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?