"Breaking Bad" found itself in a unique position at the beginning of its fourth season. Critics and fans alike had heralded it as "the best show on television" for years, and heading into the most recent season, creator Vince Gilligan and the team behind the show had the seemingly impossible challenge of topping the three previous years of nail-biting episodes.
So what did they decide to do? They made the main character, Bryan Cranston's Walter White, into a weakling. His nemesis, the mild-mannered but perpetually dangerous Gustavo Fring, played by Giancarlo Esposito, beat him at every turn. The action slowed to the point where some fans declared it boring, but that was all part of the game.
In the slow-down, we learned more about the characters, in particular Esposito's Gus Fring, who had emerged after two menacingly quiet years on the show as a fan favorite. Each seemingly docile moment added up to what may go down as one of the greatest slow burns in the history of television. It all led to the most-talked-about moment in television this year — SPOILER ALERT! Gus Fring's explosive death.
MTV News spoke with Esposito about his character, why Gus caught on with fans like he did and filming the infamous "Face Off" scenes.
MTV: Giancarlo, I think some congratulations are in order. You made it into the top 10 of MTV News' Top 50 Television Characters of 2011.
Giancarlo Esposito: Oh, awesome! Really awesome.
MTV: What did you like about Gus as a character?
Esposito: I had loved what I was reading in season four when the writing started to come down for each episode, and I realized I had the opportunity to do a couple different things. One was to play an extremely villainous character, but also to layer him with a lot of grace and kindness and make him a likable bad guy, in a way. The way I created Gus and the way I started to read it was I was very impressed he was someone who would work in his own restaurant and serve his own customers from the very beginning. I thought if I could play him with this very caring, sensitive attitude that it would go a long way. So I was a bit surprised when people got more wrapped around who Gus really was and started to like him, even though he had such deeply evil aspects to him.
MTV: Did you see him becoming such a highly regarded character?
Esposito: No, no I did not. I was just going about doing my work, and I had no expectations other than enjoying what I was doing in trying to create a full and measured character that I could enjoy and I would imagine the writers would love. I had no idea the audience would get so wrapped around what I was doing as an actor and what Gus was portraying as a character.
MTV: What was your favorite part about playing him?
Esposito: I think my favorite part was the idea that you could have a man hiding in plain sight, that here is the man who is not afraid to be gracious and kind and have a great amount of courage avoiding being found out. I think the smart part of Gus really appealed to me. I think it's been a long time since we've seen a character so well put together and so intelligent and so graceful, and he pulls it off. For me that was my favorite part of the character.
I also loved that he had such great dominance over Walt, that he was an adviser, that he was trying to get Walt to do what he wanted to do, but he also wanted Walt to become a better person. I love that fact as well. He wasn't just someone who was a bully. He was someone who was saying, "Your life will be better. You should provide for your family. This is what a man does. He provides." In a way, Gus was a partner to Walt in many aspects of his life, not only economically through the business, but also advising him on how to live his life. I think that has to be the favorite parts for me.
MTV: What was your initial reaction to reading the "Face Off" scene?
Esposito: I knew we were going to kill Gus in that way, so I was a bit prepared for the possibility that it would be quite brutal and quite gruesome. What I loved about it was that it was a much more intimate moment than I had ever expected. Vince and I had talked, and he had asked me what Gus might be doing if this explosion happened. I said, "You probably observed me and what I do. I make sure my buttons are buttoned when I get up from a seated position and walk out of a room. I check my tie to make sure I'm completely put together and acceptable when I'm leaving space into another space," and [Gilligan] chose to make the move the tie, and I was really honored by that, because it is something that I do.
I was shocked because the way it was done was so absolutely perfect. You really don't know. You're held in suspense until the camera comes around and I turn a little bit and you realize, "Oh my gosh. He's not going to make it through this. He really has lost half of his face." To me, that was the most shocking moment, in the way that it was done, in the way that suspense was held at bay and in the intimate moment. It was a very intimate moment personally that [Gilligan] captured. I believe it was the right way to go. I was absolutely shocked! All I could think of was, "Can I render this believable?"
MTV: What was it like watching the finished scene?
Esposito: I was shocked. I was pleased that it came out so well, but always when I die a character death, part of that character death is a personal death as well. I was overwhelmed. I don't often watch myself die on television, but in this case, it was important for me to see what the team put together. I watched it once, and I couldn't watch it again, because it was so disturbing.
MTV: What did the effects involve for you?
Esposito: I got my head cast. That took about an hour to get all the stuff lined up in terms of how to create the mask on my torso. It took about two, two-and-a-half, three-hour makeup to get all that on me. After that, we had to also position dots to be able to add whatever we needed later on, so it was a quite extensive process. Not just a mask out of a store for Halloween. That was my only hesitation about the way all this happened in the end, that it might look cheesy. I didn't want it to look like a Freddy movie. It had to be something where your mouth would drop and you would look at it and say "Oh my God. That is so real," and that's something we've never seen on television before.
MTV: What do you think of the choice to end Gus' story there with so many questions still unanswered about his background?
Esposito: I think it was really difficult for all involved to not have found out more about Gus. I know that the season really called for this showdown, that the town wasn't big enough for Walt and Gus. For me, it was a little disappointing not to be able to get to some of what I had hoped they would get to, which was his background. In a way I was disappointed. In another way, Vince kept focus. The show is about Walt and what happens to him. Obviously, season four allowed Gus to excel and to see his story. It also gives me pause because there is an opportunity now to go back and find what about Gus that we didn't know moved him to be as powerful as he is, as gracious as he is, and how did those building blocks come about in his character? I think we still have the opportunity to go back and find that out.
MTV: Will that be in flashbacks or just other characters looking into his background?
Esposito: I don't know, but I know that it is an option for us to know. Flashbacks are an option, but I think there are a few other options which I haven't thought of or, as time goes by, that are a possibility. I wouldn't count Gus out. I'd also be very interested in seeing what this team does with this end of Gus and move toward the end of Walter's character arc. I think Gus will be a part of that.
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