In the annals of TV villains, actor Giancarlo Esposito's Breaking Bad character, Gus Fring, stands out. Gus was an upstanding, impeccably dressed, New Mexico businessman who spoke with an elegant Chilean accent — and also happened to be a vicious drug lord.
Esposito describes the character as resembling "someone who may live next door, who is successful and very caring, but who is also ruthless."
In 2011, Esposito's portrayal of Gus seemed to end when the character died in a gruesome explosion on Breaking Bad. But now, six years later, the actor is reprising the role on Better Call Saul, AMC's prequel series.
Esposito describes his work on the current series as going "back in time with the character." In fact, audiences are meeting a younger, slightly less polished version of the notorious villain.
"It was a very interesting journey to think youthfully," Esposito says. "I wanted a Gus that was more vulnerable, a Gus that was ... not so definitive, knowing where he was going, but not knowing exactly how to get there."
On developing Gus Fring's voice and accent
I try to let the words speak to me and jump off the page in silence, so I can hear the rhythm of what they are trying to write. In this case, obviously, Gus has a Chilean accent, which I bring to the copy. But then I go from letting it permeate my being, and then allowing my voice to join it in a whisper. So I start that way, and from that whisper comes a sound, so that I can allow what the writers have honored in this character, and my voice, to join together in a seamless way.
On growing up biracial, the child of an Italian father and an African-American mother
It's been a part of me to acknowledge and recognize that I'm not a color. I've always said, "Hey, you go to England and these are English people. You go to Spain, there are Spanish people." They could be black, they could be all different colors. You come to America and it's black or white.
Unfortunately, I grew up here, where the divide is talked about and it's labeled in a very different way, and ... I dislike it a lot. Because before someone even comes into your presence, you're judging them by their color.
On being biracial and not being sure where he fit in
I had to make a choice, and I made this choice over and over and over again in my life. I walk into an audition and I'm "Giancarlo Esposito" and they thought I was a white guy. ... I walk into the audition and it's all white guys sitting out in the waiting room and they come out and they're like, "We're sorry. We had no idea ... you were black, so this is only for white guys." ...
We still check those boxes, right? And it says "African-American," "Spanish," you know, "Indian?" And I, all my life, have checked the box that that said "other." Now, there' s a connotation to that, too. I'm an "other"? How did I get to be an "other"? ...
I've had to revisit this often, and I'm getting a little choked up now, because I believe that we hold ourselves in a way that also projects who we are. And if I project my humanity and I'm a human being, that goes beyond any color. It goes to the soul. ... I want to be judged for who I am organically. I want to have real interactions not based on my color.
On the roadblocks his mother, an opera singer, faced in her career and her recent death
When I was 17, I stopped playing "bad" African-American young people, because I didn't want to represent them in that way. I wanted a more positive, thoughtful image of African-Americans, so I stopped playing the bad guys. I know that it crushed [my mother] to not have the opportunity to express herself, and I know that she gave up for many, many years ... and became an observer. ... She said to me, "I'm a queen, I will never work again. I won't participate in this madness." ...
I don't fault her for it, it was her journey, her life, but I do have the sense that she's really dancing in the clouds now, because she had an idea of how far I've gone.
On working with director Spike Lee in Do The Right Thing Do the Right Thing, School Daze, Mo' Better Blues and other films
It was a definitive turning point in my life to work with Spike Lee, because Spike represented ... the truth [of] who African-Americans were at that time. He didn't pull any punches. He wrote what he saw. He wrote what he felt, as raw as it may have been, as hard as it may have been to digest for African-Americans. And so I respected Spike for changing the game in film. ...
I took a little issue when Spike said, "Giancarlo, Giancarlo, I gotta tell you this." I said, "What, Spike?" "You know, you're an Afro-European." That's what he called me! I went, "OK, Spike."
We've butted heads. We've disagreed. We've agreed. I guess that's what friendships are about.
Radio producers Lauren Krenzel and Heidi Saman and Web producers Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey contributed to this story.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Giancarlo Esposito, is famous for playing Gus Fring in the series "Breaking Bad." His character was killed in "Breaking Bad," but now Esposito is back as Gus in season three of the prequel, "Better Call Saul." Esposito is also in the new film "Okja" by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho which will be on Netflix and in select theaters starting June 28. Esposito was in several Spike Lee films, including "School Daze," "Do The Right Thing" and "Mo' Better Blues."
He started acting as a child. He was on Broadway by the time he was 8. He's the son of a white father from Italy who worked as a stagehand and carpenter and an African-American mother from Alabama who was an opera singer.
We're going to talk about lots of things, including how race affected his career and his mother's. But let's start with his character Gus. Gus Fring is an upstanding member of Albuquerque's business community. He founded and runs the fast food chicken restaurants Los Pollos Hermanos. But he has another business the Chamber of Commerce does not know about as a drug lord, overseeing the production and distribution of crystal meth.
