The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Jonathan Banks (“Breaking Bad”)

You may or may not know this, but…Jonathan Banks is basically just as awesome as the character he plays on “Breaking Bad.” True story. I know this to be true because he proved it handily when he gave my daughter the chance to interview him in the midst of an interview he and I were doing for the Onion AV Club.

Funnily enough, though, while he and I clearly built a bit of a bond as a result of his conversation with myself and my daughter, we’d never actually met until earlier this month, when he attended the Television Critics Association Awards with some of his fellow “Breaking Bad” cast and crew members. I was giddy when I spotted him at the event, and I strolled over and said, “You and I have never met, but you’ve chatted with my daughter…”

His jaw dropped, and he said, “Son of a bitch.” Then a smile appeared on his face, he stuck out his hand, and he said, “How are you, brother? And how’s that little girl of yours doing? Oh, man, it is so good to finally meet you. Is your wife here? I need to say ‘hello’ to her, too!”

Yep. Jonathan Banks is awesome. Indeed, he’s so awesome that, although I couldn’t imagine he wouldn’t be up for doing a quick interview in the wake of Mike’s storyline coming to a conclusion on “Breaking Bad,” I still felt obliged to go through the proper channels to chat with him. As such, I sent a formal request to his manager, even as I admitted, “I realize there’s a pretty strong chance that he’s just going to say, ‘Well, if he knows how to get in touch with me, then tell him to get in touch with me, for chrissakes, but even so.”

Within 24 hours, I had a direct email from Mr. Banks, simply saying, “Call anytime.” And when I asked if he had a preferred time, explaining that I’d have an empty house from 8:30 AM EST onward because of my wife and daughter heading out to get their hair done, he said to call him at 8:30 AM EST…which was a little surprising, given that I knew he lived in California, but damned if he didn’t answer the phone right away.

Bullz-Eye: Well, aren’t you the early riser…

Jonathan Banks: Got a golf game to get to, brother. [Laughs.]

BE: Oh, sure, you’ve got all the time in the world to golf now.

JB: [Dreamily.] All the time in the world…

BE: And on that note, as far as the last hurrah of Mike Ehrmantraut goes, it was a hell of a way to go out, that’s for sure.

JB: Yeah, it was done well. It was done really well.

BE: Did Vince (Gilligan) give you at least a little bit of advance warning that your end on the series was near?

JB: Oh, yeah. Vince told me nine months ago, so I definitely had notice.

BE: The way things were going, it seemed almost inevitable that a showdown between Mike and Walt was destined to happen. Did you have that feeling even before Vince told you?

JB: Well, you know, there’s no other way to say it: Mike broke a lot – a lot – of his own rules in the end, so you knew damned well it was not going to come to a good end. [Laughs.]

BE: In truth, it seemed that we started to see a different Mike than the one we first met once Walt started to flex his muscles against Gus early last season.

JB: Yeah, but, you know, I don’t know what to say other than that the wonderful writers – and I do mean wonderful writers – what they give me, that’s what I do.

BE: They certainly gave you a lot this season. We learned more about Mike than we ever had before, including, at long last, his last name. Do you happen to know the story behind where Ehrmantraut came from?

JB: Absolutely. Vince’s love, Holly, who’s also a friend of mine, it’s the last name of one of Holly’s girlfriends in Virginia.

BE: In the midst of all of the new info we got on your character, we also got to see you interact with Dean Norris for a change.

JB: Oh, God, and weren’t those some fun scenes? [Laughs.] I’m telling you, Dean’s good. He’s good.

BE: As far as this past week’s episode, it was a sure sign of just how worried Mike was that he was willing to leave his granddaughter behind.

JB: Oh, yeah. And that, for me, was…I really, really, really… [Hesitates.] That was one I thought I just…I mean, leaving her in the park? The only way I can justify that as an actor, or that Mike could justify it through me, is that they are the police, it is a safe spot that’s…y’know, she’s not being abandoned by a railroad track somewhere. And he must take the leap that she’ll be taken care of and be safe and be put back with her mother.

BE: For your final scene with Aaron Paul, did you actually receive the instruction that you were to look like you were on the verge of hugging him? Because not that Mike’s really what you’d call a hugger, but it looked like you were on the verge of that.

JB: Yeah, y’know, that’s…well, first of all, Will, getting down to those last days, that was some tough duty, because I love li’l Aaron, and I truly… [Hesitates.] That was an emotional parting. When we were running lines, it was all of a sudden for the first time when I realized, “As far as the show, this is it. This is the last time we’re ever gonna see each other.” So that was tough. That was tough.

BE: Understandably so. The bond that you guys built, particularly over the course of last season, was pretty profound.

JB: Well, you know, and that’s on the screen. And the funny thing – or not so funny – is that Aaron and I are really dear friends, and we had such a good time riding around in that car together that all the stuff began to come easy. The protection of the character, Mike’s protection of Jesse…all the lines began to blur because of the emotional feelings I had for Aaron, you know? [Laughs.]

BE: I’ve read that everyone wore black armbands for your last day of filming.

JB: Yeah.

BE: You really scored a perfect parting line.

JB: Yeah, y’know, offhand, when I first saw the word “fuck,” I thought, “Aw, I don’t know, would Mike use the word ‘fuck’ there?” I mean, they get one “fuck” a season and they gave it to me, so it was such an honor, but at the same time… “Would he really say that?” And then, of course, because Mike doesn’t actually say “fuck” – it’s bleeped – so it becomes even more profound, I thought.

BE: And the sun was just gorgeous for that final shot. Just a beautiful shot.

JB: [Sighs.] I know. That’s Slovis. Look at Michael Slovis. And Steve Litecky, who does the lighting and makes sure that everything’s perfect. But, you know, it was the end of the day. We were running out of light, Will. There was no more light. It was done. It was toast.

BE: How difficult was it for you to sit on the knowledge that your time on the show was coming to an end?

JB: I don’t know. And that’s as good an answer as I can give you. I don’t know. I have such mixed feelings, because from the time I knew… [Hesitates.] I guess the biggest reaction I had was, “What a great role this has been. What a wonderful gift that Vince Gilligan gave to me.” And that’s truly how I looked at it. Now, as time got closer, it was hard! It was hard going through the season and knowing that…I have a good time when I go to work, so I’m going to work, having a good time, having a good time…and all of a sudden, that day is there. And it was an emotional day out there, my friend.

BE: It’s pretty much universally accepted that your “No Half Measures” speech is one of Mike’s greatest moments, but are there any other such moments that you hold up as personal favorites?

JB: No. Not off the top of my head. [Hesitates.] No, y’know, here are my favorite moments: from the time I came on the show in the last episode of Season 2 to the time I fell over and died. Those are my favorite moments. But, yes, the “Half Measures” speech really, really sticks out. Will, I can’t tell you what a joy this has been to do. A joy.

BE: So what do you have on the horizon, aside from golf?

JB: Well, I’m memorizing lines this morning for a film, and I just did a small film for a friend. You know, my life is what it’s always been for 45 years: “Where’s the next job coming from?” [Laughs.]

BE: Any talk to you returning to “Modern Family”?

JB: Nah. I mean, y’know, what am I gonna do? I was dying of cancer the last time, so if you see me again, I’ll be probably be dead.

BE: Hey, look how many seasons Walter White’s gone with cancer.

JB: [Laughs.] That’s true. Were it only that way in the real world…


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