Sunday, February 15, 2015

TV Watch: About the special "Better Call Saul" thrill of reencountering an old compadre from "Breaking Bad"


It's kind of a shame that we already knew that Jimmy McGill going to tangle with this familiar-to-us face, but the producers had to give us something in the name of -- gasp -- publicity, if only to guard the important secrets.

"You also realize that it wasn’t the drug that made him that way. Deep down inside, he just has anger issues."
-- Raymond Cruz, on playing Tuco Salamanca again,
but now six years before Breaking Bad

by Ken

You know how I always say I'd like to know as little as possible about a TV show or movie I'm going to watch? Case in point: the premier episode of Better Call Saul. Which means that if you haven't seen it yet, don't read this!

No, I'm not thinking particularly of the driblets of information that the show's creative team was compelled to leak in the name of -- sigh -- publicity. Although, now that you mention it, some of the fun was taken out of that first unhappy encounter between not-yet-Saul Goodman lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and the parking attendant who turns out to be none other than our old Breaking Bad compadre Mike Erhrmantraut. I mean, wouldn't it have been fun to have been surprised, that very first time, to see Mike there in his little booth collecting parking payments at the lot outside the court building? Just think, ohmygod, it's Mike!!! Still, it's a piquant enough bit that even if we've already seen it, it's still fun, especially now seeing it happen in context. And goodness knows, the show makes the most of repeat encounters between Jimmy and the man he screamingly dubs "employee of the month."

And obviously, in the interest of -- sigh -- publicity, the BCS folks has to spill some beans.

The better to protect the real jolts, like the one that came at the end of that first episode. You know, after Slippin' Jimmy tracked down his new young scam-artist protégés to the house where we last saw the brothers being unceremoniously dragged in the door by . . . well, who knew whom? And Jimmy knocked, and tried to peek inside, and did his "officer of the court" patter, and then the door opened, and . . . . And then, in the final shot of the episode, standing there in the door was --

(Again, if you haven't watched the episode, for Pete's sake don't keep reading!!!)

Standing there in the door was Tuco Salamanca! Yikes!!!

Of course, since the actor in question is Raymond Cruz, it could conceivably be The Closer and Major Crimes's Detective Julio Sanchez, for some reason holed up in Albuquerque. But no, glint in the eyes, the fright-inducing scowl, that could only be Tuco!

It's a younger Tuco than we knew from Breaking Bad, of course, since the action of BCS is set back in time all those years from BB. But nobody who watched BB is apt to forget the time we spent in the psychopathic company of one of the scarier presences ever captured in moving images. In a Q-and-A actor Raymond Cruz did with the AMC blogfolk back in the BB days, he said, "I’m not going to make a judgment and say Tuco is out of his mind, but his parameters are definitely a lot further out there than other people’s." I like that -- "his parameters are definitely a lot further out there than other people’s.")

For Episode 2, Raymond Cruz was listed right-and-proper in the guest-starring cast. But can you imagine how much less fun we would have had at that parting sequence of events at the end of Episode 1 if we had been tipped to Raymond Cruz's presence?

By way of celebration, the AMC blogfolk have posted a Q-and-A with Tuco, er, Raymond. If you think it's easy playing a character like this, think again. And find out how he winds down after a day of doing it.

Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk) and Tuco (Raymond Cruz) in Episode 2

Q: How did you react when you first learned Tuco was going to appear on Better Call Saul? Did you ever think you’d get another chance to play him?

A: I really didn’t. I thought Tuco was a done deal, dead and gone, but I heard about the show and the fact that it’s a prequel, and I thought, “Wow! How are they going to twist this around?” It worked out, and I was excited about it.

Q: Better Call Saul is set six years before Breaking Bad. How does Better Call Saul Tuco compare with Breaking Bad Tuco? Did you approach playing him any differently?

