The Saturday Interview

Giancarlo Esposito: ‘I hope Disney will always support what their stars say, but they have to be careful’

The ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘Better Call Saul’ star is known for his deadly stare and has become one of prestige TV’s best-loved villains. As he returns in ‘Godfather of Harlem’, he talks to Annabel Nugent about spirituality, playing stone-cold killers and Disney’s Star Wars race row

Saturday 26 June 2021 07:30
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In the Venn diagram of prestige television, Giancarlo Esposito is firmly in the middle. It’s apparently good luck and “the universe” that has landed him critically acclaimed series after critically acclaimed series. There was the 16-time Emmy-winning Breaking Bad, in which he played the notorious Gustavo Fring, a role he reprised for the show’s equally successful spin-off Better Call Saul (39 Emmy nods and counting). But there’s also The Mandalorian, The Boys and The Godfather of Harlem. And before then, the actor made his name in celebrated films like Do the Right Thing, The Usual Suspects and Malcolm X.

Esposito’s most recent IMDb entries have little in common besides a Rotten Tomatoes rating above 90 per cent. “I’m really quite blessed and amazed,” the 63-year-old actor says over Zoom from his home in New York, about the upward trajectory his career has taken as of late. The yellow button-up, polyester tie and khaki pants famously worn by his Breaking Bad antagonist are nowhere in sight. The character’s menacing glare™ has also been commandeered by a warm grin.

Suffice to say, Esposito is nothing like his roles, a carriage of characters best described as “the bad guy”. He specialises in a certain type of villain. The kind that will slice you up with a boxcutter then fix his tie, or remain unmoved by the irresistible cuteness of Grogu, aka Baby Yoda, and champion a Nazi superhero because it’s good business. As one critic said, an appearance from Esposito means your protagonist is “now totally f***ed”.

When he started out in 2009 as Gus – Breaking Bad’s terrifying chicken magnate and meth kingpin – embodying such wickedness took practice. “I had to find a way to drop my spirit and allow myself to be more observant of other people,” he explains. “So in the first years of Breaking Bad, I liked to do the method routine because it kept people away from me. No one wanted to come and say hello or chat about the weather. I’m not that chatty guy on set. I’m not the joker.” Sounds intense. He laughs. “Now after 12 years of playing the character, I can allow myself to be a bit looser.” The actor sends a ripple through his body to illustrate just how loose he means.

His role in Godfather of Harlem sees him let loose – a little. The drama, which returned for its second season on Starzplay earlier this week, tells the story of crime boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (a brilliant Forest Whitaker) as he comes home after serving 10 years in Alcatraz. On his return, he finds his city now run by Italian mobster Vincent Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio). Esposito plays Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr, foregoing outright violence in favour of a suave amorality and opportunistic ick. The show’s racial contretemps struck a personal note with the actor, who identifies as Italian-Black.

“I come from a European family,” says Esposito, who was born in Copenhagen to an Italian stagehand and a classically trained Black opera singer from Alabama. They met at a small opera house in Milan and moved to Denmark before relocating to Manhattan, when Esposito was six. “I had a very worldly way of looking at humanity and people and culture and religion, so I was surprised coming to America in 1962 as a young child to find there was this delineation [between races] here.”

Esposito was only eight when he made his Broadway debut. He and his brother Vincent starred as orphaned children of refugee slaves in the 1968 musical Maggie Flynn opposite showbiz legends Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy. Similar roles followed, but Esposito wanted more. “I wanted to be able to play roles that were expansive, no matter what they were, what colour, what religion or anything else. And it was a struggle to get that to happen.”

And so, Esposito “shape-shifted”. He used his ear for languages and music to learn Spanish in a Spanish accent. “I mean, they thought I was Spanish anyway,” he laughs before enunciating his name with a perfectly casual Latin lilt: “‘Giancarrrlo Esposito?! Oh, he’s a Spanish guy!’” When actors with a real Spanish background came along though, he stepped back. “Here comes John Leguizamo and David Labiosa and all these Spanish guys so I stood aside because I thought they should have the opportunity to play who they are.”

Esposito garnered a huge fanbase for his role as meth kingpin Gustavo ‘Gus’ Fring

Then came the rise of “unconventional casting” – what we might now refer to as blind casting – and a whole new range of roles opened up for Esposito. He remembers it as “a mandate for people to have to hire folks who weren’t considered for certain roles prior. It meant they could cast Giancarlo” – he gestures to his face with both hands – “as a white guy!”

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Over the next two decades, Esposito’s acting found a home in collaborations with Spike Lee, starring in four of the Oscar-winning director’s films. (Last year, he was meant to appear alongside Denzel Washington in Lee’s war drama Da 5 Bloods before scheduling conflicts necessitated a cast shake-up.) Lee first saw Esposito perform in a production of Charles Zuller’s Zooman and the Sign with Negro Ensemble Company, New York City in 1980 when Esposito was 22. Nine years later, Lee cast him in his third feature Do the Right Thing as the fast-talking Bed Stuy-native known as Buggin’ Out. It was a major moment for Esposito. Career-wise, obviously, but personally too. In a similar way to Godfather of Harlem, the movie’s Black and Italian friction hit a nerve. The film was released “at a time in New York when things were very tense racially”, recalls Esposito, who credits it with helping his father begin to understand what it was like being mixed-race. “I don’t think my father really understood how that was for me being half Black and half Italian,” he adds.

In “joining Spike Lee’s camp”, Esposito learnt of opinions on race relations beyond his own. “Spike is absolutely brilliant, but he took a side. In that movie there was this feeling of ‘it’s us against them’,” he recalls. “And I’ve always said who is ‘them’? Who is ‘they’?” Esposito didn’t want to choose a side; he was both “us” and “them”. But the actor concedes that “Do the Right Thing allowed me to connect with the African American part of my soul that is mourning the fact equality isn’t with us”.

