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James McMurtry Is More Expressive Than Ever On 'Complicated Game'

Complicated Game demonstrates a new range of style and subject matter for McMurtry.

06:28

Other segments from the episode on March 9, 2015

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 9, 2015: Interview with Peter Gould and Jonathan Banks; Review of James McMurtry's album "Complicated Game";

Transcript

March 9, 2015

Guests: Peter Gould & Jonathan Banks

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

BOB ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) I know what you're thinking. Yeah, a lawsuit sounds good, Saul, but who can I sue? Who can you sue? Try police departments, libraries, construction companies, school officials, cleaning services, financial institutions, local and international, your neighbors, your family members, your church, synagogue or other...

GROSS: That's an ad for Saul Goodman, the attorney who took whatever work he could get, from slip-and-fall cases and frivolous lawsuits to clients like meth cook and dealer Walter White, the central character on the great AMC series "Breaking Bad." Luckily for "Breaking Bad" fans like me, Saul Goodman is back in AMC's new "Breaking Bad" prequel, "Better Call Saul." My guest Peter Gould created the character of Saul when he was writing on "Breaking Bad." Gould and the creator of "Breaking Bad," Vince Gilligan, co-created the new series "Better Call Saul." Also with us is Jonathan Banks, who played Mike Ehrmantraut, the hitman and fixer on "Breaking Bad" who was killed by Walt in the final season. It's great to have the character return for the prequel. His past has always been a mystery. But tonight's episode of "Better Call Saul" will reveal some of his back story.

Let's start with a scene from the first episode of "Better Call Saul" which is set six years before the start of "Breaking Bad." Saul Goodman isn't yet using that name. He's still going by his birth name, Jimmy McGill. He's a public defender who's so broke, his home and office are the back room of a nail salon. He's trying to get some wealthy, high-profile clients for his private practice. When he finds out that the county treasurer is suspected of having embezzled over a million and a half dollars, Saul, played by Bob Odenkirk, sets his sights on becoming the treasurer's lawyer. Saul can't invite the clients to his shabby office, so he meets with the treasurer and the treasurer's wife in a restaurant.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Look, all I know is what I read in the paper. And typically when money goes missing from the county treasury - and the number here is $1.6 million...

JULIE ANN EMERY: (As Betsy Kettleman) Well, that's an accounting...

JEREMY SHAMOS: (As Craig Kettleman) That's an accounting discrepancy.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) It's a discrepancy, absolutely, but typically when that happens, the police look at the treasurer. And since that person is (laughter) - I just think a little proactivity may be in order.

SHAMOS: (As Craig Kettleman) I just think I'd look guilty if I hired a lawyer.

EMERY: (As Betsy Kettleman) Yeah.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Actually, it's getting arrested that makes people look guilty, even the innocent ones. And innocent people get arrested every day. And they find themselves in a little room with a detective who acts like he's their best friend. Talk to me, he says. Help me clear this thing up. You don't need a lawyer. Only guilty people need lawyers. And boom, hey, that's when it all goes south. That's when you want someone in your corner, someone who will fight tooth and nail. Lawyers - you know, we're like health insurance. You hope you never need it, but man, oh man, not having it - no (laughter).

GROSS: Peter Gould, Jonathan Banks, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on "Better Call Saul." Peter Gould, let me start with you. Of all the characters to spin off, why did you want to spin off a series about Saul?

PETER GOULD: It's a fascinating question.

GROSS: I'm glad you did.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'm glad you did.

GOULD: Well, I'm glad you're glad. It may sound like a calculated process, but there was nothing but organic instinct behind it. Saul Goodman was introduced in season two of "Breaking Bad," and he - I was a little worried when he first appeared because he seemed maybe not in keeping with the rest of the tone of the show. But somehow, he seemed to work in the world of "Breaking Bad," and we loved him. Everybody in the writer's room enjoyed writing for him and thinking about what would happen to Saul Goodman. And it started becoming a writer's room joke that this is too silly to happen on "Breaking Bad" or this is something that we'd like to happen on "Breaking Bad" but it doesn't quite fit, so it'll go on the Saul Goodman show. And as the years went by, it became less of a joke. So the answer really is that this character, he took us by the collar and said, do this show, more than us deciding that he was the guy.