Here's a scene from this season's "Better Call Saul" that takes place after Gus's drug rivals came to Gus's restaurant and menaced his staff. After that incident, Gus calls the staff together and gives them a reassuring talk. He promises them overtime and therapy to deal with any lingering trauma or stress. Then the restaurant manager asks Gus a question.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BETTER CALL SAUL")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Mr. Fring, who were those guys?
GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: (As Gus) Well, some of you know that many years ago, I opened my first Los Pollos Hermanos in Michoacan. Shortly thereafter, those same men showed up. They wanted money. And I - I'm ashamed to say that I paid them. You see, in that place at that time, if I wished to conduct my business, I had no choice. But yesterday they came here - here. They intimidated my customers. They threatened my employees, and again they wanted money.
Now, my friends, I must confess that I almost gave them what they wanted. But then I thought no, no. This is America. Here, the righteous have no reason to fear. Here, those men have no power. And when they saw that I had no fear of them, they ran like the cowards they are back across the border. They will not return. We will move on from this. My friends, I promise you that together, we will prosper.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) All right.
GROSS: Giancarlo Esposito, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love that scene. I could listen to that over and over and over again. And it's such a great moment because you seem like such, like, the perfect manager. You're thoughtful. You're concerned about your staff and want to protect them. You're standing up to bullies. You're patriotic about America.
I'd like to talk with you about your voice as Gus. It's a very kind of measured voice. You articulate every syllable. It's a very conscious way of speaking, and you also have the slight remains of an accent from - I forget which country Gus is from.
GROSS: Chile, yeah. So can you talk about constructing that voice for Gus?
ESPOSITO: Yes. I try to let the words speak to me and jump off the page in silence so that I can hear the rhythm of what they are trying to write. In this case, obviously Gus has a Chilean accent, which I bring to the copy and then allowing my voice to join it in a whisper. And then from that whisper comes a sound so that I can allow what the writers have honored in this character and my voice to join together in a seamless way.
I'm half Italian and half African-American, so I gesticulate. I'm very Italian. If you met me in person, I use my hands to speak. I wanted that to be diminished, and I wanted the calm and cool personality of Gus to emerge. So that whisper allowed me to relax and Giancarlo to go away.
GROSS: The character of Gus is very meticulous. In his restaurant, he's often, like, emptying trays himself and cleaning up the tables and emptying the trash. And in his demeanor, I mean his clothes, even his khaki pants, everything's always perfectly pressed and clean. He works at a restaurant. You will never see a stain on him.
So was that you, or is that something you brought to the character, or was that written into the script? And since he has so much blood on his hands metaphorically, it's kind of interesting to see that kind of absolutely clean, pressed demeanor that he presents to the world.
ESPOSITO: This was not in the stage direction or in any direction or conversation when I first came to the show. But I wanted to create a character that was different. It wasn't the Italian mobster with the little dog who spoke very softly or loudly, whichever one. We've seen those characters before. I wanted to create someone who was hiding in plain sight. That was my inspiration. That was the stage direction.
And so that someone to me that became Gus - so that part of me that is meticulous I did lend to Gus and wanted to allow that to be a part of him because he's very careful, very clean. He's an observer in many ways. He's a witness in other ways. And he's ruthless underneath all. So it allows me to stand differently. It allows me to feel regal. And I wanted to lend that quality, that royal, regal quality to Gus.
GROSS: When you are given the role of - the reprised role of Gus in "Better Call Saul," you knew you'd be playing him years earlier because it's a prequel. And your seasons of "Breaking Bad" started in - what? - 2009 or something? So you're playing...
ESPOSITO: Right around there.
GROSS: Yes, so you're playing a character who's supposed to be younger than you were in 2009.
GROSS: This is one of the I think issues that "Better Call Saul" has had to deal with - that the actors have grown older, but they're playing years younger than they were when we first saw them. So they're doing that without the use of prosthetics or, you know, like, things to take away wrinkles as far as I've observed. So what was it like for you to figure out the younger version of your character?
ESPOSITO: It was a very interesting journey to think youthfully. I believe when you start to go back in time with a character, specifically in "Better Call Saul" for Gus, that you have to plant the seed in your head that you are younger. It's in the eyes. It's in the body first.
And then there were the physical aspects of it where, you know, I have some gray now, and I have more wrinkles. And how do we deal with that? Well, we can darken the hair. I've also changed my hairstyle between both shows. And that was a big question for everyone, but I was emphatic and knew that it was the right move to make. A younger Gus would be maybe a little more a wavier Gus. A Gus who...
ESPOSITO: ...You know, who actually may, you know - I wanted to give the sense that he - oh, he's a little - maybe even a little more handsome. Look at that hair. Look at those waves. He's not just the tough guy. He's a guy who actually you could see him going out on a date with a woman maybe. So I wanted a Gus that was more vulnerable, a Gus that was just a little bit more - a little younger in terms of his attitude, not so definitive, knowing where he was going but not knowing exactly how to get there. So the element for me starts at the mental, and then it transfers to the physical. And then we work on the exterior to allow it to be younger and have that come forth.
