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Jonathan Banks on garbage jobs and punching a guy twice his size

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In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.

Jonathan Banks has been a working actor since the early ’70s—perhaps you remember his groundbreaking work in the 1974 classic, Linda’s Film On Menstruationand has turned up in numerous films and TV series in various random roles, but he’s currently known best for his turn as Mike Ehrmantraut on AMC’s Breaking Bad. Banks will soon reprise that role for the network’s latest endeavor, Better Call Saul, which explores the origins of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) while also delving into the story of how the unscrupulous attorney first crossed paths with Mike.


1. What’s the worst job you’ve ever had?

Jonathan Banks: I was a janitor when I was 16, cleaning out garbage rooms in Washington, D.C., and they were foul. It gets really hot in D.C. in the summertime, and you then take on the essence of garbage. People would stand away from me on the sidewalk as I came toward them. Mothers would pull their children away from me, the smell was so bad. [Laughs.] It was a pretty bad job… and for a grand total of 99 cents an hour!


The A.V. Club: Fantastic.

JB: Yeah, I was livin’ large. And I guess that also tells you how old I am!

AVC: How did you come by the job?

JB: I just applied. I applied from an ad in the newspaper! I think I probably lied about my age, too. [Laughs.] And when I got it, I worked hard so that I could hold onto this charming position.

AVC: How long did you manage to stick with it?

JB: Pretty much for the summer.

AVC: What happened? Did you finally just decide that you’d had enough?

JB: I did. I just thought, “This is really bad!” It was when they asked me to go clean up an apartment that had overflowed with sewage. I mean, there was human waste all over. I was young, I was standing ankle-deep in the stuff—or certainly above the shoes, anyway—and here I was cleaning it up. It didn’t occur to me how sick I could’ve gotten. I mean, what was that? You know, I think about it now, and it’s like, if any of those people who hired me are still alive, it makes me want to go back and get ’em. I don’t care if they’re in a nursing home. I don’t care where they are!


AVC: Now that’s the kind of stuff we like to hear from Mike.

JB: Well, you’re hearing it from Jonathan! [Laughs.]

2. When did you first feel successful?

JB: I know how lucky I am. I really do. It’s 47 years since I got my first paycheck—maybe getting on to 48, but I think it’s 47—and it’s not like there weren’t brutal, brutal times of unemployment and stuff, but I’ve been able to make my living as an actor for a long time. And in that same breath, without being really maudlin, there’s that “success is what you make it” thing. Look, here’s what it is: It’s hard for me to say that I’m successful. But you know what? I guess I am. So if you’re asking me when I felt it, I don’t know, what time is it right now? [Laughs.]


3. If you were a supervillain, what would your master plan be?

JB: When you say “supervillain,” I immediately go to my favorite villain: Brian De Bois-Guilbert, who’s in Ivanhoe. He’s a knight templar, and he’s totally beyond saving. He’s a horrible, horrible guy. But he falls in love with the young Jewish doctor that all the priests think is a witch [Rebecca], and she will have nothing to do with him. And she is his downfall. He gives his life for her. So he’s a bad man that does a good deed and does not go unpunished. [Laughs.] But, boy, when you say “supervillain,” that’s exactly who comes into my mind. You know, the story of Ivanhoe has never, ever really been done. It’s all just stupid, dissipated crap. But it’s a great story. And for me, he’s the greatest bad guy ever. And Ivanhoe’s a putz. I mean, come on.


AVC: So if you were the supervillain, what would your master plan be?

JB: Me? [Snorts.] I just kind of bumble through things. I’ve never been good with a master plan, Will. And that’s an honest answer.


4. What were you like as a kid?

JB: I… was a kid. [Long pause.] For me, it was the hardest part of my life. It really was. God bless my mother—she’s long gone now—but she’d work all day and go to school at night. She started out in life as a housekeeper at 15 years old, totally on her own, and she retired as a college professor. But there were some hard times. It’s not easy for a woman who’s only trying to do the best for her kid but who could never be home. I was a latchkey kid from the time I was 7 years old.


AVC: Did that cause you to grow up quickly?

JB: In some very bad ways, sometimes. Yeah, you develop quick, I guarantee it.

AVC: Did you tend to have a sense of humor? Or were you the kind of kid who was too big for his britches?


JB: Well, hopefully I’ve always had a sense of humor, at least, because without a sense of humor, I don’t know how you survive.

5. Who was your celebrity crush when you were younger?

JB: Oh, what’s her name? Who’s the girl from Bad Day At Black Rock? If you know the film, she’s the blonde. Anne Francis, I think.