GROSS: Bob Odenkirk said that he based his performance of Saul on Hollywood agents and the way that agents, like, try to manipulate their clients into deals. Who did you base Saul on? Were you thinking of agents? Were you thinking of lawyers?

GOULD: I think we were thinking about lawyers. I grew up in New York, and I had some lawyers in the family. And none of them were as fast-talking as Saul Goodman, but there was always the sense that people were making their lives through their wits. And so it was just the idea of someone who is a free agent, who has the gift of the gab. And also, mechanically, on "Breaking Bad," we had this character of Walter White who was so dark and had so little self-knowledge. And we needed a character who was a little bit more verbal, who was a little smoother, who was a little more comfortable in his own skin, just for contrast. And so in some ways, Saul Goodman was the flip side of Walter White.

GROSS: Why don't we hear a scene from the final episode in "Breaking Bad" that the character of Saul is in? And at this point, the whole meth operation has blown up. Hank, the DEA agent and Walt's brother-in-law, is dead. There's no safe place for Walt or Saul to hide. So Saul's going into hiding, having paid a zillion dollars to a guy who provides a new identity and new fake papers and a new place to live. And this guy is doing the same thing for Walt. Walt is so intent on revenge and killing a few guys who he wants to kill that there's no way he's going to turn himself in. But Walt insists he's not going to go underground. And then he starts telling Saul that Saul has to come with him, and Saul has no intention of going with Walt underground. He's going to go into his own hiding place. So here's Saul explaining to Walt, there's no way he's going with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) Hey, I'm a civilian. I'm not your lawyer anymore. I'm nobody's lawyer. The fun's over. From here on out, I'm Mr. Low Profile, just another [expletive] with a job and three pairs of Dockers. If I'm lucky, a month from now - best case scenario - I'm managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.

BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) You're still part of this whether you like it or not.

ODENKIRK: (As Saul Goodman) I'm sorry. I don't think so.

GROSS: OK, that's from season five, episode 15 of "Breaking Bad." And my guest Peter Gould created the character of Saul and wrote that final episode that Saul is in. So lo and behold, at the very beginning of the new series, the prequel, "Better Call Saul," Saul is managing a Cinnabon in Omaha.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So when you wrote that scene in "Breaking Bad," did you think that would be the perfect starting-off point if we do a prequel?

GOULD: Not at all. That was something that came up in the writer's room pretty quickly. You know, when we finished "Breaking Bad," we weren't really thinking about any kind of sequel or anything beyond - we were just, you know, by the skin of our teeth, trying to finish the show. And in fact, I think that Cinnabon - I hate to reveal it - I don't even know if that was the original pitch of where he was going to go. But I always have felt that Cinnabon - something about that word amuses me.

JONATHAN BANKS: (Laughter).

GOULD: And it makes me smile, so it just seemed like the right thing for him to say there. And lo and behold, we thought, why not deliver on the promise of that scene?

GROSS: So you had to figure out how to get into this prequel. So it starts in the present where the character of Saul left off in "Breaking Bad," and he's managing the Cinnabon in Omaha. He lives in a black-and-white world now. There's no glamour. He has no identity. He has no profile. And it's literally shot in black and white. And he goes home. He's lonely. There's, like, nothing to do but put on the TV. And he starts reminiscing. He takes an old video tape of one of his Better Call Saul commercials, pops it in the VCR, plays it back, and that brings us to the flashback. Can you describe how you thought of that as the doorway from the present into the past?

GOULD: We really thought that we should see the consequences of all the fun. Jimmy McGill is a guy who makes a series of choices. Some of them are very understandable, and some of them are from his gut. And they lead to, inexorably, to one place, and that's the basement of the Disappearer's. This is a guy who builds a character, Saul Goodman, and builds an empire of a kind, and then has it all pulled out from under him. And we thought, let's show this guy in his own, private purgatory in Omaha Nebraska, managing a Cinnabon.

And it's not so much that working in a Cinnabon is a bad thing, but this guy has had his identity taken away from him. And I think the irony is this is someone who is a showman. He's someone who loves to have people looking at him. He loves attention. And there he is. He's anonymous. He's deprived of any attention. He's trying to fly under the radar, and that is painful. And I think it also makes you wonder, what was it all about? What's the point of this guy's life? And I guess it's kind of a dark place to start with, but we thought it would make an interesting frame for the colorful, sometimes silly, sometimes intensely dramatic story of how he got to be the guy he is.

