By Dan Snierson
Updated June 27, 2012 at 07:47 PM EDT
Ursula Coyote/AMC

Breaking Bad

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Between now and June 28, the deadline for Emmy voters to return nomination ballots, is running a series called Emmy Watch, featuring highlight clips and interviews with actors, producers, and writers whom EW TV critic Ken Tucker has on his wish list for the nominations announcement on July 19.

He was calm. He was cool. He was always collecting information on his surroundings. Gustavo “Gus” Fring — the pleasant fast-food restaurant owner and upstanding community member who moonlighted as a merciless drug kingpin on AMC’s Breaking Bad — proved to be one of TV’s most intriguing and fearsome villains in recent years. And the actor who played Gus, Giancarlo Esposito, treated viewers to a reign of tranquil terror that [SPOILER ALERT] lasted from the end of season 2 to the conclusion of season 4, when rising meth lord Walter White (Bryan Cranston) felled him with an explosion. But in season 4’s eighth episode, “Hermanos,” we were shown a new (make that old) side of Gus: a somewhat innocent soul who watched in horror as his dear partner, Max (James Martinez), was gunned down in front of — and on — him, the splattered blood staining him forever.

Revisit that long, tense scene below and then read our interview with Esposito, in which he discusses the challenges of pulling off that scene, his unlikely inspiration for Gus, and his next role.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What do you remember about shooting “Hermanos”?

GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: I was about to be with Spanish speakers who were all fluent in Spanish. I didn’t want to be the weak link in the scene in terms of the language, so I really buckled down to learn the language…. It’s not typical Spanish. It’s Chilean Spanish. And we had a Puerto Rican speaker. We had a Spanish speaker from Spain. All of them had different ways of saying the same thing. But thank goodness I take what I do seriously and really love it. I wanted not to offend any Chilean Spanish speakers. [Laughs]

What I didn’t count on was being so committed to Gus’s emotional state. I’d been playing Gus for a little while and had committed myself to dropping my energy to a point where I could be a real listener and observer of people. This episode takes us back 20 years, and we’re around the pool where Gus is with his nemesis Don Eladio (Steven Bauer), who he absolutely hates because the guy is a disgusting slob and doesn’t really know how to grow a business. Gus has great dreams and a great imagination in terms of how to start his chicken business and have it be a front for the meth business. And as he explained it to Don Eladio with his protégé Max, the air gets thicker and more dangerous by the second, and quickly Gus realizes he’s in a very precarious situation. But he’s a different Gus from the Gus we had known for a season and a half. He’s the Gus of 20 years ago, who has many of the traits that the Gus we know does, but is a little more naïve and a little more trusting, even of his enemies.

You sense more of an attachment to his feelings. He’s so hardened over by the time we meet him.

There’s certainly a vulnerability. The day I shot it, I was feeling very vulnerable, being out of that place of power that Gus so emits — a very quiet, graceful, powerful energy. I had to be more energetic as that younger Gus, but also someone who is much more innocent and hadn’t experienced life that our older Gus has. I was thrown off by that and thrown off by the fact that I had to be in a more vulnerable and weaker position, compared to Don Eladio and the other actors in the scene. And it was wonderful to have that feeling as an actor. It wasn’t so great for me as Gus, but I realize I was in the right place when I walked away and I almost broke into tears. And that was the right feeling for Gus to have in that moment.

Some viewers thought that Gus was actually mourning the loss of his life partner, not just his business partner. One clue was Hector’s “They like what they see!” taunt while peeing in the pool. Did you specifically play to that ambiguity or was it written that way?

It was written as is, but I wanted it to be ambiguous. I wanted people to think what they thought. So that I didn’t have to make a decision for the audience. I certainly feel that Max was a straight-up protégé, someone that he loves for human reasons and it doesn’t go beyond that. But when people started to talk about the fact that they could be life partners, I thought that was very interesting because it’s the same kind of love, the same kind of caring. But I wanted it not to be black or white. I didn’t want to make a decision in my head either way….

