'Better Call Saul' Breathes New Life Into 'Breaking Bad' Characters
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m FRESH AIR TV critic David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")
BOB ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) I know what you're thinking. Yeah, a lawsuit sounds good, Saul, but who can I sue? Who can you sue? Try police departments, libraries, construction companies, school officials, cleaning services, financial institutions, local and international, your neighbors, your family members, your church, synagogue or other...
BIANCULLI: That's an ad for Saul Goodman, the attorney who took whatever work he could get, from slip-and-fall cases and frivolous lawsuits to clients like meth cook and dealer Walter White, the central character on the wonderful AMC series "Breaking Bad." “Breaking Bad” is long gone now, but its legacy and some of its characters linger on in an AMC spinoff series called “Better Call Saul,” starring Bob Odenkirk. It’s partly a sequel but mostly a prequel and tells the story of Jimmy McGill, the struggling attorney who would, in time, adopt the persona and the slippery morals of Saul Goodman. It also gives us the backstory of Mike Ehrmantraut, the hitman and fixer on “Breaking Bad,” and shows how Mike and Jimmy McGill came to work together. “Breaking Bad” was created by Vince Gilligan. “Better Call Saul” was co-created by Gilligan and Peter Gould, a “Breaking Bad” writer-producer who came up with the character of fast-talking Saul. Last year, when “Better Call Saul” premiered, it ended up at the very top of my annual 10-best list. Season begins Monday on AMC. And the first two episodes I’ve seen are just as terrific as last year’s. Later on the show, we’ll listen back to Terry’s interview with Bob Odenkirk, the star of “Better Call Saul.” But first, we’ll hear her conversation from last year with Peter Gould, the co-creator of “Better Call Saul,” and Jonathan Banks, who plays the gruff and dangerous Mike Ehrmantraut. In last year’s premiere episode of “Better Call Saul,” set six years before the start of “Breaking Bad,” Saul Goodman isn’t using that name yet. He’s still going by his birth name, Jimmy McGill. He’s a public defender who’s so broke, his home and office are in the back room of a nail salon. He’s trying to get some wealthy, high-profile clients for his private practice. When he finds out that the county treasurer is suspected of having embezzled over a million and a half dollars, Jimmy, played by Bob Odenkirk, sets his sights on becoming the treasurer’s lawyer. Jimmy can’t invite clients to his shabby office, so he meets with the treasurer and the treasurer’s wife in a restaurant.
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ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Look, all I know is what I read in the paper. And typically when money goes missing from the county treasury - and the number here is $1.6 million...
JULIE ANN EMERY: (As Betsy Kettleman) Well, that's an accounting...
JEREMY SHAMOS: (As Craig Kettleman) That's an accounting discrepancy.
ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) It's a discrepancy, absolutely, but typically when that happens, the police look at the treasurer. And since that person is (laughter) - I just think a little proactivity may be in order.
SHAMOS: (As Craig Kettleman) I just think I'd look guilty if I hired a lawyer.
EMERY: (As Betsy Kettleman) Yeah.
ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Actually, it's getting arrested that makes people look guilty, even the innocent ones. And innocent people get arrested every day. And they find themselves in a little room with a detective who acts like he's their best friend. Talk to me, he says. Help me clear this thing up. You don't need a lawyer. Only guilty people need lawyers. And boom, hey, that's when it all goes south. That's when you want someone in your corner, someone who will fight tooth and nail. Lawyers - you know, we're like health insurance. You hope you never need it, but man, oh man, not having it - no (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Peter Gould, Jonathan Banks, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on "Better Call Saul." Peter Gould, let me start with you. Of all the characters to spin off, why did you want to spin off a series about Saul?
PETER GOULD: It may sound like a calculated process, but there was nothing but organic instinct behind it. Saul Goodman was introduced in season two of "Breaking Bad," and he - I was a little worried when he first appeared because he seemed maybe not in keeping with the rest of the tone of the show. But somehow, he seemed to work in the world of "Breaking Bad," and we loved him. Everybody in the writer's room enjoyed writing for him. and thinking about what would happen to Saul Goodman. And this character, he took us by the collar and said, do this show, more than us deciding that he was the guy.
