Let the fuss about Gus begin.
Tonight’s episode of Better Call Saul will welcome back one of TV’s most centered, inscrutable, cold-blooded, and chilling villains. Giancarlo Esposito’s Gus Fring — who was last seen in the season 4 finale of Breaking Bad losing half of his face and all of his life in a crafty wheelchair-bomb explosion — joins the prequel spin-off at an earlier point in his bifurcated career as fast-food chicken restaurant king and drug kingpin.
It seems like a logical course of action to inject one of Bad‘s most memorable and fearsome figures into AMC’s Saul as it slithers closer to its parent show’s timeline, and fans have been bracing for his arrival ever since… well, perhaps the beginning of the show, but certainly at least since the end of season 2, when Gus’ future head of security, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) received a warning note (“DON’T”) on his car just as he was about to eliminate Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis). The season 3 premiere set the stage, as the episode ended with Mike following a trail of clues that seemingly will lead him into the lair of Gus, with Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) also somehow tangled up in this illicit web.
How did Esposito —who, after earning an Emmy nomination for his role as Gus, amassed such credits as Revolution, Once Upon a Time, The Get Down, and the Maze Runner franchise — feel about revisiting the world of family-friendly fast food and not-so-friendly narco-trafficking? What kind of Gus can Better Call Saul fans expect in season 3? How much of the mystery and mystique of the Chilean export will be unpacked in upcoming episodes? Here, the actor goes deep on one of the most anticipated arrivals of the TV season.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So, you got a call about reprising your role in this prequel, and you’ve said that your first reaction was “No.” Was that because Gus went out with such a literal bang in “Face Off” and it would be next to impossible to top anything after that?
GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: It’s not because of the ending; it really is because I didn’t really know how Gus would fit into a show about Saul. I knew that Saul was conceived as a comedy and then got to be a dramedy. Loved the show, loved what Bob does, didn’t know how Gus would fit into it. So I heard, like the public, rumors that Gus might come to the show. And I got a phone call of inquiry: Would I be willing?
I said I’d be willing predicated on a conversation with Vince [Gilligan, Breaking Bad‘s creator who created Saul with Peter Gould]. Then another six or eight months passed, and Vince and I had a terrific conversation where he just asked me if I’d come back and recreate the character I’d created in the show. And I said, “Vince, you created the character, I interpreted it and brought it to life. I breathed life into Gus.” And he insisted, “No, you created this character because you embodied who this guy is and inspired us.” So I said, “Okay, fine,” because I respect Vince very, very deeply as I do Peter Gould and all the writers who helped to make Saul a hit in and of itself, outside of Breaking Bad. He assured me that they were going to find the way that would be intriguing and interesting, and I said if that could happen I would come back. It had to be for more than one episode. I’m imagining what Vince was thinking is to take it up to where we begin in Breaking Bad — possibly.
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What was it about that conversation — or in a subsequent one — that got you excited about returning to the role? Was there a specific storyline that Vince and Peter pitched you?
My 20-year-old daughter, Shayne Esposito, is always reminding me, “It’s not your show, Papa! It’s not about you!” (laughs) but I said to Vince, “I would prefer to have a show called The Rise of Gus and make it a limited edition and see all of Gus’s world….” That, to me, would be the way to have the character go out with a bang. But [Better Call Saul] is really weaving in a show about Saul with dangerous elements which, of course, Gus can show you.
We did agree to a couple of things that I think are important — that Gus is primarily a mystery, which means that mystery has to unfold in a slow-burn manner. Of course we want to know more about Gus, of course it has to be balanced with Saul, and I think they’ll do it brilliantly. What excited me specifically was my own imagination about who Gus was six years prior to us meeting him. Who is that guy? I want to chart his rise in a specific way. In other words, maybe the possibility of having him be more vulnerable and less maniacal and obviously in control but also very scheduled out. He has a very big brain. It’s the big brain that creates the business, or several businesses like this. So that’s what intrigued me — that I could find some other delicate areas of Gus to unveil to the public, and people would go, “Oh, yeah! Right! He’s younger, he’s more brash. There’s a different kind of balance in a younger man and a man who’s also in the prime of charting his plan.”
How serious were you about The Rise of Gus? And was there any real talk of doing that as a limited series?
Well, it’s been something I’ve mentioned over and over again. Maybe Vince or Peter haven’t seen it or maybe AMC and Sony haven’t seen it. I certainly have mentioned it to my people, it’s out there. In all fairness to Vince, they’re folks who have a lot on their plate and are focusing on making this one show great. A reporter said to me the other day, “Let’s face it, we’re in the third season of Saul. Two more seasons and then you have your bookends in a way. What’s after that?” That comes up very, very quickly. So I keep talking about it because maybe it’s a reality, although I feel like if we explore all the places of Gus in Saul that I’m satisfied with, there may be no need for The Rise of Gus.
What kind of new shadings can we expect from Gus?
I would hint that he is very, very compassionate to his enemies. But behind that compassion, through an incident that takes place this season, you see his bigger plan for this particular character…. I think it’s a fascinating moment for the audience and for Gus. He’s so self-assured that that moment will come that he takes an action to not have that moment happen now. (Laughs) Pretty brilliant to me.
In that flashback in season 4 of Breaking Bad, we see Gus in the ‘90s watch as Hector kills his partner Max (James Martinez). This is, of course, years before the Breaking Bad timeline, but he’s not polished and is naïve about the forces he’s dealing with. How fully developed is the Gus we will see here in the early ’00s, in terms of his sociopathy and his danger level?
Well, he’s developing it as we see it. I’m hoping that season 4 will be the time to really dive into that. You certainly feel his danger, but he has a more close-to-the-vest respect for the cartel. This is the point where he has to get the cartel to trust him that his ideas are better, that his ideas aren’t just because he wants to take over — it’s not just his ego, it’s that he’s figured out a better plan for a few different parts of their business, not only to grow it but to also keep it safe.
So that is completely in earnest out of being the best that he can be so that he can in essence get the job, thus exasperating the other parts of the cartel and taking more control. But he’s getting the job done with a better product and a better timing of delivery. So, to me, that integrity of Gus has a two-fold, double-edged sword. One side of that integrity is he really wants you to have that integrity because he has that integrity. And the other side of the sword is that that is gaining your trust, not only as a viewer, also as a character within the show. You’re gaining trust for this guy because he’s laying it down and showing you how it should be done. Now he has other reasons, but that’s wonderful exploration. And a guy who understands the essence of being out in the open in the public and is not afraid of that, and can stand up and speak for that. Hopefully you’ll see a guy learn all that and then start to really focus his energy as we see fit in seasons 4 and 5. That’s what I’m hoping to show and I think they’re going to move in that direction. The guy is taking control, he’s taking power.
NEXT PAGE: Esposito on the first Gus-Mike meeting — and how long he wants to play Gus on Saul