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August 29, 2015

Gus Fring Speaks: Giancarlo Esposito on 'Breaking Bad's' Most Memorable Villain

by Maureen Ryan, posted Oct 9th 2011 11:30PM
Since he arrived on 'Breaking Bad,' Gustavo Fring has been a memorable foil for Walter White.

Walter White is often reactive and scrambling to keep up with events, but Gus Fring is cool, collected and composed. The yin and yang between the two men -- one chafing at authority, one effortlessly exuding an air of command -- has provided the AMC drama with some of its finest moments.

In the interview below, actor Giancarlo Esposito talks about playing one of television's most charismatic characters, and about the events of 'Breaking Bad's' season finale.

Don't read on unless you've seen 'Face Off,' the final episode of 'Breaking Bad's' stellar fourth season. And be sure to check out my review of the finale and my post-finale interview with 'Breaking Bad' creator Vince Gilligan.

The interview below has been edited and slightly condensed.

Maureen Ryan: When did you know that Gus Fring was not going to make it through this season of 'Breaking Bad'?
Giancarlo Esposito: Well, I had done the first episode [of the season], which was so profound in its writing and in the actions I had to take -- I had assumed that after doing that reprehensible act in ['Box Cutter'] that maybe the audience couldn't handle seeing Gus for a little while, and I was correct because he wasn't in the second and third episodes. The third episode, I came in and Vince was singing my praises and he hugged me in the hallway of the studio in Albuquerque and said, "Oh gosh, your work in ['Box Cutter'] is so stellar."

I think it was at the end of that third episode where he said, "Hey, can we talk?" I went to his office and we were having a conversation where I was asking him to please remember me in terms of directing [the show] because I am a director, and we were talking about some creative things.

He said, "Hold on a second, let me close the door," and I said "No, you're not closing the door." He said "No, I should close the door," and I said "No, I'm not going to let you close the door." He started laughing and I started laughing and of course, he closed the door and he said "You know, we're going to kill Gus," and I said "Yeah, I figured as much." He explained... all the reasons why it was really good for the show to do this, all the while singing my praises at the wonderful work that he thought I had done. He was saying that it is going to be a wild ride for Gus and for Walter this season.

And so he was very respectful and very lovely. I knew very early on, so I did not have to worry about Gus' ultimate demise, but just focus on, episode by episode, what I wanted to create along with the wonderful writing that was given to me.

It took the pressure off. I could just await every episode and be spontaneous and be without forethought of what that episode might be, knowing that in the end something fantastic was going to happen. We still didn't know then how [Gus' death] would happen, so I give full and complete credit to Vince and his writing team for being so creative in their ideas surrounding the characters and how they bring those ideas forth and present them to the actors on the show. It certainly allowed me to do some of the best work I have ever done.

It's so hard for me to imagine 'Breaking Bad' without Gus. I said that to Vince when I interviewed him, and he agreed. But in terms of the overall narrative, did it make sense to you? Do you feel it's credible for 'Breaking Bad' to do this now?
Absolutely. I think it's very credible. I think the show needed to have a villain, a worthy villain, a worthy adversary for the character of Walter White. I'm really in gratitude that it was me, that I could bring enough to the party that would allow the writers to be inspired, and thus inspiring me to dig deeper, and that is the way creativity really works. It's a lovely compliment that Vince says that because I believe the show was a fantastic show before Gustavo Fring entered the picture, but certainly that is all I've been hearing lately, "What would it be without Gus?" It certainly has been a gift for me to play this character.

I know from the reaction I have gotten from the creation of this guy that [he has had an effect on fans]. It's a wonderful thing when you feel like you're rooting for Gus and that means I have really done my job well, because for someone who has such despicable character traits in some ways ... That is how he started and I played it a certain way ... but I wanted him to be more than that.

I wanted to create him as someone who wasn't just black and white, but who had many different parts to his personality, and I think I found it [with the] "A man provides" speech that he gives to Walter [in the season 3 episode 'Mas.' The speech: "What does a man do, Walter? A man provides. And he does it even when he's not appreciated, or respected, or even loved. He simply bears up and he does it. Because he's a man."]

It really kicked in for me that Gus is the father of a very, very special family. He is running a business, but he has a family of people who work for him and he treats them as such. The way he taught people how to use the fryer, the way he checked on all of his customers meant that he was something more than just a guy who was interested in making great meth. He was a guy who was interested in teaching people how to become their best selves. So I used that to sort of [get] into a deeper moral part of Gus' character.

The reason he had to kill Victor was because Victor compromised the family. He had to do this to Victor, who he really liked. [Victor] compromised the family. And in [the season 4 finale], Gus is taking care of someone [Tio Hector] who he really despises. [Hector] took away a member of his family [Max] who he really cared for, someone he took off the streets of El Salvador, someone he gave an education to. So it's really kind of wonderful that the show is so much about family and how we take care of our family, no matter what that looks like.

