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The Breaking Bad Interviews: Giancarlo Esposito
Gustavo Fring on tie-adjustment, chicken and Zen

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Warning: Contains spoilers for seasons 1 to 5A.

The Breaking Bad Interviews: Giancarlo Esposito

How much of what Walter White has become is because of Gus?
I would imagine quite a bit. But you know back at the beginning of their relationship, Gus was hesitant and very reticent to get involved with Walter White because he made bad decisions. One of the lines he says to him is 'We're not alike at all', just after Walter has told him they're very much alike. So I believe that quite a bit of what Walter has become, particularly in his shrewdness, business acumen and the calculated risks he takes, are because of his relationship with Gus.

In many ways, the end of the Chicken King is because of what he has taught Walt. Would that be fair to say?
Without a doubt. Obviously over the course of the relationship, Gus has doubted whether or not Walter is getting any of this, but I believe what we're beginning to see is that Walter has paid attention and has made some changes in his life to become the king himself.

After the episode that shows how Gus himself broke bad in Mexico, do you feel that Gus and Walt's are parallel stories?
I was told in the beginning it was just a guest-starring role, which means they had not yet defined or had any idea of him becoming a part of the series.
I believe so. I think there's enough really rich material and rich character development in Gus to warrant his own series just due to the fact that we are so mesmerised and drawn to his background.

We would really like to know where he comes from. Part of what works for Breaking Bad is that you don't know. I mean, you get these small little hints, but I would venture to say that they have parallel lives in very similar, yet very diversely different ways.

What were you told about the character of Gus when you first signed on?
I was told in the beginning it was just a guest-starring role, which means they had not yet defined or had any idea of him becoming a part of the series. I think at that point in time, Breaking Bad was a show that had antagonists flow in and flow out. The antagonist was someone they could kill off, which obviously created some excitement with the audience.

The reason Gus Fring lasted longer - at least, this was what I've been told - was because of the chemistry between myself and Bryan Cranston. This chemistry was just so sweet and wonderful. And they saw that and loved that, but they also felt like I was holding back.

You know, the one line that really created the character for me and helped me to work in tandem with Vince to realise such a complicated man was this one: "I hide in plain sight, same as you." And that to me was very, very important.

With that, I was able to get a hint of who Gus was. The fact that he was an upstanding citizen in our community throws people off - that and the way he dealt with this illicit business just as that, as a business. So in the beginning, I had planned on doing a couple of guest starring roles and then possibly getting killed off or whatever. And that was one of the things that Vince said to me towards the end - that throughout my time there that no-one ever expected Gus to be around as long as he has been.

So were you told to begin with that would become this kingpin?
Not at all. Not at all. I was told it was going be a couple of episodes and that would be probably it. It was after I did the first episode I got a call. It was before I got off the plane back home, actually: 'Would you come back for our Season 2 final episode?' I agreed to that hesitantly - then they asked me after I had finished the season ender in Season 2, 'Would you come back for more episodes in Season 3?' And I said, 'Look, I'd really like to come back and work with you all, honestly I would. I really enjoyed working with Bryan and enjoyed my relationship, developing a relationship with Vince. But I want to be part of a family. And I see this character as having some life and some legs. And I would wanna do that only if I was able to have a contract and develop this character.'

And I think once they heard that, they knew I was committed and intrigued by the character that we had begun to create together. Then they really decided: 'This is our bad guy. This is our antagonist. This is how we should move forward.'

With the scripts and the plotting, not everything is set in stone with Breaking Bad, even though when you watch it, it feels like it was planned that way all along. Is that fair to say?
It's very fair to say. I think they have a very definitive outline of what they might like to do, but they're fearless in many ways. If what they had planned doesn't ring true and feel right for all involved in the writers' room, they're not afraid to turn around and flip it on its head and change it. So it's interesting when an idea comes down the line - one that we may get a hint of as a cast, like the possibility of something that may happen to your character - it's important in the world of Breaking Bad not to get attached to that, because actually it could be even more fantastic than you imagined. It could be even deeper than you ever dreamt of. So it's wonderful that the writers on this particular show have a very organic way of working.

Do you think it's this way of writing - this maneuverability - that makes Breaking Bad the TV show it is?
Bryan's a very giving actor. I try to put my attention on my scene partner so that I'm able to make somewhat of a connection with them so that everything begins in an organic and realistic way.
Absolutely. The word I would use is 'formidable'. It's a formidable show. It's formidable in that they're not trying to write to be fantastic or to have a shock value. They're trying to write something that's truthful. Something that could happen to any great or good or particularly interesting American. So I believe that part of its formidable nature is that it's not writing to an audience or for a network that's dictating. It's writing to be creative, within the realm of realism and truth.

Did you know immediately that you and Bryan worked well together in front of the camera?
You get a sense of how an actor works from the first read-through of the script, when you're on the set and you're just reading through the lines without even acting. And Bryan approaches things very much the way I do - in an organic, natural nature.

And he's also a very giving actor. I try to put my attention on my scene partner so that I'm able to make somewhat of a connection with them so that everything begins in an organic and realistic way. So from the very first lines that we uttered in Los Pollos Hermanos together, I felt that he was very much on the same page as I was in terms of his process.

But then when we started to really do the scene and the camera rolled, I realised he also had a great commitment and attention and passion, which I also have. So then the sparks start to fly, because you're not trying to one-up another actor or be better than another actor... you're just trying to be in concert with them. And so two things can happen. You can jump over to the actor's side if that actor is very strong or you can be so steeped and rooted in who you are as a character that the two of you can bump up against each other.

