Of all the formidable villains on Breaking Bad, Uncle Jack is the one who finally gets the best of Walt. He may not be as mercurial as Tuco or as calculating as Gus, but his sociopathic, mercenary ways make him the most dangerous foe on the show — not only killing Hank and Gomez but also stealing the lion’s share of Walt’s $80 million (not to mention he killed ten imprisoned men in the space of two minutes and later slaughtered Declan’s entire crew). We talked to Michael Bowen, who plays Uncle Jack, about Aryan gangs, guitar-playing with Jesse Plemons, and the backstory behind Uncle Jack and Todd (and the spinoff show it deserves).
How did Vince explain the character of Uncle Jack to you? Jesse Plemons told us that he and Vince talked about Todd as being a bit militant. How did you guys talk about Jack?
If I remember correctly, he told me he's just a vile human being but you want to be next to him. That rang a bell. Then he said, in his inimitable way, that Jack is just [in Vince Gilligan’s voice] badass. And then I remember he said something about Sergio Leone. Then I got it. I love the old spaghetti Westerns — I love the almost-cartoonish drama. At the end of the day, it's a style, and I think Vince conveyed that to me. So those are the two key words I remember: badass and Sergio Leone.
Did you create a backstory for Uncle Jack and Todd? I'm curious as to whether Jack raised Todd and what Todd's parents were like.
Yeah, absolutely. Jesse and I did that. We felt like Todd was in danger as a little boy with a drug-addicted mother — my sister. She had a revolving door of abusive boyfriends that Jack was tired of murdering constantly, so Jack got Todd out of there.
Jack was murdering her abusive boyfriends?
Yeah, really, I’d get distressed with her if I was gonna protect this beautiful innocent little boy. I loved him. So I got him out of there and I raised him. Jesse and I would riff on those discussions from time to time, just to evoke that reality.
It sounds like you guys need a spinoff show of Uncle Jack and Todd growing up together.
That'd be awesome! That'd be great. Just a couple of sociopaths.
It's weird to think of Uncle Jack as the good guy in that scenario, saving his nephew from a horrible situation.
Well, you know, it’s within his universe. After studying the Aryan gangs and stuff like that, they're such a small fraction of the population in the prison system, yet they commit like a quarter of all of the most vile, gruesome murders in the system. They have to do that because they are such a small group. They have to become so frightening that you don't mess with them. [Jack] knows to get into a gang like that, you must spill blood. And the only way you get out is if you are killed. So that's the reality he probably told and showed Todd.
That explains a lot about their behavior on the show. How do you think Jack is different from other villains Walt has encountered? To me, he’s the most mercenary and downright cold-blooded.
I looked at him as a great white shark. There's a lot of crazy frightening sea creatures, but the great white shark is king. In the episode prior to “To’hajiilee,” when they pull up in the truck, I wanted to hear duh-duh-duh-duh [sings the Jaws theme music].
Do you think Jack’s a little jealous of the affection Todd has for Walt? Will that come between them at all?
You know, I look at everything that Todd does through the rose-colored glasses of a proud father. And I’m not jealous; I’m impressed. Yesterday he was a little diapered kid running around with a bunch of tattooed morons holding on to him and keeping track of him. And now [Jack] is able to acknowledge excellence.
So when he finds out that Todd killed the boy on the motorcycle, do you think there's a little pride in him?
Absolutely! Because he took care of business. It was a bad problem that arose. Everybody else may have shuffled their feet, but he took care of business. That's an amazing quality. He's growing up to be a perfect, wonderful psychotic and sociopath.
You got that sense also in the scene where Todd's describing the train heist. It's kind of a coming-of-age story, and Uncle Jack is like, "Aw, he's all grown up."
That's exactly right. I was looking at him just like that. Here he is telling this crazy story, man, and he's not regretting any of it. He's reveling in it. And yes, I was proud. It's funny you say that because that's what's written on that script. "Proud proud proud." That's what I wrote as a side note.
Why do you think Uncle Jack is letting Todd continue with the meth-making, even though they have all that money? Is it really because of Todd's crush on Lydia, or are there other factors?
I want him to have a feeling of accomplishment. I want him to succeed at something that he's embarked on. That's why. Everybody makes mistakes, and that's neither here nor there. I just want him to succeed. It's like the proud father.
Walt has this crazy reputation: He’s Heisenberg. But Jack never seems remotely scared of Walt. Is that because nothing ever fazes him? Or do you think he's underestimating Walt's power?
You gotta understand, if you study these [Aryan] people — any prisoner, but these guys in particular because they're such a small group — what they've been through on the inside, nothing on the outside would scare them. So Jack's not really scared of anyone. I don't think Jack underestimates him. I looked at it as though Jack was intrigued by Walt in the same way that a sniper is intrigued by his target. So that's how I approached that. And this plays well. I don't like watching myself, but I didn't have too much trouble watching “To’hajiilee.” I'm glad it came out the way it did.
The shoot-out was incredible.
That whole episode. And how about that baby? That was an accident! That just sort of happened. When she's in Walt's arms. He's changing her and she says, "Mama, mama,” because her mom was right off-camera.
I remember in that moment I was like, Even the baby is an amazing actor. Everyone in this cast is amazing.
People have actually said, "Did you CGI that on her mouth?" I said, "No, that actually happened."
I don't know if you follow fan reactions, but Jesse Plemons is creeping the hell out of a lot of people as Todd. Does he stay in scary character on set or is he completely lighthearted?
No. Between setups, we'd go back to the trailers and play guitar, talk philosophy, talk about the blues, talk about Townes Van Zandt, and then go back and be horrible Nazi morons. So no, he's not staying in character.
Did you ever see him play in his band?
No. He's very talented, man. I was just trying to keep up with him on the guitar. He knows so many Townes Van Zandt songs; I had my homework cut out for me. But he has the guts to sing. I can't do that. I'm 55 years old and I'm paranoid of singing.
I know you and Aaron Paul were both in Last House on the Left and I believe he killed you in that movie. What was it like to work with him again, in sort of a role reversal?
He's really great. Talk about somebody joking around between setups. He’ll tell some horrible joke and two seconds later you’re rolling, and boom: He's crying, tears are coming out. He's just badass. Badass.