Jonathan Banks, 75, is a veteran actor who stars as Mike Ehrmantraut in “Breaking Bad” and its prequel, “Better Call Saul,” which airs its final episode Aug. 15. Banks was born in Washington and grew up in Chillum Heights, Md. He now lives in Los Angeles.
Really? [Laughs.] How about that. Oh my God.
It’s a pretty embarrassing admission.
No, I think it’s kind of cool, actually
I watched the first episode and just thought: Man, I can’t handle this.
Yes, you can. Yes, you can. Trust me. “Breaking Bad” only gets better.
The amazing thing about Mike and the way you play him is that he’s both this lovable, adoring grandfather and this surly, stone-cold —
How do you pull that off?
Well, historically, people have been pulling it off forever. Including, you know — Putin’s probably great with his grandkids. Well, I doubt that. No, I mean, again, the ability of people to divorce themselves from the crimes that they commit. As far as Mike is concerned, I really love that character. And the only saving grace in his mind, the way I played it, the only decent thing about him is that he loves his granddaughter. He doesn’t forgive himself for his son’s death. He’s the cause of it. All the stupid platitudes that you can say about, you know, he’s moving ahead or blah, blah, blah. No. You’re responsible for your son’s death; you don’t move ahead.
It’s true, we’re all complicated. But you bring that to the screen in a way that just resonated with so many viewers who love that character.
Well, I love that character. That broken, broken character. You know, you wake up in the middle of the night with regrets for things that you did, you know, in junior high school, for Christ’s sakes, or earlier — throughout a lifetime and you can’t change it. I’m a hypocrite in the sense that, yes, I do move ahead. I, Jonathan Banks, at least try to move ahead from things that there’s no way I can change now.
Your portrayal of Mike is steady and unbothered, and it really balances out the frantic energy that Bob Odenkirk brings to Saul. I wondered if that extends off the set as well?
Bobby always has something going on. He’s going to write a book. He’s got to do this. He’s going to do that. He’s always got something going on. You could sit me down by the Reflecting Pool on a bench, and I would be content there all day long. [Laughs.] That is my energy. I could be content there all day.
You were born in D.C. and grew up in Chillum, Md. Do you get back here often?
Most everybody has passed away in my family. I still have friends there that, you know, I certainly stay in contact with. Literally my diaper buddy, our mothers met when we were in the old steel strollers on Legation Road, he’s six months older than I am, but we still commiserate.
I’m sure when you do get back here, the city just seems transformed from what you remember growing up.
When I would come back I always used to stay at the Hotel Washington. Because when I was 10 or 11 that’s where I would get off the streetcar, go in and sit in the lobby, and I’d wait for my mother to get off work. But yes, I do recognize the town because my love affair with that city is between the Capitol and the Lincoln and Arlington Cemetery. My mom was a single mom, and we didn’t have a lot. And she kept trying to do better for us. Kept going to school, got her teaching degree, retired as a college professor. And she had started out in life at 15 on her own working as a housekeeper. So she was a lot to live up to.
But every night of the year almost there is something at your disposal that’s free in Washington, D.C. And if you have somebody who exposes you to it, begrudgingly or not as a little kid, eventually you have a massive appreciation for it. So I love that city. You get lost in the Smithsonian. And I don’t think there’s ever been a time, if I’ve had the time to walk around, that I still don’t go in and read Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.
When making “Better Call Saul” did knowing what happened to Mike make things more difficult or easier for you as an actor?
My approach to it was that Mike at that point has no idea. I think what possibly made it easier to is that Mike doesn’t give a damn about himself anymore. His son’s death is a shroud that’s all over him. When his son died, Mike’s soul was lost. I think Mike fully expects that he’s going to die somewhere at some point in the end. And it’s relief to him. He’s staying alive because of the debt he owes his son to take care of his granddaughter.
You did so much before both of these shows. And now there are YouTube compilations of Jonathan Banks characters over the years. Have you dug into any of those?
No. Never seen them.
What do you make of your career?
My wife doesn’t like it when I use the term “journeyman,” but I’m very proud of that term. I’m a working stiff, and I like to look at myself that way. And that doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate great art or what I judged to be or see as great art, great performances. But I know whence I came.
As “Better Call Saul” ends, are you nostalgic for your time with the show and “Breaking Bad,” or are you just moving on?
It couldn’t have been better, but no. When something’s done it’s done. I will always feel good about it. What a great experience. And it’s time to move on. Now I’m about to go off to Berlin until January, where I’m doing a new show for Apple with Noomi Rapace, from “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
Is it sweeter having this success now than it would have been at the beginning?
I don’t think I’d trade anything. It is what it is. I’ll tell you what’s hard, Joe, is I really can’t completely comprehend how lucky I am. I can’t really take it in. And I think the older you get, the more you realize: Oh my God, we’re all in this together, and we’re all very similar. And you see the pain that’s going on in this world and you think: How did I get this lucky?
This interview has been edited and condensed.