clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Man Behind the Mustache

As ‘Better Call Saul’ heads into its sixth and final season, the dread-inducing promise of a vengeful Lalo Salamanca is also a delight-inducing promise of more Tony Dalton

Michael Marsicano

Lalo Salamanca was heard before he was seen. Toward the end of the fourth season of Better Call Saul, his voice emanates from the kitchen of El Michoacano. Los Imperials “Al Compás De Mi Caballo” is blasting as Nacho Varga walks in, befuddled by this stranger who has seemingly taken over the Mexican restaurant that serves as the Salamanca family’s base of operations in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Following the voice with apprehension, ready to draw his gun, what Nacho finds is a boisterous, mustachioed man gleefully whipping up a plate of tacos. “You are going to love this,” the man says, flipping between English and Spanish. “I made this just for you. Never in your life have you tasted something so delicious, it’s true. … You’re gonna die.”

No thank you, Nacho insists, barely entertaining the man who seems so entertained himself.

“Very well. You’re not hungry. That’s your problem,” he responds. “This is a special recipe. A family secret.”

With the help of that hint, Nacho finally realizes who he’s talking to: He’s in the presence of another member of the Salamanca clan. Lalo, as he introduces himself, has come to town to make sure the business keeps running smoothly after his uncle, Hector, was hospitalized and left in a wheelchair-bound state. (What Lalo doesn’t know is that Nacho is the reason Hector nearly died to begin with.) “But listen, don’t even worry,” Lalo tells Nacho. “It’s gonna be like I’m not even here.”

That Lalo makes this assurance after playing music at maximum volume and commandeering an entire kitchen perfectly underlines the character’s sinister blend of playfulness and intimidation. But more importantly, it marks the addition of a new villain to the Breaking Bad universe—a final big bad to see Better Call Saul into its endgame. Lalo coming into the fold so late into Better Call Saul’s run might have tempered expectations for the character, but ever since he made those tacos—garnished with epazote, of course—he’s done far more than simply hold his own. With the same charismatic assertiveness he demonstrated at El Michoacano, Lalo has pulled the rest of Better Call Saul into his orbit—swaggering through the series like he’s the true star of the show. Most episodes, you can’t help but believe him.

Tony Dalton, the actor who plays Lalo, has experienced a similar sort of coming-out party. A Mexican American actor who had mostly carved out a television career in Mexico, Dalton had a small footprint in the United States before Better Call Saul, only appearing in a handful of episodes of the Netflix series Sense8. But Dalton has quickly proved his worth, making Lalo feel like the kind of larger-than-life figure he sees himself as. Now he’s one of the breakout stars of one of the best TV shows in the past decade—as well as a part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. And as Better Call Saul heads into its sixth and final season, the dread-inducing promise of a vengeful Lalo is also a delight-inducing promise of more Tony Dalton.

“I look for good scripts, good characters, good collaborations with people, and you never know who’s out there,” Dalton says over a Zoom call in March. “It would’ve never even crossed my mind that I was going to work with Vince Gilligan and with Peter Gould. And then all of a sudden here I am, and it’s one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me professionally.”

It feels appropriate that Dalton’s big moment came on a series about a bunch of characters—and their illicit product—traversing back and forth across the Mexican-American border. The son of a Mexican father and an American mother, Dalton was born in Laredo, Texas, a city whose economy relies on international trade with neighboring Mexico, and which has the largest inland port on the border. After being raised in Mexico City while attending a private boarding school in Massachusetts, he studied at the Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute in New York, where he learned exactly what it’d take to make it as an actor. “It sets you straight as to how this career works and the things that you have to do,” he says. “You’ve got to memorize, you’ve got to create character. Otherwise, it’s just not going to work out in the long run.”

Dalton’s career started to take shape when he found a regular home on Mexican television, starring in the telenovela Rebelde, the Mexican adaptation of the Argentine series Los simuladores, and the HBO Latinoamérica drama Sr. Ávila. In Sr. Ávila, which won an International Emmy for Best Non-English Language U.S. Prime-Time Program in 2017, Dalton played life insurance salesman Roberto Ávila, who lived a double life as a hitman for the criminal underworld—a ruthless killer archetype that is familiar but nevertheless thrilling to watch. In his most prominent role to date, Dalton imbued Ávila with an eerie stoicism and a Dexter Morgan–like ability to separate the brutality inherent to killing for hire from his placid domestic life. But while Ávila came across like a rigid instrument of death, it was Dalton’s innate charisma in his self-taped audition that caught the eye of Better Call Saul cocreator Gould. “He’s got an ease to him and a charm,” Gould says. “Frankly, as soon as we saw him, we said, ‘This is our Lalo.’”

