'Better Call Saul' star Jonathan Banks on what his mother taught him about being a tough guy

·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
Jonathan Banks in the Season 4 finale of <em>Better Call Saul</em>. (Photo: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)
Jonathan Banks in the Season 4 finale of Better Call Saul. (Photo: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

Week in and week out, Jonathan Banks delivers a master class in being a top-notch TV tough guy on AMC’s popular Breaking Bad prequel series, Better Call Saul. And the veteran character actor tells Yahoo Entertainment that he modeled his fan favorite character, Mike Ehrmantraut, after the toughest person he knows: his mother. “My mom was a tough broad,” Banks says, his normally gruff voice full of good cheer. “She would have grinned and smiled when I said ‘tough broad’ too, because she would have looked at herself in the same way. I should be half the woman my mother ever was, and I don’t mean that in a coy way. My mother was my role model; I was very aware [growing up] that any woman could be a lot smarter than I am and certainly could be my boss and certainly can be my president.”

Elena Adams Banks’s career path never took her to the Oval Office, but as her son tells it, her life traveled an equally inspiring arc, from 15-year-old housekeeper to single mother to retired college professor. (She passed away in 2012, long enough for her to see Banks make his career-transforming debut on Breaking Bad.) Among her many jobs along the way, she was an office manager for the CIA, where her duties included advising the secretarial staff on how to confront workplace harassment. Banks learned from her example; to this day, he harbors a strong dislike for men who bully the women in their lives. “I can’t be around it. I’m living in a more polite world than what I grew up in, but any man who is condescending or downgrading to his partner — that’s pretty hard to be around.”

His alter ego on Better Call Saul doesn’t care for bullies either, though Mike typically has a more violent response toward men who behave badly. The show’s meticulously crafted fourth year has brought disbarred Albuquerque lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) to the precipice of fully becoming the man we meet in Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman. And Monday night’s season finale appears poised to push him over that precipice, accelerating the prequel series’s headlong rush to the events previously chronicled in the original show. But Jimmy isn’t the only character on the verge of breaking bad; Mike may finally pull the trigger — both literally and metaphorically — on becoming Gustavo Fring’s most efficient and lethal hitman.

Since killing the two corrupt officers that murdered his son, the former cop has tried to avoid taking any other lives during the course of Better Call Saul. Unfortunately, circumstances have brought him to a place where that may no longer be an option. “Violence is part of Mike’s life,” Banks says matter-of-factly. “This is a formidable guy — this is a guy that is dangerous.”

Werner (Rainer Bock) could be the catalyst for Mike breaking bad in <em>Better Call Saul</em>. (Photo: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)
Werner (Rainer Bock) could be the catalyst for Mike breaking bad in Better Call Saul. (Photo: Nicole Wilder/AMC/Sony Pictures Television)

Small wonder that the man who might be on the receiving end of Mike’s violence, German engineer Werner Ziegler, is trying so hard to stay hidden. Having escaped the warehouse where he and his crew have been housed for almost a year, Ziegler hopes to evade Ehrmantraut long enough to make it back to Europe, where his wife is waiting for him. While Mike has previously managed to quell insurrection in the ranks through nonviolent means, this infraction will need to carry a harsher punishment. “Mike’s not gonna let somebody f*** up around him forever,” Banks notes. “If he has accepted a job to fulfill a commitment and there are bumps along the way, some of them have to be smoothed out.”

Besides, let’s not forget that should Ziegler make it back to Germany, Mike’s own life would be in jeopardy, as Fring isn’t the kind of employer who would forgive and forget that kind of major lapse in judgment. Banks says that Fring is the reason why this specific situation may be transformative for his alter ego. “Mike’s violent side has been there before — it isn’t something new. But to do it at the behest of someone is, I think, the transition. That’s truly losing your soul.”

Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on AMC.

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