This interview contains spoilers for the Season 5 finale of “Better Call Saul.”
Cheerful, easygoing and sociopathic, Eduardo “Lalo” Salamanca has caused agita for just about everyone in “Better Call Saul” since he showed up in Albuquerque last season. By the end of the Season 5 finale, which aired Monday, he had survived the crew of assassins dispatched to his home in Mexico by his arch nemesis and drug-trade rival, Gus Fring.
The clash ended poorly for the assassins — Lalo killed them all — and very well for Tony Dalton, who has turned Lalo into the sort of irresistible rascal you hate yourself for loving.
The role is a breakthrough for Dalton, 45, a standout in what is easily the most compelling season yet of “Better Call Saul,” a prequel to “Breaking Bad.” Until last year, Dalton was largely invisible to American audiences, aside from brief appearances in “Sense8,” a sci-fi drama on Netflix. Raised in Mexico City and educated at a private school in Massachusetts, he studied acting briefly at the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute in Manhattan, and then headed to Los Angeles. There, he confounded a lot of casting directors.
“I have this thing that’s sort of chased me around,” he said on the phone last week. “‘Well, you don’t look that Mexican, you don’t sound Mexican, but you are Mexican. So, do we give you a Mexican part or do we give you an American part?’ It’s been the bane of my existence as an actor. It finally worked in my favor.”
Dalton spoke about creating Lalo and surviving for Season 6 from his home in Mexico City, where he is sheltering in place with his girlfriend and eating a lot of barbecue.
“I’m trying to go with barbecue every day,” he said. “It’s not like I have something better to do.”
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
My favorite line from this season isn’t really a line. It’s a word. At least I think it’s a word. In Episode 3, as Lalo is getting into his car, Jimmy (a.k.a. Saul Goodman) says he doesn’t have time for more cartel legal work, because his schedule is tight. Lalo smiles and says, “You’ll make time,” before gleefully tilting back his head and making a sound like, “klah!” Was that in the script?
No, it was not. As a matter of fact, Peter [Peter Gould, a showrunner and executive producer] was like, “What the hell was that?” He said: “I love it, I’m keeping it. I just don’t know what you’re saying.”
What were you saying?
It sort of means “C’mon!” — the way a mother might say to a kid. But without the anger. There are a lot of things I do in Spanish that I see people react to on Twitter. Stuff that the gringos don’t get, man. [Laughs.] The scripts are really specific. You say what’s on the page. But once in a while I get a “klah” in there.
For a coldblooded sociopath, Lalo is such a charming guy. Was it your idea to play him that way?
The charm part was mine, to be honest. I had played a hit man in a series [for HBO Latinoamérica] called “Sr. Ávila.” He had zero personality. If he was standing against a wall, you couldn’t tell him apart from the wall. My character was the lead, and he was invisible.
I thought that with Lalo, I need to turn this around, do something different. I remember an interview with the director Shekhar Kapur, who was asked about casting Geoffrey Rush, who was playing yet another bad guy in “Elizabeth.” And Kapur said something like, “Yeah, but this guy kills with a smile.” That always stayed in my mind.
I thought maybe I could explore a character like that if the opportunity ever presented itself. But the stars have to align. Someone needs to not only like that idea, but make it better. I think once the writers saw that I was playing Lalo with charm, they started writing charm into the scripts. It’s completely and totally a collaboration.
When did you find out that you would survive the end of Season 5?
I learned maybe a week before I got the script. Somebody told me. But they can tell you anything they want. Not until you read it on the page do you know. When I finished reading the last episode, I thought, “OK, looks like I’m in this for the long run.”
To be honest, I try just to make the character shine, and if it’s going to end, it’s going to end. At the same time, I didn’t think that Lalo was going to die. I thought that the writers had to explain why Saul Goodman is so scared of Lalo.
You’re talking about the moment in Season 2 of “Breaking Bad” when Saul thinks he’s about to be executed in the desert by Jesse Pinkman and Walter White, and Saul yells, “Lalo didn’t send you?” with palpable relief. Lalo is never mentioned again, and the line went right by everyone. But it produced your character. And that desert moment is a few years after the current timeline of “Better Call Saul.”
Right. I just thought, if there’s going to be another season of “Better Call Saul,” it would be hard to explain Saul’s fear in “Breaking Bad” if Lalo wasn’t around for the last season.
We know so little about Lalo as a person. In the last episode, he returns to his home in Mexico and we learn he has a staff, with a cook and some heavies. But no wife, no family, no lover. Have you ever discussed Lalo’s back story with the writers?
Sort of. A little bit. We’ve kind of come up with something that works for the story. For example, one reason I don’t do him with a thick Mexican accent is because I think he’s kind of a second generation narco. He might have gone to a good school in Texas or Arizona or something because his family had money. He grew up with a little of the American way of life.
He’s a narco rich kid. That’s different from a poor farmer who stumbles across some marijuana.
Aside from his love of mass marketing meth and his violent streak, he’s not like the other Salamancas in the show.
I have a feeling that Lalo’s mom is a gringa. That’s why he’s a little whiter, he speaks a little bit better. That’s just my own crazy character development thing. And I think the cartel sends Lalo all over the place. Maybe he was in San Diego before. He’s moving up the ranks. That’s how he operates. And not having a family, it’s one reason he’s so carefree. It’s why he’s such a charming guy in Albuquerque, why he has such a laid-back demeanor. He doesn’t care where he is.
It seems like the writers kind of want parts of Lalo’s life to remain a mystery.
When we visit Lalo’s home, you may not find out everything you want to know about his life, but you learn a hell of a lot more than you knew before. You find out that he’s got a maid whom he loves, and the writers make sure you can tell that he loves her. So when she’s killed by those guys at the end of the episode, you go, “Oh [expletive], they killed his maid.” When Lalo finds her dead, he’s like, “Now I’m pissed.”
He’s the only Salamanca you’d want to get a drink with, but he’s a cold blooded killer.
I think there’s a lot of people out there like that, you know? Sociopaths who don’t know how to deal with emotions. There’s that scene [in Episode 8] where Kim visits Lalo in jail to talk about Jimmy, and Lalo says, “Oh, you looove him.” He’s trying to figure it out. “Oh, there’s love there. Right, of course. She loves him.”
Lalo always seems a step behind Gus Fring, who manipulates the police to have Lalo thrown in jail. Then he gets Lalo out on bail, which causes Lalo to drive to Mexico, the only place Fring feels he can have Lalo killed. He also seems outmatched much of the time. Does that concern you?
It should concern Lalo. I once saw an interview with Peter and Vince [Vince Gilligan, a showrunner and executive producer] where Vince said that Gus is playing chess and Lalo is playing checkers. That helps me understand this whole situation. Because sometimes you think you’re playing chess, too. But if God, or in this case, the writers, say you’re playing checkers against a guy playing chess, you’re probably going to be outsmarted. It’s OK. I don’t worry about it. Gus Fring is one of the greatest villains in television history.