[The following interview contains spoilers for Better Call Saul’s two-episode premiere.]
The walls are closing in on Michael Mando’s Ignacio “Nacho” Varga.
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In the long-awaited final season premiere of Better Call Saul, Ignacio, the reluctant lieutenant to the Salamanca’s drug-dealing operation, narrowly escaped a standoff with the Salamanca cousins (Daniel and Luis Moncada), as Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) set him up to be the fall guy for the massacre at Lalo Salamanca’s (Tony Dalton) compound. Die-hard fans of the Breaking Bad universe have speculated about this storyline since it was first teased nearly 13 years ago during Saul Goodman’s Breaking Bad introduction, “Better Call Saul.”
With the Salamancas still hot on his heels, Mando makes it clear that Ignacio’s quest to protect himself and his father becomes even more formidable.
“As the story progresses, we’ll get to see what he’s really made of and how far he’s willing to go to protect his father,” Mando tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Toward the end of the Vince Gilligan-helmed second episode, Ignacio made a last-ditch call for help to Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), Fring’s fixer. The two have shared a bond since Mike first helped Ignacio with his ever-increasing Salamanca problem in Better Call Saul season two’s “Gloves Off.”
“There’s this unspoken virtue between them and an honor among thieves. They respect innocent lives, which the Salamancas don’t. They honor their word, which the Salamancas don’t. And Gus doesn’t either,” Mando says.
In a recent conversation with THR, Mando also recalls a moment on set with Gilligan where they both took turns bashing a wall-mounted air conditioning unit.
On April 26, 2009, Breaking Bad viewers first heard the name Ignacio as Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) blamed him for something he presumably did to Lalo (Tony Dalton). And now, nearly 13 years later, we’re finally seeing that fabled story unfold. How rewarding has this climactic moment been for you?
It’s been unbelievable. I don’t know what I’ve done to be so lucky. You can work really hard and have a lot of talent, but for the stars to align the way they have in my career, it fills me up with a sense of tremendous gratitude, humility and responsibility.
Courtesy of Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
There are numerous parallels between Ignacio and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and the Vince Gilligan-directed episode two, “Carrot and Stick,” helps make these first few episodes of Better Call Saul feel like Ignacio’s version of Jesse’s story in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. So what do you make of Ignacio’s own attempt to do right in the end and hopefully free himself?
To play a character who’s breaking good when the full current of the scripts are breaking bad, it positions you with tremendous pressure, but it’s so rewarding despite the pain, frustration and torment of the character. Because deep down, at its core, you know you’re doing the right thing. You’re standing up for virtue, and in a show about morality, you’re one of the only characters, if not the only character, who’s really going from dark to light. So it’s such a heroic and fulfilling place to be, and I feel very grateful that they’ve given me that responsibility.
Ignacio is running for his life in these early episodes, and it looks especially painful since he’s wearing boots in the process. Did you take on most of that work?
(Laughs.) I did every stunt in all those episodes except for two: the jumping out of the building and the moment of collision with the trucks. Other than that, I did everything else myself. And it was just an incredible order that they’ve asked me to deliver this season. First of all, it’s incredibly physical. It’s excruciatingly emotional, and psychologically, you’re just hitting every note on the piano. It was just such an amazing rollercoaster ride.
Your shoulder was really leaning into that air conditioning unit.
Absolutely! At one point, Vince yelled, “Cut!” and then he came out and started doing it himself. So it was awesome.
What do you remember about filming the shootout and standoff with Don Eladio’s (Steven Bauer) sicarios and the Salamanca cousins?
I remember learning a tremendous amount from Vince. He thinks in cinematic moments. He is diligent with homework, but he’s also really quick to improvise. In some of the crucial moments in that epic stakeout, he had me play them in almost two completely opposite ways, and he would adjust storytelling elements very slightly as we went along. So it was wonderful to learn from a master. That whole motel sequence was shot on two locations. We shot at the actual parking lot of the motel, but all the interior scenes were shot in the studio.
Ignacio was quite antsy in that motel room. He could sense that something wasn’t right before he figured it out definitively. What notes were you given during that sequence?
Vince said two things about Nacho that stuck with me. He said, “This is a samurai without a master.” Like a rōnin. And he also said that he’s a tiger in a cage or a lion in a cage. I can’t remember which of the two it was. (Laughs.) But I think that was a really good stepping stone for me to get into the mindset of this character. I knew that Vince wanted to pan in that [motel room] shot, and so I asked him why. And his answer is why Vince is such a genius. He said frankly, “They built a wonderful set, and I want to show it.” And that, to me, is the magic of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Every department gets its rightful due. We’re all working on this together, and that was such a beautiful thing to hear and to learn.
Courtesy of Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Ignacio doesn’t know that Mike is sticking his neck out for him and his father. He also doesn’t know that Mike is doing it in part to prevent another father and son ending up like him and his murdered son, Matty. Does Ignacio sense that Mike was a father? Is that why he issued this cry for help in the first place?
There’s a profound connection between Mike and Nacho that is sort of unspoken. In many ways, they are cut from the same cloth, and Nacho looks at Mike as a mirror of his own father in the cartel world. There’s this unspoken virtue between them and an honor among thieves. They respect innocent lives, which the Salamancas don’t. They honor their word, which the Salamancas don’t. And Gus doesn’t either. So there’s definitely a profound, subtextual connection between the two, and maybe in the subconscious of it all, there’s a feeling that there’s a situation between Mike and Nacho. When Mike sent Tuco [Raymond Cruz] to jail, Nacho had a profound sadness to see Mike being beaten up like that. He really cared for him and asked him, “Why are you punishing yourself for people who would kill and have killed innocent people without even thinking about it?”
When he’s alone with his thoughts, does Ignacio ever regret going after Tuco? Things have spiraled ever since as Hector (Mark Margolis), Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) and Lalo (Tony Dalton) entered into his orbit.
He had no choice with Tuco. He started doing a lot of meth again, and that’s when he kills people for no logical reason. So Nacho was immediately put in a predicament where these guys weren’t going to let him walk. And so he had no choice because he knew that Tuco was going to end up killing him one way or another. In season two, Nacho made that really clear to Mike when he explained the situation with Dog Paulson. Tuco shot this guy’s head off, and he almost killed Ignacio doing it. Pieces of this guy’s skull are still lodged in Ignacio’s chest. So it’s a tragic story about a man who gets caught up at a young age with the wrong crowd, and because of his abilities, they won’t let him go. He becomes too valuable.
What can you say about the dangerous road ahead as Ignacio fights for his life and the life of his father (Juan Carlos Cantu)?
These characters are iconic, and each character represents something. I think Ignacio is the prodigal son, and he represents redemption, sacrifice and love. So as the story progresses, we’ll get to see what he’s really made of and how far he’s willing to go to protect his father.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Better Call Saul airs Mondays on AMC.
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