A conversation with Giancarlo Esposito

Actor Giancarlo Esposito addresses Lindenwood University students

Actor Giancarlo Esposito addresses Lindenwood University students

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Abigail Fallon | Staff Reporter
Published March 20, 2015; 5 p.m.

Giancarlo Esposito, perhaps best known for his work as Gus Fring on Breaking Bad, addressed Lindenwood University students on March 17. After his discussion in the Scheidegger Center’s Lindenwood Theater, Esposito sat down with Legacy/Lindenlink reporter Abigail Fallon to talk about his career in theater and film, what he would probably be doing if he weren’t acting, and his biracial upbringing.

Professional Life

Question: Your career has included Broadway, television and film. How do you feel about these three media and how do you have to change your technique between them?

Answer: Back in the old days you have no mike at all. So it made your style very large from theater, and you have to really bring that down when you’re working with a camera.

As I was telling the students, Marshall McLuhan was a guy who coined the phrase ‘hot medium’, which was film, big screen, to a ‘cool medium’, which was television, small box, to the theater, which is that open space that you have to be able to project all your of your emotions from the stage to the back row, so it’s very different. So that was one of my challenges as an actor who moved from theater to film, was to do everything for an inanimate object that had different sized lenses, so you didn’t have to be as large not only with your emotions but also with your physicality, that was the biggest challenge.

I also became a real voice artist because, being a singer on stage, I had a very developed, very big voice, and for film, for television, I take that voice away. We did Revolution, a series a couple of years ago, where I just wanted to croak out my words, and the soundman was always like ‘Can you be any louder?’ and I was like ‘Nah, I can’t be any louder, Tom, no one talks like that.” So you learn to adjust for the mediums that you’re in.

Q: If you could only choose one to act in for the rest of your career, which of the three would you prefer?

A: Well, because I’m such a diehard believer in the theater, if I had to choose just one, it would more than likely be the theater. But because people don’t go to the theater as much to see live performances, I feel like it’s just changed so much, my second choice right now, in this day and age would be film.

Because film has the ability to get to a larger audience and to be able to tell the subtle, smaller stories that are rarely told, but be able to reach a larger amount of people. And I also think film is a director’s medium; I’m also a director. You put together what your idea and vision is and you get everyone to come along with that. So, 20 years ago I’d probably say the theater, but because I love film so much and I think it’s what we will be known for in this century, the moving image, I think it’s become a very important part of my life.

Q: Would you prefer to play a character that you had a lot in common with, or are you  more comfortable acting outside of your comfort zone?

A: Always, to act outside of your comfort zone, for me, is the key to learning. I think acting is not a comfortable place to be, you know, on stage in front of a lot of people, being vulnerable, showing them your idiosyncrasies, is not a comfortable place to be. I don’t feel like you can act comfortably ever. I know every time I have to get in front of an audience and I’m acting in front of a camera and on stage for 50 years now, this year is my 50th year, that I always feel a little nervous, I always feel a little uncomfortable because it’s revealing.

You know, I have things that I have things that I love to be kept private about me, and we all do as human beings, but part of the gig, part of the job, part of the excitement is to be in that space where you have to allow yourself to be seen. That’s what I do. But, I think if I didn’t have the nervousness and I didn’t have the little uncomfortable feeling each time, that it wouldn’t be as exciting, that I would then be taking it for granted.

See, I’m very respectful in regard to what I do because I feel like I have preserved and established a reverence for what I do. And I think it should be so for whatever you choose to do in life. There should be a reverence for it, you should feel that you are born to do this and you should become excited and engaged and intrigued every single moment that you’re doing it. And so, if you’re not a little bit nervous that means maybe you don’t respect it as much. So, for me, there’s no way I could do anything else. I love it.

Q: If you weren’t an actor or a director, what would you see yourself doing?

A: I love nature so I had a great interest in being a geologist and an archaeologist because e I like being outside and I love the history of what’s been left behind, bones and rock and what’s in the earth that tells us about our past and predicts our future, so I have a feeling I would do that. I would be an adventurer and an explorer because it’s sort of uncovering a history and a depth of what has become our environmental nature that I think is truly what the world’s about, it’s the footprint of how we got here.

And now we’re moving into this great technological era, but I venture to say that my interest and the interest of all of us should be more about our environment. Because we don’t have, I don’t believe, the power, even through all of our technology and nuclear technology, to destroy the world, but we have the power to become extinct, that’s been proven. So I think that what we have to start to learn is to be respectful of our environment and be very careful how we fuel it, because that will be the means to our end, I believe.

I also have a great love of healthcare, not our traditional healthcare, but of alternative medicine. I saw myself at one point possibly becoming a chiropractor. Healthy people live better, and helping them understand that what’s at the end of their fork is medicine, in many ways, can either make them sick or make them well. But yet we go and we get pills to do that and we go ask a doctor who doesn’t live in our body, we ask he or she to tell us what’s wrong with us, when in actuality if we were really connected again to, you know our own- asking, “How am I? What’s going on with my body?” we would know what’s wrong with us because we were given that gift, but we don’t practice it.

