'Fresh Air' Marks The Return Of 'Better Call Saul' By Dipping Into The Archives
DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. On Monday, the AMC "Breaking Bad" spinoff "Better Call Saul" begins its fourth season. When "Better Call Saul" began in 2015, Terry spoke with writer-producer Peter Gould, who co-created the series with Vince Gilligan. Gould had created the character of Saul Goodman. And since "Better Call Saul" is a prequel set years before the events of "Breaking Bad," it allowed the show's creators to explore Saul's past and the pasts of some other "Breaking Bad" characters as well, most specifically bodyguard and sometimes hitman Mike Ehrmantraut played by Jonathan Banks.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: So 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?
PETER GOULD: Absolutely not. Mike was just conjured up when Saul Goodman needed him...
GOULD: ...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. Here's that scene. Jimmy's pulling out, stopping at the ticket booth and encountering Mike.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")
JONATHAN BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Three dollars.
BOB 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 from stickers because I was in that court back there saving peoples' lives, so...
BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Oh, 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) Son of a bitch. 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.
GROSS: Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks in the first episode of "Better Call Saul." Peter Gould, writing - coming up with the idea that that's how they would meet, why did you choose the ticket booth approach?
GOULD: We just had the image of the most badass guy we know doing the least likely thing. Mike Ehrmantraut looking at stickers and taking money for parking - like, what the hell is he doing in that parking booth? And hopefully the audience is asking those same questions. And when we talked about it some more, we started figuring out why. And that really intrigued us.
GROSS: And he's still the enforcer, but what he's enforcing is the number of parking stickers you need to exit the lot.
GOULD: He's very stern about - he's very finicky about rules. He thinks there's a right way to do things. There - he's a strict professional.
BIANCULLI: Peter Gould, co-creator of "Better Call Saul," speaking to Terry Gross in 2015. The new season of "Better Call Saul" premieres Monday on AMC. After a break, we'll continue Terry's conversation with Peter Gould. And we'll hear from two of the co-stars of "Better Call Saul" - Jonathan Banks, who plays Mike Ehrmantraut, and Giancarlo Esposito, who plays his ruthless mob boss Gus Fring. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BETTER CALL SAUL")
JUNIOR BROWN: (Singing) You drink one, drink two, drink three Long Island iced teas. But your buddy's worse off, and he throws you his car keys. Blue lights are blinking 4 o'clock in the morning. State trooper makes you wish that you'd never been born. Better call Saul, better call Saul. You want to tell the world...
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli in for Terry Gross, back with more of our salute to AMC's "Better Call Saul," the "Breaking Bad" prequel and sequel that begins Season 4 on Monday. In a few minutes, we'll hear from two of the actors who worked on both "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul" - Jonathan Banks, who plays Mike Ehrmantraut, and Giancarlo Esposito, who plays Gus Fring. But first let's get back to Terry's conversation with Peter Gould, the co-creator of "Better Call Saul." They spoke in 2015 when the show premiered.
Here's a clip from the very first episode of "Better Call Saul" when Bob Odenkirk's Saul, then still operating under his given name of Jimmy McGill, is meeting with a young couple at a restaurant. He hopes to persuade them to hire him as their attorney. The husband, a government accountant, has just been accused of embezzlement.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")
ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Look; all I know is what I read in the paper.
JEREMY SHAMOS: (As Craig Kettleman) I know.
ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) 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...
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 - I just think a little proactivity may be in order.
SHAMOS: (As Craig Kettleman) And 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 - yeah, we're like health insurance. You know, hope you never need it, but, man oh man, not having it? No (laughter).
BIANCULLI: That's Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, who eventually will become Saul Goodman, the familiar character from "Breaking Bad." That clip featured Odenkirk as Jimmy, but Terry's question to writer-producer Peter Gould was about Saul.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: Bob Odenkirk said that he based his performance of Saul on Hollywood agents and the way that agents, like, try to manipulate their clients (laughter) into deals. Who did you base Saul on? Were you thinking of agents? Were you thinking of lawyers?
