Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Although Giancarlo Esposito got his first big break at age 8 in the Broadway play Maggie Flynn—a production that also featured Shirley Jones and Irene Cara—he first came to prominence as a film and television actor during the ’80s. He began the decade with small roles in films like Taps and Trading Places, but ended up as a regular in several Spike Lee joints, most notably Do The Right Thing. Since then, Esposito has earned acclaim for his efforts on both big and small screens, including an Outstanding Supporting Actor Emmy nomination for his work as Gus Fring on AMC’s Breaking Bad. Currently, he can be seen playing Tom Neville in NBC’s Revolution, which returns to the network’s schedule March 25 after a four-month hiatus.
Revolution (2012-present)—“Tom Neville”
Giancarlo Esposito: I love this guy. He’s a powerful storyteller. And he’s fun. He likes to taunt people, and to torment them into telling the truth. [Laughs.] What I love about him is that he came from a very meek and mild background into a guy who trained himself not only to survive and to be stronger, but to also be a leader and a soldier. He’s propelled into it, more than likely against his wishes, but he saw the world changing and moved with it. So he’s a progressive kind of personality, a strong personality. I like what you find out at the end of the first part of season one, that he has a very powerful and strong wife who’s urging him on. He’s trained his son, but maybe that’s part of his failure, that he’s not to his standard. His son is slowly falling in love with our lead character, Charlie [Tracy Spiridakos], and resents the fact that he’s on the right side of the law and has all the power, and we’re brutally wrecking the rebels’ lives. And I try to tell him from a soldier’s standpoint that we’re at war.
There are many twists and turns coming for Tom Neville, some that I think will be really interesting for the audience. I like that you’ve seen his vulnerability and where he came from, which shows that he’s human. So you can accept his mentality, maybe, on a different level. But now he’ll be in a vulnerable position as he starts to become at odds with [David Lyons’ character] Monroe, which leaves open the fact that he could be promoted once again to commander and be more responsible for his own history and his own future. Which leaves open the whole idea of other worlds. The whole idea of Revolution is that it’s World War III, not just about rebels and Monroe. That’s a place we don’t know about yet. There are a number of places we don’t know about yet, and certainly the possibility that Tom Neville will wind up in one of those places is probably likely.
The A.V. Club: How much of what we’ve seen thus far in Revolution was laid out when you first took on the series? Did they have things established for what they wanted to do with the first season?
GE: I think they’ve thought really far down the road, at least in terms of broad strokes, for a year or two or three, but I think when it comes to specifics… well, I feel blessed to have Eric Kripke and J.J. Abrams as part of the show. Eric is so specific, and such a great creator. But I think when you’re inspired by what goes on with the actors, you start to deepen the level of what you’re doing. All the writers in the writers’ room, I think, have a deep understanding of who these characters are and should be.
I don’t know much of what’s going on down the road. I’ve had people ask me, “At the end of the first season, are you gonna still be around?” And I say to them, “I imagine so, but I really don’t know.” I think you’re gonna be shocked at what starts to go down in the second part of the season. I think you’re gonna see that what advances the story is the connection between human beings, the weak ones who don’t survive and the strong ones who do. Which means we’ll have characters who come and go, and probably some of those characters will be characters who are thought of as series regulars who’ll always be around. I think it’s gonna be shocking.
[The writers] want to answer the questions about science; they don’t want to hold it over the audience for two or three seasons before the answers are told. They also want the world to be organically truthful and real. Remember in the old movies? The heroes never, ever died. [Laughs.] Very unrealistic. You’re like, “How many bullets were in that gun?” Stuff like that. That won’t be the case with Revolution. And that might prove to be more interesting—painfully interesting—for the audience.
Running (1979)—“Puerto Rican teenager”
GE: Oh my goodness. Michael Douglas. I’m a big runner, and I loved the fact that I ran in that movie. It was one of the high points of my early career. I’ve really enjoyed Michael Douglas’ work through the years, but at that time, he was a young actor. It was a film about a favorite pastime and exercise. I was thinking the other day while I was running—I do about five to seven miles a day—that I need to listen to the soundtrack and even re-watch the movie Chariots Of Fire. But before I do that, I think I’ll go back and watch Running.
AVC: How did you find your way into the film? Was that your first feature?
GE: No, but it was one of my early ones. I was an extra at that time and worked through many different agencies who hired extras, and I auditioned for it. I’m not Puerto Rican at all, but I had mastered that sort of street language of the young Puerto Rican tough. I remember having a whole conversation with Douglas about how he loses that marathon because he slips on a leaf. And I’ve done that. I run in rainy, slick weather, and you’ve got to be careful. I was in Central Park in New York right around the Macy’s Parade, and my kids were in a hotel waiting to go to the parade, [but I had to] do some NBC interviews beforehand. I was running and it was slick, and an old guy coming toward me—had to be about 60 years old—went down right in front of me. Slipped on a leaf. And I stopped and helped him up, because he’d cut his knee. I hadn’t even thought about Running in years, but it’s one of my favorite films, and I was happy to be a part of it.
Sesame Street (1982)—“Mickey”
GE: Oh. My. Goodness. [Laughs.] That job was one of the best jobs I ever had. I was totally broke. I was a young actor who was 23 and playing 17, I had no money, and I needed the gig so bad. I had worked for RKO, doing voiceovers for black kids who didn’t speak very well. I was just at the end of my rope, and I auditioned for Sesame Street, and I was like, “How stupid is this? Sesame Street?” And I ended up working with a master: Caroll Spinney. An absolute master, and you never saw him! He was always in that silly suit as Big Bird.
