Even with Gus Fring back in the mix, Nacho Varga still holds court as Better Call Saul’s most compelling criminal. A lion’s share of credit goes to actor Michael Mando, who plays the character with a mix of humanity and hubris that’s rare among TV henchmen. After Monday’s episode, “Fall,” Nacho is virtually isolated, having been more or less disowned by his hard-working father after failing to short-circuit tyrannical cartel don Hector Salamanca.
Ahead of next week’s season-three finale, Vulture caught up with the ever-eclectic Mando — who next appears in Spider-Man: Homecoming and is familiar to Orphan Black fans as hothead Vic — about his character’s evolution, choice, and consequence, and whether Nacho could have been the right-hand man Walter White really needed.
Why was Nacho so quick to warn his father about Hector?
What he’s trying to do is have Hector die of natural causes, so that could happen in the first attack, or second or third or fourth or fifth. He knows it’s not necessarily going to be immediate, but he’s hoping it will be. What happens to this character this season is he puts fate into his own hands. He becomes his own man and commits to his own decisions.
When we talked last season, you said that Nacho isn’t concerned with power over others. Now it seems he’s more concerned with power over his own choices.
I agree 100 percent. There comes a time in a man’s life when he realizes the only respect that matters is self-respect. You have to trust your gut and moral position. When Mike goes behind his back at the end of season two, Nacho realizes he has to live life according to Murphy’s Law.
Every Saul character faces choices between immediate action and waiting things out. What ultimately drove Nacho to the former?
To commit to a choice for the love and safety of his father. He succumbs to the possibility of his own death in order to save his father, when what we’ve known of him is he was so goal-oriented that he wasn’t going to let anything get in his way. The unconditional love of his father takes precedence over his personal ambitions and, sadly, his own life.
That’s a counterpoint to Jimmy, isn’t it?
I think the difference between Nacho and Jimmy is in their relationships with their fathers. Jimmy sees his father’s goodness as a weakness. Nacho sees his father’s goodness as a virtue that is also an inner moral struggle. On one side, there’s this vicious but successful father [figure], which is Hector. On the other, there’s this god-fearing father that’s not successful financially. And unlike Jimmy, he’s desperately trying to marry them both in an honest way within him. In this season, Hector pushes him to make a choice, and the tragedy is he has to become the monster he’s trying to avoid in order to save the last piece of light in his life, which is his father.
That scene with Nacho and his dad was particularly heartbreaking because his father didn’t know how ingenious Nacho actually was.
That was one of the hardest scenes I’ve shot in my career, because I couldn’t say those words without tearing up. I wasn’t as strong as Nacho, and it just broke my heart to be sitting in that kitchen and looking at pictures they put of myself as a child and my father as a younger man all over the walls. It’s that really archetypal moment where the son needs to become the father’s keeper. We’d agreed it was important that Nacho showed no tears, and that was very difficult for me. And he sacrificed himself for his father in such a noble way that his father might never know.
What was the significance of Nacho pouring out the glass of milk?
I’m so happy you asked. That’s something we found during rehearsal and I was hoping they would keep it in. To me, it represents the good son, the essence of the character. Milk is innocence, and the pouring out in the sink is the innocence fading. The act of quietly taking it and putting it into the sink, what it really represents is that despite having strong-armed my father and breaking his heart, I will still keep a clean house, I am still my father’s son, and I will still do the house chores, even after he’s kicked me out.
Nacho alluded to a gap between periods working for the cartel. Is that new information? Did he go straight for a bit?
That is a new piece of information that has been revealed in that particular episode. He was working for them and told his father that he quit — and maybe did quit — but somehow was pulled back into it. Interesting also that his mother is not really around. I wonder how much that had an impact on him joining the cartel.
That could make Nacho’s fate even more tragic.
It’s very fatalistic. Emotions can sometimes get numb. They can either break you or get a callous. And the fact that he doesn’t tear up, there’s a part of him that dies in that scene. The fact that he does not tell his father that he’s saving his life cuts him off to the world, but also strengthens him.
It’s an insight into how some criminal psyches develop.
Absolutely. In episode six, he cuts himself and is strangely numb to pain, and that is a terrifying moment for him because he’s always associated with his ability to feel. He knows that kept him human. And here he is slowly losing that ability. Nacho is, in many ways, the antithesis of Walter White, somebody who wants to feel powerful. Nacho desperately wants to find balance, but is thrown in a world where he becomes powerful and knows how much it will corrupt him.
Do you think Nacho would’ve been a better right-hand man for Walt than Jesse?
In a way, Nacho could have been even a lawyer, and a damn good one. Intelligence is intelligence. It doesn’t matter if you’re working for the cartel or a corporation. The qualities to be able to restrain yourself, stay focused on your endgame, absorb information and regurgitate it in a meticulous way would have served him well were he born with a silver spoon. I think Nacho would turn on Walter White pretty early on, because he wouldn’t have liked the manipulative, selfish nature of Walter White that would have reminded him of Hector.
And Nacho’s beatdown of Krazy 8 may have put him on the path to eventually being killed by Walter.
Absolutely. That moment where he hurts Krazy 8 is heartbreaking for him, because Krazy 8 is a childhood friend. On the one end, [Nacho] needs to go within himself and build a rage that will permit him to pummel his friend. He can’t do it in cold blood, so he has to emotionally find a reason to want to hurt him. But at the same time, what’s hurting him even more is he needs to hurt him in order to save his life.
We know that Nacho and the “Ignacio” to whom Saul references in Breaking Bad are one and the same. Are we close to those ends meeting?
There’s a part of Nacho’s trajectory that’s got me very worried for him. We see a man who’s put himself in a position where he’s accepted that the possibility of death is very high, but has committed to putting his father’s love above self-love. I would hate to see him become a force of darkness, and see the innocence of that character disappear, but in a scary way, it seems like it could go that way.
Speaking of mystery, any insight you want to offer about your Spider-Man: Homecoming character?
All I can tell you is that, in 2012, when I was in L.A. for the first time in my life, I walked into a Marvel store and walked out with a hoodie, and it was that character.
This interview has been edited and condensed.