Better Call Saul is finally here and one of the biggest surprises this week has been the reemergence of Tuco’s character. Rotten Tomatoes talked with Raymond Cruz about how he kept the role a secret, where he found the real-life inspiration for his character, and whether or not Tuco’s that bad of a guy. [Warning: Spoilers for the first two episodes within!]
Sarah Ricard for Rotten Tomatoes: How long have known that you would be reprising the role of Tuco and how did you find out?
Raymond Cruz: I heard they were doing a prequel to Breaking Bad that was going to take place about five or six years prior, but I didn’t know they were going to want me to do the show until they were already in production. When they were getting ready to shoot, when they were writing, they contacted me and asked me if I would do it, and I was like,
‘Wow, I don’t know if I really want to go back and revisit this character.’ It’s really difficult to do that character.
RT: I had read an interview with you a couple of years ago and you were saying that it was really difficult and that your wife wasn’t really into it.
Cruz: My wife hated it. She hated Tuco. She hated the energy. When you’re building these characters, you’re not only changing and altering your thought process, but when you’re looking for the emotional support to the character, it’s all energy, so it’s a whole different feel than what she’s used to. I’ve been doing Major Crimes for the last 11 years and she likes that character a lot… Tuco is this wild beast. My wife is like, ‘Get away from me.’
RT: How would you characterize Tuco? I’ve seen him described as a psychopath and I’ve read the interpretation that Tuco just does what he knows. Where does he fall into that range for you?
Cruz: I never thought of him as a bad guy.There are lots of people who say, ‘He’s terrible; he’s evil.’ I’ve never looked at the character that way. I don’t think I’ve ever looked at any character [that way]. I don’t make a judgement. I just look at what he’s doing and how he’s trying to do it. He’s very passionate. He’s not the most cerebral guy, but he is smart — I’m talking about street smarts. He’s almost like a dog. They feel you out… We saw that with Breaking Bad. He’ll feel you out. He’ll take emotionally what he’s getting from you and then he doesn’t hold back. With a lot of characters, when you’re reading them and trying to build, you’re looking at what the parameters are. I never found parameters for Tuco — emotional or mental. When we were doing Breaking Bad, everything he did was altered by the blue meth that he was taking because it heightens everything. There was no end.
RT: Right. Breaking Bad‘s Tuco was high on this drug that doesn’t even exist in Better Call Saul.
Cruz: It’s interesting because when I was working on him and trying to find him, I remembered when I was a kid, I saw a guy who was high on PCP, he was naked, he got on top of a police car, and he kicked the windshield. He was laughing and it was almost like he was superhuman, so that always stuck with me.
RT: But the Tuco that we see in Better Call Saul isn’t there yet.
Cruz: Right. But you can see that he doesn’t hold back. He’s very angry and dominant and fierce. Tuco’s very loyal to the things he cares about, which is basically his family.
RT: The fact that he’s so angry with those two kids is less so that they’re trying to pull one over on him and more that they called his grandma a — what was it?
Cruz: Biznatch. It’s funny because when we were shooting that I was like, ‘What the hell does that even mean?’ and you can see it in the character. He’s trying to figure it out, but he knows it’s not good.
RT: So that comes from a place of you not really knowing that means.
Cruz: Right. But then I have to equate it to something that’s horrible.
RT: When you beat them with the cane, it’s so violent. What was it like to shoot that?
Cruz: Well, I’m very physical. I grew up boxing. I’ve done almost all of my own stunts in movies and in television and I’ve been injured a lot. I’ve dislocated both arms, I’ve had a broken hand, I got stabbed on The Closer.
RT: Oh my gosh! There’s method acting and then there’s getting stabbed!
Cruz: It was an accident. It was an accident.
RT: I hope so!
Cruz: You know what it is? I watch a lot of television and I watch a lot of film and I hate when you watch the action sequences — and I always tell when they use a stunt man — and then they put the actor in and you can tell these actors haven’t done anything… Again, Tuco’s way out there so there has to be raw physicality. If you’re willing to do it, you just have to accept that you’re going to get injured. It’s just part of the job.
RT: One thing that’s quickly apparent about this show is that it’s just so funny. Having played the same character in Breaking Bad, are you sensing a different vibe with this one?
Cruz: Yes, because of Bob Odenkirk and what he brings to the scenes. Tuco sets everything off but Bob has this great reactionary sense about him when he’s in the scenes. He’s terrified and he’s trying so hard to lighten things to possibly tilt it in his favor so he can walk out of there and Tuco’s amused by this. It was the same thing in Breaking Bad with the lead characters. I’d always been amused by the ways they tried to manipulate him. It’s like a cat playing with a mouse… these guys are trying to use their intelligence and talk their way out of it, so it’s almost shocking to me, like someone trying to throw water in your face. You’re like, Whaaat?
RT: By episode two, “Mijo,” we see a dynamic between Tuco and Nacho that seems like Nacho is learning all the different angles of Tuco to make a play.
Cruz: That’s the thing. Tuco can’t be handled. You have to stand back and hopefully not get in the way because if he focuses on you? You’re f—ed. If you draw too much attention from him, you’re screwed.
RT: How did you keep this part under wraps? It was such a great reveal when the door opens and we see your face in “Uno.”
Cruz: It was out of respect for Vince [Gilligan]. They didn’t want me to tell anyone. When we went to shoot, they would hide me under the umbrella. When we’d go to set, I’d have to lie down in the van. When I was at the hotel, I was under an assumed name. I felt like I was in the witness protection program. No one knew I was there but the crew — and they were all sworn to secrecy.
RT: So now that it’s out there, what’s been the best reaction? Because I know that after the reveal, Twitter exploded.
Cruz: That’s the great reaction — that everyone’s so excited… You get another chance to live through Tuco.
RT: By the way, the shot of you down on your hands and knees and cleaning the carpet is so funny.
Cruz: What about when I have my apron on?
RT: Tuco likes to cook!
Cruz: It was evident in Breaking Bad. He has a domestic side.
RT: That’s the thing about him. He has these moments when he’s so sweet to his grandma, and then he can bludgeon a guy or break his legs. It’s at once horrifying and hilarious. The scene with the negotiation in the desert is so tense and you feel all these emotions simultaneously while you’re watching. I don’t know if you can feel that on set — how funny it is, but also how violent and scary it is.
Cruz: Well, I knew it was funny because when they would cut, the crew would start laughing. Not when we were doing the take, but then we’d cut and they’d be like, ‘Oh my god, that was so funny.’ I’ve always looked at Breaking Bad as a dark comedy, so when we were approaching Saul, again, it was a tense drama, but it’s funny. Whether you feel uncomfortable and it’s funny because of that, or funny because of the situations, or funny because of the players, it works.
RT: The character of Saul was such a wonderful comedic character in Breaking Bad, but it’s going to be really cool to see him as a fully realized person in this show.
Cruz: It’s great to see in the first episode how he gets pushed into a corner and he’s fighting for survival and that he’s trying to figure out where to draw the lines — what’s ethical, what’s not, where do you push that line to, what am I going to be okay with — because everyone has to decide for themselves what’s ethical for them. Tuco’s lines are in a whole different place than other people. And if I kill you, that’s why. You got in the way.