Goodbye 'Breaking Bad' Favourite Mike Ehrmantraut, Hello Astronauts: Jonathan Banks Talks 'Constellation'

After 'Breaking Bad' and 'Better Call Saul', Jonathan Banks swaps two of the best shows of the 21st century for a thrilling new sci-fi series.
Sarah Ward
February 20, 2024

If you could only choose one word to sum up Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, 'intense' would fit. It's also a term that describes Mike Ehrmantraut, the ex-Philadelphia cop who became a fixer for Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito, The Boys) and Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, Lucky Hank) in their criminal endeavours. As played by Jonathon Banks for over a decade between the two shows, the private investigator, hitman and security head was one of the Breaking Bad realm's formidable forces. In a franchise where no one characterisation ever fit anyone — it all started with a high-school chemistry teacher who became a methamphetamine cook, after all — Mike could also be one of the deservedly acclaimed saga's most vulnerable figures.

Ask Banks what it's been like to move on from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul after such a lengthy stint — and after featuring so prominently in two of the best shows of the 21st century — and he first brings up another stretch that's worlds away from award-winning crime dramas. "It wasn't quite a decade that I spent in Melbourne and Sydney, and in Auckland in New Zealand at one time, with Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar — and a failed production that I directed of Grease, way before you were born," he tells Concrete Playground as we start to discuss his latest project, darkly thrilling new Apple TV+ sci-fi series Constellation.

Banks is best-known of late for his time as Ehrmantraut; with five Emmy nominations and a 2023 Screen Actors Guild Award nod for his efforts, rightly so. But as bringing up his theatre background makes plain, there's so much more to Banks than his now-iconic recent part. Emmy love came his way back in the 80s, too, for his breakthrough role in crime procedural series Wiseguy. Before that, he has everything from spoof movie Airplane! and Gremlins to the Eddie Murphy (Candy Cane Lane)-starring 48 Hrs. and Beverly Hills Cop on his resume. Since then, there's barely a TV show that hasn't benefited from his presence, including beloved comedies Community and Parks and Recreation, while his movie appearances are as varied as Horrible Bosses 2, Mudbound and The Commuter.

Constellation sees Banks star alongside Noomi Rapace, who is no stranger to famous characters herself thanks to Lisbeth Salander in the original Swedish The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo films. Here, the show's two biggest names trade illicit dealings for astronauts, plus the fact that venturing into the heavens, then trying to come back, might have consequences. Rapace plays Jo Ericsson, who is at the International Space Station when the series begins, returning to earth after a tragedy. As Henry Caldera, Banks is a former space traveller who has been there, done that, also weathered a disaster above our pale blue dot and now has ISS residents oversee his quantum physics experiments. Doing double duty as Bud Caldera as well, Banks similarly steps into Henry's fellow ex-astronaut twin's shoes.

At the heart of Constellation is the search for truth, with the series joining Apple TV+'s many mysteries, a genre that the streaming platform keeps gravitating towards (Criminal Record, The Changeling, The Crowded Room, Hijack and Monarch: Legacy of Monsters are just some of its efforts of late that also fit the bill). As its narrative twists, turns and plunges into conspiracies, it's also a series about grappling with the full reality of being alive, facing mortality and confronting the enormity of the universe. And, as well as being stellar all-round, it's home to Banks' latest great performance — or, to be accurate, performances.

Constellation premieres on Wednesday, February 21 — and in the leadup, we explored the series with Banks, including its place in his filmography and, to get here, the process of farewelling Mike Ehrmantraut. "Mike was a great character, but you've got to leave Mike behind. Mike's got to go away," he notes, as Breaking Bad viewers knew going into prequel series Better Call Saul. What that means for Banks, what appeals to him after playing Mike and his take on Constellation also featured in our chat.

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Better Call Saul

Better Call Saul

On What Banks Was Looking for After Over a Decade in the Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul World

"I'm pretty open. You know, I wouldn't mind playing a fop in a restoration comedy, as far as that goes. 

But I think with Constellation, Michelle MacLaren [who was one of Breaking Bad's executive producers and directors, and also a director on Better Call Saul] sent me the script, which I totally was bewildered by when I read it the first time.

Then, because I wanted to work with Michelle and definitely Noomi — I very much respect Noomi's work — so then I'm all in. And then I get to meet Peter Harness [Constellation's creator] and I get to meet the other actors, and it's been a joy. It's been really good."

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On Taking on Dual Roles in Constellation — and Preparing to Step Into an Astronaut's Shoes

"Well, one's bad and the other one's worse. Henry is driven by the power, and the need and the ego to succeed. The other one wallows in self-pity, and is arguably more talented and more intelligent than his brother, who has been successful. It's fun.

I approach it with the respect. When I was very young, I thought these people, their intelligence — which is indeed, they are so intelligent. They're also motor geniuses physically, in what they go through and what they're faced with.

So, my first take on it is, I try to do it with respect, and respect to who they are — and I hope I pull that off in some small way."

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El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Ben Rothstein/Netflix

On Banks' Knack for Playing Both Formidable and Vulnerable

"It's in all of us. It's in you. It's in me. But if I can call on those emotions and bring them forth a little bit easier than some people, how lucky I am to be able to do that? And how lucky I am to have the chance to be able to do that?

I love being an actor. It's the only thing I ever wanted to do — ever, ever — as long as I can remember."

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On What Banks Makes of His Five-Decade Career

"Pretty nice, huh? Pretty lucky. Beyond lucky. I'll tell you what happens: I am 77 years old, and it becomes a huge reflection on a lifetime. I can out-poor most people when I was very young, raised by a single mum back when there wasn't that a lot of that around — or at least to my knowledge.

And I am stunned at my good fortune in my life, about how well I'm treated. And I try, and I do remind myself, that all of us have moments when we feel down or whatever.

I think Noomi — who fights about where and what, and where she comes and where she ends up — is trying to be a good person, which makes it such a pleasure to be around her.

And you watch Michelle, with her daughter. Michelle is a force of nature that's coming at you. She is so involved in trying to do a good job. And what's fun is with her young daughter, when her young daughter goes 'mummy can giraffes dance?' and it just stops her, and there she is dealing with the child, and all that energy goes, turns and becomes the loving and the nurturing of a child.

Now I'm telling you that because that's what I'm surrounded by all through this project.

How many people get to experience such a thing in their life? You've got to pay attention to it. Because most of us would recall bad things that have happened, times we've been hurt, times our heart was broken, times we were broke, times we were hungry. But for me, the reality is — god, I sound like a maudlin asshole — I've been gifted. What can I tell you?"

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Breaking Bad, Ursula Coyote/AMC

On Revisiting Mike Ehrmantraut Again If the Possibility Came Up — and Making More Constellation

"I love Mike. But you know what, we were left with the mystery of Mike. We have been left with that taste. For me, it's like reading that good book that you never want to end.

I remember reading Les Miserables and getting about 40 pages from the end, and going 'no, no, I can't, this can't end' and starting it all over again. And now I'm going 'no, you can't do that'. I think it's time to let Mike go.

As far as Constellation, I'm all in. Let's do it. Let's just keep doing it."

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Constellation streams via Apple TV+ from Wednesday, February 21. Read our review.

Published on February 20, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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