But what I learned from that show was that there are never any small parts or any small characters. You could be inside a bird costume and still have an incredible effect. I absolutely loved that job, because it was like taking care of a big kid! Mickey’s all practical; he’s a guy who’s Big Bird’s camp counselor for a couple of weeks. But that provided me with a couple of weeks’ work and an opportunity to work with a master. You see Big Bird, but you rarely see who he is. You kind of do, though. You feel his mastery. How wild is life, that you only see him through his feathers? [Laughs.] He affected my life in a major way.
I [sang] the theme song for The Electric Company, too.[Sings.] “We’re gonna turn it on! We’re gonna bring you the power!” [Laughs.] I was never on the show, but I sang on the song. It’s great for all this stuff to be revealed now, because I have four kids. Mickey gives them a chance to see me in a very different light, and I’m very proud of that.
Smoke / Blue In The Face (1995)—“Tommy”
GE: Oh, Smoke! Here’s a film I love. [Wayne Wang] played dirty pool to get me to do that movie. One of the triumphs of my career, because I didn’t have to audition for it. Actors always audition, and at that time of my life, I was like, “I’m not auditioning anymore.” We go through those stages that can either put us under the bus or teach us to be more humble. So at that particular time, I met with Wayne Wang at the Odeon in New York, and he was going to tell me why I should do this movie. He came and… he said all of the wrong things. [Laughs.]
I think Wayne’s a great filmmaker, but he said, “We want your energy. We love you, and at the beginning of the movie, you’re going to boost the movie, and you’re going to bring the audience in.” And I was tired of being the energetic force of nature to pull people in. I loved Paul Auster’s work as a writer, and I loved the book, but Wayne showed up for the meeting with the author. It was supposed to be me and Wayne meeting at the Odeon, and there was Paul Auster! So then I was the gushing Paul Auster fan, because I believe he’s a terrific and incredible writer. I really admire him. So the first thing I said was, “Wayne, that’s not right.” [Laughs.] “It’s dirty pool to invite the writer.” So I wound up saying, “Yes, of course,” to the film. God, I met Malik Yoba on that movie, and he’s currently doing a guest spot on Revolution. You’ll see him very soon. I met Madonna before that movie, but she did a piece in the movie. Lily Tomlin was in it, and I loved the work of Harvey Keitel. I think his work is really amazing and intricate. I really miss seeing him in films. I saw [Smoke] recently and it holds up, with a wonderful performance.
But Blue In The Face came out of a conversation. Wayne, myself, and Paul were talking about the cigar shop and how there was so much spontaneity going on within the scripted writing that he thought, “We should make another movie just about the cigar shop.” And that’s how Blue In The Face came up. We discussed it, and I said, “I think it’d be a great idea to hang out for a couple of days and do just improvisation.” So he talked to Harvey, and we got four days tacked on to the film, and we just riffed. It was a highlight of my career. Paul and his wife, Siri Hustvedt, who’s also a wonderful writer, we’re still friends. I have a dollar option on another book that Paul wrote, one which hopefully one day we’ll be able to make happen. It was just a great film to be a part of, and in a day when independent film was really independent. Powerful, strong, and creative, but spontaneous and exciting. I don’t know if we really have that kind of film anymore. Or the ability to make that kind of film for an economic budget that has the possibility of making money. I just don’t know if it’s possible anymore. We call it “independent film,” but I think that doesn’t exist.
AVC: When I talked to Lily Tomlin about the film, the sum total of my question to her was, “What was up with your role in Blue In The Face?”
GE: She was very weird in that movie. [Laughs.] She’s a strange bird. But it’s interesting when you’re able to sort of fly by the seat of your pants. There’s something to be said about that.
The Usual Suspects (1995)—“Jack Baer, FBI”
GE: I really believe that in order to succeed, you have to be willing to fail, and to go to the ultimate level. When Benicio del Toro came on the set of The Usual Suspects after our first reading of the piece, the first day, he comes out and speaks that gibberish language that he was speaking, and I was like, “Benicio, that’s brilliant!” And everybody else said, “Are you really gonna do that?” [Laughs.] I said, “Fuck yeah, he’s gonna do that! Because he’s brave!” I felt that way about Blue In The Face, too. You’ve got to find your guts. We measure things by judgment, by what could be good, but… who cares?
I love the Marx brothers. Sometimes it was really great, sometimes it sucked and was really absurd and I didn’t understand it. [Laughs.] But I was still galvanized by it, and I was still interested in it. It was playful. I have four kids, and my youngest, who’s 9, still has that playfulness. She has no worries, an open spirit. All the other children, they’re 16, 14, and 12, and they’re more removed from that playfulness. So I’m playing close attention to the youngest, because hopefully she will maintain the ability to harness and keep some of that playfulness forever. It may switch, she may have less of it, because we have to be more mature or adult. But I remind myself that I’m still this big kid. I can’t forget that, because that’s what allows you to have the present energy to be connected and to be a… a vibrationalist. By following your gut. There’s no judgment there. There’s no good or bad there. There’s just what is.
Desperately Seeking Susan (1985)—“Street Vendor”
AVC: You kind of casually threw out that you’d met Madonna before working with her on Blue In The Face, but you actually worked with her on Desperately Seeking Susan.
