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When Gustavo Fring was introduced in the second season of Breaking Bad, he was a quiet, humble manager of a fast-food chain with vague ties to the largest meth-distribution ring in the southwestern United States. He was a man of few words, completely unaffected by the trials of running an operation that traffics in murder and deception. Outwardly, not much has changed for Gus; he’s still just as calm and calculated as ever. But the show’s fourth season, which airs its final episode Sunday, has offered a peek behind the curtain for Gus, and understanding the root of his actions has only made him a more menacing presence. Giancarlo Esposito, the actor who plays Gus, has woven his way so deeply into the fabric of the show—the future of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman can now be found in that cold, ruthless stare—that it’s hard to remember when he was a goofy presence in Spike Lee films like Do The Right Thing, or worked the other side of the law on Homicide: Life On The Street. Plus, when discussing his character with The A.V. Club, Esposito is infectiously warm and audibly excited—a stark contrast to the bleak Gus Fring. In this spoiler-laden discussion, Esposito talks about Gus’ master plan, the nature of his relationship with the other hermano from Los Pollos Hermanos, and what it’s like to watch Breaking Bad with his kids.
The A.V. Club: I found an old interview where you mentioned that you no longer wanted to play drug dealers, and you wanted to perform in roles that elevate humanity. Breaking Bad seems to go against both of those desires. What did you see in Gus that attracted you to the role?
Giancarlo Esposito: Interesting question. That interview was done many years ago when I was doing nothing but guest spots playing ne’er-do-wells, drug-dealers, and sleazy people, and because I’m looked at in part of my entertainment career as being African-American only. People who have not done their research on me do not know that I am European, born in Copenhagen, Denmark to an Italian father from Napoli and a mother from Alabama who was singing opera and went to Europe, met my dad, fell in love, and then moved back to Rome, where I was raised, between Rome and Hamburg. It was an entertainment movement, from one place to another. My mother was doing opera and my father was working behind the scenes. People who don’t know that and came upon me as a younger actor playing many different characters on Law And Order, on shows that were done here in Los Angeles with Stephen J. Cannell—or NYPD Blue, where I played a Robin Hood character street dude who ripped off all the drug dealers and gave the money back to people who needed it more. That was a good example of playing one of those characters. It wasn’t until I said that I didn’t want to do these characters anymore that I started playing lawyers and doctors.
AVC: The opposite.
GE: The opposite. More intelligent people. That’s going back 10 years, and I wanted to bring a favorable and positive image to African-Americans. I felt like the audiences that do watch my career make me who I am. Of course, you guys, as writers and journalists who admire my work, can write about it and talk about it and I’m forever grateful for that, because you recognize some talent there. But I want to be able to bring my talents to fruition in different ways and play different roles. So that interview that you read was referring to a time when I couldn’t get those other roles because they wouldn’t consider me for them. Now, I consider myself an actor, so when I won the Obie Award for a play called Zooman And The Sign, a Charles Fuller play, and Charles won the Pulitzer Prize for A Soldier’s Play, I had to learn how to become that street kid, Zooman. I would do a lot of research on the streets of Philadelphia, in the hood, to morph myself and become a chameleon to be able to be that. At that period of time, people were surprised when they heard me speak, that I sounded a bit more intelligent than my characters. I wanted to change that imagery of myself and I wanted to foster more images in regard to African-Americans.
