Giancarlo Esposito talks ‘Breaking Bad,’ ‘Revolution’ and Emmys

The seven days beginning on September 17 will be among the biggest in the career of character actor Giancarlo Esposito. On that night at 10 p.m., NBC debuts its new sci-fi series “Revolution,” set in a near future where electricity has ceased to exist, in which Esposito plays Captain Tom Neville, enforcer for a dictatorship that’s taken over a large chunk of what used to be America. On Sunday the 23rd, Esposito will attend the Emmys, where he’s nominated for the first time ever (and the last for this role) as “Breaking Bad” drug kingpin Gus Fring.
I sat down with Esposito at press tour last week to discuss the learning process for the new character, saying goodbye to what he describes as “the favorite character of my life,” the difficulties he’s had in his career as a biracial actor, and a lot more.
I want to start out with the guy you’re playing on “Revolution.” Did you think you’d play the Sheriff of Nottingham and if so, was that ever a fantasy of yours?
Giancarlo Esposito: It’s interesting you say that because yeah, he could have some of those elements. I feel like he’s doing what he’s doing for a reason and he’s trying to help people really realize that they do need order in their lives and he’s trying to protect them, sometimes from themselves, many times from maybe marauders or people who are trying to hurt them, but he also want to turn them to his side. He wants to figure out how they can believe that the dictatorship would be the best thing for them.
It’s a truism in that people in your profession you say, “I don’t play villains; my guy, from his point of view he is on the side of right.”
Giancarlo Esposito: I don’t think anyone is black and white and I think we change our minds and our attitudes about certain things as we grow to our maturity. I think many people have contradictions to them and I love characters that deal with those contradictions. I do play villains.
Have there been times where you’ve played the villain where it became hard for you to take the empathetic view of the role you were playing?
Giancarlo Esposito: Yes, when those villains are stereotypical and not well written and I have played a few of those, but I feel with those that I’ve played lately they’re more-well, they’re people. They’re not the Italian Mafioso with the little puppy, petting the puppy and acting crazy, although, I do believe that Neville has some psychotic tendencies, which I’d like to cultivate because I think he’s tired. I think he’s tired of people not listening or doing it his way and I think he’s been away from his comfort of his home for way too long, many years and it takes a long time to get back and forth, and I think he gets a little bit impatient and I also believe from his time on the road, he has cultivated an enjoyment of killing people. It’s very possible. To me, that character has a little more fun in him. He’s not so close to the vest. He’s not so held in. That can allow him to be compassionate and understanding, but when you break the rules and don’t follow the rules and when you lie to him, he is basically going to kill you.
When you got the job of Gus, it was not what it became. Vince has talked about how that evolved. Originally in season 3, the Cousins were supposed to be the big villains, and he wrote himself into a corner and then suddenly here comes Giancarlo Esposito. When you got the job what were you told about who he was, what he was going to be and how you were going to be used?
Giancarlo Esposito: I was told he was a guy who was hiding in plain sight and when I first looked at the first script I really believed that part of me thought, “He’s basically a glorified waiter and I like that because I can relate to that.” I took a lot of care in waiting on tables when I was a young actor and I cared that people got their food on time and what have you. I could really relate to that, although I didn’t want to be glorified waiter forever.
I knew very little about where it was going to go. I think they believed that it would go two or three episodes, but the chemistry that happened immediately between myself and Bryan Cranston was strong and I started to play everything as if I had a secret. And those first few episodes at the end of season two, I know they saw that. I think they believed in me and were inspired by what I was doing. I was certainly inspired by their writing, but I was really blown away – no pun intended – by the way in which they wrote for me and that grew, and Gus just changed. You thought he was another guy who may have been a little bit nebbish in the beginning, a sort of a manager maybe. We know he’s not a waiter. We know he’s a manager, but then the brilliant cultivation of these 17 Los Pollos Hermanos franchises around the country, and then we find out he’s really connected to a larger organization. It’s pretty fantastic.
At what point in doing that third season were you told, “You’re now going to become much more important than we ever expected”?
