As synonymous with the heyday of Spike Lee’s career as any contemporary, first as ‘Dean Big Brother Almighty’ in unorthodox classic School Daze, then, especially, in the antagonistic but poignant role of ‘Buggin’ Out’ in the undisputed opus, Do The Right Thing, theater, film, and TV legend Giancarlo Esposito celebrates more than 40 years as Obie Award-winning (Distant Fires; Zooman and the Sign) and Emmy-nominated (Breaking Bad) actor, carving out his one-of-a-kind niche in Hollywood history, reprising his celebrated role as Breaking Bad baddie Gus Fring and reflecting on his resume with more than one film in The Top 100 of All Time.
The moment is forever etched in my mind: Gus Fring, a pleasant, if not overly-fastidious, owner of a fictitious franchise of Mexican fast food restaurants, gets taken to the proverbial table by ambitious meth cook Walter White for being — what else? — a drug lord.
Although reticent at first, it’s in one stunning single shot that Fring drops the act and shows the full spectrum of his menace, and from behind the keenly benevolent expression on legendary actor Giancarlo Esposito’s lean and caramel face emerges a villain of uncompromising capability.
Get down on Season Two of Breaking Bad, if you know what’s good for you.
So, one does not merely conduct an interview, per se, with Giancarlo Esposito. It’s an occurrence that, sort of, well, happens to one, like falling in love, or winning the lottery.
The acting legend and veteran of stage and screens both small and large, is a force of nature, full of gusto and grace. He is as brilliant, exacting, forthright, truthful and robust as one could ever possibly hope.
Or, rather, as one should expect.
Esposita has spent 40-plus years active in show business, making his Broadway debut at the unripe age of 8 and amassing a never-ending resume since then. That resume is peppered not only with many of the most memorable films and television shows, past and present — Taps, Miami Vice, Trading Places, NYPD Blue, The Usual Suspects, Law & Order, The Jungle Book and Westworld, to name a few — he’s also taken on some of the most iconic roles, including “Bugs” Raplin (Bob Roberts), Lance (King of New York), Agent Giardello (Homicide: Life on the Street) and Cassius Clay Sr. (Ali), as well as almost any part he’s played during his lasting working relationship with auteur Spike Lee: Consider Julian in School Daze, Buggin’ Out in seminal classic Do The Right Thing, Left Hand Lacey in Mo’ Better Blues and Thomas Hayer in Malcolm X.
We haven’t even gotten to the fact that he’s also lent his voice to a handful of animated projects, including his work as the narrator on Netflix series phenomenon Dear White People. And we still haven’t mentioned, for all that is pure and true, the cultural sensation of his Emmy-nominated turn as unflappable drug kingpin Gustavo “Gus” Fring on the modern-day cable classic Breaking Bad.
That particularly pivotal character, which Mr. Esposito played with bone-chilling aplomb, is a character he continues to reprise — much to the unnerved delight of AMC’s viewership — in the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul.
Clearly, a man like Esposito brings with him invaluable experience as a quintessential journeyman, so, more than five decades into his career, he’s found himself in more demand than ever, with such frequency that he bounces from set to set all over the country: New York, New Orleans, Los Angeles.
“I tell people I call the Delta terminal home,” he jokes. But he also brings the very pertinent experience of being a veteran professional and a man of mixed race in this brash and unforgiving Hollywood business.
Esposito doesn’t detail any personal experiences of such ilk as a young actor coming of age in Manhattan’s theater scene, not like those illuminated by numerous civil and social movements peak trending these today. But as an acclaimed actor with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a modern-day black man and a father of four daughters, his eclectic and diverse background certainly lets him view the world through a kaleidoscopic lens. .
Giancarlo Giuseppe Alessandro Esposito was born in Denmark to an Italian father and an African-American mother. Both as an individual and an actor, he somehow manages to capture all the myriad echoing cultural nuances either of those backgrounds have instilled in him.
Although he is too charismatic to come across as heavy-handed in an effort to make a point, he also does not tiptoe. Even more impressive, however, is that he has the rare, perhaps cultivated, ability to freely and fearlessly dance across the conversation.
Any conversation, I’m sure.
In this one, on the phone with me as he waits in an airport terminal somewhere in his transcontinental life, he does it brilliantly, effortlessly sashaying across the line we’ve drawn between art, then politics, then the intersection between the two.
It’s a challenge to do so as deftly and smartly as he does, especially in hair-trigger times like these. These are times, Esposito says, that must be emblematic of hopeful and necessary change. “[A time],” he says, “to allow people to have their identity.”
Having just recently entered his 60s, Esposito speaks with a vigor one might associate with youth. But his is a practiced vigor, illustrated in ways that prove himself the veteran he is, who has allowed himself, over the years, to mature, to be influenced and to learn —to change. It is a vigor he knows how to use.
After all, he comes from a family of multiple languages;his father was Italian, and he himself speaks both Italian and Spanish. But he also comes from a family of artists — his mother, most notably, an accomplished singer — and so he speaks that language fluently, as well. And with an accumulation of years spent impassioned as a “starving” actor, he can transform any ideology into a finely-tuned pronouncement.
But, he’s careful when he articulates a thought, and even more so when he uses those thoughts to create. He’s careful about how he uses one thing — art — to present the other thing — politics. “Whether or not you’re trying to illicit a reaction,” he says, “You have to be aware of how it’s going to affect people.”
When he received his Hollywood Star in 2014, Esposito said he felt like he was “just getting started.” True, in his portrayal of Gus Fring, his career saw a well-deserved resurgence. As more and more acting jobs continue to fill his slate, taking him from a soundstage here to on location there, Esposito, a veritable multi-hyphenate — he has directed and produced two films in which he also starred: Gospel Hill and The Show — continues to seek new projects that can indulge both art and politics. Projects that don’t say nothing, but also don’t say everything.
Projects that, much like himself, somehow know how to say just enough. That’s how something remains unforgettable.
Photographer: Jonny Marlow
Stylist: Justin Lynn
Groomer: Autumn Moultrie
@ The Wall Group
Writer: Joe Tower