So to bring us up to Breaking Bad, yes, all those things that I said I didn’t want to do, here they are again, where I play a drug dealer of a different ethnic background, in that he is Chilean, but he is a guy who I fashioned and wanted to have him be very different than what people may think that looks like. Someone who is poised to take over the cartel, someone who is poised to manipulate other people into doing what he needs them to do. The choice I made with Gustavo Fring was to make him graceful. Nice, genuinely caring about the chemists he hired and works with, because those are the people he respects. For example, Max Arciniega in [episode] 408, the lost hermano of Los Pollos Hermanos, he is someone I took off the street in El Salvador and put him through school and cared for him and was interested in his potential, in developing that potential. He’s not this cat who’s out there on drugs, or just looking to make a buck from selling drugs to the user. This is what makes a difference for me in terms of Breaking Bad: Is it a show that sheds light? I’d say it is, because at this time in our economy and our world, here in America, we realize that we’ve fallen from grace a little bit. We outsourced—and here’s where my activism comes in—we’ve really outsourced a lot of what we do. We import everything, and we’ve lost the direct connection to being useful worker bees. My greatest analogy, the one I get tickled by, is that you used to remember 10 phone numbers. Now you’ve got cell phones and you don’t remember numbers anymore. You’ve gotten sort of dumb. And you go into a McDonald’s and instead of typing in the old register they used to use, and knowing how to make change, there’s a photo there of a Big Mac or a Chicken McNugget or whatever it is, you just push a button. We’ve dumbed ourselves down. I don’t go into McDonald’s, but when I did go into McDonald’s years ago, and this first started, I peeked around the register. There’s no thinking involved anymore. The young girl, the 13-year-old girl who can’t really read well, from the hood, who never graduated seventh grade, could still work at McDonald’s because all you have to do a press a button and it tells you the total and everything else. And if she has a problem she calls her manager.
For me, the uplifting part of Breaking Bad and what it sheds light on is where we’re at right now in our world, where people would do something so desperate to save their families or provide. For me, that’s the essence of Gus. He has a family. Yes, they’re in an illicit business, they’re making blue meth, but this is his family. And because his moral standards are so high, one of the reasons why he takes out Victor in episode 401 is not just to send a message, but because Victor made a mistake and he didn’t cover his tracks, and the whole family became at risk.
AVC: As far as where our country is at right now, Breaking Bad could also be about how hard it is to start fresh. The show talks a lot about how once you’re in, there’s no easy way to get out. There’s a part of Walt, and probably Gus, that simply wants to start over from scratch, and that can be applied to the many problems plaguing our country. Everyone’s looking for a bailout, but it’s never that simple.
GE: Absolutely. Very astute of you. There is a price to pay for most of our actions. For every action, there is a reaction. And unfortunately, Walt has made this huge mistake that he can’t get out of, and he can’t stay in comfortably because he doesn’t feel right about it. He feels uncomfortable. He likes the money; he likes the fact that he can have the ability to leave his family with something. Here again is the moral aspect: He wants to protect his family and leave them with something because he’s going to die of cancer. Never did he think before he died of cancer, he’d have to take other lives, he’d have to hurt other people. He didn’t think it through, as smart as he is. Many people in this country are thinking about and are doing things that are against their nature or are out of character because they have to. And many are doing so because they want to. This brings up a real ethical question about Breaking Bad and what we’re portraying, and it’s the reason why I’m part of the show. I really wanted to be able to portray more complicated human beings, and I think, at the time you read that particular article, I didn’t quite articulate it in that way. I’m an actor, and when a good role comes along that is layered and complicated, intricate, I want to take it. But I want it to have a deeper level of questions that either get answered or presented in some way. That’s important to me.
AVC: Chuck Klosterman wrote a piece for Grantland about how the main character in Breaking Bad actively chooses to put himself in the situation he’s in, as opposed to a show like Mad Men or The Sopranos, where the characters are partially behaving as a result of circumstances beyond their control. Do you see Gus as someone who actively chose the lifestyle he has, or was that lifestyle thrust upon him as a product of where he came?
GE: Gus is very definite, and I’d have to say he made the choice. There’s a lot we don’t know about him, even going beyond what you experience in this fourth season. There are still many unanswered questions, and some of the clues to that are Don Eladio [the cartel kingpin], who says, “I know who you are,” and the whole reason they can’t take him out is the whole reference to him being part of the Chilean Pinochet Government. He’s been this way. We see a glimpse of what happened with the cartel and why he’s been trying to exact his revenge for so long: why he hates, why he’s so closed up, why he’s so close to the vest, why he’s so guarded. But we haven’t seen the very beginning of his character yet, so I would have to say that I believe that Gus made a decision a long time ago in some previous circumstance to the ones we’ve already seen. He’s much too controlled and too thorough to not have made that choice.