GROSS: You know, we earlier heard a clip in which you're showing your generous businessman, generous employer side of yourself. I want to show the other side for a moment here. And this is a scene from "Breaking Bad" where your people have brought Walt, the Bryan Cranston character, to the desert to meet with you. And you are worried about several things that Walt is doing because Walt has really gone off the rails. But among the things you're worried about as Walt's brother-in-law, who's a DEA agent who's been trying to investigate where this crystal meth is coming from, who's cooking it - he doesn't realize that it's Walt - and who's distributing it. And he doesn't - he's kind of getting close to finding out that it's you.
So here you are asking Walt, who's kind of on his knees in the desert before you - asking about Walt's brother-in-law.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")
ESPOSITO: (As Gus) In the meantime, there's the matter of your brother-in-law. He is a problem you promised to resolve. You have failed. Now it's left to me to deal with him.
BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walt) You can't.
ESPOSITO: (As Gus) If you try to interfere, this becomes a much simpler matter. I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter.
GROSS: OK, so when you saw those lines (laughter) in the script...
GROSS: ...I will kill your wife; I will kill your son; I will kill your infant daughter, what was your reaction to that line, and how did you decide how you wanted to say it?
ESPOSITO: I was really blown away by this particular scene. And I thought I could go two ways. I could be, you know, an extrovert with these lines, or I could stay within the character I created and just whisper this very unveiled threat.
I was a little shaken. I have children. I know Bryan has children. I'm looking at Walter White, and I am allowing him to know that he has not only failed with Hank, but he's also failed with me. Walter would have been the perfect, perfect partner, the perfect person to start another business somewhere else with if he had only done the right thing.
GROSS: So you decided to do the almost-whisper version of that line.
ESPOSITO: I did. I feel like there's more power within than without. And I thought if I wanted to make my point, it would be in my eyes and also in the whispered cadence of my voice.
GROSS: So in "Breaking Bad," you have one of the really great (laughter) - great horrible death scenes, and it's now a very famous scene. You are blown up in an explosion intended to kill you. So the explosion happens behind closed doors, and then we assume you could not have survived that. But then you open the door and stumble out and straighten your tie in that still very meticulous way. And I'm thinking like, what (laughter)? He survived.
GROSS: And he's straightening his tie. And then your head moves a little bit, and we see that half of your face is basically blown off. And it's just a really kind of shocking scene. So I'm wondering what that scene was like for you.
ESPOSITO: It's a very intense scene, and I was very nervous about it. It came from a conversation in Vince's office where after Episode 401, he called me in to let me know that the town was too big for both of us...
ESPOSITO: ...Meaning Walter White (laughter) and myself, and that I'd have to go. And then we talked about how Gus might go out of this world. And I was very, very passionate that it shouldn't move into a cheesy, supernatural way because I wanted Gus to die with dignity maybe. So I wanted to be able to portray the fact that maybe his - this long feud, this hate for Hector Salamanca was something that would eventually take Gus away. In the end, it allowed me to feel dignified, especially the way the camera moved across the side of Gus' face that was still intact so that I could be able to do my action.
Vince asked me in that office that day, what might he be doing if an explosive event happened? And I said, well, Vince, you see what I do. And I said this for a reason because I was inspired to do this show for many reasons, which we can talk about in a moment. But I was inspired by a stage direction - hiding in plain sight. I was inspired by a man who you thought you knew but did not. And that's what I based my character on.
So I said, Vince, you see me. I get up from a table, a chair; I button my jacket. If I sit back down, I unbutton it. And what do I do most? I straighten my tie to make sure the knot is correct so that I - so I wanted Gus to go out of the world with dignity, and I hope and I feel like I've achieved that.
GROSS: So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Giancarlo Esposito. And he plays Gus Fring, who runs a fast food chain and also is a drug lord. He started that role on "Breaking Bad." His character was killed in that series, but he's back again in the prequel, "Better Call Saul." And fans of the character and of Giancarlo Esposito, like me, are very glad that he's back.
We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is actor Giancarlo Esposito. And he starred in "Breaking Bad" as Gus Fring, a drug lord. And now he's back in the prequel, "Better Call Saul."
So let's talk about you. Your father is Italian, and by that, I mean from Italy. And your mother is African-American from Alabama.
ESPOSITO: That's correct.
GROSS: And you spent the early years of your life in Europe. How long were you there, and which country or countries were you in before moving to the U.S.?
ESPOSITO: I was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1958. And my mother was performing with Josephine Baker at the time.
GROSS: Oh, no, really?
ESPOSITO: Yeah, yes.
ESPOSITO: And yeah - rich history in that background of musicals and singing and opera. She was singing opera also at the Hamburg Staatsoper. So I - we bounced between Copenhagen and Hamburg and then to Rome of course. My father was from Naples. And so we wound up living in Rome until I was 5 years old. And I came over when I was 5 on the QE2 and landed in Manhattan at 43rd Street and 10th Avenue.
