Giancarlo Esposito (‘Better Call Saul’) on playing the ‘entrepreneur mastermind’ Gus Fring [Complete Interview Transcript]

Giancarlo Esposito is currently reprising his role as the calculating Gus Fring on “Better Call Saul.” The actor was previously nominated at the Emmys for playing Gus in “Breaking Bad” back in 2012.

Esposito recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Matt Noble about diving into the character of Gus, his biggest challenge in playing him and the awards success of both “Better Call Saul.” Watch the exclusive webchat above and read the complete interview transcript below.

Gold Derby: Giancarlo, what’s the most shocking thing you’ve had to do as Gus?

Giancarlo Esposito: It was Episode 4.01, “Box Cutter” where I had to slit Victor’s throat, witnessed by Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. I love that moment because it reminded me of a Harold Pinter play. If you remember that episode, 10 minutes, no words whatsoever, everything’s displayed through my physicality and the decisive eye contact that I make with Jesse and with Walt, sending a message and then the very swift movement I make to take out my number one, Victor, Jeremiah Bitsui, wonderful actor. That’s the most shocking thing I feel like I did because it was just unexpected and because it was without words but very defined by the physicality and the menace in that physicality.

GD: I think what’s particularly interesting for you and this character is that you have two entry points into Gus. You have your “Breaking Bad” entry point to approach this character and your “Better Call Saul” entry point in approaching this character. What is different about playing Gus in “Better Call Saul”?

GE: I had planted a seed in my brain before I ever decided to do “Better Call Saul” and agreed to it. I really wanted to speak to Vince Gilligan and our new showrunner who has ultimately just been wonderful, Peter Gould, fabulous writer on “Breaking Bad,” now showrunner, writer and director on “Better Call Saul,” how to find the younger side of Gus maybe six, seven years prior to “Breaking Bad.” Is he a little more vulnerable? Is he less calculated? Is he a little bit of a hothead? Are there elements of his character that we would see and love to see how that strain of Gus, a little bit to see where he goes. I wanted to make him younger, a little bit less calculating and trying to find his way to be the kingpin that he eventually becomes in “Breaking Bad.”

GD: In Season 4 we see a lot of him and his relationship with Hector Salamanca, particularly the scene in “Piñata” where you give about a five-minute monologue to that character. What was that scene like to approach?

GE: I loved that scene, talking about the coati. It is a wonderful scene because it’s a metaphor and a peek into Gus’s childhood, how he grew up and how he learned to think and to me, to be watching an animal’s movements and how they steal this fruit off the tree and how that is an analogy for Gus, some of that fruit was the only way they were able to survive. For him to take that animal with his own hands and kill that animal gives you an idea of the ruthlessness which we will see more of in “Breaking Bad.” It’s the sense of where someone begins and what drives them and what forces outside of their control allow them to become strong or to weaken or to be triumphant or to fail.

GD: How do you find approaching scenes with Hector as your character, Gus, knowing that their fates are so intertwined in the end of both of those characters?

GE: In the scene in the hospital, talking to a guy who’s laying there in a coma praying that he will eventually come around, not wanting him to die because I want to exact my revenge on him the way I want it to happen, was wonderful. To tell him that story, to basically a sleeping man, I had to plant the seed in my head that he’s someone I’m talking to just like you. He can hear me. He can see me, even. I always approach my scenes with him in a way I wanna forget what happens in “Breaking Bad” and cultivate a relationship with a man I know I will one-up. The surprise will obviously be that he one-ups me as well, but I love working with Mark Margolis. Hector Salamanca is a man who, for example, when the doctor says, “Hey he’s getting better,” and I say “Leave him right where he is,” “We can probably get him all the way back,” “No, I don’t want him to ever speak again. I don’t want him to come all the way back. I want him to be able to hear me and see me and do all those things.” The doctor has no idea. “Oh, it’s good, stop right there because I want him to suffer,” and revenge is a terrible thing that can take you over and consume you. This we see an example of in “Breaking Bad” but I want the audience in “Better Call Saul” to see that revenge creeping up, boiling the blood of Gus, calculating how he will exact the death of Hector Salamanca. I want it to be a surprise.

GD: What do you think’s been the most important scene for Gus in “Better Call Saul”?