Giancarlo Esposito: It was maybe the second or third episode of the third season that I realized that they’re going to really go for it and my advisors who were around me, my manager said, “No, it’s going to happen; you’re going to die this season, you’re going to die because the kid is going to kill you.” I thought to myself, “Well it’s a possibility,” but I felt and knew once I started giving advice to Walter White that was my clue. Once that happened, I realized in many ways he can be an advisor, a teacher to Walter through his actions. And then once Walter started to agree with how things were going, because I did feel like he was a loose cannon and he didn’t do things properly, I realized we’re going to get into it. That’s when I knew. I didn’t even ask any questions about it because they didn’t tell me.
And then we get to the point, I think it’s right after Hank gets shot, where Gus pulls his Michael Corleone move and takes out the entire cartel and like okay, yeah, he’s trouble.
Giancarlo Esposito: This, I love. This moment I love because you have the opportunity to see where he came from, see what his background was. I always wanted to know why was he so important, why could he not be touched We still don’t know that. They made some references to the Pinochet government and to the privilege in which the world in which Gus grew up, but still, we don’t know any more than that, but I want to know more of that. Who knows? We might be able to discover some of that as we move into the end as to why he was untouchable and why he was the open door. The doors opened for him to create this huge business. There is a reason.
You’re half Italian. Did you grow up with a love of mob movies and stories like that?
Giancarlo Esposito: Absolutely. “The Godfather” is one of my favorite movies ever. You mentioned Michael Corleone. That character was my idol growing up because here is a guy who didn’t want a part of this. He wanted to have his own life, but it was in his blood and the work in that blew me away. I love the work of Francis Ford Coppola, but I remember seeing this movie and from the moment that he went to the bathroom and killed Sollozzo, that whole sequence to me was the changing of a man who wanted to be out of the family business and live a good life, but he had no choice because he really was a waiter. He really was the man.
So was there a real vision in playing this part that all of the sudden, “This is my chance to be this kind of guy?”
Giancarlo Esposito: No, I never-while I was playing that role I never felt that way because Gus never did anything on his own. There wasn’t a-well, maybe in 401 there was a Michael Corleone moment where he killed Victor that completely slid by me, but I never thought to play it like that with that kind of vibrato, but certainly there are similarities.
Whether it was intentional or not, this is one of the iconic villains in the history of television. And in season 4, you’re slitting Victor’s throat, you’re poisoning Don Eladio’s people…
Giancarlo Esposito: I had wanted to do some of my own dirty work and I wanted the audience to see it and (episode) 401 was the crowning moment for me because I was very pleased that you finally got a chance to see Gus be violent and send a message and be that killer that I think he probably has been all of this life, but you never saw.
What is amazing about that is that you say five words in the entire scene. You enter, change your clothes, come out, cut Victor’s throat, change your clothes again, leave, and then just as you’re walking out, “Well, get back to work.” That’s it. And a lot of actors I imagine think that the number of words is the most important part. That’s physical. That’s all presence.
Giancarlo Esposito: I really feel like acting is physical. The crowning moment for me in my career was 401 because it so reminded me of leaving space – leaving space for your physicality to breathe, leaving space for your presence to affect your partners in the scene, which then in turn would affect the audience. I wanted to be so very relaxed, yet, deliberate in my physical body, comfortable that it would really, really frighten people and I achieved it. I’m really pleased.
There is just such precision to everything Gus does all the time, especially in that scene: “I’m going to take off the glasses and place them down just so and everything is just so and then I’m slitting a man’s throat and then back to that again.”
Giancarlo Esposito: It’s very frightening. That is one of my favorite episodes just for that opening.
What are you memories of doing the one where Gus poisons Don Eladio and all of his people and stands by the pool and shouts his threat to the rest of the men get out?
Giancarlo Esposito: I finally felt as if that had been years coming. At the end of the previous episode, I was in a very weak position playing Gus 20 years earlier, really that vulnerable place. I loved that episode, but I was very uncomfortable because I didn’t want to be vulnerable. Revenge is sweet and I felt like a total movie star play that moment with Don Eladio and screaming to the folks who are still in the house. I just felt powerful and strong, yet, don’t forget, I’m poison too. I’m poison myself, so to add to that I felt brilliant, smart, like I had covered all the bases and if it worked right my revenge would be complete.
