Esposito discusses his hopes for the 'Breaking Bad' villain in the prequel

By Dan Snierson
April 17, 2017 at 02:46 PM EDT
Michele K. Short/AMC

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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

I’m liking that you’re already talking about seasons 4 and 5. I know you’re a series regular. So this is a multi-season commitment for you?
It’s a multi-season commitment, barring something else that I’m developing, which, in my brain, we would juggle. In this third season, there are some reveals, but I’d like for deeper and more complicated reveals into Gus’s past in season 4 that link him and bring us deeper into that cartel region.

Why did you not want to come back for just an episode or two? Would that have felt too much like a nostalgia run?
Yeah, it was a nostalgia run. It was a tease and I didn’t want to tease myself, I didn’t want to tease the audience. Now I have an opportunity to look a little bit younger than Gus did when we left him off to transcend through some wardrobe layers where we see his confidence grow to what he’s wearing. To move through some of the way he looks — his hair, his face — that’s the kind of layering that I’m hoping for. So, I talk about another season which I have an option on them and they on me, we come to an agreement after this, and maybe there’ll be another one after that. I’m hoping it gets that interesting.

You talk about the mystery of Gus, which has been one of the great joys of watching this character. What can you say about how much we learn about his past? There’s been speculation that he was part of the Pinochet government before he emigrated from Chile to Mexico, but there’s no record of him before 1986. Do we dip into that mystery a little bit more?
It’s my complete desire to. It’s something that I’ve mentioned before also in interviews and I’m going to mention it to Vince, even though we understand that some of it has to be mystery. But I think it can be a really, really beautiful touch to find out. My back story for Gus is very specific. The guy was raised with privilege. He took advantage of that privilege. He was the best there was, and he had the route to go into politics, government, or military, and he probably had his fingers in all of those. But he chose something else because he was better at it — and it was also more feasible economically. I’d like to get into that and to figure out — whoa! — where that left turn came, and how it brought him so much success.

When you and I were talking years ago about that scene with Max, you said you played his relationship with Max ambiguous on purpose. Vince has said that it’s a likely conclusion that their relationship might have also been romantic. Do we see any illuminations on that side of Gus? We know he has a family, but we don’t know a lot about his private life.
Yeah, we saw his family on the wall. I’ve always felt like Max was like a brother, a friend. I liked playing it ambiguous because I felt like it was more interesting than deciding. I’d like to think that if I were to fill out my own dreams for that, it would be great to think that he has a family, but that they’re protected and they’re somewhere else; he has a whole other life. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to point to the possibility that Max and Gus were involved. I think it’s interesting to point to that. It’s very, very possible, because they live in a different world than the family world, but it’d be great to see him go back to his family world because we have other shows that reflect that balance of criminality and home life. One is Narcos. You see the guy with his family, you see the yearning his wife has. So whether he’s bisexual or not, it doesn’t matter. It’d be nice to see that against him possibly having a man in his life — or having that been the man.

When you look back at this season of Better Call Saul that you just shot, how much of it is filling in the blanks a little bit of Gus versus creating new blanks?
I think you have to service the blanks because you got to fill in the history of how Gus is going to meet Mike, how that moment comes together where he’s even there again, and then how his relationships start to form with Hector Salamanca who’s been on the show. There’s all these other characters that have been on this show — some new, some old, some that Gus can have some interactions with as well that [he hasn’t] before. It’s the balance of keeping that mystery and also filling in the blanks is particular in this season — you’ve got to set the groundwork and allow people to see that part of it.

So I think this is all preparatory for the second part of your excellent question, which is making new blanks. There’s some opportunities to do that and I’m starting to see them, so I’m hoping that by the time they get into the writers’ room, they might share some of my suggestions. Now, these are pretty smart guys, you know what I mean? They’re pretty wily with what they do, but they’ve been really, really team players about the commercials we did; it was my idea to come up with this cheesy commercial. I brought it to them and they flipped out! I’ve always wanted to make a cheesy commercial. I thought this was a great way. They didn’t have a definitive way to re-introduce Gus, other than to be on the show and have it be a surprise and everyone’s saying “Wow!” But how do you take advantage of that and see a different side of this Gus and his organization — and specifically, Los Pollos Hermanos — that you haven’t seen before? And I thought that’s the way to do it. It was fun to do that, and then we made some [employee] training videos. So that kind of stuff is fun. It plays against some of the menace and edge that we’re going to have in seasons to come.

