One of the great gifts of Better Call Saul’s fifth season has been the opportunity to get to know Lalo Salamanca. Played by Mexican actor and screenwriter Tony Dalton, Lalo is perfectly suited for this world — a menacing and charming villain who is as skilled with numbers and food as he is with murder and mayhem. He is the kind of guy who will burn down a hotel and its proprietor for disrespecting his family and then turn around and give his disabled uncle the hotel desk bell as a souvenir to help him communicate.
In Monday’s season finale, Saul viewers learned how far a provoked Lalo can and will go. Dalton, who is on lockdown in Mexico City during the pandemic, spoke with Vulture about his approach to a role that has delighted him as much as it has fans and how much he’s looking forward to the series’ final season, which is scheduled to begin production in November. Dalton also will appear in Amalgama, directed by Carlos Cuarón, this year.
On Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman mentions the name Lalo in a moment of utter distress in the desert. That’s all viewers knew of him until last season on Better Call Saul. How much did you know about this larger-than-life character when you auditioned?
I didn’t know anything about Lalo, but I knew it was Vince [Gilligan] and Peter Gould. I knew I was in good hands. Whatever those guys are doing, sign me up for it. It could be just one episode. Maybe you’re going to be a guy who is the driver, you know?
I had just finished doing a television series called Sr. Ávila. I did that for about five years. The character that I played there was very dark, very gray and very stoic. So I decided if I was going to interpret another type of villain or bad guy — though I do believe everybody on Breaking Bad or Better Call Saul is bad; that’s the whole point, it’s just different levels of bad — I would do it different than what I’ve been doing for the past five years. I showed up, and I brought a little charm in there — the same intensity but with some lightness — and I got the part.
The Lalo we’ve gotten to know is pretty fun-loving as far as sadistic murderers go.
Fortunately, I was with a group of people who were very receptive toward what I could bring to the part. I’m really grateful. They could have been like, “No, no, no, no, no, no, don’t smile. We want this guy serious.” But kudos to all those guys for getting this living, breathing thing that doesn’t really have an end in sight. I mean, it does as far as episodes for the next season, but they don’t really know where they’re going, which is amazing. They’re like, “Okay, this guy’s working for us, let’s do more of this.” That’s what happened with [Jonathan] Banks in Breaking Bad. He was not supposed to be that big, but he showed up and they thought, “This character’s great.”
Lalo is always enjoying himself. Even when he was in jail, he was in a good mood. $7 million bail, no problem.
He was! Every single time you’ve ever seen a drug dealer narco, especially Mexican, interpreted they’re always very serious and very angry. And that couldn’t be furthest from the truth, man. Not because I know these guys well but because these people know they’re going to die any second. Like anybody in the mob, especially if you’re way up top, you’re going to get killed, and then it’s over. That’s the whole concept of Lalo. As far as he’s concerned, he could die any second. So instead of everything being dire, he’s nonchalant. He doesn’t take it personal. He loves his job.
He’s the anti-Tuco.
Exactly. I’d love to see those two together in a scene.
The last two episodes of the season were phenomenal. In “Bad Choice Road,” you had that long, scary scene in the apartment with Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk. The reversal in the scene was remarkable. Kim Wexler became the scary one. Tell me about filming that.
That was such a fun scene to do. Lalo is in their safe space, in their home! Crazy! We rehearsed it two days. Since it was episode nine, you’re on top of it. The first few days of filming are scary, but for this, you already know the character. You put in a couple of ideas and throw it in their soup and see if they like it. Like, when Lalo walks in and he goes, “I like it! This is a nice place!” That was not supposed to be like that. But when I did it, they all laughed. It was supposed to be more serious, but I figured Lalo is very emotional. Then we started doing the scene, and Rhea killed it every single time. She’s such a great actress. And Bob’s the head of the circus. He sets the tone for all of us to follow, because he’s so generous in so many ways. He gives ideas and he listens. Working like that is amazing because you feel at ease to be able to express yourself freely.
In the finale, we saw Lalo become the action hero.
I know, right? You’ve never seen him be that aggressive. Ever. Even at TravelWire, you saw how he jumped through the roof, but in episode 10, it’s out of control. I even told [Peter Gould] that maybe in the last scene, I was overdoing it. But he said, “We can do this once. You can’t do it all the time, but this is our once.”
And it goes black from there. He’s the last thing we see in the season.
He’s walking away with vengeance in his eyes.
Not so happy-go-lucky!
Oh, he’s pissed. It got personal. They killed the cook! She was cooking his food! That’s the only thing he cares about!
And he realizes Nacho was involved.
It is on! I can’t wait to see what these guys are doing next season.
Well, now you have job security.
At least for the first episode, maybe! You never know with these guys. I don’t mind that. I’m just grateful for the ride. If it’s long, it’s great. If it’s short, it’s great. It’s all good.
This character mentioned in passing on Breaking Bad is now a major part of the story. What does that mean to you?
It’s good for me, and it’s good for Lalo, too. [Laughs.] It’s hard to live off of acting for your whole life. I’ve been doing this for like 25 years now, and there’s a lot of ups and downs. To get a part like this, it’s exactly what you wish for. I got to play with the big boys out in Albuquerque. I tried to make Lalo true to what the guys had written and to get the huge response from the audience I’ve gotten. It’s amazing, really.
One of Lalo’s most important acts is that he gave the bell to his uncle Hector. That bell has a sordid history both on Saul and Breaking Bad.
I loved that! Hector is a very important father figure to Lalo. Lalo has a lot of empathy for his uncle. Really, that’s the only person he has those types of feelings for. Giving him the bell is a part of that. You know, the bell was special. [Laughs.]
You don’t know what’s coming in the final season, right?
They tell us nothing! I find out when I get the script.
But do you have any special wishes for Lalo?
I have this thing where I don’t judge my character. So whatever the hell happens to Lalo, it’s all good! What they do so well on this series is that you never know what’s going to happen. Like, everything I’ve seen on Twitter, nothing has happened the way people thought. No one has a clue where the story goes, which is amazing. So I know whatever happens to Lalo will be one of those things I will not see coming.
I can’t help but think he’s going to get away.
Me too. I hope so. But a worthy death would be amazing too. That’s how heroes fall!
But in Breaking Bad, Saul is still scared of Lalo. So Saul believes Lalo is still out there.
That’s very true. We’ll see.
This interview has been edited and condensed.