GROSS: So you had to figure out how to get into this prequel. So it starts in the present where the character of Saul left off in "Breaking Bad," and he's managing the Cinnabon in Omaha. He lives in a black-and-white world now. There's no glamour. He has no identity. He has no profile. And it's literally shot in black and white.
GOULD: We really thought that we should see the consequences of all the fun. Jimmy McGill is a guy who makes a series of choices. Some of them are very understandable, and some of them are from his gut. And they lead to, inexorably, to one place, and that's the basement of the disappearer's. This is a guy who builds a character, Saul Goodman, and builds an empire of a kind, and then has it all pulled out from under him. And that is painful. And I think it also makes you wonder, what was it all about? What's the point of this guy's life? And I guess it's kind of a dark place to start with, but we thought it would make an interesting frame for the colorful, sometimes silly, sometimes intensely dramatic story of how he got to be the guy he is.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Gould, who is the co-creator and co-showrunner of "Better Call Saul," the new prequel from "Breaking Bad." Peter Gould also wrote for "Breaking Bad." Also with us is Jonathan Banks, who plays Mike Ehrmantraut, a character from “Breaking Bad” who returns for “Better Call Saul.” Let's play the very first scene that the character of Mike Ehrmantraut is in. And Jesse's girlfriend, Jane, has OD'd in bed. Jesse wakes up to find her dead. He calls Walt. Walt calls Saul, the lawyer and Saul sends Mike, the fixer. And Mike cleans up all the evidence of drugs and tells Jesse what to do. Here's the scene in which that happens.
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JONATHAN BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Any other drugs in the house? Think hard. Your freedom depends on it. What about guns? You got any guns in the house? Here's your story - you woke up, you found her, that's all you know. Say it. Say it, please. I woke up, I found her, that's all I know.
AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman, crying).
(SOUNDBITE OF SLAP)
BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Say it. I woke up, I found her, that's all I know.
PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) I woke up, I found her, that's all I know.
BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Again.
PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) I woke up, I found her, that's all I know.
BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Again, again.
PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) I woke up, I found her, that's all I know. I woke up, I found her, that's all I know (crying).
BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Once you call it in, the people who show up will be with the Office of Medical Investigations. That's primarily who you'll talk to. Police officers may arrive, they may not - depends on how busy a morning they're having. Typically, ODs are not a high-priority call. There's nothing here to incriminate you, so I'd be amazed if you got placed under arrest. However, if you do, you say nothing. You tell them you just want your lawyer, and you call Saul Goodman. And do I need to state the obvious? I was not here.
GROSS: (Laughter) That's so great. And that's my guest, Jonathan Banks, as Mike Ehrmantraut. Jonathan Banks, welcome to the conversation.
BANKS: Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: So, you know, it's supposed to be Saul who cleans up things for Jesse and tells him what to say. So Peter Gould, it ended up being Mike. How did it end up being Mike?
GOULD: Well, we were at the very end of season two, and there was this moment when Jesse woke up and Jane was dead. And we were going to have Saul Goodman come in and clean things up. And unfortunately, Bob was not available. Bob Odenkirk was not available to come to town, to come to Albuquerque for that particular scene. And so very much at the last minute, Vince Gilligan had the inspiration of bringing in Mike, the fixer or his private detective, who's been mentioned a couple of times on the show. And now we're going to see him. And through some miracle, we cast Mr. Jonathan Banks.
GROSS: Jonathan Banks, what was the call - did you get a call directly from Vince Gilligan?
BANKS: No, they - Bialy/Thomas, who are wonderful casting directors, they - I went in, and I thought it was going to - you know, I thought I'd do a day’s work and leave. And it snowed, and I went in. And that scene where you hear the slap is - Aaron still complains about it. He didn't know it was coming.
BANKS: And I loved the boy, but, you know, it was fun. I had a good time and, no, it came as a surprise. But - you tell me if I'm wrong, Peter - but Peter and Tom Schnauz and Vince have been friends forever. And when they were kids in college, they used to watch "Wiseguy." And so I guess my character on "Wiseguy" made an impression on them.
