Sympathy for Gus: Giancarlo Esposito talks 'Breaking Bad'
In a career spanning more than two decades, Giancarlo Esposito has crawled into a lot of different skins, including the wild-eyed militant Buggin’ Out in “Do The Right Thing,” the fanatical frat leader in “School Daze" and the pushy FBI agent in “The Usual Suspects.” All those roles highlighted his characteristic kinetic energy and loose-limbed style.
But in AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” Esposito is a man of few words, letting his cold eyes and taut expressions speak for him as Gus Fring, the deceptively mild-mannered owner of a fast-food chicken chain who is actually the mastermind of a meth distribution ring. Esposito’s complex portrayal of Gus has been a breakthrough role for the actor while bringing renewed acclaim to one of TV’s elite dramas.
During the fourth season of “Breaking Bad,” which reached an explosive conclusion Sunday, Gus’ increasingly tense alliance with employee Walter White (Bryan Cranston), an ailing chemistry teacher who has turned to making meth for Gus to make ends meet, shattered.
Even in an ensemble packed with Emmy winners (Cranston has landed three, and Aaron Paul, who plays troubled drug deal dealer Jesse Pinkman, has scored one), Esposito has been singled out. Although the finale was a brutal one for Gus, Esposito’s career has sparked fresh industry interest and new opportunities for the veteran character actor.
“It’s like a symphony when every note is where it’s supposed to be,” said the 53-year-old actor recently of his role. “It’s not a little sharp to the right or the left. It’s right on key. That’s when the magic happens, and ‘Breaking Bad’ has been that magic.”
Attired in a sharp black suit, black T-shirt and dapper derby, Esposito, a divorced father of four daughters who lives in Ridgefield, Conn., was very un-Gus like as he relaxed on the patio of a Century City café. He is much closer in personality to Gus’ alter ego — the pleasant proprietor of the Pollos Hermanos chain. His hair was longer and curlier than the short-cropped, straight hairstyle favored by his “Breaking Bad” character.
“I needed to shake Gus off,” he said with a laugh. “I wanted to look a little softer.”
Before “Breaking Bad,” Esposito said Hollywood perceived him primarily as “someone who plays characters who are over the top. I made a choice with ‘Breaking Bad’ to be more calm, polite, graceful and sensitive but ruthless underneath. I wanted to do less than ever before. What I found is that it has allowed me to do my best work because I wasn’t pushing.”
His approach was notable in one of the most chilling scenes of the fourth-season opener when Gus slowly slashes the throat of one of his accomplices with a box cutter in front of a horrified White and Pinkman. Esposito’s subtlety has contributed to the fascination with Gus — brushing dust off his shirt or gently smoothing out his jacket on a bathroom sink after instigating acts of mayhem and violence.
The actor’s attention to detail upended the original vision of Gus by “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan, who said Esposito’s chilling rendition transformed what was originally designed as a minor character that would be in only a few episodes last season into a “very central, inescapable element” of the series.
But those who call Gus a vicious monster will get an animated argument from Esposito.
“I find myself defending him, which I have to investigate because I’m fascinated by it,” he declared with a boisterous laugh. “I believe nothing is black and white.”
Gilligan echoed the sentiment: “I don’t think Gus is a good man, but he’s not an entirely bad man. He’s infinitely pragmatic. When he does something awful, it’s not with any pleasure or joy. He’s out to accomplish a goal and make a point.”
The box cutter scene illustrated their point: The victim is Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui), one of Gus’ henchmen who was seen by witnesses at the scene of a murder. Feeling that Victor may have exposed the operation, Gus must take action while also making it clear to Walter and Jesse that mistakes will not be tolerated.
“When I first read it, I was absolutely shaken,” Esposito said. “I didn’t want to scar my spirit.” He had to find a way into the scene, and realized that “Gus has a family to take care of. This is how a man provides — if you have to do something, do it with no remorse and no looking back.
“If you feel sympathy for Gus and understand who he is, then I’ve done my job.”
— Greg Braxton
Photo: Giancarlo Esposito. Credit: Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times.