Jonathan Banks on Auditioning for ‘Breaking Bad’ and the Importance of Listening as an Actor


“If I concentrate on what I’m doing, and what the object is or the mission is to do, that’s just the job. If you’re having a conversation… you should be listening, so that you can react.” – Jonathan Banks

Emmy Award-nominated actor Jonathan Banks had appeared on a variety of television series before appearing in Breaking Bad in what would become his signature role — police officer turned hitman Mike Ehrmantraut — a role that has continued on the spinoff Better Call Saul. Speaking on how he landed his career-defining role with Decider, Banks explains how a series of fortunate events led to him playing Mike.

Banks explains that his casting on Breaking Bad — and his character’s subsequent appearances on Better Call Saul — was serendipitous after actor Bob Odenkirk could not reprise his character in an episode because of scheduling conflicts and because show creator Vince Gilligan had remembered him from a previous television series. As an added bonus, he got to slap Aaron Paul in the audition. Banks remembers:

“Here’s what happened–they brought me in the last show of the second season in Breaking Bad. Bobby Odenkirk was new to the show, too, and he had committed to another job. In the episode, Jesse’s [Aaron Paul] girlfriend ODs, and somebody had to clean it up and that was supposed to be Bobby. He had already committed to another job, so he couldn’t do it. So Vince and Tom Schnauz, when they were in college used to watch a show called Wiseguy in the ‘80s, and they liked this character that I played. So when my name came up–this is as the story is told to me–they said, ‘We’ll get that guy.’

“I went in, and I just thought I was going in to be the guest star. I had no idea what the show was. In the scene, I reached out, and I slapped Aaron in the head–and that wasn’t in the script. He whines about it to this day.

“I guess they liked the scene, and I went home. I didn’t think much about it. They had me come back, and then Bryan Cranston really wanted to let me know about the show.

“And that took off from there. I guess they liked the character, so they kept the character around.”

Banks’ character Mike is known for being the silent type in many scenes, which is a easier said than done as an actor — and Banks explains how he handles the challenge of acting without relying on dialogue. He explains, “Well, the short answer is if I concentrate on what I’m doing, and what the object is or the mission is to do, that’s just the job. If you’re having a conversation–and as an actor certainly– you should be listening, so that you can react. So if I am supposed to be designing a tracking device, then let me get into designing that tracking device, you know? How do I put it together? Obviously, I have to have technical people show me how to put it together, but then that’s my answer, that’s what I do.”

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.