Giancarlo Esposito didn’t necessarily expect to reprise his role as Gus from Breaking Bad on Better Call Saul. While he was intrigued by the idea of returning to the character, before he committed, he wanted to be sure that Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould intended to retain the mystery that is so essential to the character of Gustavo Fring.
In our interview, we discuss his return to Gus, the process of creating the signature “villain” in the Breaking Bad universe, and where Better Call Saul might go next, heading into its final season.
Awards Daily: Did you have any reticence about coming back to play Gus on Better Call Saul after completing your arc on Breaking Bad? Did you feel like you were finished with that character?
Giancarlo Esposito: When I first started watching Saul, I really loved the show, and I really, really loved Bob Odenkirk’s performance, as well as Rhea Seahorn. But I felt it was a very different show and I didn’t see it moving closer to what Breaking Bad was until probably the second or third season. I certainly had some reticence, because I felt like I had fulfilled the story of Gus – with his position in the show and what we knew of him other than his back story. Vince (Gilligan) was always convinced that the less we know about Gus the better, because the less we know, the more we’re going to want to know, and the more it would be a mystery. When they asked me to come back, I asked specifically to speak to Vince to see if any new ground would be uncovered, and to see if we’d be mining any of Gus’s history that we hadn’t seen before.
And the answer was the same answer. Yes, we will know him in a different place and timing in his life, but will we get into the minute details of his life? Probably not. Vince was honest about that and I could feel him him wanting to move Saul closer to Breaking Bad, and he certainly needed a nemesis as I was a nemesis for Walter White–I create the link to Saul and to the cartel. I was all on board once I spoke to Vince because there were different ideas coming out and different relationships in this particular version of what I like to think of as Breaking Bad plus – Breaking Bad times two (laughs). It’s a very different show that’s really captured our audience because it’s taken on so many of the wonderful qualities of Breaking Bad, but it’s also becoming a more personal story.
AD: I thought the same thing when I heard you were coming back. There’s a jauntiness to Saul – I think largely because of the way Bob plays him – that is a million miles away from Gus. What convinced you that those differences in style and tone could be effectively merged?
GE: These writers – Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould – who created this particular show and all the writers in the writers’ room are so stealthy at weaving a real-life story line into their characterizations. Certainly, my character and Saul’s character come from other incarnations, but I think they had talked about it enough to make the story personal, and almost a relationship show between Saul and Kim–what might possess them to be so excited about beating the system in a certain way. That theme is in our show. And Gustavo has created a business that beats the system in another way. These two different trajectories are moving toward a certain point -.one being affected by the other in a way that is changing their whole destiny.
They were writing a moral tale about a human being who belonged in this place. Not only felt jazzed and juiced by doing what he does, but was also good at – it talented at it. That’s a really big life decision that Jimmy has to make, moving into his new place as Saul Goodman. When he started to make that switch, I knew where they were going. Well, not exactly, but I knew they were moving in the direction where these paths would cross, and we’d get some satisfaction as well as comedy from the way that Jimmy deals with Nacho, and the way he deals with the Salamancas. We have a new Salamanca who has captured a lot of attention and is very different than Hector. You start to feel like these worlds exist in the same place–and they do comfortably. Maybe the jauntiness, as you say, that has come about in the show is truly the uncomfortable feeling with the juxtaposition to that. How uncomfortable is Jimmy in this world right now? To watch him get comfortable, and Kim as well…I think it’s an interesting part of what these writers are doing. But for me it was the turning point for Jimmy that I knew they would investigate some of the earlier mechanics of how Gus came to be.
AD: We do learn more about Gus’s hatred of the cartel and what drives him. What’s it like to get more into that back story while maintaining the mystery of Gus?
GE: I have to always remind myself that I’m not the the Gus that we’ve seen in Breaking Bad. He might be a little more volatile. He could make wrong decisions. He could make decisions that baffle other people, but he still knows the long game. The most difficult part of having to lose his own restaurant, and having to make that happen, and to have Lalo believe that nothing is going on, that Gus is trying to not cover up his tracks, but that he really did get hit.–for him to lose that money was a big one for me. Losing that amount of money and understanding that it would pay off for down the road would be a decision that later on Gus may have handled differently. But at this point in his position and time in the cartel he operates this way. Which was intriguing for me.
We also have Don Eladio back – another very interesting character who has such strength and power in the decisions that Gus has to make, because eventually he needs to convince Don Hilario that he can do what he does better than the rest, because that happens to be his boss. And then finally Juan Bolsa. All the moments this season set up all of those juicy moments later where Gus finally does get his comeuppance. You see the root of Juan Bolsa’s lie and that Gus knew it all along. He knew it completely from the beginning that Bolsa was particular in him having to give up this money, him having to torch his restaurant – he knew what was behind it. To me, it’s like doing a puzzle piece backwards.
