Spoilers ahead for the sixth season of Better Call Saul.
For the past few seasons of Better Call Saul, the story of Nacho Varga has taken turns that nobody — not even Michael Mando nor co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould themselves — would have anticipated in the beginning. Nacho found himself a pawn in the age-old feud between Gus Fring and Hector Salamanca, eventually outliving his usefulness after he was implicated in the plot to kill Lalo Salamanca.
Sure enough, Monday’s episode of Better Call Saul brought Nacho’s story to a tragic close when he willingly surrendered himself to certain death at the hands of, well, everybody. At least Nacho went out in a blaze of glory, mocking the treacherous Hector with the most delicious pre-death fuck-you since Olenna Tyrell passed along a message to Cersei Lannister. Mando spoke to Vulture about Nacho’s final moments, comparisons to his Far Cry 3 character, and the value of compassion in art.
Is there a time that you remember feeling like you really grasped the essence of Nacho?
A character is like a painting, and every scene, every season, you add layers and colors and shapes. It’s only at the very end that you can look back and set the primer and watch the colors settle, and you really get an image of the iconography that you were creating.
When you first meet Nacho, you immediately think this is a very bright, capable guy who is going to the top of the cartel world. He’s portrayed as an ambitious person who believes in a morality outside of justice. As the story progresses, he becomes one of the only characters who — while the whole show is breaking bad — is breaking good. I believe that, to me, was a monumental revelation in the character. And it made him heroic, romantic, and transcendent. When you get toward the end of his journey, you realize that he transcends the material world. He’s no longer interested in power and greed.
I kind of see season two — when Nacho is scheming to take Tuco out of the picture — as clearing the decks for the next phase of your character. That’s right around when we meet Nacho’s father.
Yeah. The wonderful thing about the character of Nacho is that he defies his appearance. He starts off as iconoclastic because you see him next to Tuco and you immediately think, Cartel bad guy. But if you pay attention, he saves the lives of three people in his very first scene. So it’s interesting to study the perception of the character going back to the beginning.
Beginning with Tuco, Nacho often finds himself under other people’s control, trying to find a safe way out. Do you see self-preservation as a central drive in Nacho’s story?
He’s not trying to self-preserve in the way Jesse Pinkman was; what he’s trying to do is save his father. Nacho has no difficulty fighting for himself, and if it were just him, he would probably be the biggest cartel leader in New Mexico by now. To reduce his journey to self-preservation I think would be unfair. He proves himself at the end of his arc. Essentially, at the gas station, he wins. He’s free. It’s a story of emancipation. But he chooses to turn down money and power and walk through hell to sacrifice his life for the safety of his father. It has elements of Greek tragedy in it, and it has elements of Shakespeare. And it’s poetic, like Orpheus Descending.
Some of the imagery does feel almost religious, especially in the last episode, like the baptism in the oil tanker.
Yes, there’s a tremendous amount of symbolism in this character. He essentially exists in a universe that has treated him very unfairly, to quote the New York Times, and that is punishing him for his deeds more than necessary. And what makes the character so honorable is that he never loses his desire and his drive to do the right thing.
You brought up Jesse Pinkman earlier. Were you a fan of Breaking Bad before the show?
I had not seen Breaking Bad until my father was watching the final two episodes and I walked in. I immediately made a mental note to myself that Vince Gilligan was someone I should keep an eye out for. And two weeks later, the audition for Better Call Saul came and I recognized his name as an executive producer. So it really felt like a moment of destiny.
Nacho was created primarily because someone named Ignacio was mentioned in Saul’s first episode of Breaking Bad. Were you thinking about that end point in playing the character, or were you focusing on the timeline you were working with?
Bob [Odenkirk] and I had a great talk at the beginning of this whole run. We agreed that this was going to be season one of Better Call Saul and not season seven of Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad was such a legendary show, and hats off to them. My main drive throughout this character was to introduce a brown-skinned cartel member with a heart and a conscience and a moral compass. The bulk of my interest usually resided in finding the integrity of this man.
This role feels, in some ways, like a change of pace for you. Some of the other characters you’ve played have been the more over-the-top, maniacal characters. I was a big fan of your work as Vic in Orphan Black. But this is a much more restrained performance.
Initially with Orphan Black, I wasn’t attracted to that role at all. But my agent at the time really convinced me to take it and find the humanity in that character. When I started my career, it wasn’t always easy to find honorable characters for people who look like me. The industry always seemed to want to put us in the shadows. So it’s nice to see the world changing, and it’s beautiful to see this unbelievable arc where Vince and Peter have allowed me to do just that, which is create a character that basically flips the archetype on its head. It’s revolutionary TV. It’s trailblazing in many ways.
Another role you’re known for is Vaas in the Far Cry series. What does playing a video-game character offer that TV or film acting might not?
The great thing about that character that I co-created with Ubisoft was that it was full motion capture. It was just full acting inside of a video game, so you were doing face, body, and voice simultaneously. The word Vaas has become an adjective that fans use to describe this sort of relentless grit, this lionesque kind of prowess. You can even see it on Twitter and Instagram. With my performance, people say, “Oh my God, he went Vaas at the end.” It gives those fans a reference point that is used when they see hints and flashes of that character. It develops a bond with the gamers that I appreciate very much.
When we shot that final scene in the desert, it was initially written in the description that Nacho was absolutely defeated and broken — until the last moment, when he has a glimpse of life. I played it initially where he breaks down crying and starts to laugh hysterically and then it turns into rage, and slowly that moment became bigger and bigger and bigger. And the video-game world came in: Someone came to me and said, “You’re going full Vaas on this.” Gordon Smith [the episode’s writer and director] told me to sort of bring it back down to where Nacho lives. And it was a great note of his. So it’s enriched my experience in the film and TV world, too.
When all is said and done, do you see Better Call Saul as having a central theme that Nacho fits into or exemplifies?
It’s essentially a show about justice versus morality. You can’t escape the fact that it’s a lawyer show. We like to believe that the law is moral, but the law is not moral, and our institutions are not moral. When you have a character who is not born with a silver spoon, who gets caught up at a young age in the best opportunities he’s being offered, then the question goes to, What does he deserve if he is doing everything he can to get out, to do the right thing, and to save his father’s life?
In his struggle, there’s this beautiful tragedy. And in his last moment, he becomes iconic. Because now you can point to Nacho and say, “This motherfucker has gone through probably more shit than any character you can think of.” He was not allowed a single moment of joy in seven years. And this motherfucker ends up on top, dying without an iota of fear or regret. [laughs]. You’ve got me swearing, man. I think this is the first time I’ve sworn in an interview.
I’m honored. Going forward, are you hoping to keep looking for roles that go against Hollywood’s popular idea of you?
I’m sure if Hollywood saw me only as a perfect, virtuous good guy, I would be interested in playing bad guys. You know what I mean? I think as an artist, your job is always to search for the thing that no one else is seeing. When I hear a story about a party and everyone tells me not to speak to one particular guy because no one likes him or her, my interest is always, Why? My heart, and my empathy, always wants to go to that corner and befriend that person and try to understand why he’s ostracized. I think compassion is one of an artist’s most important tools. If you don’t have that, your art is bland. I hope to never lose that compassion for the other.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.