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Jonathan Banks embraces 'not being very pretty' as 'Breaking Bad' hitman

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The AMC series "Better Call Saul," the prequel to "Breaking Bad," aired its outstanding final episode on Monday. We're going to listen back to our interview with actor Jonathan Banks, who played Mike Ehrmantraut, the hitman and fixer on "Breaking Bad" who was killed by Walt in that show's final season. But his character returned for the prequel "Better Call Saul," and Banks, as Mike, was in the opening scene of that show's final episode. It was a flashback sequence taking Mike and Saul, played by Bob Odenkirk, back to the desert they had traversed on foot in one episode in an earlier season.

Saul was lugging millions of dollars in cartel money, and in a conversation not shown when this plotline played out originally on "Better Call Saul," Saul wonders aloud about keeping the money rather than returning it to the cartel. Mike advises against it, but Saul continues to dream. He suggests they keep the money and escape the cartel by investing some of it in a time machine. When Saul asks Mike where he would go in a time machine, Mike finally settles on the day he, as a former cop, first broke bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

JONATHAN BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) March 17, 1984 - I took my first bribe. And then I go forward. There's some people I'd like to check on in five or 10 years, make sure they're doing OK. You?

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) It's easy. May 10, 1965 - that's the day Warren Buffett took over at Berkshire Hathaway. I figure, got a million left from building the time machine, so I take my half and just stick it into Berkshire. And then I come back here, and I'm a billionaire. Is there such a thing as a trillionaire?

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) That's it, money?

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) What else?

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Nothing you'd change?

BIANCULLI: That scene was a final sendoff for an actor who has been part of the "Breaking Bad" universe since 2009, 13 years ago, Terry Gross spoke with Jonathan Banks in 2015. She played the clip in the "Better Call Saul" premiere when Saul Goodman, who at this point is still going by the name of Jimmy McGill, first meets Mike. Jimmy, played by Bob Odenkirk, pulls up to the ticket booth of the parking lot that adjoins the courthouse where Jimmy is working as a public defender. Mike is manning the booth.

(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) 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 from stickers because I was in that court back there saving people's lives, so...

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Gee, that's swell. And thank you for restoring my faith in the judicial system. Now, you'll either pay the $3 or you go back inside and you get an additional sticker.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) 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. Hooray. Give him a medal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: 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: Were you a tough guy at all as a young man?

BANKS: No. I mean, these guys that get up and say, I grew up in a tough neighborhood, it was this, it was that, it was this - the reality is they were sad neighborhoods. And if you were lucky enough to get out, oh, my gosh, how lucky I am. Yeah, and that's my answer.

GROSS: I read your mother was in the CIA. Did you know exactly what she did or was that like a big secret?

BANKS: I'll give you - I'm going to get - 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 and typing, 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 Admiral Wilson's private secretary. Admiral Nimitz, at one brief time, 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.

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, and 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 - 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...

GROSS: Yeah.

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, yeah.

GROSS: The roots of Mike. There we have it (laughter).

BIANCULLI: Jonathan Banks speaking to Terry Gross in 2015. The actor played the character of Mike Ehrmantraut for 13 years, first on the TV series "Breaking Bad," then on its prequel and sequel spinoff, "Better Call Saul," which ended earlier this week. Coming up, critic-at-large John Powers reviews "Three Minutes: A Lengthening," a new documentary focusing on recently discovered footage from the 1930s of a Polish village soon to be obliterated by invading Nazis. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF VITO LITURRI TRIO'S "JUST A DREAMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.