GROSS: I'm talking with Peter Gould, who is a co-creator of the new series "Better Call Saul," which is a prequel to "Breaking Bad." Peter Gould also wrote for "Breaking Bad." And in a couple of minutes, we will also meet Jonathan Banks who plays Mike Ehrmantraut, a character from "Breaking Bad" who returns for "Better Call Saul." Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Peter Gould, who is the co-creator and co-showrunner of "Better Call Saul," the new prequel from "Breaking Bad." Peter Gould also wrote for "Breaking Bad." Also with us is Jonathan Banks, who plays the character of Mike Ehrmantraut. And Mike was the hitman and fixer for Gus Fring, the drug kingpin, and then worked closely with Walt when Walt - after killing Gus - went independent. Things did not work out well between them. But let's play the very first scene that the character of Mike Ehrmantraut is in. And Jesse's girlfriend, Jane, has OD'd in bed. Jesse wakes up to find her dead. He calls Walt. Walt calls Saul, the lawyer. And Saul sends Mike, the fixer. And Mike cleans up all the evidence of drugs and tells Jesse what to do. Here's the scene in which that happens.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Any other drugs in the house? Think hard. Your freedom depends on it. What about guns? You got any guns in the house? Here's your story: you woke up, you found her, that's all you know. Say it. Say it, please. I woke up, I found her, that's all I know.

AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) (Crying).

(SOUNDBITE OF SLAP)

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Say it. I woke up, I found her, that's all I know.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) I woke up, I found her, that's all I know.

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Again.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) I woke up, I found her, that's all I know.

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Again, again.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) I woke up, I found her, that's all I know. I woke up, I found her, that's all I know (crying).

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Once you call it in, the people who show up will be with the Office of Medical Investigations. That's primarily who you'll talk to. Police officers may arrive, they may not - depends on how busy a morning they're having. Typically, ODs are not a high priority call. There's nothing here to incriminate you, so I'd be amazed if you got placed under arrest. However, if you do, you say nothing. You tell them you just want your lawyer and you call Saul Goodman. And do I need to state the obvious? I was not here.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's so great. And that's my guest, Jonathan Banks, as Mike Ehrmantraut. Jonathan Banks, welcome to the conversation.

BANKS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: So it's supposed to be Saul who cleans up things for Jesse and tells him what to say. So, Peter Gould, it ended up being Mike. How did it end up being Mike?

GOULD: Well, we were at the very end of season two, and there was this moment when Jesse woke up and Jane was dead. And we were going to have Saul Goodman come in and clean things up. And unfortunately Bob was not unavailable. Bob Odenkirk was not available to come to town, to come to Albuquerque for that particular scene. And so very much at the last minute, Vince Gilligan had the inspiration of bringing in Mike, the fixer or his private detective, who's been mentioned a couple of times on the show. And now we're going to see him. And through some miracle, we cast Mr. Jonathan Banks.

GROSS: Jonathan Banks, what was the call - did you get a call directly from Vince Gilligan?

BANKS: No, they - Bialy/Thomas, who are wonderful casting directors, they - I went in, and I thought it was going to - you know, I thought I'd do a days' work and leave. And it snowed, and I went in. And that scene where you hear the slap is - Aaron still complains about it. He didn't know it was coming.

(LAUGHTER)

BANKS: And I loved the boy, but, you know, it was fun. I had a good time and, no, it came as a surprise. But - you tell me if I'm wrong, Peter - but Peter, and Tom Schnauz and Vince have been friends forever. And when they were kids in college, they used to watch "Wiseguy." And so I guess my character on "Wiseguy" made an impression on them.

GROSS: And "Wiseguy" was a great TV series that started in 1987 and introduced actors like Stanley Tucci and Kevin Spacey - at least that's where I found out about them.

So you mentioned that Aaron Paul didn't know that you were going to slap him in that scene. Is that considered acceptable for you to do that?

BANKS: It's totally acceptable for me. I'm not the one that got slapped.

(LAUGHTER)

GOULD: The rules that apply to everybody else don't necessarily apply to Mr. Banks.