GROSS: And "Wiseguy" was a great TV series that started in 1987 and introduced actors like Stanley Tucci and Kevin Spacey - at least that's where I found out about them.
So you mentioned that Aaron Paul didn't know that you were going to slap him in that scene. Is that considered acceptable for you to do that?
BANKS: It's totally acceptable for me. I'm not the one that got slapped.
GOULD: The rules that apply to everybody else don't necessarily apply to Mr. Banks.
BANKS: You know, I get that senior pass, you know?
BANKS: And so, you know, if you can't take a hint from an old guy, I mean, come on, Aaron can take a punch, for goodness sakes.
BIANCULLI: “Better Call Saul” co-star Jonathan and co-creator Peter Gould, speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break, this is FRESH AIR.
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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to Terry’s 2015 interview with “Better Call Saul” co-creator Peter Gould and co-star Jonathan Banks. Season two begins Monday.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: I always wondered, like, how did Saul and Mike get to know each other? And we find out in "Better Call Saul." Did we know that on "Breaking Bad?" Did we know how they knew each other?
GOULD: Absolutely not.
GROSS: OK, I thought maybe I just missed it.
GOULD: Mike was just conjured up when Saul Goodman needed him, like a genie.
GROSS: OK. So we find out how they meet (laughter) in "Better Call Saul." And the answer is that Mike is working at the ticket booth of the parking lot that adjoins the courthouse, where Saul is working as a public defender. And Saul is always - well, at this point he's Jimmy - and Jimmy is always so just kind of in disarray that he never has time to get - or the money to get the proper amount of, like, parking stickers on his sticker to not pay for the parking. So he's coming to the ticket booth at the parking lot. And at the ticket booth, we hear a voice. And then we later see, as the camera moves, that it's Mike. That Mike - we're going to get to see Mike again. Here's that scene. Jimmy's pulling out, stopping at the ticket booth, and encountering Mike.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")
BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Three dollars.
ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) I'm validated. See the stickers?
BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Well, I see five stickers. You're one shy. It's $3.
ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) They gave me - look - I'm validated for the entire day, OK? Five stickers, six stickers, I don't know if I'm stickers because I was in that court back there saving people's lives, so.
BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Oh, gee, that's swell. And thank you for restoring my faith in the judicial system. Now, you either pay the $3 or you go back inside and you get an additional sticker.
ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Son of a [expletive]. Fine, you win. Hooray for you. Backing up, I have to back up. I need more stickers, don't have enough stickers. Thank you, thank you, very nice - employee of the month over here, yeah. (Clapping). Hooray. Give him a medal.
GROSS: (Laughter). That’s Bob Odenkirk, and my guest Jonathan Banks in the first episode of "Better Call Saul." So Jonathan Banks, you're a former cop in "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul." You've played a lot of cops and former cops over the years. And in "Wiseguy," where I first saw you, a TV series that started in 1987, you played the head of, like, an organized crime task force, and you were the supervisor for the Ken Wahl character who goes undercover every week. So how did you get to play so many cops and former cops? Like, what is it about you, do you think?
BANKS: I'm not very pretty, so I can't play the leading man. So I'm either going to be the bad guy or the cop. And that's - you know what? It's a smart-aleck answer, but it's also there's some truth in that. In the world of Hollywood and television, if you're not beautiful, you better be able to act a little bit, anyway.
GROSS: (Laughter) Were you a tough guy at all as a young man?
BANKS: No, I mean, these guys, they get up and say, hey, I grew up in a tough neighborhood. It was this; it was that; it was (unintelligible). The reality is they were sad neighborhoods. And if you were lucky enough to get out - oh, my gosh, how lucky I am. Yeah, that's my answer.
GROSS: I read your mother was in the CIA.
GROSS: Did you know exactly what she did or was that, like, a big secret?
