Mark Margolis started out his career on the stage performing hundreds of plays and has since contributed to over 40 television series and 70 plus features including Scarface, The Cotton Club, Gone Baby Gone, and every one of Darren Arnofsky’s films.
On Breaking Bad, Margolis played Hector “Tio” Salamanca, the former right-hand-man of the Juarez Cartel, who after suffering a stroke, was unable to speak or walk; left only to communicate with a brass service bell fixed to his wheelchair amd his face. That didn’t stop him from being one of the most memorable characters on the best show in television and at 72, Margolis earned his first Emmy nomination for Guest Actor in a Drama Series. But his nomination was not just a by-product of the Breaking Bad gloss in recent years, instead, it shows how far the excellence of the show extends. Good luck being an extra.
Margolis is sharp, humble and relentlessly funny, joking that he hates being called a character actor, preferring to being called a “weird-looking romantic lead.” He can recall any one of his roles in an instant, still beaming with pride, even on shows that didn’t fare so well like the NBC drama Kings with Ian McShane, “It was gorgeous, like Shakespeare!” and was mortified bringing up Delta Force 2: The Colombia Connection, describing it as “Some of my worst work–please don’t see it.” We had the honor of speaking Margolis recently and talked about Breaking Bad.
Congrats on the Emmy nomination, which is such an exclamation point to a full career, which is certainly not done–
Mark Margolis: Thank you, let’s hope. [Laughs]
Could you share your initial feelings about being nominated?
MM: I don’t know what to say on that. It was kind of a surprise. They have put me up a couple of times in years past and nothing came of it, so I knew there was a possibility and the Season 4 finale, “Face Off” was a pretty strong episode, so I thought, ‘maybe.’ The big change too was that there was 20 times more people watching Breaking Bad than before and that would include those that do Emmy nominations.
My agent and manager called me in the morning on a conference call but I slept through it. After two cups of coffee I picked up the message. My first reaction was I think I’ll go out and smoke a cigarette.
One of the reasons I may have gotten the nomination is because my character doesn’t speak and all of my responses were with a bell and the way I responded physically in the face to people. I think that interested people.
In fact a lot of people come up to me asking, ‘How do you do those things with your face?’ which is a little bit off the wall because in life we do things with our face, we respond to people saying dumb or funny to us with just an expression. We only use words when we need to–so it’s not that big a deal.
I guess you got to buy a tux now, right?
MM: I’m not buying any tux, I’ve always heard that designers lend you a tux. I’m a tight wad, I have a black suit, and every ten years I get invited to something where I need a tux like a wedding. I usually go to a store in New York City get an Armani cummerbund and a bowtie and stick it to my black suit and hide the tag behind my collar and on Monday I bring back the cummerbund and the bowtie and get my money back. I would only buy a tuxedo if they could guarantee me that I was going to win and I have Kanye West standing by in the event that I don’t win.
Could you talk about the role of Tio and how it evolved with each appearance?
MM: When I started, I had no idea that we’re going to run more than the one episode. They brought me in for one episode and there was no guarantee of anything beyond that.
I used to go to Florida to visit my mother-in-law who had a stroke and couldn’t speak and laid in bed, but she used to do these weird moves with the side of her mouth when she was trying to express something. I kind of stole that from her.
Everything on Breaking Bad you learn as time goes by. When I started on that show for a couple of episodes, I was just Tio. There wasn’t even a name I’m told until much later when Gus started calling me [imitating Esposito’s delivery] “Hec-torrr Sa-la-man-ca.”
Let’s talk about one of my favorite episodes of Breaking Bad, “Hermanos” where we learn about Gus’ history with the Juarez cartel.
MM: You mean the one where I kill Gus’ friend or lover, Max Arciniega–no one knows which– and took a piss in the pool? My favorite part was pissing in the pool. They have something called a pee rig, which I don’t think you can get at your local hardware store. It’s a neat thing that sits under your arm, from a bag.