AVC: Yep, that’s her.

JB: She was just absolutely gorgeous. She had this beauty mark, this dark mole on her cheek, and—oh my God—she was just everything sexy.


AVC: She was also the star of Honey West.

JB: Was she?


AVC: She was. And I’ve got the complete series on DVD, so I can vouch for her sexiness on there, too.

JB: Yeah, you see, that’s how much older I am: I wasn’t watching Honey West because I was already out of the house by the time that was on. But I wanted her. I. Wanted. Her. And I mean I wanted her. And I was a little kid! [Laughs.]


AVC: And was it specifically Bad Day At Black Rock that did it for you?

JB: Oh, absolutely. Because her blouse was kind of open—and, oh, it was racy—and the skirt was tight, and she was a bad girl. And I thought, “YES. That is right up my alley.”


AVC: Did you ever have the opportunity to meet her?

JB: [Sadly.] No. But if I’d been mature enough at the time, I would’ve loved to have said, “I mean this with respect, but you were my crush.” By the way, I’ll tell you someone who came up to me once. I did a performance of The Woolgatherer, which is a two-character play that I did with Shelley Long, and Janet Leigh came up after the performance and said something to me. I don’t remember what I said, probably because I was speechless at the time. [Laughs.] I just thought she was great.

6. If you had entrance music, what would it be?

JB: It depends on the day. It could be a Sousa march, or it could be a Stéphane Grappelli jazz violin solo. Or not a solo. If he was playing with Django Reinhardt, that would be great for entrance music. I like a lot of music, so any entrance music would be great with me.

7. What have you done so far today?

JB: Ah! My rich friends took me to Riviera Country Club, and I played golf. I dressed appropriately, I kept my cursing to a minimum, and I lost. And then I came home, worked out a little, took a brief nap, and now I’m talking to you.


8. What other celebrities have you been mistaken for?

JB: I don’t know. But there are always people who are coming up to me and saying, “Oh, you were great in so-and-so!” And I have literally said at times, “I was not in that,” and had people go to me, “Yes, you were,” and keep on talking! [Laughs.] I swear to God! And I’m thinking, “Really? Did you just hear me? I just said to you, ‘I wasn’t in it.’” But they just keep going.


9. If you had to find another line of work, what skills would you put on your resume?

JB: Well, I’ve taught before. I actually just got back from Indiana University a few months ago—I went in October—where I taught a master class. At this point, quite honestly, what I do is preach about what it’s like to choose a life as an artist, and how you absolutely mustn’t expect anything, because it can be… Well, what I said to them was, “No matter what manner of success you’ve had in the world, if you can still put your head on your pillow at the end of your life and still believe in yourself and what you’ve done, it’s better than any award that you’ll ever win.” I mean, we’re not talking about a small thing here. If you can say, “I’ve lived my life in the arts, and I’m an artist,” and then you pass out of this world, it’s a pretty great accomplishment.


AVC: Certainly better than janitor, it sounds like.

JB: Hell, yes. [Laughs.] Although who knows? If I’d had a better position as janitor, I might’ve enjoyed it!


10. Do you collect anything? If so, what and why?

JB: Well, I have both my grandfather’s watches. I like a pocket watch. I like a timepiece. First of all, just wrapping your mind around time is… It’s just silly. [Laughs.] It is! But you can understand it, because people needed to plant, and they needed to know where the seasons were. I like time. I do like time. As much as I would like to ignore it, I like time.


11. What would your last meal be?

JB: There’s a restaurant in Santa Barbara called The Chase, it’s just a little place, but they have the best calamari provencal that is so delicate, and the pasta is so delicate, that that’s probably it. And I eat a lot of it, too! [Laughs.]


12. The bonus question comes from Rachel Dratch: “What’s the most reckless, life-endangering thing you’ve ever done?”

JB: Hit somebody that was twice my size.

AVC: We’re going to need some backstory.

JB: Well, I’ll give you the forward-going story after that punch. How about that? This guy liked to hurt people—he was a bully—and he put me in the hospital. And they had to sit me up in bed with my head stabilized because they were afraid my brain was going to swell. He beat me pretty bad—from what I remember of it until I was knocked out! [Laughs.]


AVC: What would you like to ask the next person?

JB: Do you think it would be a good idea to adopt a child?

AVC: Do you want to add, “Why or why not?”

JB: Nope. Just let ’em talk… and hopefully they’ll adopt a child! There’s a lot of people in my family who’ve adopted children. One of my cousins, who I think the world of, got a little girl from China about six years ago. I just think it’s a great thing.