WARNING – SPOILERS!
*The Hollywood Reporter caught up with actor Giancarlo Esposito to get the scoop on how he came to play ruthless-yet-polite meth kingpin Gustavo Fring on AMC’s “Breaking Bad.”
In the Q&A below, he also discusses what happens to his character in Sunday’s season finale.
[Warning: Stop reading here if you don’t want the ending spoiled!]
The Hollywood Reporter: What drew you to Breaking Bad in the first place?
Giancarlo Esposito: I look at Breaking Bad as a show about the American family. It’s an interesting investigation of where we’re what as a people. Middle-class people are becoming desperate. It can cause a moral man to break bad. It makes you ask yourself the question: What would you do if your chips were down?
THR: It seems Vince Gilligan didn’t have a clear path or arc for Gus when he originally hired you on season two.
Esposito: No, I don’t think anyone working on the show did. It came to me as a guest spot, two or three episodes. Gus was the manager of chicken restaurant, and possibly something more. What I loved is that he’s affable, posing as a manager but owns the whole chain. I chose to make him very low key, to be a really good listener. Then they asked me would I come back for the third season. But I was just unwilling to do guest spot after guest spot — I wanted to be part of the Breaking Bad family. If I was gonna come back, I wanted to come back as full-fledged character. Then they offered me seven episodes, to which I said no. Then they offered me nine, and I wound up doing eleven. I wanted to create a character who became intrinsic to the show. And their writing inspired me to think, to create someone threatening, poignant, polite. Gus speaks with his eyes. I didn’t use the word “villain” to describe Gus.
THR: When did you start to get the feeling Gus was going to meet a glorious flamboyant demise?
Esposito: I knew at the beginning of season four; “Box Cutter,” when Gus cuts a man’s throat in front of Walt and Jesse. I knew he wouldn’t be around for a long time after that. After we shot a few more shows, Vince called me in and said, “We’re gonna kill Gus, I wanted to let you know. It won’t happen till 413.” He gave me a full heads up. I said, “Well, okay, as long as it’s fantastic!” He said, “It will be! We want to blow your face off!” We both thought it would be like Gus to survive an explosion for a few seconds — that he would button his jacket, straighten his tie — then just keel over and die. Vince came up with this brilliant way for me to leave — I give him full credit.
THR: How did you all keep this secret, since you shot the ending in July.
Esposito: My friend Samuel L. Jackson came down to the set to visit me, and while he was there, his script for The Avengers got online. Apparently, it got stuck in a copy machine in Toronto. That’s when Vince stopped printing anything about Gus on paper. The script never left his office. You had to go into his office to read it. From what I can tell, most people believe Gus did poison Brock with the ricin. They were obviously all wrong!
THR: After Walt kills Gus, does Walt become the new Gus, the new drug kingpin of the Southwest?
Esposito: I love what these writers do to heighten the suspense. The story has always been to take this common man to a meth kingpin, that was the story. Mr. Chipps becomes Scarface. It does look like Walt’s getting closer.
THR: How did they create the look of your face having blown off?
Esposito: I had to sit and have a cast of my head made. They put goop on my head, all over. I had tubes running out of my nose to breathe. Many actors can’t deal with the process, it’s quite claustrophobic. They made a mold of my whole head. Then they created the cratered face mask on the side; I wore makeup in the actual scene, and they digitally matched the head to my face on film. They marked it with a sharpie and digital dots. It took five hours to create that head — it was a due process!
THR: You don’t usually see someone who’s had their face blown off by a blast get up and walk.
Esposito: That shows you how tough Gus is. It’s a reveal when you see him. You’re shocked — and he looks pretty good — until he turns his head. It almost seems to go into the realm of the supernatural.
THR: Gus is one scary dude. Are people afraid of you when they see you in normal places now?
Esposito: Yeah! I was getting on a plane the other day and a young lady was walking toward me and suddenly gasped, and said, “Gus!” I said, “I’m not going to bite you.” Some people who love the show are deferential. Others come up and shake my hand. People are definitely very affected by this show. I think I might have to let my hair grow out now — so I can have a kinder look for myself. I can feel Gus starting to leave me. I was walking down the street the other day with very good posture — and I had this whiff of Gus. I said, “Get out of here, Gus, you’re on hiatus!”
THR: Well, he’s more than that. He’s quite dead.
Esposito: With Breaking Bad, you never know! I have a feeling I might be back in Gus’ shoes. There are lots of flashbacks on this show. Who knows what’s in store for next season? The plot keeps thickening. In BB, people come back from the dead. I do hope to direct an episode of Breaking Bad next season. Vince and I have discussed that.
THR: What’s in the immediate future for Giancarlo Esposito?
Esposito: I’m producing and directing a film about reality TV, I’ve rewritten it with some writing partners. Jeremy Piven is the lead; he’ll play the No. 1 reality show host in America, who comes to regret it. There is a role I might play in the film, but I want a stellar cast. I’ll only play it if I can’t get anyone more famous!