A: Oh yeah, of course. Tuco, at this point, is not discovered through meth. He’s not as explosive, but you also realize that it wasn’t the drug that made him that way. Deep down inside, he just has anger issues! [Laughs] This guy is a complete walking menace, and the drugs just amplify that. When I first did Tuco, I had to first build the character and then figure out how the drugs — physiologically, psychologically, emotionally — affected him. You layer that on top of the character. With Better Call Saul, my work was done. It wasn’t like I had to build a whole new character. I was just revisiting him and taking him to a different point in his life.

Q: Are there any inspirations behind your portrayal of Tuco?

A: No. I use my imagination.

Q: It’s just all you?!

A: [Laughs] It’s all me! It’s very interesting, because when they were first looking for Tuco, before Breaking Bad ever aired, the casting director approached me and said they couldn’t find anyone to do the part. I read the script and said, “Wow, it’s great! The writing is great!” He said, “Can you do it?” I said, “Yes!” He said, “Will you do it?” I said, “No!” They didn’t know what they were asking for. I knew where they wanted to take it, and that to make it work would be so much effort, and it was. I ended up doing the part, and it was strictly because of the challenge of it.

Q: You’ve spoken before about the physical, emotional and mental demands of playing such a high-energy character. Were you at all reluctant to revisit Tuco?

A: I was. It was more physical and mental than anything, and I remember getting injured several times doing Tuco. I almost broke my nose, and I pulled a muscle in my back. It’s such high energy, and his outbursts are so dramatic. You lose your voice by the end of the day, and you’re drained emotionally and mentally. It’s not a part you look forward to! It’s more like, “Can I do this again?”

Q: How do you wind down after a day with him?

A: I read, I don’t make a sound, I don’t even want to talk. When you shoot, you’re doing it for 12 to 14 hours a day and you don’t do a scene just once. You do it several times from different angles — and I never hold back. I remember when I was shooting Breaking Bad, one of the directors came up to me and told me I didn’t have to do what I was doing, but I do. Reactions are just as important as what I’m doing. It makes such a big difference, especially with this character.

Q: As a Breaking Bad alum, were you excited to return to Albuquerque to work with Vince and the crew again? What did you look forward to the most?

A: It was like going back home, going to a familiar place and seeing familiar faces. To come off of this great program and to go back into the same atmosphere with the same people and the whole crew, and you’re making great television. Albuquerque was one of the reasons I took the job in the first place. When I saw the cinematography, the vistas, this huge sky and how they were contrasting the dry landscape with this urban drama, it was so interesting to me. You would never expect it, and you look at the desert as if there’s nothing there, but there is — and you don’t believe what you’re seeing. There are harsh shooting conditions though, and sometimes the weather itself is a whole other character.

Q: You’re currently continuing a long run portraying a detective on television. Which do you enjoy playing more, cops or criminals?

A: I just look for challenges in parts. My detective character is so underplayed and is a complete contrast to Tuco, so to communicate his point of view is great. You want to watch a show and root for the good guy. Who would stop the bad guys?

Q: Is there any “good guy” in Tuco?

A: People aren’t one-dimensional. There’s always something, and with Tuco, it’s his sense of family and community. If he’s behind you, he’s behind you 100%.

Q: What’s your all-time favorite Tuco line?

A: I don’t have an all-time favorite. It’s just the combination of the writing, the performance, and this whole way of thinking about what comes out of his mouth. When I first read Breaking Bad, I thought “dark comedy,” and that’s how I approached it.

Q: I’m partial to his use of “bizznatch.”

A: [Laughs] I think people are going to walk around saying “bizznatch” now!
As you know, since you've already watched Episode 1, it was Jimmy and his young friends' misfortune that the very day they pulled their scam, not only did the brothers hit the wrong station wagon, and not only was their unintended victim a little old Spanish-speaking victim, but she happened to be the adored abuelita of Tuco, who by even worse luck happened to be visited her that day by her doting grandson. With the results we've already allluded to.

