Giancarlo Esposito on the 'Better Call Saul' Version of Gus Fring and Mike's Loyalty

The 'Breaking Bad' veteran discusses the younger, less certain Gus and his own bantering relationship with co-star Jonathan Banks.
Courtesy of AMC
Giancarlo Esposito of 'Better Call Saul'

[This interview contains spoilers through the June 5 episode of AMC's Better Call Saul.]

The current third season of Better Call Saul has not become the Rise of Gus Fring prequel that actor Giancarlo Esposito has long advocated for, but after teasing Gus' arrival in last year's finale, the AMC dramedy has made intriguing use of the future half-faced drug kingpin.

So far, the Better Call Saul version of Gus has spent time in a long game of mutually admiring cat-and-mouse with Mike (Jonathan Banks) and has been seen as often supervising workers at Los Pollos Hermanos as engaged in conflict with Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis). He remains the calculating and brilliant Gus of Breaking Bad, but the consolidation of his empire remains on the horizon.

Esposito, who has been out of the country shooting the third movie in the Maze Runner franchise, got on the phone with The Hollywood Reporter last week after an episode that saw Mike and Gus cement their business relationship. We discussed the aspects of Gus Fring that have remained consistent in his Better Call Saul incarnation, as well as the little changes he has tried to make. The actor also talked about his prickly and bantering dynamic with Banks and the key early season scene that culminated with Gus making a long basket in a Pollos Hermanos garbage can.

The full Q&A...

It's central to Gus Fring's bearing that he's always confident he's the smartest guy in the room. How far do you think we'd have to go into his backstory to find a time when that wasn't the case with this guy?

I've been trying this season to make him a bit more vulnerable and a bit less ... not less intelligent, but a little more tentative in the moves that he makes, so that we can see a more youthful, energetic Gus who's finding his way, a little less emphatic, a little less demonstrative. I think we'd have to go maybe another two or three years back to find that extremely vulnerable Gus who is floundering. I don't think we're going to see quite that guy, but we see a gentleman midstream, really putting down the roots that will allow him to grow a business and become the most powerful man in this particular universe. 

So the Breaking Bad episode "Face Off" was six years ago, and Better Call Saul is set six years before the start of Breaking Bad. How do you approach what is actually a 12-year gap as an actor between your age now and the version of the character you're playing?

It's funny. I don't know. I have to say that it's great to hear you articulate so clearly the numbers of years that it has been for this particular character. I do know how I have managed to figure out some of the physical aspects of having him look younger, but also the emotional aspect is what is really important to me, is to have this guy be a little more vulnerable, a little more of a guy who's finding his way and understanding that his intellect and his vision for a business can really move him into a forceful and powerful position. I do it in my brain. That's how I do it. I start with thinking. It's everything. The seed is planted in the brain. If I can think how to be a little more vulnerable in my actions, a little tentative in my demeanor, a little more observant, finding the root for the moves I will make in the scenes that I do, I find that that immediately is the first step that really helps. 

Then we go to the physical. I wanted Gus to not look the same. I didn't know if that was going to be a success. I wanted him to be, maybe a wavy-haired Gus who maybe saw himself as being a little bit more handsome than we wind up seeing him in Breaking Bad. He's a guy that we say, "Wow. His hair's a little darker. It's wavier." I wanted to grow my hair longer so that I could work my way backwards. It's interesting to work backwards. I like working backwards; also I want to maintain the integrity with which I created the character in the beginning, but also want that to be a different character. I wanted to have some fun! 

Gus has got this fantastic posture which never wavers. Do you have a sense of where his ramrod-straight posture comes from?

Part of what I use for my inspiration to dive into leaving Giancarlo behind and also, oddly enough, leaving the Gustavo Fring of Breaking Bad behind, was to return to the idea and the practice of my yoga, to be reminded that I created Gus out of this yogic place that gave me moments to breathe and to be calm and to get out of my body. With that came the structure and the physical aspect of Gus' proud and very regal demeanor. This is where you get the ramrod-straight back. He's attentive to every part of his physical being. I wanted to slow everything down. As an actor, we don't have any choices in what's written. We can suggest, and certainly Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul have allowed me to talk to them about things that I am inspired by, which could be lent to the character, but one of the things we never really talked about was form, physical form. They saw that I had a window into what I wanted, very distinct movements, very definitive movements, a guy who could be calm in his physical body , not a big guy, but certainly could also be very intimidating in his voice and his physicality. 

