Canadian actor Michael Mando, who is best known as the fan favourite Nacho Varga, right hand man to the heir of the Salamanca empire, on AMC’s hit series Better Call Saul, returns with a new single, and an EP on the way.
One fateful encounter in New York with Prince’s guitarist Michael “Fish” Herring sealed Mando’s desire to share his music with the world. Having already set pen to paper with lyrical musings from a very young age, the meeting inspired Mando, a true multi-hyphenate artist, to follow his musical destiny and start producing music.
Following several months of meticulous preparation, Mando announced the release of his debut EP titled “The Wild One.” His drive to deliver a personal piece of music is what led Mando to compose the EP’s self-titled first single, a heartfelt track that melds pop and R&B with just the right touch of rock.
For Mando, “The Wild One” is an emancipation – the expression of a longing to reaffirm his freedom, to leave behind the metaphoric chains that had him imprisoned and finally fulfill his dreams.
Mando teamed up with some of Canada’s top musicians who guided him to let his singer/songwriter/producer skills shine throughout the EP. He was also thrilled to rekindle his Quebecois roots by enlisting the steadfast support of Studio Piccolo, renowned for producing some of Quebec’s greatest talent (Celine Dion, Lara Fabian, Garou).
In our new interview, Mando talks about the intense fifth season of Better Call Saul, the creative process behind his new single “The Wild One”, and how he’s keeping busy in quarantine.
Tell me about Nacho’s character arc this season
It’s a wonderful season. You know, this is by far our best season. It’s the one where I think we’re all super excited about. Really what’s amazing about this character arc is it’s really an iconoclastic character. It’s really the antithesis of Scarface. He starts off as the cartel member that you would expect as a power-hungry, money-hungry person who wants influence and he ends up getting everything he’s ever wanted in terms of the underground world and is willing to throw it all away without a shred of hesitation to save his father and to get out of their cartel for good and do the right thing. And even if that involves him throwing away all the money and turning down all the promotions and at the risk of his own life.
It’s one of those shows where it’s such a character study of everyone because the characters are so well-written and so well-developed. And despite that, aside from Nacho, there’s not a lot of people that you can root for in the sense that like there’s nobody who is a clear-cut good person. But over the course of five seasons, Nacho is trying to get out of this world that he was born into, but he has to live in a grey area to get out of it.
Absolutely. Curtis. That’s exactly right and I’m so happy that you resonate with it and I’m so happy that you love the character so much. It’s really such a pleasure to share the inner life of a character over a course of a few seasons with people who watch the show.
How your character has evolved since season one? How do you think your character has been able to progress as a person?
I think my character started off as sort of a lion that hasn’t gotten the fur around his neck yet and I think he’s earned it by the end of this season. I think he truly becomes a fully grown man among sharks and sociopaths. And I think he finally stands up on his own two feet. The character study is so beautiful in the writing and the iconoclastic element of the characters is such a treat to play. I never thought I would be so lucky to play a character that was going to break all the stereotypes in this universe. And I just really give my hat off to Peter Gould and all the writers for having done such a wonderful job.
It seems that nowadays actors are able to seamlessly go from TV to film and all portray different characters, whether they’re villains or heroes or someone like Nacho where it’s a little bit in between. Do you think that typecasting still exists now?
I think we’re always going to look at people with the impressions that we often get of them. And I think if you’re any kind of human being, if you present yourself under a certain light, then I think the brain automatically gets lazy and starts associating. I think that’s the case with Nacho too. You know, the first time they see him on camera, they see the way he’s dressed, they see the way he looks and they immediately think bad guy. So association is something I think that the brain does subconsciously. And I think as an artist, the pleasure and the challenge is always to take those associations and try to remold them. And by remolding them, ideally you would broaden the experience of it and humanize these characters.
Absolutely. And I think over the course of five seasons the show has been able to do that rather well because you’ve been able to take a look at these characters and just associate them with drug dealers or Mexicans, etc, but if you take a closer look you see all these different layers and the development that happens, you are able break away from associations and know the character and their motivations.
Exactly. I’m so happy that you responded with the themes. It really makes me very happy.
It’s cool that we’re talking today (April 20th) because season five actually wraps up tonight.
Exactly. This is a huge episode directed by Peter Gould, our showrunner. It’s a real cliffhanger and it’s one of the best episodes of the whole series.
With season five wrapped up, where do you think Nacho can go from here? *Spoiler Alert*
Well, you know, Nacho is in the biggest peril that we’ve ever seen him at the end of this season. It’s the worst position to be that you can ever imagine. He’s got Gus against him. Lalo Salamanca is against him. His father pushes him to go to the police and Don Eladio wants him to be part of the cartel. He’s trying so hard to do the right thing and everybody sees him as an asset to advance their own personal gains. And I can’t wait for season six. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.
I also found it interesting early on in a season one where Nacho is struggling to find a father figure trying to find his way into being in the cartel and being at least somewhat of a person of morality.
