Better Call Saul star Jonathan Banks just earned his third Emmy nomination — all in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series category, perennially one of the most talent-packed of all the Emmy categories — and if you ask Saul fans which episode sealed the nod for him, they’ll almost certainly recall Season 1’s “Five-O,” the installment that finally shed light on the backstory of Banks’s former Philly cop Mike Ehrmantraut.
The character, who was introduced into the Vince Gilligan-created Albuquerque universe in the Season 2 finale of Breaking Bad, was operating from a place of intense heartbreak, and even more intense guilt: Mike’s son, also a Philly cop, had been murdered by some crooked fellow officers, after following the advice of his beloved father.
Banks, whose second Emmy nod was also for playing Mike (on Season 5 of Bad), tells Yahoo TV about what inspired the most memorable moment of Mike’s “Five-O” speech, when he tells his widowed daughter-in-law the crushing story about her husband’s death, shares details of his least favorite aspect of Saul, and gives the tiniest hint of what may be ahead for Season 2.
Gordon Smith, who just earned his first Emmy nomination for writing “Five-O,” said the line “I broke my boy!” was originally “I broke my son,” and that you made the very dramatic change to “my boy.” Was that something you had thought about, or did it happen organically when you were filming?
It did, [organically]. Fathers, mothers who have ever lost a child would immediately, I think, relate to it. It’s just what it is, and every time I look at my own son… he’ll always be my baby, always be my boy, even though now he is bigger than I am.
That change, “my boy,” also feels especially appropriate for Mike. When he talked about his cohorts in Breaking Bad, the ones Walt had killed, he referred to them as “my guys.” It’s a Mike trademark that he feels responsible for those close to him.
That is exactly what it is; it’s a responsibility. It’s one of the things I love about Mike, is that Mike… he’s never shirking anything, and that transfers to Mike [and his son]. If you suffer great loss, it’s never going to be OK. It just will never, ever, ever, be OK. It is part of the grain of who you are, and it’s then embedded in you for the rest of your life.
It’s an unusual situation that you now have Emmy nominations for playing Mike on two different series. Did you ever have to think about a choice you were making in Saul, weigh it against something that you know happens to Mike in the future from Breaking Bad?
Not often. The hardest thing was when they put me in the [parking attendant] booth for the first few episodes. [Saul co-creator] Peter Gould, especially, and the writers of the scripts would say, “Don’t worry, Mike is coming,” and that would be written in the scripts: “Don’t worry, Mike is coming.” It was kind of a… “foil” isn’t the right word, but whatever the comic element was of him being in that booth, I thought it was a fun idea, then I thought, “Get me out of this f–king booth.”
Is Mike back in that booth in Season 2?
Oh, I’m sure he will be. He’s been there long enough now that he’s got his little tchotchkes: He’s got his dictionary, he’s got the books that he’s going to read, and his little fan, his flashlight, his nail clippers. And Trina Slopy, our prop mistress, makes sure that I have a really nice coffee Thermos. I have my own coffee in there.
Is it kind of lonely being in the booth?
No, I like that part. Mike was alone in Breaking Bad, Mike is alone now, and Mike will always be alone, I think. In my mind, he will be… I like the idea that Mike is removed from everybody else. I think it’s who Mike is; it’s who Mike is in [Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad].
Will we delve even further into his past in Season 2 and beyond?
I can’t say that, because I honestly don’t know. It’s something I hope. I said to the writers one time, “So, is Mike ever in love?” It would be nice to know. Apparently, my son had a mother…
It will be interesting to see how Mike’s relationship with Saul evolves, too. We know from Bad that they’re never best friends, but between what we saw develop between them at the end of Season 1 of Saul and what we know in Breaking Bad, they remain very much in each others’ lives. And maybe there’s some of Mike’s protective vibe developing in his relationship with Saul?
Empathy is part of Mike’s life, whether he wants it there or not. Mike immediately sees people that are about to go over the edge or do themselves great harm, and he instinctively… he doesn’t want to see that.
Your first Emmy nomination came in 1989 for playing another cop, another loner type: Frank McPike on Wiseguy. Any connections between those two, Frank and Mike?
Frank was another great character. Frank… it’s hard; you’re going back 26 years. Jonathan has grown up; Jonathan has matured. Jonathan probably has more confidence now than he did then. Listen, I wouldn’t have been doing it this long if I didn’t believe in myself. But as far as the connections between the characters go, I think Mike would probably try to protect Frank.
How did you find out about this latest nomination Thursday?
I was on a golf course, and I make it a point not to know when they announce the nominations, and it’s only because I don’t want to be nervous. I was out on a golf course and turned my phone off, which I always do, and I got home around 12:15, and all of a sudden, I had a lot of messages.
Were you surprised? You know the reaction people have had to Better Call Saul, and to Mike and your performance, going all the way back to Breaking Bad.
Kim, I’ve done this professionally for 48 years, and trust me, the disappointments… there are many. You don’t ever, ever, ever take it for granted.
Given what you just said about your nearly five decades in Hollywood, does getting this recognition at this point in your career mean more, or mean something different, to you?
This is really from my heart: I’m so lucky. I feel so good at this point in my career that it’s almost hard to take in. It’s almost hard to take in. You tell yourself, “Make sure you’re grateful,” which I am, but a level of giddiness or joy… that’s not there. It is humbling. It is humbling to be able to do what you want as an artist for a lifetime. It’s humbling because all around me, I see wildly talented people [and] that’s not been their case. So I feel very lucky.
The 67th Emmy Awards will air Sunday, Sept. 20 at 8 p.m. on Fox.