And that can create a great simulation of fireworks, and that's sort of what happened with me and Bryan. Bryan wasn't trying to be stronger than me, he was trying to be Walter White. And I was trying to be encompass Gus. So in many ways, I look down on him in those first scenes, because he assumes things as Walter that I, Gus, felt in my heart you should never assume. You don't know who I am. So me just saving your life means that you're assuming you know me. And you don't know me. So you get a dynamic that is really quite explosive.

How did you work with Vince? Did he give many notes?
It's interesting after having been doing it so long, I was approached in a very, very respectful manner. But Vince doesn't hold back and he is a very professional writer. And I like that a lot. So he recognised that all actors have a process, and I think he also is humble enough to say he doesn't really know what that process is, but he respects it.

So I was able to have input. He would ask questions, and once a director or writer-producer starts asking questions of an actor, then I know that he's a collaborator. And for me, that's very, very important. Then I don't feel threatened. I don't feel like he's a dictator telling me what to do. Once I feel like there's a collaboration happening, I can basically do anything. I can do it many different ways to find out together what elements of this character's personality we want to show. And so for me that creates a canvas of vulnerability and great relationship between actor and writer-producer. I feel like that's the best way to work, and I have a deep and abiding respect for Vince's creativity and his genius.

The Breaking Bad Interviews: Giancarlo Esposito

Do you feel the ending of Season 4 could have worked as the ending of the whole show?
I agree. And I think Vince agreed. I think Vince planned it that way in case Breaking Bad didn't come back. And I know he has alluded to the fact that it was done that way in case the show wasn't picked up and we didn't have another season. So I know that that was part of what he was thinking. Now he may have possibly outdone himself on that level, because now he's got to come back and equal it, top it, or if I know Vince, he's just going do what he does and try to finish and complete the story of Walter.

Can you give us an example of when a Breaking Bad story painted itself into a corner, only to get out of it at the last moment?
Well, there were scenes in my home that could have happened, scenes with a family, scenes which would expand on Gus's background that you didn't know. So once he goes to the police and you find out he's sponsoring the fun run and he's doing things at the hospital, I always thought, "Well, maybe we'll get a chance to see his family." And, that certainly was a possibility for Vince as well. He mentioned that could be possible.

So when we first started to have scenes in the home where Gus is cooking dinner, they asked me for pictures of my own children to be in the background so that the possibility existed that we would see a wife and children and part of this man's home life - and we never did. And so that's an example for me where, the possibility of that was great. But the eventuality was that it didn't occur. And that was okay with me.

Have you ever had the chance to include any of your own improvised lines?
I really found Gus. And so I could drop into a place through my yoga breathing. I believe that silence is sometimes a very great place to begin. So for me, it wasn't difficult.
You know, no. Not in this particular case. I mean, there's certainly little things that I could or would change to fit my voice, but not as I have done with other directors in terms of trying to make it better. I always feel like if I don't have to sneak in improvised lines, it means that what is written is complete.

And that's why I respect Vince, Sam [Catlin] and all these writers who are on Breaking Bad, because I feel like I'm not trying to make the material better by saying it in my own words, because it's not good, I mean. That to me has told me already that I'm playing with A-list writers. They're not just throwing something up there and hoping you can make it work because you're such a fine actor. They're writing things that deepen your trajectory and deepen my own understanding of Gus.

So they'd notice your idiosyncrasies and incorporate them into the writing, that sort of thing?
Absolutely. After episode 401, Box Cutter, which was a brutal, brutal episode for me, I was meant to come back in 403. Before that, Vince asked me to come to his office. When he mentioned to me that Gus was gonna die... the conversation went, 'Well, how would we do it?' And I said, 'I don't know, but it has to be something extremely different that is organic and natural. I don't think it's getting shot. It might be getting ambushed in some way.'

And he said, 'What if it were the possibility of an explosion of some kind? And if that were the choice, what might Gus be doing?' And I said, 'You look at what I've put into Gus is that he's meticulous. You see him in Pollos Hermanos after his illegal work and he's very, very normal and very mundane. Then you see him outside of that and he's very particular about his clothes. He'll unbutton his jacket before he sits down. He buttons it up when he gets up. Straightens his tie. I would probably be straightening my tie when the explosion happens.'

It had to be doing something that is not a knee-jerk reaction, but a very honest physical action that Gus would do if he were leaving the office or just meeting someone. And Vince thought that was kind of brilliant, and that's how that all happened.

How do you go about maintaining Gus's 'Zen' during your performance?
Well, you know, I really found Gus. And so I could drop into a place through my yoga breathing. I believe that silence is sometimes a very great place to begin. So for me, it wasn't difficult. I remember coming in for 401 and we had been away for the break for two or three months, and we came back to utter chaos.

And I had to do this very, very intense Box Cutter scene and there was all this madness going on because people were trying to get their rhythm again. It was the first scene we shot and I really didn't want it to be. I wanted people to get back and settled down. So I realised I had to be calmer than anyone. And I had to really maintain a certain cool and calm demeanor.

And normally I'm very nice on set and amenable to talking to folks, but this day I didn't talk to anyone. I was very, very, very quiet. And I let the whole world spin around me, because I knew that I wanted to be so focused and I didn't want anything to take me out of that. So that sort of became the way I worked. And, you know, if you talk to Bryan, he'll tell you that sometimes he was frightened by that.

He's said I'd look into his eyes, and my eyes would just go dead. I wouldn't be there anymore. And that's part of what I do.


Empire Breaking Back Interviews THE BREAKING BAD INTERVIEWS
Head back to the interview hub for more exclusive interviews with the cast and makers of Breaking Bad

Interview by Ali Plumb

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