“Better Call Saul” star on playing “the only character breaking good when everybody’s breaking bad”
“Better Call Saul” returned with a slew of physical challenges for its reluctant cartel lieutenant Ignacio “Nacho” Varga and the thoughtful man who plays him, Michael Mando. The recently debuted sixth season picks up in the aftermath of a botched assassination attempt at Lalo Salamanca’s (Tony Dalton) Mexican compound, a place remote enough to defy easy extraction in the midst of a landscape with few places to hide. Lalo survived, and the first head he wants is Nacho’s.
Catching the younger man should be easy, since he’s on foot. But Nacho is smart and a survivor. He hides anywhere he can, including ditches, a slimy sewer pipe and a motel that might as well be held together by tape. This required Mando to slog through filth and sweating through tetanus traps, taking on nearly all the stunts seen in Nacho’s flight.
All that was behind the actor when Salon caught up with him a few days prior to the debut of “Rock and Hard Place,” the third season episode that culminates Nacho’s saga in the “Breaking Bad” universe. Nacho’s and Lalo’s names were first mentioned in Season 2, Episode 8 of “Breaking Bad,” which also marks the first appearance of Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman.
RELATED: “Better Call Saul” is in no hurry to end
As he talks to me via Zoom about wrapping up his time with Nacho, a farewell gift – from his co-stars Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn (who plays Kim Wexler) and Patrick Fabian (playing Howard Hamlin) – sits in a place of honor on a shelf behind him: a striking painting of a single blue eye, wide and piercing, and yet serene. It resembles the symbol of protection often connected to Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cultures, I tell him.
“They told me it’s from a Mexican artist and that it represented vision,” Mando said, although he was not averse to the painting offering some spiritual protection: “I hope it works!”
Nacho could have used a ward like that, although it’s doubtful it would have done him much good. From the moment he switched Don Hector Salamanca’s heart medication, leaving him disabled instead of dead, Nacho was living on borrowed time. Still, his lease on life was generous as such things go, enabling Nacho to forge a trusting relationship with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), trusted fixer to Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who dangled Nacho’s duplicity over him like a guillotine blade to coerce the young man to serve as a mole instead of letting him leave the narcotics game as he wanted.
“Everybody in that world is leaning towards the bad. And you got this one guy breaking good.”
But the blade dropped at last in this third episode, with Gus arranging for Nacho’s extradition, only to serve him up to the Salamancas in exchange for his innocent father’s guaranteed safety.
In the hours leading up to his death, Mike, who has developed a paternal affection for Nacho, serves the young man his final meal, only to beat him afterward on Gus’ orders. And though Mike assures Nacho that his death will be quick, the sacrificial soldier makes his own plans. After falsely accepting responsibility for Gus’ sins -– and honestly, proudly taking responsibility for leaving Don Hector mute and immobilized -– he frees his bound hands, grabs a gun off the nearest man, and sees himself out.
As one expects of an actor playing a pivotal role in one of modern TV’s greatest series, Mando has no regrets. “I’ve learned a tremendous amount with this experience, in front of and behind the camera,” he said. “This show has given me everything I need . . . to continue telling stories that I feel passionate about. And I will forever take that with me and be grateful for it.”
Before heading into his next act, the Canadian star graciously answered our questions about what it was like for him to say goodbye to a role that has such significance to the larger “Breaking Bad” universe and discuss the symbols woven throughout Nacho’s harrowing final run.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you know?
I got the famous call the winter before we started shooting. Vince [Gilligan], Peter [Gould], and Melissa [Bernstein, the drama’s executive producers] got on the phone and said, ‘Wait ’til you hear this larger than life, epic ending we have planned for Nacho. It’s going to solidify the iconography of the character. And we believe that it’s going to break the Internet.’ So I was immediately, obviously excited, and I couldn’t wait to take on that challenge.
So then you get down there to the location and you’re running through sludge, doing all these taxing physical things. Was there ever a point where you said to yourself, “This is what ‘epic’ takes?!” It looks very challenging.
You know, they had called upon me to play the full spectrum of acting. We had action scenes, physical scenes, emotional scenes, psychological scenes. And then to top it all with a spiritual underlying of a man basically volunteering his own death, was a tall order. And it was a challenge that I relished in. And it’s exactly the position I want to be in as an actor. And to be given that opportunity on the biggest stage is something that I will always be grateful for.
There was a lot of Christ-like imagery within that episode. You had your version of Last Supper, the scourging and so on. Did you discuss that aspect with Vince and everyone else? Or did they always have that planned?
Gordon Smith, who wrote and directed, and I had a real camaraderie in this episode. We really worked very closely together. My hat’s off to him, I thought he did a fantastic job. We were very aware of the symbols . . . that we were shooting. It felt like Vince and Peter gave us the keys to the Lamborghini, and said, “Take it for a ride for an episode, and just bring it back in one piece.” And to really feel the whole engine of the show underneath the character of Nacho was just an exhilarating ride.
Better Call Saul (Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)I just finished watching the second season episode where Nacho and Mike have their first conversation at Nacho’s father’s upholstery business. He’s so much an example of what both “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” explore about father-son relationships, particularly in terms of the effects that fathers have on sons. And there was a kind of father-son connection between Mike and Nacho. How did you plug into that?
Well, Nacho’s iconography at the end is solidified in someone who stands up for true love, who is brave and sacrifices, but also who transcends his environment. You know, he’s the youngest guy on the show. And he’s looking at these fatherly figures. Towards the end of the show, he takes matters into his own hands, and is able to feel whole, and becomes the only character breaking good when everybody’s breaking bad, including Mike. So he becomes, basically, a man apart in that sense.