GE: The most important scene for Gus in “Better Call Saul” I don’t think has quite happened yet. That’s a little teaser to what may happen. You’ve seen him do one brutal thing on his own. It all ties into Nacho. So far, the most important thing has been the manipulation of Nacho, allowing Nacho to know that I own you. You are mine. You will do my bidding. Gus sees himself as being very, very different from the Salamancas. He is not a hothead. He is about building the business. He is about creating an organization that grows and he feels like the Salamancas, they’re basically… what’s the word that I could use? They’re back in the dark ages. They have no clue as to what this business could be. Gus is an entrepreneur mastermind and he knows he can do it better than anyone else. So we get a chance to see the business grow, not only the chicken business, not only how he transports the meth on all of the Los Pollos Hermanos trucks, but also the laundry, how that is a cover. We get a chance to really see the inside workings of basically a genius.

GD: I guess with Gus, something particularly interesting is that he has these two gears or personas. You see the public, lovely, charming Gus and you also see the menacing, evil, don’t cross him in a dark alley Gus. Is that something internally for him that’s a struggle to manage and juggle or does he find it as comfortable as it sometimes appears onscreen?

GE: He finds it as comfortable as it appears onscreen because he is a master of observing. He’s a master of knowing, reading people’s body language, allowing himself to take them in completely. He sees all of their tells and that allows him to be the master manipulator that he is. He’s very, very aware of people’s intentions and whether or not their physical tells are dead giveaways for whether they’ll betray him eventually or not. Gus is, in a way, a master of psychology. He hears not only what people say and the tone of their voice. He also observes the body language that goes with it. He knows what’s coming. I love playing Gus in “Better Call Saul” because many times he doesn’t know what’s coming. We have a new character, Lalo Salamanca, and Lalo is onto what Gus is up to. Lalo, for a moment in time, is a step ahead of Gus and Gus despises this. He hates it. He realizes he miscalculated. He realizes he needs more information. He also realizes that it’s all about a certain thing. Where he thinks it’s about something else, it becomes about greed and Gus has to give up something to get something but being the master entrepreneur that he is, he’s able to make that sacrifice knowing that the greater remuneration is right around the corner.

GD: Does Gus care about other people or just his own genius?

GE: I have created this character through the great writing of Vince Gilligan, Peter Gould and our wonderful writing staff. He cares about other people. He cares. If you go back to “Breaking Bad,” to be able to hire young, very genius minds who are chemists, giving them the opportunity to work their chemistry, giving them the opportunity to make a whole lot of money, Gail, when he visits Gail in the chemistry lab and Gail is singing and is all excited about how to do this, Gus loves that. He loves to know how things are made. He loves to help people reach their goal even though he’s in this very nefarious business. I play this character as if he could be your loving uncle in many ways. Just don’t cross him or ask too many questions.

GD: You’ve spent years on two series crafting this character and trying to get into the mind of this character. What’s something about Gus that you think would be surprising to people?

GE: He’s very meticulous. Obviously, we know that. He also has a family somewhere and I’ve always kept that my own secret and play that Gus at some points in time goes home to a wife and maybe a child or two who we may never meet. This, to me, is a well-kept secret for me as the actor to imagine the gentle side of this man with a wife and a child or possibly a boyfriend, is an interesting thing for me. It allows for me to imagine that he has a real life, a regular life, besides just his cartel life. As we learned in “Breaking Bad,” he loves to cook and he likes to enjoy his cooking and to feed people. Something else that only folks who like to please, they get excited by having someone eat their cooking or look at their painting. Gus is very cultured in many ways and has a great amount of compassion for people who are fish out of water, don’t really understand the wonderful taste of different flavors of food. Gus loves to share things other than just his business affairs. I think you’ll start to see some of that as we move through “Better Call Saul.”

GD: Giancarlo, What’s the most challenging thing for you about approaching Gus?

