SPOILER ALERT: The following post and interview contain spoilers about the season finale of Breaking Bad.
Gustavo Fring, immigrant from Chile to Mexico to New Mexico, maker of delicious chicken, purveyor of high-quality crystal meth, was one of Breaking Bad’s greatest creations—and one of TV drama’s most memorable villains, period—but when he first appeared on the show in season two, there was barely a hint how essential he would become. Last week, I spoke on the phone with Giancarlo Esposito about what made the man tick and what it took to make such a quiet guy so fearsome. (Hint: yoga helps.)
When you were first approached about playing Gus, how was the character described to you?
In the description, he was a guy who was very admirable, very polite, the manager of the restaurant. And I wanted to play him very, very calm and very relaxed but I wanted him to be someone who had some kind of secret. I didn’t know then what that secret might be but I knew that it could possibly grow into a very big secret, but I had no real idea that I would be cultivating this kind of character in this wonderful show. I was finishing a film I did called Gospel Hill and had just been on the festival circuit and I was wanting to raise money for my second feature film and wasn’t really interested in guesting on a show. … Then [my agent] asked me to please read it. And I did and I saw something really extraordinary in the script, the great really profound writing and truly an American story about Walter White…. In season three they called and said would you do seven [episodes] and I said, “Well, I really don’t want to just keep doing guest spots,” and I guess they must have seen something that they thought was interesting between myself and Bryan Cranston. There was some really wonderful chemistry. I had some ideas about where Gus might go but I didn’t share those; I just tried to show those ideas as I progressed through the character and it just got richer and richer for me personally and I just fell in love with this guy.
I really enjoyed the character as written that he was someone who — how much at a time would an owner, if you owned like a McDonald’s would you be [at the counter] serving people? But he was so meticulous and he cared so much about the fact that people would be happy that they would enjoy their meal. I focused on the smaller part of it, that he was really someone who cared about his product not even realizing that he would had a larger empire to cultivate and care about and what I love about — what eventually came to be his empire was that it was his family. I tried to cultivate it as if he has the integrity and the wherewithal to take care of his family in a very meticulous and very caring way.
What is distinct and fantastic about Gus is that he is an adversary whose scariness is the opposite of belligerence. He’s not scary because he yells at you, he’s terrifying because of how placid and controlled he is. Did you have any thoughts on what in Gus’ character allowed him to be so constantly Zen?
Well, with each character that I play in my life as an actor, I try to figure out how to find the challenge. I try mark what I haven’t done before. It’s important to me to sort of use what I do as an actor to further my own personal growth and in this particular case the possibility that Gus could be so, as you said, very placid, very relaxed, very polite, very thoughtful was interesting to me. And that’s something I had not cultivated to this extent before now. So it was a real challenge and exciting to sort of develop that and that came through my idea that he should be a very good listener. It came to me through my yoga class. I used yoga to relax me enough to not do anything, which allowed me to do a lot more. Speak with my eyes, speak with my emotions, speak through my physicality, and speak volumes through my listening.
In your last scene, your dying scene, I think maybe the one thing that will stick with me is Gus’ final gesture where he straightens his tie one last time.
It was written in to the script. What I loved about early Gus and Los Pollos Hermanos, was that he was — he dressed very simply. He had his yellow shirt, and basically a clip-on tie. And that reminded me of my days back in military school when I had a clip-on tie and wore a uniform, some grey pants with a black stripe down the side. And I was fascinated that he would make a transformation to someone who was so meticulously dressed in his real life but took on the clothes of the every day man in Los Pollos Hermanos. But that last straightening of the tie was something that Vince wrote and I loved it. It’s a very subtle, very, very profound and very frightening moment that he — it’s when a person goes to what they’ve always done; behavior’s very important. And without even thinking, you know, it’s what he does to be complete in his leaving this world.
Can you tell me a little bit about the makeup or prosthetics you had to wear for that?
Well I had gone out to work on I guess it was [episode] 410; they were trying to figure out exactly how Gus would meet his ultimate end, and they said we finally figured it out. So I went out and met Howard Berger and all the folks at KNB who actually cast my head. It’s a new kind of plastic cast material, which was really frightening because it takes your whole world away and you really can’t hear, you can’t see and you’re in this cast for about 45, 50 minutes. And so they did that and then took it off and they had a mold and a model which to actually work on when I wasn’t there. So they took all that and they worked on it and that was the first stage of what was to be my make-up and then Howard Berger came out on the day [with[ a prosthetic piece, which was put on to my face which is pretty phenomenal. But that was just the beginning because after it was shot they digitally worked on it and made me more fantastic. It was a lengthy process.
I spoke with Vince Gilligan a day or two ago and he mentioned to me about how you used to bring your daughters on set on occasion. What did you tell them about the character their dad played on the show?
