HEAT VISION

How 'Better Call Saul' Star Giancarlo Esposito Realized His Worth

The actor shares secrets from making 'The Mandalorian' and recalls the "difficult" negotiations on 'Breaking Bad' and its spinoff.
Giancarlo Esposito   |   Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/Getty Images
The actor shares secrets from making 'The Mandalorian' and recalls the "difficult" negotiations on 'Breaking Bad' and its spinoff.

Giancarlo Esposito knows what he brings to the table, and Breaking Bad fans have also known since he first sat across a Los Pollos Hermanos table from Walter White in Breaking Bad season two's "Mandala." As the film industry slowly takes steps toward ending racial and gender inequality, Esposito, who was born to an Italian father and an African-American mother, finds himself with no shortage of opportunities across film, television and video games. He's even reached the point of his career where he'll pass on a great opportunity if he doesn't feel valued. After a 2018 clip of Viola Davis recently resurfaced, in which she demanded what she's worth in response to Hollywood's wage gap, Esposito says he agrees with Davis' stance. That's why he nearly walked away from Breaking Bad as well as its successor Better Call Saul.

Esposito tells The Hollywood Reporter: "I'm in a position in my life now where I feel like the reward is that I can walk away if I don't feel like what the offer is commensurate with where I'm at right now in my life and career. There is a point in time where you've done your service. You've put in your time. You're always going to do your service, but at a certain point in time, you should be remunerated for the followers that you have, the fans that you have, the integrity you bring to your work and your commitment to showing up and discovering, regardless of whether you're getting paid a penny or a pound."

At the end of Breaking Bad season two, Esposito guest starred as Gustavo Fring, a fast food franchise owner who secretly ran the Southwest's largest illicit drug distribution network. Since it quickly became apparent that Bryan Cranston's Walter White had met his match in Esposito's Fring, show producers offered him seven episodes in the subsequent season three, which he turned down. In order to be an essential piece of the story, Esposito insisted on more episodes, and his request was granted as he went on to star in 11 of season three's 13 episodes. When it came time to discuss reprising the role of Gus on Breaking Bad's spinoff/prequel, Better Call Saul, Esposito knew his worth and asked for it. 

"I bring a certain amount of uncomfortable feeling that the show needs. It needs to ride that edge," Esposito explains. "So, there's value to that. I mean, I do get all the ego-blasting texts saying, 'I watched that show Breaking Bad because of you. Because of your character.' Well, that's all well and good, but that show was about Walter White. So, I have to look and see the welcome feeling. And the honesty and the intention with which the [Better Call Saul] negotiations were held were wonderful. It wasn't like, 'Hey, wow, what happened to this guy? Is he asking for too much?' It was about, 'Hey, we have to be in commensurate to the show. Commensurate and respectful to the other actors.'"

Ultimately, Esposito knows that the creative marriage between him and Better Call Saul has been worth it for all those involved.

Esposito adds: "If you always do what you've always done, you always get what you've always got, right? So, every year, I've put in the work, furthered the audience and been a part of the family of filmmakers who deepen the audience. And so many critics and wonderful folks can claim this is still the No. 1 show on television."

In a recent conversation with THR, Esposito also discusses The Mandalorian's cutting-edge stage technology, how the high energy of Do the Right Thing's Buggin Out prepared him for Gus Fring's stillness and his working relationship with Jonathan Banks.

Let's get the most important question out of the way: Do you feel more dangerous with a box cutter or a Darksaber?

(Laughs.) What a great question. Oh my goodness. I would have to say with a box cutter. Up close and personal. (Laughs.) No telegraphing that.

You've braved Albuquerque's varying elements including sporadic lightning storms for at least a decade now. Is The Mandalorian’s StageCraft tech — or "The Volume" as you call it — a welcomed presence in your life by comparison? Or do you still prefer real environments to capture the most authentic performance?

