Q & A: Giancarlo Esposito
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You’ve worked with Spike Lee; you’ve been in “Law and Order” and “Homicide” and a whole range of different movies. This might seem like an extraneous question, but do you have any favorites among the roles that you’ve done?
No, I don’t. I look at each one fresh and new and try not to compare. There are movies I really love; certain ones that were special for their time. I’ve done five films with Spike Lee, but Do the Right Thing is one of my favorites because of the spontaneity of the filming. Jim Jarmusch is a favorite director of mine; I did a movie of his called Night on Earth that blended culture and ideas from around the world. I like messages that are strong, that deal with consciousness and people and humanity. Those would be my favorites.
You have a big film release coming up, Rabbit Hole.
That’s correct! I really love this director, John Cameron Mitchell—he did Hedwig and the Angry Inch. We really connected because I had made Gospel Hill, a film that I directed, produced and co-wrote. Though this film has huge stars, I worked with Samuel Jackson, Angela Bassett and Danny Glover—and both John and I had little money. But he assembled a wonderful cast, and it’s really an intense story.
It has to do with a couple who have lost a child, right?
Correct. It’s a hard sell—I mean, I have four children, do I ever want to think about losing one of them? Of course not. This film raises the question, “What do people want to see?”
It certainly was a very successful play, a Pulitzer winner. How did the process of transferring it to film work?
I believe you can do that successfully if you have a very, very good writer. Some plays transfer beautifully because they have such drama and immediacy. But you have to make them visual, and that’s the difficult part.
Tell me about your character.
I play Auggie—the husband of Nicole Kidman’s sister—who’s a very eccentric musician. It’s interesting for me to explore an interracial relationship in film, because it’s still a bit taboo in many cultures. So I enjoyed Auggie, who’s a very lovely, lighthearted cat who makes no money playing jazz. Nicole just discounts me and thinks her sister is never going to be happy with this guy, because he can’t support her financially. But Auggie supports her on a spiritual level and loves her. So there’s a trade-off: How do we find happiness and contentment? Is it through money or through love and a great partnership?
Do you know when it’s coming out?
I don’t want to speak out of school, but I think it’s coming out this summer.
Has Gospel Hill ever had a wide release?
No. I had a very mini-platform release at the Quad Cinema in New York City, and I traveled all over with it this year, from Zanzibar to the Santa Fe Film Festival. We won top prize at the Texas Flats Film Festival. I showed it at Barack Obama’s inauguration. So I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of it.
It concerns the assassination of a civil rights leader that was never solved, and it focuses on the town where it happened 40 years later, and how they deal with the anniversary. It also has to do with big business plotting to take over the historic black section of the town, called Gospel Hill. The same events that happened 40 years earlier begin to repeat themselves, but things turn out a little differently.
You mentioned working with the Atlantic Theater Co. You’ve done some teaching for them, right?
Yes. I love to teach acting; I taught last year at Columbia University. I taught a class on directing actors to directors. Because it’s a different language when you’re an actor as opposed to a director. One of the biggest issues I had with Spike was that he always directed as if he was coaching a basketball team. I do think acting is physical, but he always wanted you to top another actor or score more “points”—rather than teaching us to really interact and create an ensemble. I worked with the Steppenwolf Theatre Co. in the ’80s, I work with the Atlantic Theater Co. now, and those are companies that deal with listening, and throwing the ball back and forth, really interacting and knowing each other and giving space to each other.
I do these five-day acting seminars that become very spiritual, because the goal of acting is to heal your personality, to negotiate access to painful emotions. I teach actors to really dig deep. I’m going to teach seminars in some major cities this year: New York, Los Angeles and London.
The Atlantic Theater Co. was started by David Mamet and his good friend Bill Macy—what does the company focus on in terms of material?
Neil Pepe is the artistic director, and he does great work. He brings in imports when we’re not doing company plays. We do everything from Mamet to the Irish playwrights; we’re all over the place. This year is our 25th anniversary. I recently did a play there called This Fire, which was about construction workers on the Jersey shore. A beautiful piece.
You’ve lived in Ridgefield for how long?
It’s been 13 years now.
What do you like about living in Connecticut?
I like being in the country. Right now, I’m stuck on I-95, trying to get home! But I like being around trees and around nature in a community where people do pause for a second to look around them. Granted, Ridgefield is home to a lot of investment bankers, but there are many people who want to lead a normal life outside of New York City. There are some real working class people here, too, because a lot of Connecticut was built by Italians. I’m an Italian black, so I fit right in.
You had mentioned that Paul Newman was an inspiration in moving here. Who are your favorite actors?
Paul was certainly one. I love certain actors at certain times in their careers. I love Viggo Mortensen right now, because he’s doing some deep, deep work. I love Sandra Bullock, because she’s blending some good character work with the commercial success she’s had. Helen Mirren is one of my favorite actresses of all time. I believe she has incredible facility and really does her homework. Alan Arkin is incredible to me; he has really come into his own. You can’t see any of them acting, you just see them being. To me, that’s the spiritual part of acting.