Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jonathan Banks

Illustration for article titled Jonathan Banks

The actor: Jonathan Banks is both the quintessential bad guy and the quintessential “that guy,” having appeared in numerous films and television series where he plays a slightly shady and somewhat grouchy character—but damned if he doesn’t do it to perfection. Most recently, Banks has been keeping busy on Breaking Bad, playing Mike, the right-hand man to chicken ’n’ meth kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).


Breaking Bad (2009-present)—“Mike”
Jonathan Banks: One of the best jobs I’ve ever had. Vince [Gilligan] and Tom [Schnauz] and… I don’t know who else was there at NYU with them, but they were big Wiseguy fans when they were in school, and they knew me from… whatever else I’d done. Whatever paltry crap has come up over the years. [Laughs.]

The A.V. Club: It seems to be a recurring theme that everyone fell in love with the series from the moment they read their first script. Was that the same for you as well?

JB: I’ll tell you, they introduced me in the last show of the second season, and I go in and I do it, and once I actually saw it, I thought, “Wow, that’s really something. There’s really good stuff going on here.” And that was my impression. I was really knocked out by it. But before that, even, I came home and said to my wife, “I just worked with this kid, and I think he’s really, really good.” And, of course, that was Aaron [Paul]. And as it turns out, I was really, really, really right. But he’s just a pleasure to work with. I’m very close with him. We give each other endless shit. [Laughs.] And it just makes for a wonderful day.

AVC: When Mike was first introduced, a lot of people made comparisons to Harvey Keitel’s character in Pulp Fiction.

JB: And how can you help but do that? And, you know, it really bothered me, ’cause I thought, “Shit.” You hate comparisons, but they’re inevitable. I was thinking of… oh, what’s his name? Wonderful Swedish actor who did all the Bergman films. What the hell’s his name? Oh God, that shows you how old I am. [Laughs.] Come on, help me out here!

AVC: Max Von Sydow?

JB: Max Von Sydow! Anyway, there was a scene in Three Days Of The Condor where he shows up and he paints little war figurines. Guy’s an assassin, but he sits and paints these figurines. It’s very low-key and very subtle. That’s more who I had in mind. Something like that, anyway.


AVC: So did Vince give you any idea where he was going to take the character of Mike in the third season?

JB: Nah. And you know what? This happened years ago, but it’s the best example I can give you: One of my first jobs out here was Coming Home, with Hal Ashby. It was Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, and I was a drunk Marine that he brings home from the airport. I remember in dailies—I had never gone to dailies, but Hal Ashby said, “Would you like to see these dailies?” And he was literally falling out of his chair, on his knees, from some of the stuff I was doing. And I thought, “Damn, brother, I am in! I am on the way! This is great!” And, of course, the film comes out and I’m there for about two seconds, just before Bruce Dern walks into the ocean and kills himself. And I thought to myself, “I will never, ever, ever go to dailies again.” And I haven’t. And when it comes to where the character is going or what’s going to be done, you know what? I just don’t pay any attention. None. Now, it’s a different deal if they sign me to star in the show or something like that, where you have input and you realize you have input. That’s a different story. But here I’m the cleaner that’s walking in, and who knows when he’s going to be killed and when he’s going to be out of there? So I don’t put a lot of stock in longevity.


AVC: The big speech Mike had toward the end of the season was when a lot of people really stood up and took notice of the character. That script had to have been a pleasant surprise for you.

JB: Oh, I loved it. I mean, there was something there. It was something to do. How do you not love it? To offer a bigger, better example, you look at the work that Bryan [Cranston] does, he’s coming out of a sitcom, and then you see him deservedly getting his three Emmy awards. You look at the material he’s had to work with, of course, but at the same time, Bryan got to show his stuff, you know? I mean, really show his stuff. That absolutely stressed, confused nervous wreck of a character and all of the things that he hits? But it’s just brilliant that he was given the opportunity to do it. And that’s kind of how I feel with the stuff I get to do, too.


AVC: Speaking of the third season, I don’t know if your publicist mentioned it or not, but I was actually on the set when you were filming the scene in the season finale where Mike drops off his granddaughter.

