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Ignacio Varga, “Nacho,” proudly arrives at El Michoacáno, the restaurant where the fearsome Salamanca family runs its drug business. Nacho is starting to do well. He is respected and is already in charge of managing his bosses’ entire criminal structure without Don Hector behind him. But that day, at El Michoacáno, the song Al Compás De Mi Caballo by The Imperials is playing in the background. Varga, somewhat confused, shows signs of uneasiness after seeing his partner Domingo’s worried face. He goes to the kitchen; there is a man, whom he has never seen before, cooking tacos while he sings, dances, and smiles. He is Eduardo “Lalo” Salamanca —played by Mexican-American Tony Dalton— the character who revolutionized Better Call Saul and changed the perspective of how to look at the Breaking Bad universe.
Lalo Salamanca, behind his friendly face and innate charisma, hides his qualities of a villain, the best created in Breaking Bad. He is a terrible drug dealer like his colleagues in Mexico, but he is also a strategist like Gustavo Fring, the chess player. He is capable of deceiving Mike by killing him mercilessly while showing a disturbing smile, imposing confidence and fear on the viewer, and disturbing all his surroundings with his built quasi-psychopathic personality.
His first appearance, when he finally meets Nacho, comes in the fourth season of the successful spin-off that reveals some blind spots of the excellent work created by Vince Gilligan and company. The biggest fans realized right away that this Lalo Salamanca would be pivotal to Better Call Saul because he was the same one mentioned by Saul Goodman during the second season of Breaking Bad.
In the fifth and sixth seasons, already as co-star, Lalo develops several of the most compelling stories of the spin-off. He torments Nacho, Saul, and Kim and becomes a rock in Gus Fring’s shoe. It’s only a matter of time before the carnage begins, and we see the outcome of the most iconic and relevant Salamanca of Gilligan’s work.
Today, Tony Dalton’s career is at its peak after achieving the best character of his career with Lalo and becoming the first Mexican actor to join the Marvel universe by playing “Jack Duquesne” in the Hawkeye series. But how did Dalton get here?
Theater as a starting point
Suppose there’s one thing Better Call Saul fans point out about Tony Dalton. In that case, it’s his perfect Spanish, the only one in the entire Breaking Bad universe to master the language to perfection with shocking naturalness. This is because Dalton —despite being born in Laredo, Texas, in 1975— grew up in Mexico after his parents failed to start a restaurant in the Texan state.
As the years went by, Dalton learned Spanish, acquired the distinctive Mexican accent, and left for the United States as a teenager. He followed his father’s orders to study at a private religious school in Massachusetts.
While studying, the Mexican-American fell in love with one of his teachers’ daughters, and to be able to see each other before the strict rules of the private school, Dalton joined the school’s theater, where he could see her every afternoon. Although the romance between them did not transcend, it was there that the actor discovered his vocation and true love: acting.
Dalton decided to become an actor. To make a living at it. So, at 19, he settled in New York. He worked as a waiter and studied acting at the prestigious Lee Strasberg Theater & Film Institute in Manhattan while doing small Broadway plays that, in his words, “no one would see.”
Things did not work out as he had hoped.
Not so Mexican, not so American: Tony Dalton’s Sin and Attribute
The Mexican-American’s career could not take off in the Big Apple. He tried his luck in Los Angeles, where he ran into a reality that has haunted him throughout his career. For Hollywood producers, Dalton is not American enough for an American role, nor Mexican enough for a Mexican part. They could not find a place for him in the various productions for which he applied.
“I have this thing that’s sort of chased me around,” Dalton told The New York Times. “Well, you don’t look that Mexican; you don’t sound Mexican, but you are Mexican. So, do we give you a Mexican part, or do we give you an American part?’ It’s been the bane of my existence as an actor. It finally worked in my favor.”
Over two years, Tony Dalton tried his luck in 300 tests. In all of them, he was rejected. It was a massive blow to his career, but by no means none of them would defeat him.
Like his parents, after “failing” in the United States, Tony Dalton returned to Mexico to pursue his acting career in the capital, Mexico City. And like many talented artists, necessity led him to enhance his talent.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, the actor said that “desperation and poverty” were a driving force to improve his scripts, and, having that in mind, he could get his first vital roles in Mexican television.
His first big success came in 2004, with the film Matando Cabos, written and starred by himself. He succeeded with several hits, acting in the novels Clase 406 and Rebelde, or his roles in major films such as Sultanes Del Sur or La Dictadura Perfecta. This insightful and intelligent satire portrays the dealings and links of the Mexican State with organized crime, the mafias, the narco, and the docile media.
After twenty appearances on the big screen and an excellent career within Mexico, Tony Dalton began to be recognized internationally for his starring role in Mr. Avila, a series produced by HBO that in 2017 won the Emmy for “Best Non-English Speaking U.S. Primetime Program in the United States.”
In the end, Tony Dalton’s parents’ failure to succeed with their restaurant in Texas and the failure of his first adventure as an actor in New York and Los Angeles were significant turning points for the Mexican American’s revenge in the world of acting. Without those difficulties, Dalton might not have been able to perfect his Spanish, nor would he have obtained the recognition he achieved in his homeland. It took two setbacks to materialize the role of his life: Lalo Salamanca.
Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón is a journalist at El American specializing in the areas of American politics and media analysis // Emmanuel Alejandro Rondón es periodista de El American especializado en las áreas de política americana y análisis de medios de comunicación.