It's interesting that you used the word "villain" -- that word just kind of stood out to me. When I think of the typical villain on so many television shows and movies, those characters are often larger than life, or actors are tempted to play them big, or the writers may be tempted to give them kind of florid speeches and all that. I think one of the things I love most about 'Breaking Bad' is the restraint and the economy and the respect for the integrity of the characters. But as an actor, I'm wondering how you approached him with such stillness and presence. Was that always a part of how you saw him? Was it a more difficult part to play because he's enigmatic? He is a hard guy to read.
Absolutely. I believe that actors love to act and sometimes what we miss is what is in between the words and what is in the silence. I chose to create this character in a minimalist way. I chose to give him a quiet, deadly calm. He really allows himself to be present and really it's like a self-study, in a way. He is a very, very good listener. [For an actor, it can be more effective to work on] one thing, not two or three things and do that one thing well, and then sometimes the flower opens in a very different way.

For me, it was to cultivate stillness and calm. It's hard for me also to use the word villain, because I think he is a real human being who really does care, but it was a really wonderful and a great challenge to drop myself to a point where I wasn't forcing anything. Everything came out of an organic place. It has been not only a wonderful exercise, but I think the fruits of my labor have shown because people have gotten [him] and are enjoying this character in a monumental way.

Just going into what motivated Gus, did you think the relationship with Max [whom we saw in a flashback to Gus' youth] was just a friendship or something more? When you were approaching that particular episode, which was so poignant and so powerful, did you ever think about what the nature of that relationship with Max was?
I sure did. I think I went beyond just the surface of the idea that is thrown out, that they could be lovers. That certainly is a possibility. I wanted to cultivate the caring nature of a man who was coming up with someone who was a dear, dear, beloved friend, and that to me deepens it over anything that could be sexual. It was a deeper relationship. I loved the fact that it's never really pointed to one way or the other, that the audience has to make up their own mind. To me, that is much more important to have and that's why if it were just a lover, I don't think that the hate would be as deep, or the revenge would be so poignant.

I think that in a deeper sense, it was a friendship, relationship, possibly lover relationship that some people may not understand. That is why it resounds so powerfully when he is taken away. The cruelty that had been inflicted on Gus - we had to see it and I think in those moments, that's when you really start to go, "Wow, why do I like this guy, why am I rooting for this guy?" Well, because he is a real human being.

Yeah. It gave me such insight into Gus. I wondered how much of his whole career was based on wanting to take the people who killed Max down, on getting revenge. It gave me so much insight into who he became.
Absolutely. I agree and I wanted to add to what you're saying because I think there is more.

I do. That was such a wonderful and powerful episode and was such a challenge for me to play -- the first time Gus is cowed by Don Eladio. He saw Gus in a vulnerable position, but he says to Gus, "I know who you are." [Vince explained early in the season] that there is going to be some reference possibly to Gus being involved with the Pinochet government in Chile and I thought, "How brilliant," because there is a whole other life of Gus' which we still don't know about. That one line reveals that he is someone that Don Eladio can't kill. We as an audience think that it's just because Gus is too important -- he has distribution elements that are needed with his 17 restaurants. But there is another reason, and that reason we have yet to investigate, so I venture to say that there is a possibility that investigation could take place.

I wanted to bring up something fans have been discussing, and that's the moment that Gus stops in the parking garage and looks around and walks away from his car. To me that struck me as credible, because Gus is someone who is very aware of his surroundings and thinks about things from many angles. Was that something that struck you as strange for him to do or was it very much within your conception of the character?
It linked up with exactly who I think Gus is. I think Gus paid a lot of attention and when he makes a mistake or doesn't pay attention in the way that he normally does, something happens. When he came back to that parking lot and looked over at that car and saw the open space... I try to take all my surroundings in as an actor and as Gus, I get even more hypervigilant in terms of noticing things. Certainly when he walked back and saw the trajectory of where the car was parked, with no other cars around, he immediately imagined the possibilities of what could [happen] and he knew right away that he should not ever go back to that vehicle.

It certainly was not a surprise to me and it's one of my favorite moments of season 4. How does the guy know? Well, he listens to his gut. That I something that I wanted Gus to have and I wanted to develop in this character. I think we're so used to being [ordered around]. We crave it, you know, "Just tell me what to do." It's easier, but when you have to listen to the voice inside, it sometimes might be a little more difficult to access that place. That's why with this character I try to use my yoga practice and my breathing practice, as something that would inform the calm and peaceful nature of Gus. But it would also inform his sensitivity. He really is aware. He really does feel the energy of the universe and in that moment he certainly did.

Everything he does has such impact and is so precise, he's so measured in how he walks and talks -- and doesn't talk. Is it very much a physical approach to the role for you?
I think acting is physical and I think it has a lot to do with my success in the character of Gus. I did some very deep yoga breathing to get me relaxed, so I wouldn't do anything more than I needed, so I would be economical with all my movements and allow my eyes to speak more.

