With magnetic performances in so many different roles, Giancarlo Esposito occupies that elite list of character actors whose very presence in a project inspires delight. This, no doubt, is why he was cast as El Lazo on season two of HBO’s Westworld (taking over for Clifton Collins Jr., who played the role last season, but now appears in the same scene in a different role). Esposito’s presence was not announced in the opening credits of Sunday night’s episode, “Reunion,” and HBO asked that it not be revealed in advance reviews, the better to protect the “Holy cow, that’s Giancarlo Esposito!” reaction that he inevitably inspired. Ahead of the episode, Vulture spoke to the actor about the challenges of playing a nonhuman character on Westworld, his narration of Netflix’s Dear White People (which premieres its second season on May 4), the looming shadow cast by his indelible performance as drug kingpin Gus Fring on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, and the importance of putting good vibrations out into the world.
How did you end up on Westworld?
I love Sir Anthony Hopkins. I really loved the original movie about this particular subject matter. Although I don’t watch a lot of the television series, I had watched pieces of a few episodes that caught my attention. And then I got a call. That’s how it always happens!
You know, people know other people. In terms of how public life affects all this, I’ve said some great things about Anthony, and he’s said some great things about me in regards to my work as Gus Fring on Breaking Bad, so I think it was all kind of synchronous in that way.
Are there rules that govern playing a robot, like acting rules? Did anybody talk to you about that?
No, no one talked to me about that. It is interesting to think about having to play an object that is completely electrocuted in a certain sense, taken from some other projection of what animation should be. My way, though, is always not to try, not to even think about it, not to be thinking about playing a robot, because at this point in time and technology, we’re able to mimic so closely and finely the human characteristics that you wouldn’t know the difference anyway.
The reason I ask is because I had talked to people who work on the show, including the director Michelle MacLaren, and they said there were certain guidelines – though perhaps they applied more in the scenes where the hosts go offline. I guess if you’re in character as El Lazo, none of that stuff would apply?
No, but I have seen the scenes that you’re referring to on the show, and I do respect those scenes. I look at them acutely, because those scenes were predicated upon the real timing and dedication of the actor, to create that world inside their brain, to be able to imprint it on us as an audience without it looking overdone. So I know exactly what you mean. I hope that I would have the opportunity to be in one of those scenes! Those are quite chilling for me, because you get a chance to really play a lot of different parts of what a human being might be within a few very, very short moments.
Have you given any thought to the idea of these robots being, essentially, actors in a television show? The people who control the hosts are showrunners, and they can reprogram them to play different parts.
[Laughs] Well, that’s the ultimate producer’s dream, that’s what I’ll say! To have someone who doesn’t complain and doesn’t have any time constraints and isn’t a prima donna, and you can tell them what to do, and make them every different character in the world without any trouble at all? And not pay the residuals? [Laughs.] Yeah, baby!
That’s a good one, dude! Listen, you came up with it, not me. But that would be the dream!
On the show, a number of hosts are haunted by flashbacks to traumatic things that happened when they were playing different characters in different story lines. They’re actors, basically, who are still haunted by their last roles. I wonder if anything like that has ever happened for you? Have you ever played a part that got under your skin in a way that was traumatizing or unpleasant? Where you just had a hard time letting go of it, or it never quite let go of you?
Yeah. I think all of us, as actors, have a certain level of commitment to different characters in our lifetime, and my level is always deep. What happens is, some characters meld with who we are as people more than others. When that happens, you feel a deep retaining wall there, holding back all of the emotions that you would want to lend to the character, that you recognize are so sympathetic with yourself, so you have to be careful.
I did a play called Zooman and the Sign years ago with the Negro Ensemble Company, where I played a character called Zooman who accidentally shot a girl and killed her. He was a gang member, and he had remorse over it. He felt badly about it, yet he still could justify why it happened if he tried to understand it logically, even though he couldn’t forgive himself. That’s one of the characters that resounds for me, one that stuck with me for a long time.
YoYo in Night on Earth did the same thing. Yeah, there are many different characters who affected me like that. From Do the Right Thing, Buggin’ Out did that for me. And, of course, let’s not forget Gus Fring. I’ve had a few of those connected-tissue characters, but they never come back to haunt me when I’m working on another one.
I let them go, man! I let you guys remember the characters that way. People are smarter than me in the world. They can quote every line I ever said from ten different characters, where I can only remember maybe four, maybe three, depending on what I’m doing, depending on where my attention span is. But that’s okay, because that’s what I do. I have to become. I’ve had to become good at letting go.
Was that always true?
It hasn’t always been that way. But I try to [remember the characters] now, and I wonder if I’m letting myself slip or slide, because I don’t know every single piece. Our brains are computers, are dictionaries, are books. They hold information, but you can only hold so much information. Even if you think you can hold the world, you can only hold so much! It’s kind of the same with an actor. You hold it all in very deeply, but until you start to let it go, you won’t be able to put more in there. You know what I mean?
Yeah, I do.