GROSS: Wow, OK, so your mother - as an African-American opera singer, did she get many roles? I mean I think there's more opportunity today for opera singers of color than there was - when was this? - the 1960s, late 1950s.
ESPOSITO: Yeah, late-'50s. Yes, and she had performed with Leontyne Price, which bought her in a show called "Porgy and Bess," which brought her to Europe because Bess was such a very - you know, a very strenuous role to play. So she alternated Bess with Leontyne Price and then created...
ESPOSITO: ...Another role in the show called Dancing Ruby, which was not in the original production. So she had a little moment where she could dance because she was an incredible dancer and singer.
GROSS: Did she ever get frustrated because of the lack of opportunities for black opera singers?
ESPOSITO: Absolutely. She won the Marian Anderson Scholarship to come to New York from Cleveland Ohio's Karamu House. And she went to International House to do her training before she went to Europe. I think that frustration eventually moved her out of the business. There weren't those opportunities. And obviously at that period of time, there was a different feeling surrounding African-Americans and performing.
And I really feel that she could have been a groundbreaker had she had a little more time to fight the good fight. It's a difficult period of time for both of my mother and father, Giovanni - and my mother was Lisa Foster - because they were in Europe at the time, and they had two little interracial children. And so back then, even in Europe, it was looked at as a bit of taboo. So it was a very, very stressful time for both of my parents at that moment in time.
GROSS: Did you grow up feeling like you were the product of a taboo?
ESPOSITO: In some ways, I - no. In some ways, I grew up being more open than people would imagine. My mother realized that from an incident that happened in Hamburg when the African - blue-black African man came to the door to deliver groceries. And my brother and I went to the door, and my brothers started yelling schvartze, schvartze. And so...
ESPOSITO: And my mother heard it and was like, what's going on? And we ran into the closet. We were so frightened by this man. And that's when she realized that we didn't realize or know or really couldn't visualize a difference between she and my father. There was no difference for us. They were just human beings.
And that's when she realized she had to start to teach us that there were people of different color. And these were African-Americans and that they existed all over the world. So it was a very defining moment in my life. I never felt like a taboo. I always felt like a human being, and that's what my parents taught me. And that's why I believe I've had the career I've had today because I didn't want to be pigeonholed.
People think I'm Spanish. I'm not Spanish. I speak some Spanish. I play Spanish characters. That was an answer to me coming to America and then trying to start to work in 1967, and black people weren't working. So I just said, oh, I can be Spanish because I have that color skin. I can be Dominican. I can do that. And that developed another skill for me.
GROSS: Wow. Just for anybody who didn't get the joke, by the way, schvartze means black or black person in Yiddish (laughter).
ESPOSITO: Yeah. My mother and father - my mother spoke German. It's a Yiddish word, but they also use it in Germany. So that's how we do it.
GROSS: That's hilarious that you used the word but also that - it's interesting that you didn't have this sense of connection that you were black and this person at the door was black.
ESPOSITO: It's something I keep going back to because it's been a marker in my life. And I haven't thought about it for a long time until you bring it up today, Terry. It's been a part of me to acknowledge and recognize that I'm not a color. I've always said, hey, you go to, you know, England, and you see, you know - these are English people. And you go to Spain, they're Spanish people. They could be black. They could be all different colors.
And you come to America, it's black or white. And unfortunately I grew up here where the divide is talked about, and it's labeled in a very different way. And I believe that I dislike it a lot because before someone even comes into your presence, you're judging them by their color.
I was just in South Africa doing a film. And I've come back, and I now know how to recognize South Africans. But I don't want that to taint my recognizing humanity - a human South African first. They speak differently. They're different. I've been all over Africa. And I see an African man coming in toward me; I can tell if he's from Namibia or - you know, or if he's from Zimbabwe. You can kind of tell. But then we start to make it easy for ourself. There's shortcuts in this life that we take to judge each other and get an impression so that we can be ahead of the conversation.
GROSS: My guest is Giancarlo Esposito. He plays Gus Fring on AMC's "Better Call Saul," the prequel to "Breaking Bad" where Esposito originated the character. After a break, we'll talk about being a child actor, playing Big Bird's camp counselor on "Sesame Street," performing in musicals and acting in Spike Lee's early films. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Giancarlo Esposito. He plays drug lord and fast food king Gus Fring in "Better Call Saul," the prequel to "Breaking Bad" where the character first appeared. Esposito is also in the new film by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho which will be on Netflix starting June 28.
When we left off, we were talking about being the son of a white Italian father and an African-American mother. Giancarlo spent most of the first few years of his life in Italy, where his father is from. He says race wasn't an issue for him until his family moved to the U.S. when he was about 5.
I remember you saying when we'd first spoken - I don't know - around 1990 that when you were in school, that you weren't accepted either by the Italian-Americans or the African-Americans because they each saw you as being the other. And that must have affected your sense of - that you didn't want to be a color. You wanted to just be a person.
