He may be an Emmy-nominated actor whose recent roles have put him in the Hollywood spotlight, but Jonathan Banks has much in common with other IU alumni.
“This place gave me my life,” said Banks, best known for his portrayal of Mike Ehrmantraut on the television shows Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. “I remember being in my 30s and in the middle of my career, and knowing that IU gave me my life.”
Banks spoke to a crowd at IU Cinema Tuesday evening during a visit to campus that included receiving an honorary doctoral degree at Sunday’s Honors Convocation — his first IU degree as he left school more than 30 years ago before finishing his studies.
The talk, “A IU Day Conversation with Jonathan Banks,” was moderated by IU Cinema director Jon Vickers and Media School student Ben Nichols, and was in conjunction with IU Day, a university-wide fundraising campaign.
Banks, who studied theater at IU and appeared in a production of The Threepenny Opera with actor Kevin Kline, said the experiences he continues to have at the university are as important as his time as a student. He has visited several times in the last several years, including speaking at The Media School inaugural event in 2014.
Banks said every time he returns to IU, he is reminded of the importance of lifelong learning. “I’m always knocked out by the intelligence that’s here. And more, the kindness that’s been shown to me.”
He said experiences such as talking to Media School Associate Dean Betsi Grabe about free speech during South African apartheid, reading student monologues in screenwriting class or simply smelling the blooming flowers on campus during a spring day make him grateful to be a part of IU.
In addition to sharing his gratitude with audiences, Banks offered advice to aspiring actors and life advice to all young people. He stressed the importance of developing detailed backstories for characters to help execute the role, and claimed he will be developing Mike Ehrmantraut’s backstory until the day he dies.
“You don’t need to decide where your character went to kindergarten, but you do need to know where their pain comes from,” Banks said.
He encouraged aspiring actors to approach roles with this same vigor, regardless of how small the role. He said each role he’s had is still part of him, and he continues to discover each character throughout his life.
“Don’t discount where you are,” he said. “Never condescend to what you’re doing. Not while you’re doing it. You do the very best you can.”
Banks also advised actors to embrace being an artist. He said those pursuing acting should disregard the pretentious connotation of calling themselves “artists.” He also warned those pursuing this passion to be prepared for economic insecurity.
“If you’re an artist, you’re going to have to be prepared to die with your hands empty but with the thought in your mind that ‘I’m an artist, and I’ve done the best I can.’”
Audience members asked questions, and people not present tweeted in their questions. Many people were curious to know what comes next for Banks. He mentioned he has been screenwriting, and that working with theater students at IU inspires him to go back to stage acting one day. One audience member wanted to know if Banks saw himself teaching at IU in the future.
“Going to that theater class yesterday just blew me away,” said Banks. “I thought to myself ‘Let me work with them. Let me take them somewhere.’ But I don’t know if I’m right for it.”
In addition to receiving an honorary degree, speaking at IU Cinema and visiting theater and screenwriting classes, Banks was interviewed by Media School Dean James Shanahan for the Through the Gates: This Week at IU podcast. He also had lunch with students at the Hutton Honors College.
Throughout the lunch, Banks stressed the role IU has played in his success. He recalled for students the first time he received an A on a creative writing paper and the confidence it gave him.
“To be successful, you have to have a great deal of belief in yourself,” he said. “This place gave me that. This is where I began to feel like I could be more than just a kid from the streets.”