GE: The most challenging is to remember to relax, to just breathe. It goes back to the original idea that I had in creating Gus, to be an observer, to be someone who is as meticulous as Gus. He’s a great listener and he has a Spidey sense about many people and many things but the most challenging thing in the world of the collision that happens when you make a TV show is that there’s so many things going on. When I allow myself to breathe and just relax in the chaos of it all, then I find a very deep and powerful space with which to create Gus. What I realized early on was that I like to honor the writer’s work. I come from the theater. The writer’s work is ultimately the writer’s words, are most important to me. So with great writing, these are great writers, I don’t feel the need to change the words, to change the way it’s written. A lot of actors come in and say, “I can’t say this, I wanna change the words.” What I realized I could control is the space between the words. I don’t need to change the words. I need to allow myself to be flexible enough to control the rhythm of what I’m saying. That, to me, has been a wonderful exercise because then, they can get in there with the scissors if they need to, but I’m able to create the rhythm that I need to create. So for example, you’ll say something right now, I can just look at you. I don’t have to answer right away, at all. I can just look at you and wait to answer when I please and when I’m ready. It intimidates people. It makes them feel a little off-kilter. It makes them feel a little uncomfortable. This has been a wonderful practice for me to play this character in so many ways because it’s about intonation. It’s about tone. It’s about rhythm. It’s about allowing myself just to relax and be a channel for this gentleman who can be so affable yet so absolutely terrifying.

GD: What’s been the most memorable moment from playing this character on “Better Call Saul”?

GE: I certainly love the introduction of Gus. Jimmy, who is played so wonderfully and it is this show about Jimmy McGill, Saul Goodman, Bob Odenkirk is a wonderful actor. I love the idea and the fact that he could be a little comedic when he drops his watch in that garbage can and Gus is revealed, that’s been a wonderful moment for me. Here’s this guy in his yellow shirt, black tie, sweeping up. He already knows something’s off here and he busts Jimmy in that moment. That’s been a very, very, very fun and delicious moment. I’ve also had pretty incredible moments with Michael Mando, who plays Nacho, because we’ve always talked a little bit, and I know Michael’s dream has been under the tutelage of Gus, I’m sure he wants to stay around a little bit on the show as well. All I wanna do is figure out how to get him to give me what I need. In doing so, I’m able to manipulate him in a very different way. He is so powerful as an actor and strong that I like to be able to come head to head with him and suck that power away from him. There’s nothing you can do that is going to allow you to take over for me, to have the Salamancas succeed. You’ll start to see someone being cowed, very similar to the way Gus was cowed by Don Eladio.

GD: “Breaking Bad” had incredible awards success at the Emmys and other awards like Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild but “Better Call Saul” is doing really well with award nominations as well. What’s it like to see the prequel get some awards success?

GE: I think it’s a wonderful thing. I have dear friends who watch this show who some of them say they like it more than “Breaking Bad.” I hate to compare things but this is a show that is on a larger scale but is able to dive deeper into its characterizations because it’s focused on a piece of a bigger universe but a piece that’s also very important. Bob is amazing playing more than one character within the character of Saul Goodman. You get a chance to see what takes him off the rails. You would think it would be money, greed, but it really is who he is. it’s the excitement of being that shyster lawyer. It’s the excitement of being a performer. That’s what he wants to do. He wants to perform and so ultimately, you get a look into a characterization that’s very different than what you would imagine. I love that the show is getting awards nominations and it’s getting attention for it being as special as it is. it’s not trying to be “Breaking Bad.” It is a show that has succeeded on its own in being a show about Saul. Again, you have Jimmy McGill, you have Gene, the guy at the Cinnabon. What an interesting character that is, right? Saul Goodman, all these characters wrapped into one. Bob Odenkirk deserves the Emmy. Hopefully he will eventually get it for this particular character because he’s doing something he’s never done before in his career, stellar work, really wonderful. Rhea Seehorn is also wonderful. She gets so tempted and pulled in by the Saul Goodman net. She wants to be true and be the great lawyer that she knows she can be but there’s the juice and the excitement that comes with doing things, manipulating people in the same way Gus does but in a different way because it’s legal. What you’re gonna see in this season will blow your mind because she gets to a point where she starts to do things that aren’t so comfortable, don’t sit so well with her inside, yet give her the excitement and the juice that Saul Goodman’s been getting and she starts to understand him a little more and will have to make a decision whether or not she wants to stay in that world or really be legitimate.

GD: Giancarlo Esposito, it’s been such a pleasure to talk. You are in New York at the moment, I believe.

GE: We have the great New York skyline here. I’m here to do some press for a show called “Jett” which stars Carla Gugino and me and it’s written and directed by Sebastian Gutierrez who has done a wonderful job, who’s her husband. It’s a film noir series about crime, about a wonderful thief who is very, very successful so I’m hanging out on the 19th floor of the Standard Hotel. We have the premiere tonight. Wish me luck. It’s been great talking to you, all you folks at Gold Derby and I really appreciate it.

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