As an actor, and especially a theater actor, I come from real environments and playing something that's real, especially onstage and in film on location. It is always preferable for me to be on a location. However, in The Volume, I always feel that way. In The Volume, I feel like I'm in some place that's very real in this world of Mandalorian because of the space. You have a space that really allows you to have the ability to manipulate it, and therefore, it can put you anywhere. And it's so very realistic that it allows your imagination to soar. So, although my preference is always to be on a location somewhere, in the new world of television and film, especially in the world of Mandalorian, it is so apropos to have the ability to do what we do because it opens up a very different looking and feeling world than you'd ever been in before. And so, that transcends visually, and it transcends to me physically, as an actor.

Whether it's Buggin Out from Do the Right Thing or Bugs Raplin from Bob Roberts, did the high-strung nature of your early characters prepare you on some level to do just the opposite — such as Gustavo Fring's trademark composure?

I always look to find what is the underlying motivation of a character. Normally, there's more than one. And how that character fits into life, either subjugating what he wants or she wants, or illuminating that to a point where it affects their emotional realities in their character. So, my feeling is always that when I do something a number of times, I don't want to do it again; I want to do the opposite. And when I started talking to Vince Gilligan about being involved in Breaking Bad after doing two guest spots, my intentions to speak to him were only — because they wanted to offer me a contract — to talk about what that character might be. And so, my answer to your question is, simply, yes. Back when I was doing Bugs Raplin, and thinking about Bob Roberts earlier today, thinking about Tim Robbins — actors love to act, and we feel like the emotional aspects of the connection with the character should guide us to whatever level it needs to be. And I played a lot of characters, starting with a character named Buggin Out, who when I read the character, he was a bit larger than life. But that's the way Spike Lee painted that picture. Someone who has a bigger mouth, wants to protest and do all these things against injustice, but doesn't have a lot of knowledge in terms of history to go about backing up what he wants to do. Very high-strung characters. So, the answer's yes. It was a revelation that hit me in my conversation with Vince out of something he wrote about hiding in plain sight, and I felt like: How many of us are hiding from ourselves? How many of us are hiding from our neighbors? How many of us really put our attention on keeping busy so that we don't have to look at who we really are and who we've become? And so, those were the big questions for me and how do I integrate that into a character who is very proud, very intelligent, very smart? And who can also be very nefarious, very dangerous and very spontaneous, sometimes, in his reactions to what's going on in the world around him. And I wanted to have someone who was upstanding in one way and was hiding in plain sight. That's what Vince wrote and I thought, "That's brilliant." So, to be able to hide in plain sight means I have two characters to play. I have the facade of the character who I want people to believe I am. Giving to the Fun Run, giving money to the hospital wing and doing all the good things that regular citizens, who have the ability to help and be philanthropists, do on a certain level. Gaining confidence of all of the officials and police, and all of that. But really, I'm this other person. So, it gives me a chance to play two characters, and it was really wonderful that I wanted to explore that and that Vince Gilligan really felt like that was the right way to go. It's been an interesting journey. So, I feel like when you're silent and quiet, you're more dangerous. When you're really listening to someone, giving them all of your attention, you get the sense that you have their complete attention, and Gus makes you feel that way. In fact, when I met [former President Bill] Clinton years ago, he'd make everyone feel like they were the only person in the room. People around him, wanting to speak to him … If he caught your eye and started talking to you, you were the only one he was talking to. That's it. And that's what I wanted for Gus. To be attentive. To appear to be caring. To appear to be someone who cared about family, and he really does. He cares about the people whom he takes care of and who take care of him. So, very complicated, but most certainly, my career prepared me to take a step back, take a deep breath and just live the character. As opposed to trying to put all the trappings on him, allow his spirit to come out and engage you.

One aspect of Better Call Saul that fascinates me is Gus' relationship with Juan Bolsa (Javier Grajeda) since Bolsa has had Gus' back throughout his internal turf war with the Salamancas. In season five, Bolsa even tried to have Lalo (Tony Dalton) killed since he knew Lalo was a threat to the steady hand of Gus' operation. And on Breaking Bad, Bolsa kept the Cousins (Luis and Daniel Moncada) at bay out of respect for Gus and his remaining business with Walter White. Of course, it can't be ignored that Bolsa was present when Hector (Mark Margolis) murdered Gus' partner, Max (James Martinez), in front of Gus, so he's guilty by association. Thus, are you surprised by what you've learned about Gus and Bolsa's relationship on Better Call Saul when you consider the fact that Gus took such delight in having Bolsa assassinated on Breaking Bad?