I was walking ... to a meeting [recently], and I started laughing because I just got such a [memory of playing Gus]. I was walking very deliberately and I went, "Oh my goodness, is that Gus or is that Giancarlo? If it's you, Gus, get away, I'm on hiatus!" [laughs]

Is this a hard character to leave behind or in some ways, or in some ways, is it a relief to be able to walk away from the role?
Well, with each hiatus time comes a moment of washing him away and yes, it is, in a way, a relief to be able to let him go. [As the death approached] I do feel there is a sadness. There is a sadness because part of each character that you let go of, you realize that [through that character] you have moved closer to your art. If you have done it correctly and you're pleased with what you have done and it deepens you as a human being, you have moved closer to what you're here to do and say. So there is a slight sadness knowing that there is an ultimate demise for the character whether he comes back or not, but there is a joy and an elation.

I'm very elated that I had the ability [to rise to] a challenge that was presented. Each character to me is, in a way, a challenge and I stepped up to that challenge and gave the best of myself, and people are so excited and pleased with what came to be. So it's a mixture of feelings.

I've been thinking a lot about why Gus is such a magnetic character, and in some ways, it comes down to professionalism. I don't respect the fact that he is selling poison, essentially, but in a way, you have to respect his professionalism, his attention to detail. Was being able to do this extremely dangerous job well part of what motivated him?
I believe so and I love the fact that you mention this. He is extremely professional in what he does, because he respects it and because he loves it and I venture to say he loves bringing people to their best selves. ...I believe that out of that integrity, he is honoring his true self, so that professionalism and that integrity and that moral standard by which he lived his life is really something. It's some of the values that pertain to all of us, in one way or another, and it is an example for many people.

Don't forget what he says to Walt about Jesse, "You can never trust a drug addict." He writes Jesse off. He judges him, but later on, out of needing him and out of seeing that Jesse is lost and needs to be guided, Gus becomes compassionate. These are traits of great human beings. He becomes compassionate and you may think that he is just cultivating Jesse for his own means, but he is also cultivating Jesse in that relationship for Jesse, so that he can see that he is not lost, so that he help Jesse find himself. I think that is a fantastic and incredible trait for any human being to have.

Will you be directing an episode of the show or is it too far away to know whether that will happen?
Well, it is too far away and I know that the line is around the block. It really is. It's around the block twice. [laughs] Will I keep asking? Of course I will. Do I want the experience of working with these great artists? I mean, everyone who works on the show, the crew, the cinematographer Michael Slovis, the writers -- they are all at the top of their game. They are the best they can be and so I want to be in that mix as a director.

Can you talk a bit about your new role on 'Once Upon a Time'? [On the ABC show, which premieres Oct. 23, Esposito has two different recurring roles -- Sydney, the editor of the newspaper in the Maine town Storybrook, and the Mirror, an adviser of the evil queen in a fairy tale dimension].
[The fairy tale character is] is her mirror and he is not afraid to tell her [the truth] even though she doesn't want to hear what that truth may be. There is nothing more that she can do to him because he is stuck in this mirror. It's a fabulous piece of the fairytale world brought to us by the executive producers of 'Lost,' and I think it's really an incredibly conceived show. It's very smart and it also is a show that deals with moral issues of right and wrong and good and evil, and so I'm very excited to be a part of it.

I'm up here now in Vancouver shooting my third guest spot and who knows where that may go, but it's certainly fun to have the ability to play two different characters in one show. Each actor on the show plays two characters, and it's just a wondrous event that you could have a show that has such great special effects, but yet it also has the very real world of a small town and dealing with the things that we all deal with in life. What is right? What is wrong? It's very similar to Walt's [dilemmas]. Why does he break bad?

Can you talk about where your character is going and what he'll be up to?
I know that he is going to be developed more and more. Right now he is the reflection for the queen and he sort of guides her and tells her what she needs to do when she asks him, but I'm sure that, as we wonder why he is there, we'll start to develop that character and figure out who he is and what he is. So we're still in that investigation period of who this character is, but it's coming.

Are there any other projects or things in the works that you wanted to mention at the moment?
Yeah, I'm working on raising financing for my second feature film as a director and producer called 'This Is Your Death' and it's an unflinching look at reality television. To me, it's a modern day 'Network,' so I'm excited to be on the road to getting all of that together. I have a commitment from Jeremy Piven to play the lead in that piece. It's a satirical drama, if you can call it that, that I think is very, very powerful and will have us look at our idea of entertainment. People tape their deaths in front of a live studio audience for the opportunity to win a half a million dollars. It could be a very real thing that happens in the future, given how we're so obsessed with watching the train wrecks that could be our lives.

Follow @MoRyan on Twitter.

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Giancarlo, you are a brilliant man who played an amazing role. Thank you for giving us such a wonderful and complex character.

December 27 2012 at 7:20 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Bj Benge

Here's a link that explains how I feel about the season 4 finale:


June 29 2012 at 8:58 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great interview. Giancarlo Esposito played one of the most memorable villains on TV; Gilligan has his work cut out for him to create a new adversary/villain who can top Gus Fring. PS: I would be thrilled to have Mr. Esposito direct an episode of season 5.

October 10 2011 at 8:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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