How is Giancarlo Esposito feeling on Emmy nomination day? “How do you think I am? I’m fantastic!” exclaims the Breaking Bad standout, who received a nod in the Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama category this morning for his turn as meth lord Gustavo Fring. “It’s a great honor. I was tongue-tied all morning talking to all kinds of press, but I’m in gratitude.” EW tried to untie Esposito’s tongue and get him to talk about his big morning, his chance to make history, and much more.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Did you stay up all night thinking about the call or did you sleep like a baby?
GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: I slept like a baby… until 3 a.m. (laughs) At 3 a.m., I started to get squirmy, I don’t know why I couldn’t sleep, I guess somewhere in my consciousness, I knew it was coming down the pike. I got up, I sat on my yoga asana, crossed my legs and meditated for awhile, just in case I got the call. I wanted to be calm and really present.
What’s the first thing that pops into your head about playing Gus last season?
“I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter.” That just sticks out to me, about what a great threat that was, and what a great scene that was filmically. Besides that, the very first episode [of season 4]. I had the opportunity to say nothing and really everything with my physicality and my eyes. That was a challenge and a wonderful exercise to really trust myself as an actor.
How much of the character of Gus changed from the original conception, when you and series creator Vince Gilligan first started talking?
I thought in the beginning I was going to be a glorified waiter. Yellow shirt, clip-on tie. I was a waiter at so many different restaurants while I was trying to be an actor early in my career, and I thought, “That is not what I want to do.” However, I was assured that Gus had a secret and once I was told that, I played him as if he did — someone hiding in plain sight. And then he got kind of cool. He started to dress a little different and he started to be a little more refined, which I wanted to bring to him. So those were the changes that really moved me. That he was graceful. And not only graceful, he was kind and compassionate in certain arenas. And that’s what planted the seed for me, that the greatest villain is both light and dark. I wanted him to be a human being. My work was not to focus on the villainy of who the character was, but to bring that kind of focus that made people think and feel that he cared about them. I really wanted to bring people to their best selves, so for me, the business of the meth was not illicit at all. It was a family business. I liken a lot of that to The Godfather.
You could be the first African-American to win in this category. (Esposito’s father is Italian and mother is African-American.) Is that something you’ve thought about?
I’m amazed that that stat exists. When I think about that stat I think, “Wow, that’s so weird because I’m playing a Spanish guy and I’m fooling a lot of people. (laughs) Or at least I thought I was until that stat came out…
I think about Harry Belafonte and how he didn’t play a color. I think about a groundbreaking actor like Sidney Poitier, who I always wanted to be. He didn’t play a color. Yes, some of the subject matter of the films he did dealt with color, but he had dignity and grace and intelligence. I think about those actors I watched at that time who changed my life and encouraged me. So what I would say about that is: I’ve never focused on color. I’ll give you a great example. I’m doing a new show [on NBC] called Revolution. The role was written as a Southern genteel militia white guy. I didn’t think about that when I got the [script] to read for that. I thought, “I can be that.” I didn’t have to even enter into it thinking, “I am a black man,” so it freed me and I got the role because of my work. It won’t always happen that way but it happened that way this time around. So I would be honored to be that guy to make history.
Your co-star Aaron Paul is nominated again. Given that he’s already won and this is your only chance to win for Breaking Bad, wouldn’t it be the right thing for him to concede?
Talk to him and get him to give it up so that way we have no issue (laughs)… I happen to be a real fan of Aaron’s work and even a bigger fan of who he is as a human being. And I’ve got to be honest with you, it’s a high honor to be in this category nominated beside him…. I’m going in hard and fast and strong and with a lot of grace and compassion, so whatever happens I’m going to be happy with it.
In honor of the fallen Gus, would you consider showing up to the Emmy ceremony with half of your face blown off?
Oh my goodness, I have a friend who wants me to do the robot. (laughs) Wow. Would I consider it? Anything’s possible. I’m an actor. But I think I have to come with both sides of my best self to this particular evening.
What is the percentage chance that you will make an appearance on the final season of Breaking Bad?
Oooh, I’d say 75. It’s up to Vince, but the party line is that any bad guy on Breaking Bad could come back. And if I can lend to the very depth of creativity that Vince has in mind to end the show on a great note, I gotta tell you: I’d love to come back and haunt Walt in his dreams.