BACK FOR TROU­BLE

The lure of “Saul.”

Los Angeles Times - - THE ENVELOPE - By Randee Dawn cal­en­dar@la­times.com

NEW YORK — Wal­ter White may have been “Break­ing Bad’s” an­ti­hero pro­tag­o­nist, but at least half of that no­table se­ries was in­deli­bly stamped by two of its sup­port­ing char­ac­ters: Gian­carlo Es­pos­ito’s metic­u­lous methk­ing busi­ness­man Gus Fring and Jonathan Banks’ cop-turned-hit man Mike Ehrmantraut, both of whom (spoiler alert!) died in the se­ries. But “Bet­ter Call Saul,” which takes place be­fore those events, has worked a TV mir­a­cle by giv­ing Gus and Mike a sec­ond chance to make a bad im­pres­sion — in the best pos­si­ble way. The En­ve­lope joined the ac­tors at AMC’s New York of­fices amid a thun­der­ous rain­storm that pro­vided the per­fect sound­track for their chat.

Gus is back for “Saul’s” third sea­son, and Mike has been there since the show be­gan. But why come back?

Es­pos­ito: I was fin­ished. I felt like the in­ves­ti­ga­tion was done; why would I want to go back and mess with that. I came back be­cause of the joy I got from cre­at­ing and the pa­ram­e­ters with which I was given to cre­ate. I came back for the work. I came back for the peo­ple, for the writ­ing, for Jonathan, for Bob [Odenkirk].

Banks: I just love Mike, and I thought, “I’m not done with Mike. Let’s do more Mike!” Very quickly you saw this was a dif­fer­ent show — same char­ac­ters, but this is a whole dif­fer­ent drift.

So what was it like to work to­gether again? How did you find the Gus/Mike rhythm?

Banks: Gian­carlo said to me to­day, “You make me smile,” and I said, “You make me smile.” This per­son, my friend, who is the an­tithe­sis of an evil guy, is such a joy to be around.

Es­pos­ito: We had a rhythm from the first time we met — even within the char­ac­ters, we’re very sim­i­lar, very close to each other. So it fits. My ex­pec­ta­tions are high; as a hu­man be­ing and an ac­tor, I want peo­ple to be at­ten­tive. I’m do­ing a film now with a bunch of young kids and, God bless them, but there’s noth­ing but chat­ter be­tween shots. Banks: Oh, God.

Es­pos­ito: Noth­ing but talk about .... It drives me crazy. When I drop in, I want to drop in and I want to play. I don’t want to drop out. Banks: A lot of things can take place in the si­lence. We’re con­tent to be where we are with these char­ac­ters. There are a lot of dis­trac­tions and you’ve got to have that sen­si­tiv­ity when some­one needs to be a lit­tle more silent. I don’t need that buzz all the time.

Vince Gil­li­gan, who created both “Break­ing Bad” and “Saul,” said that with Wal­ter White he wanted to take a Mr. Chips char­ac­ter and turn him into Scar­face. Do you see “Saul” be­ing a chance to watch the rot creep into Gus and Mike, or is it al­ready there?

Banks: Mike grew up on a block that was not a good block — a hard­core, hard­scrab­ble en­vi­ron­ment. There was a lot of dan­ger from the very be­gin­ning. But his weak­ness is his com­pas­sion for other peo­ple. You can elab­o­rate from that.

Es­pos­ito: There was al­ways dan­ger around Gus, but he used his skill and in­tel­lect to ma­nip­u­late his way out of that and cre­ate a world of his own. This guy could be sell­ing tooth­paste — he’s a good busi­ness­man. It doesn’t have to be meth, but it is. His most ex­cel­lent skill is how he blends in with peo­ple and al­lows them to be­lieve he’s your next-door neigh­bor, a nor­mal guy. You could say he’s go­ing bad, but he’s do­ing a lot of good in the process — even if it is self-serv­ing.

So are they vil­lains?

Es­pos­ito: [Laughs] Within ev­ery vil­lain, there’s a saint. I refuse to look at Gus as just a vil­lain — he’s more than that. That would be the stereo­type.

Banks: We think of vil­lains as twirling a mus­tache or ty­ing girls on rail­road tracks. Mike knows that things are bad, and if any­thing, it spi­rals him deeper and deeper. The only rea­son Mike is here is be­cause of his grand­daugh­ter. With­out her he would have eaten his gun a long time ago.

How did the orig­i­nal se­ries change your lives and ca­reers?

Banks: I’ve run hot be­fore — it’ll be 50 years this July since I got my first pay­check in sum­mer stock. But this is the most no­tice­able thing in this 50-year ca­reer for me. That changes your life a lot. For me, it’s pleas­ant.

Es­pos­ito: I al­ways say “Break­ing Bad” was my third rise to star­dom: I’d done Spike Lee movies, the stage … but this got to a fever pitch. Peo­ple rec­og­nize me now. I’m a lit­tle jeal­ous, be­cause Gus is more fa­mous than I am — peo­ple don’t even know my name. That helps my ego and my spirit a great deal be­cause it’s a great equal­izer. Banks: I had a woman walk up to me once and go, “Hey, my hus­band knows who you are!” [Laughs] And her next line was, “He knows all the bit play­ers!” [Mu­tual laugh­ter.] Isn’t that great? Is that not great? Es­pos­ito: Fan­tas­tic.

‘I came back be­cause of the joy I got from cre­at­ing.’ —GIAN­CARLO ES­POS­ITO, right, with Jonathan Banks

Jen­nifer S. Alt­man For The Times

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