Over half a century in Hollywood, Jonathan Banks has carved out a career as the quintessential bad guy. His dead-eyed stare has radiated menace on literally hundreds of TV shows and movies—everything from Wiseguy to The Waltons, Beverly Hills Cop to Horrible Bosses 2. But you probably know the four-time Emmy nominee as the invective-spewing crime scene “fixer” Mike Ehrmantraut from Breaking Bad and its prequel, Better Call Saul.
A day before his 70th birthday, the D.C.-born fan favorite agreed to break down a few hard-won life lessons—and gleefully recall that time he guest starred alongside Delta Burke on Designing Women.
When you were younger, what actor did you want to be?
Anthony Quinn. I was 16 watching him in Zorba the Greek. I thought, “Here’s this man who takes the world in his arms. Here’s this tough guy—and trust me, I wanted to be a tough guy— who wants to touch as much of the world as he can.” That’s the direction I wanted my life to go in.
Did you get into fights growing up?
I saw a little too much shit when I was a kid. I’d go to bars. There’d be fights. I had that look—I don’t know what to tell you. I was ready to go. At 17 I got my ass kicked really good. Got put in the hospital. Had my head stabilized so my brain wouldn’t swell. There are bars that are rough and ready. All it takes is a couple of drinks. And whatever anger someone is carrying in them, they’re ready to rumble. I strongly advise young guys: Stay out of those bars!
Any altercations as a grown man?
I’ll tell you something funny: A couple of months ago, I was out with my wife, who is the love of my life. Some guy was being obnoxious to people. I thought, “That fucking prick!” I started to get up. My wife is from Spain and still has an accent. She put her hand on me and said, “Yonathan, your shoulder is torn. Your knee doesn’t work. What do you think the outcome of this is going to be?”
How memorable was Beverly Hills Cop?
Beverly Hills Cop was a breakthrough for me. There’s a scene where Eddie Murphy comes in. I’m sitting in the background, and I’ve already killed his friend. And I’m just looking at him. [Director Martin Brest] said, “Don’t you think you should show a little more? Go a little larger?” I said, “I don’t think it should be any more.” I have always felt that the camera will pick up everything. I’m a big believer in letting a camera rest on an actor in silence. And also, real toughness comes in a lot of shapes and sizes.
What about Designing Women?
On Designing Women I played a homeless guy who lived in an abandoned gas station. He wins a contest, and they come in to decorate it. He becomes very demanding about what they were doing. It was a lot of fun! They still make jokes about it. I didn’t design my career to be a journeyman actor, but at the same time, I loved what I did. I’ve done some of my finest work on shows like that.
How does one live a happy life?
Keep believing in yourself until the day you die. If you’re not a liar and you’re trying to lead a decent life, then you’ve got to give yourself credit. I put my head on the pillow at the end of the day and tell myself: “You know what, Johnny Banks? Sleep well. You’re doing the best you know how. Maybe you can do better tomorrow. Just try.”
Any thoughts on retiring?
If I leave acting, I’ll just go. No goodbye. I have huge respect for guys who did that: Gene Hackman, Sean Connery. When William Powell stopped, he stopped. Moved to Palm Springs without fanfare. I like the strength of doing that. My work is my work. My ego is something else. And I would like to not have such a large ego that I need to advertise it.
Better Call Saul season 3 premieres on AMC at 10 p.m. ET on Monday, April 10.