ESPOSITO: You know, absolutely. You know, I - look; when I - we still check those boxes, right? And it says African-American, Spanish, you know, Indian. And I all my life have checked the box that said other. Now, there's a - there is a connotation to that, too. I'm an other. How did I get to be an other? I had to make a choice, and I've made this choice over and over and over again in my life.
I walk into an audition, and I'm Giancarlo Esposito. They thought I was a white guy. And they have to come to me - and I walk into the audition, and there's all white guys sitting out in the waiting room. And they come out. And they're - oh, we're so sorry. We had no idea. I said, well, what do you mean? We had no idea that, well, that you were black. So this is only for white guys.
So I've had to revisit this often. And I'm getting a little choked up now because I believe that we hold ourselves in a way that also projects who we are. And if I project my humanity and I'm a human being, that goes beyond any color. It goes to the soul. It goes to - I want to be judged on meritocracy. I want to be judged for who I am organically. I want to have real interactions not based on my color.
GROSS: So when you'd go to an audition and somebody assumed based on your name that you'd be white and then they'd have to tell you, oh, no, this is a role for white people, not for you, would you try to talk your way into the role and convince them that you could play the part even though you weren't white and that that character didn't have to be white? Or did you just leave? I mean how did you figure out how to handle it?
ESPOSITO: You know, it was a devastating moment where I - devastating and also very sweet when I stood up and said, well, why? Why? OK, give me a shot. Why can't I go in? This is years before what we called - we had a time in the '70s and '80s where we were unconventionally casting, and we're still moving in that direction, and we use that word. So it took me time to stand up.
The first few times it happened, I walked out crushed, devastated, hurt. And then I said, no, you don't need to be hurt, crushed and devastated. You can stand up and be proud of who you are as a human being and tell them. My agent, manager Toby Gibson (ph) - God rest her soul - used to say to me, go to the audition, but don't say anything. Don't talk. I would say, why - because it's for a black guy. And you speak too well.
ESPOSITO: So if you go in and just don't talk - you have brown skin. You can look tough. Look tough. Put a bandana around your head, and don't say anything. So that was also a crushing moment because that - what she was saying - don't show them how articulate you are, how intelligent you are, just be the tough black kid.
GROSS: So how old were you when your parents divorced?
ESPOSITO: I was 9 years old.
GROSS: And you were...
ESPOSITO: They were married 11 years.
GROSS: ...Living in the U.S. by then.
ESPOSITO: I was.
ESPOSITO: I was living in Yonkers, N.Y., in a basement apartment with my mom.
GROSS: Did your father and mother stay in the same neighborhood, and who did you stay with?
ESPOSITO: You know, I stayed with my mother and my brother. My father was a gypsy. He was a stagehand and a carpenter, and he traveled the world from show to show. And it's this moment in my life that I feel very much like him. They say you become your parents (laughter).
I'm - I have that gypsy life going from film to theater all over the world and always living out of hotel rooms. Well, that was - we were alone. And he did not - unfortunately did not give us much support. And it was because of their separation and divorce that I started to want to help financially - knew I had talent. My mother was an opera singer. I have a great voice.
So I thought, I could just start working, and that would help the family, and it would also allow me to get out of school (laughter) you know, get out of jail free - didn't have to go to school. I could correspond my work. But I loved the theater. I found that I loved it, and it was a means for me to not only develop a craft but also to help my mom pay for myself and my brother.
GROSS: So how old were you when you started in theater?
ESPOSITO: I was 8 and a half years old. I did a show called "Maggie Flynn" with Jack Cassidy and Shirley Jones. I auditioned at the Winter Garden Theater here in New York on 50th Street, and I sang "Happy Birthday." And I was shoved to one side of the stage that I could quickly see that that group were not going to be the group chosen.
And my brother got up because I was very underneath my brother's thumb. We both did this show together. We eventually - I eventually did get in. But he sang and went to the other side of the stage. And I was very savvy. I looked, and I went, oh, my gosh, I'm in the wrong group. These guys aren't making it.
And my manager at the time, Ernestine McClendon, saw my face, and she came and she - excuse me - stuck her big hand at my back, pushed me to the front of the stage at the Winter Garden and said, will you hear this child sing again? And they said yes. And I belted out "Happy Birthday" like you wouldn't believe. And they said, oh. They said, you can go to the other side of the stage. And that's how I got my first gig.
GROSS: My guest is Giancarlo Esposito. He plays Gus Fring in "Better Call Saul," a role he also played in "Breaking Bad." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest is Giancarlo Esposito, who played drug dealer and fast food king Gus Fring in "Breaking Bad" and is back in the role in the prequel, "Better Call Saul." When we left off, we were talking about getting his start as a child actor. So in preparing this interview with you, I found out that you were in the original cast of "The Me Nobody Knows," which is a musical from probably around 1973...
GROSS: ...That has an important place in my life because I was student teaching then in an inner-city school in Buffalo. And the teacher, who was, like, a great teacher, the teacher who I was understudying, was preparing her students to see "The Me Nobody Knows." This was going to be the class trip. She was taking them to the theater to see the touring production.
