Giancarlo Esposito 02 20 202442396 scaled e1717426159968 hUXGWb

GIANCARLO ESPOSITO – Gentleman, Everyman and THE Man

THE FIRST TIME I REALLY TOOK NOTICE of Giancarlo Esposito was when he walked onto my TV screen as Gustavo Fring, the mysterious and terrifying drug cartel leader in Breaking Bad (and later, Better Call Saul). But although the role brought the New York native considerable notoriety from TV viewers (as well as a bobblehead in his image), Giancarlo had been working in Hollywood for decades. He started as an extra in the late 1970s, and by the 1980s had scored roles in several films, including Francis Ford Coppola’s Cotton Club, and a few by Spike Lee including Do the Right Thing.

Today, Giancarlo is a leading man, starring in so many films and streaming shows, it’s getting hard to keep track.

We sat down with Giancarlo on a rainy day in Los Angeles to get it all sorted out, post-Gus.

Cigar & Spirits Magazine: Giancarlo, you’ve played both bad guys and good guys in your career. Which is your favorite?
Giancarlo Esposito: Playing any guy.[laughter]

Playing the everyman is my favorite. Bad guys are on one end of the spectrum, and the good guys are trying to be heroic. Right now, at this time in my life, I want to play the everyman who’s not represented. Up to now, it’s been fun to play nefarious, bad guy characters with a dark side. I think the audience likes it because we all are a blend of both light and dark, and we very rarely present our dark side because it’s just not appropriate.[laughter]

We live vicariously through your characters.
Absolutely. I’ve had the opportunity to play the dark side of a character in a very fastidious and very graceful way. My objective in doing so was to allow people to start to like that character. When it goes too far to a stereotype, we immediately don’t like them. When you peel the onion of a character away, you may see some of the traumatic background, where that character comes from. I’ve enjoyed cultivating that so people can see the mirror to what they might be keeping secret for themselves.

Back in the 1980s, you worked with Spike Lee on Do the Right Thing, School Days, Mo’ Better Blues, Malcolm X. What was it like working with him?
It was a very exhilarating time because Spike is very playful. He loves sports, so there’s a way he directs that brings people together like a family or a team. But the exhilaration came from his ideas. He was very courageous. When do you meet a filmmaker who, in their younger years, has the confidence that Spike has? Beginning with the scripts that he writes by hand in his own handwriting—which I totally believe in because that really captures the essence of your own spirit.

Yes. Some of my favorite films are Spike Lee films. Do The Right Thing was incredible.
Do The Right Thing is such a classic movie, and it was such a wonderful thing to work on. He was really pushing the envelope as to how we look at each other and treat each other in bordering neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York.

Right. I was living in Brooklyn at the time the film came out, so it really hit home.
I think it opened a lot of people’s eyes. It was a great movie.

People would argue at parties about what the ending meant, which is always great.
Yes. He was very provocative with his endings, in School Days as well. Of course, at the end of Do the Right Thing, Sal’s Pizza burns down. There’s a whole sense of, “Do we play into that violence? What is that teaching us? What is that telling us?” I think it was a call and a cry for respect, and a cry for acknowledgement.
Big, huge Breaking Bad fan here. Many people have come to know you as Gus Fring.

Your death scene is one of the most iconic moments of Breaking Bad. What was your reaction when Vince Gilligan told you that’s how your character was going to meet his demise?
Well, Vince was very graceful and very charismatic in the way he told me, and I think that’s the way he is in his life. Because it wasn’t like he told me. It was like he was asking me a question. That changes the game when someone asks you, “If this were to happen and you were to meet your demise, what do you think you’d be doing?” [laughs]

I was in his office, and he called me in after Episode 4-01, which was the one with the boxcutter, where I did something really reprehensible. I wasn’t seen again as a character on screen in Breaking Bad until Episode 4-03.
Vince came in and prepped me for what was to be Episode 4-13. It was a long time off, and it was just to let me know that’s the way he was thinking. He proposed it as a collaboration, in a way, because he was invested in investing me in thinking about what action I would be doing, how I would go out.
He said, “What if it were an explosion?” I said, “Well, I would be fixing my tie.” It was a wonderful moment—I felt included in my demise.

How did you feel when you saw that scene the first time after it had been edited?
I thought it was really amazing. There was a process that went into it, so I didn’t know how it would look, other than I’d have half my face missing. I went through hours with Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger, who designed the prosthetic makeup that went on my face. Howard came out and did a five-hour makeup job on me. I was told that during that process, they also dotted the inside of the face that was gone, so they could do some kind of prosthetic movement. I was never privy to the whole thing until I saw it, so I felt terrified. I felt like, “Oh my gosh, this is ugly and nasty,” but there was some real power. There was some dignity in it. That’s what I had asked Vince for in that conversation. “The way you take me out, it must have dignity. It must be composed, and it must have some kind of real magical charisma to it.” Because that’s who Gustavo Fring is.

It was a death worthy of the character.
Absolutely. I felt triumph and victory because all the pieces came together, and there was a lot that had to come together to have it be respectful. It was a good death.

It was great. One people will never forget.
That’s right. Iconic.