BANKS: You know, I get that senior pass, you know?

(LAUGHTER)

BANKS: And so, you know, if you can't take a hint from an old guy, I mean, come on, Aaron can take a punch, for goodness sakes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I'm going to fast forward to Mike's last appearance in "Breaking Bad," which is a terrific scene. And in this last appearance, things are over between Mike and Walt. And so Walt is supposed to pay Mike the last amount of the money that he owes him. So they've each driven in their own cars to a meeting point in the woods, near a river. And Walt is handing over the money to Mike. And things have been very bad between them. Mike has never trusted Walt. Mike has always said he's a ticking bomb waiting to explode and he doesn't want to be around when the bomb does explode. And so here is Mike's last scene. And this is my guest, Jonathan Banks. Here we go.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Goodbye, Walter.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) You're welcome.

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) I'm sorry, what?

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) I want those names, Mike. You owe me that much.

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) I don't owe you a (expletive) thing. All of this, falling apart like this, is on you.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Wow, wow. Oh, that's some kind of logic right there, Mike. You screw up, get yourself followed by the DEA and now suddenly this is all my fault. Why don't you walk me through this, Mike?

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) We had a good thing, you stupid son of a (expletive). We had Fring. We had a lab. We had everything we needed, and it all ran like clockwork. You could have shut your mouth, cooked and made as much money as you ever needed. It was perfect. But no, you just had to blow it up - you, and your pride and your ego. You just had to be the man. If you'd done your job, known your place, we'd all be fine right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUN SHOT)

GROSS: And that was the sound of Walt killing Mike in cold blood, shooting him through the windshield - great scene. And - so that was Bryan Cranston and my guest, Jonathan Banks. And also with us is Peter Gould, who is the co-creator of "Better Call Saul." So what was it like for you to be killed in cold blood by Walt and have your character die? And, you know, his car kind of crashes into a tree, and then he must, like, crawl down to the river bank and is just kind of staring across the river as he dies. And of course Walt comes, and he tells Walt to, like, shut up and let him die in peace.

BANKS: Well, they let...

GROSS: But, you know, it really gives a sense of this kind of, like, warrior trying to die, like, a lonely and perhaps spiritual death in nature, something that Walt is doing his best to interrupt. But this character was so great. And - what were you thinking about as you were playing that scene? What was going through your mind then as Jonathan Banks and as Mike Ehrmantraut?

BANKS: That was a very difficult day on the set. That was hard to go away from, especially when you think you're never going to do this character again. Mike always knew he was going to die, always expected that, and his - I don't think his - and thought it would be violent. And the warrior mentality is, let me die with some dignity. You know, they only give us in -on the show one F-bomb a year, and that's where I got it - with the line, let me die in peace. They - you're next to the Rio Grande. We were - and, now, the technicality of it all was we were running out of light, everybody's hurrying up, and I'm supposed to be in this contemplative, serene state as I'm going out (laughter). And it was - you know, you had to hold it together. And there's a certain amount of humor in that, too, because I had looked for that moment, and looked for that moment and waited for that moment. And all of a sudden, everybody's running around like their heads are cut off. But between Tom Schnauz, who directed it, and Michael Slovis, who is so good as cinematographer, I didn't realize that the camera was back up on the hill, and they were shooting down towards me. I thought it was a profile. And then I saw it, and I just thought it was - I thought it was great.