GOULD: I think we were thinking about lawyers. I grew up in New York, and I had some lawyers in the family. And none of them were as fast-talking as Saul Goodman. And so it was just the idea of someone who is a free agent who has the gift of the gab. But there was always the sense that people were making their lives through their wits.
GROSS: 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.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
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, sobbing).
(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.
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. 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 was 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: We were going to have Saul Goodman come in and clean things up. 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. He was - been mentioned a couple of times on the show. And, through some miracle, we cast Mr. Jonathan Banks.
BANKS: I thought I was going to - you know, I'd thought I'd do a day's work and leave. Then 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 DuBois. But, you know, it was fun. I had a good time. And no, it came as a surprise. But - you know, 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." So they - 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...
BANKS: ...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 it's - you know, if you can't take a hit from an old guy - I mean, come on. Aaron can take a punch, for goodness' sakes.
GROSS: (Laughter) 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 (laughter) in that in the world of Hollywood and television. If you're not beautiful, you'd 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 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...
GROSS: ...Did you know exactly what she did? Or was that, like...
GROSS: ...A big secret?
BANKS: I'll give you a - 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 and typing and dah-dah-dah (ph), 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 (ph). Back then, they would burn their carbons every day at the end of the day, and they had those oval-back chairs that the secretaries would sit in. And she taught her girls if someone came up behind them, that they would 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 I mean this - I should be half the woman that my mother was.
GROSS: It took me awhile to realize you were talking about sexual harassment there.
BANKS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
GROSS: And for people who don't know - when you said they burned 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 it's 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: Thank you both so much for talking with us.
BANKS: Thank you.
GOULD: Thanks a lot.
BIANCULLI: Jonathan Banks and Peter Gould speaking to Terry Gross in 2015. Coming up, one more interview with a key player from "Better Call Saul," Giancarlo Esposito, who plays the very soft spoken but very ruthless drug kingpin Gus Fring. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE PORTER'S "ASS OVER TEA KETTLE")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Giancarlo Esposito, who played drug kingpin Gus Fring in "Breaking Bad," featured prominently in one of that show's most explosive and memorable episodes. Then, in "Better Call Saul," we learn about the earlier years of Gus and how he rose from owner of a regional fast-food chicken franchise to international drug smuggler, manufacturer and distributor.
Terry Gross spoke with Giancarlo Esposito last year when "Better Call Saul" was in its third season. And when Gus Fring - by that time - was juggling management of his Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant and his growing meth smuggling and selling business, those worlds were beginning to collide sometimes dangerously. In this scene from season three, Gus gathers his employees to talk about the men who had just visited the restaurant and menaced the staff. He promises his workers overtime pay and to pay for therapy if they needed counseling to deal with the trauma. Then the restaurant manager asks a question.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Mr. Fring, who were those guys?
GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: (As Gus Fring) Well, as some of you know, that many years ago, I opened my first Los Pollos Hermanos in Michoacan. Shortly thereafter, those same men showed up. They wanted money, and I - I'm ashamed to say that I paid them. You see, in that place at that time - if I wished to conduct my business, I had no choice. But yesterday - yesterday they came here - here. They intimidated my customers. They threatened my employees. And again, they wanted money. Now, my friends, I must confess that I almost gave them what they wanted, but then I thought No. No. This is America. Here, the righteous have no reason to fear. Here, those men have no power. And when they saw that I had no fear of them, they ran like the cowards they are back across the border. They will not return. We will move on from this. My friends, I promise you that together we will prosper.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) All right (laughter).
GROSS: Giancarlo Esposito, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love that scene. I could listen to that over and over (laughter) and over again. And it's such a great moment because you seem like such - like the perfect manager. You're thoughtful. You're concerned about your staff and want to protect them. You're standing up to bullies. You're patriotic about America. I'd like to talk with you about your voice as Gus. It's a very kind of measured voice. You articulate every syllable. It's a very conscious way of speaking, and you also have the slight remains of an accent from - I forget which country Gus is from.
