Spoilers for Better Call Saul Season 6 and The Mandalorian Season 3 Follow!
Since the start of his career, Giancarlo Esposito’s acting style has often been described as intense and captivating, with a knack for portraying complex and morally ambiguous characters. The beloved actor first rose to prominence collaborating with famed filmmaker Spike Lee on films like School Daze, Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues, and Do the Right Thing. Fans might also recognize his face from other critically acclaimed films like The Usual Suspects and King of New York. However, over the past decade, Esposito has been thriving on television with prominent roles on Better Call Saul, The Mandalorian, and The Boys. Especially with his role as Gustavo Fring in the Breaking Bad universe, Esposito has quickly become a notable figure in pop culture.
Now with Better Call Saul having come to its end last year with its sixth season on AMC, Giancarlo Esposito has 13 years under his belt playing Gustavo “Gus” Fring. He first appeared as the calculated and charismatic businessman/drug lord in season two of Breaking Bad in the 2009 episode titled “Mandala” and went on to become one of the most notable villains in the series. As a character who is willing to go to extreme lengths to protect his interests and eliminate any threats to his underground criminal organization, Esposito quickly established Gus as a villain audiences loved to root for.
As a prequel series, creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould used Better Call Saul to unveil untapped character development and explore how criminal lawyer Jimmy McGill or “Saul Goodman” (Bob Odenkirk) and other key characters in the franchise, like Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and the Salamanca crime family, got to where they were in Breaking Bad. In this regard, one of the most thrilling plotlines to have seen evolve across the 7 years Better Call Saul was on the air was the rise of Gus Fring. Behind every great villain is usually another antagonistic force, which is why the prequel show gives Gus his own rival in Lalo Salamanca played by Tony Dalton. Giancarlo Esposito’s reprisal of Gus in Better Call Saul earned him great praise, namely three Primetime Emmy nominations for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.
Acting aside, Giancarlo Esposito has also directed two feature films, 2008’s Gospel Hill and 2017’s The Show. He finally made his television directorial debut in the sixth episode of Better Call Saul Season 6 titled “Axe and Grind.” Esposito and his co-star Rhea Seehorn, who plays Kim Wexler, were the only actors on the show asked to direct and relished working with their cast and crew in new capacities. In addition to his legacy on Better Call Saul as both actor and director, Esposito has gained recent significant attention for his role as another fan-favorite villain, Moff Gideon, in the popular Star Wars Disney+ series The Mandalorian. When the third season of the show came to a close in April of this year, the fate of Moff Gideon was left uncertain and audiences have been left questioning if he will return once again.
We sat down for an exclusive conversation with Giancarlo Esposito to look back on playing Gus Fring on Better Call Saul at the end of this era within his career, his upcoming role in the final film of Ti West’s X Saga MaXXXine opposite Mia Goth, and how being involved in a Star Wars series changes his life.
Exclusive FYC Interview with Giancarlo Esposito for the final season of Better Call Saul
When you first started playing Gus Fring back in Breaking Bad Season 2, did you have any idea of how long you would be staying in the role or how much of an iconic character he would become?
Giancarlo Esposito: My decision-making process is to try and figure out a character and be really inspired, and I was so deeply inspired by Vince Gilligan’s writing and his stage direction hiding in plain sight. Once I was in season two and knew I was going to be there for a little bit, I wanted to do the best I could. I felt the show was always very powerful and very strong, and dealt with a world that we didn’t know and had never seen before. I thought it was genius that we were able to take a city [Albuquerque] and make it part of the fabric of what was going on.
But I must say that with shows like Breaking Bad, I never feel like they’re going to get a wide audience. That is not to say that viewers don’t want a creatively smart show, but it’s just that you have to pay attention as an actor and then the show sucks you in. So I had no idea it would be as iconic as it is and no idea that it would propel me to this sort of iconic, villainous character.
Gus is iconic enough that my younger brother had a photo of him hanging in his college dorm, that kind of says everything.
Giancarlo Esposito: It’s amazing how many people come up to me and ask me to say, “You are done. Fired,” and a thousand other lines. I mean, they just flip out! It’s been a real gift for me, and it’s a gift that keeps on giving since I’m not married to the portrayal that I did in Breaking Bad because I’ve gone on to Saul. I’m also not married to it week to week because I didn’t watch the show while I was doing it – I wanted to just be fresh and in the mindset of Gus and not make any corrections to what I was doing. I think it’s a little awkward, the way I work, so I’m always a little surprised in public when fans absolutely flip out. But I have four daughters, so they remind me and always say, “Papa, you have no idea.”
Was your process as an actor any different when it came to the jump from Breaking Bad to Better Call Saul, seeing that Gus was in different phases of his journey in each show respectively?