When did you know that you were going to die, though?
Giancarlo Esposito: I knew I was going to die probably in 403. I had done 401 and the only disappointment after 401 was that I knew that after I did this thing that the audience would not be able to see me again for a couple episodes. As an actor I knew that. There is no chance that there would be an opportunity for me to be seen before 403. And I came back in 403, and Vince was signing my praises for what I had done in 401 and at the end of 403 he called me into his office and said let’s talk and we chatted because I want to direct one. I really do. I don’t know if I’ll have that opportunity. I pray. There still could be a possibility. It was such a hit show and everyone is lining up around the block.
So we talked about that and he said, “I apologize; I haven’t seen the movie (‘Gospel Hill’) yet,” and he got up to close the door and I knew it was coming and I said, ‘Don’t close the door!’ And he went, ‘Okay,’ and he sat back down and we chatted and so then we talked a little more and chitchatted and paddy whack, and he get up to close the door and I said ‘No, don’t close the door.’ Then he was really uncomfortable and I could feel him sort of squirming a little bit in his chair and then I busted out laughing to break the moment and I said ‘Okay, close the door.’ And he closed the door and he said, “We want to kill off Gus, and it’s just this town is not big enough for the both of you,” and he actually said, “We don’t know how we’re going to do it yet, but your work is so fantastic and we really love you here, so I wanted to give you the respect of letting you know.”
And that’s when we started to talk about how it could happen. He said it could be a number of different ways and I said, “Whichever way he goes, it should be really big and really strong,” and he said, “We won’t do it until the end of the season.” But he was already toying with an explosion and then he said, “If it were to be an explosion, what might Gus be doing?” And that’s when I said (he mimes straightening his tie, just as Gus did in his final moments of life), “Well, you know, probably that.” I always button and unbutton my jacket because Gus was so much better-dressed when you saw him outside of Pollos Hermanos. When you saw him at the restaurant, he was in a clip-on tie, but outside of it, we got to see his refined self, which I loved. So I said, “First, maybe I’d be buying a jacket, but more than likely what I always do is I always want to make sure my tie is straight, because that’s I don’t want it crooked and just very meticulous in that way.” And he went, “Ah,” and so I said that probably is the most solid move for me.
So I knew early on in season 4, and I was hoping, and Vince said to me he hoped and was trying to figure out how not to kill Gus, but it just wasn’t possible.
The way he goes out, with Tio ringing the bell and then the face coming off, it’s great.
Giancarlo Esposito: I never realized Gus would become such an iconic character. It has helped my work as an actor because I can separate myself from that. All my characters take me over, but Gus took me over in a different way, on a deeper level. He took me over on a level that was so psychically intense because I believed the way into Gus was to keep doing my spiritual practice, my yoga practice, my breathing practice so that I wouldn’t be compelled to do anything unnatural.
I was letting go of a lot of things that normally I might do as an actor to create energy for myself or to create interest. I wanted to be as relaxed as possible, and in that space came this flower of Gus that just was so intense. It just gripped me. It really, really gripped me. I knew that after season 4, I was walking down the street and some people recognized me in New York and they were big fans and I’m so proud of my connection to Gus. When I walked away from them my whole physicality changed. I started walking very deliberately like Gus and I had to stop and start laughing and say, “Get out of here, Gus,” because it was just a natural transition to turn into for me because I felt really connected.
He certainly is the favorite character of my life and because he was so rich and had so many things going on, not just a bad guy, but a guy who in my view wanted to bring people to their best selves. The whole idea that he would cultivate chemists and put them through school and take care of them because that was their dream even though they were doing something illicit for him – I just was fascinated.
What is your view of the Gus/Max relationship?
