Oftentimes playing a character for many years means adding more emotional depth as time goes on. For Giancarlo Esposito, who has played drug kingpin Gus Fring on Breaking Bad and then Better Call Saul for the past decade, it often means taking some depth away.
“I’ve started to strip away layers to go backward and play a Gus who can grow to be that person that we see (in Breaking Bad),” Esposito says. “My desire is to strip away any reactive emotions and just take things in and hold it even closer to the vest.”
Esposito’s now iconic creation has always been more machine-like than man. In fact viewers could be forgiven for momentarily thinking that Gus was indeed a Terminator in his gruesome and explosive final hour. But prequel Better Call Saul, which added Gus as a full-time character in season 3, has allowed Esposito to initially imagine a less refined, more volatile version of the character.
Now the ending of Gus Fring, Better Call Saul, and maybe the entire extended Breaking Bad universe is nigh with the announcement that Better Call Saul’s sixth season will be the show’s last. Before that, however, comes Better Call Saul season 5 and with it, one more opportunity for Esposito to strip some more layers of humanity off Gus Fring.
We spoke with Esposito about the vulnerable position Gus finds himself in in season 5, his thoughts on Breaking Bad movie El Camino, and yes, what it’s like to don the Darksaber of Moff Gideon on The Mandalorian.
DEN OF GEEK: It feels like there’s an opportunity for Gus to really deal with failure this year. The end of last season, in which we had to kill poor Werner, was a real failure. Is that something that Gus has to confront this year?
GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: Without a doubt. I believe he’s challenged this year by many obstacles and has to overcome them. One of those obstacles will be a Salamanca once again, reminiscent of Hector and Gus’s relationship. We have Lalo Salamanca and I think that allows Gus some vulnerability. For me, it’s been interesting to create a younger Gus who is not as proficient as the Gus we meet in Breaking Bad. He may be a little more vulnerable, and may also be a little more emotional surrounding his operation, and a little more anxious in regard to how he wants to really solidify his power. So to me, those are interesting aspects to play.
We start season five with him being a bit apologetic for things that have happened, and that’s a Gus we haven’t seen before. We move through to see him challenged by certain obstacles that come up from dealing with the Salamanca family that he hasn’t really had to deal with in the same way he did in Breaking Bad by flexing his muscle. We start to see how he puts the pieces together to deal with Nacho Varga, who could actually be a great asset to him. There’s some different aspects of Gus in season five that we haven’t been privy to before.
You mentioned that this version of Gus was slightly more emotional. Is that how you kind of imagined his arc on this show and into Breaking Bad as a stripping of emotions so he becomes more and more machine-like each passing year?
There is that piece of it, because I had to add emotion going back. That was the only thing that I could do. (In Breaking Bad) we saw a very calculated human being. He knows the road and he knows the direction he’s going. Although we see a cold guy who could do anything, he’s actually protecting a very big organization that he’s building himself, as well as protecting his workers. Now I’ve started to strip away layers to go backward and play a Gus who can grow to be that person that we eventually see (in Breaking Bad).
I was actually in ADR the other day and watched a scene and thought, “Wow, is that too much emotional progressing?” Then I realized, “Oh, we’re in Better Call Saul.” That’s actually correct. The further we go now into season six, my desire is to strip away any reactive emotions and just take things in and hold it even closer to the vest as we get closer.
In this realm of prestige television, we have shorter seasons, which means you very rarely get to stay with one character for this long and work with the same creators for this long. How has your relationship evolved with Vince and Peter over the years?
Well, Peter has stepped up and been the show runner on this particular piece. I’ve always loved his writing previous in Breaking Bad, but he was part of a larger team along with Vince who was always there. It’s been interesting just have the gauntlets passed to him. Couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy and a more creative brain and mind. His ideas have embodied what Vince has wanted and what all the creators of the show who collaborate together. To Vince’s credit, although he’s stepped away, he has been very involved in this show in regard to how he lends himself to the writers’ room, and also is available for all of us actors. It’s been a dream come true to work with this in a way, dream team of writers who care so much about us.
In this writers’ room they care so much about what you think and feel and want to know what your thoughts are. That’s a very different way of working that’s inclusive and allows you to feel as if you’re family. Whereas, on other shows prior to this particular golden age of television, you’re playing the same person every week. There’s no change. Here, you’re able to make subtle changes and some more drastic changes that allow you to do what you’ve been taught to do and love to do, and that is to act and create characters.
Interesting. As an aside, I think for the longest time TV shows tended to have a default theme that “people don’t change.” And that’s because TV shows didn’t change. They required consistency. Then as TV has gotten more dynamic, maybe starting with Breaking Bad, people’s capacity to change has become more of the theme because the medium now allows it.
