Breaking Bad’s Tio Salamanca: “My Bell is Worth More than Walter White’s Underwear”

Actor Mark Margolis answers the question: Who is the better drug dealer—Walter or Tony Montana?

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Ursula Coyote / AMC

This is the fifth in a series of Breaking Bad-related stories, all leading up to the series finale airing this Sunday. (Click to read parts onetwothree and four)

Tomorrow: A conversation with Giancarlo Esposito (aka Gustavo “Gus” Fring) 

Hector “Tio” Salamanca came into the Breaking Bad universe in Season Two. Walter and Jesse were brought to him by his nephew Tuco, but neither knew that Salamanca was a high-ranking member of the Juárez Cartel. Revered and feared, he was called “Don Salamanca” even after an illness rendered immobile and mute and confined to a wheelchair. When he exited the show in Season Four, he did it with a literal bang, conspiring with Walt to take down their mutual enemy with him.

Mark Margolis, who has appeared in Scarface, Requiem for a Dream, Black Swan and The Wrestler, gave Don Salamanca a measured fear and grace, imbuing the mostly silent role with an incredible intensity that made the Don one of the most memorable characters out of a show filled with memorable characters.

We spoke with the actor the other day. He started the interview in character…

MARGOLIS: DING!

TIME: Is that a bell?

DING! -DING! -DING!

Did you learn how to ring a bell in acting school?

Yeah, it was one of Stella Adler’s main things.

Was the furious bell ringing that you did improv or scripted?

Well, the bell was always attached to the chair and except for two flashbacks I was always in it. But when it came to the intensity, some of that was my doing because I was trying to get his attention. It may have implied in the script, but it was mostly my doing, I guess.

Someone just sent me an email that some auction house is auctioning off all the props from Breaking Bad, including the wheelchair and bell. The starting bid is $8,500 for my bell! A pair of Walter White’s undies is going for $250.  My bell is more valuable than Walter White’s underwear!

Are you going to bid on it?

Who the hell are they to sell my bell? I feel like it belongs to me. I was talking to a friend who is an investment specialist and we were saying that, from an investment standpoint, the best bet would be to bid on Walt’s meth lab. If it’s fully functional, you are guaranteed a return on your investment.

Since the character had no lines, what drew you to the role?

It was a marvelous creature! The fact that he didn’t have any words was not an issue for me. A friend of mine, who shall not be named, this friend’s wife told me that he had been called to audition for the role. But in a typical Hollywood mentality, he didn’t want to go in because of the fact that there was no lines. He made a mistake.

I was delighted not to have to learn any lines. I mean, I had to know what was going on, I had to my cues, but the fact that I didn’t have to master lines was great. I got to fly out to New Mexico and not worry about memorizing anything.

You have a very long and successful career, but it seems like Tio Salamanca is one of those characters that sticks with you.

It apparently does, because I can’t get down a street 50 feet without taking a picture or signing an autograph! I was just supposed to be on for one episode. After the second season, I didn’t know anyone who knew the show, but after the third season — it  just blew up. It’s everywhere! In the last two seasons, it has become world class. It’s become more popular than The Sopranos.

Is it true that you were originally supposed to be the main antagonist of Season 3?

That comes as news to me. I knew Ray Cruz, who played Tuco, wanted to leave the show, so they came up with Gus in season three. My character, as far as I know

I didn’t have the capacity to be much of a problem for Walter White. I was a problem for Gus. It was great playing with Giancarlo Esposito. I’ve known him since he was about 20 years old, when we were in a play directed by John Malkovich. I always enjoyed running into him.

But, honestly, all of Breaking Bad was the best television experience of my entire life —the writing, the crew, the other actors. And I am crazy about New Mexico. Don’t tell them, but I would have done it without a salary. I used to hang out there after the show was done and drive around to Santa Fe and Taos. It’s a beautiful state.