GROSS: My guests are Jonathan Banks and Peter Gould. Gould co-created "Better Call Saul" and wrote for "Breaking Bad." Banks played hitman Mike Ehrmantraut in "Breaking Bad" and co-stars in "Better Call Saul." Tonight's episode will reveal some of Mike's backstory. Jonathan Banks will talk about his early years after we take a short break. And Ken Tucker will review singer-songwriter James McMurtry's first new studio album in eight years. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Peter Gould, who co-created the "Breaking Bad" prequel, "Better Call Saul." Gould also wrote for "Breaking Bad" and created the character of lawyer Saul Goodman. Also with us is Jonathan Banks, who costarred in "Breaking Bad" as hitman and fixer Mike Ehrmantraut and plays Mike in the prequel, which is set six years before "Breaking Bad." Here's Banks as Mike Ehrmantraut in a scene from "Breaking Bad" where Mike is telling a story to meth cook and dealer Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston. Mike's story is intended as advice and a warning. Mike is talking about a case he dealt with when he was a cop in Philadelphia. One woman who was repeatedly abused by her husband kept calling the police and then declining to press charges.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) One night my partner's out sick, and it's just me. And a call comes in and it's the usual crap - broke her nose in the shower kind of thing. So I cuff him, put him in the car, and away we go. Only that night, we're driving into town and this sideways [expletive] is in my backseat humming "Danny Boy." (Laughter). Yeah, it just rubbed me wrong. So instead of left, I go right out into nowhere. And I kneel him down, and I put my revolver in his mouth, and I told him this is it. This is how it ends. And he's crying, going to the bathroom all over himself, swearing to God he's going to leave her alone, screaming - as much as you can with a gun in your mouth. And I told him to be quiet, that I needed to think about what I was going to do here. And of course, he got quiet. He goes still and real quiet, like a dog waiting for dinner scraps. And we just stood there for a while, me acting like I'm thinking things over and prince charming kneeling in the dirt [expletive] his pants. And after a few minutes, I took the gun out of his mouth. And I say so help me, if you ever touch her again, I will such, and such, and such, and such, and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Just a warning?

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Oh, of course, just trying to do the right thing. But two weeks later, he killed her, of course - caved her head in with the base of a Waring blender. We got there, there was so much blood you could taste the metal. Moral of the story is I chose a half measure when I should've gone all the way. I'll never make that mistake again. No more half measures, Walter.

GROSS: That's a scene from "Breaking Bad," with my guest, Jonathan Banks, as Mike Ehrmantraut. And he reprises the role in the new prequel series "Better Call Saul." Also with us is Peter Gould, who is the co-creator and co-showrunner of "Better Call Saul" and was a writer on "Breaking Bad."

So Peter Gould, how did you realize that you wanted to bring back the character of Mike Ehrmantraut for the prequel "Better Call Saul?"

GOULD: It was really an instinctive question. Who do we want to have next to Saul? And we didn't - at this point - this decision came before we understood it was going to be mainly a prequel. It was before we understood who Jimmy McGill is. It was really the question who's the right contrast with Bob - with Saul, with Jimmy? Who's the person who's going to bring out other colors? And the idea of working with Jonathan again was so appealing because he always brings it. It's a rare thing for a writer to write a scene and then see an actor do it and for the actor not simply to reinterpret, but to take everything that you intended and then take it further and make it more real, and that's the experience I had with every scene that I wrote for John. And it was always such a wonderful experience.

It was always thrilling to be on the set sometimes - especially, I'm thinking back to some of the monologues he did in "Breaking Bad" that everyone on the set would go quiet. And he would be - one minute he'd be joking, as you hear him here, and he'd be Jonathan the monkey. And then the next minute there would be cold-eyed, soulful Mike Ehrmantraut. And it was always a pleasure. So bringing back John and the idea that we would be able to resurrect this character was a no-brainer. And of course, that's one of the reasons that it's a prequel - because we very much wanted this character of Mike Ehrmantraut on the show. And we felt like there was a lot more to say about this character. And we were fascinated by how he got to be the guy he is on "Breaking Bad" because the guy he is on "Better Call Saul" is quite a bit different.

GROSS: I always wondered, like, how did Saul and Mike get to know each other? And we find out in "Better Call Saul." Did we know that on "Breaking Bad?" Did we know how they knew each other?

BANKS: Absolutely not.

GROSS: OK, I thought maybe I just missed it.

BANKS: Mike was just conjured up when Saul Goodman needed him, like a genie.

GROSS: OK. So we find out how they meet (laughter) in "Better Call Saul." And the answer is that Mike is working at the ticket booth of the parking lot that adjoins the courthouse, where Saul is working as a public defender. And Saul is always - well, at this point he's Jimmy - and Jimmy is always so just kind of in disarray that he never has time to get - or the money to get the proper amount of, like, parking stickers on his sticker to not pay for the parking. So he's coming to the ticket booth at the parking lot. And at the ticket booth, we hear a voice. And then we later see, as the camera moves, that it's Mike. That Mike - we're going to get to see Mike again. Here's that scene. Jimmy's pulling out, stopping at the ticket booth, and encountering Mike.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Three dollars.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) I'm validated. See the stickers?