GE: Oh, yeah! I really liked Madonna. She was just starting back then. Not only did I work with her, I shared a Winnebago with her! [Laughs.] It was a low-budget movie, they had limited room, and it was, like, an accordion door. So we shared a Winnebago and had great little tidbit moments about her peeking through from her side and me peeking through on my side. Who would’ve known what would happen with her career? It was at the beginning of a very sweet time for her, and I thought the work she did in that movie was pretty terrific, because she was playing a girl very much like herself. Susan Seidelman, who directed it, was also terrific, and I enjoyed working with her. She was a fantastic director, and still is.
Community (2012-present)—“Gilbert Lawson”
GE: Oh, that was a great experience. It was something very different for me, because the show’s a very odd and offbeat comedy, and to be bringing a character like Gilbert into that mix was… I was hesitant to know how that would fit. But once I got there and got with the program, it was all good. I was on my way to do Once Upon A Time up in Vancouver, and they said, “Would you just come through here for a day?” And I was happy to do five or six scenes.
I got my lines at midnight, and I knew them by 6 a.m. The nature of working with comedians, though, is that they never know their lines. [Laughs.] My daughter was 13, and she came out of the trailer and went onto the set with me, and she whispered to me, “Papa, you’re the only one who really knows your lines… and you didn’t get your lines until midnight! What’s with these people?” And I said, “Well, this is kind of how it works with comedians.” And she said, “Oh, I think this is just too random for me,” and she went back to the trailer. But I had a good time.
I really loved Chevy [Chase]. I love what he does, and his brand of cynicism and wit is very original. And Dan Harmon is also an interesting guy. I understand that they don’t always see eye to eye, but I certainly saw eye to eye with both of them, and I had a great time.
[This interview took place prior to Esposito’s appearing in “Paranormal Parentage” during the show’s fourth season, hence the lack of commentary about Harmon’s departure from Community. —ed.]
Twilight (1998)—“Reuben Escobar”
GE: That’s one of my favorite characters I have played, because I was in the company of such master artists. For my first audition to read for [director] Robert Benton, he looked at me, and I could see there was a question mark in his head, as if I had a shot for this particular part. And the question mark was about my age. I think he wanted me to be a little younger, and he wanted me to be a little more vulnerable and innocent. And my work with him in five minutes at my callback audition was exquisite, because he wanted me just to pull back and just to be a little more naïve. He spoke to me in a hushed tone and said, “Just say the words and take away your brain. Just be a little bit younger and a little more naïve.” That was a wonderful session, and I’ll never forget it.
That played into my getting the role, and then getting to meet and work with one of the dearest men I’ve ever met, who became a close friend: Paul Newman. He was a car lover, I’m a car lover, and I’ll never forget driving up for my very first rehearsal in California. I had a ’65 Volvo 122S, and I drove it to rehearsal, and he ran out of the building without even knowing me and said, “How long have you had the car?” and all of these other questions. He said, “I just want to drive it!” [Laughs.] And we became fast friends. Working with him, it was evident that he came from theater, and I’d come from theater. So I was very interested in the process of how he transferred his theater background so seamlessly into building blocks for his film work. I learned so much from him, and I have so many great stories about him from the next several years, before he passed away.
That was a wonderful and educational experience, getting to work not only with Paul Newman, but also many other actors who I was familiar with. Susan Sarandon was a friend of mine already, but her work was just stellar in that film. Gene Hackman impressed me so much. He’s a little bit different, his process, a little less approachable on a personal level. I had adored him from the time I saw him as Popeye Doyle, so I was more in observance of him, because he worked on an interior level, where he kept things close to the vest, but also rendered an incredible performance. There were just so many incredible things about that experience. I could go on and on about that movie.
Trading Places (1983)—“Cellmate #2”
GE: A film that comes back to haunt me in a very good way over and over again. I just signed a release a bit ago for the Eddie Murphy tribute [on Spike TV] to use that particular clip in the jail cell. There are some other wonderful artists in that scene, including Big Ron Taylor, who was a great musician and an actor. That was an early role for me that came to be after I got cast as basically an extra in that movie. But I had somewhat of a personality, and I was physically right for it. I was in awe of Eddie Murphy. At that time, I was probably a little jealous of Eddie Murphy. [Laughs.] Because you work all your early career to be a dramatic actor, and then this guy, a comedian with an affable personality who’s incredibly talented, just shoots right by you to stardom. But that day, we became friends. I love to back actors up. I love to give them a ping-pong table on which to play, kind of providing them with a playing field. That’s what I did with Eddie on that film, and I had a great time doing it.
Homicide: Life On The Street (1998-1999)—“Mike Giardello”
GE: A very special part for me, in that I respected that show a great deal. I probably also had a feeling that I was missing out that I wasn’t in the show already. [Laughs.] I got a call from [executive producer] Tom Fontana, who I find to be one of the most stand-up human beings I’ve ever met. He’s also incredibly talented, with a really special work ethic, a guy who previously was a minister and a writer and a community activist. And he called me directly! I love it when the producers and writers and showrunners just reach out to me above and beyond all the connections to agents and managers.
