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Three decades ago, Giancarlo Esposito played a cold-blooded, mid-level cartel drug dealer named Adonis Jackson on Miami Vice. Should you be wondering if that experience helped to shape the character that would become Gustavo Fring — that upstanding citizen and fast-food chicken restaurant owner who doubled as a ruthless, inscrutable meth kingpin and one of this century’s most mesmerizing TV villains — you’re half right.
It wasn’t actually Adonis from whom Esposito would draw influence; it was the stillness in Lt. Castillo, played by Edward James Olmos. “He wasn’t a guy that seemed like a stereotypical police captain who runs around yelling orders, telling people what to do,” says Esposito, speaking to EW for this week’s cover story that reunites the cast of Breaking Bad. “He was very laid back and very, very relaxed. And I wanted to take it even further. I wanted to make Gus more of an observer than anything else and I wanted to make him completely unreadable…. Only a little bit of twinkle in his eye or fear or ‘What is this guy thinking?’ from the audience standpoint, so that they were not really knowing what decision Gus might make.”
He also gleaned inspiration from the mafia and his yoga practice. “I thought of the majority of mobster movies and also James Gandolfini’s performance in The Sopranos — a very volatile, very powerful guy but obviously a little more colorful of a mobster than we’ve seen,” he says. “I thought I could harness the calm, and what yoga did is to help me be calm and leave space in between the question and the answer within a scene…. For me, that breadth of space left time for Gus to be.”
As for the more gregarious side of Gus — which was on display at Los Pollos Hermanos, the DEA office, the hospital, or anywhere public — Esposito says he incorporated “the affable side” of himself. “It’s the idea of hiding in plain sight, and that all came from the stage direction that Vince [Gilligan, the show’s creator], wrote in a very early draft about Gus,” he continues. “That really compelled me to think about how to play this character differently, because we never really know who our neighbors are or what they really do. We see them go to work every day, but what if they are doing something that’s illegal or nefarious, and yet they smile and wave at us and say, ‘Hi, good morning,’ and pat our kids on the head? I have never really experienced or seen a character who was so comfortable at being affable, and that’s the Gus that you meet at Pollos Hermanos. You meet a Gus who says, ‘Is everything to your liking?’ ‘Do you want me to get you a refill?’ You get a guy who seems to be very caring and very interwoven into the fabric of the community. I thought that is extremely interesting, because then his cover can never be broken.”
To see the impenetrable ethos of Gus in full effect, look no further than Esposito’s favorite Gus moment of the series, the epic season 4 premiere scene that teems with tension and eventually erupts in bloodshed. “Much of acting is to be able to say without words, and in ‘Box Cutter’ I certainly had that opportunity,” he says. “I always equate that to [playwright] Harold Pinter, who I love, and how Pinter wrote in ‘Pinter pauses’ — very, very long pauses where no one said anything and characters are just looking at each other on stage or doing something physically with nothing said. In that silence of vocality, there is so much being said.”
Of course, when Gus does speak with words, it’s often memorable and quotable. Esposito is often asked by fans to repeat Gus’ “A man provides” speech to Walt, or even more frequently, his icily ominous threat: “I will kill your wife, I will kill your son, I will kill your infant daughter.” As the actor notes: “They want to be shaken and want to be rocked.”
That’s almost the way to describe what befell Gus in the season 4 finale. His masterful chess game with Walt (Bryan Cranston) ended with a lethal checkmate as Walt planted a bomb on Hector’s wheelchair that blew half of Gus’ face off. Gus was such a impeccable, formidable force, he was able to walk out the room and straighten his tie before keeling over and expiring. When Gilligan called Esposito into his office to deliver the bad news that Fring was marked for death, the actor kept jokingly stopping Gilligan from closing the door, because he knew that the news to come was grim. Finally behind closed doors, Gilligan asked the actor how he thought Gus should die. “I said, ‘Well, he can’t get shot. He already walked into a hail of bullets and dodged them. He’s not afraid.'”
The wheels of creativity started spinning when Gilligan asked Esposito what Gus would be doing if there were to be some type of explosion. “I said, ‘Well, you see what I’ve created as Gus,'” recalls Esposito. “When I stand up, I button my jacket. When I sit down, I unbutton it. He’s very proper. I straighten my tie quite a bit. I’m checking my tie because I want everything to be just so.” And he said, “Straightening your tie — well, that’s interesting….” And I said, ‘Oh, you like that! That may be an option,’ without even knowing what he was thinking — and that’s eventually what we came to.”
It was a crushing blow to fans to lose Walt’s greatest nemesis. And what was it like for Esposito to say goodbye as the show soldiered on? “I have to say, I knew I would miss him,” he says. “However, one of the blessings of Breaking Bad was that it was 13 episodes [per season]. So I didn’t feel like we were wearing out our welcome with Gus. So part of me was relieved. The other part of me was, ‘Oh, they’re going to go some more seasons without the great Gus? Without me? How could that happen?'” He laughs. “My actor’s ego would click in, yet I was happy to have a break. And I felt like sometimes you hit just the right amount of numbers and the right amount of emotions in a character and you leave people wanting more. In the end, I felt like it was the right moment because the show is about Walter White, and most importantly for us to keep our attention on him and see where his journey would lead.”
Esposito, of course, would later be asked to revive his fan-favorite character and join Better Call Saul. The AMC prequel, which returns for season 4 on Aug. 6, unspools the origin story of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), but it has been expanding its focus on the Albuquerque underworld, in which Gus is a rising force. This season, as Gus plays a long game of revenge on Hector (Mark Margolis), you will learn more about how Mr. Fring came to power and formed that enigmatic, unflappable personality. “This is pre-Breaking Bad, so I always want to think about this character as being one that I’ve never created before, and being one that is coming into his own as this calm Gus that we met earlier,” says Esposito, who currently serves as the narrator of Dear White People and whose upcoming projects include the films The Gift and Live as well as Cinemax drama series Jett. “He does have a little more of an edgy emotion because he hasn’t quite gotten the calm yet under his belt. We see him really in a position to be a little bit more torturous and a little bit meaner to people without being as affable on the surface.”
But beneath the surface is where the story lies this season. “We’re preparing the soil to dig deeper,” hints Esposito. And as two seasons of Breaking Bad and one of Better Call Saul with Gus have already shown, it’s chilling and fertile ground.
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Tread not-so-lightly in this direction to check out the gallery from the big Bad photo shoot.