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Well, I see five stickers. You're one shy. It's $3.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) They gave me - look - I'm validated for the entire day, OK? Five stickers, six stickers, I don't know if I'm stickers because I was in that court back there saving people's lives, so.

BANKS: (As Mike Ehrmantraut) Oh, gee, that's swell. And thank you for restoring my faith in the judicial system. Now, you either pay the $3 or you go back inside and you get an additional sticker.

ODENKIRK: (As Jimmy McGill) Son of a [expletive]. Fine, you win. Hooray for you. Backing up, I have to back up. I need more stickers, don't have enough stickers. Thank you, thank you, very nice. Employee of the month over here, yeah. (Clapping). Hooray. Give him a medal.

GROSS: (Laughter). Bob Odenkirk, and my guest Jonathan Banks in the first episode of "Better Call Saul." Peter Gould, writing - you know, coming up with the idea that that's how they would meet - why did you choose the ticket booth approach?

GOULD: We just had the image of the most badass guy we know doing the least likely thing. And it was the idea of Mike Ehrmantraut looking at stickers and taking money for parking just seemed, on its face, strange and ridiculous, and it raised a lot of questions. Like, what the hell is he doing in that parking booth? And hopefully the audience is asking those same questions. And when we talked about it some more, we started figuring out why, and that really intrigued us. And I think you'll see some of those answers soon.

GROSS: And he's still the enforcer, but what he's enforcing is the number of parking stickers you need to exit - (laughter) to exit the lot.

GOULD: He's very stern about - he's very finicky about rules. He thinks there's a right way to do things. He's a strict professional.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guests are Peter Gould, who is the co-creator and co-showrunner of "Better Call Saul," the prequel to "Breaking Bad," on which he was also a writer. And Jonathan Banks, who played Mike Ehrmantraut in "Breaking Bad" and reprises the role in "Better Call Saul." Let's take a short break and we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about "Better Call Saul," which is the prequel to "Breaking Bad." My guest, Peter Gould, is the co-creator and co-showrunner of "Better Call Saul." He formerly was a writer and had other positions, as well, on "Breaking Bad." Also with us is Jonathan Banks, who played Mike Ehrmantraut, the hitman, on "Breaking Bad," and now we see his earlier life on "Better Call Saul."

So Jonathan Banks, you're a former cop in "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul." You've played a lot of cops and former cops over the years. And in "Wiseguy," where I first saw you, a TV series that started in 1987, you played the head of, like, an organized crime task force, and you were the supervisor for the Ken Wahl character who goes undercover every week. So how did you get to play so many cops and former cops? Like, what is it about you, do you think?

BANKS: I'm not very pretty, so I can't play the leading man. So I'm either going to be the bad guy or the cop. And that's - you know what? It's a smart-aleck answer, but it's also there's some truth in that. In the world of Hollywood and television, if you're not beautiful, you better be able to act a little bit, anyway.

GROSS: (Laughter) Were you a tough guy at all as a young man?

BANKS: No, I mean, these guys, they get up and say, hey, I grew up in a tough neighborhood. It was this; it was that; it was (unintelligible). The reality is they were sad neighborhoods. And if you were lucky enough to get out - oh, my gosh, how lucky I am. Yeah, that's my answer.

GROSS: I read your mother was in the CIA.

BANKS: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you know exactly what she did or was that, like, a big secret?

BANKS: I'll give you - I'm going to - my mom's gone now. But my mother started out in life on her own completely, at 15 years old, as a maid in a Methodist parsonage in Bloomington, Ind. She was a whiz at shorthand in typing and (unintelligible), and they got her a job with the Navy Department in Washington, D.C. World War II came along. There was a period of time where she was Adm. Wilson's private secretary, Adm. Nimitz at one brief time, who was a commander of the Pacific Fleet. After the war, she went to work, managed the secretarial pool, as I understood it, at the CIA under a woman named Peggy Hunt (ph). And back then, they would burn their carbons every day at the end of the day. And they had those oval-backed chairs that the secretaries would sit in. And she taught her girls, if someone came up behind them, that they were to throw their elbows straight back, stand up and address them in a very loud voice. The thought being, if it went past that moment, that it was not going to go in their favor. They were secretaries, and whoever the man was that came up behind them was probably one of their superiors. Her bosses knew that that's what she taught, but that was pretty much the recourse that a woman had in the '50s - in the early '50s. There weren't any human resources to go to. And, you know - and I mean this - I should be half the woman that my mother was.