Of course, the mustache was a big part of that as well. Dalton had grown out a bushy ‘stache after playing the clean-shaven Ávila for five years. “One of the things that appealed to me about the mustache is that there’s a little Old Hollywood swashbuckler to him,” Gould explains. “He’s our Errol Flynn character—and he moves like Errol Flynn, God knows.” When a bare-lipped Dalton was officially cast, the Better Call Saul team asked him to grow the mustache back, and while that request may seem silly, it’s as difficult to imagine Lalo without his facial hair as it is Saul Goodman without his colorful, tacky dress shirts. That’s because Lalo is not your typical cartel member: he’s flamboyant, affable, and goes about life in a manner that feels antithetical to his line of work.

“These guys are very close to death all the time,” Dalton says. “They could get whacked at any moment. So I figured his outlook towards life is a little more calm, enjoying life because it might go at any second.” In a different context, Lalo seems like the kind of guy you’d want to grab a beer with—something you would never say about Gus Fring or other members of the Salamanca family. But Lalo’s laid-back attitude shouldn’t be viewed as a weakness: he’s as cunning and cold-blooded as any villain in the Breaking Bad universe. In fact, it’s his disarming nature, and his ability to blend into his surroundings better than other cartel members, that makes him so dangerous. “It’s easier to spot the big, bad narco when he’s got a big accent and he looks like he’s going to kill somebody,” Dalton says. “But if you see a guy who’s a little more Americanized, a little more comfortable with the culture and with everything, you feel like he’s a little more fearless. You feel like he can get away with stuff that other guys couldn’t do. That’s something that adds tension to the story.”

Indeed, Lalo’s three-episode arc in Season 4 demonstrated how quickly he could change the rules of the game. In his pursuit to undermine Fring’s operation in the season finale, “Winner,” Lalo tails Mike Ehrmantraut to an unassuming TravelWire money transfer office before losing him in a parking lot. In the hopes of figuring out where Mike is headed, Lalo interrogates the TravelWire employee, who refuses to hand over any confidential information through the office’s plexiglass. Naturally, Lalo’s solution is to burst through the ceiling like he’s in a Mission: Impossible movie, kill the poor guy, and get what he came for. He later burns down the TravelWire for good measure.

The Breaking Bad universe is no stranger to random acts of violence, but as another cartel member tells Lalo, that isn’t how they conduct business north of the border. Of course, from his mustache to his infectious grin to his affinity for muscle cars, nothing about Lalo is low-profile. But that’s exactly why he, and Dalton’s lively performance, has been such a refreshing change of pace. “I mean, he’s a sociopath, but the guy, he’s charming,” Dalton says. “He’s nice. He’s a good cook. He smiles. You like to be around him.”

That is, until you get in his way.

Since Lalo has such an affinity for cooking: If his brief appearance in Better Call Saul’s fourth season was an appetizer, then Season 5 was the main course. With Dalton promoted to series regular, Lalo continued his shadow war with Fring, who was always one step ahead of his cartel adversary thanks to Nacho acting as a double agent. For all that Lalo did to jeopardize Fring, including revealing the location of dead drops to the DEA, his empire remained intact. Meanwhile, with Mike’s help, Fring handed Lalo to the Albuquerque police on a silver platter for the TravelWire employee’s killing.

But all roads on Better Call Saul lead back to Jimmy McGill, and our protagonist—now practicing law as Saul Goodman—becomes enmeshed in the battle of wits between Lalo and Fring. Lalo entrusts Jimmy with springing him on bail, which, if he were successful, would make New Mexico’s slimiest lawyer a “friend of the cartel.” On a series full of devastating choices that inch Jimmy closer toward the loathsome huckster he is on Breaking Bad, working with Lalo is the point of no return. In one of the best scenes of Season 5, Lalo observes a grieving family at his bail hearing and, confused, asks Jimmy who they are. As Jimmy explains that they’re related to the person he killed at the TravelWire, Lalo offers only a terse grunt; Dalton plays the moment with a casual cruelty that’s downright chilling. Horrified at the man he’s representing, Jimmy has a quiet moral panic. But underneath the courtroom’s moldy ceiling that symbolizes the rot within Jimmy and the justice system, his descent continues: Lalo is successfully granted bail at $7 million, and Jimmy has heeded his advice to just make money.