JB: You know, he did mention that, because I remember you said that you had to spend months wondering what I was going to be doing with the balloons I had in the back seat. [Laughs.] Isn’t that a great transition, though? Now, I will tell you this: I went out that night when we shot that film where the balloons go up in the air, and of course balloons have a mind of their own. It was snowing, it 2 o’clock in the morning, it was cold, and when the fireman saw the test with the sparks, they wanted to put some kind of fluid all over me. Now, not only is it snowing out there—because we’re having to shoot between snowflakes, right?—but now they want to make me wet. At which point I was going, “No, we ain’t gonna do that.” [Laughs.] But, boy, those balloons. ’Cause when I release ’em, if you ever watch it again, I’m actually up on a platform, and the balloons are being guided by a wire before they hit the power lines. And it took forever because it was really blowing.


AVC: Has there been any moment or development for Mike that legitimately surprised you?

JB: Hmmm. I don’t know if I was surprised, but I do like the relationship that’s developed between Jesse and Mike. A lot. You know, I’m a sentimental sap anyway, but I just like the comfort of the damned. I don’t know how else to say that. Because both these guys are in bad fucking shape. [Laughs.]


Barnaby Jones (1976)—“Vince Gentry”
JB: Oh my God.

AVC: Was that officially your first TV role?

JB: [Hesitates.] Was it? Wait, was he the car salesman?

AVC: No, they credit you as having played a car salesman on a different episode.

JB: Then he was an interviewer. Yeah, it was the first thing I’d ever done on film, and the only thing I could think of was, “You must be still. Don’t move. The camera picks up everything!” And then I remember watching it and thinking, “Oh, for Christ’s sake, move, will ya? Do something!” [Laughs.] I mean, it looked like Clutch Cargo.


Wiseguy (1987-1990)—“Frank McPike”
JB: Great character. You know, there’s an old picture of Jimmy Byrnes, Kenny Wahl, and myself together when we came back and did that TV movie [in 1996], and it made my heart warm. I’m telling you, man, playing Frank was… I mean, holy shit, you’re out there in the rain all the time—’cause we shot a lot of nights—and it was wet and it was cold and it was really long hours, and I was there a lot. It was wonderful, but it’s kind of a bittersweet memory now. It really bothers me that Stephen Cannell has died. I had lunch with him about eight months before he died, and… I really liked him. I really did. And it just bothers me that I didn’t get to speak to him. I had no idea. So, uh, there you go. There’s my reaction to Wiseguy. [Laughs wistfully.]

AVC: That show felt fully formed from the moment it came out of the gate. It’s very unlike most of the other shows in Cannell’s catalog up to that point, at least by my perception.


JB: Mine, too. To my knowledge, anyway. But it was always Stephen. And, you know, I just will not say a single derogatory thing about Stephen. I won’t. It’s a real trap to be too cute, I think, and you really gotta fight against it. But when Wiseguy came out, that was a good piece of work. It was truly a good piece of work.

AVC: It’s too bad that music rights have kept the Dead Dog Records storyline—the arc with Debbie Harry, Glenn Frey, and Tim Curry—from coming out on DVD.


JB: Oh, really? I didn’t know that.

AVC: It’s cost-prohibitive, as they say.

JB: Oh, what the fuck is that? Hell, why don’t they just waive the rights, for God’s sakes? They don’t need that.


Hey, look, while we’re on it, let me tell you a quick story about Jerry Lewis, who, as you probably know, was on the show. But it starts back when I was a kid, in Washington, D.C. Lewis was at the Loews Palace Theater. I would think it was probably before a movie, but he was onstage. I must’ve been 8, maybe 9, maybe even 7. But there was a roped-off area down below, and of course, I’m a kid, so I bolted for it. [Laughs.] And it was the red velvet rope, so I got inside, and my mother tells me that the usher was immediately chasing me down, but Jerry saw it from the stage, and he says, “No, no, no, let the kid sit there.” And unbeknownst to me, I didn’t think it was any big favor, but I sat there, and I was just enthralled with everything he was doing, because he’s another one I tried to be like. Anyway, so you flip forward years later, and on a rainy day in Vancouver as I was getting out of the van, there was sort of a mist on the windows, and there was a guy standing there with an umbrella. I got out, and it was Jerry. And before I could speak, he said to me, “I’m a big fan of yours.” In my entire career, it’s still one of my greatest moments.

Fired Up (1997-1998)—“Guy Mann”
JB: Oh, Jesus.