Breaking Bad

A: There is this perception, especially in the state of Missouri, of meth use as a basement and trailer park sort of based industry- yet super labs like the one that your character, Gus Fring, runs in Breaking Bad do exist, particularly within Mexican drug cartels usually in other countries but also in the United States. Do you think that it is a good or bad thing that people now know more about the illegal drug trade as a result of the show?

A: I think it’s a good thing. The reason I did the show is because I wanted to shed light on this illegal world that is quickly becoming a very big business. Business is good, and it’s great that it can continue to reap rewards, but the problem is the scourge to human beings and our society. And so, as oddly as it sounds, the reason I accepted the role of Gus Fring is because I wanted it to be widely known that this is a huge problem in America.

Q: There is a recurring stereotype in entertainment called the “Mighty Whitey,” middle class or upper middle class white men will enter these minority-dominated fields and sort of blow over everyone who’s already existed in them for decades. (Walter White, in this sense, has been compared to Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai, Daniel Day-Lewis in The Last of the Mohicans, and the marijuana producers in Savages.) Do you feel that Breaking Bad perpetuates any racial stereotypes and how do you feel about that?  

A: Well, I don’t like stereotypes at all. I don’t really feel like that was something that Breaking Bad was trying to do, however we have a great cross section of America that is standing up and wanting to get their due. It’s just like affirmative action way back when; did I think it was good? Personally, I thought it had its problems because no one should be given a place over another just because of the color of their skin. I believe in meritocracy, I come from a mixed marriage, so I think differently. I do believe that we’ve perpetuated certain problems in America that we have to look back on as being not good, and affirmative action is one of those things. Because it does give opportunity, but is that opportunity earned?

So I believe that things should be earned, and I do believe that people should be looked at as human beings and we’ve lost that, because so many people want to get their due and they speak out about it because we’ve made it an issue, because they’re able, because you start squeaking the loudest and we’re going to give it to you. But my belief is that people earn, and they’re going to look at something that’s earned, they’re going to feel the effect of that in a much stronger way than if it’s not earned. Because so many people where it’s given to them because of the color of their skin, or because they didn’t have, or their forefathers didn’t have the opportunity, blah blah blah, they’re not going to respect it the same way. And so I believe that we have to start to become humanists first, and that changes the game, and that allows you to work for what you get.

You know, my father was an Italian immigrant from Naples, Italy who worked for everything thing he ever got and then became a spoiled man because he came to America and he fell into, you know, “I deserve to have this because I was not able to get it” because people were prejudiced against him for being Italian. And I said, “Well, look at your life”, because he never understood what it was like to be black, which I forgave him for because he never really spoke English, he spoke with a broken English accent.

But yet one of the things for me was that I had all of his racism ingrained in me, and then I was treated as a black man totally. And I started to act like- you know, the reaction to being treated like that, is to act that way, which is completely the antithesis of what you should be doing! You should be acting as if you are an individual, and that’s what I do now. You know, I worked with Spike Lee on five movies and I learned the angry black man deal, you know, and that’s not me, I’m a human being. If you have a problem or issue or this that or the other about my skin that’s on you, because I’m growing to be more of a humanist.

Ferguson

Q: How do you feel that your biracial background helps you view issues like the Ferguson protests?

A: It helps me because I feel as if I’ve been given a gift to be able to see clearly. Spike Lee asked me a question years ago on Do the Right Thing, you know, like, you’ve got to stand up for black people; I stand up for all people. I said, “Spike, my father’s Italian,” he said, “With this revolution what side are you going to take?” that’s what he said to me, “Come on, Giancarlo, answer me, blah blah blah blah blah blah…” You know, what are you asking me? Are you asking me am I going to betray my origin, my roots, my father, my blood, or my mother, who equally as much has all the same elements? So my biracial upbringing and life has enabled me to look at things from both sides and to see clearly.

And this Ferguson thing is a disaster. It’s a disaster because it’s not only a disaster in the systemized racism that’s been going on within the police department and the courthouse, the targeting, that is one disaster that is entrenched in many different cities in America, we now know it, we have to change it. But when I looked at the news yesterday, I looked at the news and two police officers were shot and they show a clip of people in protest, but what do I see, I see them screaming at the cops, yes, but I see two huge black men in a Donnybrook, that was the loop, and I went, “Wait, what’s weird about this picture?”

You know, here I am going to that area and I was asked do you want to go over there and I said what am I going to see, you know, some burned out buildings? Unless I have the opportunity to speak to human beings about being human- and I’m looking at the television clips which shows two men of the same color beating the crap out of each other.

Is that what Ferguson has done? Is that what the mistake of Michael Brown has been? That a young man gets shot, wrongfully, and that his memory and what we’ve left behind since last summer, these protests, allow people of the same color and different colors to fight in the street? That’s just, it’s just horribly base and animalistic, and what have we learned?

We haven’t learned much, then, from Martin Luther King, we haven’t learned much from Ghandi or Thoreau, who talk about nonviolent change. We haven’t learned much about who we are as human beings, if that’s what I’m looking at. It’s so wrong and so twisted.

So, I do think the system needs to be changed, I think it needs to be rooted out. I think it’s started already, it’s happening, but when African Americans and whites as a group go and violently protest and police, who need to be reeducated all across the county, are shot unjustly, this is perpetuating just violence, it’s not perpetuating any change. It’s just fulfilling the anger that people have inside them, and nothing will get changed that way.