Giancarlo Esposito: Absolutely. There was a long time in between shooting them and there was a big decision I had to make about accepting Better Call Saul. I had to think about what was good for me and I didn’t want to recreate what I had already done. So the time really made a difference for me because the fact that this took place earlier left me room to create a different kind of Gus. I mean, even down to the haircut, to think about a guy who’s not as measured as he was in Breaking Bad. Still particular, but not as measured. Still trying to find his way and find his power, which really interested me.
I wanted more for Gus, like I wanted the back story of a family and what not, all those things that Vince and I ended up agreeing would not be what the show needed. In the end, the more you wondered about who Gus was and where he came from, the more interested you were. So less is more! From the middle of season five into season six, I had the opportunity to play with something that I had felt before back in Breaking Bad with Don Eladio and Max Arciniega, where I felt vulnerable around that pool and it was the first time in an episode where I wasn’t reeling in the power. After Max got killed at that pool, I was vulnerable and I got a chance to play some of that. Then that went away because then you have a guy who’s still trying to figure it all out.
But in season five, Lalo Salamanca became a problem and that brought up that vulnerability again. I won’t go as far as to say “afraid,” but you saw a little bit of fear in Gus that this guy could screw up everything and take his life. Gus goes through a phase where he has to be even smarter. I think that’s the jump that you’ll see if you watch Breaking Bad first and then Better Call Saul or vice versa, which is a great way to flip the show around. In Saul, you’ll see where he gained his power for Breaking Bad through this experience of Lalo where he became just brutally ruthless, and even more of a succinct thinker who is ahead of everyone else.
Going off your last point on Lalo, what was it like to face off against Tony Dalton?
Giancarlo Esposito: I adore Tony, partly because in earlier seasons when we met, he had this smugness about him. I just wanted to slap him (laughs). It was clear that he was probably as smart as Gus but couldn’t hold all of his emotions and anger in, much like Hector Salamanca – cut from the same cloth. What I love about Tony is that he really plays into the scene and it gave me the opportunity to play as well and consider him an equal. He’s one of my favorite actors to work with because there is a playful intensity underneath the smugness, but there is always that feeling of danger. It was a highlight of my career to work with Tony Dalton.
You made your television directorial debut in this final season of Better Call Saul. What was that experience like for you and how did you find the balance between your own vision and the established look and feel of the show?
Giancarlo Esposito: I screamed when I was asked to do it. I had spoken to Vince way back on Breaking Bad and had given him a movie I made. He was honest and said he hadn’t been able to watch it, so I never asked again, ever, because I felt like asking again wouldn’t be respectful. So getting the opportunity in season six was a wonderful thing because no actor had ever directed. Rhea [Seehorn] did direct in season six as well, but I think we were the first to be asked. So yes, I had a vision from a filmic standpoint of what I do when I’m making a movie.
I came up against wanting certain things that I thought would be great visually, which I was then told by Matt Credle, our illustrious cinematographer, that I was never going to get (laughs). I was asked a lot of questions because you would have to approve every decision and at that time, we were in the middle of the pandemic with Zoom calls and all that. I hadn’t studied every episode of the show and I thought I would go back and do that. But I realized that was a pitfall as well because I didn’t want to go back and try to create a style that was already theirs. So I had ideas that really worked and I also had challenges. I mean with my episode, all of a sudden, I had to be in Germany and create this German hillside and not have that familiarity with Albuquerque, where it’s dry and it’s not rainy season.
When everything was finally just about ready, I got a call that we had to move up the whole thing in the barn with Lalo by 10 days. I had to stop prepping the whole episode and focus on just that part. I loved it because it took me out of my game and gave me a challenge. Oftentimes, we moan and groan saying, “I don’t know how I’m going to do this” but instead it put my spidey sense on, put my focus in one place, and allowed me to be open to all the suggestions that came to me. I got a call from Vince and he said it was seamless and he loved my episode, which was a relief because the biggest cause of nervousness for me was trying to fit into something that’s already so terrific and not screw it up.
You briefly mentioned it there, but Rhea Seehorn also directed an episode of Better Call Saul. What was it like being directed by a co-star?
Giancarlo Esposito: It was wonderful because you look at them in a different way. I particularly have a very close relationship with Rhea as a friend. I respect her as a human being number one and as an actress number two. She was really prepared. I’m old school, I do my storyboards and draw on pages. Rhea came out with the iPad, like all the modern-day directors (laughs). She’s very respectful and very thorough. I loved it because it allowed me to see a different part of her and to be open to new ideas that another actor creates.
