As meth lord Gus Fring on AMC's Breaking Bad, Giancarlo Esposito plays one of the most ruthless guys on television. In last night's season-four premiere, [SPOILER ALERT] he delivers his most shocking scene to date, silently and stoically intimidating Walter White and Jesse Pinkman — until, in a split-second twist, he gets ultra-violent. We spoke with Esposito about how he prepared for and executed those tense ten minutes.
I heard you had to put the premiere script down and walk away from it for a little while when you first read it.
I did. The scene was so heavy and it really comes out of left field. After reading it for the first time, I was a little bit shaken and I put it down. I had no doubt in my ability to be able to make it all happen, but I had some deep concern about being able to do it and coming out of it unscathed, without really hurting my spirit and my soul.
What was it about the scene that you thought would hurt your spirit or soul?
Well, it’s a very brutal moment for Gus, and I wanted to be very calm and relaxed in my execution, but I also wanted to not take any of it home with me. Because people refer to scenes like this a lot, and they immediately think that there is a part of the actor that is very much like the character they play. And actors kind of carry the essence of some things that they portray. So I wanted to be able to get out feeling clean, like I did my acting work, but I’m not going to walk out in the world and think I’m the badass of all time, and misstep or speak out of turn or do something that would reflect Gus outside of being on the set.
I found how I could not scar myself was by understanding completely that Gus was doing something to protect the family. These chemists that he’s cultivated, the people that work for him, bodyguards, and everyone else, the people in the laundry, the people in the chicken place — he cares about them. So in order to protect them, he has to do this thing, because this person has been exposed, and he’s gotta take care of business to protect the family. Once I found that key for me as an actor, I could relate to it. I have four children, and I would do anything to protect them if they were in danger. And so once I found that, I could justify this killing. It’s something that needed to happen.
Didn’t he also do this to send a message?
Oh, no doubt. He’s sending a message to Walt, he’s also sending a message to Jesse. As you will start to see in season four as it unfolds, Jesse is the next person he has to really get to, because Walt seems to be stumbling. [Gus] needs a guarantee. I mean, there’s no doubt that when he has an opportunity in this [episode] to take care of three birds with one stone, take care of them all. But he does need them as well; he needs probably Jesse more because Jesse would be the next person to cultivate. You know, Walt is having too many family problems, too many conscience issues, too many personality issues, whereas Jesse is younger and much more pliable than Walt. So I feel as if he is, without a doubt, sending a very powerful and strong message.
Can you take me through the scene a little bit? How many days did it take to film?
It took two days, and we were coming back after a long hiatus, and I was very cognizant of the fact that this scene had to play completely physically, in the body, in the eye, in the walk and the action. So I was very quiet, and people on the set were very happy to see me, it’s [episode] 401, everyone’s coming back together. But I stayed very, very quiet, which is normally what I like to do, but I’m a little more cordial with everyone. But I was really very quiet, very silent, very focused, because I felt like that would play in Gus’ body. So that when he walks in, he is obviously very angry, but he goes and starts to make this whole shift in changing his clothes, and attitude, and very nonchalantly starts to look for what he’s going to use to implement this very horrific act.
Did the folks on the set understand why you were so quiet?
I think they did. When you come back from a long hiatus, the first episode and those first scenes, everyone’s a little bit excited, and everyone’s trying to get the machine up and running again. They weren’t so focused on the fact that I wasn’t as talkative as normal. They were really focused on trying to get the machine back to where it was. You’re talking about a show where every grip, even the craft service people, have read the script. It’s very unusual. Everyone knows what’s going on, everyone knows what’s going to happen to you, what you’re going to do before you do it, and so all eyes and ears and senses are attentive to what your energy is. But, yes, in this position, everyone was trying to get their sea legs again.
When it comes to you actually grabbing Victor, did it register: “I’m grabbing this character who’s been on the show for a year, since around the same time I have, and I’ve gotta make like I’m cutting his throat”?
It was a difficult moment for me to step behind him and cut his throat. There was a take where I just kind of went, “Shh shh,” to try to allow him to die more calmly. But it was a very difficult moment to muster up the energy to actually do the action with not only an actor you really like, but a character who could’ve been the next groomed person to be Gus’s right hand man. Although, obviously, he didn’t have the brains. He didn’t cover his tracks. [There was also] the physical action of having to step in front of him, as if there’s still a moment where I might go for Jesse or Walt, and then take a huge step to the side and behind him, and very quickly slit his throat. And all the elements of the prosthetic that was around his neck, the blood that had to come out, the way I grabbed him, not wanting to hurt him — I mean a lot of little small elements that had to appear to be fluid, absolutely fluid, so you would look at this scene, the way Gus does it, you might say, it’s not his first picnic. He’s had some experience. So I wanted all of these things to play, and I wanted to be very careful.
You know, in my fitting, I had wanted to have my rubber boots be a size eleven, to have a little bit of room for a thick sock. And when I got there on the day, those boots were too big. And the wardrobe gal didn’t have a smaller pair of boots, which were absolutely necessary, because if I didn’t have any grip — I didn’t want Gus to slide, to fall I wanted him to be completely in control of his physical body. So there was a whole issue. They brought out Bryan [Cranston]’s boots that he wore, and I used those, because the on-set wardrobe gal gave me those, and the new [wardrobe] supervisor said, “You can’t use those, they are Bryan’s. He asked for 11 that’s what he’s using.” I mean, this is very, very important. I don’t want to fall on the actor, I don’t want Gus to look like he doesn’t have any footing. It was a whole issue that I really didn’t share with Vince or anybody; I was really cool and calm about it. Someone, the woman who’s in charge of the wardrobe truck, ran out, got in her car, drove down to a fisherman’s place and found the right sized boot and saved my butt. I’m so happy in the final edit of the scene that it absolutely works, that there’s not a moment that you doubt what’s going on.
On your IMDB profile there’s a series of bad guys and maybe some cops and other folks, and then at the very end, it shows you did Sesame Street for a year.
[Laughs] I did! I did the Electric Company theme song and I was Big Bird’s camp counselor, and I’m still trying to find that footage for my children.
I wonder if it’s on YouTube. What would people think if they saw “Gus Fring” as Big Bird’s camp counselor on Sesame Street? [Ed note: You can see a picture here.]
It’s interesting: When I went down the red carpet line recently in Los Angeles for the premiere, at the beginning, reporters and writers who know each other said, “I have a friend at the end who’s afraid to talk to you.” And that’s kind of wonderful; it’s wonderful when people have been threatened by the character so much and don’t want to enter your world because they’re afraid you are exactly like that character, even though it’s just acting. It’s an honor.