Pity the man who must work alongside Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz). That is Ignacio “Nacho” Varga’s plight in the Better Call Saul universe. As played by former Orphan Black recurring star Michael Mando, Nacho is necessarily even-tempered and cunning. If he matched his immediate boss’s flare for impromptu violence and rage, then the weight of their enemies would come crushing down and threaten the Mexican drug cartel’s north-of-the-border operations. This makes stoic bodyguard-for-hire Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) a perfect foil and potential accomplice for Nacho. It’s why the two men spent much of Monday night’s run time levelheadedly walking through scenarios of how to kill Tuco before Tuco realizes Nacho’s been developing side business without giving him a taste.
Mando, who was born in Canada but spent much of his childhood in Africa, comes across less like a calculating criminal than gentleman eccentric in conversation. A couple days before “Gloves Off” aired, the actor and filmmaker (his long-gestating short film Wake Up sees release Tuesday) spoke with us about why Nacho shirks physicality, what puzzles him about Mike, and whether his character and the “Ignacio” Saul Goodman mentions in Breaking Bad are indeed one and the same.
Do you half-read Saul scripts expecting not to be alive by the end?
I don’t think they’d kill you off without warning. They’re very classy people. I think we’d know a couple episodes in advance, so I don’t think we need to worry about it being a surprise as we’re turning the page.
To that end, can you confirm whether the “Ignacio” Saul throws under the bus in Breaking Bad is the same Ignacio you play?
I can say that [co-creator] Vince Gilligan has said that that was true. [Laughs]
Then ipso facto, Nacho probably doesn’t die any time soon.
To be honest, it could go many ways. I don’t want to say I feel secure because I’m here to serve the story, and whatever the story requires I’d gladly do. If the story required for Nacho to go and have another Ignacio come along, I’m totally okay with that, because we have so much trust in our writers.
When the writers decided to slowly introduce Nacho in season one before making him a regular, did you have faith in their plans?
When season one started, they had different ideas of what was going to happen. From what I understood from Vince and [executive producer] Peter [Gould] was that they realized the relationship between Jimmy and Chuck was actually an antagonistic one during the season. It wasn’t something they had planned before. That shifted everything around, and that’s one of the reasons Nacho was put a bit aside. But to be honest with you, I was so grateful for it, because I got to go on set every day, or every other day, without having to learn any lines and watch Bob Odenkirk, as well as Michael McKean and Jonathan Banks and Rhea Seehorn and Patrick Fabian work, watch the writers on set, see these Emmy-winning directors come in. As an aspiring producer, it was like writing your film thesis to try to understand how these great people do it, so I see it as a great blessing.
As far as Nacho’s concerned, why can’t he just be patient and wait for his moment rather than put himself between a rock and a hard place?
The truth is, his time is coming if he just waited, but that means two things: Tuco will make a mistake and Nacho will maybe take his place, or Tuco will make a mistake and get Nacho killed or in prison. Nacho realizes the second option is most likely. Nacho’s not from the cartel bloodline, and no matter how competent he is as a lieutenant, he’s never been upgraded, and he’s got people above him who are not competent. He doesn’t feel Tuco’s running the enterprise in a profitable way at all, and we’ve seen it time and time again when Nacho looks over and says, “This is not a good business decision and it has very bad repercussions.” I think Nacho likes Tuco, just like he would have liked continuing doing business with Pryce [Mark Proksch]. I don’t see Nacho as someone who has this desire like Tuco or Walter White to have power over others. He’s someone who has the desire to self-actualize and who doesn’t need to put somebody else down to find self-worth. But he finds himself in a situation where his life is in jeopardy.
Do you have any insight into Nacho’s background that explains his aversion to violent intimidation?
Here’s a guy who sees people’s heads get blown off, people’s legs get broken, who’s seen terrible things and maybe been forced to participate in it. He can stomach all that violence and continue risking his life to self-actualize, so I think that gives us a big insight into what he’s made of. In the screen test, Vince Gilligan told me Nacho’s the kind of guy who won’t squash a bug with a sledgehammer. And that really made me think of what that actually meant. You look at his father, who is probably the most morally sane person on Better Call Saul. I think his influence had something to do with it. The second thing is he’s a lone wolf who was forced to be an observer of others. Those two qualities give you someone who believes in a system where there could be honor among thieves, sustainability, and profitability. He can stomach violence, but he’s not a sociopath, and he has the courage to venture in this dangerous world.
Doesn’t he see that it’s still criminal and there’s only so far it can go?
He’s totally aware of it, and I don’t think Nacho’s in this for the long run. Who knows what his destiny will bring, but I don’t think he’s thinking, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life and I love this world.” It’s more like if he were to have a conversation with Chuck or Jimmy, he’d say, “If I was brought up in a different socioeconomic system, I’d have probably been a doctor or a dentist.” In a way, he wants to elevate his family name and feels maybe, this is what I need to do for now, make a lot of money and then maybe buy real estate and then venture into that.
He and Jimmy actually have a lot in common as far as ambition and impulse.
Jimmy and Nacho are like the two kids in the sandbox that nobody’s playing with. Nobody’s playing with Jimmy because their parents told them Jimmy’s not good enough. And nobody’s playing with Nacho because their parents told them, “Don’t play with that guy.” From the get-go, they both have those stigmas, and that creates people who are ambitious and create ways of thinking that are unique to them.
Do Nacho and Mike share a pragmatism that brings them together?
The moment we see Mike and Nacho meet in season one, there’s this definite recognition, at least from Nacho’s side, that here’s a guy who can help me go from prince of thieves to king of thieves. He’s someone who can understand Nacho’s practicality and think outside of the criminal mentality. What these two people have in common is a moral code of ethics and courage.
Is it a stretch to suggest Nacho admires Mike?
There’s definitely a respect. Real recognizes real. He sees in Mike someone that could potentially be a part of his crew, but I think he suspects Mike isn’t being completely honest with himself, and Nacho sees that could be a potential problem.
How do you mean?
There’s something hidden in Mike. Nacho says, “Why didn’t you just pull the trigger [on Tuco]?” And Mike doesn’t answer, and that leaves Nacho perplexed, because he says to himself, “I don’t see the advantage in Mike’s approach.” There’s a piece of the puzzle Nacho’s not really able to put together. They’d do the world a favor by getting rid of these sociopathic people, but there’s a resistance in Mike to admit that.
Perhaps something happens to Mike between now and the period of Breaking Bad to reinforce not taking any “half measures.”
We’ll see, but that’s a good point, because that’s a half measure, and I don’t think Nacho is a half-measure kind of guy. But his weakness at this point is he’s so open-minded to other peoples’ opinions and willing to admit he could possibly be wrong. Nacho’s arc is a coming-of-age arc, the story of someone who realizes that without losing honor among thieves, he needs to take the helm of his own life and forge alliances that are intact with his beliefs.
Most important, how was the food at El Michoacano?
[Laughs] You know what, I’ve enjoyed the food at every place we’ve ever been. As you’ll see this season go on, you’ll discover some real cool places that we’ve gone. One of the real great treats of this show is discovering Albuquerque and Santa Fe, and I can’t wait to hopefully go back in season three.