He called me and said, “Andre Braugher is leaving to go become a movie star…” And I enjoy Andre’s work, and I like him as a human being, but I said, “Does that really happen, TV actors jumping straight into being movie stars?” He said, “Well, Andre wants to give it a shot! Would you come down and sort of replace him?” I said, “Well, I’d love to come down, but I don’t really know how to replace anybody. I’d like to start from scratch and be original.” And we had a long conversation about my background being half Italian and half black, and he said, “I’d love to be able to write that in, if that’s something you’re up for.” And I said, “I suggest that completely, but the only thing is, will anybody believe that I’m Giardello’s [Yaphet Kotto’s character] son?” [Laughs.] And he said, “Well, we’ll make them believe it. It’ll work.”
So I went down, and I really found a new way of working, because those guys on Homicide were the beginning of a different style of shooting a television show. They did everything handheld; they walked around the room and just moved the camera from one person to another. So what I learned there was to always be On. Capital “O.” It was like theater. You never knew when Alex [Applefield], the wonderful cameraman, was going to swing the camera your way, so you were never really off-camera. They put the camera on a low dolly with a little butt seat, and they’d slide along and capture everyone, moving the camera around. All of the actors who were from California who were used to film work and television work, i.e. doing different setups, were on their Ps and Qs to always be energetic when the camera wasn’t on them, because you never knew when the camera would switch around and would be on you. Besides the interesting storyline for me and one that linked up with my past and my background, there was also this new way of shooting a television show. It brought urgency and immediacy and spontaneity to all of our work.
Creature (1998)—“Lt. Thomas Peniston” / “Werewolf”
Chupacabra Terror (2005)—“Dr. Pena”
GE: Chupacabra Terror? Yeah, that is pretty random. [Laughs.] I did that movie because I wanted to work with Peter Benchley. No, wait a minute, that was Creature! Chupacabra was a different one. Yeah, Chupacabra was… That movie we shot in, I think in… St. Lucia? No, it was the Turks and Caicos Islands. Well, I liked the role… if I have the correct movie, because I’m clearly getting the chupacabra and the white-shark movies confused! I enjoyed the film, though, because I wanted to go to exotic locations, filming in places that were outside of America, and I liked the idea of trying to break into something that was a little more sci-fi. I don’t know that I necessarily achieved what I was after on that front. But the show I’m doing now, Revolution, is somewhat sci-fi, so there’s that, at least.
Bakersfield P.D. (1993-1994)—“Detective Paul Gigante”
GE: I see that there are episodes of Bakersfield P.D. on YouTube, and I want to go back and look at the way Larry Levin crafted the show. I always had some big question marks about it being a comedy. It certainly was one of the earlier single-camera comedies that kind of almost worked. [Laughs.] I loved the concept, I loved being able to explore my Italian roots coupled with my African-American ones, but more than anything, I really enjoyed who was involved with this particular show.
Ron Eldard, I’ve worked with several times, and I recently just worked with him again on a film called Poker Night up in Victoria. I think he’s a brilliant actor. I worked with him on Homicide, and he did a wonderful guest spot for us there, where we were pitted against each other. So it was wonderful to play opposite him in this kind of show. There was also another incredible actor on the show: Brian Doyle-Murray, who I found to be just a great human being. Bright, intelligent, and another master at his craft.
It was an early foray into television for me, and I was nervous about it, but my fears were allayed when I met a guy who I thought to be one of the best directors around, and that was Dean Parisot. He was at the helm for Larry Levin, and I found him to be such a gentle and astute director, and I really loved his work in that particular show. It was a very odd show. [Laughs.] But a show that I think was one of the earlier smart-people shows. It was a smart audience that fell in love with that show, smart, savvy, intelligent television-watchers, one of whom apparently put it up on YouTube. So for me, that was one of the earlier shows that catered to people who had a brain, and I was certainly excited to be a part of that one.
Miami Vice (1983-1984)—“Luther” / “Ricky” / “Adonis Jackson”
Heartbeat (1987) —“Gang Member #1”
Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man (1991)—“Jimmy Jiles”
Nash Bridges (1996, 1999)—“Whip Tyrell” / “Arnold/Gordon Keller”
AVC: There’s clearly some sort of connection between you and Don Johnson, because you’ve appeared in no less than four different projects with him. What’s the story there?
GE: [Laughs.] I can’t remember if Don and I met socially first or… no, I guess it was when I got a call to come down and do an episode of Miami Vice. I fell in love with his producer, the guy who put him on the map, who had his back always: John Nicolella. John Nicolella was an Italian guy who just had a big heart and really knew how to put the pieces together with good actors and a good storyline. But he also had the ability to make a show a commercial success. Now, I know Michael Mann had a part in Miami Vice’s success, but John was really the lynchpin. I went on to work with Michael Mann later, and I truly respect him and see him and understand him as a brilliant filmmaker. But John Nicolella ran that show. Don and I hit it off. I was non-threatening to him and didn’t get in the way of his formidable ego. [Laughs.] So we liked each other, and I did three Miami Vice episodes, somewhat unusually playing three different characters. I did all of them within about a year, maybe a year and a half. I died in the first one, the second one I lived, and the third one I died. I changed my look for each one, which was another reason why Don liked me.