It absolutely does. It’s more reflective of who we are as human beings. We hope and we dream and we fail and we succeed. We have victory and we have tragedy in our lives. I think people are more willing to be more honest about wanting to see who they really are reflected on the television screen, as opposed to seeing it always be happy and nice and easy and cool. When life is not really like that.
Before this dynamic age in television, we wanted to be entertained – to be made to feel happy. We wanted to be able to laugh and to feel emotions, but not go too deep as to rock our world. Now I think we’re able to sit in front of a television and really be heartbroken for a character that we see on television, without it destroying us. Because we’ve experienced more in our lives and in our world that demand our attention. We need to pay attention to this time in television, because it really allows us to be a little more organic, a little more real, and a little more realistic about who we are and where we are in our space and time.
Better Call Saul has always straddled a couple of different worlds. We’re in the legal realm with Jimmy /Saul, and then the criminal underworld with you and Mike. Occasionally those crossover, but not that frequently. Does it sometimes feel like you’re on a separate show from Bob and Rhea ?
Yeah, it does. I am the danger, I’m the threat. I’m carrying over a storyline that really deals with Nacho and the Salamanca family that needs to be a part of this particular show. Sometimes I do feel like a lone wolf. But because I am a bit of a loner in my own life, I recognize, understand, and have experienced some of that. So I’m okay with coming in and doing what I got to do to really, while always remembering that I’m part of this particular show, this world. The world in this particular show is not completely mine. It is all of our worlds.
Do you get to crossover at all this season? Do you get to share a scene with anybody in the legal realm?
It’s really funny because Patrick (Fabian) and I have talked about it for three seasons. Will we ever get a chance? No. I don’t know if you’ll really see that. I struggle enough to try to get a scene with Bob. We do feel like we’re certainly in a couple of different worlds, but hopefully we’ll have the ability maybe in six to cross over for a beat or two in that. That would give me a lot of pleasure to be able to sort of meet other characters who I haven’t met. It would be nice to work with Rhea, who I adore. So we’ll see what happens. You never know.
Those cowards have got to give her an Emmy award nomination.
Oh, my gosh. Come on! Someone had sent her an interview article that I did where they asked me about how was it to be nominated for the Emmy. And I said, “It’s really, really fantastic. My only disappointment is that Rhea Seehorn wasn’t nominated for season four. She certainly deserved that nomination.” So she came to me and hugged me and said, “I had never knew you said that. You’ve been such a dear friend and so complimentary.” She really had tears in her eyes. But that’s truly how I felt. She really is an incredible actress.
That leads me to think about a woman’s place in this man’s world of television. What does that mean that she’s not acknowledged and recognized? It has something to do with the world in which we live that still looks at female characters and women a certain way. And I said something in an interview about an hour ago. I said, “You know, maybe it’s because she made it look easy.” Maybe it’s because they didn’t think she was acting. I feel like that could be true. She makes it seamless, easy, absolutely fluid and flowing. Maybe they don’t think she’s acting at all. But isn’t that what it’s all about?
Did you get a chance to check out El Camino? What were your thoughts on the launch of that, and how’d you feel for Vince being able to go back to the world again?
As I said to Vince, he’s a filmmaker, period. El Camino really proves that. The vision he had for El Camino, which is such a small little story that was of course extendable from the end of Breaking Bad, really blew me away. I really felt that he captured the dramatic essence of what Jesse would go through. I felt like his direction was brilliant. The music was brilliant, seamless editing, and a real understanding of the cinematic movement of the big screen. I was very, very impressed with El Camino. I thought it was really a very strong film with wonderful acting and so well-directed.
Then Aaron’s performance of course, led to the idea of growth. You saw this kid grow up in front of your eyes all these years in Breaking Bad. You watched him grow up then always wondered what happened afterwards. For him to have the redemptive moment of even desiring to change his life after what he had been through, for me it was just beautiful. I’m very proud of El Camino. I wish I could have been in it, but it didn’t work out. I wasn’t supposed to be, but it would have been great to be a part of that.
What was it like to be part of The Mandalorian?
Gosh, I love it. Iconic Star Wars. A space cowboy series that resembled the early Star Wars movies that I so loved. I feel like John Favreau really delivered. Dave Filoni is such a master on that universe. It really brings back the essence of what George Lucas intended in regard to the Joe Campbell mythology that he was so enamored with, that allowed us to really be in the myth of that world. I feel like it has so much depth and it will bring all the new movie viewers of Star Wars to this television space that really depicts it for what it was always meant to be.
And it’s a Western like El Camino!
It’s a Western, just like El Camino. Favreau gets it. He wrote this role for me of Moff Gideon. I am so proud and honored to be a part of it. I feel like already I’m in a legendary position with so many different characters I’ve played. But now, this legend is the icing on the cake. To be able to have a black light saber, to able to fly a TIE fighter – I am pinching myself and really grateful to be a part of that project.