Yes, we see a character as a young man who’s definitely looking for guidance. And I think what I love about this character so much as part of his growing up is understanding that he’s at a time in his life and at an age in his life and the circumstances of his life have it that he can’t look up to anybody anymore and needs to look up to himself. And he never gets the satisfaction of having a guide or a kind of father figure that was going to take him under their wing. He stands up on his own two feet and he starts looking for allegiances, which is very different. And he ends up basically sacrificing everything and putting everything on the line at the end of this season in order to show Mike Ehrmantraut, played by the wonderful Jonathan Banks, that he’s totally game and that he’s totally reliable and loyal. And I think he puts the ball in Mike Ehrmantraut’s court and shows his allegiance.
Yeah. And that speaks to the tragedy underlying in the show itself where you have a character like that who doesn’t have that kind of guidance and tries to find it anywhere he can but he tries to trade that off with allegiances, which is far from the same thing, and you see the tragedy in that because he’s selling out his morality and integrity.
Right. And I think he actually doesn’t want to sell out his morality or his integrity. I think that’s exactly what he’s fighting for. He wants his integrity and his morality back. You know, he wants to go back home in a figurative way. The same thing in Homer’s Ulysses where Ulysses wants to go back home, so Nacho wants to go back to that place where he’s his son’s father with that innocence where he could look at himself in the mirror and know that his soul is liked. And unfortunately, in order to do that, he’s got to walk through fire.
With the show set to wrap up with the sixth season next year, what do you think the legacy of the show will be?
I think that’s really up to the fans. I’ve never been part of any project for this long, and as an artist I can tell you I’ve grown so much as a person. It’s so interesting that I was so lucky to play this character because not only is he so iconoclastic, but his emotions run so deep and are never truly spoken. So it forced me to get as close as I can to my own heart, and to understand the character I needed to understand myself better and to dive into myself as deep as I could. Because so much of the character is nonverbal, it actually brought me to music because music has always been the love of my life when I was a child and I never thought I wanted to be an actor or a musician.
But I’ve written hundreds of songs and thousands of lyrics and poems, and actually I was supposed to record an EP with Celine Dion’s musicians, but when I came back from the Seth Meyers show, I had to be quarantined, which was new at the time and I couldn’t go to the studio anymore as the studio closed down. So the room that you’re Skyping me in is actually a room that I turned into a recording studio and ended up learning Pro Tools and Logic and composition and all that kind of stuff over the past month and recorded myself and released my very first single.
What was the creative process behind that track?
When I was shooting Better Call Saul, I sadly found that my father in real life had terminal cancer and it was really heartbreaking for me because I had to shoot a character that was fighting to save his father’s life. And in my daily life there was nothing I could do for my father. I was so overwhelmed with so much emotion that I felt the need to take these walks at night, which led me to bumping into street musicians. I put on a hat and glasses and I bought them pizza and beer and I jammed with them for a whole Friday night. I felt it was so cathartic that I felt this is the kind of thing that I need to do in order to stay level-headed. And that somewhere along the line sharing what I’ve felt with other people through music sort of alleviated the personal experience that I was going through. And that’s why in the first verse of the song is dedicated to my father. And the second verse is dedicated to my mother. And the song is truly about emancipation. You know, it’s about breaking away from anything that holds you back, that he’s within you, the fears that are within you. And the wild one is sort of like a metaphorical for someone who breaks away from his preconceived negative conventions of himself.
So you have an EP on the way, right?
Yes. So there’s a three-part EP. The first one is the ride into the sunset, which is “The Wild One”. The second one is that fatal night with your demon when you spend alone that night in the forest where the demon visits you and you’ve got to make love to her and you’ve got to make peace with her and you have to say goodbye to her. And then the third one is the sunrise. It’s the walk back into the sun, into the lights. And it’s a trilogy.
I read that you teamed up with some of Canada’s top musicians who guided you to create your EP. What did you learn from an experience like that?
I learned that there are a lot of similarities between music and film. Film editing and music arrangements are very similar in the sense that they’re based on rhythm and rhythm is basically kind of mathematical, and there’s a lot of rationality in music in the same way that there is in film, music and film production. There’s not one way to do things. There are many ways to do things, there is the language in cinema. When you cut, when you’re in a close-up or you’re in a master or a cowboy shot or when the camera is moving or when the camera crosses, all these philosophies and these techniques can be applied to music.
You mentioned earlier that you were supposed to go into the studio but you’re instead in quarantine. What’s keeping you busy while you’re in quarantine?
My music. I’m actually recording myself. I’m producing myself. I’m arranging it myself. I’ve learned all the computer programs like Pro Tools and Logic. I’m learning music theory and it’s kind of forced me to follow this passion of mine because there’s actually nothing else I can do and I’ve really dived into it full-heartedly and I can’t wait for the world to hear it. I’ve got a lot of songs that I’m going to release over my life if I’m lucky to live long enough, so I can’t wait to share all that with everybody.