I find that particular part of the show to be the magical part. Often the characters on Westworld are looked at only in terms of being science. In my world, they’re looked at as being spiritual, as experiences you carry on. It would be fascinating for the show to explore that more. I think that’s the deeper reason why [hosts] carry a particular trait or being or character with them — or something that they’ve done, or a traumatic event that’s happened to them — into another episode, as another character completely. That means the wash is not clean, right?
Right! I mean, could the wash ever really be clean?
When you delete something from your hard drive, it’s not actually gone. It just means you’ve given the computer permission to write over it. Maybe with the robots, all that stuff is actually still there, and maybe it stays there until it’s written over.
That’s right! That would be very much like life, in many ways. Even when something traumatic happens and you have to do something to recover ourselves.
I wanted to also ask about your narration of Dear White People. It has a very distinctive timbre, a certain way of framing things. Did you have any particular models?
I do quite a bit of voice-over and I really enjoy it. I try to let the material dictate what it should be. I know for this series, I wanted a voice. I did a video a long time ago for Alicia Keys that had a piece of the narrator in it. Also, I played Big Brother Almighty Julian for Spike Lee in School Daze, and I sort of played the narrator like him, as if he was looking over the quad at all the young students. It was sort of an homage to Spike. I really appreciate when people recognize what certain artists have brought to what we do, you know? And I wanted to do that here. Spike was important to me, and it’s special, meaningful, to be able to pay tribute to other people in that way.
But I don’t want to make it sound like it was just an homage. I wanted to have some cynicism in my voice, a bit of a questioning quality, but without being too threatening. I wanted it to be fun, because after all, it is a comedy, despite the darker moments.
I love how it sounds like you’re narrating from a century removed. Like you’re kind of amused by it all. You’re not entirely without compassion, but your sympathy only goes so deep because all this happened a long time ago.
It almost reminds me of Barry Lyndon, which is narrated in a wry, detached way, in third person.
Oh, I like that! I like Barry Lyndon. Though I’m going for something a little bit lighter, so you’re able to take in more of what is said without being put off.
I wanted to convey the sense that this circumstance, this place, this university, with all these higher-ups and all these people who run it, has a history — not only religiously, but politically and also economically. That history is what drives it. If you think about it that way, the setting becomes a representation of any society, if it’s done really well, and I do think [series creator] Justin Simien is bordering on that. You don’t look at it as being racist, or in any way insecure in what it’s saying. It could be set in Africa with African people.
Are you back on Better Call Saul this season?
Do people talk to you about Gus Fring on the street? Do they quote Gus to you?
Oh yeah, that always happens. People know some of the lines that go back to me being Gus in Breaking Bad. People relate to that show quite a bit.
As a chameleonic character actor, are you okay with being so recognizable as Gus Fring? Or are there times when you think, This is too much.
No, because as recognizable as that character is, I also get people who recognize me from shows like Revolution on NBC, or the Maze Runner series, or Homicide: Life on the Street, or films of my own as a director — I directed two, one called This Is Your Death, which translated to the screen as The Show, and another called Gospel Hill.
It’s interesting to see the cross sections of people who’ve seen me from different things. Sometimes I’m quite surprised when people stop and recognize me from an episode of Sesame Street that I did when I was 19 — which is rare, but it has happened — or who come up to me and say, “I saw you in the opening of Seesaw on Broadway, back in 1978, ’79, or ’80” — whenever that was. And I go, “Wow, really?” And they say, “Yeah, I was teaching at this school,” or “I went to a Broadway show and there you were.” It’s always exciting to hear about the obscure things again. The ones that people don’t know about.
I’ve got one for you: Fresh.
A great movie, and a really wonderful filmmaker, Boaz Yakin. It’s one of my favorite movies, and he ranks high in my regard as an artist, and as a writer and director. Very urban and very gritty, and yet very truthful and honest in what it captured.
You got to play a more cutting, satirical character in Okja.
That was a great experience, to work with a director who’s talented and special as Bong Joon-ho. I especially loved having the ability to go to Korea for part of the shoot, and for the [first] screening especially, and see how deeply the Korean people respect their filmmakers.
I love that guy! It’s so meaningful to be in the presence of such a spiritual person, someone who is able to be authentic in his words and his filmmaking, and in his compassion — in his feeling for the universe, and for animals.
You use the word spiritual a lot when you talk about movies and your roles. That word seems important to you.
Do you think about the kind of energy that a movie or a character is putting out into the world before you decide whether to accept a role?
Always. I think the stories that have real alchemy about them are stories that deal with history and time — stories that show human beings growing through history and time, and that consider what we become. Those kind of epic subjects, stories that are about science and giving and serving and solving, are really mythical. Or at least they have mythical overtones.
Do you have any rituals that you always do before you start building a character?
I get a [blank] book for every character that I do, and start to write out what some of his traits might be, and what some of his idiosyncrasies might be, and what his favorite colors might be. I do a lot of the same kind of work in trying to put myself into a position where I judge who I think the character is from the history of what’s already been written about him, then add something that is not written, putting myself forward in a creative way. I’m trying to add what spice I think the character might need from a completely different standpoint, and then mix it all in the pot.