When Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould, and their team first announced that Better Call Saul was going to happen there were many people excited to get a deep back-story on two of the most popular characters from Breaking Bad, Saul Goodman and Mike Ehrmantraut. In that sense, Better Call Saul has never disappointed as a prequel companion series to Breaking Bad, but it’s also truly grown into its own entity at this point. A lot of this has to do wIth the criminal dealings that take place between the Salamanca and Fring factions, with much of this storyline being depicted through the eyes of faithful soldier, Nacho Varga.
Nacho is a character with a good moral compass, but he’s just gotten himself caught deeper and deeper in a bad situation. Nacho has seen his boss and his family come under crossfire in the past, but this latest season of Better Call Saul puts Nacho in his most dangerous situation yet. Changing winds in the drug cartel effect Nacho in major ways and even though he’s been resilient in the past, it suddenly looks like he may not make it out of this season alive. In light of the many changes that take place for Nacho this season and the major events that happen to him in the latest episode, “Something Beautiful,” we talk to Michael Mando about where’s Nacho’s head is at and if he’s worried for his character this year.
DEN OF GEEK: I’ve loved Better Call Saul right from the start, but this is definitely the show’s biggest season yet!
MICHAEL MANDO:I think so, too. With every great show you hope that you get better over time and I think that fortunately applies here.
As a response to that, just how worried for Nacho were you this season? His new relationship with Gus really tests him in new ways this year.
There are a lot of unanswered questions for Nacho in relation to Gus. Here’s a man who is very angry and disappointed at the Salamancas because they went after someone that he loves and now he wants revenge. Nacho is defending someone that he loves in a very similar way and finds himself persecuted, too. Vince Gilligan told me that Nacho is like a samurai without a master. He’s torn between the two sides of this war and he has his own objective to save his father.
That’s a good point. I think Nacho’s situation this year is very unique because he’s in perhaps the most complicated place out of any character this season. He truly doesn’t know where he stands.
Absolutely. For me, the arc of the character really comes into focus this season. I was able to really dig in and ask, “Who is this guy? Why does he do these things?” To me it’s a story of redemption, persistence, and love. It’s about the good son who has a lot of potential, but then takes the wrong path. Once Nacho gets everything that he thought that he wanted, he realizes that he was happier with his simple life with his father. Now he’s basically prepared to descend through Hell in order to redeem himself. He’s willing to sacrifice himself to save his father. It’s a very tragic story. It’s sad because I think Nacho learns his lesson, but he still has to pay the price.
Off of that, Nacho has always been one of the more empathetic characters in the show, but does he start to harden at all this season in order to survive with the people that he’s now around?
There’s a saying, “If you make yourself a sheep then you’ll be eaten by the wolves.” Nacho is surrounded by predators in this criminal underworld and that requires you to grow and increase your degree of toughness to survive along the way.
Do we get to see how Nacho is mentally coping with this new direction that he heads down with Gus?
We do and any actor is going to want more of that rich sort of material. You can’t get enough scenes that explore your character. That being said, I’m very much an optimistic person and like to make the best of what I’m given. This year was really a treat though because I felt like in the show’s first two seasons Nacho was very restrained. In this season he really gets to break out and be his own person.
Something I love about the show is that it takes such a slow, methodical pace, but the luxury of being four seasons in means that that material can start to pay off. That’s definitely happening with Nacho this season.
We’re a society that moves so fast and people are taught to make their best impression right from the start. What I love about Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan is that they took their biggest steps very early on and then it’s actually been like elastic that’s just been slowly pulling back and creating tension. I think we release that elastic this year and the show’s momentum becomes exponentially faster moving forward as a result.
I also just love the themes in this show, like the difference between what is moral and what is legal and how those two things intersect at certain points for every character. Nacho is currently living in a place where he’s surrounded by violence and bloodshed, but what I admire most about him is that he’s unwilling to let go to the love of his father and lose hope.
On that topic, Nacho’s relationship with his dad, Manuel, has always been one of the sweeter aspects of the character. Do we get to see more of that at all this season?
We get to see a little bit of his father. Not as much as I’d like, but he’s there. I feel like Peter and Vince have given me a really iconoclastic character and that’s a very gratifying thing, but the flip side of that coin is I would always like to see a little more between Nacho and his dad, but I love what I get to play with.
The beginning of the episode, “Something Beautiful,” where you practically get executed really knocked me back and I think that it’s an example of the show at its most ruthless. Talk a little about the filming of that scene and your headspace there.
That was a very difficult scene for me to film because I’ve been shot before in real life and I didn’t realize how much that scene would affect me and bring me back to that.
There was also a kind of funny story behind the shooting of that scene, too. While we were setting up for the scene, I was walking around in the desert and realized that I couldn’t feel my protective earplugs anymore. So I went to the medic and told him that I wasn’t sure if they fell out or got pushed too deep into my skull, but he digs around with tweezers and pulls them out. I hang onto them and tell myself to put them in before the scene, but as I’m setting up and getting into character it slips my mind. So they call action, everything’s going like it should, but when the gun goes off I realize that I’ve still got the earplugs in my hand. So the gun goes off and I can’t hear anything—my ears just pop—and I go down. There are two voices that are going on in my head, one that says, “You need to tell them to stop filming because you can’t hear anything,” and another that’s like, “Keep going! Use it!” And I believe that’s the take they used.
Nacho and Jimmy have slowly been separated on different paths throughout the course of the series and they really rarely get to interact anymore. Do Nacho and Jimmy share any screen time this year? Do you miss that dynamic?
I really do miss their dynamic, yes! I do know that Jimmy has Nacho’s phone number. It’s on those matches from season one, so the ball’s in his court. I can’t tell you if there are any scenes with them down the road this year, but obviously I love working with Bob, and I believe now that we know that Lalo is entering the picture, the whole thing from Breaking Bad when Saul shouts, “It was Ignacio! It wasn’t me!” That would probably imply the two still have more business together.
On the topic of Lalo, how would you describe this supposedly very intimidating character?
I can tell you that he is really, truly is a Salamanca in every way, just like Tuco and Hector had their own flavors to the erratic Salamancas. The territory really does turn into a bloodbath as this war between these two corporations, the Salamancas and Gus Fring’s people, breaks out. Nacho is torn between the two—Vince Gilligan told me it’s like the scene in Star Wars where they’re in the trash compactor—it’s like these two families are pushing in on Nacho in the same way. It seems like an impossible position to be in and it’s a very heavy burden to carry, especially when both parties see you as a valuable asset.
Do you have a favorite scene, memory, or something that you’re particularly excited for the audience to see from this season?
I can definitely say that episode four of this season is very intense. It’s probably our most intense episode to date. I also see all of these scenes with Nacho and the cartel as this big tapestry. If you pull out just one scene or image from that story it can kind of spoil the whole image, but it’s really impressive at the end of the season to put them all together and see the story it tells.
Better Call Saul’s fourth season continues to air Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on AMC
Daniel Kurland is a published writer, comedian, and critic whose work can be read on Den of Geek, Vulture, Bloody Disgusting, and ScreenRant. Daniel knows that the owls are not what they seem and his perma-neurotic thought process can be followed at @DanielKurlansky.