Photo: Andrew Toth/Getty Images
A retired cop and cartel figurehead walk into a bar … or, as in the climatic scene from tonight’s Better Call Saul, the former sits down at his favorite diner while the latter slides in across from him for a tense tête-à-tête. One week after madman meth-dealer Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) reappeared on our screens and was swiftly baited by Mike (Jonathan Banks) into felonious assault and weapons charges at Nacho’s behest, Hector “Tio” Salamanca (Mark Margolis) turned up and strongly advised Mike to change his story and help lessen Tuco’s jail time.
A far cry from the infirm, wheelchair-bound Tio, who blew Gus Fring to smithereens in Breaking Bad, Hector circa 2002 is still spry and sly and manages to rankle a typically unflappable Mike with his tacit ultimatum. Margolis himself is a far cry from either iteration of his most recognizable alter ego (Hector fans should also check out Margolis’s work in Oz, Scarface, and, more recently, The Affair). In conversation, the 76-year-old Philadelphia native is by turns a playful kidder and gruff cynic. He’s wary of being recognized on the streets for this one-and-only role the rest of his life, but sincerely grateful that he’s been given a significant part to play in Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s tragicomic crime saga. A couple days before his not-entirely-surprising Saul cameo aired, Margolis spoke with us about staring down Jonathan Banks, getting stopped on the street, and the bell-ringing website that bears his character’s name.
You’ve said you were intimidated by the Spanish-speaking scenes in Breaking Bad. Was it a relief that, thus far in Saul, Hector only speaks English?
Somewhat, but there may be Spanish I have to speak in it as well. I’m not terrible with Spanish. I was in Scarface many years ago where everybody thought I authentically [spoke] Spanish. I’ve lived in Mexico. I’ve been to Spain. I know enough of the grammar of it and I’m pretty good with the accent of it. If I get a good tutor, I can lock into it pretty quickly. I’ll go into a panic if you give it to me today and say you need it tomorrow.
Breaking Bad flashbacks notwithstanding, you’ve largely played Hector sickly. Did you approach 2002 Tio as a different character altogether?
Yeah, I kind of liked it that Hector had some muscle, some vibrancy. It excited me.
Hector’s not yet in a wheelchair, but he does seem a tad twitchy and has some labored breathing. Did the script call for him to betray signs of deteriorating health?
Am I twitchy? I don’t know, because then that might be my own bad health. It scares me what you’re saying. I know the first episode I did of this Saul thing, there were tentative things in it because I was talking to somebody who didn’t quite know where I was coming from or what I’m driving at. It wasn’t something that I decided to do. It may just have happened.
This was also, if I’m correct, your first scene in either series with Mike.
That was the greatest thrill, to be working with Jonathan Banks. Because the whole time I was in Breaking Bad, I never even met him. I never ran into him. I’m a big fan of his. He doesn’t have to do anything and he grabs ya. My son, when he knew I was going to do something with Jonathan, said, “Try to keep your stuff together so Banks doesn’t blow you away.”
Are you confident he didn’t blow you away?
No, I’m not. [Laughs.] I’ll have to wait and see.
Does Hector know more about Mike than he’s letting on?
Sure. I do mention that I know what he did career-wise at one point, and, yes, I think I know a lot more than Mike thinks I know. I think Hector’s able to find out anything he needs to find out.
Without giving anything away, how scared should Mike be of Hector?
I don’t know what to say there, because it doesn’t seem that anything scares Mike. Mike’s got what they call cojones, which is big balls. I’m quite dangerous for him, but Mike is a very devious and dangerous man also. He’s quite willing to risk his own life to stick it to you if he has to.
It must be nice that, at this stage of your career, you’re being asked to play badass gangsters and not just sitcom grandads.
I did play a granddad on a sitcom that went under quickly called Benders, but it was a fun granddad. But no, I understand what you’re saying. It’s wonderful. They also have given me some nice clothing in Saul. I’m actually wearing pants that I haven’t peed in. Breaking Bad often gave me pajama bottoms that looked like they had been urine-stained several times.
Is being synonymous with Hector of late a blessing and curse?
There are three guys a day that stop me and the only thing they know me from is Scarface. I always say, “My God, you’re talking about something from 30 years ago.” Then they always invariably say, “Well, have you done anything since then?” which really upsets me. But I have answers to those. I say, “Why do you say that?” They say, “’Cause we don’t see you anymore.” So I say, “Do you see everything that comes out?” I’m a curmudgeon and I get into these things with people. I should just shut up. It makes you feel like they retired you for some reason. It shouldn’t pain me, but I’m a little bit unhinged. Insecure is probably the word.
If it makes you feel better, Hector actually has a tribute site.
I’ve seen some Hector things. What do they do on HectorSalamanca.com?
It’s just a call bell that you can ring by clicking on it. Over and over.
I think I saw that. Oddly, when they came out with the Apple watch about a year ago, some Japanese company came up with an app for the Apple watch called Dingbel, and all it does is when your friend says, “You wanna have dinner with me tonight?” you ding once for “yes” and twice for “no.” And they employed me to do the commercial for it. I don’t do many commercials. I didn’t know why anybody wanted me, and it’s because the thing is called Dingbel and it dings a bell. I tell people I’m the second-most famous bell ringer after Quasimodo. It’s me and Quasimodo.