Giancarlo Esposito on ‘Revolution’ & ‘Breaking Bad’

One of our favorite TV bad guys lets us in on his process for creating characters like Gus Fring and Major Tom Neville.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

 Giancarlo Esposito is a versatile actor with a storied career in film and television, but “Breaking Bad” made him a legend as Gustavo Fring. Since his departure from “Breaking Bad,” Esposito had a stint on “Once Upon a Time” before becoming Major Tom Neville, one of the main antagonists in NBC’s “Revolution.”

At the Television Critics Association party for NBC, poolside in Beverly Hills, we got to chat with Esposito as he revealed exactly how he created such memorable characters.

CraveOnline: Do you always write a backstory for your characters?
Giancarlo Esposito: Absolutely. 
CraveOnline: Was knowing Neville used to be an insurance adjuster a really rich groundwork?
Giancarlo Esposito: I think it’s very rich because I think the idea that someone’s an insurance adjuster means that they had a certain kind of life. They were not really in the limelight. They weren’t really known. They sort of pushed the pen around and filled in the blanks but there’s one thing we don’t think about an insurance adjuster, at least I didn’t initially.

That is that an insurance adjuster has the ability to know when you’re telling the truth or not. They know when you’re not telling the truth and if they bust you on it, they do. Many times they might let you go for little lies that you may tell, so it starts there. It starts with this guy being able to trust people if they’re going to answer his questions properly, and when they don’t, he knows it. And so he plays with it. It gives him room to play. It gives him a little room to mess with him a little bit, play with them because he knows that they’re not telling the truth.

It also gives them a chance to have a moment where they can save their own life. Here you go. Look, I know you’re not telling the truth. Tell me now. I’m only going to ask you once. I’m impatient sometimes. I think this guy is massively impatient but he has a little fun and tries to lighten it up for a moment to give people an opportunity to come clean, and when they don’t, it’s done. I think it’s a way for him to really allow people to make their own choice. And it justifies him not having to make the choice for them to hurt them.
CraveOnline: Is this crisis the best thing that ever happened to him?
Giancarlo Esposito: I think it is. It allows him to be a star. All of a sudden he’s the powerful man he never was when he was at school, when he was a kid, when he was in business working for a big conglomerate. All of a sudden, he’s able to lead men and he certainly can make decisions because if he can make the decision to allow you to get away with whatever, fraud, or to acknowledge that you’re telling the truth and write you that check way back when and feel good about it, he can make decisions for a group of men.
Are people scared of you?
Giancarlo Esposito: Yes. After “Breaking Bad” people are very frightened of who I am. They back away from me on the street.
CraveOnline: Do they really?
Giancarlo Esposito: Oh yeah. In line to go to the bathroom on a plane, a woman gasped and hit the wall and said, “After you, Gus. You go first.”
CraveOnline: Is that good or bad? Do you like it?
Giancarlo Esposito: I think it’s strange that they sometimes have a hard time separating me from the character. I think it’s great because it means I did my job. I think it’s wonderful when I can say, as I did to that lady who was up against the wall, when I can say to her with a big huge smile, “No, you have to go before me.”

She still didn’t let me, but I think it’s in a way great to be able to be who I am because I think that a lot of people don’t know that I’m not that guy. They don’t know that I’m acting. They think that that might be a big huge part of me, so I’m always astounded and I love it when I laugh and everyone turns around because Gustavo Fring would never be that loose and that easy to have a belly laugh. Then they realize oh my gosh, he really was acting, he really is an actor.
CraveOnline: They don’t think you really got your face burned off, do they?
Giancarlo Esposito: They don’t want to believe it because they believe in Gus so much and want him to be around and were so frightened of him. Something happened in season four that was really pretty fantastic, and that’s that people not only hated Gus or were afraid of him, but they also liked him. See, people want to be told, many people want to be dictated to and Gus is very strong. He brought people to their best selves because he was a good leader. Do this, do that, do it this way.

I think it makes people’s lives easier and I think that’s something about Neville that is interesting as well. He’s able to take command. People aren’t able to make decisions anymore because there’s too many choices within that decision.
CraveOnline: What are the coolest items in Neville’s stash of supplies?
Giancarlo Esposito: Oh, the Swiss army and German army way back when had some futuristic steel sabers and swords, really well made out of really great metal. There is a cache of arms that are completely modern and futuristic that Neville has access to because they are what was left of the modern world, so when you get a chance to see where Neville lives, where the militia really lives, you see futuristic high tech tech-9 weaponry that has yet to be used on our show.

