Giancarlo Esposito (‘Better Call Saul,’ ‘The Mandalorian’) on his ‘wonderful year’ for television [Complete Interview Transcript]

Giancarlo Esposito just earned another Emmy nomination for his performances in “Better Call Saul,” his third for playing Gus Fring. He is also nominated for his guest spot in “The Mandalorian” as Moff Gideon.

Esposito spoke with Gold Derby contributing editor Matt Noble before the nominations about his most challenging scene on Season 5 of “Better Call Saul,” what he hopes for the final season for Gus and all about his other roles on TV this past year. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: Giancarlo, have you learned anything about Gus this season? 

Giancarlo Esposito: I have. Playing Gus for so many years on “Breaking Bad” and developing such a very cool, calm, yet concerned human being about his business, about other people, working to play him backward has been an interesting part of my journey. And this year, I learned that Gus can, in fact, get to a point where he’s going to explode but stop himself and keep his cool. So that’s what I learned this season on “Better Call Saul.” 

GD: In Season 5, was there a particular scene that was challenging for you to approach? 

GC: I think the most challenging scene was the scene where Mike wakes up in a very distant village in Mexico after having been beaten on the street and is saved by some unknown entity, which, of course, would be Gus, and so, the conversation that Gus has with Mike in the courtyard that is a dedication to Max, the episode is called “Dedicado a Max,” and it is all about trying to suss out whether Mike would do Gus’s bidding and Gus’s suggestion that his lifestyle choice, the way he’s living his life, is not what a man should be doing. At his age, he should be a little more savvy and make better decisions. So that was a very challenging scene because Mike is desperate to get out of there and is resentful that he was saved at the hands of Gus and knows Gus is right in many ways by what he says but Mike does not want to be controlled, as Gus doesn’t want to be controlled and understands that. So he appeals to Mike that he’s in a war, in a battle, and your participation will be, “You’ll be taken care of well, and you’ll be almost seen as if he’s a partner.” I think that’s the inference that Gus is giving Mike in that scene. 

GD: And in that scene, Gus reveals how Mike and him share a desire for revenge together and particularly thinking about that from Gus’s perspective, what do you think we learned about Gus in terms of how important to him revenge was? 

GC: Well, I think what we learned is that Gus is telling the truth, because Mike is a soldier. Mike has seen death and as has Gus, and Mike knows what that feels like, as does Gus. So Gus, in many ways, what he does in his human relationships, as he did with Walter White, was he makes people feel like they are important and they do matter and what they say or suggest will be taken seriously. So Gus tells Mike the truth behind his feelings and I think that is one of the only things that Mike can really relate to. He knows how that feels. He knows what revenge is. He knows what being hurt and put down is and Gus does too and he alludes to it in this conversation. 

GD: And also just in that conversation, the whole idea that Gus is, so many characters in that world, he wears a mask and he’s so honest about where he’s coming from in that scene. 

GC: I love that he is this way, and in thinking about his personality before he has solidified his hold and also convince the cartel that he’s able to take care of the business and grow it and do it out of sight, out of mind because of the way he operates. I think that it’s a fascinating journey to see Gus in this position and it is a position of empowerment because he also allows us in as an audience by telling the truth, “This is what I need. I need a soldier. I’m in a war.” And Gus is, of course, determined to win that war by getting Mike and keeping Mike at his side. 

GD: When we spoke last season, you spoke about how something you’d learned and something that you’d realized is very good about playing Gus was not just in the lines that were said, but the way you paused and the way you waited for a moment and the rhythm of the scenes playing Gus. Was there a particular moment in this season where that was particularly important, the pauses and the breathing? 

GC: Well, I thought so. My yoga practice well-informed my performance as Gus. It allowed me to sort of drop into a place that was relaxed and then came a normal rhythm that was completely all Gus’s but it was a combination of me figuring out how to get my rhythm out of the way and lend myself to a calmer, more observant person, and that’s who Gus is. So it’s really allowing myself time to think about all the prospects in between the lines that allows me the moments where I can be comfortable in that timing. And so, it’s something that I work on each and every time I’m in front of the camera because it allows me to get out of my ego space, it allows me to physically take on the physicality of the character, not only in my brain, but also in my heart and my soul. So, one of the things I love about this particular character, it allows me to slow down my rhythm. So for me, Gus is in so many ways calculated but you’d expect a person who calculates his life the way Gus does to be maybe dishonest. But Gus isn’t that way at all.

He tells the absolute truth or shows you what that truth is, and so, for me, the scene that I doubted was a scene with Mike Ehrmantraut and Gus outside of Los Pollos Hermanos after it had been burned to the ground. I don’t want to spoil it for viewers who haven’t seen Season 5 but Gus certainly had a hand in that somehow. And if you’ve seen it, and of course you have and you know, Gus is a little irritated when Mike pulls up. He’s completely in his Pollos get-up and outfit and he’s looking at his burned down restaurant. So in that scene, when I went in to do the ADR, the additional sound recording for the scene, because we were right on the street and there were car noises and all that, I had to replace a few lines, which, I’m very good at it and I know that the filmmakers like to preserve the original performance as well, in sound and in their visual. So I had gone in to ADR the scene and I didn’t know if I liked it. I literally looked up at myself and went, “Wait a minute. He’s a little too irritated for me. Wait, Gus is cool. Gus is calm. Gus takes in, he measures them and he throws them away. And yet, he’s contemplating them so we can see inside his head as the audience.” So when I was ADR in the scene, I had all these doubts and I kept looking at our lovely ADR supervisor, who’s so wonderful, and I said, “Wait, I got to stop for a second. I just think I’m much too irritated. Maybe I can help that along with this ADR.”