But Walt is a complicated character who is not a good guy or a bad guy. He meant well. Do you know where the term “breaking bad” comes from? Vince [Gilligan] told me “breaking bad” was a term used in Virginia. I thought it came from the hood or something but it’s a Southern term apparently. [ ED NOTE: He’s half right ]

Who do you think hated you more — Gus Fring, Hank or Walt?  

Hank didn’t hate me. I annoyed him, but he didn’t hate me. Walter had no reason to hate me, either. But Gus, yeah, Gus hated me. In a flashback, I killed that guy [Max Arciniega] who was his best friend, relative or maybe his lover, right in front of him.

You don’t know if it was his best friend or his lover?

No, it was left up in the air. It was his chemist, but no one knows whether it was his best friend or his lover or what. No one knows about Gus’ sexuality, it was vague.  All we know is that it was someone that was very important to Gus. So he came back and took revenge.

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul are both quite funny people in a very serious show. Did their humor ever come on set with them?

Always! Bryan is a wonderful funny man. They showed up at party with Aaron in a costume and Bryan in a wheelchair with white cotton balls attached to his head impersonating me. Did you see the video that Jimmy Fallon just put out on Breaking Bad? It was called Joking Bad and at the very end, the guy interviews the guy who hits the bell — and it was Jay Leno in a wheelchair!

Who was a better drug dealer: Tony Montana or Walter White?

Walter was a lot smarter. Tony was all over the place and using his own product. He was snorting all the time! You can’t use your own product. I don’t go to the movies much and some of my friends think that’s strange, but I’m like a heroin dealer I don’t use it, I sell it. Walter never touched the crystals. He always had a mask on so he wouldn’t even get the fumes. Jesse was the one who got into the drugs heavily. Tony Montana was a mess.

What did you think of Hank’s end? There was no love lost between your characters.

It was a sad end, I didn’t expect that. My character was from the other side and Hank was a DEA officer. They were supposed to hate each other. In an early episode he came to me, but I chose to take a dump in my pants rather than answer his questions. Watching the episode was so hard. Betsy Brant said she was unable to watch it even though it was just a fiction. It created a new conflict for Walter White, who was present but couldn’t stop it. He cared about Dean Norris.

What do you think of Walt’s character arc, in that do you think the Walt you knew in Season Three is capable of what Walt is now capable of?

No, back in season three Walt was thinking clearer. He is a scientist with a very logical mind who keeps his emotions out of what he decides to do. These last few episodes, his emotions have gotten in the way. He’s making mistakes.

Even when he drove to get his money with his cell phone’s battery in. He is smart enough to know that his phone could be tracked. He fell for Hank’s lie about knowing where the money was! He has started getting much more emotional and less logical and intellectual. And that’s his undoing. Vince always said the story was how Mr. Chips becomes Scarface.  He started as the scientist with the logical mind. He was in control and now that he’s getting emotional, he’s losing his way. I think everybody assumes Walt has to pay the price.  But, who knows? Vince is very tricky.

How do you think it all might end?

I don’t know! My riff is that Walt’s going to go on America’s Got Talent and win.

What’s his talent?

Chemistry! But, really, I don’t know. I think he’s going to end up killing the supremacists who killed Dean Norris. I know he took that ricin but I don’t know what he’s going to do with it. I once suggested to Vince that the Penitentes who live up in the remote areas of the hills and they crucify someone once a year, I once suggested that to Vince as a way to end the show. Walter could get the Penitentes to come down.

But, I don’t know! I don’t think Walt’s going to make it out alive. But no one knows what’s going to happen on that show. Even when I was working on the show, I would only knew what was going to happen a little in advance. Vince called me a few months before I blew up Gus and he was very tentative about telling me, even though I knew it was coming. Even then, I didn’t really know how it was going to happen until I got the script.

And you literally went out with a bang.

I blew myself! That’s vulgar, but as long as I took Gus with me, I was okay leaving. He was the one I was after.