AVC: A lot of people don’t necessarily think of you as being a sitcom kind of guy.


JB: Well, Victor Fresco, who was the creator there, I think the world of him. And I don’t think the world of everybody, trust me. [Laughs.] I sound a little Pollyanna here, but these are the people I really like. I’ll tell you someone who got me on that: Ellie Kanner, who was the casting director and got me in there. And Ellie’s since become a director, and I haven’t seen her in years, but I hope she reads this, because talk about a sweetheart. But, anyway, doing that? Hmmm. You know, I liked the character. The guy was great. Sometimes situation comedies can be… My biggest problem with most situation comedies is that they’re just not funny, and when people make it a real task, when other actors are really just ripping the script apart all the time, it makes for a long fucking day.

AVC: Generally speaking, though, was it a good working experience?

JB: Nah. Where Victor was concerned, where the producers and writers were concerned, it was a good working experience. Some of the other actors had real trouble with the script. That’s my perception. They may turn to you and go, “Oh, no, we don’t!” So there you go. I ain’t gonna name names, though. [Laughs.]


The Night They Took Miss Beautiful (1977)—“Buck”
JB: Wow! What fun! I was not married, and there were a lot of girls! [Laughs.] How’s that for an answer?

AVC: It had quite a roll call of ’60 and ’70s stars, too: Gary Collins, Chuck Connors, Phil Silvers, Stella Stevens, Henry Gibson…


JB: Oh, it was absolutely absurd. Now, that’s the one where it was all models, but… was John Rubenstein in that one? No, wait, he was in the one with Connie Sellecca [She’s Dressed To Kill], which also was not very good. [Laughs.] But that was great, man. It had Rosanne Katon, a centerfold for Playboy. Beautiful girl. There were a couple of centerfolds from Playboy in there. And Victoria Principal was in there, too, who ended up hiring me to do something else years later: Don’t Touch My Daughter, where she puts a bullet in my head. Right between the eyes! [Laughs.]

AVC: IMDb’s description of The Night They Took Miss Beautiful may be one of the greatest things I’ve ever read: “Criminals hijack an airplane that not only carries a dangerous organism that is to be used in bacterial warfare, but also five beauty contest finalists.”


JB: [Laughs.] How much better can it get? Jesus Christ! But, you know, I remember that somebody, maybe it was The Hollywood Reporter, said of me, “You ought to see this guy’s turn as a bad guy.” So, y’know, it certainly didn’t hurt me to do it.

48 Hrs. (1982)—“Algren” / Beverly Hills Cop (1984)—“Zack”
JB: Eddie [Murphy] came into 48 Hrs. out of Saturday Night Live, and I remember he would really listen. Was that his first film? It was, I think. Well, anyway, he was right there, man. And there were some pretty powerful actors around there. I don’t know if this is true, but I think this was one of those times when Nick Nolte wasn’t running terribly hot, and I think that caught everybody a little off-guard. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the studio had huge plans for it and I wasn’t aware of it. But I gotta tell ya, that scene, getting shot on the stairway and stuff with Nolte was… Well, Nolte was just great. All the stuff you hear about him and everything, I dunno, but he was great to work with. He was really giving.


And Eddie, by the time we did Beverly Hills Cop… He was good, but 48 Hours was fun because he was brand new. As I recall, there was no entourage, it was just a kid who was fresh and coming to work and trying to learn. And from my perspective, anyway, I watched him do the same thing in Beverly Hills Cop, with him being a huge listener and watching everything that was going on. And now, you know, I’m probably gonna get kicked in the teeth for this, but I almost wish he’d be put in a position where he’d accept some roles where he’d have to push a little bit more, or where he decides the comedy, because it’s not like he’s not talented. Like—what was it he was in? Dreamgirls. He was great in that.

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984)—“Lizardo Hospital Guard”
JB: Oh, what’s that boy’s name that did that? [W.D.] Richter. What a nice guy he was. And John Lithgow. It was just a nice experience. I think I probably shot two days. I can’t remember. It was one of those things where I just went in, did it, and got killed. [Laughs.] I don’t remember much except that it was at the V.A. Hospital on Wilshire and San Vincente. And I was very aware of being at the V.A. Hospital, because you start shooting on their grounds, and there’s a dose of reality. I mean, this was a time that you’d go in and you’d be, like, “Wow…” I remember there were a lot of older vets from World War II and Korea. In ’84, some of those guys still weren’t all that old.


