“I think what inspired me was reading the stage direction for Gustavo Fring,” Giancarlo Esposito recalls of the duplicitous New Mexico restaurant entrepreneur. “Vince (Gilligan) wrote ‘Hiding in plain sight.’” That concise description was the doorway for Esposito into one of the most fascinating characters in television history.
When I first worked with Giancarlo Esposito, he was playing agent Jack Baer in the film noir thriller The Usual Suspects (1995). The independently financed film was a launchpad for many careers, including my own as an editor and composer. As the film’s twenty-fifth anniversary approaches, it was a pleasure to reconnect with Esposito and discuss his unparalleled work over the course of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul.
The buildup to the “drug kingpin” in Breaking Bad culminates when Gustavo Fring politely sits down across from Walter White in his Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant. The Keyser-Soze-like quality to Fring is certainly an alluring comparison, but it’s the intoxicating, intelligent originality that Esposito brings to the character than has earned him two Emmy nominations.
Our Awards Focus conversation opens with Esposito’s desire for creative input on Breaking Bad, adapting to the younger mindset of Gustavo Fring in Better Call Saul, and how the restaurant entrepreneur earnestly cares about his employees.
Awards Focus: How did you get involved with Breaking Bad?
Giancarlo Esposito: My entry into Breaking Bad came about in a different kind of manner. I know there were a lot of actors fighting for the part. When I entered the show, I had just planned on doing a guest spot, which wasn’t something I wanted to do forever. However, I quickly realized that the filmmakers were just stellar, they make movies every week and tell incredible stories. So I was blessed to be a part of Breaking Bad and I’m blessed to be a part of Better Call Saul, and I love continuing to add to the nuance of my character.
AF: When you were offered the role, did you have any idea of the cognitive depth of the character?
Esposito: Well, the first time around, I really enjoyed doing my guest spot. And by the time I got back to New York they were asking me to do another. I said okay, because I’d had a great experience and that was the end of Breaking Bad’s second season. I’d done two episodes and they wanted to offer me a contract. I said that I really loved my experience, but I’d love to be able to talk to Vince Gilligan about some ideas I had for the role and what it really could be. I loved the character, and I saw something special there.
I was interested in connecting with Vince before they started writing for season three. When we eventually spoke, I knew we had the same vision for the character. I think what inspired me is when Vince wrote the stage direction for Gustavo Fring that said, “Hiding in plain sight.” That intrigued me about people in Middle America, or wherever they may be, who have neighbors who think they do one thing and may not be aware that they’re also doing something illicit… that idea fascinated me. The whole writing of Gustavo Fring, from running the drug ring to being part of the Children’s Hospital, it all made so much sense to me. When that all came about, I knew I was hooked.
AF: What challenges did that complexity pose during Breaking Bad?
Esposito: In creating Gus I had some trepidation, because I didn’t want Gus to be a Breaking Bad villain who had a minimal impact on the trajectory of the series. I wanted him to be someone who could guide a story or be involved with Walter White’s arc. I didn’t want to play the typical gangster thug with the poodle on his lap. I wanted to play someone who exhibited some humanity, who cared about people, and to create that feeling as opposed to going with the straw-man bad guy.
AF: Has Better Call Saul changed your approach to the character?
Esposito: When everything lined up for my return, I had to ask for the same kind of conversation with Vince. The challenge for me is to play a guy who’s younger, who’s trying to build an empire. Because we understood Gus’s backstory and motivations from Breaking Bad. Nothing new is revealed there, so I just wanted to show Gus developing, and that’s a challenge thing to play. Those are the things I think about while I’m playing the guy who’s laying out the card game, the guy who is really setting the pieces on the chessboard. I try to layer that personality.
I’ll give an example. At one point in season five, Gus is outside his restaurant as it burns down by his own hand. Not long after, Mike pulls up as Gus gets some bad news and he’s pissed off. A couple of months later, I’m in ADR (rerecording dialogue in post production) and I looked at my performance and noticed I was a little agitated. For a moment, I worried it wasn’t the right choice, but then I realized that I’m not playing the Gustavo Fring of Breaking Bad, I’m playing a different character.
This is the Gus Fring of Better Call Saul, who’s younger, who’s gonna be a little more pissed when his plans go awry, and who’s gonna show it. When you’re playing with time and going back in time for an iconic character that I played in Breaking Bad, I get to think about all those things that keep me balanced.
AF: Over the last three seasons, you, Peter, and Vince have been able to explore the intricacies of Gus and his empire, as well as revealing more depth in his relationship with the cartel and Mike. How has the relationship between Gus and Mike evolved over both series?
Esposito: I love those scenes with Mike. Jonathan just embodies the very soulful personality of an everyman, but he’s still an unusually skilled actor. The reason I love working with Jonathan is because while I know the overall feeling of what he’ll give me, I never know the depth he’ll take it to. Mike is a complicated guy, and I think he’s pissed off that Gus understands him. He’s very suspicious, and Gus always has to have something on you, so that complicates things, in addition to the disagreement over Nacho’s role. But Gus respects Mike, because he’s skilled. So I think it was a very tough spot for Gus – he wants to listen to Mike, but he needs Nacho on the inside.
AF: A lot of fans ended up rooting for Gus. Was that something you foresaw?
Giancarlo Esposito: It was in season four of Breaking Bad when people started to really like Gus and root for him a bit. And, you know, there are arguments that he’s not such a bad guy. It was triumphant for me as an actor and as a character because if people could see the vulnerability behind the steely coldness, and understand the reasons why Gus did what he did, you can kind of accept the guy.
AF: In Better Call Saul, when Gus has to give up money at the drop locations and he’s waiting for the call in his office, that poor fry cook is not cleaning the deep fryer to his satisfaction. What’s Gus thinking at that moment?
Esposito: I love that scene because Gus is obviously up against it. He doesn’t want to give himself away by intervening with the money drop, so he’s allowing his cash to be stolen, which incenses him. So he’s waiting for the call at the restaurant, and there is this young, earnest employee. This is a part of Gus that I love, he wants to teach and he wants to get things done the right way. He gives his attention to something that may seem very small in his world at that moment, but how you do the small things, is how you do anything, and it’s how you do everything. It’s how you do the small things that make a difference in life – in caring, in loving, and in paying attention.
Gus looks at the fryer and sees it’s not as clean as it could be, and the kid sees it too. Gus wants to make it a teachable moment, and to me, if someone takes the time to teach you something, that means they care about you and the environment you share. You take the time because you respect them. And Gus, I think, admires the inquisitiveness and the honorability of people, because you know when you’ve done a good job and when you haven’t. It’s fundamentally compassionate, because it’ll help them be a better person and they’ll never forget it.
Jacob Romines contributed to this article.