Giancarlo Esposito has inhabited Gustavo Fring, off and on, for more than a decade. He played the Pollos Hermanos proprietor and drug dealer for three-plus seasons on Breaking Bad, then reprised the role for four seasons on Better Call Saul. But now that the prequel series is ending its run, Esposito wants more time with the character.
“Now I feel like, God, I’m remorseful it’s done,” the actor says of the series’ final run of episodes, which begin airing July 11 on AMC. “What will I do without that guy?” It’s a different perspective from the early stages of Better Call Saul, when he wasn’t sure he wanted to revisit Gus again. But as Esposito explained during our conversation, he found a lot of satisfaction in taking the character on a new emotional journey and, with season six’s “Axe and Grind,” getting to direct an episode himself.
When Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould approached you about resuscitating Gus for Better Call Saul, did you feel like there was more to explore?
I was hesitant; I felt that I had given my all. In reflection, my hesitancy came out of not wanting to play the same character again. When you are able to let your expectation of what might be go and listen to what is proposed, then you can create a new vision for yourself and see yourself walking in those shoes again.
Out of my conversation with Vince came a certain revelation: I wanted to discover Gus’s backstory. I wanted to know if he did have a family. I wanted to know more about his Chilean roots. I wanted to know how he got here. The character comes out of circumstance, but it also comes out of behavior. In order for me to do the behavior, I have to think that certain things were prominent in Gus’s life, that he moved from and through them to become who he is now, that the events of his life created the behavior he exhibited in Breaking Bad. Now what are the events of his life that created his behavior six years or more before Breaking Bad?
Vince said, “Well, the overall feeling about Gus is that the less we know, the more we’re interested.” I agreed with that. I didn’t want to go back and play a cardboard cutout of myself. I didn’t want a parody of what I think Gus is. I wanted to be where I am now in episode six, where I’m not so self-assured. I’m actually a little tweaked. I’m actually a little worried — not so much about facing death but about having lost a bit of control, having to be a little more vulnerable, having to think harder than I ever did on Breaking Bad, having to be ahead of who I consider to be a menace. Now the family Salamanca is a menace, but Lalo Salamanca is a true menace to Gustavo Fring.
I have created what I believe is a Gustavo Fring who is a little less measured, a little more irked and nervous about what the future may hold. When I feel awkward on set because I’m not completely in control of the chaos and I hate it, I hearken back to Gus who is in control, not only comported within himself but also within the world which he wants to control. When I felt awkward, I had to finally realize I am in the right place. This is how it would feel. That’s a good thing.
What does it mean that you were thinking harder on Better Call Saul than you did during Breaking Bad?
There were more components and more elements to deal with that weren’t as direct as they were on Breaking Bad. In Better Call Saul, we have moments early on where Nacho missteps and makes an attempt on Hector Salamanca’s life, very direct. Gus sees that, notices it, understands those pills Nacho had, and gets very upset inside. Because that revenge is Gus’s revenge.
For Nacho to have even thought about doing that because of the threat the Salamancas pose to him and his father, that incenses Gus. It also gives Gus the opening to be able to clearly state, “You are mine now.” In this later incarnation of Gustavo, there are more than just those elements. There’s the elements of the cartel. There’s the elements that have been planted back in Breaking Bad of Juan Bolsa, whom Gus is controlling as well.
There’s the element of Steven Bauer’s character, Don Eladio, looming because all these events happen before what we saw on Breaking Bad. Because Gus hasn’t completely figured out all the pieces of the puzzle that pertain to him being able to take charge, he’s still developing what that could be while having to deal with the situation in the moment.
The thing that seems to animate him, at least in the part of season six we’ve seen so far, is that he’s so certain Lalo is still alive even though there’s no evidence of that. He takes that away from his interaction with Hector. Something tells him Lalo’s still out there.
It’s a great moment because that one little piece is so very telling. “Tell me again,” he says to Tyrus and Mike. “Tell me again. Tell me again.” He’s thinking it through, and this is what I love. If I were doing any other show, I’d say, “Look, if it’s not on the page, I’m not going to play it because you haven’t given me the tools I need to play it.” I used to think I was a great enough actor to put in all that stuff the writer didn’t write. I realize I’m an actor who honors what the writer writes. In this case, the writers write incredible stuff. He has the photographs, he has the body there, the tattoo is there, the teeth match, but there’s something not right about it.
