‘Did I ever tell you the definition of insanity?’
In 2012, game developer Ubisoft released Far Cry 3, an open world, first-person shooter. It was a great game, full of excellently developed mechanics and featuring a well-fleshed out story and world. Rising above all of this though was its core villain, Vaas Montenegro, a modern-day pirate captain and endlessly captivating psychopath. Though there was technically one other, ‘higher’ villain included in the game, nobody ever remembers or cares about him because compared to Vaas he was bland, room temperature water.
The funny thing is that Vaas wasn’t actually originally even included in the game. The character was created and then written into great prominence based solely on the strength of the audition of actor Michael Mando, who came in initially to try out for a different part. The team at Ubisoft however found him so magnetic and his performance so pitch perfect that they felt compelled to restructure their entire narrative around him.
And that there really tells you all you need to know about the 36-year-old Canadian actor. The Vaas that he almost singlehandedly brought to life really is a role for the video game hall of fame, his personality bursting through every frame, almost threatening to reduce the rest of the cast to complete irrelevance. There are no moral shades to Vaas. He is a straight up villain, no complex anti-hero, and yet despite that you still can’t help but be drawn to him like a moth to a flame. It’s been half a decade since Far Cry 3 came out, I haven’t played it in a good number of those years, but I still find myself going back occasionally to re-watch some of Vaas’ scenes. That’s how much of an indelible mark Mando’s extraordinary performance left on me.
Vaas Montenegro might have been my introduction to Mando, but it was two further performances of his that really made me think, ‘Shit, this guy has got something really special going on. He deserves to be in everything’—Vic in Orphan Black and Nacho in Better Call Saul.
Orphan Black is rightly lauded for Tatiana Maslany’s dazzling achievement in playing the x-number of clone protagonists, but some of the supporting cast do stellar work too. Chief among them, for me certainly, had always been Michael Mando’s Vic. Vic appears in the early seasons of the show as Maslany’s rough-around-the-edges ex-boyfriend. To put it another way: Vic is a bit of a dick. He throws his weight around and he can be pushy and abrasive. But as the scope of events around him rapidly widens and he becomes an unwitting bit player in a game much, much bigger than he the other sides of Vic gradually come to the fore. There is a sweetness and a puppy dog-like innocence or naivete underneath all that bluster, and he has a tendency to cling to snatches of goodness in the past for comfort. It’s quite the tricky balancing act to pull off, especially in relatively little screen time, and Michael Mando just knocks it out of the park in every minute we see him.
But even Vic, layered portrayal of bumbling masculinity that he is, is nothing compared to Mando’s role as Nacho Varga in Better Call Saul. By the time his character popped up for the first time in the show’s first season, I considered myself a big fan of Mando. I was very happy to see him make an appearance in one of the best shows currently on television. ‘Go on, Mando, my boy! Fuck yes, climb that ladder!’ I thought to myself. At that point, he could’ve phoned in whatever grade performance he felt like and I would’ve been happy that yet more people were being exposed to his talents. But Michael Mando doesn’t phone anything in. In what’s proving to be one of the more extraordinary examples of ‘prestige television’, that may yet (if it hasn’t already) even surpass its origin show, Nacho Varga could easily be pointed to as a clear dramatic highlight. Jimmy’s arc is tragic; Kim is a fascinating person to watch; Mike is one of the most reliable treats in any medium; but damn does Mando’s Nacho hold his own. A lieutenant and enforcer for the Salamanca cartel, his is a role that requires both brute muscle and a meticulous mind for administration. So he is intimidating when he needs to be. Mando’s physicality makes sure of that. But he has something behind the eyes too, something that gives more weight to the danger but that also speaks of hidden depths. It’s becoming the actor’s trademark. It’s a maturity and an awareness, a strange, grim humanity. His scenes with Mike reveal much of this as he lets his guard down a little bit around a kindred spirit, or at least an accomplice. In stark contrast to Vaas and Vic, Nacho is cool and calm, his violence coming in controlled, localised explosions.
It’s the second season of Saul which really cemented Michael Mando as a talent that deserves to be rewarded with high profile, challenging work. The scenes with Nacho and his father are heartbreaking. There aren’t many of them, but the interactions between the two speak of years of pain and vast reserves of hidden emotion. Both actors sell it perfectly, but Mando really shines.
And then there is the pill-switching scene. In what could have been a showy display of LOUD ACTING and over-emoting, Mando chose to go the more restrained route. This in a situation of potential life and death for his character. That’s because it’s exactly how Nacho would have behaved in that scenario and Mando understands this. It’s a phenomenal scene. Tension personified. In a just universe it would be enough to propel the man who’s centre stage in it to superstardom.