Giancarlo Esposito landed his first Broadway role at age eight, and he grew up to become one of the most celebrated character actors in America. He’s recently starred in not one but THREE TV shows: As the fiery pastor on “The Get Down.” As the Narrator of the Netflix show “Dear White People.” And, of course, as the murderous criminal genius Gus Fring on “Better Call Saul” and “Breaking Bad.”
When Rico spoke with the actor, he touched on a few of his earlier roles in “Do the Right Thing” and “Bob Roberts,” before diving into his method acting style and more. Hear a longer, almost unedited cut of this interview right here.
On working on “Do the Right Thing”
Giancarlo Esposito: I love that piece because it felt very much like a stage play. We took over a block in Brooklyn that had only two residents on the block. We kicked out the crack house, and we turned it into a Hollywood set.
Rico Gagliano: Yeah, it’s a little different now.
Giancarlo Esposito: A little different now. It’s all gentrified now and a very different space. But I remember it being a very, very emotional moment in time in the history of New York, and it felt like we were doing something that was beyond us, that was sort of going to be great. And it wasn’t like we knew it was going to be interpreted as being great, it was that we were a family doing something that felt really right. Spike is a big basketball fan, football fan. So, he ran things like a team, and that’s great. When you have a team effort, things turn out differently.
On his style of method acting
Giancarlo Esposito: There’s a part of my work that believes that when you’re in the moment, in that time on a film set, that’s your time to really lend your whole spirit and energy to the character you’re trying to play. I don’t know if I’d call it complete method. I guess you could call it that.
Rico Gagliano: So, that brings me to Gus, though, because here’s Gus — this is an intense, kind of a sociopath. He’s this composed criminal mastermind. When you’re shooting, do you remain Gus when you’re not on camera? Like, do you try to stay in that mindset, and, if so, what does that do to your life?
Giancarlo Esposito: Yeah, it destroys it [laughs]!
Rico Gagliano: Really?
Giancarlo Esposito: So, I have to answer yes. I stay very quiet on the set. In film, we shoot a page a day. In television, we shoot six or seven pages a day. And I don’t want anything to get away from me. I want to remain in a place that’s open to channeling the character I’m trying to create. I try to find the balance, and… you have to talk to people on the set. The makeup artists comes to touch you up, and people come to straighten your tie, and they touch you without asking, and it’s all very intrusive.
Rico Gagliano: Something Gus would not like, I don’t think. I don’t think he’d like people touching him.
Giancarlo Esposito: Not at all. Not at all. So, as they come toward me, I’m already adjusting my tie and putting my shirttail back in my pants, so they have to touch me less because I–
Rico Gagliano: Interesting.
Giancarlo Esposito: And it puts them off. Yeah, they want to do their job, but I don’t want to take on anyone else’s energy, someone fussing with me, talking about how their dog didn’t eat their dog food this morning, or they didn’t get a chance to take their dog for a walk. I don’t want to hear any of that.
On getting into character as “the bad guy”
Rico Gagliano: There’s something Gus does frequently in the show. He’ll be presenting a friendly face to someone. He’s seeming like a genial pillar of society, and then he’ll turn away, and his face turns to just murderous stone, and it is chilling every damn time. What are you doing physically and mentally to make that switch happen? Because it is, it’s like a switch flips on your face, and suddenly you’re a different guy.
Giancarlo Esposito: You know, I did a movie with Spike Lee, “Malcolm X,” where I play Talmidge Hayer, one of the assassins of Malcolm X, and I remember picking up the doll. This little girl drops a doll in the Audubon Ballroom just before we’re about to shoot “Malcolm X.” And I remember picking up the doll and giving the girl the doll, and then turning my face and turning to stone.
It goes to something that I speak about sometimes. We wear a lot of masks in our lives, and when we’re truly with ourselves, we’re different people, and when we’re with other people, we’re another person. So, to me, that was the beginning of cultivating the quick switch, allowing the audience to see the real human being behind the words.
Rico Gagliano: What are you thinking when that happens, though?
Giancarlo Esposito: Sometimes I’m thinking [in Gus Fring’s voice], “I’ll kill you, and I will not shed a tear.” Sometimes I’m thinking, “Just go blank.” Gus has been a character that helped me to really hone much of my acting skill within a relaxed position. You can’t control the dialogue, but you can control when you speak. That’s a very specific thing to do within a scene with scene partners. You say something, they answer. They say something… I wait to answer.
[This interview has been edited and condensed.]