I loved playing these beats because what did it lead to? What was the answer? The answer for Gus was, I’m off. I’m off to see Hector Salamanca because then I will know if Lalo is alive. When he goes to Hector and they have that conversation, he just has to look in a man’s eyes. That is Gustavo Fring’s superpower. In looking into Hector’s eyes, it was the last moment of that scene. Everything was good. Then he saw that hatred. He saw that “I’m going to kill you,” and that’s when he knew.
The quality that defines Gus in so many ways is his sense of calm. How do you channel that?
The thing that does it for me is to sit in silence and to be quiet. In the beginning, my yoga practice pulled me in because it allowed my mind to still and not think about anything but a one-pointed thought. I’m trying to let all my thoughts go and think my highest possible thought, which is nothing, so that my mind can ease and relax. That is a practice I’ve had for years. In returning to Gustavo Fring, it deepened and reignited that practice. I once again realized this was the only thing that was going to give me pause. Because my energy is very different from that of Gustavo’s.
So people are mirrors. Someone smiles at you, you smile back. Someone says, “Oops.” You go, “Oops.” It’s cute; you laugh. Someone says something they get tickled by, you want to be tickled, too. But what if you don’t really feel tickled? What if you’re just honoring what their emotion is? It reminded me that in acting, when you’re with a scene partner, you can jump to their level of hysteria or their level of ecstasy or not. When people look at you, you can look them back in the eye and give them your truth — not what they’re reflecting to you, which is what we normally do as human beings. I would play against that because when you’re rooted and grounded, all you’re taking in is your present moment. That really helped me.
In this case, I’m acting but not acting because I’m in such a place where, as an actor, all I have to do is listen. Whether it be your voice, who I’m talking to, or whether it be the voice inside me — and maybe that’s the key that I’ve never, ever talked about. It’s the voice inside Gus.
Like with Lalo Salamanca: It’s the voice inside Gus that tells him that’s an untruth.
Now, we all have a sense of how we can feel in the universe. I’m hypervigilant. I don’t like anybody right behind me because it’s harder for me to put that energy back there, yet I can feel when someone’s behind me.
I went to military school, wanted to go to battle in the war because I knew I was at home there. I was one man of many. I believe you are unable to lead unless you can follow. I say that because Gus is a leader in his own world. I also feel that Gus came from a military background. You don’t leave your flank open.
Is Gus being in the military part of the backstory you constructed for him?
Absolutely. It points to the moment in Breaking Bad where he walks out and there’s a sniper. He’s just killed one of his men by the Pollos truck. He walks out and he has his arms wide open into the desert and just says, “Shoot me.” That moment was very telling. I carry that with me because he’s a made man. He’s not afraid of dying, but you can’t touch him. That made me think, Oh, where does he come from? Well, I think he probably came up as a son of some military leader who may have taken over via coup. Because what he’s doing now is basically a coup of the Salamanca organization. He’s an outsider. He’s from Chile. They look down on him.
It’s a racist, jealous attitude they have toward Gustavo because he came from a different background. He’s not the Spanish they are. In my brain, he’s much classier, much more appropriate, and on a whole different level than they are. I think he was offered a position in Chile to run for office and lead the country, and he felt like he was of the people.
If you go back to the coyote story about this animal taking the fruit off the tree — and Gus captured this animal with a broken leg and kept it alive and nursed it because that represented capturing what was threatening his food supply — it related to his poverty when he was growing up. I think he’s someone who worked his way through the ranks all the way to the top. Then when it all came down, he was offered the position, he said, “No, I don’t want it.” He realized he would have to do someone else’s bidding and he didn’t want that. Then he left Chile and he came to America to create his own empire that he could control and be proud of.
Gus is a businessman, which is why he really chides Walter for being involved with a drug addict. He does not condone that. His standards are very high, and this is just like he could be selling toothpaste. That gave me some distance and something to work with.
