Giancarlo Esposito is probably your favorite actor’s favorite actor.
With a career spanning decades, older moviegoers remember him as Big Brother Almighty from Spike Lee’s 1988 cult classic “School Daze.” Now, newer fans perhaps know him better as Gustavo Fring, the mysterious restaurant owner and drug boss from the “Breaking Bad” universe.
After responding to a viral tweet featuring some of his most prominent roles on screen, Esposito spoke to HuffPost about portraying Fring, the possibility of a prequel series, his collaborator Spike Lee and what’s next.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
You’ve played incredibly striking villains throughout your career. How is Gus Fring different from many of your other roles?
Well, Gus is very specific and I feel as if [the writers] struck a really wonderful balance in writing this particular character. I knew we were on to something by playing with someone who was not your usual bad guy or villain. He was really a genius and really someone who was very, very smart and was looking at a bigger picture of his own business ideas that he wanted to extend, but also was capable of incredible violence and also would do anything to get what he set out to get.
So for me to play this character as an everyman, in one sense, was a true revelation for me because Vince Gilligan wrote one line in the stage direction called “hiding in plain sight.” And that particular line was what inspired me, because I thought to myself, what if I was the guy next door? What if he was in an illicit business? What if he was a drug dealer? So I threw all that in the mix working and cleaning Gus. And I think he’s different than other villains because he’s had more screen time. We’ve gotten to know him in one way more than some of the other villains that I’ve played, but he also is a mystery to many still today, even after we get to know him so well. We get close to who he is and we at least know that, oh, he has morals. And he has integrity in some ways and he treats his workers well, and then you get the rug pulled out from under you.
Were there different expectations of how you played Gus Fring in “Breaking Bad” versus “Better Call Saul?”
In our world of “Better Call Saul,” we’re moving backward. So I have to un-inform that character and start to think of new traits to give him that I can use in between the lines to give you a sense of a younger, maybe more vulnerable, maybe a little bit more hotheaded Gus that you saw in “Breaking Bad” because this is a prequel to that show. So I’m always thinking, how do I go backward and allow us to see more of the character? Maybe that’s my success in playing characters who have some mystique about them, where you don’t know everything about them and you probably never will.
A yearning for me as an actor is to tell the story that’s not written for me.
A yearning for me as an actor is to tell the story that’s not written for me. Tell the story that the audience may never see. And that’s the story of who Gus really is inside my eyes, and my body language, and my emotions in between where the lines are. Then I feel like I can sort of give the audience a closer look if they’re looking closely as to the emotional makeup and psychology of who Gus Fring really is.
A lot of fans have been yearning for a Gus Fring prequel series. It’s a testament to how well you’ve portrayed this character. If that were to ever happen, what would you like to see?
I’ve always had a desire and I don’t know how it would work. And it certainly wouldn’t work without Vince Gilligan and his magnificent writing skill, brain and his story ideas. Peter Gould as well. But I’ve always thought Gus Fring could warrant a show called “The Rise of Gus.” At the height of “Breaking Bad,” when we all wondered where Gus was really from and what his life in Chile may have been, I surmised that he was probably part of Chilean royalty or military, more than likely military, and was about to take over the country as a military leader and decided he was bored of that. I would fill in the blanks of that story for myself.
I think at the height of “Breaking Bad,” people surmised as to what Gus’ background really was truly. And so I’ve always thought The Rise of Gus would be a great show to do in a limited series that allowed people, our audience, our fans to get our questions answered about who Gus really is. I don’t know if that would happen or not, but my thoughts are, yeah, we’d love to do that. I was reminded by a wonderful catch-up with [Bryan] Cranston the other day that it’s been 13 years since “Breaking Bad” [began]. So a lot of time has gone by, and now into this world of “Better Call Saul,” which is still regarded by most critics as one of the No. 1 shows on television today, is a real wonderful kudos to the writers and all of the other great actors.
People are revisiting a lot of movies you and Spike Lee worked on together in light of the massive protests around the world. Why do you think Spike’s view of race in America really resonates with people today?
Well, I feel like they resonate with people today because nothing has really changed. He touched on these issues many years ago. Timely and historically still valid and current, he said it over and over and over again. I was watching a video of the Minnesota Police station one morning when they set up stuff on the roof and they’re looking down at the crowd protesting. By that night, the same angle of camera … the police station was on fire. People were chanting. It was the same exact angle. I went, wow. And it took my breath away because all I could think to myself was ... I was transported back to the night we shot the riot at Sal’s in “Do the Right Thing.” And I went, wow, nothing has changed. And Spike, his message is still so profound and so real and everything he’s done in his life since making that film to comment on this place that we call America is not really the land of the free, the home of the brave. We wish it was. But until we have these things until we acknowledge these things, it won’t be.
So I think it’s amazing. You know, I got a call from my girlfriend in Amsterdam, and they’re playing “Do the Right Thing” in the major movie theaters all across the country. This movie has been coming back up. It was a prophetic view of what could happen in a small Brooklyn community. Now it’s a prophetic view of what has happened in our world. But now, we have the opportunity once again to shift our consciousness and to really demand that some legislative change happens. It’s starting to take place, to get it in writing, to get it on paper, to get it stamped, to have people really believe that they’ve been flipped and changed to realize all of humanity is worthy and righteous and should be here.
You are set to host a new digital docuseries, “The Broken and the Bad.” Can you tell us a little about how that came about?
You know, it came about because AMC wanted to do a show. They went out and they found folks who they believed to be real life “Breaking Bad”-ers. One example would be, they found a guy in Texas, a lawyer, and there are many in Texas and New Mexico, they’re on big billboards. And they’re really slick and good, just like Saul Goodman, but they wanted to investigate what that was like on a real-life level. So they went and shot a lawyer who pushes the limit of everything and is well known and is successful, but is outrageous. Like he’s just outrageous. And people love him or hate him, and he’ll get you off or he’ll get you life.
I got a call saying, would you come in to be the host of the show? I said, I’m going to do it and then COVID hit. And so then everything was up in the air. I said, well, I’ll just do it all with the voice-over. How about that? And then they sent me the material, I saw the material and I went, uh oh, can’t do this as a voiceover. Everything’s on lockdown. COVID was really rearing its ugly head.
And I kept thinking, scratching my head, because it really needs to have my presence. I said, look, guys, send me a package. I’ll go shoot. It won’t work as a voiceover. It could work, but it’s not going to be what we would like it to be, what you want it to be. And they were shocked. So I got the equipment, cleaned everything. My daughter and I went to a couple of the locations, just shot a bunch of stuff illegally [Laughs]. By illegally, I meant, that we had no permit, but we just felt that we shot in locations that we knew were public and we could do it. And we made the show and I find it to be intriguing. I think the audience is really going to love it.