Yeah, it's an interesting relationship between Juan Bolsa and Gus. I believe Gus feels like Juan Bolsa has never had the balls to stand up, and Gus has had to politically have someone in the organization that he can control, manipulate or be in business with. But he's always known that Bolsa is a turncoat in a major way. He will turn his back on whoever it is that is going to threaten his livelihood, and certainly, you're seeing it happen in Better Call Saul in regard to him trying to take out Lalo Salamanca. Lalo is making problems for Gus, and he's making moves because he can; he's a boss. And he also resents Gus because Gus is not one of them. And because Gus is smarter than him. (Laughs.) So, there are all of these different things that make it a very intricate relationship. Gus can't take Bolsa out yet because he needs him. He really is the mouthpiece to Don Eladio, and has been so for Gus. And so, I believe, deep down, that Gus hates Bolsa, and Gus knows he's trying to make moves to give himself a position of power and also to make money. Greater remuneration. So, it's a complicated, very interesting relationship. But Juan Bolsa doesn't tell the truth, and Gus knows that.

A clip of Viola Davis recirculated a week or so ago, and while I'm paraphrasing, it ends with her making the point that as a person of color, it's important to know your worth and ask for it. I bring this up because prior to Breaking Bad season three, you were offered seven of the season's 13 episodes, but you asked for more since you wanted Gus to be intrinsic to the story. That resulted in an 11-episode offer, which paid off in spectacular fashion. Years later, when it came time to discuss joining Better Call Saul, I know that the season three negotiations were rather challenging in their own right. But the point of all this is to say that you knew your worth, and you weren't afraid to ask for it. What led you to these points where you were willing to walk away from significant opportunities if you didn't feel valued?

Well, it's a difficult one for an actor who comes from the theater. Who virtually rode my three-speed Raleigh down to the Atlantic Theater Company every single day to go and do a play, avoiding the subway, eating rice and beans because I was macrobiotic at the time. I was wearing used clothing because I couldn't afford to have a whole full new wardrobe. It taught me that the one important thing is the work I do, and that no price can be put on that. If it is as important to me to fulfill my obligation in preparing a character, then that is the creative work that I do, and it's the gift that I've been given. So I look at it that way. So, is there any price that can be put on that? Is there any price that can be put on the moving feeling I have after doing a play and having someone come backstage and be in tears because they were so moved by my performance? There's no price that can be put on that. However, I do understand the nature of suffering for my art, and I do understand how much actors embrace that. We have to suffer to be able to do what we love, but I'm in a position in my life now where I feel like the reward is that I can walk away if I don't feel like the offer is commensurate with where I'm at right now in my life and career. And oftentimes, I do not if the sincerity is there. As in Breaking Bad, the sincerity was there in that season three. Difficult negotiation, but it was there. They wanted me, and they wanted me to do it. Jumping to the next negotiation that you mentioned on Better Call Saul — they cared about their other castmembers, and maybe I shouldn't say this, but you know, look. In commensurate to the show is the budget it takes to make it. Commensurate to the show is the lead of the show, and this show is about Saul. It's Bob Odenkirk in such a wonderful position and wonderfully playing this character so beautifully. And Mike [Jonathan Banks] plays heavy into this show. And they were on this show before I came into this show. Now granted, do I know that I bring a certain amount of edge? I bring a certain amount of uncomfortable feeling that the show needs. It needs to ride that edge. And now, we have another character in Lalo Salamanca who continues to bring that kind of frightening, very uncomfortable feeling to his performance, as does Gus in a different way. So, there's value to that. I mean, I do get all the ego-blasting texts saying, "I watched that show Breaking Bad because of you. Because of your character." Well, that's all well and good, but that show was about Walter White. So, I have to look and see the welcome feeling. And the honesty and the intention with which the negotiations were held were wonderful. It wasn't like, "Hey, wow, what happened to this guy? Is he asking for too much?" It was about, "Hey, we have to be in commensurate to the show. Commensurate and respectful to the other actors." Because after all, they've done the show for a while and if I want to ask for something that's more than what the lead is getting, that's kind of unfair. Because then, they have to justify that to their other actors, and after all, we all know each other, we all love each other and we're all family. Now, this wouldn't be the case all the time with every project. I get stuff that's marginal with young directors, and I want to support the director, but the script is just not good enough. And you know, one, I'm beyond doing that for five grand. If you always do what you've always done, you always get what you've always got, right? So, every year, I've put in the work, furthered the audience and been a part of the family of filmmakers who deepen the audience. And so many critics and wonderful folks who are so intelligent, like yourself, who ask such great questions, can claim this is still the No. 1 show on television. So, I do agree with Viola. There is a point in time where you've done your service. You've put in your time. You're always going to do your service, but at a certain point in time, you should be remunerated for the followers that you have, the fans that you have, the integrity you bring to your work and your commitment to showing up and discovering, regardless of whether you're getting paid a penny or a pound.

