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How ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Better Call Saul’ helped Jonathan Banks gain recognition

As Mike Ehrmantraut in

As Mike Ehrmantraut in "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul," Jonathan Banks is finding he's famous, despite a long acting career. Credit: Jason Kempin

Jonathan Banks has been a working actor since the 1970s — Imdb.com lists more than 150 movies and TV shows he’s appeared in, including “Wiseguy,” “Beverly Hills Cop” and “48 Hrs.” — but there is little doubt he has never been as recognizable as he is now, thanks to his Emmy-nominated performance as Mike Ehrmantraut in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul.” Playing a grizzled ex-cop from Philly who works as an enforcer for a meth operation and a private investigator and fixer for corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman, the 69-year old Washington, D.C. native has become a cult figure giving a must-see performance. We spoke with the actor, a hugely entertaining and completely uncensored interviewee, by phone from Los Angeles.

What did you think of Mike when you first read for the part?

I thought I was gonna go in and play a tough guy, a very adept and competent tough guy. It was just supposed to be a guest part, but I guess they liked me.

What is it about Mike that has made him such a cult favorite?

He’s so flawed. I guess the trite way to say it is he’s such an anti-hero. He doesn’t forgive himself. And in a world of people justifying what they do, this is a man who makes no excuses about himself. I don’t think it hurts that you have an older actor playing that character. There’s a very world-weary quality. And this guy did not get a break. It’s been painful, and he’s gonna go to his grave with what he has done.

You’ve played a lot of bad guys in your career. What is it about you that casting directors see you in those roles?

I don’t know, I’m not very pretty. Even when I was a youngster, back in D.C., at 18 you could drink, even at 18 I could walk into a bar and have no idea I wanted to get into a fight, and someone would come over and away we’d go. I just have that kind of look.

What got you interested in acting?

From the time I could visually perceive film or TV, I was just enthralled by it. I thought it was the most wonderful thing in the world. I was raised by a single mom, so maybe that flight of fantasy that takes you away. I wasn’t a bad kid, but I was a product of the streets, because my mom wasn’t there, she was working and going to school. I was in high school, and my mom had gotten her teaching certificate, and she took me to her school in Silver Spring. I would watch the plays, and the woman who was directing the plays, she yelled ‘Banks, you’re a chicken why don’t you audition?’ And we did Shaw’s ‘The Devil’s Disciple,’ and that was it. And all of a sudden, my life changed. The kids in theater were nice to me, and my grades went up.

Any acting idols growing up?

In my junior year I saw “Zorba the Greek” with Anthony Quinn, and I was transported by it. I wanted to live, laugh, travel. To this day, I love Anthony Quinn. “Requiem For A Heavyweight,” there are so many things he did.

How does it feel to have this kind of celebrity and acclaim at such a late date?

Great. What a comfort that is. You talk about lucky, holy [expletive]. I don’t know what to say to that. How [expletive] lucky am I?

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