Giancarlo Esposito: "Gus Knows What He Wants"

by Gabriel Lerman May 8, 2020
Giancarlo Esposito

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The reintroduction of Gus Fring in the second season of Better Call Saul, three years ago, was one of the most anticipated moments in the spin-off of Breaking Bad. Certainly, when the Chilean drug dealer who owns a fast-food chain as a front appeared in the first show created by Vince Gilligan in one of the last episodes of season two, he became one of the favorite characters in the story very quickly. We spoke with Giancarlo Esposito on the phone about his experience portraying Gus in both shows, and even if the veteran actor, born in Denmark to an American mother and an Italian father and raised in New York, has an amazing and rich career in film and television with more than 170 credits, including recent titles as The Mandalorian and Godfather of Harlem, Esposito is such a fan that we only were able to talk about the character who gave him two Emmy nominations, one for Breaking Bad in 2008 and the other for Better Call Saul in 2015.

Has playing Gus in Better Call Saul been any different from playing him in Breaking Bad?

It has been very different because I am very meticulous with regard to my work. I love what I do, and I always try to find something new. And I feel this being a time change, earlier in Gustavo’s career, and before what happened in Breaking Bad, I have had to track the milestones of how his personality grows and how I am able to cultivate maybe a little bit more vulnerability, maybe having a little more of a flair of anger when things don’t go his way, all to be able to lead you to the doorstep of Breaking Bad. And I feel Gus is more solidified and unified in his quest to take over the Cartel and he’s also more identifiable in his demonstrative nature. Gus has certain ways and attitudes of dealing with his anger, and how he moves the chess pieces are very important to me as an actor in Better Call Saul. So, it’s created a fresh way for me to look at Gus. And at least that is what I have been trying to manifest in my performances.

So, when you are playing him in Better Call Saul, do you have to forget about how everything ends before in Breaking Bad?

Yes. And fortunately, my memory gets worse as I have gotten older, so I have forgotten it all. (laughs) I would have to go back to watch to remind myself. No, that’s just a joke.  Yes, of course, I blank out what the end story is, not only the story for me and where I end up, but his different relationships with Hector Salamanca and in Better Call Saul I am dealing with Lalo Salamanca who is very much of a hothead and who I have to contain. And I also have a new relationship with Nacho and that is a relationship that we are in that now I have been able to get him through knowing what he tried to do to Hector Salamanca, get him under my wing and make him do what I want to do. So, there are new relationships that are formed, but I never think of the end result of Breaking Bad. It’s blocked out of my mind. I think mostly about having the audience feel that Gus is not quite in control as completely of his world in Better Call Saul, as he was in Breaking Bad. I want you to feel that, I want you to feel a guy who is still sensitive maybe, but is on his way to be that man that you will meet once these bookends of two shows are complete.

As an audience member, I feel that the two shows are getting closer and closer. Did you feel the same while making Better Call Saul

Without a doubt. This fifth season is the one that turns the table. In terms of writing, it’s very dangerous, and the character development has gone South, no pun intended. All of a sudden Jimmy McGill realizes who he is after all in Better Call Saul. Jimmy has been Gene; he has been Jimmy and now he is transitioning to being full-time Saul Goodman. He’s made a choice. So, this is a demonstrative season where that choice is fully realized. I am going to represent people who are a little bit like this and I am going to work to get them justice, whatever his personal reasons are. He feels most comfortable as the flashy Jimmy, because he is a talker and a storyteller, and he can make you what he wants you to do. So, this season he’s going to get into a world where he’s going to be more and more of a fish out of water. But he has to solidify himself within that world. He loves the courtroom. But he’s going to get involved with the Cartel which is going to change things for him a bit and is much more dangerous than I think he ever bargained for. So, the show is taking a turn for the dark. And it’s more and more coming to a place where a man is realizing this is the world he is most comfortable in. He doesn’t want to be in jail, but he has decided to be outside the law, for fun or whatever, to gratify his ego, to see if he could do it, whatever that is. But don’t forget Kim. He is getting Kim on his side, who was once completely good and a great lawyer, but it’s titillating for her to be with a man who is as smart and is as reconcilable as Jimmy, as Saul will become. So, this season is going to be the season where the worlds will collide and have come together closer and closer obviously for our sixth season, which should be explosive. But this is a difficult one, a big season, a lot of action and there’s a lot of explosions and a lot of things to get your attention. All that juxtaposed to the main story, which is that story of Kim and Jimmy and Saul. So, I do agree with you, it feels that way for us. This is the most filmic season we have ever shot, the most challenging. It’s been a joy, it’s been painful, but you see it in the work, you see it in the season, it’s all of a sudden jumped up to another level of filmmaking. 

So how long did you know that Gustavo was going to be back?  When they announced that it was happening, did you know at some point?

No, I didn’t know. They did their first season. I think that maybe I had got an inkling that they wanted me to come back when they started their second season. I had no idea that I would be a part of Better Call Saul at all when they started this show. After all, remember, Better Call Saul was a half-hour comedy when they first started it and then they announced that it would be a drama, rightfully so, I think they didn’t know at that time. But I think by the end of the first season and the beginning of the second season is when I started to hear that they might want me to reprieve my role of Gus Fring.