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I’ve seen you use that phrase before, “breaking good,” and it makes a lot of sense.
When I had my scene with Don EIadio in Season 5, we always have choices as actors to play the scene in a specific way. And to me, I was very clear in my interpretation of the scene, that Nacho was not seduced by the position that he was being offered, which was essentially the highest position in the cartel. He would not be seduced by the money, or any of the flashy things, that he was a man who truly was doubling down on his values of doing the right thing, and living a life of virtue in the way in the very same way that his father was.
“To really feel the whole engine of the show underneath … Nacho was just an exhilarating ride.”
And I knew in that moment that was going to . . . put my character in a very difficult situation on the show. But it was, to me also the most rewarding situation because I felt we need more characters like that, especially of that demographic -– that stands up for good, that is full of integrity, that is heroic, and that is willing to pay the price of going against the current.
Nacho is mentioned in “Breaking Bad,” but not seen. We knew going into this show that certain characters would survive. We’ve seen Gus, we know he makes it through. We know Mike makes it through and obviously, we know that Saul Goodman makes it through. Was there ever a part of you that wondered, since this person is part of this larger legend that somehow, he might make it?
I was really interested in the iconography of a character, I really wanted to take a brown man and make sure that I protected his integrity. When his father was introduced, I felt that symbolism between first generation immigrant fathers, single parents, and their children coming up from a single parent raised by my father and myself, who was a first immigrant in Canada, that meant so much to me. It was more important to me that that was protected than whether or not he was in every episode or whether or not he lived until the end. That meant way more to me than surviving more episodes.
And for him to really solidify that iconography and have his father be essentially the most moral and virtuous character in all the “Breaking Bad” universe, and then to have a son who is brown-skinned and be the only character breaking good and to do it in a in a heroic fashion and to do it on his own terms on a show of that scale, I give my hat’s off to the writers completely.
It’s an important moment in television where you can look at these sort of Hispanic cartel characters and see a three-dimensional human being who not only believes in doing the right thing, but is so serious about it that he will sacrifice himself for it, in a heroic fashion. That to me was the essence of it and the thing that I’m most proud of.
I’m glad that you mentioned the fact that it is a brown-skinned man in this role, and playing this part, and the importance that aspect of Nacho’s portrait. Often he’s been likened to Jesse Pinkman, although they’re two completely different characters. But I can imagine there will be people who point out that Jesse got to live. There were moments where we thought that he was going to die, but he got to live, whereas Nacho did not. What would you say to anybody who might point that out?
I would say: we all go. You know, if anybody survives, it’s temporarily because we all end up going. And more importantly, than when we go, it’s why we go. Nacho has a tremendous responsibility here, where his father’s life is in jeopardy, which is very different than Jesse’s situation. So Nacho stands up for his community, essentially, and says, “This is who we are, this is what I will back up. And this is what I will give my life to.”
“It is important that we, as a community, have people that we can look up and say, ‘We’re not the bad guys.'”
To me that’s more meaningful for Nacho’s situation than whether or not he survives. And I would add to that: Nacho can escape he actually wins. When he’s in the gas station, he’s free. He can go live his happily ever after. But he calls his father and he says -– and I’m staring into the subtext -– he essentially says, “Come with me.” And his father says, “No.” So Nacho willingly walks back into hell, and says, “Then I will give my life for you.” And to me, especially in terms of iconography, given the fact that these aren’t real people, they’re symbols, I couldn’t think of a more solid symbol.
You’ve used that word a lot –
Can you explain what that term means to you in the context of this role?
So, I was raised by a single father. And, God bless his soul, my father, he raised three boys. And my father worked a lot. So I grew up on television, and on music.
And I remember when I was in high school, and I was attracted to a girl, and I wanted to approach her, I would get my cues from these icons on TV. I would live my life according to these figures.
As I got older, I realized that the morality and the virtue of the figures that represented me in society were very, very corrupt, and didn’t stand for things that were virtuous. Now, by no means of the imagination do I consider Nacho the role model that anybody should follow. That’s not at all what I’m saying. But I think it is important that we, as a community, have people that we can look up and say, “We’re not the bad guys,” you know. “We’re not the thugs and the criminals.”
In a world of thugs and criminals, you could have a Latin American father be the most virtuous person. In a world of criminals who are all interested by money, greed and power, you could have a brown-skinned man who is heroic, who is brave, and who is willing to live and die for his community in the right in the right way, knowing that he himself is flawed and has made many mistakes.
So this is what I mean by iconography. They all represent something. And to have that in the zeitgeist of popular culture, I think, is important. Again, Nacho is not a role model by any means of the imagination. But in that world it means a lot, because everybody in that world is leaning towards the bad. And you got this one guy breaking good.
I’m glad that you explained that, especially in terms of iconography and roles, and how people look at certain television characters and maybe draw some influence from them. In the past, I’ve spoken to a lot of people who have left shows for various reasons, and a question that they get quite a bit is, “Are you gonna carry your character with you?” Famously, when “The Sopranos” ended, James Gandolfini said, “No, I can’t wait to let him go.” How do you feel about that? Will you carry any part of Nacho with you?
I don’t think you can play outside of yourself. And I think we’re all each other. I think like you, Melanie, and me, Michael, I think we’re part of each other, That’s what empathy and compassion is. And the greater empathy that an actor has, I think, the more understanding he can have for his character. So I think our job as actors is to be as empathetic as possible.
I will always carry Nacho with me. And I think I will always be a part of him as well.
New episodes of “Better Call Saul” air at 9 p.m. Mondays on AMC.
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