After the episodes, I get a call from Don saying, “I’m gonna be a singer. I’m doing an album.” And I was, like, “Really? You sing?” He said, “Well, I sing now! And I need you down here on Friday.” You know, I get a lot of calls where someone calls me and asks me to bail them out. Timothy Hutton did it [for Leverage], for one. So I said, “Okay, Don, tell me the truth: Who did you cast for this role originally?” And he said, “I wanted Hector ‘Macho’ Camacho, but…” [Laughs.] I said, “Okay. I’ll come down.” There were a plethora of stars in the “Heartbeat” video that he did, and I saved his butt. That’s the secret to our friendship.
A few years later, he pitched me to Simon Wincer, who was directing Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man. Laurence Fishburne told me, “Beware of Mickey Rourke. He’ll try to insult you, he might use the N-word, but don’t pay any attention.” I said, “Well, I know Don. Don’ll protect me.” He said, “Yeah, right.” So I got down there for the first rehearsal, and it was all love with Don, and Mickey was a little jealous, I think, right away that Don knew me. And that I brought my own wardrobe! I really wanted my character on Marlboro Man to be sort of like a Jimi Hendrix wannabe, And Mickey circled me like a dog. He circled me twice, like he was smelling me. [Laughs.] And I stared straight ahead and pretended he wasn’t even there. And then he walked up to me, stared me straight in the eyes, and then he whispered in my ear, “Is that your own wardrobe?” And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I really respect that, that you bring your own clothes.” And that was it. I became friends with Mickey. Mickey and Don were shooting through the whole thing, two very, very substantial actors who thought a lot of themselves, so I was always sort of breaking them up from feuding and trying to help them get along. It was so ridiculous. It was my first major occasion where I realized that the stories I’d heard were all true! [Laughs.] Like, Don had a huge Winnebago and Mickey had an Airstream, and the next day, Mickey traded his in and got the same size as Don. I was just shaking my head.
Not to get off on a tangent, but the other guy on that movie who I really miss and really enjoyed working with was a non-actor in the cast named Big John Studd. He was a wrestler. He and I became the closest on that movie, because he wanted some acting tips. Probably less than a year ago, I met someone who was a dear friend of his, and they told me that John had passed away, which I had not realized. But they said, “Until his dying day, he was so filled with gratitude, because you sat down with him and you ran line by line through the whole script and helped him to be real and natural.” That was such a great thing to hear. All of that came from my knowing Don.
Breaking Bad (2009-2011)—“Gus Fring”
GE: One of the favorite characters that I’ve ever played. I really wanted to be involved in a TV show at the time, but going in to do a read on video for them… at that point and time in my life, I thought, “Do I still have to do this?” But I related to this character, particularly the line “hiding in plain sight.” I also related to the scourge of drugs in our American culture, and I wanted to be a part of something that made a statement about that and brought that to people’s attention. So I went out to do what was to be one guest-spot episode, and by the time I got off the plane coming home, I got a call asking me if I wanted to do another. And I said, “I’ll do another because I’m interested in doing this character, but I think after that, that’ll be it, unless I have the opportunity to be a part of this family of filmmakers that I fell in love with on the first episode.”
And I really did fall in love. I found people who really were committed to what they did, they did it with grace and aplomb, and every member of the cast and crew, down to the drivers, were reading every single script. So it had people’s attention from the very beginning, and it certainly got mine. I did the last two episodes of season two, and then for season three, they called and offered me seven, and I said, “No, I really want to do more than that.” They said, “Well, we only do 13!” I said, “Well, then come back with an offer better than seven, and we’ll talk.” And they did. What I heard from everyone was that they had fully expected this character to be around for three or four episodes and then be gone, and I guess they were riveted by the quality and the intensity and integrity of my work, but my work was only reflective of all of those who are a part of that great show, especially Bryan Cranston and the other actors. I had great chemistry with Bryan, and they saw it, so there was room to create and explore Gustavo Fring in a deeper way. And I’m really in gratitude that Vince Gilligan had such a depth of vision and the foresight to see that this character could be a great addition to what he had envisioned in Breaking Bad.
AVC: When the time came to wrap up Gus’s storyline, did they give you a decent amount of warning? Did you see it as inevitable?
GE: Well, I knew there were many different ways it could turn out, and I’d obviously hoped they could string it out a little longer. It was at the beginning of the fourth season when I found out, after I’d done one of the most interesting pieces of work I’ve done in my life, on “Box Cutter.” I love Waiting For Godot, I love plays that have space in them, and the first scene in “Box Cutter,” that first 10 minutes where I don’t say anything ’til the end of the scene, was an exercise in creativity that I’ve always yearned to do. It was after that first episode—I knew just from working in television that you would not see me again probably for another one or two episodes. And when I came back for Episode 4.03 (“Open House”), I got called into Vince’s office. They said, “He wants to see you,” and I thought, “Oh, that can’t be good.” [Laughs.] That’s never good, you know?
I went in, and I started talking about directing, which, if there’s one regret I have, it’s that I didn’t have an opportunity to direct [on Breaking Bad]. They knew I wanted to do it, but they were filled up, trying to get all the slots taken care of as quickly as possible. Anyway, I spent the first 10 minutes talking about that, with the door open, but then he got up to close the door to the office. And I went into my Gus Fring mode… and he, uh, got a little nervous. I said, “Sit down. Don’t close the door.” We chatted a little further, I came out of Gus mode and went back into being Giancarlo, but then he stood up again and said, “Look, I really just want to close the door…” And I snapped back into Gus mode and said, “Sit. Down.” And then he got really nervous, and he kind of stood there, awkwardly. And that’s when I busted out laughing. [Laughs.] I said, “Go ahead and close the door. I know what you’re gonna say.”