On the episode that aired last week, we saw Mike and Gus coming closer to the partnership that we know from Breaking Bad. At this point, how close to equals does Gus think they are? Obviously, he still probably thinks he's smarter than Mike, but what is the growing appreciation that you think he's feeling for Mike?

Loyalty. He feels that Mike has loyalty and is good at what he does. Gus deals with meritocracy. If you earn it. It's a part of me, of Giancarlo, that I don't want any handouts. I don't want it given to me. I want to be able to be the best there is in my life and in my career. I want to win it, to earn it, so I know it's all mine. I always hate it when roles come to me because someone else passed. (Laughs.) I want to go in there and be the first choice, but that means that you have to have a lot of sacrifice and dedication.

Gus recognizes the sacrifice that Mike's made in his life. Mike may not have ever been the intimidating and nefarious character that he is in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul if his life had been different. Once he commits to that, he becomes all of that. Gus recognizes that's a sacrifice, that he has to do things as a man that he doesn't really want to do, but he does them fully and completely and is good at it. He recognizes that trait in Mike, that Mike will be loyal. Mike will be efficient, and Mike will be ruthless as Gus is. 

Is that respect more than like the respect for a well-trained dog, if loyalty is the primary characteristic?

(Laughs.) Yes! It is that respect you have for a well-trained dog. It's also a kind of compassionate, loving relationship in a way. Although, you don't see it that way in Saul or Breaking Bad. The guy is good at what he does, and Gus is excellent at what he does. So part of a good leader is to recognize traits in people that you respect. Mike has Gus' respect. Gus knows that if Mike comes to work with him, Mike will be with him for a long time, and will be efficient and great at what he does. 

Now, at the press tour in January, we saw some of the busting of chops that goes on between you and Jonathan Banks. How would you describe your on-set dynamic with him?

We have a very loving on-set dynamic. We have an understanding. We work in very similar ways. We stay quiet. We focus on the lines and what's in between the lines. There's a very deep mutual respect between us. I like it when he gets playful and I'm always worried about that playfulness in public. Because sometimes it's biting and cutting. Jonathan is all of who he is. I like that a lot. He doesn't pull any punches, but sometimes I get a little worried that, "My gosh, did he just say that to cut my head off or is he just playing around?" We have upmost respect for each other.

During the first years of Breaking Bad, we always found each other in the little two-by-four gym at the Homewood Suites. This our relationship right here: I would come in and Jonathan's on the stepper, stepping, like, two miles an hour. I'm like, "Well, you got to step faster to get some sweat going and get your workout on, dude." The TV would be blaring the news and I would go and take the clicker. He'd look at me and I'd look at him. I'd turn the freaking thing off, and I'd get on the treadmill. He would take a few more steps on the stepper. He would look at me, and he would get off the stepper, go to the remote and turn the f—ing thing back on! Finally, after two or three rounds of this, we'd both look at each other, and he'd look at me calmly and say, "Well, what if I just turn it down to half the volume?" I said, "That would work for me." That's our relationship. 

One of my favorite scenes this season was Gus cleaning the restaurant and then culminating with the sinking of the shot in the garbage can, followed by the smile. Talk me through the choreography and what was going through your mind in that scene. I hear it took a couple times for you to make the basket, and then you kind of caught fire. 

Yes, indeed. It's a very interesting thing, Gus' reveal. I wanted to be careful that it was a reveal that would be most effective. In that moment, later in the scene where I'm tossing that paper into the garbage can, I wanted that to be, in a way, a foreboding, the inside look at what he may be thinking in that moment. Because we don't know "Does Gus know?" Of course, we come to find out that that tag, that shot into that garbage can, is Gus knows everything. He knows it all. All this very subtle physical moment really plays into me trying to figure out how much to give away, how much to reveal, how much to hide. What do we know? This is the play that goes on with these wonderful writers in this particular show, Better Call Saul

When it came to actually making the shot, did you have any worries that you were going to be able to get it right after you missed a couple?