And when you finished Breaking Bad, did you feel that your work was complete, or did you have a lot of questions that were not answered?

When I finished Breaking Bad, I didn’t have questions that weren’t unanswered, I had desires to reach into the backstory of Gus in a more in-depth fashion. Because there was a lot that was unanswered. But my understanding was, the less we know about Gus in Breaking Bad and in Better Call Saul, the more we are intrigued, the more we want to know. And because neither of these shows is about Gus’ journey as a whole, the place to be intrigued is the character of Gus, always leaving people wanting more.  So yes, I wanted to explore his connection to Santiago, I wanted to explore his connection to family. In that dinner back in Breaking Bad we see pictures on the wall, maybe children and a wife, we see things around him that look like he has a family. I want to see if that is true. I want to know more about his relationship with Max Arciniega, it’s always been fuzzy surrounding the Pollos Hermanos. And I want to know, he is an interesting man. So yes, I felt incomplete and that completion would be by having a show about Gus all by himself. That is not ego talking, there are enough ideas there from Vince and from me, that would satisfy that. But I have to say, what this has created and within the realm of these two shows, he has allowed me to share my view of what Gus is and could be. I would have to say that that would be a call that Vince would have to make. But in my brain, yeah, there’s a world of "the rise of Gus" that I think people would be interested in. But look, again, I am very humble and gracious to be a part of this incredible show. But I am not at all disappointed that this particular dramatic show and the comedic show is not about Gus. I feel like I have been able to bring a great part of my style and my stillness and my awareness and my intuitive nature to playing this character. And who knows, if everything was laid out for us and we saw exactly who he was, we might not be as interested in him as we are now.

Why do you think the audiences are fascinated by him? Because you could see him as a plain villain in a way. But we love Gus, even if he does awful things.

Because he cares about people, he really does care about his workers. Coming from a scene where he is showing a young man how to clean the fryer. He is very irritated and he moves all of that irritation and anger into showing this man how to properly clean it, not just saying you didn’t clean it right. And the young man is so astute, he knows I am aggravated, and he also sees his mistakes. So that is really typical Gus, right? So, to me, I feel like he’s compassionate enough not to scream at this young man, he’s compassionate enough in the scene with Mike and Mike feels fucked within Dedicado to Max, outside of the dedication, outside of the fountain, where he tells Mike about his life and it seems he has a couple of choices, you could do this or this but you are still brawling with street hoods. Mike is pissed that Gus saved him, brought him to Mexico, assumes that Gus wants to make himself look good by having this whole place, he doesn’t really get Gus yet. There’s a great moment, but Gus has a lot of compassion and he tells him the truth, I need a soldier, I am in a war, this is what I need from you.  Yeah, I have an idea of how you live your life and you really want to go down that road and still be drinking and brawling, and he offers him a different life, this is typical Gus.  But this is out of understanding human beings and it’s why audiences like him. He does care about Los Pollos, he does care about his customers, he cares about the people who work at the laundry, he invests in people. It’s not that he just does it for greed or money. Gus is deeper than that. He doesn’t want to just take over the cartel for greed. He wants to take it over because he can do it better. These Salamancas are all over the land, Lalo Salamanca is a hot head and he is going to get us all busted. He is not even worried about that, he wants to make it a smooth operation and he cares about his employees, but he’s protecting the cartel in a way. And so, he hasn’t solidified himself yet in Better Call Saul to go hey, just to stand up and go up against Eladio and say this is a better way to do this, let’s get this operation under control here, we are not cowboys anymore. We like Gus because he is trying to uplift everybody as he goes, not only his ideals because he has standards. He is not just a dictator or a megalomaniac person who wants power, he has a certain grace, finesse, and strong standards and ideals. And I think that’s why we, as an audience, tend to gravitate towards him. He is demonstrative. Gus knows what he wants, it’s just a matter of how to get it. And it’s much deeper than greed or money or maybe even revenge.

I asked this of Vince and Peter because I have my personal theory that he’s not really from Chile. And they laughed at it and they didn’t say anything. But what are your own theories about the dark spots that they will never clarify, like is he really from Chile?

Well I mean our writers have said he’s from Chile. And so, I have always gone under the assumption. It would be wonderful if we found out that he wasn’t, it would be great fodder for our audiences. But I feel like, in my brain, he is from Chile, he was part of the Government of Chile. And from his bearing and the way he stands, I have always given myself the clue that he was in the military and very high ranking and could have been a Presidente. (laughs) But he is from a very strong and rich family and I think he wants to deny what was given him, as a prodigal son would, and go and make it on his own. He has different aspirations in America. Because he could see further than the Noriega Syndrome, he could see further than being educated in America and going back to his country and being a puppet for America. He could see further than that. So, my storyline in my brain runs that beat that he left that because he knew that he would be a puppet and a tool, and he is his own man and he creates his own life and his own success. And this is why I feel like he is in America and why he has come here. He is much too shrewd to be the puppet who will take the power as we have seen over and over in our American history. So that’s my theory that I think is for me full and rich and complete, and it informs what I do even though we never get a chance to fully explore it on paper or visually in our story.