So perhaps you too are concerned that Tuco never did fetch that club soda his abuelita kept insisting he would need in order to get out that, er, salsa stain out of her rug before it dried, at which point it would be impossible to remove. Bad Tuco!


I see that, two episodes in, EW's Dan Snierson has really been doing a job on the first two episodes of Better Call Saul, tapping into the thoughts of the creative team for insights I thought we might have to wait for the DVD special features for.

I'm delighted that the BCS guys are becoming regular Chatty Cathies once an episode has aired, which is just the way it should be. As Dan S puts it in his piece following the airing of Episode 2 "Peter Gould on the return of a Breaking Bad villian" (prefaced with a lovely in-no-uncertain terms boldface spoiler alert):
The creators of Better Call Saul were not loose-lipped in interviews when asked which characters from Breaking Bad might pop up in their prequel spin-off, but they wound up giving the audience a tight! tight! tight! treat in the very first two episodes: the resurrection of Tuco Salamanca.
So how did the return of Tuco come about? Peter Gould told Dan:
It’s very simple. We had this situation where Jimmy was going to knock on a door with a full head of steam and we thought to ourselves, "Who is the worst person to be on the other side of that door? Who is the person you’d least like to meet with on the other side of that door?" We certainly thought about a lot of different possibilities, but I have to say, Tuco was the answer to that question.
(What I didn't realize was that the Breaking Bad team had always wanted more Tuco, maybe lots more Tuco, but Raymond Cruz found the character so demanding that he asked the BB creative team to kill the character off in Season 2.)

Bob Odenkirk reported a great reaction to the return of Tuco:
The first time I read the first script and got to the end and Tuco opened the door, my heart dropped. I went, "How did Vince and Peter get me to that place in one episode where I went, 'Oh, s—!' out loud?" It’s just amazing. They’re master storytellers.
Dan has lots more to share on the subject, including a stalwart refusal by Peter G to tell us how much more of Tuco we'll be seeing. Not only are Vince and Peter master story-tellers, they know when and how to keep their mouths shut!

And going back to the beginning --

I was even more delighted to see that for his piece timed to the airing of Episode 1 Dan S really went to town on the amazing six-minute pre-credit sequence of Episode 1, the altogether extraordinary flash-forward to Saul Goodman's post-Breaking Bad life in Omaha, shot in black-and-white and played out without dialogue to the soulful accompaniment of the song "Address Unknown." (I've already watched it four times, I think, and I hoped there would be a clip to share, but I haven't found it yet, though there are snatches in the producers' excellent "Inside Episode 101" recap.)

What the producers did was to give Saul exactly the future he had joked about before his departure in the next-to-last episode of Breaking Bad:

Vince Gilligan told Dan S that plunking Saul down in a Cinnabon in Omaha "was an idea that made us laugh." But it couldn't have happened if the Cinnabon people hadn't gone along -- and and not just gone along but offered lots of coooperation. (The scene was shot at a Cinnabon in Albuquerque, and the two female employees are the genuine article.)

Bob Odenkirk, Dan reports, "had two distinct reactions to the scene --"
one when he read the script for the first time, and the other when he saw the finished product onscreen. “Reading it was very sad and I was just thinking about this character and how completely f—ed he was, like a guy who’s dead but walking around,” he tells EW. “And yet when I watched it, because I’m also a fan of Breaking Bad, it made me satisfied. I was glad to see he was somewhere in the world, and it just made me happy to know where he ended up. It’s such a smart thing that these guys did. Because it made it okay for me to go back in time. If they hadn’t actually addressed where he went, it would have been harder to go, ‘Well, let’s go back in time.’”
Bob also had a lot to say about the second part of the sequence, showing Saul, or rather "Gene," as his Cinnabon name tag identified him, holed up in his Omaha apartment. If Dan keeps this up, I suspect I'm going to make it a habit to check out his episode-by-episode coverage.

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