[Spoilers ahead.] “You know, I can foresee a lot of possible outcomes to this thing — and not a single one of them involves Miller Time.” “Keys, scumbag.” “You’re never too old for balloons.” These are the little nuggets of awesome we’ve come to expect from the mouth of Breaking Bad’s steely henchman Mike Ehrmantraut, played by veteran character actor Jonathan Banks. Gutted that our favorite felon got snuffed out, Vulture phoned Banks for some parting thoughts about filming his character’s demise, his tough upbringing in real life, and his early work in dubious health-education shorts.
You’ve known about Mike’s death for nine months. How do you keep that to yourself?
It’s pretty hard because I don’t enjoy — especially with my own family — being deceitful. So they say, “Well, you’re going to go and do eight more episodes right after this, right?” And I would say, “Yes, they’re going back in November.” [Laughs.] I would try to dodge that bullet.
One of our readers, JJDUCAN, was wondering whom or what you referenced in playing Mike.
I think it’s fair to say most of what I bring to Mike on a personal level is my stuff. Certainly, the writers gave me that he was an ex-cop, that he has a granddaughter. Without being coy, and I don’t mean to be, I came from a draft board in the sixties — so many of my friends went to Vietnam. And what they came back with — they wanted these marines, most of these guys, to be cops. So, a lot of them went into law enforcement, and they had some pretty hard lives: friends who’d been shot, friends who’d had real emotional problems. That’s a part of it. And I also have some of my own life experiences in it, too.
Can you elaborate on that?
I grew up in Chillum Heights in the Washington, D.C. area., and it was never a garden spot. When guys go, “Hey, when I grew up, my neighborhood was tough, and it was this and that”… the reality is that it was just a terribly sad place. And thank God, I was able to escape it. Thank God for theater and film and television and my very, very, very lucky life.
How did your co-stars react to Mike’s death?
Aaron [Paul] was very upset. The crew on the day that scene takes place all wore black armbands. We all got along so well, and I say that coming from all these years of experience. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was great.
Why do you think Mike had to die now, at this point in the story?
That, I don’t know. That’s a question for Vince [Gilligan, the show’s creator]. Jonathan the actor would’ve liked to have seen Mike be the last man standing. I even have a scenario if Mike got out alive: He would’ve gone to Costa Blanca in Spain. They have these wonderful small bars on the Mediterranean there, with someone sitting down at the piano. Unfortunately, Mike died by the river.
Mike failed trying to keep his home life from his professional life. What does this mean for Lydia, who’s essentially trying to do the same thing?
I think, What are you kidding? You gotta get rid of Lydia. It goes back to the “half measures” speech in season three. Everyone who’s watching the show is yelling at the TV, “It’s a half measure, Mike!” He let her go. I think Lydia is such a great character but totally out of her mind and self-serving.
When Mike was going to kill her, she said the one thing that resonated with him: that she didn’t want her child to think she abandoned her. Yet he abandoned his granddaughter.
Mike’s very aware that there are police officers there. It’s a public park. So, if I can justify it in my own mind, I can go, This child is going to be safe. But to get the emotion, I turned to my friend Charlie, who’s one of the guys on the crew, and asked, “Would I ever leave this child in the park?” And Charlie said, “No.” And then they rolled the cameras.
We think Walt is more evil than Mike, because Mike has this code he abides by. But don’t you think he probably did way worse things in his life?
I don’t think he did as many deceitful things. It’s easy to wrap a nice bow on it and say, “He worked with bad men who knew they were bad men.” Just before I go to kill Lydia, I go to kill one of my own guys. He tries to explain to me why he did it, he had to do it, the pressure that was on him. And Mike’s response was, “I know. I understand.” Then he shoots him. I think that’s the world that Mike lived in. And I think every time he pulled the trigger, he went deeper into his own hell and lost another piece of himself. I can justify why Mike had his guard down at the end: There had been too many killings.
Another reader, CLASSICIST, asks: “Mike, like Gus, was circumspect in all of his dealings yet developed a clear affinity for Jesse ... How do you account for this?”
Just before I go into the warehouse [in season three], I let my granddaughter out of the house with the balloons and I say, “Your mother is waiting for you.” And there is a woman standing in the distance. I said to Vince, who was directing the episode, “That may be her mother, but that is not my daughter.” I’ve always felt that Mike’s loss of soul and pain has something to do with his son. I think he sees in Jesse … I don’t know if he thinks he can save him. I don’t think he can. But he certainly wants to protect him. So it’s a father-son thing. He doesn’t want to see him harmed. He doesn’t want this life for him.
The first project that pops up on IMDb for you is Linda’s Film on Menstruation.
[Laughs.] No good deed goes unpunished. Years ago, my friend George Eichen, who was a manager of a summerstock playhouse, said, “Will you do this thing?” I went, “Sure.” And then they go ahead and they post it up there! It’s like, “Guys, really?” I just did that as a favor. They were going to try to send it to the public schools as some sort of health class [movie], so they could make some money.
Six years later, you went on to make Airplane!, one of the best comedies ever. What do you remember about making that?
We just walked in there a few days and yelled. “Radar rage” is what it was. [Star] Robert Hayes was a friend, we did a film together in Spain, where I met my wife 25 years ago. I don’t really remember much, other than I had a good time and that it was [shot] at Culver Studios. I just loved that ’cause they shot Gone With the Wind there.
Reader TJSTRUPP points out that you’ve worked with John Candy, Eugene Levy, Eddie Murphy … Who is the funniest comedian you’ve worked with?
The funniest guy I’ve ever worked — it’s just one of those things, again, where we look at each other and just laugh — is Jimmy Byrnes from Wiseguy. Jimmy — we can’t be in the same room together. He knows he can make me laugh just by looking at me.
Now that you’re done with Breaking Bad, what’s your next move?
Right now, this is what I’m doing on a morning in California: I’m looking out over the trees at the ocean. And the dog has finally left me … I don’t know where she went. I’m pretty content right now. I would like to hang in there and see what’s good [script-wise]. We’ll see. You’re talking to a journeyman character actor who knows that sometimes it’s good. And sometimes it’s really hard.