AVC: Did that choice inform his thoroughness, or do you think he was already this almost OCD-level personality before he made that choice?
GE: I believe that some of these character traits are inside us, and should we choose to pursue them, they get brought out in a more heightened way. I think he had some of this all along. He’s a guy who wants to be powerful and wants to be in control, but under the radar. I hope that some of what audiences see is a genuine, caring nature about him for human productivity and human development. It’s a business. Gus is very clear about that, even back in the third season. “You were late and your partner was stoned. It’s wrong. You don’t deal with anybody that is a drug addict. This is a business.” He would deal with it if he were selling vacuum cleaners. The product is almost not even necessary to talk about. Yes, it’s not legal, but it’s not about the product. It’s about how you carry yourself as a human being. And in between all that you have the “a man provides” speech, which is really, to me, such a galvanizing point for Walt and Gus in terms of taking care of your own.
AVC: Season four has pulled audiences in two directions where Gus is concerned. On one hand, we’re rooting for Jesse to poison Gus. On the other, in the episode where you take out the cartel and almost die in the process, we’re suddenly concerned for your life. How do you play both sides? How important is it that the audience root for you or against you?
GE: I believe it’s terribly important, because given the stellar writing we have been given on Breaking Bad, the challenge is to make that ring completely truthful and original. I think it’s absolutely wonderful when you say what you said, because it not only lets me know that I’m doing my job completely, but also allows me to know that it really does work. As much as we’d like to think that human beings are black and white, we’re not. We’re works in progress that have good things about us and bad things about us. Maybe not on the same level that Gus does or that Walt does, but on a smaller level. Then the show becomes a microcosm for reality. Granted, Breaking Bad’s reality is dark and extreme, moreso than our lives. If we cull it down and really look at things, we all do things at certain points that are contradictory. Some things, it’s a smaller contradiction, and other things it’s larger. If I’m present and looking at it, it at least allows me the opportunity to go, “Mmmm, that didn’t sound like me, let me look at that.” And that’s where growth comes from. I think it’s the greatest compliment that in one episode you can be hoping and really wanting Jesse to end Gus’ life with that ricin cigarette, but in the next you can say, “Wow, look at this guy who took out the cartel,” who truly are really bad people.
It’s the magic of how this show has been put together. It’s the magic and the brilliance of Vince Gilligan and of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul and the cast that we have; it gels in such a beautiful way. It’s sort of like being in that family where you’re told by your father you can’t do something, and you hate his guts. “No, you can’t go and take my car to pick up your buddies, I’ve got something else to do.” He has a reason for not allowing you to do that, even though it isn’t the reason you expect. You hate him for it. And the next day, he throws you the keys and says, “After school take your buddies down to the soda shop,” and you love him. That’s real, right? When I put it that way, we’ve all had that experience. You go at it, you get punished, “Fuck! I hate him!” And in that moment, you’re going to hate your father or your mother forever. The next day, you don’t anymore. That’s the nature of family, and that’s what I love about Breaking Bad as a show, and that’s what I love about it as an actor. I direct as well, but when I go to the set of Breaking Bad, I’m just an actor. I want to be in service to the writing, and I want to be completely present in what I’m doing. I feel like we’re really getting to it now, in terms of what we all like but can’t name about one of the best shows on television. And you hit it. We feel this uneasiness inside of us, because one week, “I want you to die! Die! Die! You’re such an evil person.” And then next week, “Oh, he’s not so bad. I can kinda see why he did that.”
AVC: You mention that Gus is trying to cultivate and protect his family. What do you think Gus sees in Jesse, and what role does he play in that family?
GE: Jesse is the guy that Gus judged. Jesse is the guy who almost stopped the wheels from turning. He’s the guy who came in with Walt and was stoned. He’s the loser. He’s just a kid who’s lost, and then he noticed that the guy really can cook and has potential, which got Gus’ attention. In the last few episodes, you’ve seen [Walt and Jesse] having fights that, “Gus is just using you to get at me.” That’s not the case. Gus probably at some point saw that he judged this kid as just being a doper, not having any talent, and realized everyone has talent, which he’s already known. Everyone has potential, this guy’s just caught up in the small world of it. Is he using Jesse to get what he wants? Of course. But would he further Jesse’s knowledge and education of what he’s doing and try to help Jesse out? Of course he would. You’ve seen him do that with Walt, but Walt couldn’t see beyond it to reap the benefits.
