One of the most intriguing aspects of the AMC show Breaking Bad is that, over its five season run, it’s brought attention to familiar faces in unexpected ways. Before the show began, Bryan Cranston was best known as the goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle, Giancarlo Esposito was known for being a Spike Lee favorite and Jonathan Banks was known as the nameless thug in Beverly Hills Cop.
Among the most intriguing unexpected roles is the one played by veteran "That Guy" actor Mark Margolis. Known for portraying all manner of imposing supporting characters during a 35-year career (in films including Scarface and Requiem For A Dream and TV shows like Oz) , Margolis was asked by series creator Vince Gilligan to play a menacing uncle who couldn’t speak and could barely move.
The role, of stroked-out cartel bigwig Hector "Tio" Salamanca, required Margolis to express alarm, anger, defiance and rage using only facial expressions. Any movements he could make, including ringing a bell mounted to his wheelchair, were a struggle. Margolis made Hector’s grimaces and drools so memorable that, this past summer, he was nominated for an Emmy in the category of guest actor in a drama. In his submitted episode, the exciting finale of Breaking Bad’s fourth season, Hector gets the ultimate revenge against a mortal enemy after teaming up with Walter White.
After a night of Emmy revelry, Margolis sat down with Co.Create to talk about the preparation needed to play the near-paralyzed Tio, and how, after decades in the business, expressing yourself without words isn’t as hard as everyone thinks it is.
It is not difficult for me to play that role at all. It is no more difficult than any role that I would speak in. When people say 'he’s an actor so he’s acting,' well, if you look up the word in the dictionary, to act is to do, to do something. I mean you wouldn’t go to see actors if they weren’t doing something. The dramas have conflicts, you do something. You can communicate.
But you can communicate without words. Some of the early acting classes when I was a kid, they’d have you express the fact that the countryside you’re in is beautiful without words, through movement and gesture and whatever. Or show the fact that you’re feeling terrible without speaking. So, everybody says my God it must be difficult to work without words. My joke is, "No. I’m already grounded in the fact that I’ve been acting without hair for years and that’s not a problem. So, now I’m acting without words."
When I do something I sometimes try to find certain mannerisms that help for the character. There was a weird thing I did with the side of my mouth that I’ve mentioned in other interviews. I used to visit my mother-in-law in a nursing home in Florida where she was in really bad shape. She had had a stroke. She couldn’t talk. We finally got them to release her because she was becoming a vegetable. But she used to do this weird thing with one side of her mouth. When she would see us she would get excited and this kind of motion would go on where her lips would move out on her left side. I stole that from her—or it’s an homage to her.
I spent a lot of time relaxing my body. This was a body that doesn’t have the muscle or the fiber or the ability, because of the stroke, to do anything. What’s it like to have a body that just hangs there? I would sit in chairs at my desk in my bedroom and work on a complete relaxation. In fact, the hardest thing for me was finding my comfort zone in that wheelchair, which was an old, antique wheelchair that was not very comfortable to be. And there were hoses in my nose. How do I relax and let everything go? I mean the only thing I have the ability to do is move my head left to right. Everything from the neck up worked. Below that, the only thing that worked on that left hand was the finger that could move the bell. I worked for a long time on how does that finger (move). It had a shuttering movement. It kind of shook.
When you have these physical problems as an actor, what you have to do—let me be real clear—you have to locate the physical problem and live with it for a while and then let it go. A guy with a limp in his left leg, say…you’ve seen people with a limp? See, the bad actors are trying to limp when they do the work. A man with a limp is not trying to limp. He’s trying to walk well. That’s as good as he can do. So, once you locate what causes that inability, like maybe the knee won’t work right, then you get it so that it’s part of your nature when you’re into that thing. You then let it go and you work against the obstacle.
The same thing for my character. He has no ability to communicate with words but it’s not that he’s not trying to communicate. He’s trying to communicate. He’s working against the obstacle. Am I getting too complex? My teacher, Stella Adler, who was one of the great teachers, I remember those things from when I was a kid. They’re now mine because I learned them.
Just like a pianist before his concert spends a week doing his scales so that he has great facility with his fingers and everything’s really moving along and the fingers are very limber, when I have to, I put a lot of work into it very quietly. No one knows even what I’m doing. It takes practice, I guess you could call it, just like a musician.
I don’t walk around the room where people know what I’m doing. I’ll go about my business. Like, I could go shopping. Let’s go back to the limp. If I had a guy with a limp, there’s a food emporium down the street, I could get in the elevator in my building, go downstairs, and go down the block to shop and have a foot that doesn’t work quite right. If I can do that out in the world, no one would know that it wasn’t a real thing.
[When] somebody says something to you really stupid, you put your hands on your hips and you give them a look like, "Are you really that dumb?" But you don’t say it. That’s the gist of everything that happened for me. Even in that earlier scene, that first episode, where I was trying to convey to my nephew that they were trying to poison his burrito or whatever, there was all of that anxiety and wanting to get that across that was an energy and a dinging of the bell and a movement of my eyes that were trying to express these guys are trying to kill you.
I mean it depended on who I was dealing with. When I was dealing with Giancarlo Esposito [who played Gus Fring] there was all this anger. There was a later scene where he comes in to really mess with my mind by telling me he’s killed all my relatives and friends. There was the fury that I couldn’t express. I couldn’t hit him. I couldn’t strangle him. But all that was going on. The need to do the thing expressed what was going on. I need to strangle this man. I want to hit him. I want to scream at him. It’s all coming in. It just happens on the face. It’s not something I design or decide; my face will go this way.
There were times when my body tensed up in anger because even that scene when I took a dump in my pants [while being questioned by the DEA], the body tensed up enough that the need to tell the DEA guy to go F himself was so great that I was able to use my arms to power myself up a few inches off that chair. But no. It’s not as complex … I guess maybe because I’ve been doing this so long, you know. You’ve heard of Picasso, Mattise? As they got older, they tried to do what they did with fewer strokes. If he did a quick thing of a bird he tried to do it with one line instead of the three lines he did it with 10 years before. You try to make it simpler for yourself. As you mature and get better at what you’re doing, it takes less to do what you’re doing.
Like here’s a weird area. Little things, especially in that earlier scene [in his first appearance] in that shed out in the desert. We were really out there. I did a lot of drooling. I wanted to find a way that it didn’t look like an actor trying to push out spit by opening his mouth. How do I have some spit there and how does it come out without me working at it? Just the fact that my body doesn’t work well and it just drips out of the side of my lips, and I got very good at that by working on it. Of course, that fouled up a lot of my apartment. I worked on that so that I’m not trying to drool. It’s just coming out involuntarily is the word.
In fact, there was a major dramatic moment when he put the burrito in front of me and I used all my energy to force the arm to knock it off the table. It went flying like a flying saucer. I fell into it and hit it sideways and it went flying across the room. He got furious. Then my head, because I have no muscle, I let my head just hit onto the table. When he picked up my head, because I had a mouth full of spit there. As he picked me up, there was this great gob of spit came drooling out between my head lifting up and the table. It was pretty gross but it looked very real. I’ve never played anything this disgusting.