Now, if you’re an actor-director, your strength is not only being prepared on the page – with the storyboards or envisioning the shot – but your strength is also how you talk to another actor. I got such warm feelings from Rhea and Bob [Odenkirk] because I looked at them and I wanted them to do stuff that they hadn’t done before, not just as a ploy to make them uncomfortable but as a way to have them search for something new.
Do you have any favorite memories from making Better Call Saul, or perhaps even some favorite scenes?
Giancarlo Esposito: There are so many moments of this show that allow me to feel so warm and tingly, but I didn’t allow myself that feeling when I was there because I stayed to myself and I felt like Gus had a certain trajectory. I loved the victory, personally, in my episode with Lalo in that lab, knowing that at the end, I’m going to get him. But he kicks me down the steps, right? So Vince and everyone were so worried and it was like five steps up. They kept asking if we should get the stunt guy, but I kept saying “I’m doing it!”
Tony is so respectful, so I had to say “Tony, kick me” because I wanted to build up that hatred for this guy. My face winds up in the dirt with my glasses and the whole thing was demeaning. So it’s a weird thing to love, but I knew that a few minutes later I was going to get my comeuppance or revenge. It was also a challenge for me to get that Spanish seamlessly. I speak some Spanish but I’m not Spanish, and so to be able to stand toe to toe with Tony took a lot of work. The moment before we get into the lab where Tony shoots me is also a phenomenal moment that fueled the rest of the episode for me.
Between Better Call Saul and The Mandalorian, you have been dominating television over the past few years. The Mandalorian Season 3 finale certainly left some burning questions – no pun intended. Do you think there’s still a future for Moff Gideon?
Giancarlo Esposito: I hope only to be able to have good work. I love The Mandalorian. Jon Favreau is a friend and I totally respect his creativity and his reinvention of this particular show, coupled with Dave Filoni, who I think is a genius. Dave especially, is a kid in a man’s body with a genius brain. So I hope the show goes on and I have no feelings about whether it will or won’t with me included.
My ego says that they must have Moff Gideon, but I also want to serve the project. I would love to come back and it’s a special show because of the iconic mythology it deals with. But if they see fit that Moff should be gone, then that’s the truth. I mean, [after the Season 3 finale] people immediately started to band together like “Well, we saw all of those clones” and they’ve already made a story in their heads saying that’s not him dead, it’s a clone. Anything can happen, and I certainly don’t want to be attached to the outcome but I would love to come back and taunt Baby Yoda a little more.
I actually got to see you up on stage at Star Wars Celebration in London and it looked like you were having fun! How was that for you?
Giancarlo Esposito: I had a blast. It can be unnerving being with all those people, I always want to be myself but I’m always worried that I don’t want to take over things and project what I feel. I always look over at Jon and Dave and their mouths are half open and I’m thinking, “Am I saying the right thing, or am I not? (laughs) The opportunity to do The Mandalorian allowed me to be a kid again and it allowed me to fulfill a dream. When I watched the first Star Wars movie, it allowed me to feel like a hero. This show has allowed me to dream again and has made a very strong impact on my life. I always want to pass that on to the audience because yes, we’re watching entertainment, but do you get that this could be your journey too?
Do you really get that when you start to think about how you envision your life, you could be that awkward, unsuspecting hero that Mando is? He doesn’t want it and he gets this task which if he can complete, he’s then released. What he has to realize is that it’s not only about completing something, it’s about the journey. So when he looks at Grogu, and he learns from that child, this is really about his journey but he doesn’t think it is. That’s the wonderful part of this show. We are often in this world and go why are we here? But it’s your journey. It’s for you to live, create, and visualize the way you see fit.
You’re currently filming MaXXXine with Ti West, how has that experience been so far?
Giancarlo Esposito: It’s going really well, I’m having a good time. I love Ti West and I have an affinity for Mia Goth. Just by being around her, you know that there is something so special in her talent. It’s a very interesting subject matter and this particular film takes place in a different time period once again, so I love playing that as well. I think that folks are going to be really excited about this.
To wrap things up, now that you are at the end of an era with Gus and the Breaking Bad franchises, what types of projects are you looking to tackle in the future, either as an actor or director?
Giancarlo Esposito: As a director, I always look for projects that are uplifting and change the way we think about the world we live in, so those films aren’t always mainstream. I’m looking to do something that encompasses a man who’s trying to find himself, but it’s an action film. He’s struggling with something he’s done in his past and he’s moving through it in a way that puts him in a position where he becomes a stranger in a strange land. I want to tackle that.
I have a show for AMC, which doesn’t have an airing date announced yet, but my focus for the last two or three years has been telling a story of someone who’s ordinary, and then finds themselves in a situation where they have to be extraordinary because it’s the story of many of us in our world. I want to empower people to know that inside they are extraordinary if they only see it first for themselves, and then live that!