GROSS: Chile. Yeah. So can you talk about constructing that voice for Gus?
ESPOSITO: Yes. I try to let the words speak to me and jump off the page in silence so that I can hear the rhythm of what they are trying to write. In this case, obviously, Gus has a Chilean accent which I bring to the copy and then allowing my voice to join it in a whisper. And then from that whisper comes a sound so that I can allow what the writers have honored in this character and my voice to join together in a seamless way. I'm half-Italian and half-African-American, so I gesticulate. I'm very Italian. If you met me in person, I use my hands to speak. I wanted that to be diminished, and I wanted the calm and cool personality of Gus to emerge. So that whisper allowed me to relax and Giancarlo to go away.
GROSS: The character of Gus is very meticulous. In his restaurant, he's often, like, emptying trays himself and cleaning up the tables and emptying the trash. And in his demeanor, I mean, his clothes, even his khaki pants, everything's always perfectly pressed and clean. He works at a restaurant. You will never see a stain on him. So is that you, or is that - is that something you brought to the character, or was that written into the script? And since he has so much blood on his hands, metaphorically, it's kind of interesting to see that kind of absolutely clean, pressed demeanor that he presents to the world.
ESPOSITO: This was not in the stage direction or in any direction or conversation when I first came to the show. But I wanted to create a character that was different, wasn't the Italian mobster with the little dog who spoke very softly or loudly, whichever one. We've seen those characters before. I wanted to create someone who was hiding in plain sight. That was my inspiration. That was the stage direction. And so that's someone, to me, that became Gus.
So that part of me that is meticulous, I did lend to Gus and wanted to allow that to be a part of him because he's very careful, very clean. He's an observer in many ways. He's a witness in other ways. And he's ruthless underneath all. So it allows me to stand differently. It allows me to feel regal. And I wanted to lend that quality, that royal, regal quality to Gus.
GROSS: When you were given the role of - the reprised role of Gus in "Better Call Saul," you knew you'd be playing him years earlier because it's a prequel. And your seasons of "Breaking Bad" started in - what? - 2009 or something?
ESPOSITO: Right around there.
GROSS: Yeah. So you're playing a character who's supposed to be younger than you were in 2009. This is one of the, I think, issues that "Better Call Saul" has had to deal with, that the actors have grown older, but they're playing years younger than they were when we first saw them. So they're doing that without the use of prosthetics or, you know, like, things to take away wrinkles, as far as I've observed. So what was it like for you to figure out the younger version of your character?
ESPOSITO: It was a very interesting journey to think youthfully. I believe when you start to go back in time with a character, specifically in "Better Call Saul" for Gus, that you have to plant the seed in your head that you are younger. It's in the eyes. It's in the body first. And then there were the physical aspects of it where, you know, I have some grey now and I have more wrinkles. How do we deal with that?
Well, we can darken the hair. I've also changed my hairstyle between both shows. And that was a big question for everyone, but I was emphatic and knew that it was the right move to make. A younger Gus would be maybe a little more wavier Gus, a Gus who had (laughter) - you know? - who actually may - you know, I wanted to give the sense that he - oh, he's a little - maybe even a little more handsome. Well, look at that hair. Look at those waves. He's not just the tough guy. He's the guy who actually you could see him going out on a date with a woman - maybe.
So I wanted a Gus that was more vulnerable, a Gus that was just a little bit more - a little younger in terms of his attitude. Not so definitive, knowing where he was going but not knowing exactly how to get there. So the element for me starts with the mental, and then it transfers to the physical. And then we work on the exterior to allow it to be younger and have that come forth.
