For much of his 40-something-year career, Jonathan Banks was best known for playing the bad guy who kills Eddie Murphy's friend at the beginning of Beverly Hills Cop. (Though let’s not forget his Emmy-nominated turn as troubled cop Frank McPike in the late-eighties series Wiseguy.) Now the 64-year-old character actor is best known for playing the not-so-bad guy who protects other bad guys, chief among them a meth lord, in Breaking Bad. We spoke with Banks about what’s ahead for Mike the fixer, why other cast members can’t complain when Bryan Cranston is around, and where Ed O’Neill's career took a wrong turn.
You’ve been on a lot of sets over the course of your career. How is Breaking Bad’s different?
First of all, the old saw: How do you make an actor bitch? You give him a job. But people truly enjoy their job on Breaking Bad, and they understand that it’s a quality [show]; it’s not the norm. And that sounds like such a Pollyanna thing to say, but it's absolutely true.
Where does that stem from? Vince Gilligan? Bryan Cranston?
It has to stem from the quality of what it is in the beginning, and that would be Vince. And it starts with Bryan as an actor. Bryan walks onto that set, Bryan has a great attitude, and with that great attitude, you better be having a good attitude yourself. If Bryan can come and work fourteen hours of the day, and be cold or wet or rainy or whatever it is, or dusty and miserable, then you know what? You better get your stuff together and be that way yourself.
Your character, Mike, is not your average thug. What do you see in him that is different from some of the other tough guys you’ve played?
I think Vince and the rest of the writers already, just by giving me that monologue in “Half Measures” [the penultimate episode of season three] — you already know that there is this past. And in the second episode of season four, when I sit there and I rub the blood off, there is a tortured soul there. There is something that has gone terribly, terribly wrong at some point. You can’t go as far to say that Mike is good; he’s certainly not. But would he do a good turn for another human being? You suspect that he might.
That’s the same episode where he warns Walt to stay away from Gus’s house.
Yes, it’s where I beat the shit out of him.
You look different now than the roles from the eighties that you are best known for. Do people ever look at you and say, “Hey, he’s the guy who killed Axel’s partner in Beverly Hills Cop"?
I have no trouble walking around. But every once in a while, somebody will come, during the course of the day, and say, “Oh, I recognize you from such-and-such,” and yeah, they’ll make a connection. I think for the most part, people don’t go, “Where do I know him from? Does he work at the bank?”
Do you think Beverly Hills Cop defined your career in some way?
Probably. Yeah. You’d love to say, “Oh no, there was this wealth of roles ” but, no, I think it did. I think it did.
You played Ed O’Neill’s brother on Modern Family this year. What was that experience like?
Unbelievable. Ed O’Neill is just a good, good human being. And it’s one of those things where — and he’ll kick me right in the ass for saying this — but Married With Children was never my cup of tea. You go back to his young, young years, and you look at some of his work. Ed is really good, and I don’t want to see him playing some brute, slummin' guy. I didn’t particularly like that. So I’m so glad he’s doing this. I don’t mean to sound pretentious. I mean, we’ve known each other for years, and now we are playing brothers, and somebody said to me, “You know, you look like brothers.” You know what? We do look like brothers.
So what’s in store for Mike this season?
I can say this: Jesse [played by Aaron Paul] and I are gonna end up spending a lot of time with each other. That I can tell you, but not much more.
How is acting with Aaron different than doing scenes with Bryan?
Oh, Aaron and I have such a good time. Aaron is a kid to me. My oldest kid is 43 years old. I give him endless shit, as well I should. I look at him and I watch some of the things he does, and he reminds me of Montgomery Clift. He just does.
In an interview with AMC's website, you intimated that some of what you know about playing mobsters and thugs comes from people you may have known in real life.
I grew up in Washington, D.C. Suffice to say, it was not a garden spot. There’s nothing more boring than seeing a guy in an interview talking about, “Yeah, the neighborhood, how tough it was, it was this, it was this.” You wanna go, “Shut your mouth. Just shut up. Do you know how lucky you are to be out of it, if indeed everything you’re saying is true?” I honestly do feel — and I hope I don’t gag anybody if they read this — but I feel like I’m one of the luckiest people in the world.