Arriving in Better Call Saul’s fourth season, actor Tony Dalton has mesmerized critics and fans with his portrayal of cartel boss Lalo Salamanca. The charismatic character, alluded to in Saul Goodman’s first Breaking Bad appearance, mixes hardened street-smarts with a nonchalance that leaves you guessing as to which direction any conversation could turn.
Working as both an actor and screenwriter, Dalton built an expansive resume in Mexico before catching fire in the United States. His casting on the hit AMC series came via Sherry Thomas and Sharon Bialy, two veteran Better Call Saul / Breaking Bad casting directors. “What a find that Sherry and Sharon brought to Vince (Gilligan) and Peter (Gould),” costar Rhea Seehorn says of Dalton. “He’s so talented, but he’s also a very generous actor.”
Seehorn and Dalton share one of the most intense scenes of the entire series, facing off over the veracity of Jimmy McGill’s story of walking through the desert alone with millions of dollars in hand. The harrowing confrontation, brilliantly scored by Better Call Saul composer Dave Porter, centers on Lalo’s insistent demands for Jimmy to repeat his story until a flaw is evident. Porter appropriately named the music cue, “Tell Me Again.”
Awards Focus spoke to Dalton about Lalo’s unexpected visit to Kim (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), working on the technical aspects of his John-Wick-level-esque shootout, and Lalo’s relationship with Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) post finale.
Awards Focus: When Peter Gould created Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad, he also set the stage for Lalo as someone Saul truly fears. Can you talk about building the character with Peter and your audition?
Tony Dalton: Everything starts with what’s written on paper. As much as I’d love to take all the credit, it’s really more the writer’s work, with Peter Gould and the other writers just doing excellent work. I grab onto that and start running, it’s a real collaboration.
AF: Lalo’s getting more involved with Jimmy, who is notoriously quick-witted, but he’s more than holding his own. Does Lalo always think he’s the smartest guy in the room, like he’s playing everybody?
Dalton: I don’t think that Lalo thinks of it that way. I think he just doesn’t care. He’s acting like he’s on a vacation. They send him up there to check on how the Salamanca business is doing in the States. And he’s a carefree kind of guy. But the fact that he generally doesn’t care, makes him a hell of a lot more dangerous and a lot more interesting. Everybody else is so serious in their own situations, whereas Lalo isn’t… until the finale, obviously.
AF: Besides Hector Salamanca, we don’t see many other folks that are close to Lalo until episode ten, when we go to his compound. When he’s bringing Nacho into the fold, do you see that purely as business or do you think that Lalo was starting to bond with him a little more deeply?
Dalton: Like I said, I think Lalo is a guy that goes with the flow, but his thought process is still business oriented. At the end of the day, he doesn’t want to live in Albuquerque, he wants to go home. The guy is just doing his job. He thinks Nacho is going to do a good job running the business so he can go home and everything will be fine. Of course, his eyes are opened to Nacho’s real motives in the last moments of the season.
AF: It’s refreshing that this series isn’t afraid to engage in heavy Spanish dialogue scenes. I know several of the series’ directors are not bilingual. Can you share how that process works on set?
Dalton: We get the episodes about a week or so before filming, and we have a translator who I work very closely with to make sure everything’s accurate. Sometimes what you want to say in English doesn’t sound right in Spanish. Then Peter takes a look at it, sometimes he calls me into his office to explain what it means. So once we get to set, it’s already in the bag. I actually enjoy that part of the process.
AF: As for that dramatic episode nine face-off, Rhea called it quite a process between rehearsal and working out the technical aspects. What was that process like for you?
Dalton: I rehearsed it with Rhea a couple times. And then with Bob, on the set a couple days before, just trying to get the logistics of it. Which allowed us to really get into it when the time came thankfully. We spent a whole day on that scene, it was great fun despite how miserable we all look. Everybody’s so professional on this show, so you just show up with your A-game and everything falls into place.
AF: Rhea said that she really played off your reactions, when she gives that incredible monologue against Lalo.
Dalton: Rhea is amazing, even in our first scene where she visits Lalo in jail, she just brings so much to the table. During our second scene, it’s Lalo visiting her in her living room. Just as I walk in and they notice the gun, I tell Kim to shut up with my finger, and you can tell that it doesn’t sit well with Kim.
The whole time we’re sitting there she’s just getting more upset. And from the actor’s perspective, it builds into a dynamic that becomes almost like ping pong or tennis. Obviously a scene like that is great on paper, but with Rhea it becomes that much greater.
AF: But even after all that, Lalo just walks away without really saying anything. It’s ominous.
Dalton: Yeah, you don’t know what’s gonna happen there. I want to say the most I can without actually saying anything.
AF: Jonathan Banks said he loved getting into the street fights this season because it lets you delve into that physical aspect of acting, in contrast to the cerebral nature of the show. What was the process like for you in that finale, when you’re crawling through the tunnel and choreographing the movements through the compound?
Dalton: For me, I tend to prefer the cerebral part of acting because it’s just so much more gratifying. When it’s a physical stunt, there are just shots after shots, and each shot takes time to set up and to do. That whole sequence of me escaping through the tunnel and then coming back into the compound was done in a number of days. Overall, it’s great fun, I mean, they built a huge tunnel on set just for Lalo to run through. And then, of course, I got the gun and was shooting at the assassins, what’s not cool about that? I felt like John Wick for a second!
AF: A majority of your scenes were with Michael Mando this season. What have been some of your favorite moments between Lalo and Nacho? Do you see any path forward for them in season six?
Dalton: Mike is a great guy and we’re friends, we hang out in Albuquerque. It feels very comfortable to work with him, he’s such a great actor and such a generous person. He’s definitely the guy I interact the most with… next season, probably not so much.
I think one of the great scenes that we had together was when I’m asking him about Krazy-8 (Maximino Arciniega) in jail, and if he’s actually trustworthy. And we just kind of stare at each other while we’re eating. Michael is somebody who really uses the silence of his character to convey a lot, it’s all in his eyes. It was great to have a stare-down with the character who stares the most.
AF: Lalo’s set for a big season six. Have you had any conversations about how you’d like it to go?
Dalton: Honestly, not at all. We don’t know what the hell is gonna happen until we’re reading it, the writers don’t offer any spoilers. I’m excited because these guys are so good at what they do that I’m sure it’s gonna be amazing.
Jacob Romines contributed to this article.