My character always had issues with Gus. There was even issues in the flash back with Marco and Leonel, where they were obviously on the phone talking to me about this Chileno–this guy from Chile, and I even had lines where I said, Chilenos were “sucio sucio gente,” meaning, “dirty-dirty people.” (They got rid of the Chileno, because right about the time they were airing the episode, they had a big earthquake in Chile and they didn’t want to say anything negative.) Even when I used to confront Gus in the chicken ranch, I was always heavy with him, not caring for him.
When you first saw the script for “Hermanos,” what was your reaction to finally seeing what transpired between Gus and Don Eladio. So much color was added to those Gus and Hector. We came to empathize with Gus and root for him from that point on, and Hector in the modern day is such a shell of the man he who was overflowing with hard-ass swagger.
MM: I understood the basics of what was going on, I knew I didn’t care for Gus, and that piece of history kind of nailed it, where he went berserk because I killed somebody he loved. I did it in a way where I stuck it into his face, but it’s all very obvious, when you see the script.
Every time I’ve seen a (Breaking Bad script), it’s such a surprise when you see what we’re going to do. I never expected for it to be brought back 20 years before, I never for a second thought I had such a heavy back story with Giancarlo’s character and I was surprised to see Steven Bauer (who played Don Eladio and starred with Margolis in Scarface) and the whole scene around the swimming pool. From the moment that scene starts, Tio’s been told to kill Arciniega. The only question is when. That’s why I walk away from the table and come back very quickly and all of that is very surprising.
I don’t know what else to say but… that I kind of… enjoyed it. [Laughs] and then I held his head down next to the swimming pool with my fancy snakeskin shoes. I liked the flashbacks because you also got to see Tio Salamanca when he wasn’t wheelchair-ridden. What a crazy, flaky, nasty kind of immoral, insensitive creature (he turned out to be)–similar to myself.
Who’s scarier: Tio Salamanca or your character from Oz, Antonio Nappa?
MM: Antonio was a mild fellow. I didn’t play Nappa like those guys from Little Italy, ‘wid awl dat tawk, like dat,’ they constantly do this cliché, those guys. When I was a kid I was around some mafia guys in the village and they weren’t always like that. I ran into guys who you couldn’t tell if they were the head of the mafia or an HMO or the CEO of an insurance company. I didn’t have to do much as Nappa because I had Chuck Zito playing my muscular bodyguard. I kind of enjoyed Nappa a lot, not as much as people liked me on Oz, I didn’t like myself that much on it, I don’t know why, but I’d say Tio.
Tio is a violent creature, who has no problem blowing away 50 people if need be. He’s got all kinds of codes and rules on how to function. Even when Tio hated Jesse when the police were trying to get me to finger him, he’d rather shit in his pants, than finger somebody to the police. Tio’s a bad ass.
But was Hector the toughest?
MM: Jonathan Banks’ character, Mike is a really tough creature. He’s probably the toughest creature on the show.
What are your thoughts on the climate of television and the quality of work being produced?
MM: I think the stuff is getting better, really. It’s much improved. When I was young it was Dragnet or some silly comedy. Now you have all of these film stars working in TV now that’s how good it is. They have people doing TV that would never do TV before like Dustin Hoffman in Luck.
You’ve been on so many memorable series (Oz, The Equalizer, Mildred Pierce to name but a few), have you ever been on a show like Breaking Bad where it appears like there is no wasted line of dialogue or scene?
MM: Not anything as good as this. The writing is incredible. I love this show so much and I love being in it so much (and also going to New Mexico–which is such a magical place, that it helps you with your work) that if they weren’t paying me, I’d still do it. But don’t mention it to them because they may bring me back in a flashback and I would rather be paid. [Laughs] I’ve never run into writing like this, not in television–ever.
I read Vince say that they’re not going to talk Spanish this season, and were going to Germany instead. I thought he was kidding, but the sure enough the second episode of the season started off with all these people speaking German and it completely blew me away. Things always change on his show. They go to places you don’t expect. Vince Gilligan has a mind for television, and as far as writing goes, there’s no equal or anyone that comes as close.
We wish Mark Margolis al the luck at the Emmys and will be ringing our bells, rooting for him. You can see his work on Breaking Bad in Seasons 1-4 out on Blu-ray and DVD.