Giancarlo Esposito: My view is that Max is one of those people that Gus just wanted to take care of as probably a brother or even a son. That’s how I feel. I love the fact that it’s left unsaid, that you don’t really know if they were lovers or not. In my take of it, I think they were really just close human beings because I believe he saw something in him. He took Max off the streets and gave him an education and he saw someone who had great desire. How often do you see someone who is homeless or struggling, but still has a dream? Gus related to that and gave him a gift and so I think that’s what was-if he were a lover it becomes-it’s not as clean, not as pure.
Not as selfless.
Giancarlo Esposito: Exactly, not as selfless. And I feel like Gus in that way is selfless. He’s not trying to take advantage of this kid. Not even for the business. He’s trying to give him a life, and he is very discerning. He picked out Max because Max had desire and so to put a relationship in the middle is less selfless and I feel like is not tough at all.
You talked about what playing Gus did for your craft. What do you think it did for your career and your profile? Pretty much since school days you have worked constantly in lots of high profile things. Has being Gus being changed your career in any way or your recognition in any way?
Giancarlo Esposito: Absolutely. People call me, “Sir” now all the time when they see me. I was on a plane the other day and woman backed away and just up against the wall. She was waiting for the bathroom. I was in line behind her. She said, “You go before me,” and I said, “No, you’re in line,” not even thinking and she turned to me and I heard her go (falsetto whisper) “Gus, Gus, oh, my God,” and she would not turn her back to me. I tried to put my hand out and shake her hand and she was frightened.
It changed my life because Gus has become this iconic character that I would never have imagined had such great power over people, so people are a little bit afraid of me. But it has also created this incredible respect for my work and a renewal of people who are interested in watching my work. Many people who I talk to, Chris Rock being one of them, says, “I don’t know that guy and I know you. I’ve met you so many times. You’re the master because I don’t know that guy you played there.” And when I hear that, it really moves me, because that means I’ve really done my work. Some people didn’t know it was me, and they even know me, until the beginning of season 4. They thought this guy was someone else.
So it has completely changed my career and I’m happy for it because people-what happens is people think you can only do a certain thing and they think, “You’re an African-American actor,” and they go, “Well, so he’s an African-American, but he’s half white because he was born in Denmark and his father is from Italy and then came to this country and so he’s not really Spanish at all.” Then they see me play this role, speak Spanish and let this character embody me, and they are surprised. I think the whole industry gets that way, because if I were to go up to play Noriega or someone like that, they would say, “He can’t do it.” Now all these doors open up that have shown it’s another part of my skill and what I do, and people all of the sudden go, “Oh wow. He’s just done something we’ve never seen him do,” and that was the opportunity that “Breaking Bad” afforded me.
I’ll ask a little bit more about ethnicity, because people in this business, as you well know, tend to get put into boxes. When you started out, and especially when you started doing the movies with Spike Lee, were you just put into the African-American box or was it a case of people didn’t know quite what to make of you at that point?
Giancarlo Esposito: I was put into the African-American box without a doubt. People didn’t know I was half Italian and half black. It was just I had dark skin. When I came up in the industry, when I walk into a room for an audition Tony Gibson, who was my very first manager, who I loved, said, “Don’t speak. Don’t say anything, because you speak with a refined way and when you’re going up for a black role they’re not going to believe you.” I said, “Well, how do I do that Tony? I have to speak at some point, right?”
The hardest thing for me was to go into a room, go to an audition and they are all white guys sitting there and the casting director would come out and say, “Who is next?” and would see me and, “Giancarlo Esposito – oh, I’m so sorry.” They didn’t realize that I had brown skin. They thought I was a white guy and they apologized profusely and said, “We want someone who is Caucasian; you’re going to have to leave.”
I love the fact that I go up (in “Revolution”) for a guy who is described as a genteel southern gentlemen, and I could go in and read this guy and I had no worries that I was the right guy for this part. I just cultivated what I had to cultivate and it didn’t matter to them whether I was white or black. I was the right guy for the role.
If you look at your filmography after the early ’90s, you started playing a lot of either other ethnicities or race-blind parts. Did there come a point where it actually turned to your advantage?