Vince said, “We didn’t expect your character to be around this long, we really want to give him the proper ending and resolve everything, if we can find that.” And we spoke about how Gus would go out and how to answer these questions, and I said, “Well, I don’t think he gets shot. I think it’s something bigger and more massive than that.” And he said, “Well, for example, if it were some kind of explosion, what might Gus be doing?” And I said, “Well, Vince, look at me. Look what I do. I’m very proper in my own life in general, but as Gus, I’ve developed this button-the-top-button thing where I’m just fastidiously put together.” Because I think it says a lot about a person if he cares about how he looks. So we talked about that, and so I knew right away, pretty much at the top of the fourth season, that it’d be in 4.13 that it’d all happen, and I got a proper amount of respect and grace, and even got included in the process of how it might happen. I’m eternally grateful to Vince for that.
Gospel Hill (2008)—“Dr. Palmer,” director
GE: I remember an actress saying, “I’m anxious to see how you’re gonna direct. I want to see if you’re going to step outside of your body, stand beside yourself, and give yourself notes.” [Laughs.] I really laughed at that. I said, “No, I’ll probably have someone leap behind the camera for me. Maybe Tom Bower will do it.” It was Angela Bassett who said that. She was one of the first people to sign up for the movie, which was part of the reason I got the funding.
I loved this film. The script wasn’t as complete as I would’ve liked it to have been, but it was wonderfully written by Jeff Stacy, and when it came to me, I [worked on it for] two years. I wanted to focus it and make it a story that was a little bit more linear and a little bit more about racism in this small town. I wanted it to be about healing, not just about what had happened in the past, but more a challenge to grow beyond it. So for me, it was about wearing many different hats as a producer, director, and actor. But to this day, it’s a triumph of life, in that I created a space to direct my own film that I was passionate about. I helped rewrite it with the writers, although I didn’t take the credit for that on the film. I didn’t feel like that was fair. But it was a journey to shoot a film in 19 days in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Not only a personal journey, but a historical one as well, because of the lunch-counter sit-ins at Friendship College, right outside of Rock Hill. So to honor history in such a way and to have such a wonderful cast, including Angela Bassett, Danny Glover, and Samuel L. Jackson, who did a cameo in that for me, was a high point in my career.
GE: Oh, Fresh is a film I’ll forever be proud of. I love good directors who are thoughtful in their process and who are equally as creative, and Boaz Yakin is one of those guys. I remember being so absolutely committed to the part of Esteban that I wanted to be really ripped physically, and I tried to find a Stairmaster in Provo Canyon, and the only one belonged to Robert Redford. He loaned me the Stairmaster while I was in Provo Canyon before going to shoot this movie. That was the contingency for me being there at the Actors Lab. I said, “I’m getting ready for a movie, but I’ve got to be in a certain frame of mind and physicality.”
I also remember Boaz being so honest about his commitment to this story and having the press, the African-American press, lash out at him for being a white director of this very urban, cutting-edge redemptive tale. I’ll never forget being at the première. I know there were a number of African-American directors who spoke out against him, who were like, “What gives you the right to première at [the Film Society of] Lincoln Center? Doing a story about our people!” [Laughs.] But Boaz, who is also an incredible director, stood up, and I stood up next to him and said, “Well, what makes my color… what does that have to do with making me your people? What about the family of humanity? You don’t know [Yakin’s] history. Boaz grew up in Brooklyn, Jewish-Orthodox in an African-American neighborhood. He was a baller, he played basketball with all the brothers, and he happens to know that this story is his as well as ours.”
So I’m proud of that movie because I feel like it captured the essence of the youthful part of our society that was lost at the time to drugs and gambling, and how such a smart young man, the character Sean Nelson plays, outsmarts everyone to get what he needed. Working with Samuel L. Jackson in that movie… I’ve worked with him a number of times, but he did a brilliant job. He’s a wonderful actor. But it all began with a very charged and deliberate story, and I was so happy to be next to Boaz throughout the making of the film, and then throughout all the press that had to tie in to making that film a hit.
The Changeling (1980)—uncredited extra
Taps (1981)—“Cadet Captain J.C. Pierce”
Leverage (2010)—“Alexander Moto”
GE: Taps was a film I really fought to get. I auditioned for that movie, and a wonderful casting director, Shirley Rich, said to me, “Giancarlo, you really need to learn how to act.” [Laughs.] And I was crushed. She said, “What I mean is that you’re acting more for the stage. This is a feature film. You have to learn how to act for the camera, and I suggest you go off Broadway and get that. Go do some straight drama.” I had really been fresh from doing comedy. So I didn’t get the movie, and I went away with my head in my hands, but I went and started to cut my teeth as a real actor, and not just an actor with a desire for the glory of the camera.
About a year later, I got a call saying, “We want you to go and audition for this movie called Taps.” I said, “Well, I already did. I think they already made it, didn’t they?” They said, “They didn’t, actually, and the casting director wants to see you again.” I had experience by then, a different expression and understanding of what it is to create your own brand of craft. And I went back and read for Shirley Rich, and her mouth dropped open. She said, “Oh my goodness. What have you been doing?” And I told her, “I took your advice.” She said, “Okay, come back at 2 o’clock. We want you to meet with one of the stars.” And I came back, and there was Timothy Hutton. I read with Timothy Hutton, I walked out of the room when I finished, and Sam Jaffe, the producer, ran out of the room to follow me into the hallway, and he looked me in the eye and said, “Would you do this part?” I said, “Are you kidding me?” He didn’t know the story of my having auditioned before. But I said, “Of course I will.”
