The Fix Craft Interview with "Godfather of Harlem's" Giancarlo Esposito

By John Lavitt 01/07/20

"It’s a powerful experience to play a drug dealer, but it’s even more powerful to experience that casual disregard for the lives of other human beings for your economic success."

Giancarlo Esposito
"If you are a drug user, particularly a drug addict, you have no choice; you can’t control yourself." Daniel Benavides from Austin, TX [CC BY]

Giancarlo Giuseppe Alessandro Esposito was born in Copenhagen to Elizabeth Foster, an African-American opera and nightclub singer from Alabama, and Giovanni Esposito, an Italian stagehand and carpenter from Naples. After spending his first seven years in Denmark, his family moved to Manhattan. 

As an actor, Giancarlo Esposito has played a wide range of roles, although he’s best known for playing people on the fringes of society such as notorious drug dealer Gustavo “Gus” Fring in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Esposito won Best Supporting Actor in a Drama at the 2012 Critics' Choice Television Awards for that role. He was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series at the 2012 Primetime Emmy Awards, but lost to Breaking Bad co-star Aaron Paul. He’s also taken on roles such as Buggin’ Out in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing, Jack Baer in The Usual Suspects, and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the new Epic crime drama, Godfather of Harlem.

The Fix was thrilled to have the opportunity to sit down with Giancarlo Esposito and discuss the challenges of portraying drug users and dealers. 

How did playing Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Godfather of Harlem challenge you as an actor? Was he playing a game of being different with a drug dealer like Bumpy Johnson in private as opposed to in public? Is this a dangerous dance?

It is a dangerous dance, and that dance is one reason why I love this role, and I love the scripts that bring Godfather of Harlem to life. I love the conflicts that come up between politics and crime. I know Adam Clayton Powell really respected Bumpy Johnson, and he recognized the time he did. Bumpy went away for ten years, and he did not snitch on the Italians. After coming back to Harlem, he wanted to get back in the game and regain what was his before he went to prison. However, he found out that two different Italian crime families were fighting for control of what was once his territory in Harlem. 

Although Adam respects Bumpy as a man, he will not let Bumpy take advantage of their friendship. Bumpy expects Adam to give him the brother nod as one black man to another, and offer him a pass. However, it doesn’t happen that way when Adam Clayton Powell realizes that Bumpy also is a part of the problem. When Adam went after the Italians, Bumpy got off by the skin of his teeth because Adam knew Bumpy did do some good things for the community. 

It also helped that Adam was taken with Mayme, Bumpy’s beautiful wife, who was a member of his congregation and a close friend. She pleaded for her husband to be spared, and Adam spared him. 

What was most challenging about playing Gus Fring in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul? Since he’s often so reserved, did you feel the part demanded greater precision? Do you see the character as being evil?

When I had the opportunity to play that role, I knew I didn’t want to play it like the Italian mobster we had seen so many times before, petting the little dog, making threats, and being mean with a cigar in his mouth. When I looked at this character closely, I realized I wanted to play someone who was part of the community. In our conversations, I suggested this idea to Vince Gilligan. I told him that I wanted to play a man that was hiding in plain sight. It was based on a stage direction written by Vince, and it became my inspiration for the character.

I thought the character needed to have precision because he was a guy who could be selling toothpaste. It didn’t matter. He was going to be successful no matter what he sold. He was a man who respected other human beings and wanted to use their abilities to achieve his ends. At the same time, he also wanted to reward them if they followed to the T the path that he laid out for them. He knew how to create a successful business venture, and his word was final. Gus was clearly measured, and he had this idea that he could do it better than anyone else, including the cartel. It’s why he starts to make moves to take over the cartel. He believes the business is not being run in such a way to ensure the maximum profit. In many ways, Gus is an entrepreneur who believes in his way of doing business above all else. 

Your role of Congressman Adam Clayton Powell is so different than your role as Gus. However, the two characters feel similar in how they deal with the world and smoothly handle the politics of being a powerful man of color. Do you find similarities in playing the two characters? Did the role of Gus help to inform your performance as Powell?