Gremlins (1984)—“Deputy Brent”
JB: That was fun. And to work with Scott [Brady]. Yeah, this guy, he’s out of the old school, one of those guys who was a real brawler. And when we shot that movie, he was on one of those breathing machines. The guy was dying. But he was still tough, you know? It must’ve been absolutely painful for him to be there every day, ’cause he had to have that machine with him, and the stuff was stuck up his nose, and then he’d take it off to film. But what a good guy. Really out of the old school, where you drank a lot and got in a fight. [Laughs.] He had a brother who literally was still getting in fights, and they were about the same age! But Joe Dante was a pleasure. And the guy who produced it, too. That’s a good memory. Also, I remember I took my little brother to watch them film the scene where they shot Polly [Holliday] up the stairs and out the window. I said, “I want you to stand here, and I want you to watch.” And Billy, my brother, was standing there, and out she came. [Laughs.] It was great! He had no idea, ’cause I didn’t tell him what it was going to be. That’ll get your attention!

The Gangster Chronicles (1981)—“Dutch Schultz”
JB: How do you not like Dutch Schultz? This is what Richard Sarafian, the director, did. He gave me an entrance where I came down the staircase, holding a girl by the hair. It’s in a beautiful old Pasadena home, right? Huge staircase. I come down the staircase, walk all the way across, take her head, stick it in a fish tank, hold her under, and the madam of the house, Markie Post, says something to me. I look up, still got the girl’s head underwater, and I say, “She hooked my wallet!” ’Cause it’s a whorehouse, right? And then Markie holds up the wallet. Something like that, anyway. I loved doing The Gangster Chronicles. First of all, I had one of the best characters in the thing. Dutch was great. And you know, Madeleine Stowe was in it. And Markie was wonderful. She eventually ended up being my girlfriend. On the show, that is. She’s actually been married to the same guy for years. In fact, Michael [Ross], her husband, was one of the head writers on Fired Up. Also, Robert Davi was on there. I’ve known Davi forever. Great guy. Sometimes you want to choke him, though. [Laughs.] He did Wiseguy, too, but we did other stuff together, and like, when he’d play a bad guy, he’d be standing next to me, and he’d blow smoke in my face. And I’d go, “You do that again, and I’m gonna knock you out.” [Laughs.] No, our relationship goes way back. I wish that guy the very best. What’s that guy doing now?


AVC: Sinatra.

JB: He’s doing Sinatra?

AVC: He’s doing live concerts where he’s singing nothing but Sinatra songs.

JB: Wow. [Laughs.] Why does that not surprise me?

Pin (1988)—Pin
JB: [Uncertainly] Pin? Was that a TV movie?

AVC: It was theatrical, but not a terribly wide release. It was a horror movie about a teenager who was obsessed with a medical dummy. Reportedly, you did the voice of the dummy.


JB: Uh, yeah, I don’t really remember that. I mean, I kind of remember. In the sense that it makes me think, “Where’s my residual check? Because I haven’t seen one ever.” [Laughs.] That was Sandy [Stern]. Sandy was a neighbor of mine. Nice guy. That’s all I got. Next!

Day Break (2006-2007)—“Shadow Man” / “Conrad Detweiler”
JB: Oh, yeah. That was great. Rob Bowman… Okay, you talk about connections, I worked with his dad with Cannell. That’s where Rob got his start. And Rob worked with Vince over on X-Files. Now, Rob, he knew me when he was a kid. I remember when I read for that. I had to go in and read, it was a hot day in Los Angeles, so I drive down the 101, it takes an hour and a half to get into Burbank or wherever the hell it is. I walk in there, a bunch of actors in the hall, there’s some guy beating on a towel dispenser in the bathroom to get into character. I went, “Oh, Jesus fucking Christ, let me out of here.” But I wait and I wait and I wait. And then a very nice young man, a production assistant, he comes out of the room where they’re doing the read, he’s at the door and calls my name, and I start to go in, and he stops me and says, “I’m sorry, but it’ll just be one more minute.” Now, I had no idea who was in this room, but I’d driven for an hour and a half down the freeway, I have now waited in this place for the better part of an hour, and I thought, “Fuck this.” And I did it in a humorous way, but I said, “No, there isn’t no more waiting,” and I took my foot and I kicked the door open and walked into the room. Now, I’ve got to remember that not everyone has the same sense of humor that I do. [Laughs.] There was this room full of people that just gasped. Except for Rob Bowman, who went, “Jonathan Banks! The legend!” [Laughs.] And I thought, “Oh, thank God.” And I came home and told my wife, who’s always telling me to behave. Yeah, Rob Bowman is as sweet as they come. I worked on that, and then I also did a role on Castle for him, ’cause he produces that show. Those kids are sweet on that show.