You’ll see that later because that exists at the home base which is a privileged state. 

CraveOnline: Are you enough of a survivor that if something like this did happen, you could come through it?
Giancarlo Esposito: I think so. For me, I’ve lived a life as an athlete. I’m also an outdoorsperson so I spend a lot of time in winter snowshoeing, skiing in extreme conditions, so I have an idea of how brutal that can get. You can never take that for granted. I’ve lived in the desert, in the high desert and I’ve experienced those conditions so I can’t take those for granted. I’d need a refresher course which I’m getting now in “Revolution.” I shot yesterday for eight hours in 105 degree heat.
CraveOnline: Where was that?
Giancarlo Esposito:
In Wilmington, North Carolina out in the corn fields and out in the sunflower fields. An hour outside of Wilmington there’s some rural land, so I believe I could. I believe I would just barely make it so I don't know about you guys.
CraveOnline: Have you ever been in a situation where technology failed you and you realize how at its mercy we put ourselves?
Giancarlo Esposito: Well, like everybody else when the phone dies and the computer doesn’t work, the modem doesn’t work for two days, you can’t communicate. Yeah, power outages, I’ve been in that situation where I realize I didn’t stock enough candles, I didn’t have enough water, all the food in the refrigerator goes bad. You can’t make coffee in the morning, there’s no more coffee, you’ve got to drink water.

Yes, I know what that’s like and I’ve envisioned how quickly things can spiral downward and it can go very, very fast. Now couple that with people wanting to take whatever you got left or your life, and you’re in danger and you have no weapons except your own physicality or an axe or a hammer, then you’re really in trouble. I’m so happy to be on “Revolution” where I’m playing this guy that’s like an old time cowboy in many ways. I’m riding a horse, carrying a saber.
CraveOnline: Do you see “Revolution” as a western?
Giancarlo Esposito: I see it as a modern day survivalist adventure western. Yeah, we’re outside all the time.
CraveOnline: All actors used to need to know how to ride a horse because they were making westerns. Now that’s rare.
Giancarlo Esposito: It is rare. I can’t wait to take this horse out and be at a full gallop chasing down the rebel traitors who are resisting being under the Monroe republic.
CraveOnline: Why do you think your career caught such fire in the last few years?
Giancarlo Esposito: I’m approaching things differently. I’m allowing myself to focus on the simple things about my work, allowing the writers to do their work and create a good character and to drop myself to a place where I can do more fluidly what I do. In the last two downturns, the character actor would arrive, the starring actors got $20 million to play themselves over and over again and may have a shorter career than I would, and I worked less.

That humbled me. It allowed me to look at things differently. It allowed me to cultivate my work on a more relaxed level. Also with maturity, age and maturity, for me I trust myself more. I don’t work as hard to produce the same result. I work deeper, not harder.
CraveOnline: When you get a little Zen like that, how do you react to an Emmy nomination?
Giancarlo Esposito: I feel like I have to remember it, remember the moment, remember the work I did to get the Emmy nomination because it worked. Obviously people responded. The right people responded which means I was doing something right. When I did Spike Lee movies I tried to make more of the character than was on paper. I tried to make that character larger than life because I felt like that’s the way he wrote.

A wonderful lesson for me was to work with Paul Newman who became a very dear friend on a piece called Twilight. It was originally titled Magic Hour. Paul Newman, Gene Hackman, I love Gene Hackman’s work, all my life. One of my favorite movies is The French Connection, but when I was working with Paul Newman, Robert Benton was the director and he directed me so subtly to do less and less and less. He taught me to trust myself. I’d been working in movies for years before I worked with Robert Benton but somewhere he flipped something over for me.

Even when I was doing nothing for Robert Benton it was too much. I went, “F***. What is he asking me to do?” And I finally achieved what he was asking me to do and what I accomplished in Twilight, I accomplished tenfold with Gustavo Fring. What was he asking me to do? He was asking me to BE, which meant all your acting had to be in the homework. Not in the homework of the lines, in the homework of the choices so that I could imbibe completely, and it happened tenfold with Gus.

I don't know how it happened, I channeled the guy. When you put on an accent, you do more. It creates more layers and more layers and it’s going to be too over the top. For me with Gus it was perfect. Nothing got in the way of me channeling who he was and I started to learn that lesson through Robert Benton’s direction and my work with Paul Newman.