraut, a former Philly beat cop turned Albuquerque cartel enforcer in AMC’s Breaking Bad. It was Banks’ cool, calm delivery and Mike’s love for his granddaughter made him an instant hit with fans.
The role, which earned Banks a much deserved Emmy nomination, was devised at the last minute when Breaking Bad guest star and Better Call Saul lead Bob Odenkirk wasn’t available. Odenkirk, who had already made three guest appearances on Breaking Bad, was booked on the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother.
For the storyline in question, the writers had Saul Goodman phone Mike Ehrmantraut to handle the dire situation of a distraught Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and his deceased girlfriend (Krysten Ritter). From that moment in Breaking Bad, Banks’ character was inextricably linked to Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman. With season five of Better Call Saul, the characters are intertwined more than ever.
Awards Focus spoke with with the Emmy nominated actor regarding Mike Ehrmantraut’s surprising arc in season five, Banks’ affinity for doing his own stunts, and how he’ll challenge the writers over character choices.
Awards Focus: Rhea Seehorn discussed the importance of rehearsal on Better Call Saul, specifically citing your mantra of “Do you know your lines upside down? Do you know them while you’re juggling?” Could you talk about your experience on Saul and how it differs from other series?
Jonathan Banks: Anyone that’s done televisions knows it’s a grind. I’ve been on shows with really good actors that come on set with the lines half-memorized. No matter the reason, you just don’t do your best work that way.
The stronger you are in your preparation, knowing your lines, you’ll be able to find more in the moment… I’m not saying I can always do it, but I try.
AF: How did you enjoy working with Bob Odenkirk again after several seasons of separate storylines?
Banks: Oh, I have a good time when Bobby and I are together, but the stuff in the desert… talk about a grind.
AF: When Vince Gilligan directed you a couple seasons ago, he had you dismantle an entire car in the sun for hours on end. This season, in episode eight, he upped the ante to an entire desert shoot. It seems like he wants to punish you.
Banks: And I want to punish him. It goes both ways. As long as I can yell at Vince Gilligan from twenty to thirty yards away, then I’m having a good time. But those were long days, the temperature hit 100 to 110 degrees every day we were filming.
AF: Were you getting sunscreen constantly? I’m curious about safety measures and how many takes you can do consecutively in those harsh conditions.
Banks: Well, they tried to be as safe as possible. We had a couple people that would get dizzy in the heat, one of the crew had a sudden heat stroke but she was fine thankfully. We really had to replenish the electrolytes, it gets a little scary out there after a while.
AF: In terms of Mike’s marksmanship, are you someone who visits the gun range on occasion? Have you had weapons training over the years?
Banks: I’ve had a minimal amount of training, I do like to look like I know what I’m doing (laughs). I have one friend who was indeed a sniper, and my performance passed his inspection so I’m grateful.
AF: In terms of arcs, Mike has an incredible journey from his struggling to come to terms with executing his engineer friend,Werner Zeigler (Rainer Bock), to fully devoting his focus to “the game” as he refers to it. Ultimately, it’s Gus Fringe’s actions that bring him back to physical and mental health.
Banks: Well, I wouldn’t call it very stable mental health. You know, he’s a killer. And when you make the decision to kill another human being, you’re going to the dark side for lack of a better term… but he knows his reasons for it.
AF: During the worst of Mike’s drinking, he gets into a couple street fights on his walk home. When you read that you’re going to be having a street brawl, is that a nice change of pace? Did that require much in terms of stunts?
Banks: Well, I’ve been knocked around a lot over the years. For example, Beverly Hills Cop, my old stunt man was Louis Elias who’s passed away now, but there was stunt in which I go through a glass case — technically, it was all sugar glass, but the frame was wood.
When you’re taking the bullet hits, the number one rule is you can’t lift yourself. And of course, I got excited and split my head open and knocked myself out. When I woke up, Louis was standing over me and said, “I told you not to do it.”
They took me down to St. Joe’s. They shaved the back of my head, because I still had hair then, and they put the stitches in and we went back to set to finish the scene because it was our last day on that set.
When my wife met me, it was Spain 1988, and I was in a head cast because I misguidedly thought that I could do these stunts.
AF: I’m assuming things went smoother on Better Call Saul?
Banks: When I read that there’s going to be a fight scene and it’s going to be physical, I still look forward to it. I hit the ground a little harder than I used to, but I really enjoy it because it takes you it takes you out of the cerebral part of it. You get to play and be a kid, like getting shot and rolling across the yard. What can I tell you?