I want to talk to you about Mandalorian. What was it like dueling in your Beskar armor?
It was a challenge to figure out how to move in such a weighted costume with limited mobility, but it was really a powerful feeling, because when you put on a breastplate, and you put on thigh plates, and the costume is just so formidable, you realize your movements can be simpler and smaller because you have to allow the costume to move for itself. I felt like I was in another world. Really, kudos to all the designers who worked on this piece that was just so very amazing. You feel invincible in many ways.

So, it was as formidable as it looks on screen.
Absolutely. Everything from the boots to the helmet to the cape were flawless, and so you’re cutting a very incredible figure. You let that stand for itself, and you work with the chiseling of your emotions and your face when you do take the helmet off, to portray what you need to portray. I believe that a costume can make or break you because it can make you feel feeble, or it can make you feel powerful and strong and invincible. Those are the feelings I want to feel when I’m wielding the Darksaber in a Beskar suit.|

Speaking of the helmets, what’s it like doing a scene with actors like Pedro Pascal or Katee Sackhoff, where you can’t see their faces because they’re wearing a helmet?
To me, it’s intriguing, and it’s challenging, and satisfying because you have to read their voices and you have to read their body language. Speaking in a helmet is also challenging because the voice gets garbled. It heightens all your senses. In a way, for me, it’s an exercise as an actor. I’ve got to hear through the veil of what’s really happening and look at physical movement to tell me the emotion that’s really being portrayed other than the modulation or demodulation of the volume of the voice.

It’s like you must use senses you don’t normally use when you’re acting.
Absolutely. You also have to rely on yourself to know the material inside and out. If I know all my lines and all the other person’s lines, and I know how the scene should modulate and where it should go. If we’re not getting there, then I know how to push to get it there or to push the other actor to get them there.

I also want to ask you about a new series you’re in, The Gentlemen, on Netflix, created by Guy Ritchie. Can you tell me about it?
Oh, I’m so proud of The Gentlemen. I think it’s just a marvelous piece. I’ve loved Guy Ritchie as a filmmaker for a long time. He has a way of working that’s different than any other. I had seen the movie [released in 2019] and fell in love with it. It really heightened my sensitivity to how British actors work and British directors. Guy truly is a master at what he does. I feel like this series is chockfull of fun, full of edgy action. It’s dangerous, but it’s also very funny.

I’m looking forward to it. Tell me about your upcoming movie, Abigail. Is this your first horror film?
It is. I don’t think anyone’s seen me this way. Abigail was a joy to shoot in Ireland, at the Guinness Mansion. On one hand, it’s a very innocent piece about a young girl who loves ballet. But it turns out in a way that you never expected. I play a guy who, basically, brings the crew together seemingly and sets them off on their journey. We kidnap and hold this child hostage and little do we know that we are really the hostages.

What about Parish, on the AMC Network? I know you’re a co-producer on that.
I am. Parish is a labor of love for me. It’s about a driver, an everyman who can’t make ends meet. He can’t look over his shoulder into his past because there’s some shame behind it. He can’t be that person anymore. We meet him as a family man who’s lost a child, losing his house, and in many ways, he’s being pushed away by his wife and child because he’s never home and can’t really provide because his business is falling apart. Then a dear friend who has disappeared out of his life for 17 years comes back and offers him a job as a driver. As he’s not making enough money to make ends meet, so he takes it. He thinks he’s driving for a Zimbabwean businessman, and he gets in over his head. It’s a crime story drama about a man who gets in too deep and must get out.

I heard that you once thought about becoming a priest.
Yes. I was raised Roman Catholic. Most of my younger years, I was in parochial schools of Yonkers, New York. I went from Manhattan to Yonkers, then to Elm Street, then to Tarrytown, where I wound up in a school called Transfiguration. My mother and father were divorcing, so for two years I went away to Mount Saint Joseph Military Academy, which is now a home for elderly nuns. It’s no longer an operating military academy.

It was there that I began to get up at 4:30 in the morning and got the vestments ready for the priest for a 6:00 a.m. mass. Then I used to pour the wine for the priest and do everything the priest needed. This is at a time in the ’60s when the mass was still said in Latin. I loved the pomp and circumstance, but also the ritual of it all. It appealed to me. It was a way to bring people to God, which was a good thing because it would ease some of their pain.
At that time, I thought becoming a priest would be an honorable thing, and also something spiritually fulfilling for me because there’s so many people in the world that are in need of solace.

So how come you didn’t become a priest?
I think I saw that the priests were really good actors, and I thought I was too [laughs]. So, I became an actor. There’s still a way I can get my message out there somehow, some way. Slide it in there, maybe.

Do you have any other films coming up?
MaXXXine, by Ti West, a young filmmaker who I really, really admire. It’s also in a horror kind of genre, but this, to me, is a real statement on the film industry in Los Angeles. I’m really excited about it because you have to look for me to see if you even recognize me. I play a very different kind of character.

Is that all you’ve been up to?
I’m also writing a book.

Oh wow.
It’s about my life, not only in the entertainment industry, but also about all the other things I do. It’ll be inclusive of stories of the old Hollywood I come from, and the new Hollywood that has arrived.

Where do you find time to do all this stuff?
I don’t sleep. [laughs]

Leave a Reply

Open Chat
Scan the code
Hello 👋 Can we assist you?