AVC: What is the nature of Gus’ relationship to his old partner? There was a lot of speculation that perhaps there was a romantic connection in their past.
GE: It certainly crossed my mind, but being European and raised in Europe, I always kiss my father on the lips, men hug and kiss in Europe. You don’t have to be gay to hold a man’s hand walking down the street. How odd would that be here? How acceptable would that be here in America? And how quickly would you go, if I was walking with a buddy of mine holding his hand, would it be in the tabloids, “Giancarlo Esposito is gay?” In a heartbeat. So I loved the fact that that came up so strongly, because there was genuine love there between Max Arciniega and Gustavo Fring, and I just adored James Martinez, the actor who played that with such grace and aplomb. It certainly came to my mind, because in my early hopes for Gus, we were at his home… I really get the idea that Gus is married to his work. Again, my theory is that nothing’s black and white, and the love he shows for nurturing another human being could very well be misconstrued as a love affair, and it’s not written so it could be a love affair. My job as an actor is to give you all the possibilities and let you figure it out. [Laughs.]
AVC: The show has provided much more backstory for your character this season. How has this new information informed your acting choices?
GE: It’s certain that the death of an actor can be on a television screen playing the same thing every week. And certainly that’s not the case for Breaking Bad. From day one, what I try to do is to leave possibilities open so I never have to say the same thing twice and never have to be that one-note character. I always roll with punches. I haven’t known what’s coming, so from day one I’m not Bryan Cranston—it’s Walt’s story, and he’s also a producer, so he gets to be privy to more. When I thought about it in season three, when I started to do more, I asked myself: “Do you want to know more?” And I didn’t in this case, because I wanted it to be spontaneous and fresh. I thought that was more important for me. But I do think everything I’ve done has informed where it’s going, because it’s an inspirational process between writers and actors. If I hadn’t shown them what I did, it wouldn’t have allowed the character to go as far as it did. And equally so if they hadn’t shown me great writing and what the possibilities could be, I would never have been as inspired by them as I had been. This is the beauty of the unexpected and unknown, and it’s certainly very tantalizing for me as an actor. Other actors can’t deal with that; they want to know, but then they make choices and decisions with that knowledge because that knowledge gives them forethought, and they can think about how they want to play something that takes away spontaneity of what they could be doing.
AVC: Because you care about spontaneity and being completely in the moment, is it difficult to come down from an intense scene, like one where Gus takes down the cartel? How much of that work creeps into you?
GE: It does try. [Laughs.] Thank goodness I have yoga in my life, it keeps me present and looking inside my own heart for what’s real. It happened after that cartel scene: I just go in the corner, I take very, very deep breaths, and I just ask. Simple prayers to ask a simple question in a simple way. We think that we’ve gotten so complicated that we have to ask a prayer in a very roundabout, difficult way, when really [we should use] the simple prayers: “Allow me to be released from this now. Allow me to be taken back to myself now.” It happened after that cartel scene. It happened particularly after I read, in my own home, [episode] 401 and was shaken. I put it down and didn’t read it for three days because I wanted to find out if I could do this without scarring my soul, without hurting myself spiritually. Once I found the key—and the key for me was the family—it was something that I realized I had to give to Gus, that he is saving the family. Forgiveness about what he had to do to Victor because it’s about preserving other lives. Then I could do that without a problem. What helps me is yogic breathing, dropping my spiritual level where I am really, really clear that I am playing a character. Some of me might be there. Some of the darkness that overshadows Gus may be coming from Giancarlo.
