Michael Mando, who plays Nacho on AMC’s Better Call Saul, discusses why Nacho can’t leave the Salamanca operation, his complicated relationship with Mike, and just how good he became at tossing pill bottles into coat pockets.
Q: How, if at all, has Nacho changed from Season 1 to Season 3?
A: I would say that in Season 2, he was looking outside of himself to achieve his objective, and he was disappointed by Mike going to rob the trucks without his consent. He quickly realized that after having gone through Tuco and Mike and all of his experiences, he needs to take care of business himself.
Q: With Tuco in jail, Nacho has stepped into his role. Is that a job he initially wanted?
A: I never thought that Nacho wanted a career in the criminal world. I felt he got into it because he needed money for something in particular. It’s like sinking sand – he’s slowly getting caught up in it – but I don’t think it’s where his ambitions are. I think he feels the Salamancas act way too impulsively and don’t have a very clear perspective or foresight. Their actions are usually counter-productive, dangerous and unnecessary. I think that’s what frustrates him. Nothing in that moment requires that kind of violence.
Q: Does Nacho think taking on more responsibility offers him a chance to show Hector a better way?
A: One thing I learned from Nacho is that the type of respect that truly matters is one that nobody can give or take from you: self-respect. Nacho has mastered that because he does not act upon his ego. He never does something to prove something to somebody else. If he ever does something, it’s out of conviction. I don’t think he cares what Hector really thinks of him. I think he wants to stay on Hector’s good side because that’s how he can survive for now, but I don’t think he frankly cares if Hector or anybody in the cartel is impressed with him.
Q: As you said, Hector is impulsive while Nacho operates with a much cooler head. Why do you think Nacho continues to work with a man who operates so differently from himself?
A: It’s very difficult to leave the drug game, especially when you live in a small city like Albuquerque. I think there are multiple pieces keeping him there – most of which we haven’t addressed yet, like why exactly is he trying to have so much money? What’s his end game? I think because of the fact that his father owns a shop there, he’s very dependent and as we see this season, he loves his father so much that he’s willing to put everything aside. In other words, if he were to leave Albuquerque, he would open up his father to a possible attack by the Salamancas if they were to look for him.
Q: In Episode 6, Hector demands to use Nacho’s father’s shop as a front for his drug operation. How does Nacho process that emotionally?
A: Episode 6 is a very condensed timeline of Nacho’s trajectory over the last five years with the Salamancas. He’s bending, bending, bending, and at this particular moment he snaps and that’s when he realizes it’s never going to get better with them. They will just keep taking until one of us completely gives into the other – and they’re not going to give in anytime soon. When he mentions Nacho’s father, I have a feeling Nacho isn’t going to give in anytime soon either.
Q: Do you think Nacho is surprised when Mike gives him advice about the pill scheme in Episode 7? How would you describe their relationship?
A: I think Nacho was more surprised that Mike helped [Pryce]. I think Nacho, from the very beginning, has been looking for an ally. He’s a very isolated character because he’s always the odd man out and the observer. When he saw Mike, he quickly thought he could be the ally he was waiting for. [Mike is] highly experienced, highly skilled and highly intelligent, but when [Nacho] realizes that Mike is more flawed than he expected and that Mike acts upon emotions of revenge, their relationship is very quickly severed. Mike’s actions led to one of Nacho’s colleagues getting killed and to an innocent American losing his life as well. There’s definitely frustration there, but there’s always respect because Nacho is a good judge of character and knows that deep down, Mike is an exceptional person.
Q: In Episode 8, we learn that Nacho gave Mike the coordinates to the body. Why do you think Nacho agrees to that? Is he hoping that might solve his Hector problem?
A: What’s interesting with Nacho at this point in the story is that he’s willing to put his ambitions and his own life aside to save his father. When he gives Mike that body, I think it’s for two reasons. One, he respects Mike’s wishes to help the family. Two, he feels protecting his father is more important than anything else. Nacho has matured a lot. I don’t think he’s betting on anyone outside of himself to protect his father. In Season 2, he went to Mike to get rid of Tuco and this season, he’s very much his own man and he’s going to do it himself.
Q: Nacho has had the chance to observe Gus Fring several times this season. What does he make of him? Do you think Nacho would rather work for a guy like him?
A: I think he recognizes elements of behavior in Gus that he sees in himself. Gus is very restrained, capable of hiding in plain sight, he doesn’t tell people what he’s thinking, and he has a very long endgame that is independent of his ego or the way people perceive him. There’s a strong curiosity there. He recognizes Gus is superior to Hector and suspects him of manipulating Hector. I don’t think Nacho is looking for a patron anymore. He learned his lesson. You have to be your own man. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t see value in working with others, but I don’t think he’s in a position where he’s looking for patrons.
Q: What’s going through Nacho’s mind as he swaps the pills in Episode 8?
A: It sounds like such a simple thing to do, but it’s such a tricky thing to do because if Hector so much as suspects Nacho of messing with his pills, it’s the death of Nacho. Worse than that, it’s potentially the death of his father. It’s literally a moment of do or die. He knows that within those five minutes, if anything slightly goes wrong, he loses absolutely everything including his own life.
Q: Nacho obviously practiced (and failed) a bit to make sure he got the drop just right. Did you have to try a few times as well?
A: There are a lot of tricky components to it. The first thing was how to count the amount of pills in Hector’s box, how to dispose of those pills to eventually replace them and how to remove from your container the exact amount of pills and put them back in the box in a manner of seconds. If you were to pour pills in your hand, you realize how sticky they are and how easy they are to drop. … We had to shoot a few takes because they would get stuck in my hand or wouldn’t quite fall into the hole when I tried to put them back into the box. Then, having to do it all under the table without looking was challenge number 2. The third challenge was dropping them in the pocket while walking and not being noticed. We were able to go almost 40 inches away from the pocket and walk seamlessly and throw it in, which is how good [Nacho] eventually got. But the trick was to be able to do it every single time and do it while you’re very nervous and not knowing how open Hector’s pocket would be at the time. He was walking a thin line between losing absolutely everything and moving on to the next level.
Q: Both last season and this season, you share a lot of scenes with the familiar faces from Breaking Bad. What is it like to work with those actors in those iconic roles?
A: Everybody that I’ve ever worked with on this show, whether they were on Breaking Bad or new to Better Call Saul, are really at the top of their game. They’re not only great artists, but great people. I’ve been very blessed and very lucky to have had such a great experience with everyone.
Read a Q&A with Margo Margolis, who plays Hector Salamanca.
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