AD: There’s a great deal of stillness in Gus. He doesn’t have a lot of lines, and he can be very polite when he wants to be. It’s a very internal, restrained performance. How do you approach playing Gus?
GE: I feel that Gus is an observer. He observes people, and businesses, and establishments for certain reasons. Then he dissects it and figures out what people within the group he’s reading want the most. For me, it was important to be very still and be very business-like in many ways. The politeness got tied in from his work at Los Pollos Hermanos. I felt that Gus was a hands-on owner-manager. He wants to make sure everyone is happy. I had restaurant experience, so it was very natural for me to make that choice. It felt smooth and organic and real that Gus would really care. The caring came out of him being meticulous. He’s meticulous about everything. About the music he listens to, about how he cooks, about how we treat his workers–everything. I always wanted to create a character who really was an upstanding member of society. There were just certain things that you didn’t know about him and what he did.
So, for him to be supporting the fun run, and the police, and the children’s hospital, that allows people to view him in a certain way. Very smart, but that is Gus as well. That’s really him. He cares about people. For him to care about his workers and give the whole speech back in the early Saul episodes where the cartel guys come in and threaten the workers–this not only incenses Gus, this incenses him because he has a certain way of going about things. I modeled the character to be running a business politely, economically, and successfully, and to care about people. Within that comes the person who knows so much about every one of his workers and his colleagues. He knows their strengths, he knows their weaknesses, and thereby can control them in a certain way with his very graceful and very cultured manipulations.
AD: Speaking of Gus being meticulous and how he interacts with his workers, I thought the scene where he has his employee continually clean the fryer was remarkable and completely unnerving. Maybe my favorite scene of the season. Can you talk about that scene?
GE: I really enjoyed that scene because Gus gets a bit of bad news he has to deal with right during that time. You might think that his attitude or his edginess is because of the phone call that he’s received. I think that the young man – who is such a wonderful actor – was so observant of my actions, physically, and my scrutiny of the fryer, and I think he really did a great job feeling my disappointment. The feeling that this was not up to standard and Gus is willing to clean it himself. But being a very good teacher, which is what I love about the scene, Gus puts away his anxiety and all the emotions he’s feeling in the moment and takes the time to show this young man, the way you do anything is the way you do everything. I tell that to my kids once in a while, so that they remember. Especially now, during the time that we’re living in–to do small things in a big way is important. What is that big way? Is the way that is sufficient for this task.
And so Gus is teaching this young man something that you may not think is important, but it is in Gus’s mind. As he’s telling him how to clean the fryer – “maybe you should try it again” – he’s thinking how many people are eating chicken that was fried in this fryer that is not clean. He’s telling this young man, this is the way you do it and you do it because cleanliness is important. We’re in food service – all of the reasons behind it. But it’s also that extra that makes you feel so uncomfortable. It’s that disapproval. He wants to do it right, but he also knows to do it right for this guy is a whole other process. (Laughs). He’s dealing with a boss who is not just bossing him to be bossy but has a means to an end in everything he does. The tension in that scene is just wonderful. I can step back from it as an actor for a second, because the young man is already very nervous acting with me. He was really wonderful. We had a couple of scenes together – one last season as well and this one this season. He knows how to read people as well. And to feel their reactive moment, emotionally and through physicality, without any words is really something else to play. A favorite of mine as well. I’m glad you mentioned it. It was really fun to do.
AD: I’ve always loved the cleverness of having this dangerous man run a restaurant whose logo is a rather silly looking chicken. It’s almost like an inside joke. It’s not only a great cover, it’s rather funny too. Do you enjoy the dark humor in that?
GE: I do. I mean, I’m wearing a clip-on tie that reminded me of the clip-on tie I wore when I went to military school at Mount Saint Joseph Military Academy when I lived at home. It was a black clip-on just like Gus wears, so, I was very familiar and comfortable with it. It’s sort of the the best cover that ever could be. What a great way to hide in plain sight. To have a successful business that everyone can look at and say, “oh yeah, he’s the chicken man!” (Laughs). It is very funny. The yellow shirt – yellow is sort of my color and I wear it a lot – it’s really good for my spirit. Everything about the color scheme of the show and the the way the show was designed and its production value also helps us understand and believe that we’re dropped into Albuquerque, New Mexico– which is just like that. That place is a character all on its own.All of this in many ways has a lightness about it if you look through different eyes.
AD: I really love the way you and Tony Dalton counter each other with the opposite energy types you both bring to your roles. It’s a great nemesis relationship.