BIANCULLI: Giancarlo Esposito, who plays Gus Fring in "Better Call Saul," speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE BRUBECK'S "UNSQUARE DANCE")
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from last year with actor Giancarlo Esposito. He plays Gus Fring on AMC's "Better Call Saul," which begins season four on Monday. It's a character he originated on that show's parent AMC series, "Breaking Bad," which starred Bryan Cranston as high-school-teacher-turned-drug-kingpin, Walter White. Walter works with and for Gus Fring, but Gus has a problem. And in this scene from "Breaking Bad," he's summoned Walter to a meeting in the desert. It's not a friendly meeting. Walter is on his knees, and Gus is angry that Walter's brother-in-law, a DEA agent named Hank, is getting closer to uncovering the meth manufacturing operation that Walter and Gus are conducting.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
ESPOSITO: (As Gus Fring) In the meantime, there's the matter of your brother-in-law. He is a problem you promised to resolve. You have failed. Now it's left to me to deal with him.
BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) You can't.
ESPOSITO: (As Gus Fring) If you try to interfere, this becomes a much simpler matter. I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter.
GROSS: OK. So when you saw those lines (laughter) in the script...
GROSS: ...I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter - what was your reaction to that line? And how did you decide how you wanted to say it?
ESPOSITO: I was really blown away by this particular scene. And I thought I could go two ways. I could be, you know, an extrovert with these lines, or I could stay within the character I created and just whisper this very unveiled threat. I was a little shaken. I have children. I know Bryan has children. I'm looking at Walter White. And I'm allowing him to know that he has not only failed with Hank, but he's also failed with me. Walter would have been the perfect, perfect partner, the perfect person to start another business somewhere else with if he had only done the right thing.
GROSS: So you decided to do the almost whisper version of that line.
ESPOSITO: I did. I feel like there's more power within than without. And I thought if I wanted to make my point, it would be in my eyes and also in the whispered cadence of my voice.
GROSS: So in "Breaking Bad," you have one of the really great - (laughter) great horrible death scenes. And it's a - now a very famous scene. You are blown up in an explosion intended to kill you. So the explosion happens behind closed doors. And then we assume you could not have survived that, but then you open the door and stumble out and straighten your tie in that still very meticulous way. And I'm thinking, like, what (laughter)?
GROSS: He survived, and he's straightening his tie? And then your head moves a little bit, and we see that half of your face is basically blown off. And it's just a really kind of shocking scene. So I'm wondering what that scene was like for you.
ESPOSITO: It's a very intense scene. And I was very nervous about it. It came from a conversation in Vince's office, where, after Episode 401, he called me in to let me know that the town was too big for both of us...
ESPOSITO: ...For Walter White (laughter) and myself and that I'd have to go. And then we talked about how Gus might go out of this world. And I was very, very passionate that it shouldn't move into a cheesy, supernatural way because I wanted Gus to die with dignity. Maybe - so I wanted to be able to portray the fact that maybe his - this long feud, this hate for Hector Salamanca, was something that would eventually take Gus away. In the end, it allowed me to feel dignified, especially the way the camera moved across the side of Gus' face that was still intact so that I could be able to do my action.
Vince asked me in that office that day, what might he be doing if an explosive event happened? And I said, well, Vince you see what I do. And I said this for a reason because I was inspired to do this show for many reasons. But I was inspired by a stage direction hiding in plain sight. I was inspired by a man who you thought you knew but did not. And that's what I based my character on.
So I said, Vince, you see me. I get up from a table - a chair. I button my jacket. If I sit back down, I unbutton it. And what do I do most? I straighten my tie to make sure the knot is correct so that I - so I wanted Gus to go out of the world with dignity. And I hope and I feel like I achieved that.
BIANCULLI: Giancarlo Esposito, speaking to Terry Gross in 2017. He co-stars in AMC's "Better Call Saul," the spinoff to "Breaking Bad" that begins Season Four on Monday. On our show on Monday, community service rather than jail for nonviolent offenses. Terry Gross talks with Julian Adler, director of policy and research at the Center for Court Innovation, and Judge Victoria Pratt about ways to reduce mass incarceration. Judge Pratt used to preside at a community court program in Newark that provides alternatives to jails to low-level offenders. Hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
(SOUNDBITE OF JIM CAMPILONGO'S "I'M HELEN KELLER AND YOU'RE A WAFFLE IRON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.