Q & A: Giancarlo Esposito
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How did you develop Gus’s accent?
I’ve played many Spanish people, and I never like to take the accent from one character to another. I did this film called Fresh, in which I felt my character was a Cuban guy. I’ve done some Puerto Rican characters. But I felt Gus was a well-heeled aristocrat. I wanted him to be very educated, not “street.” So I started studying Spanish. I knew it was going to be demanding, though I had no idea I’d have whole scenes in Spanish. But I’d really wanted to learn more about standard Spanish, anyway. I got together with a coach and started figuring it out step-by-step.
If you could run your own business, like Gus, what would it be?
Oh my goodness. If I could run my own business, I’d run a film company—one that told good stories with a pearl of consciousness in them, that were extremely entertaining but also dealt with some epic ideas and real content that was mystical and mythical and had great moral standards. Things that my children could watch and really get a sense of where we came from, and a vision of where we’re going.
We tend to think such stories have to be “nice,” but that’s not true, is it.
No, it’s not, because nothing is black and white. That’s what I love about Gus and “Breaking Bad.” Our current media encourages us to shove certain truths under the rug. We really don’t want to face reality. We have all these credit cards that we play roulette with, and before we know it we’re over our heads. We don’t want to admit that “I can’t afford this” or “I’ve gotta slow down.” It’s all about being successful, getting ahead, winning, stepping on anyone to get there, survival of the fittest. We don’t think about our humanness, our potential for kindness, the little things that should be in our actions every day.
I’ll give you an example. I just went skiing with my daughter and she got off the ski run and they told me she hadn’t eaten all day at ski school. So I went to the little place at the bottom of the mountain in Vail—I go there once a year because I’m invited, otherwise I could never afford it—and said, “I need to get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” and I reached into my pocket and realized I had no money on me. And my credit card was up at my tent, two miles away. So I said, “Can I take this and pay you later?” Then I forgot to go back; my daughter reminded me. I was really beside myself. I went back the next day to pay them, and they were shocked. They said, “Thank you so much for being honest.” I said, “Well, that’s how I have to live my life.” The whole world has to get back to that kind of thinking.
So, tying this all up . . . if we were really able to deal with the black-and-white of things, the good and the bad, then we could tell better stories and not sanitize them. But somehow, networks and film companies think America is not ready for that.
As you said, you’ve been acting for 47 years. And your mom was in show business. She was a nightclub singer . . .
She was actually an opera singer. She sang at La Scala, and met my father at the San Carlo opera house in Naples, right by the waterfront. He was a carpenter in the opera house, and they fell in love and got married.
How did you get interested in acting?
It was really from watching my mother. She sang in nightclubs in Cologne, Denmark with Josephine Baker. I was born in Copenhagen. I haven’t been back there, and I really want to go. I’ve been to Hamburg, Germany—my mom also performed with the Hamburg State Opera. I worked there years ago in a film called Josephine.
But anyway, I really came to this profession out of necessity. My mother and father were divorcing after 11 years of marriage, and my mother had no money and was trying to support my brother and I. So at 7 years old, I decided to audition for a Broadway show called Maggie Flynn, with Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones, and I got hired. And I just kept going—I did a string of 13 Broadway musicals.
When I look at your film and TV résumé, I—and I imagine most people—don’t picture you as a Broadway music man.
It’s interesting; people don’t know that. I haven’t done a Broadway musical in years, but I’d love to again. I felt at the time—the ’60s and ’70s—black performers were just token entertainment; we were always the ones who came out and sang a song and left the stage. I really wanted to pursue a different artistic path for myself; I wanted to develop true acting roots. So I started to look for straight drams to do. I really loved being able to send a message in a more subtle manner, without having to break into song. That’s not to say I don’t love singing and dancing.
I did return to Broadway last year in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, a realization of my dream to be in a project that was unconventionally cast. I loved the movie. Paul Newman, who played Brick, was a friend of mine and the reason I moved to Connecticut; I had done a film with him called Twilight. So I had seen the play as a child. I’d seen all the classics, like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Elizabeth Taylor. So being on Broadway with an all-black cast was a very special experience. And we didn’t change a word of the play.