GE: I come from a point where I just want to stomp on Tony Dalton like an ant, as Gus. He’s playing Lalo in such a very interesting way. I have scenes with him but there are many times where he has scenes with other characters, and I watched those this season, and thought how brilliant that he’s playing it as a loose cannon, but he’s also very funny.
AD: He’s almost a dandy.
GE: Yeah, almost a dandy. He loves his cars and his fly shirts and all that, and yet he’s very threatening as well. It’s been really great to play opposite him and especially in those scenes where I had to show him my chillers that I was making. I know he knows that I’m lying, but if I can show him there’s no discrepancy then he can’t go and rat me out to the cartel because he has no conclusive evidence. To take the steps I take to show him what I’m doing and he’s laughing about it lightly – doesn’t really believe it – but can’t poke holes in it. He sees how much integrity I have surrounded by chicken. (Laughs). Yet, underneath it, I don’t take him for granted at all. It’s a really perfect bookend, for me and Tony to be doing this season together. I’m so excited to work with him.
AD; His last scene this season is where I felt you could see that despite their differences in personality, Lalo and Gus exist on the same plane. That’s when he drops the veneer and becomes dangerous. He and Gus both are capable of that, it’s just their veneer is different.
GE: One of the most powerful scenes on television – that particular scene. Very, very unnerving. The rhythm of that scene is phenomenal. (DP) Marshall (Adams) shot it beautifully. That’s when you really know underneath all of the “yee-haw” of Lalo there is a very close-knit fabric to Gus. Gus knows that. Lalo is smart. Maybe not as smart as Gus, but certainly has the ability to be the killer that Gus is. They’re cut from the same cloth in that regard, without a doubt.
AD: My favorite scene in the history of the Breaking Bad universe is the sequence when you set out to prove to Walt and Jesse just how far you will go. You out on a hazmat suit, cut the throat of your own man, and then remove the suit, clean up, and walk away without even saying a word. You basically handed them your card. It was astonishing.
GE: What a wonderful scene. Episode 401 Breaking Bad: Box Cutter. I come from the theater and I love the playwrights who leave space and time. Only in the theater can you get that space because it’s not cut together like television and film work. You can allow the audience to really feel space and time by just slowing yourself down or taking a pause. Harold Pinter was a great writer and he used to write wonderful plays, and there’d be the longest pauses in them. When you read the play, it would say “Pinter pause” which means a very long pause. And so it makes you uncomfortable. It’s a part of the work I love doing as Gus, because I can make people very uncomfortable and I’ve learned how to do it in my life from doing it as the character by not answering their questions when they ask them, by slowing the rhythm down of my answer – my retort, and giving them a look in between that says to them, you’re not telling the truth, or you are, or you’re lying, or tell me more, without even saying a word.
I feel like that particular opening of 401 Box Cutter was so special to me because I took joy in the actions – in walking, in trying to find the tool I was looking for, in changing my clothes – knowing all of that would be just so awkward – not only for the audience, but extremely unnerving for Walter and Jesse with Mike behind too, because no one knew what I was going to do. In my head I’m playing, yes I’ve got to send them a message, but I’ve also got to take care of my man because he was compromised, and that hurts me. I didn’t want to have to kill Jeremiah Bitsui – what a great actor, lovely guy. He was so wanting to accommodate Gus. Yet, he made a fatal mistake. So, I could take care of that and send my message, but also feel the pain of losing one of my best men, while allowing that to be witnessed. When I think about it, I go right back there. I knew from that episode, I can silence a room. It’s just taking in the room in and deciding whether or not it deserves any verbal accommodations. Because sometimes it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, you don’t need it. That was a powerful scene.
AD: So, you are now coming up on the end of the Breaking Bad universe with next season’s Better Call Saul slated to be the last. How do you feel?
GE: I feel a bunch of things. I always feel like, wow, finally. That’s the first feeling. I can stop living in this guy’s skin for six months out of the year. I’m always in an intense place when I’m playing Gus. It’ll be a sore loss to let this franchise go. It’s been consistently some of the best writing on television in all of the years it’s been on. Saul just keeps getting stronger and becoming more like a film, with every episode more challenging for the filmmakers and writers on the budget that we’re on. It’ll be it’ll be a loss let go of Gustavo Fring. I’ve always had a dream and a hope that maybe we could do a limited series on the rise of Gus. Only so the fans could get an inside view of what Gus was like way before he ever got here. If Vince wanted to do that, I would love to do it. As for next season, I feel like the accomplishment will be – when are finished next year – that this will be a perfect bookend. Better Call Saul into Breaking Bad will be two of the greatest shows of all the time. I just feel blessed and honored to be have played such a prevalent part in both of them.