It was a really incredible relationship. He takes young Max off the street of El Salvador. Max’s dream is to become a chemist, and he gives him that gift. Of course, he wants something in return, but that really is the core to who Gus is: bringing people to their best selves even if the business he is in is not quite above board. To see someone Gus had invested so much in and someone Gus believed in and someone who was so intelligent, who could not only make this chicken recipe, but also could make the best meth and someone as committed as he was — the hardest part was to see his dream die. And that created the space for the vengeance that carries Gus from what we see through his storyline. That is a very important part of the puzzle of who Gus is.

How did you interpret that line from Gus in the nursing home: “Is today the day, Hector?”

I was wanting information. I wanted Hector (Mark Margolis) to apologize to me. I wanted Hector to look me in my eye and tell me what I wanted him to say. It’s very, very literal. “Is today the day that you’re going to speak to me? You’re going to look at me and you’re going to fess up.” This relationship with Hector from way back in our past is a deep, deep, vengeful, horrible thing — and Hector knows it. He won’t look Gus in the eye. That’s a sign of disrespect, especially in Spanish-speaking countries.

NEXT: Esposito on his inspiration for Gus. Plus details on his upcoming role in J.J. Abrams’ ‘Revolution’

Were you hoping that Gus would’ve made it at least into season 5?

Gus had grown very, very big in the show and there had to be a winding down if Vince wanted to end the show in season 5. Something had to happen. All through season 4, [Walt and Gus] hardly got together, except for trying to do each other in. So I had a feeling it was coming. Was I ready to let Gus go? No. I loved creating a character with such depth and such humanity and such darkness. But as I said to Vince when he finally [revealed the plan to kill off Gus]: “Let’s make it in a way that is pleasing. That’s big. That is explosive.” Pardon the pun. Without any idea that he would eventually make the decision to have an explosion. And then we talked further on in the season about what that might be. What he might be doing if there was an explosion. I never even imagined he would want to try to end it that way, because my nervousness was it would go into sci-fi. I didn’t want it to be sort of a sci-fi, weird ending that people couldn’t really get wrapped around in the context of Breaking Bad. But it was done so very beautifully that it felt right to me. But I wasn’t ready to let it go. No, I wanted more. But after the fact, I realized that was the best way for this to go. It served the show. It served the character of Walter White…. Would it be great to go back at some point? Sure, if we could figure out a way to mine more of what Gus’s relationship with Walter may have been that we haven’t seen.

Was there a surprising inspiration for how you played Gus in general?

Yoga. To be Gandhi-like. To be really dropped, listening to my own breath. To be like a yoga meditator. Those are the images I thought to myself when I was in many scenes where Gus had to be really calm and quiet. And what might be looked at as intense could also be looked at as being introspective. The power of observation came strictly and completely from thinking about yoga masters who were able to stand and let somebody talk for 15 minutes and hear every word they say.

Do you ever slip behind the counter of a fast-food chicken restaurant and take customers’ orders just to see their reactions?

People are afraid of me on planes. I got up on a plane a couple weeks ago to go to the bathroom and a woman froze in her tracks and I didn’t know why because, of course, I’m just being me. I’m just in the middle of reading a script on the way to Los Angeles. And she moves away from the bathroom. She was in line. I said, “No, no, after you.” She said “No. Gus, you can go before me.” [Laughs] And she almost slid down the wall. I said, “No, no, you go.” She said, “No, no, please. I — I, no, I can’t.” And she walked away. She was frightened. People on the street who stop me now call me “Sir” or “Gus” or they approach me very slowly. I realize it’s because they have really bought into Gusdom and they are very careful about how they approach me. It’s kind of great to walk around and be called “Sir” everywhere you go.

What can people expect from your character in J.J. Abrams’ upcoming apocalyptic NBC drama, Revolution?

They can expect a guy who is another very cordial, appropriate human being. But Captain Neville has an edge and the ability to wreak havoc and to be very, very violent in a moment’s notice. Whereas Gus is very held in and keeps things close to the vest and put together, Captain Neville is a little more of a loose cannon. He is frightening in a different way that Gus is. He’s a master manipulator, similar to Gus, but he does it in a very different way. And I think he’s living it out his life having been an accountant, before all the power went out and being very controlled—he’s now living his dark side in a very uncontrolled way. I’m excited to bring it to life.”

Read more:

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Breaking Bad

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