And so the lessons for a long time were just, like, learning the - like, reading the lyrics, listening to the record and learning the lyrics to all the songs in "The Me Nobody Knows." And she kept telling them, once you know something, once you've committed it to memory, you own it. It's yours. And the kids felt that. When they went to see the show, they felt like, this is ours.
And it was, you know, it was about African-American kids. And it's based on real stories that African-American kids had written as essays. So how old were you when you were in the show, and what did that show mean to you?
ESPOSITO: The show meant a lot to me because it allowed me to identify with a part of me that maybe for a little while I was denying. It takes a - I was 11, 12 years old when I was in that show. And I went in as an understudy understudying two girls and two boys. And it gave me the opportunity to learn four different roles all at one time and have to jump in for those different roles at any given moment on any given day before I eventually took over one of them.
It was - expression is everything for an artist. Expression is also everything for any human being who wants to realize who they really are and what their gifts are to the world. So this show allowed me the opportunity to be a channel for the voices of young, inner-city black children that were stifled before that point in time. It was a freedom that I felt doing that show. It was - I felt like I could soar because I really had the opportunity to represent voices that would never be heard.
GROSS: The song I remember most from the show was "If I Had A Million" - "If I Had A Million Dollars" (laughter).
ESPOSITO: (Singing) If I had a million, million dollars, tell you what I'd do. I wouldn't give no part of nothing to no one, not to the government and not to you. (Laughter) Wow, it's all in there - like you just said, it's just - once you know something. Another favorite song of mine which was very hopeful was "Light Sings." (Singing) The sun comes up. The moon goes down, a new day's on its way - a hopeful song. (Singing) The stars in the sky are waving goodbye, and morning here's, bringing in the day.
You know, when you think about the hopelessness of so many people in our world - and I felt certainly challenged as a young child living with a mother on food stamps, trying to find a direction not only for my life - but also I became an empathetic person because I watched her suffer trying and failing miserably to take care of two young boys and not knowing how. And so this show allowed me to find my roots in my culture - my African-American culture - and to not deny or want to move away from being the mixture that I am.
GROSS: Oh, thank you for singing those songs and for telling us that story. And I - it's just heartbreaking to think that your mother, who is good enough to perform with Josephine Baker and with Leontyne Price, ended up on food stamps because it was so hard to get roles.
ESPOSITO: It - well, that is part of the reason that may have broken her. The other part of the reason is that she had some trouble with herself...
GROSS: Oh, OK, yeah.
ESPOSITO: ...That she really was - you know, as a performer, you sometimes walk the line. You have the opportunity. The door opens for you to find yourself in all these characters. But then the ego comes in and wants more than what you have in the moment. I should be a star. I should be this. I should be that. I should be further along. The roles aren't coming. You can look at the glass as half empty or half full. My mother eventually, you know, wound up being troubled in her brain because all that she desired didn't come to fruition. And I understand that. When I think about my mom, who just passed away about six, eight weeks ago.
GROSS: Oh, I'm so sorry.
ESPOSITO: It's OK. It is how we manage our dreams, how we hold onto them. When is the moment that we release them and we give in and say, that's not going to happen?
GROSS: Do you have any idea what it was like for your mother, who wasn't able to fulfill her dream for an extended period of time, to see you have the kind of successful performing career that she probably wished she had?
ESPOSITO: You know, I do because I've hit the roadblocks, too. When I was 17, I stopped playing bad African-American young people because I didn't want to represent them in that way. I wanted a more positive, thoughtful image of African-Americans, so I stopped playing the bad guys.
I know that it crushed her to not have the opportunity to express herself, and I know that she gave up. For many, many years, she gave up and became an observer and decided that she - she told me (laughter) - I love you, Mommy. She said to me, I'm a queen. I will never work again (laughter). I won't participate (laughter) in this madness (laughter), you know? And so I don't fault her for it. It was her journey, her life. But I do have the sense that she's really dancing in the clouds now because she had an idea of how far I've gone.
Took her to see "Porgy And Bess," didn't know it was a performance on a Sunday afternoon matinee - about three years ago - Audra McDonald version. All the Bess's who ever played that role were there. I walked into the theater, and we walked to our seat. And the audience started clapping. And my mother stopped and said, what are they clapping for? (Laughter) And I said, I don't want to know. And then they kept clapping.
And then we got to our seat, and she said - she looked around, and she got the idea. They were clapping for me. And I - awkward moment - I had to say - why are they clapping for you, she said. I said, I think they know me from something, from a TV show that I did. And she said, really? And I said, yes, really, and quietly sat down next to her.
GROSS: Wow. So that's probably from "Breaking Bad" - right? - three years ago.
ESPOSITO: I would imagine so.
GROSS: Wow. At first I thought you were going to say that they were honoring her 'cause they knew that she had played Bess many years ago. And then no, no, they're clapping for you.