All these different nuances of Gustavo in two different shows and two different incarnations — I still attest that the greatest victory is season six because I was able to do something original. It would have been easy to go back and try to play what I’ve already played. It’s in the DNA, but how do you play someone you’ve already played but who’s having fresh and new emotions each and every time? That’s when I realized Gustavo Fring isn’t done.
Why don’t you feel done with him?
As I get older, I get younger somehow. With each year, my biggest worry was, Am I getting too old to have the energy to play a guy that’s putting a cap on his emotions and still able to be alive? As I get older, I feel a bit refreshed, different than I felt last year, when I was going, “Oh my God, everything hurts. What am I going to do?” This year I feel more enthused that there is a possibility.
I mean, I’ve always had a dream even before Better Call Saul that there would be some show that would reflect Gustavo’s past. I’m dying to play the vision in my mind that inspired and informed the Gus you see but don’t know. I would like you to know that Gus. It’s intriguing to know where he came from. I still hold out for that possibility. It’s not up to me; it’s up to Vince Gilligan and his team and partners. Could that ever be realized? I think it could be something good.
What is the likelihood of that happening? You’ve talked about it before, but have there been more serious conversations that suggest this will go forward?
None at all. But a part of me has become Gustavo because a part of Gustavo was me before it was Gus. Before Gus owned me, I owned me. I say that only because I believe what you think grows. I believe that our thought form is a direct, energetic channel to the universe.
When I say it, I’m not saying it to get fans casting and have them inundated with the idea that everybody wants that. I’m saying it because it’s a direct connection to the energy of the universe and the energy of me. Somewhere, I’m not done with it. If I could think that thought, then I’m not finished.
I could be finished — I’d still be fulfilled. I was fulfilled the first time after it was done. It was a godsend for it to come back. I thought it was going to be a burden. It turned into a challenge and a godsend, but here we are. Time flies, man. I’ve done — what? — four years on this thing. It’s really been 13 years. I never expected to carry a character this long in my life. Obviously for me, you can see I’m still excited. I’m still like a kid in the candy store. This year, I had the opportunity to do something I hadn’t done before. Rhea Seehorn and I were the first actors from the show to direct.
To be asked put me in an ecstatic position. Once you get that call, you have to live up to it. So I was also very nervous. I’ve directed before, but that’s a great honor. It’s not lost on me that they asked me.
It’s different from a director for hire who comes in and does an episode in season six as the new “It” director in the world. For an actor who’s been working with these people for six years and seeing how the machine works and seeing their habits, seeing their tics, seeing their tells, then I can go, “You know, just the way you did that leg out there, that’s a little telling. What were you thinking when you put your leg out?”
Bob might go, “I wasn’t thinking anything.” Rhea might go, “Well, what do you think I was thinking?” I said, “Well, your leg went one step toward the door, although that’s where you’re going. Are you in anticipation? Were you a little anxious about going that way?” “Maybe that’s it. Maybe I was anxious about going that way. I think you nailed it.” I say, “Well, whatever that is, it’s great.” Sometimes I don’t even say anything because I want them to do it again.
In episode 606, “Axe and Grind,” there’s a young Kim. I want that young Kim to be reflective of older Kim. I want to see the stream from young Kim to old Kim, and I want you to be that same person. I was blessed with great acting and great actresses to play Kim’s mom and a young Kim who even studied the voice of Rhea.
That was amazing casting for that episode.
These are the things I look for because I’m more seasoned than I was years ago. Directing is not about me. As an actor, God, it becomes all about me, and I don’t want it to be about me anymore. I’ve had enough of me. I had a T-shirt made up that is in my home out west. It says, “I am so over me.” It’s a picture of Gus. I gave it to some of my close friends.
I want it to be more about the creation itself. If I’ve learned anything on Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad, it’s that, as a director, you rely on those artists who do their best work to have you look good, to have you bring your dream to fruition. My job is to go in and say, “Here’s how I see it. I don’t want to get in the way of the look of the show. I don’t want to re-create the wheel. But I see this as this.” I believe, because I come from theater, that the writer’s intention is what is most important. The words are important, but the intention is of even greater importance. My job is to interpret that. As an actor, I’m an interpreter and a channeler. As a director, I’m able to interpret and then channel something original, infuse it with an original energy that extends and tells the story even more clearly.