GROSS: It took me a while to realize you were talking about sexual harassment there.

BANKS: Yep, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: And for people who don't know, when you said they burn their carbons, that's carbon paper that makes duplicates of what you're typing. Your mother must have typed a lot of secrets.

BANKS: My mom - my mom - when the transcriptions came back from the Nuremberg trials, she was at the Treasury, and that's where the Secret Service used to be. And there was a tunnel that used to go under - and maybe - probably still there from the Treasury Department to the White House. So yeah, there's a lot of stuff. And as far as sexual harassment goes, she always left her office door wide open. And she raised me by herself.

GROSS: So how did you get into acting?

BANKS: I was a handful. And I used to - at the gym at the school, I would - when I'd go out for whatever practice it was, I would look through the gym window, and I just - I had wanted to do it since I was probably 5 with Jimmy Durante and Jackie Gleason, who I just loved. And one day in the hall, Ms. Cartwright (ph), who did the plays, yelled at me when I was hanging with some of the boys. And she yelled down the hall and she said, Banks, you're a chicken. She said, I've seen you looking through that window for a long time. And she said, why don't you ever audition for a play? And I auditioned for the junior class play, and I got the lead, and we were doing Shaw's "The Devil's Disciple," which no high school should ever do, but we did. And it changed my life. My mom was having to work all day long and go to school at night, trying to give me a better life. But I was on a street a lot. And that answers some of your questions about the neighborhood or whatever it was. And, you know, when she - she got her teaching degree, and she then took me to this high school where I got very lucky. Hey, you know what I said, Terry, about being lucky? If I say it a thousand times more, it's the way I feel. I honestly feel that I am one of the luckiest human beings that ever walked.

GROSS: I love hearing stories about teachers who, you know, who give students an opportunity that they would have been too embarrassed or shy to ask for or just wouldn't have thought of doing, and that it's transformative. So thanks to that teacher...

BANKS: Well, I'll tell you this...

GROSS: Yeah.

BANKS: That teacher - it was one of those things - and then I did it. And of course back then, you know, there were no computers. The most - I thought they were - only the smart kids did it, is what I thought. And I didn't think I belonged there. And they were all walking around with the slide rules in their pocket and all that, and they were so gentle with me. And they were so good to me because they would - I was from somewhere else or - yeah, I was from somewhere else. And they were dear to me. I look at those kids that, you know, other - back then were called nerds or whatever, and I couldn't have been treated any better. And there was a trade-off, too, because nobody was ever going to put them in a locker ever again. I can tell you that (laughter).

GROSS: Were you going to protect them?

BANKS: You bet ya.

GROSS: The roots of Mike. Here we have it (laughter). Peter, do you find yourself re-watching early episodes of "Breaking Bad" for clues about what you can use to fill in the backstory for Saul and Mike?

GOULD: You know, I really should. I should watch that show. I've heard it's very good.

(LAUGHTER)

GOULD: The truth is that I'm in a room with six other people, all of whom have watched "Breaking Bad." And so everybody has a pretty good working knowledge of the show. Every once in a while, we do pull up an episode or a clip. And in fact, our post-production team created a - what we call a string out of all of Saul Goodman's scenes in all the episodes of "Breaking Bad." And it's several hours long, which really surprised me. And we do - we constantly have to think about, how do we pay off things that were mentioned on "Breaking Bad?" You know, at certain points, Saul has talked about his past. He's talked about wives that he's had. And those are moments that we put in as writers just for fun, just for color. And now we have to abide by things that we sort of just threw in, and sometimes that causes us a little bit of a problem. But that's part of the fun of it, I guess.

GROSS: Thank you both so much for talking with us.

BANKS: Thank you.

GOULD: Thanks a lot.