Forest Whitaker, Giancarlo Esposito and Luis Guzman in Godfather of Harlem (2019)

Before treading the boards as a young child, Esposito had first considered the priesthood. After her career as an opera singer, his mother became a minister in Elmsford, New York. He was an altar boy, spending time in Baptist and Pentecostal churches in the city. “I used to go with her and sing and speak in tongues and do all those things,” he recalls fondly. “It helped me to have something to hold onto outside of myself.” Still today, Esposito’s language often leans towards the spiritual. He talks about “the universe”, practices yoga and eats an Ayurvedic diet according to season (no sugar allowed).

While many people despair at the way our lives are increasingly engulfed by the demands of our work, Esposito sees it differently. Instead, he thinks we have a harmful tendency to separate the two factions. For him, it throws up some crucial questions: “Why am I really here? What is this acting thing I’m playing at? How do I link up the play that is acting to the real play of consciousness that is life? And how can I narrow and close the gap of that separation so that I can live my life fully with the mission that I’ve been given?” He must notice my furrowed brow because he laughs mercifully and rakes his hand through his hair in theatrical exhaustion. “Now, those are a lot of questions to answer on this call!” Esposito does this often, leveraging a serious moment with a self-aware chuckle.

His spirituality applies not only to his work but also how he views that work. The word serendipitous is raised – and it’s hard to argue with him. Just as Spike Lee happened to be in the audience at Zooman and the Sign, six years ago Esposito had been on a bus in Australia when someone approached him with an idea for a comic book. He told the stranger he liked the concept and to run with it. Years later, he found out the person had been Darick Robertson, the co-creator of the comic book of which Amazon Prime’s adult superhero series The Boys is an adaptation. “It’s the same thing for my relationship with Jon Favreau, who I adore,” he says. “We first met on Revolution with Eric Kripke and Jon directed the pilot episode.” Kripke went on to adapt The Boys, with Favreau later creating The Mandalorian.

Esposito as Moff Gideon in The Mandalorian (2019)

People talk about certain actors as being a guy’s guy; Esposito is a fan’s man. The actor has them in droves. We’re talking tattoos-of-his-face levels of fandom. He loves it. “I’m tickled that I have all these action figures from all these different shows that people are collecting and sending me to sign,” says Esposito, a self-confessed Star Wars fanboy. “I was a real follower of those films and loved them in the early days. Now with The Mandalorian, I feel like the real story has returned. Some of the fluff is gone.”

There is a sour note in that fandom though. The Star Wars reputation was stained by those who hurled online abuse at the franchise’s newer actors of colour. In 2017, Kelly Marie Tran quit social media due to the barrage of harassment she received following her part in Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi. John Boyega faced similar abuse over his role as Finn. Last year, the British actor – who is a vocal and passionate champion for the Black Lives Matter movement – called out Disney for not advocating for its stars, like himself and Tran, in the face of that bullying.

Esposito appears not to know what to make of the responsibility a studio takes for its actors – and what they say. “I think it’s important to take care of the family... ” he ventures before diverging: “Social media has gotten to the point where there’s this crazy fandom so when you put yourself out there, you’re opening yourself up to criticism – but if you don’t engage on that level and you ask gracefully to be supported…” He pauses and reconsiders his words. “I think Disney is a wonderful institution. And sometimes things happen where people speak out – and Star Wars is a great example of that – where people want to speak out politically. But then I go, ‘Oh, wait a minute there’s a line there for me.’ Not that I want to always please the fans or the studio but there’s an appropriate way to express yourself and also be inclusive of the family of filmmakers you work with.

You should be able to say what you need to say, but the forum is important

Giancarlo Esposito

“I would hope that [Disney] will always support what their stars say, but they have to be careful because if there’s vehement language connected to that… you know...” He trails off before trying again, “I’m in the entertainment business. So are the folks at Disney who make films. Is there a responsibility? Of course there is. Do we all make mistakes? Yes, we do. Can we correct them and go, ‘Hey, you know, this guy is a great lead for us. Let’s open a dialogue in a language that is supported from both sides.’ Yes.” Indeed, Boyega has said that he has since spoken with Disney bosses on how the studio can better handle diverse high-profile casting in the future.

Esposito draws a connection with the timing of Boyega’s Star Wars films and the Black Lives Matter movement. “He felt compelled to stand up [for BLM] and I think that’s great,” he says. “I just think, you know, that the ability to do it with grace is the way to do it.” Esposito concludes a windy answer with a tidy summation. “You should be able to say what you need to say, but the forum is important.” Lest there be any doubt, Esposito clarifies that he considers Boyega a “great actor, a great humanitarian and a great human being”.

Our time is almost up and to my dismay Esposito is still smiling. I ask if, before he signs off, he’ll oblige me with “the look”. You know, the one that Bryan Cranston said terrifies him. The same one that fans still beg him to give in selfies. Quiet and menacing, like he’ll kill your wife, son and infant daughter without a second thought. He obliges, pulling a grin at the question before calcifying his face into the familiar stare.

All the while with his eyes boring into mine, Esposito explains the mechanics behind the fear. “Sometimes I can’t even see out of my eyes because I’ve gone to a very dead drop space. Well, you could call it dead but maybe it’s actually very much alive,” he says. “People get uncomfortable when you’re really listening, when you’re really paying attention, because we’re not used to that anymore. But now I can really see you. I can see all of you.” And for the first time in the interview, I can’t seem to see the real Esposito at all.

‘Godfather of Harlem’ season 2 is on Sundays on Starzplay

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