But Day Break was great. Even I couldn’t understand what was going on, but that was great. But I’ll tell you another story about Day Break. We were working on a quarry, it’s late at night, and the gag on the show is that I get my knees blown out and I go to the ground. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen those big quarry trucks, but however high the roof of your house is, that’s how big the wheels are. And the beds of the trucks, they’re massive. So they got a guy in the truck who’s been waiting all night in this quarry, and the quarry’s huge, and whatever the material is, it gives way a little and it spills. You should go back and look at that scene if you can. Anyway, I get my knees blown out, I go to the ground, I’ve got a trench coat on, and the guy who’s been waiting for God knows how many hours to do his one bit, where he releases sand on me…? I am buried by sand instantaneously. [Laughs.] And I thought, “Fuuuuuuuck…” But I had taken my trench coat, I had a little air pocket, and as I went down—’cause when I went to my knees, it rode up on my back, so I had an air pocket—and I got covered with sand. I could hear people screaming just as it happened. The stunt man dug in the sand, got my arm, and he’s pulling on my arm, and I thought, “Holy Christ, I’m okay, I’ve got an air pocket, but this guy’s gonna rip my arm right out of the socket!” I thought my arm was never gonna be the same. Anyway, I got out, I’m fine. But Rob Bowman? The next day, he sent me a sand wedge. [Laughs.]

Flipper (1996)—“Dirk Moran”/ Crocodile Dundee In Los Angeles (2001)—“Milos Drubnik”
AVC: You did two movies with Paul Hogan.


JB: Yeah. [Long pause.] Flipper was more fun. [Laughs.] Paul was very good to me. But Flipper was definitely more fun.

AVC: It was also one of your definitive bad-guy roles.

JB: Yeah. Very bad. The whole damned thing opens up with me smoking Flipper’s mom!


AVC: Do you ever get tired of playing the bad guy, or is it always fun?

JB: It is always fun. Always. The one thing I don’t want to do is snarl too much. It’s one of the great things about playing Mike on Breaking Bad, that he has all of these different dimensions. I mean, listen to that speech they gave him at the end of season three, the big one you were talking about. Or dealing with his granddaughter. All of a sudden, this guy has sides. And it becomes a natural progression where you think that maybe, possibly, he cares about Jesse. And he cares about Walter. But that’s my world. That doesn’t mean that Vince won’t switch it up on me. [Laughs.]


Modern Family (2010)—“Donnie Pritchett”
JB: Christopher Lloyd, I suspect, is the reason I was there. He was one of the writers and the show runner on Frasier, and Kelsey [Grammer] was one of the producers on Fired Up. So we were right next to each other on soundstages. And, actually, Arlene, Christopher’s wife, had been one of the head writers on Fired Up as well. So I knew him pretty well. But first of all, when they were thinking about a brother for Ed O’Neill… I mean, we look alike, for God’s sake! We’ve known each other a long time, and I’ve always liked him, so just to be there and play with each other was a trip. It was so much fun. You realize, by the way, that when I first make that entrance, and he grabs me by the head and we turn over and all that…if it’s ever on again, take a look at it, because we slip on that stage floor, and both of us go to that hard soundstage floor. He was black and blue up his left side for weeks. [Laughs.] I mean, when we went down, my full weight went down on top of him, and I thought, “Oh, my God, we’ve broken his hip!” But he didn’t complain at all.

AVC: Has there been any talk of you reprising the role?

JB: No. By me, maybe. [Laughs.] But otherwise, nothing. That’s another one of those, by the way, where it was, like, “Do you want to go to dailies?” No! No, I do not. “Ah, but we love you, kid!” Well, thank you for that. And good night. [Laughs.]