What can you say about that first meeting that we’ll get between Gus and Mike or Jimmy?
I love that it’s going to be in the vast outdoors and on the road and funky and big and wide and western. It’s the moment where we’re going to find out: Who is the boss? And what will you do if you’re being offered something? Gus could take it or leave it because he could squash Mike like a bug. But he understands also that Mike’s loyalty and Mike’s shrewdness in what he does is going to be valuable, and he would make a guy like that partner. I’m excited for that particular meeting because that’s the world in which I really live. That’s the world where the chess pieces get moved and I want those chess pieces to move around. And I’m even hoping for something really wily and brilliant, where Gus can have a conversation with Saul about the way he does what he does. If these guys came up with that, I’d be truly impressed. Because right now we have Jimmy McGill. We don’t have Saul Goodman yet in our show. We’ve got Jimmy, who’s struggling with all the elements that are going to make him Saul, so what’s going to push him over the top and have the real Saul be revealed, too?

When Better Call Saul first came out, were you watching as a casual fan? And as you were watching, were you seeing places where you were like, “Oh, I bet I can see where they could fit Gus in?”
I caught a little bit of the beginning. I’m a busy, busy actor and I don’t get a chance to watch TV until I got to vote for the Emmys or the Oscars. I’d watched a few episodes. I thought, “Oh, this is interesting, I gotta get into this, and this is going to take time, and for me to do my study of that show before I enter it.” So I had to wait. I jumped into the second season and then I went back to the first. So I finally started to check out style and what was going on because it helped me to understand the whole show. I didn’t see Gus in there at all. I didn’t watch [the entire series] until after we’re making the deal and I knew I was going back.

I thought, “This guy’s iconic. I don’t want to do anything that’s going to f— that up!” (Laughs.) I don’t want to sound like I didn’t want to go back but I didn’t have any mind to. It’s the truth. I did everything I could do with that character. Is this a happy gift? It is. But it’s mind-blowing to go back and put on the clothes and figure out the guy again, but it’s a new guy and to remind myself not to be the stereotype because everybody knows me and they ask me, “Say that line, ‘I will kill your wife, I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter.’ Say it! Say it like Gus!” I don’t want to be a caricature, and this gives me the perfect opportunity to create a new Gus that will rival the old. 

NEXT PAGE: Esposito reveals one final hint about Gus for season 3

Tell me about the first day of filming on Saul, back in the role as Gus. Did it feel like no time had passed, or was there a bit of an adjustment period?
I have a whole rhythm of what I do. It felt like no time had passed because of the relationship between me and Jonathan Banks. I love Jonathan, and we have a really good rhythm. So it felt like I was just like stepping into some old but new shoes, to be honest with you. The writing is so specific for Gus and so good the way he puts words together that I pay high attention to that because he’s very formal and graceful and he has an eloquent way of speaking, so that puts me right in the place and New Mexico tops it off. But [there was] nervousness that I had made the right decision about having a little longer hair. Nervousness about whether or not you can’t play the power, you have to be it. I can’t be tough, it’s either I am tough or I’m not, you know what I mean? And that comes from having to feel those emotions in that moment.

Is there a Gus scene percolating in your head that you’d love to do on this show?
I would love to have a very different conversation with Hector Salamanca — a very private and very different conversation resembling the one we had in the hospital, maybe two episodes before Gus met his demise. And my favorite moments to explore would be something in his past — his relationship to the government and his relationship to his sexuality. Those two things would be really great, but I want to be very, very, very careful because my only concerns are [not] to destroy the vision of what Gus was and became in Breaking Bad. I want to preserve that because that’s a standalone. If this could be a bookend to that — a companion piece, an interesting investigation that ended where we began with Gus there — I would be happy. I don’t want to destroy the integrity of him.