Giancarlo Esposito: I think so. I think “Breaking Bad” was that point. I loved having to really refine the Spanish I was speaking to make him Chilean, and not a Puerto Rican street guy. It’s comfortable for me now. I don’t think in those terms anymore. I think it’s great. I really believe I can play many, many different characters and have an open mind in regard to ethnicity now. I just have to do the work and figure what the character traits are and what the environmental traits or the geographical traits come from, and that is all I need to do.
I want to touch on a couple of the other TV gigs you’ve done. You came into “Homicide” at the end, not exactly replacing Andre Braugher, but still Andre left and you were brought in. That’s a tough act to follow. What was that experience like?
Giancarlo Esposito: I loved it. I really liked Andre’s work. I didn’t want to do what he does, but when (Tom) Fontana approached me, my interest got really piqued when he was open to me being half-Italian, half-black. I don’t know if I ever quite brought that I was Yaphet Kotto’s son.
The genetics of that were iffy, yes.
Giancarlo Esposito: The genetics of that were very iffy, but the opportunity to explore that combination of my ethnicity was the reason why I did it and I loved it. I had a great experience there. I felt they were doing work that no one else had done. It was really, really a special, special show and I fell in love with Fontana and his writing style. I really liked the filmmaking that they were doing. They would put track on the floor and the little seat on it and they would be like right in the middle of your whole conversation looking up in the circle. The camera was always on someone’s shoulder. I enjoyed it. I met Melissa Leo back then, Barry Levinson. And that was first exploration and sort of exorcism of this thought that I was two ethnicities and how do I blend those together.
A little before that you played a couple of different drug dealers on NYPD Blue. One of them was written by David Simon, basically a dry run for Omar on The Wire. (He flashes a broad but pleasantly surprised smile.) You hadn’t thought of that before?
Giancarlo Esposito: No.
I’m pretty sure Simon based both Ferdinand and Omar on the same kinds of stick-up guys.
Giancarlo Esposito: Absolutely, that was a high point in my career to do that, to play him. I think that was the first time that someone said to me, “You’re going to get an Emmy nomination for this and,” all those questions come up now because I finally had one now and I didn’t then, but I really loved that part. That was one of the first characters that I could really play and not have to play for the camera. I tried to hide from the camera. I loved that. It’s kind of like, “Let them find me,” and if you did, you did, and if you didn’t, too bad. (He laughs)
Now speaking of the Emmy, you’re going up against Aaron (Paul), who won it two years ago the last time he was eligible. You’re also going up against Peter Dinklage, who won it last year. What are your thoughts on your chances, and what are you hoping that experience is like, win or lose?
Giancarlo Esposito: I hoping I just keep feeling the love of the character I played. The press has been really, really fabulous in terms of their support for me. I also feel like I want to be rooted and grounded in my head, with my feet on the ground, so in the possible chance I win I’ll be able to remember everyone I want to thank and be in that kind of gratitude. This is the last time you could vote for me for this show, and although it’s always a difficult proposition to have only one opportunity, one episode to be able to vote for it, I feel as if I’m in gratitude for the Academy members who have nominated me, but they’ve seen all the episodes.
Have you decided on a submission yet?
Giancarlo Esposito: We submitted “Hermanos.” You asked me what my chances are. I think they’re good. I always think they’re good. I have to be positive. I have to claim it in some part of my being, but it’s really – the work is enough for me. The work really is enough. But wouldn’t it be great to be acknowledged by an Emmy? Absolutely.
All I can do is hope and look forward to that possibility, but again, what takes me over is that I feel honored by the recognition of my peers. And if they’re as enthusiastic as all the press I’ve talked to, and the support I have from people who have been in the business a long time, and are very discerning and very particular about the television they see, then my chances are very good. It’s like I have to feel good about it. It’s a strange world, the awards field. It’s a very strange world, but I deeply respect all the other actors who are nominated. I feel like anyone has a chance, but I certainly would hope that people who see “Hermanos” will go back and look at the whole season as well and that there will be no question. But again, I can only be in the gratitude I’m in.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at