ESPOSITO: Yeah, I took her backstage, and she hadn't been invited. This is totally an accident that I took her on this day. I felt - I think about this moment because it was beautiful - took her backstage afterwards and introduced her to Audra, who I adore. And all the other Bess's were there. And I said, well, my mother also played Bess. And it was a beautiful moment for me to honor her. I tried to just step out of the way and allow her to shine.
GROSS: So you had mentioned that at some point you wanted to stop playing the kind of, like, tough-guy kind of roles that you were getting. I imagine there were a lot of, like, drug dealer or drug addict roles...
ESPOSITO: That's exactly right.
GROSS: ...That you were offered because that was the period when that was the roles young African men - young African-American men were offered on all the crime shows on TV and in all the crime movies. So when you were, I don't know, I think 21, you got a role on "Sesame Street." Was that, in a way, supposed to be like a ticket out for you into a different kind of role? Like, how did you end up on "Sesame Street?"
ESPOSITO: Oh, my goodness, I had done the theme song for "The Electric Company."
GROSS: Wait, wait, you sang the theme song?
ESPOSITO: I recorded with a bunch of different kids the theme song of "The Electric Company," which was a show that was connected to "Sesame Street." So I was always hoping to be able to get on "Sesame Street" because I loved Big Bird. You know, Caroll was just, to me, a guy who was in a bird suit who could convey what he did was so fantastic. So from that moment, I got, you know, an offer to be Big Bird's camp counselor.
And I thought, wow, spend two weeks in the mountains, in Bear Mountain and play with Big Bird? It would be fantastic.
GROSS: OK, so we have a clip with you and Big Bird (laughter) - you as his camp counselor. You were always reassuring him that he'll do OK in camp and that he can do it. So you're giving him advice about how to write a postcard home.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SESAME STREET")
CAROLL SPINNEY: (As Big Bird) What do you say if you're writing a postcard from camp to home?
ESPOSITO: (As Mickey) Well, it's sort of like talking long distance. You tell them how you've been doing and what you're feeling. And if you can't think of anything else to say, there's always, I'm fine, how are you?
GROSS: What's it like to hear yourself as a 21-year-old?
ESPOSITO: Oh, my goodness, it's kind of freaky. There's that guy in there somewhere.
GROSS: (Laughter) So was it hard to act with Muppets?
ESPOSITO: Absolutely. You know, it was my first acting with some person inside, you know, a rag doll costume. It was hard until I realized where to focus. Caroll Spinney really - he really allowed me to feel comfortable. And when I focused on the voice, on the voice and the cadence of what he was saying, I was not so startled by the Big Bird (laughter) that was standing in front of me.
GROSS: My guest is Giancarlo Esposito. He plays Gus Fring in "Better Call Saul," a role he also played in "Breaking Bad." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LOU WILLIAMS' "A GRAND NIGHT FOR SWINGING")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Giancarlo Esposito, who played drug dealer and fast food king Gus Fring in "Breaking Bad" and is back in the role in the prequel, "Better Call Saul." What was the importance of Spike Lee in your life? You made three movies with him in the late '80s and early '90s. I think its three - "School Daze," "Do The Right Thing" and "Mo' Better Blues." And...
ESPOSITO: And I also did "Jungle Fever," so that makes it four...
GROSS: Oh, "Jungle Fever," right, right.
ESPOSITO: ...And "Malcolm X" makes it five. Yeah, it's five (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, my gosh, right. (Laughter) OK.
ESPOSITO: No worries. It's all right.
GROSS: All right, OK. So, you know, you had, at some point, rejected being, like, you know, the drug dealer, the crack addict kind of character. You wanted to play, you know, more positive roles and not just represent African-Americans in those kinds of roles. And you talked about the problem you had getting roles. So with Spike Lee, here's somebody who's of your generation, who's African-American and is trying to write movies that addressed issues that real people face.
So was that a real turning point in your life, like, finding Spike Lee?
ESPOSITO: A very specific turning point to be able to find Spike Lee. I had been doing a show called "Zooman And The Sign." And Spike came to see that play by Charles Fuller. And...
GROSS: With the Negro Ensemble Company.
ESPOSITO: With the Negro Ensemble Company. And he was very enamored with my performance and asked me to read a script called "School Daze," which was, at that period of time, a musical.
GROSS: Oh, gosh, really?
ESPOSITO: Yeah, it was a musical. It was about his experience at Morehouse College, Morehouse and Clark in Atlanta. And, yeah, it was - and I read the script and I was excited. I used to go visit him down at Maxi Cohen's first-run features where he would be cleaning the films. And he'd be wearing little white gloves. And he'd be using the Steenbeck and rolling the film around on the big reel.
It was a definitive turning point in my life to work with Spike Lee because Spike represented the truth, the truth who African-Americans were at that period of time. He didn't pull any punches. He wrote what he saw, he wrote what he felt, as raw as it may have been, as hard as it may have been to digest for African-Americans.
And so I respected Spike for changing the game in film.
GROSS: And did you have long conversations with him about race?
ESPOSITO: Oh, my goodness. We became friends and...