I’ll tell you a quick story: My daughter was on the set—my youngest was 4, she’s now 7. I brought my own personal glasses, 18-karat gold-framed. Those are my Giancarlo glasses. I’ve had them for 10 years. I knew that they were the right look for Gus. Ruby was on the set with me, we’re shooting in a parking lot, and I had never, ever dropped these glasses. The make-up gal came up to powder my face, and I took them off and I dropped them, and I chipped the little corner of the glasses. It was in that moment I was complete. I thought, “Oh, these aren’t Giancarlo’s glasses.” I was carrying them back and forth between episodes, wearing them at home and back in Albuquerque, afraid to lose them. Once I released them and said, “Send these back to Toronto where I got them made and they’ll make the exact same glass lens, the frames are fine and you keep them after that,” that’s when I knew Gus had taken over and claimed them. He claims a piece of me.
Last week I was walking down the street in New York; I was a wreck and late for an appointment, and I had to stop in my tracks because I felt Gustavo Fring creeping up behind me, and I said to myself, “Uh-uh, Gus. We’re on hiatus. Take a hike, this is Giancarlo. Yes, there are parts of us we share. We share this entity, but right now you gotta go away.” And I laughed at myself. I take things very seriously, and I give myself time to come down and to ramp up, and it’s an inside spiritual journey for me. I feel like acting is a way of feeling your personality, and it’s really special. Special to have this kind of effect on people. You can only have that effect if you’re really outside of yourself. You can’t look at yourself and do what I do at the same time. I have done it that way in the past, but it doesn’t really work. I can only soar within the parameters of time, and I use music analogies. The metronome is the clock. I can only soar if I’m within that timing, within some kind of restraint. In this case, I’ve got the words I’ve got to deal with, I’ve got the character I’ve got to deal with. Those are my given parameters, and if I can soar within that, I am really experiencing myself as the true actor I’ve always wanted to be.
AVC: You said that your daughter came to set, then you talked about the glasses. How did your daughter factor into that story?
GE: I tell it because I had little Ruby there looking at me, and she knew they were my glasses and she looked up and said, “Oh, my Papa, your glasses!” And I looked down at her and I said, “I guess they’re not my glasses anymore.” That’s how it factors in. She looked at me quizzically, and then she understood. She knew that they were mine and I said, “No, they’re not mine, they’re Gus’ now.”
AVC: Does your family watch the show?
GE: Well, I’m divorced from my wife, although we are very dear friends. She does watch it, and she was instrumental in getting me to say yes to do it. But the first instrument of that was Josh Kesselman, who said it was the best show on television. He sent it to me, I watched it, and he said, “You gotta do it. It’s different from all the others. I can give you a guest spot.” I said, “I don’t want to do a guest spot, I want to raise money for my second feature film as a director.” My ex-wife watches it, as does my eldest daughter, who’s 15. All of my children have come to Albuquerque this season—this has been a brutal season, and thank goodness they all came early. My two youngest then my second-oldest, then my oldest—she wanted to check out the University Of Albuquerque, she wants to be a forensic pathologist. That’s when she saw her first episode of Breaking Bad and I had to explain to her about Gus up there. I looked at her and I said, “Look, you just need to know this: Here’s your father,” and I smiled. “And that is going to be Gus when that projector rolls, just so you know, there’s a difference.” She looked at what I did in 401 and she didn’t even flinch. She turned to me and said, “Good kill, Papa.” [Laughs.] The show’s new for her and she loves it, but I don’t allow the other children to watch it.
AVC: Is there something particular about shooting in Albuquerque that feels otherworldly and different?
GE: Oh my God, I could talk to you for hours. Yes, there is. Albuquerque is special to me. When we’re flying in, almost over that box-shaped mountain, I get moved. I love The Solace Of Open Spaces, a book by Gretel Ehrlich. I’m moved by being outdoors. I’m an outdoors person; I’m a runner, a skier, a biker. I’m interested in spirituality and in religion and our relationship to the divine. And when I get in Albuquerque, man, and I can see as far as the eye can see… Is it brown and dry? Yeah. Does it bother me? No. There’s been some really incredible indigenous cultures have lived there and they have mesas and they have spiritual places and they have people who walk on the highway to a certain church for days on end to worship. It is a special place for me, and it’s been a big part in my creation of Gustavo Fring.