GROSS: Jonathan Banks co-stars in the "Breaking Bad" prequel, "Better Call Saul." Peter Gould co-created the series. Episode six will be shown tonight on AMC. Our rock critic, Ken Tucker, will review the new album by singer-songwriter James McMurtry after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of "Complicated Game," James McMurtry's first new studio album since 2008. The Texas-born singer-songwriter, who is now based in Austin, is known for songs with strong narratives and a blend of country blues and rock melodies. Ken says "Complicated Game" demonstrates a new range of style and subject matter for McMurtry.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIN'T GOT A PLACE")

JAMES MCMURTRY: (Singing) The skies are taller in Louisiana. The skies are wider in New Mexico. The skies in Texas kind of split the difference. They don't suit me no matter where I go. I ain't got a place. I ain't got a place in this world. I ain't got a place. I ain't got a place in this world, I know.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Like a lot of singer-songwriters, James McMurtry likes to position himself as an outsider. That's what the song that opens this review, "Ain't Got A Place," suggests - a restlessness that finds home ground in songwriting and performing. There is, however, a certain kinship McMurtry has consistently expressed throughout his career, an identification with people who work with their hands - who spend their free time hunting and fishing. It's a kinship described vividly in the song that begins the album, "Copper Canteen."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COPPER CANTEEN")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) Honey, don't you be yelling at me when I'm cleaning my gun. I'll wash the blood off the tailgate when this season's done. We've got one more weekend to go, and I'd like to kill one more doe. So I'll shovel the sidewalk again 'cause you're still in a stew.

TUCKER: That's the tale of a marriage fraught with tension. It's a tension alleviated mostly by the narrator periodically leaving the house to shovel snow or shoot one more deer before either hunting season or the marriage ends. Like quite a few of McMurtry's characters, this man feels at once hemmed in and guilty that he's not doing better for himself and for the people who depend upon him. Like the album title says, it's a complicated game.

The most ambitious song on this album is "Carlisle's Haul." It's a detailed portrait of a commercial fisherman that opens out into a more universal theme of hopelessness held at bay by the loyalty people feel to each other even in bad times.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CARLISLE'S HAUL")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) Ol' Carlisle needs some money. He's running a seine out off the point. We'll all go help him though commercial season's closed. We might all wind up in the joint.

TUCKER: Over the course of a few decades, McMurtry has frequently seemed to pride himself on singing in a monotone, the better to make you focus on his words. His vocals throughout "Complicated Game," however, are more expressive than on any other previous album. You can hear this most strikingly on two songs. The first is a fine piece of blues with a boogie beat called "Forgotten Coast" with some slide guitar playing by Derek Trucks.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FORGOTTEN COAST")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) Down the highway, south I'll go. We were hitched (unintelligible) Port St. Joe. I'm going to walk the beach with a pirate's ghost. And we'll haunt that old forgotten coast. I'm going to trade my car and change my name, put Wesson oil in my bar and chain. I'm going to fix the roadkill - black bear roast - and get fat on that forgotten coast.

TUCKER: His second song, in which McMurtry challenges himself to push past his usual eloquent drawl, is "How'm I Going To Find You Now?" In a couple of places, I've read McMurtry's vocal on this song referred to as a rap, or almost rap or rap singing. But with its generous outpouring of words assembled to mimic the rhythm of a rapid car ride, "How'm I Going To Find You Now?" has as much to do with Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" and a hundred old-talking blues songs as it does hip-hop.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW'M I GOING TO FIND YOU NOW?")

MCMURTRY: (Singing) I got a cup of black coffee so I don't get lazy. I got a rattle in the dashboard driving me crazy. And if I hit it with my fist, it'll quit for a little while. Going to have to stop and take a piss in another mile. Headed into town, going to miss you at the mercantile. Take you to the Sonic, get you grinning like a crocodile. I got a hole in the floorboard...

TUCKER: "Complicated Game" is a really satisfying collection. For a fellow known as a wordsmith, the album also brings welcome attention to McMurtry's guitar playing, a talent that usually gets greater exposure when you see him live. One of the challenges for a musician who builds his songs around telling stories is to keep those stories interesting after you've listened to them four or five times or more. I'm here to tell you this music holds up.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed James McMurtry's new album "Complicated Game." Tomorrow on our show, some advice on how to cook tasty vegetarian dishes, advice intended for meat eaters as well as vegetarians. We'll talk with Jack Bishop and Bridget Lancaster of "America's Test Kitchen" about their new vegetarian cookbook.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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