That was the beginning of a very long friendship with Tim Hutton. I’m just so grateful for that whole process, because I learned so much from that. He went away while we were shooting the movie to go receive the Oscar for Ordinary People. His work was so special in that. I met Sean Penn, who had such an incredible and unique intensity. I also met one of the finest Hollywood actors from that period in time, who really developed a process for himself and immersed himself in a role like no other, as exemplified by the body of his work, and that was George C. Scott.
I’d actually been an extra on a movie with him a year or so before—The Changeling. He was in Taps only a very brief period of time, but that four- or five-page speech he did was something. It was a thing of beauty in that movie. And I learned from him to keep track of your own continuity. The guy would get up and do this take after take after take, he’d touch his brow, his forehead, during the exact same words as he’d done five times before, he’d touch the brim of his hat at the same point. He had an innate sense of character and personality, and also of structure, how to structure his movements. He put it all together. I learned from him how to listen to your inner voice, to follow your instincts. Not that anything’s ever truly perfect, but that work that he did in Taps is the personification of something that comes pretty darned close in the film world.
AVC: You’ve had the opportunity to reunite with Timothy Hutton a few times since then, including episodes of Kidnapped and, more recently, Leverage.
GE: That’s right. Tim was one of those guys I mentioned who called me and asked me to bail them out. [Laughs.] I was on my way to the Breaking Bad season-three première, and Tim called me and said, “I’m in trouble. I need an actor. Tomorrow.” It was a Wednesday night. I said, “Tim, I’m on my way to the première of Breaking Bad, tomorrow I’ve got one other thing, but I’ll fly out for you right after that. I’ve got some caveats, though. I promised my youngest daughter, Ruby,” who was 4 at the time, “that I’d come and get her over the weekend and bring her with me next week, because I’m going to a ski benefit.”
Tim said, “I’ll tell you what: You get here on Thursday, shoot on Friday, go home and get Ruby over the weekend, come back here on Monday, work through Thursday, then take her to the ski benefit. We can work it all out. I’ll fly you.” And he’s a buddy, so I said, “Well, I’d do anything for you.” But then I got the script, and the role was incredible! [Laughs.] He’s the head of this African nation, and I’d just been to Africa the year before. It all linked up. So in the end, I was grateful to be able to bail him out, but I was even more grateful to be able to work on such a great show with such great people in a genre I hadn’t had a lot of chances to work in.
School Daze (1988)—“Julian”
Do The Right Thing (1989)—“Buggin’ Out”
Mo’ Better Blues (1990)—“Left Hand Lacey”
Malcolm X (1992)—“Thomas Hayer”
AVC: You’ve worked with Spike Lee multiple times, pretty much back to back.
GE: I love Spike Lee. Especially early Spike Lee. He’s been a dear friend, and he gave me the opportunity to do some different kinds of work. His brand of filmmaking is very specific, his characters are slightly larger than life, but within the realm of believability. I think he is the ultimate coach when it comes to filmmaking. He loves his sports teams, he loves to see someone win, and I’m happy that he has always been in my corner and very supportive of the work I do. It was a great time, in that particular era of Spike Lee films, because there weren’t a lot of African-Americans making movies, and African-American audiences weren’t used to seeing themselves depicted in such interesting ways. And to work with Spike in very different films, back to back, was truly an honor, especially at a time when he was learning how to do it, learning what worked and what didn’t work, and always standing up for African-American justice in film.
I think through those early movies, he learned about his own humanity and learned more that it is very important to honor that humanity, no matter what color we are. I just admire him, and I’m so happy that he was so tenacious and so committed to his vision. Filmmaking has changed, and he’s responsible for the way we see film in America. I’ll always be grateful for his contributions to me personally, but also to the work he’s done for the film world. And he’s not done yet!
AVC: Most would argue that the definitive Spike Lee role on your résumé would be Buggin’ Out, from Do The Right Thing. Would you agree?
GE: I would! I’ve always had a great amount of input with Spike, but on that particular film, I felt like the character propelled me into a courageous space to do whatever the hell I wanted. [Laughs.] And with Spike, you’ve gotta just take the bull by the horns and be demonstrative. And I am that way with every film I’ve done with him, but that particular film was the first I really felt I could be in my own power. I could ask him hard questions, and I could do it the way I wanted to do it. And he was impressed by it. I would certainly change some lines that didn’t work. I didn’t care. He wrote it, but I said, “You know, if you wrote it better, I’d be able to say it better!” [Laughs.] So I would change stuff, and I worked in a very different way with him. Once I was working in a scene with his sister, Joie [Lee], who hated her lines, and I said, “Change ’em! We’ll work on it.” And we did it as the camera rolled without telling him, and he was so pissed off. [Laughs.] In this case, though, it was because it didn’t work. He said, “Nah, it doesn’t work.” And I said, “Okay,” and we went back to what he wanted. So I admire him for being who he is and for allowing me to be all that I am, too.