How long have you been writing songs for?
I’ve been writing since I was maybe 15.
With a show as intense as Better Call Saul, what would you consider to be the most difficult scene you had the shoot?
Mmm, that’s hard. You know, it’s like peaks and valleys, I think they’re all equally hard, you know, even as seen when you have to sew something in your dad’s upholstery shop and you accidentally cut yourself in the story. There’s so much subtext to that, so I approach every scene with the same amount of intensity and the same amount of attention to detail even if it was a comedic scene. You obviously have to relax as an artist and you have to let inspiration hit you, but I think the concentration always needs to be there.
Anything in terms of an intense scene that comes to mind?
Well definitely in this episode two of season five when they had Nacho in the car and they threatened his father and he gets very emotional and then he realizes it’s a kind of psychological torture that Gus Fring wasn’t really going to kill his father. That scene was very difficult because the instinct when somebody provokes you in that way is to really want to retaliate. And now he doesn’t get the chance to truly retaliate in that moment, so you have to sort of let that implosion happen. And that can be very emotionally taxing, but it’s also fun. You know, it’s also what’s fun about the character.
Why do you think a show like Better Call Saul has lasted as long as it hasn’t and why it’s resonated with viewers so much?
I think attention to detail. I think it starts with the writing, the directing, the costumes, and it trickles down to everybody in the crew. I think when you put your heart into something and you do your homework I think you will have people resonate with what you do. And I think Better Call Saul and Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould really express that culture of everything counts, and everything matters. You know, every color, every character’s costume, the car that they drive, everything has a story behind it. And I think people really love to revel in that world.
Yeah, the cast has some of the best character actors that a TV show can have. You’ve had scenes with practically all of them, particularly Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, and Giancarlo Esposito, does your approach as an actor change based on your scene partner?
No, I think my approach is always the same. You’re always going in there and you’re always there to protect the interest of your character. And I’ve always been in the school of thought that love is more interesting than hate. And ideally it’s just like real life. You’re trying to find a common ground with whoever the person you’re talking with in that scene, whether it’s a love scene or a fight scene, ideally you’re always trying to find common ground. You’re playing a sociopath or psychopath, you know, but I’m always interested in the human spirit, so it doesn’t matter who I’m playing opposite. I think my approach is always to have a connection. Ideally I’d love the person that is working with me to do their best work when they’re working with me and I’m always striving to do my best work.
Do you think that with the Coronavirus pandemic going on that the production on season six will be affected?
I hope not. I know they’re writing everything through Skype, kind of like we’re doing the interview now. And I know that that’s how the writers are meeting up and we’re supposed to shoot in September. I can’t foresee what is going to happen, but that’s also a question that maybe Peter and Vince could answer.
Is there a piece of advice that you’ve gotten while working on the show that stands out to you?
Since you’ve mentioned Jonathan Banks, I’ll tell you what Banks told me. He took me aside during a scene and he said to me, “listen kid, I think you’re a terrific actor. The director thinks you’re great. The producers and the writers think you’re great and the network thinks you’re great, but I look at you and I can tell that you don’t believe that you’re great. And he told me until you actually believe that and you’re comfortable believing that you’ll never sleep at night. And he told me, don’t wait until you’re 70 to figure that out.”
That’s fantastic. It speaks about how much self-confidence is important and how critical it is to delivering a good performance but also not something that you want to take for granted.
You should never take anything for granted. You know, my father is dying right now and I realize how precious and short life is, which is what’s inciting me to release music and to be open. When you put yourself out there, you put yourself in a situation that is very vulnerable, don’t let that scare you. For every person that is going to attack your vulnerability, there are five others who are going to stand behind you. I believe in the human spirit. I believe in humanity. I believe in good people and I want to see good people do well.
What’s the usual shooting experience for Better Call Saul? Is it a usually lengthy rehearsal process or is it more on-location in the moment?
I’m not a big fan of rehearsing for film and TV unless it’s a very particular scene. I kind of like the experience of the moment, but there are some scenes that require rehearsal. Everybody’s different and I’m always open to rehearsing if that’s what the other actors want in terms of shooting. And maybe I should take that back cause it’s not entirely true actually. I think rehearsal is dependent on the nature of the scene and the people you’re working with. I think that’s the correct answer. It’s not something that is a required or absolutely necessary. It all depends on circumstance. Some actors love it and insist on doing it every time. I’m pretty flexible when it comes to rehearsal. When it comes to shooting an episode, it’s about a seven to nine working days.
Is Better Call Saul episodes usually hashed out in rehearsal?
Depends. Some actors, like I know Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn really love the rehearsal process. I know Jonathan Banks likes to take me aside and read the scene a couple of times until he feels comfortable with it. Giancarlo Esposito and I don’t really rehearse any scenes together. We just kind of come in cold and we like to surprise each other. Everybody’s a little bit different.
“The Wild One” is available now on all streaming platforms.