Lalo being a major catalyst in Jimmy’s transformation is one of many ways that the Breaking Bad universe makes every little detail count. After all, when Saul was kidnapped by Walter White and Jesse Pinkman in his first appearance in Breaking Bad, he feared that they were sent by someone named Lalo. “Siempre soy amigo del cartel!” he pleaded with them. (He also name-dropped Nacho.) Saul’s fear in that moment is a testament to Dalton’s performance and how he’s made his character as terrifying as he is charming. Dalton, however, is quick to stress that Lalo resonates because of the writing that brings the character to life. “You can have an idea of what you want to do and show up and throw ideas at them, which is great because I think that’s part of the collaboration,” he says. “But they got a much clearer idea. The way that I look at it is that you can adorn the Christmas tree with some stuff, but the Christmas tree is already there.”

Of course, the reason that Jimmy is so scared of Lalo makes more sense in the context of how Better Call Saul’s fifth season ends. Lalo making Jimmy pick up his bail in the middle of the New Mexico desert is the setup for one of Better Call Saul’s greatest episodes to date, “Bagman,” which further bridges the gap between the legal and cartel sides of the show. Jimmy is nearly killed by a rival gang in the desert before Mike rescues him. (Fring realizes that Lalo would be more difficult to deal with in prison, having already ordered Nacho to blow up a Los Pollos Hermanos from behind bars.) In turn, Jimmy must make up a cover story for why he got stranded in the desert—Lalo can’t get a whiff of Fring secretly orchestrating his release. Nevertheless, Lalo is suspicious of Jimmy’s excuse of having car trouble when he returns to the scene in Season 5’s penultimate episode, “Bad Choice Road,” and discovers a bullet hole through the beat-up Suzuki Esteem.

Dalton delivers some of his finest work of the series when Lalo confronts Jimmy at his apartment, switching from affable to menacing on a dime as his character makes him repeat the story over and over, searching for cracks in the facade. (Dalton also makes no effort to hide the fact that Lalo is holstering a pistol, as if the threat wasn’t already clear.) But what Lalo didn’t count on is Jimmy’s partner Kim Wexler changing the power dynamic of the scene, chastising him for making Jimmy do something out of his area of expertise because there’s nobody else he can trust with $7 million. “You need to get your house in order,” she says, throwing him off the scent. Satisfied, Lalo heads back to Mexico with Nacho, who he invites into his lavish home—trusting the one person in his organization that he shouldn’t. In the season finale, the staff at Lalo’s home is gunned down by hitmen who were hired by Fring and let into the compound by Nacho. “When you’re looking at it from Lalo’s point of view, he really is betrayed in the most painful possible way,” Gould says. “Those people seem like family to him.”

Now, after spending most of Season 5 with a bemused detachment, Lalo enters Better Call Saul’s final season with a score to settle. “You can tell that it’s no more smiles for Lalo,” Dalton says. “It’s gotten real. It’s not fun anymore.” But even if Lalo is all business this season, that doesn’t mean that Dalton is dialing down the character’s most endearing qualities. What has made the actor such a fantastic addition to Better Call Saul is that he can spin any moment in the series, even the most tense of situations, with a nonchalance that’s both disarming and impossible to look away from. “He finds humor in lines that I don’t think were necessarily funny on the page,” Gould says of Dalton. “He actually has a line this season … It’s the simplest line in the world. But I kept on rewinding it in the editing room because I got such a chuckle out of it. He’s one of those actors who—this is most Old Hollywood about him—understands how he’s presented. I sense that he sees what the camera sees.”

For all the Old Hollywood swagger that Dalton exudes, he joined a franchise in 2021 that’s as modern as Hollywood gets: the MCU. In between filming the final two seasons of Better Call Saul, he landed a supporting role in the Disney+ series Hawkeye as Jack Duquesne, an eccentric aristocrat based on the Swordsman character from the comics. As the soon-to-be stepfather of Kate Bishop, Clint Barton’s arrow-slinging protégé, Jack is a natural subject of her disdain—even before she suspects him of killing his own uncle.

