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InterviewsMarch 24, 2015

No More Half Measures: Ten Minutes With Mike Ehrmentraut

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Alex Casey has a quick chat with Jonathan Banks, also known as the stony-faced assassin Mike Ehrmentraut of Breaking Bad and current spinoff Better Call Saul. //

I really was expecting Jonathan to pick up the phone and to mutter a grumpy “hello” like Mike would, and then promptly shoot me in the head with a sniper rifle all the way from America somehow. But he didn’t, answering with an unexpectedly sing-song voice. I asked him how his day was going, and he said “fine thank you, never had a bad day.” Never had a bad day?! Mike?! I’m beginning to think that Mike not even be a real person after all, and attempted to find out more about this mysterious Banks character:

This is cosmic timing, because last night I switched on my TV and one of your episodes of Community was on. I didn’t even realise you had done comedy before, how did that compare to your role as Mike?

It was a fun time. I feel much more comfortable in the world of drama than I do comedy, but I had a lovely time filming it.

It was quite a switch coming straight from watching Five-O [Better Call Saul S01E06] to that, I have to say. Congratulations on that episode, how does it feel to finally get Mike’s back story out in the open?

It feels so great. That’s a story that I have wanted to do for a long time. The writers, Gordon [Smith] especially, gave me a love letter of an episode. I was very anxious to get to it, I can tell you that. There was so much to do as an actor. I was looking forward filming it so much, and I must say I’m pretty pleased with how it all turned out. It was a pure joy.

Obviously the character has been with you for a while now, did you get to input your own ideas into Mike’s backstory?

There was a moment in season three of Breaking Bad where I let my granddaughter out of the car with balloons, and I tell her to go to her mother. Vince [Gilligan] was directing that episode. As soon as he yelled “cut” I turned to him and I said “Vince, that is my granddaughter, that is not my daughter. Whatever happened with Mike, I think it’s got to be something to do with his son.” I just knew that whatever depths Mike has gone to, and however he has lost that part of his soul, it’s to do with losing his son. Fast forward three years, and there we have it.

You reckon you could take a bit of credit for his story then?

Not really, the writers have the pens and they can do whatever they want. But they certainly listened to me, which was nice. These guys are great writers but also great friends.

Have you ever found yourself stepping in and saying “Mike wouldn’t do that” on set?

A few times. In Breaking Bad, I didn’t want to leave my granddaughter in the park when the police were on to Mike, it seemed a little careless of him. In retrospect, I realised there was almost nothing he could do in that situation. You have the cops coming after you, and your granddaughter is in a relatively safe place with police officers around to look after her afterwards. I gave in to that one, but at first I was very adamant that Mike wouldn’t leave his granddaughter alone like that. I had to live with that one.

Back in those Breaking Bad days, did you forsee a spinoff show of any kind happening?

No. I had no idea. None whatsover. It hadn’t crossed my mind. Especially when Mike got killed off I obviously thought, “oh well, that’s the end of that” and was just totally grateful. I got to play a great character. Was I surprised when they told me there was a prequel? Absolutely. And then I was even more surprised when they asked me to do it.

How do you think that Better Call Saul has managed to distance itself from Breaking Bad?

It’s hard because Breaking Bad will always be just around the corner. It’s unavoidable, it’s from whence we come. Saul is a tonally different, it’s a whole different rhythm, it’s a whole different show. It is a show unto itself which I think it needs to be, and it deserves to be.

Why do you think Mike and Jimmy work so well together? 

Because they are a huge irritant to each other. They constantly irritate the hell out of each other but at the same time, it’s on a level that is fun to watch. They have both comic and dramatic interactions, and Bob [Odenkirk] and I always have a good time with it.

In Five-O, there is an incident with coffee-spilling in the questioning room, I was very keen to know how Mike knew that Jimmy was going to go through with it?

He didn’t really. It’s one of those times where Mike had to roll the dice. He’s not positive that Jimmy’s going to do it, so he’s betting on Jimmy to do it. He won his bet.

A little bit like leaving his granddaughter in the park I guess.

Yeah, he places his bets where he can.

Do you think that despite Mike being quite measured and practical, he still has the potential to take risks?

Oh, of course. His whole life is a risk really.

We obviously know his end fate, but is there anything you can tell us about what is coming next for Mike in Better Call Saul?

I can tell you this – we’re not quite finished with Philadelphia yet.

Lightbox users, click here to watch Jonathan Banks as Mike Ehrmentraut in Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad

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