No, not at all. I look at every character I create as a completely new entity unto me. Since Adam Clayton Powell is a historical character, it makes a complete difference in the way I’m playing him. Such a role requires a different level of research because he was a real person of historical importance. Thus, I put the building blocks together that tell that particular character’s story in a different manner. 

Adam Clayton Powell was a living, breathing human being who had a tremendous impact on this country. He had 865 bills with his name on them that he passed in Congress. He also was a man who was on the pulpit on Sunday morning. He also was a man who was a womanizer and who knew so many major criminals on a first-name basis. However, his willingness to work with them would only go so far. In Godfather of Harlem, he really wants Bumpy Johnson to do the right thing, and he respects the fact that Bumpy is about African-American people and doing the best for them. Bumpy wants to change the tide of the Italian stronghold on Harlem at that time. 

Although there might appear to be similarities, in creating these characters, they were completely different because playing a character based on a real person has different responsibilities than playing a fictional character. When I have a historical context in which to work, I want to honor that context in regards to how it affects the character I’m playing. A desire for equality motivates Adam Clayton Powell. He wanted the same things that Malcolm X wanted, but he didn’t go about it the same way. He wanted to be treated in just the same way as the white Dixiecrats in Washington were being treated. He came to see that such equality simply wasn’t there, so he pushed harder to make that level of equality possible. Using his brains and his training as a lawyer, he did everything he could to effect the change that he hoped could be achieved. 

You have played both drug users and drug dealers in different television shows and feature films. Does playing a drug user give you greater insight into playing a drug dealer? How do the different sides of that fence affect your performance?

I believe they are two different things. Playing a drug dealer allows you to have control and power, but it also forces you to be conscious and deal with your conscience. It’s hard for drug dealers not to face questions like, “What are you doing to your people and to other people? What are you doing to a human being?” For Gus to be selling drugs in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul on a larger scale, it takes away the ability to see the consequences of what it does on the streets, human to human. It’s a powerful experience to play a drug dealer, but it’s even more powerful to experience that casual disregard for the lives of other human beings for your economic success. 

When you play a drug user, it’s a much more vulnerable position to experience firsthand. If you are a drug user, particularly a drug addict, you have no choice; you can’t control yourself. Since you have to have it, it’s a very vulnerable and sensitive position. It must feel like a catch-22. Why do you have to have it? It’s because you are killing some kind of pain, or else you are locked in that process of feeding that dragon that you have created by repeatedly using the drug. You cannot escape the pull of the drug that anesthetizes you because you are unable to handle life. 

Perhaps one of your most undervalued performances is Esteban in Fresh (1994), a compelling film written and directed by Boaz Yakin. I know it was over a quarter of a century ago, but can you recall what it was like playing that role? Esteban was visceral and menacing. Did that role help to inform your later performance as Gus?

I love the role of Esteban, and I love Boaz Yakin. Fresh was a truly powerful film with an amazing cast that included Sean Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson, N'Bushe Wright, and myself. I really enjoyed playing that particular character. I think he’s very, very different from Gus in that he hadn’t thought out his moves, and there is a sense that anything can happen with him. Gus is very calculated, and, in contrast, Esteban is flying by the seat of his pants. A very menacing guy, he somehow cared about this kid, who was working for him as a drug runner. Esteban is not at all ready when the kid manages to turn the tables on him. Unlike Gus, he’s a man at such a low level in the drug trade who’s desperately trying to protect his business and his little piece of turf. He doesn’t have the sense of a larger business acumen that makes Gus so distinctive. 

Esteban certainly was a wonderful role for me to play because he was completely unpredictable. The danger was that he could do anything at any time. In contrast, Gus holds his cards close to the vest. He’s much more calculated in his moves and in what he does to extend his business. 

Check out Giancarlo Esposito in The Mandalorian, streaming now, and in Better Call Saul, returning next month to AMC. 

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.