On a cool evening in mid-February, Giancarlo Esposito is sitting in a director’s chair inside a smelly, oil-drenched auto shop in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The actor quietly studies his phone while fellow actor Mark “Hector Salamanca” Margolis spouts off on why actors who only want to play Mafia-type mobster characters are, well, totally full of shit. Every few seconds, Esposito — whose eyes, accented by delicately framed glasses, are laser-focused on his device — chuckles at Margolis’s rasp-voiced monologue about typecast actors who don’t want to “ruin their brand” by playing different parts.
It’s an interesting (and timely) subject for Esposito to mull, considering he’s here tonight to reprise one of the most iconic gangster roles in TV history: Breaking Bad’s Gustavo “Gus” Fring. But his much-anticipated return as the affable fast-food titan/meth drug lord character from AMC’s Emmy-winning drama is anything but an actor’s desperate attempt to (quite literally) relive the past. The New York acting icon and 30-year stage and big-screen veteran admits it took many months of deep self-reflection before he agreed to climb back into Fring’s manicured visage. He spoke to Vulture on location in Albuquerque during filming of Better Call Saul’s third-season, premiering April 10, about what it took to get him to return as Fring to Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould’s Bad prequel, the scene direction that made him first fall in love with Fring, and what Saul star Bob Odenkirk said that Esposito decries as “bullshit.”
What was your first reaction when you found out Vince and Peter wanted you to play Gus Fring again?
My reaction was “No.”
Why? And how much convincing did it take for you to say yes?
It took time; a lot of time. It’s like when you make a really good soufflé. You know what I mean? It’s very, very difficult to have it rise without falling and also have it be remarkable. So for me to try to re-create that soufflé without it falling was almost impossible.
The more you say “soufflé,” I keep imagining your face in Gus’s final scene in Breaking Bad’s “Face Off” episode.
[Laughs.] Yeah, I was pretty cooked! That was a good analogy, huh?
Perfect. You definitely went out in one of the biggest bangs in TV history.
And for me, that was it. I was done. I don’t like to repeat myself. I try to always be original in my work. So to come back and create a character I’d already created was … difficult.
Who finally convinced you to say yes?
It was a phone call with Vince, because I’d said no to all the other powers that be [laughs], including the head of Sony. I had to speak to Vince because I needed to know: Where does Gus, this iconic character, fit into this whole thing?
At what point in Saul’s run did you and Vince have this conversation?
The show had definitely been on a year, so maybe close to the second season? He said, “I want you to re-create the role that you created.” I said, “Vince, I didn’t create the role. You did.” He said, “No, no, you did!” I said, “Okay, I may have brought my spin to it.” He said, “You made that role work. You made our show be as big as it was.” Those were his words. I said, “Okay. I’ll accept all that. Let’s hear about what you’re thinking.” I loved the idea of looking into where Gus came from, and Vince had the integrity I wanted him to have about it. We also agreed that mystery about Gus was still important. When you see a character every week, you know what he’s going do. You know his idiosyncrasies. What’s fascinating about a guy like Gus is what we don’t know about him. That had to be held at bay for a while in Breaking Bad so he could remain dangerous, and yet still affable and compassionate with his workers. But always unpredictable.
It’s worth noting that you’ve actually been very busy since leaving Breaking Bad in 2011, having acted in numerous network dramas and Netflix’s The Get Down; a film you directed, This Is Your Death, will have its world premiere at South by Southwest, and you’re also still prolific in the New York theater scene. Which medium do you most prefer to work in?
I started in New York theater at a very young age. It’s my first love. I still work with the Atlantic Theater Company down on 20th Street, which I love because it feels like home and I also teach there. I often yearn to be back on the stage because it gives you the discipline you need to do this kind of acting. It’s still so interesting to me that Hollywood will spend $40 million to make a movie. I’ve made films for between $3 and $5 million and plays for 40 or 50 grand. It’s such a different exercise.
Very different especially, I’m guessing, for your take-home pay?
[Laughs.] It’s actually not about the pay at all for me. It’s about the attention we collectively pay to these experiences. Hollywood makes so many so-called “tentpole” movies that don’t say much, reflect how we live, or offer up some sort of revelation. They are pure, gratuitous entertainment. To me, art is supposed to reflect our lives and give us something to really think about. But it’s hard to predict what an audience’s appetite will be.
This season of Saul, the series’ third, takes place roughly five years before we first meet Gus in season two of Breaking Bad. What adjustments, if any, have you made to your appearance to indicate this timeline? Will we see him in his trademark GQ-gangster, tie-straightening style?
I can’t say explicitly, but there was a big question about whether I’d have the same hair as I did in Breaking Bad. I was determined that he have different hair because this is the Gus we don’t know yet. In terms of his clothes, I’ll say this: When I’m dressed like him, people automatically respect me. [Laughs.] I want to be always be thinking about these small details; this is where the divine channeling takes place. Gus is definitely very physical for me, but he’s also emotional, powerful, and dignified.
What was your biggest fear on that first day of shooting? Were you nervous?
I was mainly concerned that this not be a parody of him. In my real life, I’ll go to airports and people say to me all the time, “Say this line, say that line from Breaking Bad.” But I can’t do that here. Where do I find the juice to make this guy new and fresh? It’s the slightly younger Gus, so maybe he’s a little less confident? Maybe more vulnerable? Maybe he’s trying to find his sea legs within this very dangerous world? But he also has to present himself as a teacher. The reason I did Breaking Bad in the first place was to be in a show that was very anti‑drug, even though I was playing the drug kingpin. I’ve been around the country and seen the scourge of meth; the underbelly of society that ruins so many lives. The first Breaking Bad script I ever read that had Gus in it said he was “hiding in plain sight.” He gives to the community. He’s a human being. And that made me find the character. I didn’t want to play the caricature of a gangster. To me, he could be selling toothpaste or shoes [laughs]. He’s good at being a leader, he’s good at organizing, he’s good at covering his tracks. To me, he’s still fascinating. And a lot of questions we had about him in Breaking Bad, like “How did he come to this life?” will hopefully be answered in Saul.
It’s worth noting how different in tone and pace the two shows are. Saul is a much slower, narrative build while Breaking Bad was a ticking clock. Saul is also bigger in terms of storytelling. More characters have meaty story lines and there’s room to let the narrative breathe. Have you felt these shifts as an actor?
That’s all right, yes. Saul is very different. Jimmy McGill is not Saul yet, so there is time to let him grow. He’s a guy struggling with his own demons, struggling to decide whether he wants to be good or bad. Walter White didn’t have time for that. By the way, I came here to be part of something classic again. Breaking Bad will live on forever, and Saul has its place in that history now, too. You asked earlier why I came back? I’m back because I love and trust Vince and Peter. I don’t act alone. I act with this family of filmmakers who do their work at a very high level. Those are the reasons I came back.
Well, you’re in good company if you felt conflicted about reprising your Breaking Bad role. Bob Odenkirk told me that at first, he wasn’t sure about doing Saul either.
Oh, bullshit. [Laughs.]
Okay, Bob claims to have had such reservations.
Yeah, well, Bob is a good actor sometimes! Vince had clearly said a Breaking Bad prequel was either going be about the rise of Gus or Better Call Saul. And he knew more about Saul; he’d been down that road with Odenkirk starting years ago. I think all of it had been percolating for a long time. So definitely don’t take his word on that. That’s so bullshit. [Laughs.]
This interview has been edited and condensed.
*A version of this article appears in the March 20, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.