Gustavo Fring arrived on the set of Breaking Bad quietly, when lawyer Saul Goodman tells Walter White that he knows “a guy who knows a guy who knows another guy” who can help him sell his stockpile of meth. That “guy” was Gustavo Fring, mild-mannered head of Los Pollos Hermanos chicken franchise by day — and cold, calculating drug kingpin by night. Walt and Jesse Pinkman entered into an uneasy relationship with Fring, before he left the show with a bang, taken out by his longtime nemesis, wheelchair-bound Hector Salamanca.
Fring was played by Giancarlo Esposito—a longtime actor with a storied film career— who won an Supporting Actor Emmy nomination for his work in creating one of the most memorable villains in television history. We spoke to Esposito about the role and his thoughts on saying goodbye to Breaking Bad.
Have you ever read the Yelp page for Los Pollos Hermanos?
No I haven’t read those. I should do that. I don’t know who put that up, but I should probably log on and set the record straight on a few things. I am Gustavo Fring, after all.
Speaking of which, even though you haven’t played Gus Fring in two years, does he still stick with you?
Oh absolutely. There’s something that happens to me in my work. And the way that I get involved with my characters and the collaboration with the writers that allows me to leave space and time — and trust a deeper instinct. It allowed me to move to a deeper level in my craft and that sticks with me. Sometimes, I will notice that I have particularly good posture and I wonder: is that me — or is that Gus taking over?
The character has made an impression with people, too. There are always people who know my name and insist on calling me Gus. People on the street who want to take a photo of me with their wives — their hands shake a little. I’m very observant with people. A couple of months ago, I was on airplane and I was waiting in line for the bathroom. And this woman turns, and sees me, and she gasps and throws herself up against the wall and says, “Please go ahead.” I say, “No, you were here first, you can go.” And she backed away from me and insisted! That’s when I realized the impact of this character. People didn’t know how to react to me as a human being anymore. But I let him go. I let him go. Then, when I notice some behavior that is similar to him I have to wonder if that’s me — or if that’s Gustavo Fring. It created something on a deep level.
Is it true that you almost didn’t take the role?
It’s true. I had not seen Breaking Bad, but my manager at the time told me it was his favorite show. My wife said I should I try it, but it was a guest spot and I’ve done a lot of guest spots. I wanted to develop a character. But I did one episode and then I agreed to do two more with the caveat that I wanted to be part of a filmmaking family.
It was something Vince [Gilligan] said that convinced me. He said it was about hiding in plain sight. Gus was affable and generous and would work to help people to be their best selves and bring them to prosperity. Gus was hiding from everyone, but he was hiding in plain sight, where everyone saw him as ambitious and community-minded and didn’t see the darkness in him.
So after the second season, Vince called me on season three and offered me seven [episodes] and there was some negotiating and I ended up doing 12. I wanted to create a character who became intrinsic to the show. And at some point, I realized that I had slid into the Breaking Bad family. Vince told me that I changed the game and raised the bar for the show. And I’m proud of that, but I could only do that because of the depth of the writing and due to the chemistry between Bryan Cranston and myself. And their writing inspired me to think, to create someone who was polite, threatening and poignant.
Were you surprised when you read how you would be leaving the show?
I wasn’t surprised because I had a heads-up from Vince. After my work in “Boxcutter,” I knew I wouldn’t be in [episode] 402 and I didn’t come back until 403. When I did, I got called to Vince’s office and he had me sit down for our conversation. That’s never good. So I went in and started talking about directing and we talked with the door open, but then he got up to close the door to the office.
And I got my Gus face on and I said, “Don’t close the door.” We talked a little more, then he stood up again and I said, “Sit. Down.” And then he got really nervous, and he kind of stood there, and then I busted out laughing. [Laughs.] I said, “Go ahead and close the door. I know what you are going to say.”
He told me that the town was not big enough for both Walt and Gus. It was very inclusive. He asked me many questions, such as “If there was an explosion, what would you be doing?” I said, probably straightening my tie and buttoning my shirt. You know, Gus when he’s in Los Pollos is my favorite. He’s a man in service, but he’s hiding something. He owns it all. When Gus comes out of his chicken-man costume, he has really good taste in clothing. He’s fastidious and well put together.
We came to agreement that allowed me to be particular. We both thought it would be like Gus to survive an explosion for a few seconds and that in those few seconds he would button his jacket and straighten his tie — then just keel over and die. I was honored that he let me know 11 episodes in advance. I’m eternally grateful to Vince for that.
Do you think Gus knew that Walt would be the death of him?
I would have to say no. Gus was intent on exacting revenge and taking over from the cartel. All he wanted was to say to Hector Salamanca that this is the day, this is the day that after he killed my dearest Max, this is the day that I exacted that revenge. That was Gus’ focus. Now, I don’t want to use the word “underestimated,” but on some level, Gus thought he could rein Walt back in. I would like to make him smart posthumously [laughs], but I think when your motive is revenge, it takes you out of the present.
I recently spoke with Jonathan Banks and he reminded me of the scene were Gus is first meeting Walt and tells him, “No, Mr. White, we have nothing in common.” Do you think that’s true that Gus and Walt had nothing in common?
I don’t think it’s true. At that point in time, they had less in common, because Walt was making mistakes. I told him that you never make mistakes twice. You can’t trust junkies, so when Walt brings Jesse to a meeting and he’s obviously on drugs, Gus scolds him that his partner is high and that’s not an acceptable way to do business. Gus is very smart. He’s upstanding in business. He wants to sell a good product, no matter what the product is.
Having come to the end of the journey of both Breaking Bad and Walter White, when Walter says that selling and making drugs made him feel alive, well, that wasn’t the same for Gus. It was intrinsic to Walter’s character to feel like he was alive and living, but that wasn’t the case for Gus. He wasn’t looking to stay alive, he was cultivating a business in a wide variance of business. Walter was focused on being alive and filling the emptiness inside. Later, when Walt’s in New Hampshire in that cabin and he is asking Robert Forster to stay with him for two hours and he’ll give him $10,000 and then Robert Forster only stays for one. That is one lonely man who knows he has lost his soul.
Do you think Walt got what he deserved?
I believe so. Vince was always talking about how he had no sympathy or remorse for Walt. At some point, I thought that Vince had turned against Walter and would exact his revenge, but when we saw Walt touching the walls, stroking the equipment in the lab and you can see that he knows he is going to die either from the cancer or from a bullet and I think we see a glimmer of a lesson that he learned. We know he wanted something better for his wife. We know he wanted more for his children. It was wonderful to see that kernel of hope in his transition period. Was it all worth it? Of course not, but there was acceptance. There was a real balance of menace and real compassion in the last few moments, specifically and explicitly when he faced Jesse.
He exacted his revenge and during that we see that Walt has learned. There was a poignant moment when Jack looks up and asks him if he wants to know where his money is and Walt just pulls the trigger. No hesitation. From the first episode, Walt had set out to leave something for his family and he did. Does it kill me that he lost $80 million and was left with only $10? Yes! But, when Jack asks him that, Walt didn’t take one second, it was just, screw the money! He pulled the trigger and that was Walt’s epiphany. He didn’t care about the money anymore.
What’s next for you?
I am currently on Revolution, which is very much a different animal than Breaking Bad. I play Tom Neville, who is a character who is growing and very nuanced. There are many twists and turns coming for him, some that I think will be really interesting for the audience. I am also directing a film about abolitionist John Brown, starring Ed Harris, I’m working on rewrites with Jose Rivera now and and we hope to be shooting this summer.