Well, I was very, very lucky in the fourth season to have some smarts about -- I didn’t know what was going to happen but I had instincts that it was going to be a wild ride in the fourth season. So I started bringing the children out early. [Early on] I brought [eldest daughter]Shayne Lyra by herself because she wanted to check out the University of New Mexico. But they were screening for [episode 1, "Box Cutter"] and I was really having some hesitation about allowing her to see it. [In the episode, Gus brutally slashes a man's throat.] She’s the only one who can watch some of that stuff [on set] because she wants to be a forensic psychiatrist. When the younger girls came, there was nothing brutal happening. Which to me was pretty lucky. And then Shayne came out when we were airing 401 at a screening and with the whole cast and I turned to her before the screening and said, “I want you to know that just remember–”
Long and short of it is I talked to her mom; her mom said, “Look, don’t worry about her. She’s seen worse.” And I discussed it with her and she said, “Oh, Papa, don’t worry.” Before the episode started I said to her, “Just remember that that’s Gus up there and I’m your father.” And it didn’t even move her. I mean, it moved her but it didn’t scare her. And she turned to me and she said, “Good kill, Papa.” And I said, “Thank you.”
But she really, really loves the show. Actually, that 401 she thought was kind of boring. She turned to me and said, “It was a little bit slow, Papa.” But now she screens them all and watches them on her computer but she loves the show.
To me, the scariest thing that Gus did in that episode was not so much cutting the guy’s throat as how he deliberately afterward goes and washes his hands and you’re just watching him just go through his whole sequence of ablutions.
Absolutely. I wanted to be really attentive and that the word I’d like to use. He’s attentive to himself; he is very focused. That was quite an amazing moment to do all that and not have any expression change whatsoever, and then to go wash my hands, wash my glasses off, take off my fish suit, and then get back in to my clothes and leave without saying a word. That to me was one of the most wonderful challenges in my career, to [have Gus] speak volumes without ever uttering a word until you finally hear, “Get back to work.” He’s not only sent a message but he’s also protected the family in that moment.
That goes back to a man provides speech that Gus gives to Walter in season 3. He says you do things that you may not want to do to survive, to feed your family and to be a great provider, and so once I had that I got it. I linked it all up. I thought, “Oh, I can do this. A man provides. A man takes care of his business. A man has to do things sometimes that he doesn’t want to do but if he’s able to do them he fulfills his obligation to his family.”
He oddly ended up having a lot in common with Walt, Gus did. I mean, it seemed the more we learned about him in season 4 the more parallels there were.
Absolutely. And I think that what I really enjoy about Breaking Bad and Vince Gilligan’s writing is that nothing is black and white. That things really — there isn’t really a grey area. And that grey area sometimes is where life intersects art. Sometimes we look at heroes in television and films, we want our characters to be larger than life, to move through their lives in a way that we cannot move through ours. So we want that mirror to be something greater than that which we are. What I love about Breaking Bad is the reflection of many people’s — it’s more real in terms of people have faults, people have character traits that they don’t like about themselves. It resembles more of what the human journey really is and it’s less fantastic and hero-driven than other characters and shows that we watch. So maybe this is the reason possibly that Breaking Bad is so relatable to so many people.
As far as Walt’s concerned, the show is hardly the story of how someone who does bad things can nonetheless see himself as good and reasonable. How do you think Gus Fring saw himself? Did he see himself as a good man?
I think Gus Fring is so very layered and so very complicated in his life, coming from his previous incarnation. I truly believe he sees himself as a good man. Here’s a man who cares about people and family, as we learned in season 4 and even back with Gayle we have the hint that he is someone who helps people become or be their best self. He loves chemistry, he loves education, he took his — our lost brother, his hermano Max and he put him through school, took him off the street.
So, yes, I believe that there are very, very deep parts of Gus that are good. Look, he’s in a business. Yes, he has 17 Los Pollos Hermanos chicken places and he sits at the helm of a drug empire, but that’s a business and it’s the way he cultivates that business and the people who are a part of that that allows us to see who he really is. It’s just what he does with Jesse. In the beginning he thinks Jesse is nothing and he actually says to Walter, “You can’t trust a drug addict.” And yet he comes around to cultivating Jesse, not only because he needs him but also because he sees that Jesse is lost and he sees that Jesse has a desire to be found. So I think because one of the most wonderfully complete villains that we’ll ever see because he actually really does care.
You mentioned Max; in that episode that there were intimations, the suggestion that Gus may have been romantically involved with Max or at least that Don Salamanca thought they were. Did you feel they were? Or did you feel it was a possibility? Was that just something that was read into them by the other characters?
I think it’s definitely inferred in a very subtle way, but it’s just like men of Europe who walk down the street who are really tight, and really close to each other and hold hands. I think it’s a real comment on where we are socially in our world here in America. I think it’s not — again, it’s not black nor white. Could it be? Possibly. It could very possibly be and I love the fact that it’s left in that way, that it’s up to you as an audience to decide whether or not they could have possibly been lovers. I remember the moment where I had the scene at the house where I’m cooking for Walter and I remember them asking me for some photos of my children and family. I was excited at the possibly could exist that I had the family and you might see them because after all you have a guy who’s hiding in plain sight and if he has a family you might think that he really is a good man in one part of his life. And also as an actor you think, “Oh, I’m going to be around for awhile.”
But I loved the fact that it went the other way. That the inference was that this possibly could be his lover. What does it matter? I think it’s wonderful that it’s not stamped yes or no.