We had a discussion about Gus’s attitude in the scene and then I reminded myself what I was thinking on the day. This is a younger Gus. He is less seasoned. He’s going to show some emotion and she convinced me that it was absolutely perfect (laughs). It made me realize, “Oh, that’s right. I’m not playing that Gus up 10 years ago, ‘Breaking Bad’ Gus. I’m playing Gus, who’s on his way to that other Gus.” We do ADR after we finish shooting many months later. So I happened to be in Los Angeles and actually met, I think her name is Elizabeth, our ADR supervisor, and we bonded because it’s the first time I had ever… for years I hear her voice in never see her and now I’m in a room with her. I was born in Copenhagen, Denmark and we’re both Danish and then we had this conversation about this scene. And then the revelation came, “Oh, that’s right. I haven’t been on the set three months. I haven’t been thinking in Gus’s mindset. But it was perfect.” So those are the things that I try to mark as an actor to bring a life, to make something believable so that you all as an audience can relate and really understand. And I think in the end, with these two incredible shows, with this incredible writing that shows the human condition and allows us to make a choice about our lives through what they are demonstratively showing you visually.

So when you really think about “Breaking Bad,” this journey of Walter White, it’s a guy who had to make decisions to be and fully in his life where he thought he should be and certainly he didn’t think he was just a high school chemistry teacher (laughs). So he has all these other alter ego personalities, which many of us have. So thrilling and imaginative to create a character who we can relate to in life, who’s not happy just being a husband eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He’s got to cut the ends of it off to make it really taste really great and that’s his culinary feat. He wants to be someone. And don’t we all in our lives? So extend that to “Better Call Saul” and the great run and incredible performance by Bryan Cranston, you extend it to “Better Call Saul” where you have Bob Odenkirk, who’s making a decision that we all, as an audience, sit there and watch and go, “How can he make this decision to be this person?” But when you think about it, someone said to me years ago, “Be who you are.” And someone reminded me really recently, “Be who you are. Be all of who you are, whatever that is.” Now, what if some part of you is a spooky and scary person that you don’t recognize as you? Oftentimes I wake up that way as an actor. I look at who is that scary person that I don’t recognize as me and then I go, “Oh, that means I did my job and beyond or fulfilled my desire to become someone else within that period of time that I needed to be that human being, because that’s what I do.” But to show you that there’s something in that human being that you may relate to is a wonderful thing.

Look, I’ve had a wonderful year. I was thinking back before this call on how many different shows I was able to do this year and it’s been “Better Call Saul,” which has been such an incredible opportunity to show the continuation of this character in the world of “Saul” with such great writers, Peter Gould, Vince Gilligan and Bob Odenkirk is such a formidable foil as the lead in the show. But this year, I had the opportunity to also do a show called “Godfather of Harlem” in New York, historical yet contemporary drama about the rise of Bumpy Ellsworth Johnson, a gangster in Harlem who wanted to take back Harlem from the Italians, the drugs and prostitution, illegal drugs and prostitution that were going on then and I play a historical character, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who is not only a minister at Abyssinian Baptist Church but also an incredible lawyer and also a congressman who is quite controversial because he stood up to the white Dixiecrats at the time and he led marches and he was one of the earliest civil rights leaders in our country, and he was a fun-loving guy. So I’ve had an opportunity to stretch out my talent and show myself in a different way, playing a guy who’s really various and fun and over the top. That’s who he was. He was a fun human being, but got so many bills passed through Congress and so much done in the state of New York and Harlem, New York, where he was from. Yet, he was someone who could pass as white but chose his blackness. A great story behind his particular piece in this show, but the show encompasses great characters like Malcolm X and of course, John F. Kennedy is referred to in our show because Adam Clayton Powell was such a close friend of his. So I’ve had a chance to play that character, which has been great. 

And then cut to another big winner for me is “The Mandalorian.” The “Star Wars” character, the mythology of “Star Wars” that’s so deeply rooted in the teachings and writings and books of Joseph Campbell, was so important to me to be in this particular version of Mando, “Mandalorian Star Wars” is to be in a version where you can do something different. So we’re in the golden age of television, and I’m so grateful to all the fans and to the people who really get moved by what I do in all these different venues, ‘cause “Star Wars” has been something that is the return to the Disney+ show that shows you a hero, but a contemplative, open-minded, polite hero. And the star of the show is going to be Baby Yoda. So it’s a family show, people are gonna watch and get their moral values from, especially something that we need today, but also a powerful visual vision in its creation by Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni, because it is true to that “Star Wars” sentiment. It feels like a space odyssey and it is an incredible show also to have been a part of.

