Last spring, journeyman actor Raymond Cruz got a call he wasn’t expecting. The man on the other end of the line was none other than Vince Gilligan, the creator of what many consider one of the finest TV dramas of all-time, Breaking Bad.
Gilligan informed the 53-year-old that they were in the preproduction stages of a spin-off series, Better Call Saul, and required the services of Tuco Salamanca—the Cartel-connected, meth-dealing psycho-nemesis of Walter White on the first two seasons of Breaking Bad.
Cruz was confused, to say the least.
When we last left the meth-crazy Tuco, he’d dodged a fulminated mercury explosion, a ricin poisoning, and absorbed a gunshot wound to the abdomen, courtesy of Jesse Pinkman, only to be capped in the head following an intense shootout with DEA agent Hank Schrader. But now, he was being resurrected for a prequel.
“I said ‘Of course!’” Cruz says. “I’d loved playing Tuco, and am the biggest Vince Gilligan fan.”
It wasn’t easy for Cruz to shoehorn the role into his schedule. He was already playing Det. Julio Sanchez, a series regular, on the TNT drama Major Crimes, but the producers were generous and allowed him to go out to Albuquerque on weekends to play the unhinged Tuco on Saul, and then return during the week to play cop.
The riveting second episode of Better Call Saul, titled “Mijo,” is a juicy one for Tuco. It sees him knock out two skateboarders attempting to “punk” his abuelita, as well as their master of ceremonies, ambulance-chasing lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). He ties them up and brings them to the desert to kill them. But Jimmy, ever the attorney, convinces the feral Tuco to not only let him go free, but also negotiates the release of his two “mophead” accomplices—on the condition that Tuco be allowed to break one leg each.
The Daily Beast caught up with Cruz, an acting vet who’s turned in memorable performances in Clear and Present Danger, Training Day, and TNT’s The Closer, to discuss Tuco’s return and his own journey from the gangland paradise of East L.A. to Hollywood.
So I hear this might be the last of Tuco Salamanca on Better Call Saul?
You never know. I’m not signed up for any more, but it’s all a matter of if they’d like to revisit it, and if I’m able to do it. He doesn’t return in Season 1. But I thought when I was dead on Breaking Bad it was over. To be able to come back and relive the character is an amazing experience.
What’s your take on Tuco? He does have a strong sense of justice—albeit street justice.
I’ve never looked at Tuco as being a bad guy. I’ve always seen him as the hero of his own story, and someone who has to defend what he’s fighting for, and who will go to any length to protect what he needs to protect. Jimmy’s able to reason with him in the desert because he’s able to appeal to his sense of justice. The way that Tuco looks at things is fair. The thing that happens later on in Breaking Bad is he gets affected by the blue meth, and the drugs completely distort his perception of things, so the drug heightens his emotions. But normally he has a huge heart. He’s like a ferocious pit bull, and you have to be careful when you cross his path.
And you don’t ever call his abuelita a “biznatch.”
Noooo. That was the wroooong thing to say! [Laughs]
What was it like to shoot that fantastic desert sequence in Better Call Saul?
It was so blisteringly hot! You had to find shade because your corneas were getting burned, and then there was a windstorm so sand is blasting into your face. I kept telling them, “I can’t see!” and they’d say, “It’s OK! The camera can’t tell! You look fine!”
What were you stomping on when you were breaking the skateboarders’ legs? Dummies?
They put these boards down and I broke the boards by stomping down on them. It’s great for everyone’s reactions. It was the same thing on Breaking Bad when I was beating No Doze to death—I was punching sandbags. It’s great when you can have the visceralness and that sound, because when I’m beating the sandbag it really looks like I’m beating him to death. We’ve always wanted the violence on Breaking Bad and Saul to look real and unstaged. When you beat somebody up, it’s brutal. That’s my favorite scene I’ve ever done on Breaking Bad.
Did you ever engage in any crazy prep for Tuco? Pay any visits to meth labs?
No, I didn’t. But you have to understand how people are affected by meth—psychologically, emotionally, and physiologically. The best answers I found were reading firsthand accounts of meth addicts who were super high, and then I took those and amplified it.
You’ve played both cops and a lot of criminals and gang members, and you do it so well—particularly the latter. That scene in Training Day in the house still kills me. Have you ever embedded with any gang members to prepare for your roles?
I have. I come from a long line of criminals. I have a lot of relatives that are hardcore gangbangers—18th Street, Barrio South Gate. I have uncles that go way back to old, old Los Angeles gangs.
Did you witness any traumatic gang-related incidents as a kid growing up in East L.A.?
Oh yeah. A lot. For us, violence was a daily occurrence. I saw someone get shot in front of me at point blank range and die. The brains came out the back of his head. I was only 12. There was one incident that I could relate directly to Breaking Bad and Tuco. When I was 13, the cops were called to our neighborhood because there was a guy who was high on PCP and running around naked. He jumped on the hood of the police car and stomped in the windshield barefoot, and he was completely manic; so amused and enthralled by this. We were sitting on the porch watching all this. It was this weird display of superhuman strength.
There was another moment where we woke up in the morning in East L.A. and there was just a dead guy laying in our yard. I’ll give you another one. One time, one of our uncles came to visit in a stolen Cadillac in the ‘80s, and he was a heroin addict from the gang Florencia 13. He was high on heroin and trying to sell us the Cadillac. After he left our house, he drove through the neighbor’s wall, and then drove down the street. This is what I’m talking about.
How did you avoid that life and get into acting?
You know, sometimes the best examples in life are bad examples because it keeps you from going in that direction. I got involved in American literature at a young age, and really got into the classics and also the film translations of those books. I’d read Grapes of Wrath, and then watch the movie. I read Moby Dick at 8 years old, and then read it again at 10. I read the entire Little House on the Prairie series and every American classic I could get my hands on, and then I was just so fascinated that they were turning them into films, so I’d seek out the films as well.
So you grew up surrounded by gang violence and police, and now you’re getting paid to play gang members and cops on film and television. That’s pretty damn incredible.
I know, right? When I was a kid, if you told me that when I grew up I’d be on television and on these great shows, I’d say, “There’s NO way. There’s just no way.” I grew up watching shows like The Twilight Zone because we were so poor, we really had nothing else; no other forms of entertainment. It was read books or watch television. I never even went across the river and into Hollywood until I was 19.
Well, now you’re traveling all over the world.
Oh, yeah. Albuquerque! [Laughs]