Breaking Bad’s Tuco Salamanca: “Heisenberg’s Going to Die In the End”

Raymond Cruz talks about the show’s early days and how he prepared himself for those really violent scenes

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Cathy Kanavy / AMC

Every crime drama needs a villain, and they don’t come much more vicious than Tuco Salamanca. As played by veteran actor Raymond Cruz, the drug-snorting, crony-wasting Tuco wasn’t a loose cannon — he was a missile without fins (or a safety switch). Like Gale Boetticher, Tuco had a short run, but his impact on the show lasted long after Hank blew him away.

TIME talked with Cruz about creating the character who first tried to butt heads with Heisenberg, what it was like to work with Vince Gilligan, and what he thinks will happen to Walter White in the end.


TIME: When you first read the script for Tuco, what were your initial thoughts about that character?

CRUZ: The first time I read it, I thought, ‘Are they crazy?’ They don’t even know what they’re asking for. I thought it would be incredibly difficult to pull off. It’s not necessarily the words that were written, it was what I wanted to do with it, to translate it into a performance. But I thought, this is monumental.

The character has so many mannerisms and actions that add to his viciousness. How did you prepare for that performance.

Some of what you come up with for scenes, you can’t rehearse. If you tried to rehearse everything that character did, it would kill you. So in the moment, you find those things. You build the character and layer it, and you figure out the parameters, which with Tuco, they don’t seem to exist. After five minutes trying to find the parameters, I bottomed out. You just had to stretch it as far as you could go.

What drew you to the part?

When I first got the script, I turned down the part. They sent me the pilot, and I thought it was shot beautifully, like a movie. It was huge—the landscape of New Mexico, the colors, the way they were juxtaposing the landscape with the what this guy was doing. It was insane.

Tuco does some crazy things. Like putting a cigarette out on his tongue. How did you come up with those actions?

I found that in the moment in the scene, like when I beat the guy to death in the junkyard, I completely found the character in the moment. It was a combination of some incredible writing and Vince Gilligan giving me the freedom to work. They didn’t try and tie my hands at all. This unbridled viciousness exists and this guy just knew no bounds.

Within the structure of the scene, you try and communicate what’s going on. He’s with Heisenberg and Jesse, and he’s just running over them like an out-of-control truck. It takes an immense amount of energy. You’re doing it for 12 to 14 hours a day. Even when the camera’s not on you, you have to do the same performance because you need the reactions from the other actors.

Tuco was a vicious person and involved in so many evil things, but he was incredibly loyal to his family. How did you approach that side of the character?

Within all of his craziness, loyalty was a top value for him. The only person he really had in the world was his uncle. That was his family. There was some sort of grounding there. His uncle took care of him, and now he’s returning the favor.

Do you think Tuco got what he deserved?

If you’re going to go down that road and be a criminal, you’re either going to end up dead or in jail.

What did you think when Tio Salamanca, Tuco’s uncle, blew up Gus Fring?

It’s like another day at the office. That was a good way to do it. I thought, it’s just business. And Mark Margolis is a great actor. They brought in some really great talent for this show.

What was it like to work with Vince Gilligan?

Vince is the best. He’s a great creator and producer. He really respects talent, he respects the craft and he’s appreciative of it. He gives you immense room to do your job. You couldn’t really ask for more than that as an actor. He trusted me with his work, that I’d deliver it.

What is it like to go from playing an arch criminal to playing a detective, in The Closer and its spin-off Major Crimes?

It’s a completely different show. We focus more on the different aspects of the team, and everyone has a larger input on the show, character-wise. Almost like an onion, you pull layers and layers and get revelatory moments with the characters. We’re doing a police procedural, but we do a really good one, and you get insights into the characters in every episode. It’s character driven and I like that.

I like playing good guys. You know, I never saw Tuco as a bad guy. I saw him as a good guy in his own world he was putting on.

What was the most shocking moment of Breaking Bad after you left the show?

There’s a lot. I was shocked when they executed Hank. I really thought he would survive to the end, so I was really surprised when they killed him. He became the hero of the piece, and after everything that he had been through, you thought he was going to pull through it. Everyone else, you suspected they were going to find their end in one way or another, but I really thought he was going to make it to the end.

What’s your prediction for how it will all end?

I believe that Heisenberg’s going to die in the end. I think he’ll succumb to cancer. That will kill him. After everything he’s been through, he’ll succumb to natural causes, the way God intended.

Jesse will survive because they have to have somebody to root for. Jesse is a redemptive character. He’s the one who’s been remorseful and tried to atone for what he’s done. But Heisenberg will die by the hand of God. I think he’ll get all of his money back and his family will be taken care of.

Are you sad to see Breaking Bad come to an end?

I’m surprised. I thought they would have gone longer. It’s a great show, and it’s always sad to see something that’s great come to an end. It’s really great watching the show every week. You look forward to it, and can’t wait to see what’s going to happen. That’s great television. In that sense, it’s really sad to see it end.