And then I go on to “The Boys,” which just turned out to be a show that broke records for Amazon through a chance meeting at the studio when I was doing another show in Canada. I run into Eric Kripke, who I really admire as a writer, who I worked with previously on “Revolution,” and Eric is just such a talented writer and showrunner. But this concept was a little bit weird and different, frightening. Real superheroes who were real people who suffer from a lot of the stuff we do. Wow. Like, not so far out there, right? I mean, superheroes who have sex or desire or gay or they’re like real superhuman beings, and then at the center of that, I’ve come into this show and play a guy named Stan Edgar, who’s the head of a company which is basically a pharmaceutical company, which fascinated me because this dude is the head of a company that’s run like a government and it really reflects some of the contemporary things that are happening right now in our world as well. So to be a part of that show, which is a big hit for Amazon is also the icing on the cake for me to play someone who is stern and yet dangerous and probably ruthless, but in a business world sense, because he’s respectful of how people bend to twist the law to the company’s advantage, and he’s able to maneuver the Hollywood version of what a superhero is and he pays dividends on that by coming back to a company who’s actually mining and cultivating chemicals that will make us all superheroes or immune to things. It’s just so poignant in the world that we live in today or maybe in the world that I didn’t see coming. But last year was a wonderful year to be me and have this opportunity to play so many different people that resemble so many different parts in particular of our world. 

GD: Yeah, you’ve been so busy, Giancarlo. Last year when we spoke, you said you did not believe we had seen the most important scene for Gus in “Better Call Saul.” Do you think we have now or is it still to come? 

GC: I believe it’s still to come because I always feel like every scene is important and this particular season has been an incredible movie-making experience. These guys set out to make little movies and never expect to be able to achieve that with a show that probably has a little bit less of a budget than “Breaking Bad” did and has a little more of an insular storyline, and to be able to hold the audience for five seasons with this show and still be on top is a tribute to the writing, but also to the expansion of the filmmaking with which they have done. So you literally feel like you’re within Saul’s world and within Gus’s world when he’s on the screen and Nacho’s. All the worlds are colliding and coming together. So my sense is that you haven’t seen the real turn for Gus into our final run-up to when we meet him and “Breaking Bad.” We haven’t quite seen that yet. 

GD: Nice. And we’ve only got one more season to see it because there’s only one more season of “Better Call Saul” to go. Do you have any quick hopes for something you’d like to see in that final season? 

GC: Well, I’d like to see Gus get his comeuppance on a member of the Salamanca family. I think that’s very important in moving into the bookend of “Breaking Bad” where we meet him and he has to, of course, deal with Hector Salamanca. We know what happens next. So we have to take care of his relatives, so I’m hoping for an explosive and poignant end to one of the Salamancas, which will put me in direct hate of Hector when we begin our “Breaking Bad.” If you watch these shows backwards, I think it’d be really interesting history if you were able to watch “Saul” first and then watch “Breaking Bad” and then reverse it. It would be an interesting experiment. 

GD: You were nominated last year for the Emmy for playing Gus. You were also nominated for playing Gus in “Breaking Bad.” Was there anything different about being nominated for “Better Call Saul,” any different sort of feeling, or did it mean something different or not? 

GC: Well, it’s always an incredible honor to be nominated by your peers and by members of the academy. I’ll start by saying that. So I was head over heels and it felt like it could be, in a way, a similar journey. Who knows what the outcome was when I was nominated. I had no idea. But it felt great. It did feel like we were in a really, really tough field and the person I think that at that point in time that so deserved that Emmy that year to me was Jonathan Banks because he has so much airtime and gave him the opportunity to expand that character, Mike, so deeply. But I had an equal amount of excitement and equal amount of wonder, anticipation and joy that it could be mine. It’s, again, such an honor to receive the nomination but sometimes it’s nice, as my friends at the Four Seasons tell me, to come home with the hardware (laughs). So who knows? I mean, this year is such a very strange 2020 and I also really want to thank the studios. It’s the studios who suggest and want to put you up for an award for an acknowledgment of your work on their network. And so I had the opportunity this year, it seems as if, I can’t remember, but I think I will be on the ballot for “Better Call Saul,” also for “Godfather of Harlem,” also for guest spot for “Mandalorian,” guest spot or some other category for “The Boys.” So I’m kind of like, “Wow. Are you really serious?”

GD: There you go. Emmy voters, no excuse not to Giancarlo in something this year. 

GC: It’s a lot of categories. If I deserve it and you feel that. I feel like the work speaks for itself. 

GD: Yeah. Well, Giancarlo, thanks so much for talking to us today. Gus has been such a monster to so many people. I felt particularly sorry this season for Lyle, who he made clean the grill about six times, one of his meanest moves. But yeah, thank you so much for chatting with us, Giancarlo. All the best with the Emmy Awards and when things get back and running and can return to a lot of these shows.

GC: I’m excited. They’re talking about September. Looks like they have a protocol. We just all need to stay safe and respect each other and we’ll be back up and running soon. Thank you for having me once again. It’s always a pleasure.

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