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‘The Mandalorian’: Giancarlo Esposito on What It Means to Play an Imperial Bad Guy Who Isn’t White

"I've strived in my career to be colorless," said the actor who plays Moff Gideon in the Disney+ series.

Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito) forces a standoff on a dusty, forgotten world.

From contemptible Sith Lords to devious Imperial officers, the “Star Wars” universe has been home to some of science fiction’s unforgettable bad guys: Darth Vader, Emperor Palpatine, Grand Moff Tarkin, Director Krennic, General Maximilian Veers, General Hux, Kylo Ren. One thing all of the above have in common, besides being baddies, is that, save for James Earl Jones voicing Darth Vader (although, born Anakin Skywalker, that character is a white man under the mask), the majority of them have been played by white male actors. It’s quite conspicuous for a franchise that has become a battleground for very modern debates over race and gender. Enter Moff Gideon, played by Giancarlo Esposito in the Disney+ series “The Mandalorian,” as a possible corrective.

Gideon just might present Mando’s toughest challenge to date, appearing in the final two episodes of Season 1. And, as a self-described “Star Wars” fan since the start of the franchise in the 1970s, Esposito called the opportunity to play the character a milestone.

“Well, it means a lot to me because I’ve strived in my career to be colorless,” the actor told IndieWire in a phone interview this week. “I am of mixed race, half Italian, half African American, and I grew through the period of time where I was relegated to playing thieves and thugs. I learned how to do a Spanish accent, to play Spanish street characters, who were murderers, killers, robbers, the like. So for me, it’s a crowning moment when I could get a phone call from Jon Favreau, to say, ‘I wrote a role for you.'”

“The Mandalorian” has so far featured several villains for its armor-clad protagonist (Pedro Pascal) to contend with, but Esposito, who many will recognize as Gus Fring from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul,” brings to life one of the more dangerous and intimidating, in Imperial warlord Moff Gideon, who is ready to kill anyone to get what he wants, including his own men. He leads what remains of the ruined Galactic Empire in a broken corner of the galaxy and is attempting to capture the young alien creature known as “The Child,” who is being protected by the title character of the series.

“Star Wars” creator George Lucas sought to make the Galactic Empire similar to Nazi Germany. And while fascism is a far-right ideology most often linked to early 20th century Europe, Esposito understands that its characteristics can appeal to people from all racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“Fascism, communism, for me, can be colorless, because it really boils down to power and money,” said the actor, naming Peter Cushing, who played Grand Moff Tarkin in “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope” (1977), one of his favorite actors, because of his “very direct delivery, cold essence, and always wanting to get what he wants,” in that film.

Furthermore, Esposito recalled stories his father told him about living in Italy under the fascist rule of Benito Mussolini, and having to flee the country to join the resistance. So, in addition to his own personal experiences as a biracial man in the United States, he had some frame of reference from which to draw inspiration for his portrayal of Gideon.

“Certainly I’m captivated and in wonder and enthusiasm that this character could be, and is, me; someone who has an understanding of what race and status mean here in America and has suffered of that as well. But my Hollywood family has grown throughout the years to become more and more understanding that we are special, because actors are actors, and you don’t have to be a color to play a role,” he said.

When audiences last saw Moff Gideon in “The Mandalorian,” he crash landed his TIE fighter in the season finale, but managed to escape using the power of an ancient weapon that is of great importance in “Star Wars” mythology: the Darksaber, a unique, black-bladed version of a lightsaber created by the legendary Tarre Vizsla, the first Mandalorian to be inducted into the Jedi Order.

Giancarlo Esposito is Mof Gideon in the Disney+ series THE MANDALORIAN

Moff Gideon at the controls of his TIE fighter.

Disney

Esposito was understandably stingy with details about whether audiences will see a lot more of the Darksaber in Season 2, and if the history of this ancient weapon will be provided, especially as a key to Gideon’s past.

“It is certainly to be revealed, and I don’t know how it will unfold, but I do know we get some more inklings of how he got this saber,” he said. “We’ve seen his TIE fighter, and that’s an ancient throwback in the world that we’re in now. And what I love about the ideas and the expansion of ‘Mandalorian’ — and I’m almost sure that they’re going to expand into new characters and new worlds — is that we will have to wait to understand or have some keys to guide us to understanding how he got this weapon, how he learned to wield it, and what he might want to do with it. I can guarantee you’ll get those clues in our next season.”

And while Moff Gideon does not make his first appearance until the penultimate episode of the first season, Esposito hinted that the character might play a larger role in the second season.

“There may be some surprises because we have an Empire that’s fallen, and we have wardens of those Empires, of which Moff Gideon is one, but he’s a special warden because he happens to know more than any other,” he said. “And we don’t really quite know, does he want what he wants in terms of the Child? In essence, knowing what the Child is made of, to further humanity? Or does he want it to take control of all of humanity? We don’t quite know that yet.”

For his turn as Moff Gideon in “The Mandalorian,” Esposito scored an Emmy nomination in the Outstanding Guest Actor in a Drama category.

Season 2 of the series is scheduled to premiere in October 2020.

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