BANKS: Well, I'll give you - I'm going to - my mom's gone now. But my mother started out in life on her own completely at 15 years old as a maid in a Methodist parsonage in Bloomington, Ind. She was a whiz at shorthand in typing and (unintelligible), and they got her a job with the Navy Department in Washington, D.C. World War II came along. There was a period of time where she was Adm. Wilson's private secretary, Adm. Nimitz at one brief time, who was a commander of the Pacific Fleet. After the war, she went to work, managed the secretarial pool, as I understood it, at the CIA under a woman named Peggy Hunt (ph). And back then, they would burn their carbons every day at the end of the day. And they had those oval-backed chairs that the secretaries would sit in. And she taught her girls, if someone came up behind them, that they were to throw their elbows straight back, stand up and address them in a very loud voice. The thought being, if it went past that moment that it was not going to go in their favor. They were secretaries, and whoever the man was that came up behind them was probably one of their superiors. Her bosses knew that that's what she taught, but that was pretty much the recourse that a woman had in the '50s - in the early '50s. There weren't any human resources to go to. And, you know - and I mean this - I should be half the woman that my mother was.
GROSS: It took me a while to realize you were talking about sexual harassment there.
BANKS: Yep, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: And for people who don't know, when you said they burn their carbons, that's carbon paper that makes duplicates of what you're typing. Your mother must have typed a lot of secrets.
BANKS: My mom - my mom - when the transcriptions came back from the Nuremberg trials, she was at the Treasury, and that's where the Secret Service used to be. And there was a tunnel that used to go under - and maybe - probably still there from the Treasury Department to the White House. So yeah, there's a lot of stuff. And as far as sexual harassment goes, she always left her office door wide open. And she raised me by herself.
GROSS: So how did you get into acting?
BANKS: I was a handful. And I used to - at the gym at the school, I would - when I'd go out for whatever practice it was, I would look through the gym window, and I just - I’d wanted to do it since I was probably 5 with Jimmy Durante and Jackie Gleason, who I just loved. And one day in the hall, Ms. Cartwright (ph), who did the plays, yelled at me when I was hanging with some of the boys. And she yelled down the hall and she said, Banks, you're a chicken. She said, I've seen you looking through that window for a long time. And she said, why don't you ever audition for a play? And I auditioned for the junior class play, and I got the lead. And we were doing Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple," which no high school should ever do, but we did. And it changed my life. My mom was having to work all day long and go to school at night, trying to give me a better life. But I was on a street a lot. And that answers some of your questions about the neighborhood or whatever it was. And, you know, when she - she got her teaching degree, and she then took me to this high school where I got very lucky. Hey, you know what I said, Terry, about being lucky? If I say it a thousand times more, it's the way I feel. I honestly feel that I am one of the luckiest human beings that ever walked.
GROSS: I love hearing stories about teachers who, you know, who give students an opportunity that they would have been too embarrassed or shy to ask for or just wouldn't have thought of doing, and that it's transformative. So thanks to that teacher...
BANKS: Well, I'll tell you this...
BANKS: That teacher - it was one of those things - and then I did it. And of course back then, you know, there were no computers. The most - I thought they were - only the smart kids did it, is what I thought. And I didn't think I belonged there. And they were all walking around with the slide rules in their pocket and all that, and they were so gentle with me. And they were so good to me because they would - I was from somewhere else or - yeah, I was from somewhere else. And they were dear to me. I look at those kids that, you know, other - back then were called nerds or whatever, and I couldn't have been treated any better. And there was a trade-off, too, because nobody was ever going to put them in a locker ever again. I can tell you that (laughter).
GROSS: Were you going to protect them?
BANKS: You bet ya.
GROSS: The roots of Mike. Here we have it (laughter).
GROSS: Thank you both so much for talking with us.
BANKS: Thank you.
GOULD: Thanks a lot.
BIANCULLI: Peter Gould, co-creator of “Better Call Saul,” and the show’s co-star Jonathan Banks, speaking to Terry Gross last year. After a short break, we’ll listen to back to her 2013 interview with the show’s star, Bob Odenkirk. We’ll also hear film critic David Edelstein’s review of the newest superhero movie, “Deadpool.” I’m David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.