Power seems to complement Giancarlo Esposito, and he has flaunted it remarkably well in his best known and most recognized television roles. This year, he picked up his third Emmy nomination for his chilling performance as the unnervingly taciturn drug lord and fried chicken purveyor Gus Fring, this time on AMC’s “Breaking Bad” prequel series “Better Call Saul.” He is also nominated for his role as the dangerous Imperial warlord, Moff Gideon, in Disney+’s live-action “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian.” Both are characters that thrive on intimidation — a trait that the actor admittedly relishes, even if it means that fans assume he is as menacing as the men he portrays on screen.
“I’m always interested and amazed at the perception that an actor would be very much like the character he plays, and I would imagine one of the reasons that perception holds true is that people feel or think that in order to play that character well, you must be that guy,” Esposito said. “So I think part of the assumption could be true. But I’m very different. However, certainly as an actor, I have to be able to access that place, but not have to actually live in the guy’s skin.”
Esposito insisted that each character is far more complex than sometimes given credit for, and shouldn’t be so reductively described as villains. And he is quick to remind audiences that they are very different people.
In the case of Fring, Esposito sees him as a kind of visionary, meticulous and polite, with a certain amount of meritocracy that embodies his ethos. He’s a man who is driven by a motivation to always perform at peak levels regardless of circumstance. He balances his persona as a ruthless meth tycoon with a warm dedication to his community as owner of successful legitimate businesses.
Esposito foregrounds that duality in the character.
“I feel like many people are living a double life, and we don’t know who they are,” he said. “What I pride myself on, in ‘Better Call Saul’ particularly, is playing a character who has assumed a persona, and has done it well. It’s in his effort to be a part of the locale, and people regarding him as such, while also having a nefarious business underneath the laundry which he ran.”
“Better Call Saul” tracks the transformation of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk), a Chicago area con-man, into cartel-affiliated, criminal defense attorney Saul Goodma, over the six-year period prior to the events of “Breaking Bad.” It also follows Gus Fring’s development over the same period of time, so it was important for Esposito to emphasize character traits that differentiate the older Fring from the prequelized version.
“As we inch closer to the Gus that we knew in ‘Breaking Bad,’ I’ve taken great pains in allowing him to have certain characteristics that he doesn’t have in ‘Breaking Bad’,” he said. “For example, he’s not as well-organized, and is maybe a little more irritable. Maybe he shows his cards in a way that he would never show them in ‘Breaking Bad’, as he is scrambling to find a way to solidify his power.”
Esposito credits an Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga breathing practice for helping him bring Fring to life, because it allows him to, as he said, “drop himself to a place where he could just be neutral.” Also key to his approach to the character is prioritizing listening over speaking, and observing rather than bring attention to himself, which others find unnerving.
“So when people say, ‘he’s so serious’, what they don’t realize is that I’m tapping into a level of serenity that allows me to be able to channel these characters in the way that I do,” he said.
“Breaking Bad” provided some basic background info on Fring. In “Better Call Saul,” the character is reintroduced, and the events that shaped him are gradually excavated.
“I really love how the character was written, and I pray that I’m bringing something to the party, and I invite our audiences to watch ‘Better Call Saul’ first, and then ‘Breaking Bad’, and hopefully you’ll see what I was thinking, in creating a complete character in Gustavo Fring,” the actor said.
In the case of Moff Gideon in “The Mandalorian,” Esposito’s approach was to underline the character’s candor. What differs between Gideon and Fring is his ability to manipulate others into complying with his demands.
“What I love about Moff Gideon is that he’s the guy that’s going to tell you straight, give you an opportunity to save yourself, but also let you know that he has the power to make you give him what he wants, and, no matter what, he’s going to get what he wants from you, even if it means killing you,” he said.
Gideon doesn’t make his first appearance in the series until the penultimate episode of the first season, and so there’s been very little background on the character and what his motivations might be. The mystery appeals to Esposito as an actor.
“What we don’t know about Moff, I find to be as interesting as what we do know,” he said. “So I love that about how the filmmakers have fashioned his character within that universe, which allows me to play around with him. Is he a good guy, or is he a bad guy? We don’t know yet, but certainly, he piqued my interest.”
Of course, the withholding of information from audiences has expectedly led to several fan theories and speculation, starting with the origins of Gideon’s Darksaber — a powerful black-bladed version of a lightsaber that is of great importance in “Star Wars” mythology — and his hand in the destruction of the Mandalorian people.
The answers to those questions, and more, will likely be revealed during the second season of “The Mandalorian,” which is scheduled to premiere in October 2020.
In the meantime, with the Emmy ceremony a month away, the in-demand Esposito is enjoying the moment at the height of a career that spans over 50 years. Winning an Emmy for the first time would be an honor, but it isn’t a possibility that he necessarily grapples with. He does admit that, as a performer who has been nominated twice previously, that with each nomination he becomes less attached to the outcome, while still respectful of the 72-year-old institution.
“These are two very different shows, both dealing with a moral issue that is important for us to look at, especially now, so I am feeling enormous gratitude, and just getting the nominations has been a reward enough for the work that I do,” he said. “My only desire is to move people from one place to another, and to do it with all of my heart, without expecting great remuneration or honoring that sometimes plays into an actor’s ego. It’s the icing on the cake.”
Coming up, Esposito will portray yet another intimidating character in the steely Stan Edgar, CEO of the enigmatic Vought International, in season two of Amazon Prime’s “The Boys,” which premieres on September 4.
“My life is full, and I can bring my characters to full realization by coming in full for every scene, bringing the best part of myself, as I try to engage other actors, directors, or producers, to be their best selves as well,” he said. “Also, I get to wear a cape, man! Last time I wore a cape was when I pretended to be Superman, jumping off my bunk bed as a kid. Now I wear a cape in play life on television, and I’m donning a lightsaber. I feel like a million bucks. I’m having the time of my life.”