Gus Fring, fast food franchise owner, is a character that Gus performs on the stages that are his Los Pollos Hermanos restaurants. Naturally, I have to wonder if his home life on Breaking Bad was also a stage. For example, when he invited Walter over for paila marina in season three, we not only saw children's photos on the wall, but the camera also made sure to show Walt noticing some kids' toys on the floor. Gus also mentioned in passing that "the kids" won't eat his fish stew. Conversely, when Jesse came over for paila marina in season four, we didn't see anything related to kids nor did Gus mention the kids again. Is it possible that Gus staged his house in order to connect with Walter as a fellow family man and Jesse as a fellow bachelor? In both cases, he wanted something from each man.

You've hit such a great point with such a great question. I always wanted to reveal some kind of family for Gus because it would make the audience feel and it would also disarm Walter and Jesse equally in different moments of them being in that home. And so, I would not put that past Gus at all to have staged that complete residence. I can't say that that is what the intention of the writers was, but I can say that I think it's very possible. In season five, you start to see another piece of Gus' world: this Mexican village and the Dedicado a Max. That's another very important piece of his world that, who knows, we may see again. Is that Gus' vacation place? Is that his charity? Is that what makes him feel better? What is that place? Is that where he goes to relax? Did he have a villa over the next hill? So, all of that is fascinating to me, too, but I always wanted to show some kind of family. We haven't gotten to that, because I knew that that would allow us, as an audience, to feel even more complete that Gus is really, really a part of this community as a happy family man homeowner. So, because we haven't moved the dial any further in that regard, I love your hypothesis and can feel that because Gus moves big things around. That's what he does. He creates illusions. Walking into the police station in the first days of meeting him, you're like, "Oh my gosh, who does that?" There's no suspicion here. He's acting as if. And he moves big pieces around — meth labs, laundries. He can do that because he has the power, the ability and the smarts to do it. So, I like your hypothesis. I hope we get a chance to explore that a little more.

Both you and Jonathan Banks have said that you have very different ways of working. Do you think that the creative friction that's caused by your individual techniques plays a part in what makes your scenes so compelling?

I do. I do because we never vow to come together or to be apart. We never make that decision. We get in the corner together when we have a lot of words to say, and we just do the words, so we can at least know where we're going. But we don't really have any clue of, emotionally, where we'll be left at the end of the scene, which is always exciting to have that feeling with another actor. And I absolutely love it. And so, we've created a safe space for our communication on- and offscreen. And it's good. It's a really good place to be because we're trying, more than anything, to listen. And when I listen to him, I hear Mike. As soon as he steps on set, I see Mike. I see this beaten-down guy who's lost. And I would ask him questions that I would want him to ask of himself — as I do in our scene in "Dedicado a Max." Like, "What are you doing? You're a grown man. You're still getting in street fights. You're drinking. You're doing this, that and the other. What are you doing? Do you want to have some other kind of life? Why do you keep choosing this?" So, Gus looks beyond just what he needs from him and offers a more secure lifestyle. He knows that he'll be able to trust Mike because once Mike gives his word, that's his bond. So, I think the wonderful things about what happens between me and Jonathan come out of this sympatico likeness of who we both are. I adore working with him and never know what to expect, but I am always attentive. And my intention is to go along for the ride, so we've had some incredible moments together.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

  • Brian Davids
LATEST NEWS