As Mike Ehrmantraut in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, Emmy Award-nominated actor Jonathan Banks has had to delve into pretty dark territory. In an interview with the New York Times following the conclusion of Better Call Saul, Banks details getting into Mike’s psyche.
To portray Mike, Banks drew on his upbringing. He says, “I used, partially, people that I grew up with, people that I feared or respected. You know, it always sounds a little too dramatic to me when somebody says, ‘My neighborhood, I grew up this way; it was tough.'”
Banks explains that he incorporated experiences of many individuals into his characterization of Mike. He explains, “I got banged around quite a bit, got punched in the mouth a lot. It gives you a certain amount of, I don’t know that it gives you toughness, but it leaves no surprises when all of a sudden you’re in a fight or you get beaten or whatever. As far as Vietnam, the sniper part of Mike’s life: I have several close friends that went. And one of my friends they just put into Arlington Cemetery about a month and a half ago. There are a lot of guys that came back that I know that were hurt badly by their experience in combat. That’s something I never experienced — I borrowed from people that I saw.”
“I used, partially, people that I grew up with, people that I feared or respected. You know, it always sounds a little too dramatic to me when somebody says, ‘My neighborhood, I grew up this way; it was tough.'” – Jonathan Banks
While Banks definitely feels ownership of the character, he also believes that the impact of playing the character has changed his personality. He continues, “Mike is mine. Mike is mine… And I think the honest thing to say is if I really think about it, maybe Mike has changed Johnny, too. I think Jonathan Banks, by playing Mike, became a little more silent, a little less rambunctious. And by silent, I mean, I think I listen a little more than I did 12, 13 years ago. I don’t like to use the word witness, but that’s what’s coming to mind. I think he possibly affected me in that I’m a little more patient. Maybe that comes with age anyway.”
With such a feeling of ownership, Banks has had moments where he has doubted the character’s direction. He reveals:
“There have been moments that I went, ‘Oh, I think Mike wouldn’t do that.’ But I found, quite honestly, a lot of the times that what the writers were telling me, if I deferred to them, it made sense.
“The first thing that comes to my mind is in Breaking Bad when Mike left his granddaughter in the park and had to escape. And I was going, ‘No, Mikey would never leave his granddaughter.’ And of course, the reasoning is, the police department — they’re there in the park. They will take care of her, they will return her to her mother. I still have a tough time with Mike leaving his granddaughter in the park.”
Ultimately, Banks sees Mike’s defining moment as the death of his son. He reveals, “He lost his soul when he was responsible for his son’s death. What he tried to get back — and what I’ve also said is his Achilles’ heel — is that he doesn’t want to see people get involved and get hurt. He’ll see the good in somebody, and it usually costs him. Those lines that you well know: ‘If you’re in the game, you’re in the game.’ Mike has no compassion for that once you’re in it.”