Bob Roberts (1992)—“Bugs Raplin”
GE: I love Tim Robbins. I think he’s a great filmmaker. I want him to be behind the camera more often. But that character… I just worked so hard by going to the Cerebral Palsy Institute, working on my palsied walk and arm. But I was most impressed with and most galvanized by the genius of Tim Robbins. My character was based on Danny Casolaro, who had discovered something called “the Octopus,” which was a big government/military tie-in to the whole arms thing we’re so used to doing and know more about now, that we sell arms to other countries and we train other dictators who then go back and represent our interests within their country. That was a brilliant film, and educational for me, with the information that I received from working on it. It took Tim’s big brain to write something that was so poignant and extraordinary.
Tim’s character was sort of fashioned after David Duke and George Bush, a cross between them who was commercial and affable. It was the beginning of seeing the presidency in a different way, as far as getting the popular vote if a guy is affable and handsome. That was the first time we had really put a guy like that onscreen, and it reminded me so much of earlier films like A Face In The Crowd. There were touches of all these classic films I had seen and admired, and Tim put all that together in a beautiful way. So for me, that film will always remain special, working with great actors like David Strathairn, and Tim himself. It was also the film I met Gore Vidal on! He had a piece in that movie. I recently saw his play on Broadway, which is also surrounding those same issues of politics. Gore, to me, was a brilliant human being, a brilliant writer, and I got to sit down with him for hours one night and talk about all these incredible things. Gore didn’t believe we’d have any more presidents by now. He believed we’d have a dictator here in America. [Laughs.] So it opened me up to get really politically involved, and it was the beginning of me understanding that I’m not only an actor, writer, director, and producer. I’m also an activist. And I hadn’t thought that way until I played that role and was exposed to the brilliance of Tim Robbins.
Once Upon A Time (2011-2012)—“Genie” / “Magic Mirror” / “Sidney Glass”
AVC: Once Upon A Time seemed like such a complete left turn for you after Breaking Bad. Was that an intentional decision?
GE: I really liked Eddie [Kitsis] and Adam [Horowitz], who created and are the showrunners of that show. I love fairy tales, and I have four daughters, so it was easy for me to put all that together. My youngest daughter was 7 when I did that show to begin with. They were 7, 12, 14, and 16, and I wanted to do something they could all watch. The only daughter I had that could really watch Breaking Bad was my eldest child, and that came up completely by accident, when I invited her to come out and check out the University of New Mexico. It was at a time when they were airing 4.01 and 4.02 for the cast, and I was really torn about that, as far as her seeing it. But she saw it, and she was like, “Ah, it’s kind of boring.” [Laughs.] I turned to her and said, “Just remember, that’s your papa up there, not Gus Fring,” because I was doing that reprehensible throat-cutting with the box cutter, and she went, “Ah, that wasn’t a big deal.” She wasn’t even moved by it! She thought the show was kind of slow! And yet she went home and watched every episode and caught up and then became a fan of the show. But none of my other kids could watch that show, because I wouldn’t allow it. So Once Upon A Time was a show that I felt was more their genre and more something that would appeal to them. I did it because of the great creative team that was doing the show, with the possibility of being a regular on the show, but ultimately, I did it because I wanted my daughters to be able to see it.
Amos & Andrew (1993)—“Rev. Fenton Brunch”
GE: Amos & Andrew was a great film for me. E. Max Frye directed it, and I had a great relationship with Samuel L. Jackson and Loretta Devine. We had so much fun shooting it in Wilmington, North Carolina, and that’s where I’m shooting Revolution now. We shot 25 nights, so it was a brutal schedule, as we all learned, and it was chilly in the pines down there, but it was a film I loved. I would’ve loved to see more of E. Max Frye, who also wrote it. But it certainly was a real turning point for Sam, because some people from [management firm] Addis/Wechsler came down and wooed Sam, and after that, he became a complete, full-fledged movie star. So that was a great film to be involved with, and I had so much fun being in that, with that particular team.
Maximum Overdrive (1986)—“Videoplayer”
GE: I was a young actor, and that was also in Wilmington, actually. It was a time when the city was still kind of a fledgling as far as film production goes. But I got that particular part, and I love Stephen King. He’s a huge Breaking Bad fan, and he blew me up on his blog, making comments and criticisms on the show. He’s one of the reasons the character of Gus was brought to the attention of so many press people, and I want to thank him, because I have a debt of gratitude for his taste. [Laughs.] As well as his understanding of the show itself, but definitely of the character I put so much of my heart and soul into. So my kudos go out to Stephen King.
He directed one movie in his career, Maximum Overdrive, and I found him to be a great director, especially considering he was working with a crew of Italians who couldn’t even understand him. Meanwhile, [executive producer] Dino de Laurentiis spoke great Italian and pretty good English. So Stephen King was saddled with a great load to move and work through, but I found he did it with grace and aplomb. He certainly directed me beautifully. I’ll never forget when I was shaken to death at the game machine, and he wanted me to shake harder and shake more. [Laughs.]
But what I loved about the movie was that it was the beginning of a great institution of film in Wilmington. Dino’s people and the Italians absolutely taught and trained the work force down there, and then sold it to a couple of different people, and the film business died on the vine down there. It’s now rejuvenated, though. Carolco, who bought it from De Laurentiis, went out of business, Screen Gems bought the studio, and now I go back to Wilmington all these years later and it’s thriving. So everything comes around. I’m so happy to be working there again, and I love that there’s a legitimate and bona fide film industry in Wilmington. It’s such a pleasure to be there.