WASHINGTON — You know him for his signature phrase: “Tight, tight, tight!”
With one phrase, Raymond Cruz turned Season One villain Tuco Salamanca into one of the most beloved characters of AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” then reprised the role in the prequel “Better Call Saul.”
Now he’s moving from a fictional criminal to a real-life monster, playing infamous kidnapper Ariel Castro in the new Lifetime TV movie “Cleveland Abduction.” The film follows the real-life survival story of Michelle Knight, who was kidnapped by Castro and held in captivity for 11 years.
“Not anything you would expect from Lifetime,” Cruz tells WTOP. “It looks like a gritty indie film.”
“It’s like putting together a giant puzzle,” Cruz says. “You have to try to figure out what motivated this monster. … What you’re trying to do is contribute to the story … to have some sort of understanding about what went on inside this house of horrors.”
The film also stars SAG Award-winner Taryn Manning (“Orange is the New Black”) as Knight, Golden Globe nominee Pam Grier (“Foxy Brown”) as the nurse who cared for Knight in the hospital and Emmy winner Joe Morton (“Scandal”) as the FBI agent in charge of the investigation.
Cruz says he loved watching Grier as a kid growing up in the ’70s.
“She was a really good actress,” Cruz says. “I loved all the blaxploitation films. ‘Superfly’ was my favorite … That was the one that really stuck with me when I was a kid.”
He also says he enjoys working with a TV contemporary such as Morton.
“I am a ‘Scandal’ fan and I know a couple of the actors on there,” Cruz says. “I love the casting on the show. You know, it’s a soap opera, but it’s a political soap opera. I really do enjoy it.”
As for his own TV stardom as Tuco, Cruz says fans stop him all the time, saying, “Tight, tight!”
“I appreciate it because it really resonates with people,” Cruz says. “This is a character that struck a chord — a very striking chord, but people do relate to it, so it’s just a thrill.”
He says his co-stars, Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, had different reactions to him.
“Bryan Cranston is the nicest man … I almost felt bad for what I had to do to him,” Cruz laughs. “I think I scared Aaron Paul. Every time I would walk up to him, he would start shaking.”
“I wasn’t sad to see Tuco go, because it’s such a hard part to try to pull off,” Tuco says. “What you’re watching is condensed. That’s days and days of shooting scenes for 12 to 14 hours. It’s a lot of hard work. It’s so physically, emotionally, mentally draining, so when they finally killed him, I was happy.”
Cruz says he takes pride in the fact that creator Vince Gilligan asked him to come back for “Better Call Saul,” taking it as proof that his character had been a hit in “Breaking Bad.”
“It’s kind of a badge of honor to be asked to come back and to participate,” Cruz says. “I’m a huge Vince Gilligan fan … It was a great opportunity to revisit the character.”
Playing a role like Tuco wasn’t anything new for Cruz. In addition to Tuco, he memorably played an L.A. gangbanger in Antoine Fuqua’s “Training Day” (2001), which earned Denzel Washington an Oscar for Best Actor and earned Ethan Hawke an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.
“I’m a huge Denzel Washington fan. I loved him in ‘The Hurricane,’ and then to be able to have a chance to work with him in this movie, that’s the reason I took the movie. … It’s a really good movie.”
You’ll remember Washington gives Hawke over to Cruz, who holds a gun to his face in the bathtub, before sparing his life after discovering Hawke’s act of kindness earlier that day. Not only is the scene intense; it launches the film’s climax as Hawke goes to confront Washington with Eva Mendes.
“Best scene in the movie!” Cruz says, proudly.
Watch the scene below, but be warned, it contains very explicit language:
What’s next for Cruz? Will we see him in Season 2 of “Better Call Saul?”
“Even if I did know, I can’t tell you,” he says with a mischievous tone.
Tight, Tuco. Tight.
“Cleveland Abduction” airs again at 6 p.m. Saturday, May 9 on Lifetime.
Hear the full interview with Raymond Cruz below: