Giancarlo Esposito is one of those character actors, with decades of legendary film, TV, and theater work on his resume, who’s so consistently and quietly superb that he risks being taken for granted. As a performer, he thrives on an element of subtle stylishness. In American cinema, he’s often the coolest guy in the room, sweeping in for a few scenes and walking away with a production in the process, as he did in Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects. Esposito is also responsible, of course, for Buggin’ Out, the perpetually outraged denizen of Sal’s Pizzeria in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which the actor played with a musical sense of self-righteousness that informed volcanic anger with a core of unforgettable vulnerability and innocence.
Recently, Esposito has become more of a household name for playing fast-food king and drug czar Gustavo “Gus” Fring on Breaking Bad and its prequel, Better Call Saul, refining his physicality to serve as the visual equivalent of a viciously elegant haiku. Gus’s posture says more about his strength and profoundly unconventional moral relativity than any speech could, though Esposito also delivers the character’s dialogue with an insinuating grandeur that complicates our reactions to someone who’s noble in certain fashions, particularly when Gus is handling his restaurant employees.
A similar physicality characterizes Frank, a corporate underling in Bong Joon-ho’s protest fantasy Okja who insidiously pulls the strings in an operation to debase and slaughter a genetically engineered species of pig for mass profit, which is grossly misrepresented to a realistically indifferent populace. I spoke on the phone with Esposito about Okja and Better Call Saul, discussing how he brings to life a remarkably specific strand of white-collar evil, a little of which is understood by the actor to be lurking within all of us.
You bring a distinct physical energy to Okja. Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal make big performative choices, and you serve as this quiet physical through line. You’re playing a corporate guy with a pointed energy. Was this contrast from the other actors discussed or intuitive?
It was intuitive for me, because I felt like I had to be an anchor of a sort. Tilda’s character, Lucy, is very woke and trying to put a good face on a bad thing and be excited about it, and it reminded me of how loosely we call something “green” or “vegan” or “vegetarian” or “good for you.” A product only has to have a small percentage of something healthy to earn a good label. And the rest can be a chemical that can destroy you. [laughs]
For me, it was like “Where’s the root or the grounding of this?” What’s the through line running from the old Mirando Corporation to the new, re-envisioned Mirando Corporation? How are these competing identities held together? The answer is my character, Frank. I drew up all these back stories for who Frank really is, and I felt like he had to have his own rhythm, his own very rooted, grounded rhythm, and I hope I achieved that.
I would say that you did. There’s that moment where Frank slides his phone toward Lucy, recording her without her knowledge. It’s such an expressive, emotional gesture, elaborating on this double allegiance of yours.
Absolutely. We, as human beings, accept the fact that our government is not us. We accept the fact that a corporation is a corporation, but who is it made up of? It’s made up of people. Frank’s life is based ostensibly on untruths that have to be told to people because they don’t want to know the truth. The corporation of this film needs to get richer and stronger and more powerful, so that Frank can sway governments to its whim and deliver on investments. It’s all flawed in so many ways, and we become flawed with it because we believe what corporations tell us, as opposed to taking any responsibility. “Oh, I can’t do anything…I can’t change that.” I loved this particular character, because he’s a very strong and rooted intellectual and business-like mind who knows how to manipulate people, as he does with Lucy. So I had to allow myself the physicality and the mentality so as to allow you to see Frank’s strengths and his coolness and his calmness, but he’s watching everybody. He sees everything, and he knows how to deal with controversy and strife. He knows what to do to save the company.
Your character is a representation of insidious corporate pragmatism.
Oh, very well said. Absolutely.
Okja has such a wild sense of tonal swing. You’re seduced into this children’s fantasy, and then it turns into Fast Food Nation.
Yeah, how often do you get a movie where you have this chaos, something that riffs on our fascination with fast food, while also being this whimsical love story between this young girl and this giant pig? You believe the love story because it’s wonderfully acted and well-written, but then the story veers off into this other film that allows you to see how crazy our world is. In many ways, Okja allows you to make your own call and judgment about what the film’s statement really is, and then it returns to a celebration of humanity. Near the end of the movie, where that mother pig kicks her child out [of the slaughterhouse] against its will so as to get it under Okja and be saved—it’s a very human and beautiful moment. That scene also defines how smart and heartfelt pigs really are, which most people don’t want to think about when they’re diving into their pork chop.
I’m an increasingly apologetic carnivore, and Okja distinctively turned my complicity against me. I was reminded of farm tours that I’ve taken, where the pigs were endearing, intelligent, and clearly bonded with the farmers.
You never think of a pig having the sensitivity and compassion that a dog does. Why don’t you think that way? Why not? This film leads you to think very deeply about your personal connection to these animals, and that is its beauty and brilliance. How are we connected to the world around us? We go to the supermarket and things are packaged all nice in plastic and Styrofoam and “Oh, that’s our dinner for tonight.” We don’t think about how it got there.
Were the film’s tonal changes on the page or found during production?
Some of that was on the page if you’re looking for it, though I’d say it largely wasn’t. It was in Bong’s vision. Forget the paper, we all read the paper, but when you sat with Bong and observed him directing, you realized that every single frame of the movie and every part of the story was in his head. He knew he was going to make this tonal switch, and how he was going to fit in all these outrageous characters. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance is completely over the top. Gyllenhaal drew on this idea of the animal being animated, this anime, and took the cartoon elements of that and put it into a real-life character. This film makes Okja human and some of the humans inhuman.
I admire your work on Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Once again, your performances are driven by such physical precision. One likes Gus, to the point that we have to keep reminding ourselves of his larger context in society as a vicious leader of a mass drug-laundering corporation.
I truly feel that acting is physical. It’s also emotional. It’s also intellectual. It’s also spiritual. So part of what I began to do in Breaking Bad was to use my ease of expression—my breathing in and out, my yoga practice—to drop my natural personality. So that I would be calm and relaxed and allow myself to witness a little bit. To witness the other actors inhabiting their characters and to take my time in every way—physically and emotionally—to allow that character to grow and be who he is. I feel like that specificity and challenge in the creation of Gus is what makes him come to life, and allows me excitement, and tells Giancarlo how to take each character and make it new. But physicality is very important because it goes beyond words. We can look someone in the eyes and tell when they want to inflict danger upon us. We can feel right away when someone’s not emotionally right or is causing a psychic attack. The more I investigate who I am in my life, as Giancarlo, the more I investigate who the characters I play are.
You’ve worked with many legendary filmmakers. What do you want from a director in terms of collaboration?
I like for them to be sensitive to what it’s like to be an actor. I like them to ask a lot of questions. I like them to express part of their vision and allow me to fill in the rest, and then return to that conversation and express the rest of their vision in an inclusive way. I like to be a collaborator. I like to play. We have two four-letter words. The first is work, W-O-R-K. Most people go to work. We have another four-letter word called play, P-L-A-Y, and I go to play. Why can’t we play every day? Why can’t we play in our lives? Well, the reason most or many people cannot is because they’ve chosen something that is work. I’ve chosen something that is play—that allows people to be, to examine, to be illuminated, to have questions and to spur conversation.
For me, the life I’ve chosen is a life of engagement. I don’t walk through what I do, whether it be in front of the camera or on the phone like with you. I’m committed to living life fully, and I hope that that would be an example for people who are miserable. I tell people: “If you don’t like what you’re doing, change it.” It’s frightening. “What do you mean change it? I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I’ve got my pension in five years.” “Oh, you want security. You don’t really want to live life fully. You want to feel secure and eventually be able to one day kick your feet up and drink your beer on your porch and watch life go by.” I want to be excited. I want to be inspired by the people I work with, and I’m really glad that I put myself in a position to have all of that come true. My dreams are coming true every day.