What’s the analogy that you’d use to describe working on Better Call Saul versus Breaking Bad? How different of an animal is Saul?
Breaking Bad was the lion. It just grew. It was the total lion that was fierce and complicated and smart and unflinching. But there’s another animal that I would probably imagine Saul to be and I think it would be the jaguar. It’s a little neater, a little smaller, a little stealthier, a little quicker…It’s a little more surprising. With a lion, you know exactly what you’re going to get. Some f—ing lion is going to get you no matter what, he’s going to eat you no matter what and you’re going to be glued to your TV set and you can’t stop watching. But the jaguar is going to be sneaky and stealth and move in and out and take a lot of different routes to surprise you and be much faster than you and slay you in another way.

Let’s talk about the cocktail of influences on Gus. When we talked before, you mentioned the concept of the yogi and meditation. What are the different elements that make up Gus that you’re drawing from this time around?
Yoga is one of the first and foremost ones because it allows me to take the time to breathe. And if you can take the time to breathe, you can create space. And within that space is where Gus lives. It’s almost within the words, within the sentences, within the paragraphs, within the pages are really where Gus lives, because he’s highly attentive and he pays attention to people, and you have to figure out: Does he care or is this just his own brand of hypervigilance? That’s up to you to figure out. I know what I’m putting out. But this guy is very different than anyone you’ve ever met because he really is conscious. How do you do that? I take deep breaths which leaves space. The space allows me to act within the lines and allows me to experience some emotions within me physically that you can see and relate to.

So, after that space is created, then I have the ability to create a pace. What’s the pace within his pace? He’s not pushed around by the world, it’s a different pace that he’s allowing himself. No matter what another character, a scene partner says. So he’s allowing a timing of his own, so he can be who he is and not have to react. He can take it in, he can digest it and put it back out there. I have a yoga practice, which is a breathing practice, and also a physical practice, as well as a running practice. For me running is endurance, it’s strength, and Gus has some endurance. Many people weigh strength by how much you can lift, carry, or throw. But strength is really measured by how long you can endure. So I like to hit the road and do road work. I’ve run all over the world, every single day, because it develops breathing and strength, so that you have an endurance that can allow you physically to shed the body. When you’re at that fifth, sixth, seventh mile, you shed the body, your mind takes over. Your body’s tired, you want to stop. But what Gus has developed is a certain mind power, so he can think about a lot of things, take in a lot of things, multitask a lot of things and get them done sufficiently and efficiently, and also with a cunning and a danger never to be experienced before.

How hard was it to leave Breaking Bad behind? Everyone associated with it, whether it’s Vince or Bryan Cranston or Aaron Paul was always saying, “I know this will probably be the best thing I ever get to work on.” You immediately found lots of work and have done different things. But what is that like trying to move forward with that hanging over you?
I like to do a character, I complete that character and move on, and not revisit it, even in my brain. I had no problems [leaving Gus]. I thought it was a fitting ending, the only thing Vince and I talked deeply about was I didn’t want it to veer off into a supernatural show that you hadn’t seen before. That was my only request, so when he honored that, and it was tidy and genteel and with grace, I thought that was it. I’m ready to move on. I thought it was done…. I’ve done two TV shows since then, three movies. I’m always yearning to get to a new character. Because that’s what an actor’s life is. You got to let it go. You catch and release, and catch and release. Yoga helps me a lot. It helps me to have non-attachment. Part of the deal is not to be attached. But this is one of the great ones, and I’m jealous because Gus is more famous than I am. It pisses me off. I’m not even joking. But how many times are you going to get an iconic character in your life? It’s fantastic! I’m not even afraid this second time around because I’ve laid it down, man. It’s done. Now we’re getting a chance to just put a little icing on the cake.

Can you leave us with a cryptic clue for something that we’ll learn this season about Gus?
You might want to say Gus is a savior. Who knew?

To read what Saul creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould had to say about the return of Gus, click here.

Better Call Saul airs Mondays at 10 p.m. ET/PT.

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