ESPOSITO: Are you kidding me? (Laughter) You know - yes. And so - because I have a, you know - I'm a mixed-race guy, you know? I took a little issue when Spike said, hey, Giancarlo, Giancarlo, you - I have to tell you this. I said, what, Spike? You know, you're an Afro European. (Laughter) That's what he called me.
ESPOSITO: And I went, OK, Spike. We've butted heads, we've disagreed, we've agreed. I guess that's what friendships are about. He helped me to think. He was so pro-black on certain of his sets where I didn't like it when, you know, he would talk about white folks a certain way and then have white folks on the set. I was like, well, what is that? Like, how do you do that?
He's been instrumental in training young African-American filmmakers and being an inspiration to so many people. I loved our disagreements and I loved our agreements. And I just really appreciate his fresh attitude that he brought to filmmaking.
GROSS: Well, since we're speaking about your relationship with Spike Lee, why don't we play a scene from "Do The Right Thing?" And this is a scene where you play Buggin Out, who's a character - as you (laughter) - you described him in 1990 as somebody - when I interviewed you - as somebody who's probably read, like, one paragraph of a speech by Martin Luther King or, like, one paragraph from the autobiography of Malcolm X and decided to be a change maker.
But he really knows nothing about history or about how to make change (laughter). So he's often...
GROSS: ...Doing the wrong thing (laughter).
GROSS: So this scene is at the pizzeria, which is run by Sal, played by Danny Aiello. And there's a lot of, like, you know, white performers on Sal's wall of fame in the pizzeria. And your character, Buggin Out, objects to that and thinks that there should be black people on the wall, too. So here's the scene.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DO THE RIGHT THING")
ESPOSITO: (As Buggin Out) Hey, Sal, how come you have no brothers up on the wall here?
DANNY AIELLO: (As Sal) You want brothers on the wall? Get your own place. You can do what you want to do. You can put your brothers and uncles and nieces and nephews, your stepfather, stepmother, whoever you want, you see? But this is my pizzeria. American Italians on the wall only.
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Take it easy, Pop.
AIELLO: (As Sal) And you, hey, don't start with me today.
ESPOSITO: (As Buggin Out) What? Yeah, that might be fine, Sal. But you own this. Rarely do I see any American Italians eating in here. All I see is black folks. So since we spend much money here, we do have some say. Boop (ph).
AIELLO: (As Sal) You looking for trouble? Are you a trouble maker? Is that what you are? You making trouble?
ESPOSITO: (As Buggin Out) Yeah, I'm a trouble maker. I'm making trouble.
GROSS: (Laughter) OK, that's Danny Aiello...
GROSS: ...And my guest Giancarlo Esposito in "Do The Right Thing." So in some ways, that film was all about, like, racial division between the white characters and the black characters and the misunderstandings between them and the hostility between them. What was it like for you to be a film about divisiveness when in your life, you were trying to kind of, like, transcend race and bring people together and see their humanity and not their race?
ESPOSITO: You know, I, again, stick to Spike Lee was telling the truth at that point in time. And speaking about this movie today, it was, in a very strange way, was a foreboding of what is still going on. And I applaud what Spike does in the world politically to bring attention to all the young black youth that are dying at the hands of police. What was it like? It got me - it snapped me back into reality.
You know, no matter what I think of myself in the world, I have brown skin. And that's going to be measured. And I have to be aware, even today, that anything can happen. Yes, one moment, people can recognize me as Buggin Out from "Do The Right Thing" or as Gus from "Breaking Bad." But in another moment, I may just be looked at as a black man with a tail light out who is reaching for his wallet that could be a gun.
GROSS: You've mentioned a few times the importance of meditation and yoga in your life. How did you find that?
ESPOSITO: It has saved my life - probably saved me from me because it's allowed me a deeper connection to be able to give me a little distance from not only the things that may trouble me but from a very busy mind. As an actor, it's very helpful because it allows me to get out of the way and allows what I have envisioned for the character to come out in full bloom.
We are thinkers, we are intellectual people, many of us. And I don't want you to see that in my performance. I want you to see some naturalness. I want you to see some spontaneity. So for me to turn that switch off, meditation really helps.
GROSS: Giancarlo Esposito, it's just been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.
ESPOSITO: Thank you.
GROSS: Giancarlo Esposito plays Gus Fring on AMC's "Better Call Saul." Esposito is also in the new film "Okja" by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, who also directed "Oldboy" and "Snowpiercer." It will be on Netflix and in select theaters starting June 28. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about being a woman's rights activist in Saudi Arabia where women are denied basic rights.
My guests will be Manal al-Sharif. In 2011, she was arrested for driving in protest against the ban on women driving. She's written a new memoir. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE NATURAL SPIRITUAL ORCHESTRA'S "WE LOVE ROLL CALL Y-ALL")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. I'm Terry Gross.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In the audio version of this story, Bong Joon-ho is identified as the director of the film Oldboy. The 2003 South Korean film was directed by Park Chan-wook and the 2013 remake was directed by Spike Lee.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.