They kept moving me back and back and back! Everyone says, "You missed a couple. Yeah. Right." The first rehearsal, I got in on the first shot, which they should have shot. I want to amend the story a bit. The first basket, I made. I'm excellent at shooting paper into baskets 20 feet away, but of course, when you're in a room full of people, technicians, other actors, looking at you, you're not going to make it a few times. But then when I sort of went in my head and said, "No one is here but me," bam, bam, bam. Every single time. 

I also love that Gus is this big towering figure in the mythology, but the first time we really see him this season is as a chameleon, kind of lurking in the background of all of those shots of Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), because we know they can't interact. Was it fun being the background chameleon Gus as well?

It's always fun to be that Gus, because that Gus is the everyman. Part of what I do in my life and the characters I play, I try to bring some semblance of the everyman to the character, because I relate to the everyman. Now, Gus is very different than the everyman, but in those moments where I'm playing in the background are the moments of character that I use to create the rest of all of the show of what you see of Gus. To me, that's the work. The work is to disappear. The work is to be spontaneous. The work is to be the journeyman actor that I have been all my life. 

I like that scene because they have a line of dialogue between the two of them. It has to simultaneously be this huge moment that's exciting for us as fans, but it has to also be so forgettable a moment that they wouldn't remember they had the moment six years later. Is that a fun trick to play?

That's exactly what I was thinking. "This moment, as written, is a very forgettable moment." That's what I wanted. That's fun to play, because you give the audience the sense of anticipation. "There's something yellow in the background. It's some person. Wait a minute!" If I could disappear in that moment into The Manager, that's a whole other Gus, the guy who's, "Wait a minute, there's someone struggling in the garbage can. Would they drop something? Would we help them?" If I could put all of my intentions into being a helpful human being, then you'd forget for a moment, until you actually see the reveal that, "My God. It's that man that I have been so frightened of for all these years, being affable and nice and graceful again." That really helps me understand the different dynamic and dimensions of who Gustavo Fring really is. 

This is a show that has its two halves. We have a sense that Gus is mostly only going to appear in the Mike side of the story. Does it ever eat at you that you might not get to necessarily have scenes with Rhea Seehorn or scenes with Michael McKean, etc.?

I love Rhea. I love Mike McKean. I just think they're just wonderful actors and we have a great family of actors and filmmakers and writers who make this show. Bob Odenkirk is certainly one of the best. This show has showed the world a different side of what Odenkirk can do. It's always a disappointing part of what I do to be locked into a storyline that may not cross over. However, I'm always in anticipation and wonder. I'm always surprised by these writers. The first day working with Bob was really a gift, because I hadn't the opportunity to work with him a lot and may not for a little while. But I think it's going to come around where we may have more of an opportunity to have the audience see us together. It's difficult when you have different storylines that exist in certain worlds. I love it when we have the opportunity to challenge both of those worlds in coming together. I have a feeling these brilliant writers will do just that. 

You've said before that what you really wanted was a Gus prequel series. Has this experience, revisiting the character, given you a different or better fantasy of what you would like to see that imaginary Gus prequel series be?

Absolutely. It's something that I'm yearning for. Part of it is what I believe is the success of, not only the written creation of this character, and then translating into the breath of life that I breathe into Gus. Vince Gilligan insists that I created the character, and we argue about that. I finally go, "Okay, Vince! You're right." I said, "You created, I breathed life into it." He says, "No. You created it, and we're going to continue with the integrity with which you brought to the character." Obviously, they were very inspired by me. I feel like there's more of a story to tell and the character's a mystery. What we don't know is as important as what we know.

We have to be withheld. We have to withhold from the audience to maintain the fear, the mystery and wanting to know more. I don't know if we'll get all of that into Better Call Saul. So I always say, "Look, The Rise of Gus would be interesting." To do a limited edition, to do 13, seven episodes, and really explore Gus before Saul completely, in the world of Chile and the world of the privileged life that he had and turned his back on. He could have been politically the president. He could have run that country. He decided not to. Why? Why? Why did he run away from Chile, being the made man that he is, and enter the world that he exists in when we meet him? I think there's legs there. I would love to continue to entertain that idea. 

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