AF: When you’re working with a young actress, like your granddaughter’s character of Kaylee (Abigail Zoe Lewis), and you have to yell at her, do you treat that scene any differently than if you were filming with an adult actress?
Banks: Well, she (Lewis) is such a good actress that instinctively, even at that age, she listens. Meaning, as the character she’s not waiting, you know? She’s listening to you before she delivered her lines. I always thought that language of actors is the same whether you’re eight or you’re eighty. Have you felt love for someone? Have you felt angry? The answer is the same.
AF: You mentioned love and I know you’ve said that Mike isn’t in a healthy mental state. Do you think that he’s in a position right now where he could give himself to someone and explore love?
Banks: Oh, I like this question. You know, any affair of the heart usually takes you off guard. Even the most jaded of us. I think Mike would fall pretty easily.
AF: I’d love to see that.
Banks: Yeah, he would know better, but he would still fall.
AF: Mike is clearly appreciative of Gus’ intervention this season, and he’s recommitted to furthering the illegal enterprise he’s building. However, we see Mike confront Gus and take up for Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) and his father. Did that surprise you?
Banks: I’ve always felt that Mike’s weaknesses, his Achilles’ heel that gets him in trouble, is his level of decency. I’ve said to Peter [Gould], when Verner was shot in the desert in season four, I said, “I don’t know, man.” I really questioned whether Mike would do it. Is it a powerful thing? It’s a powerful thing, but is it right? It’s not not false praise to say I really do trust my writers, but I don’t agree with them all the time.
AF: When we talk about great writing, I have to mention Gordon Smith and his first season episode, “Five-O.” In my opinion, it’s probably the best episode in the entire Breaking Bad world from an emotional standpoint. What do you remember most about when you read that script and learned what happened to Mike’s son?
Banks: I was just so grateful, truly… and if there’s ever an instance where you want to have time to know your lines and do that writing justice, it’s that episode.
AF: It all builds to the moment where you’re talking with your daughter-in-law (Kerry Condon) at her home. As an actor, when you have to deliver something that’s so emotionally charged, do you have a preference on when it happens as far as shooting schedule? What do you remember from the night of filming?
Banks: A lot of times you don’t have a choice, it has to be shot when its scheduled. When would I have liked to shoot it? I don’t know. On the night, we were fighting lightning so we had to close down for thirty minutes. And it was a rough one, very late at night and we couldn’t get a full run at it. We did finally get some full runs at it and it was a pleasure to do the lines.
AF: I always weep when I watch that episode. You and Smith were both honored with Emmy nominations for your work.
Banks: We were and quite honestly, there was a point when I wept while shooting. I’m thinking about my own son, I’m thinking about my kids and just the horror of if you were responsible for a child’s death. Emotions come pretty easily in that context.
Banks: The only thing that I’ve said to Peter Gould is that Mike’s son had a mother. What happened? Where is she? I would like to play that, and I would like her to show up.
AF: That’s a great idea, hopefully there’s room for that next season.
In terms of story ideas, I believe that if Vince and Peter had known they’d have six more years to explore and enrich the characters of Mike and Jimmy, they would have let Mike escape in Breaking Bad (in lieu of Walter White taking him out with a cheap shot).
Do think Mike’s trajectory would have changed if they’d known the full tapestry that they would ultimately weave?
Banks: I think that’s for them to answer. But I do think it was a mistake to take him out that early. It was one of those things that it certainly makes for impactful storytelling when you kill Mike, I just think maybe it was a little premature.
AF: Before the pandemic, was there anything you were working on or about to start?
Banks: I did F is For Family which was really fun, voicing a character with Bill (Burr) and Vince (Vaughn)… those guys are great. I’m also playing in a TV miniseries called, A Higher Loyalty, and it’s going to be on CBS. Brendan Gleeson plays Donald Trump, Jeff Daniels plays James Comey, and I play James Clapper who drops the bomb about the investigation and what they found.
AF: Are they hoping to have it out before the Presidential election?
Banks: We’ll see if it ever airs quite honestly because a lot is happening. It’s very interesting that William Barr and the Justice Department let Michael Flynn go. I’m surprised CBS took this on, we finished filming two months ago, so it’s possible. The Comey book excoriates Trump and we’ll see if CBS airs it or not.