The fact that Jack’s uncle was killed by a sword certainly makes Jack a person of interest—again, we’re talking about someone based on a character called Swordsman—and Dalton’s performance leans into the mystery. It’s hard to tell whether Jack is openly flaunting his guilt, like when he chews on the same caramel candy that was left at the scene of the crime, or whether he is genuinely oblivious to everything happening around him. “You could believe an edge of villainy might be there, but also you want to have it be a bit of a joke,” Hawkeye lead director and executive producer Rhys Thomas says. “It was a difficult thing to balance and figure out because you needed someone very specific that you could enjoy and hate at the same time.”

According to Dalton, what was even more challenging was that he was left in the dark about Jack’s arc on the series. Because Marvel is so notoriously secretive about its projects, the Hawkeye scripts were rolled out piecemeal. “You’re like a boat at night,” Dalton says. “You don’t know where the character’s going. You don’t know from one day to the next what the hell’s going to happen.” (To wit: At one point, Jack roasts a snobby child for pissing his pants in the Hamptons.)

For viewers familiar with Dalton’s work on Better Call Saul, there are obvious similarities between Lalo and Jack—namely, how they coast through scenes and how tension seems to bounce off of them. It’s amusing and also a little unnerving. “Everyone else is in the story line, and his character, whatever he’s doing, he’s in some other land,” Thomas says. “It adds this wonderful little flavor to things.”

By the Hawkeye finale, it’s revealed that Jack wasn’t a criminal mastermind as much as a red herring. “You think it’s going to be him, and then at the end, he’s just an innocent guy who likes swords,” Dalton says with a hilarious matter-of-factness that mimics his character. Ultimately, Jack is all of the exuberance and delight of Lalo Salamanca with none of the heinous acts of violence. And just like Lalo, Jack emerged from Hawkeye’s ensemble as a fan favorite—a supporting player who outshined the comparatively smaller spotlight afforded to him. That’s all thanks to Dalton, an actor who draws you in whether he’s playing a captivating killer or a wholesome sword enthusiast.

“Some people just have a warmth about them,” Thomas says. “I think that’s part of why you gravitate to him and want to watch him.”

With all the scene-stealing charisma that Dalton brings to Better Call Saul and Hawkeye, maybe the biggest surprise is that it’s taken so long for the 47-year-old actor to break out in the United States. But despite making a career for himself in Mexico, casting directors weren’t always sure what to do with the Mexican American actor. As he told The New York Times in 2020, being pigeonholed became the “bane of my existence as an actor.”

“I still get offered stuff all the time that is the big, bad Mexican drug dealer who’s got a gun and is going to shoot everybody,” Dalton says. “I guess it goes with the territory. You just turn it around with time.” As an example of an actor who broke out of the box that the industry initially put him in, Dalton recalls when Tom Hanks was known primarily for comedies in the ’80s before taking on more serious roles in films like Philadelphia, which won him a Best Actor Oscar in 1994. “You just have to keep working at it,” he says. “Even in Hawkeye, the character, he’s not a Mexican, which is great for me because it’s like, ‘Oh see, here’s this guy, he can do this.’”

In the meantime, there’s still the final season of Better Call Saul, which will close the book on Jimmy McGill’s soul-crushing devolution into Saul Goodman. (And, most likely, what awaits for Nebraska-based Cinnabon manager “Gene Takovic.”) With a series that guards its secrets as closely as the MCU, it’s hard to know where Better Call Saul is headed—though Gould believes that Lalo’s vengeful journey will take viewers by surprise. “You see him in circumstances and places that you would’ve never ever pictured this guy going,” he says. “You find out how smart and tenacious this guy can be, because he turns out to be a very strategic thinker. In his own way, he’s a detective.”

“Maybe that’s the next spinoff,” Gould adds with a chuckle, “this cartel detective.”

Inspector Lalo probably isn’t happening, but Dalton’s magnetic performance has already earned the villain a spot in the Breaking Bad universe’s pantheon. Now that the cat—or more appropriately, the mischievous mustache—is out of the bag, the actor stands as one of the most enthralling actors on either side of the border. It’s time for the rest of the world to take notice. “I try to find people that are serious about the work and that want to just create something that’s good,” Dalton says. “I’m really thankful to these guys for inviting me and for having such a great character in my mind that made a little bit of a difference in this world of Saul.”

The Bill Simmons Podcast

Joker’s Wild in Miami, CP3’s Future, CNN Turmoil, and Streaming TV Chaos With Kevin Wildes, Dave Jacoby, and Matt Belloni

Trial By Content

The Best HBO Drama Series of All Time

Bachelor Party

‘Love Island’ Season 3 Recap: Season Finale, and Where Are They Now?

View all stories in TV