Giancarlo Esposito made a much-hyped and rightly heralded return to the “Breaking Bad” universe in 2017, but now is not the time to discuss a certain chicken-peddling, drug-pushing Albuquerque crime lord. No, now is the time to talk about a name you don’t know because the character doesn’t have one.
On “Dear White People,” astute viewers may have noticed the story of racial unrest at a predominantly white Ivy League university was framed by a distinct personality. Far from overwhelming, but certainly influential, the omniscient storyteller had a bit of an attitude (like the series itself) and that attitude came not only from the pen of creator Justin Simien, but from the mind — and voice — of Giancarlo Esposito.
As much can be gleaned from the series’ opening lines:
“Ah, Winchester University. Hello,” Esposito says with a calm tone and a touch of curiosity. “The writers of this program are depending on my ethnic but non-threatening voice to explain things they are too lazy to set up traditionally.”
It’s a statement as disarming as it is honest — to the show, narrator, and actor.
“I’m half-American and Italian, and I was raised in Europe until I was five years old,” Esposito recently told Indiewire. “When I came to America, many of the questions that were asked of me were very similar to the questions that white people ask black people in this scripted show.”
Part of what attracted Esposito to the project was just that: identification. An experienced narrator who’s asked to provide voiceover “quite a bit, actually,” Esposito had not seen Simien’s original film at the time, but he understood the narrator’s perspective and was excited to bring what he had to the part.
“In the beginning, I was flying by the seat of my pants, hoping that they’d like what I was laying down,” he said, noting how the producers were short on time when he came on board. “And they seemed to really dig it. It wasn’t overstated, and we didn’t overthink it. I just tried a bunch of different things and tried to keep my narration in a moderate tone until the point where I could have my own opinion on it. […] It was great because I had a point of view on it, but I didn’t want it to be a point of view that got in the way of what I was watching.”
You can hear Esposito’s perspective in the Narrator’s inflections. Like an patient, knowledgeable tour guide, he leads viewers through a black face party that serves as an impetus for action in “Dear White People,” and you can hear a mix of disdain, authority, and playfulness in his voice. “Apparently this is a thing that white children are into,” the Narrator says, with bemused detachment. But then he turns on a dime, lowering his tone to a more serious octave: “Google it.”
And many did, only to be shocked and disgusted by the history of black face parties at American colleges. In this regard, the Narrator serves as an intermediary between audience and TV show; between the real world and a fictional narrative. Esposito’s Narrator shows us something happening on screen and then asks us to look it up in order to verify his claims.
With that in mind, it should come as no surprise Esposito’s own thoughts on how to improve race relations are as inclusive as the non-threatening tones of his Narrator.
“I’ve always looked at it like this: I have four daughters now, and when young African-American women started wearing braids in the late ’60s, early ’70s, and young white girls wanted to touch their hair, they were kind of offended,” he said.
“I said, ‘Well, that’s kind of a compliment.’ Sometimes people don’t understand other cultures and they want to know more about them, so don’t be offended. Share with them the henna that you may use in your hair, how you braid your hair, and how it extends into the culture you know or how it was passed down through your ancestry.”
“A lot of misunderstanding around racial differences in people comes from the misunderstanding of not really realizing that people just want to know more about you,” Esposito said. “Maybe a compliment is not really an insult at all.”
Esposito said that was his primary takeaway from the “Dear White People” scripts: They were designed to “break the barrier of misunderstanding.”
“I tried to be tongue-in-cheek about certain things in a very mellow, mild way, but definitely having a viewpoint,” Esposito said. “I didn’t want to be forceful or over-the-top. I wanted to be suggestive. It’s a tricky show to narrate.”
Considering how powerful Esposito’s voice is in the show, as well as how perfectly he sets the tone, one wonders if the Narrator might ever step on screen.
Esposito said he hadn’t though of that before, but thinks it’s a fun idea “that’s certainly possible.”
“I love living in the studio and commenting when it’s necessary and just being a straight narrator when it’s not,” he said.
It’s been quite a productive year for Esposito, from “The Get Down” to “Rebel” and, yes, that deep-fry-fronted crime lord.
“I feel blessed to have been able to shift my focus for periods of time and put all of my heart and soul into creating certain characters this year,” he said. “And it’s been a joy to have such disparity between each one. I hope you’re getting the opportunity to watch ‘Better Call Saul,’ which is back in its third season. That’s been an exciting journey.”
The writer of this article is depending on these final words to remind you of as much, but don’t miss out on Winchester University. The tour guide is in a league of his own.
“Dear White People” is streaming now on Netflix. The “Better Call Saul” Season 3 finale airs Monday, June 19 on AMC.