“I feel so blessed to have been in a couple of different movies on the ’100 Best’ lists,” Esposito said. “They’re pieces that have moved people’s consciousness from one place to another.”
Then, of course, there’s Gustavo Fring, the “Breaking Bad” villain about whom other bad guys have nightmares.
But the role that changed the course of the actor’s career — and allowed him to switch lanes on an already decades-long road — is one you’ve most certainly never heard of.
In 2002, Esposito was cast as a legal eagle in the David E. Kelley drama “Girls Club.” The show lasted one season and the reviews weren’t great. But the series, short-lived and forgettable, represented a watershed moment for Esposito, who is anything but.
“I started to play bosses,” Esposito said. “And I realized, ‘Oh, okay, this is an opportunity.’ It was really a great opening for me to show who I really was. And it’s kept going like that.”
Since his 1968 Broadway debut, the 62-year-old actor has played roles including an enslaved child, a friendly face on “Sesame Street,” a drug dealer, a cop, a cadet, an assassin, a calculating kingpin, an enchanted mirror, a CEO wrangling spoiled superheroes, a civil rights icon, and a cape-toting Moff in the Star Wars universe. And that’s just a fraction — a small fraction — of his credits.
“When you’re someone as talented and with as wide a range as Giancarlo, the good news is you can play anything, and the bad news is it takes years for people to realize, 'Oh my God, I’ve seen that guy in so many different movies and so many different roles,” “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan said. “Sometimes it takes a while for people to catch on.”
But they finally have.
Despite the long and distinguished résumé that encompassed the first half of his career, Esposito felt boxed in. To begin to understand that feeling, you must first come to the realization that you are probably pronouncing the man’s name wrong. He is Giancarrrlo (roll that “r”) EsPOSito, not Giancarlo EspoSITO.
Esposito’s father, Giovanni, was an Italian stagehand and carpenter from Naples. His mother, Elizabeth “Leesa” Foster, was a classically trained Black opera singer from Alabama. She alternated the lead role in the touring production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess;” the duo met at a small opera house in Milan as the tour was wrapping up.
“There was always music in the house. There were always arias being sung,” said Esposito, who was born in Copenhagen. The family moved to New York City when he was 6, and he was on Broadway a few years later in “Maggie Flynn.”
“When I first started, I was playing an African American, a Black slave child,” Esposito said. “I knew that I wanted to play characters who were more expansive,” but in the late-’60s, roles for Black actors were few and far between.
So, he began to play with his own identity — or at least with how the folks in casting saw him.
“When I was very young, I realized my hair would do anything. I could sweep it back, slick it down and I could look Spanish,” he said. Using his ear for music and languages, Esposito learned a Spanish accent and how to speak a bit of the language. “It was really survival. But what I realized in doing that is that I was expanding myself to be able to have more of a repertoire.”
In early credits, he played characters with names such as Julio, Esteban and Ramos. But as actors with actual Spanish backgrounds came along, Esposito stepped back because he felt they had “more of a firsthand experience and should have the ability to take their place.”
Then while performing with the Negro Ensemble Company in 1980, Esposito met a hot young writer-director named Spike Lee. Lee asked Esposito to read the script to a musical he was working on called “School Daze,” which would become their first film together in 1988. The pair went on to make several other movies, including “Mo’ Better Blues,” “Malcolm X” and, of course, Lee’s seminal work, “Do the Right Thing.”
“I started to be discovered by African American people,” Esposito said. “I’d been around a long time before that. They would claim me, which felt like love. It felt like a wonderful thing to me. But I’ve always been Black. I’ve always been Italian and Black.”
The experience of playing Buggin’ Out in “Do the Right Thing” was close to transcendent for Esposito. His character, a Black Bed-Stuy native, fans long-held flames of tension when he asks the local Italian pizzeria owner, “Hey, Sal, how come there ain’t no brothas on the wall?”
“My father, Giovanni, saw the movie, and his reaction was, ‘Too much cursing, Giancarlo.’ And I said, ‘Okay, what else did you see?’ I realized he didn’t understand what it was like to be in my skin.” The ensuing father-son talk “revolutionized” their relationship. That, Esposito said, is the power of film, the power of capturing the human experience.
In the following years, work was steady, but again Esposito felt boxed in, playing “someone else’s vision” of what an African American man was as opposed to his own. He was still getting cast as “street toughs and drug dealers.”
“I just didn’t want to do that anymore. I thought there are other parts of me as an African American man, as a mixed-race human being, that I’d like people to know and understand. But those opportunities weren’t there,” Esposito said.
But first, he had a come-to-Giancarlo moment. “I had to ask myself, ‘Is this me trying to escape my Blackness? Is it just me trying to fit in and be White because the White boys are working?’ I had to get very clear with myself: No, this is me creating a space.”
He recalls going to auditions and seeing the confused look on casting directors’ faces. The same back-and-forth played out many times. Giancarlo? Yes. Esposito? Yes. Oh, we’re sorry. What’s the problem?
“That was crushing to me. That’s when I made the decision: I wanted to play human beings. I didn’t want to play a color. I didn’t want to play a race. I wanted to play a person. And I’m not saying that there’s Black, there’s White and then there’s Giancarlo Esposito. But maybe I am saying that. So I started to seek out roles that would allow me the ability to do that,” he said.
He didn’t work for a while.
“I kind of figured out how to create my own style, my own place. It took time for people to see me as me. And that was my opportunity to show myself as a complete human being, but also to feel that way,” said Esposito, who pointed to Sidney Poitier as his inspiration.
So up next came (and went) the aforementioned “Girls Club,” his personal career mile-marker that few people remember. But what about “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul,” “The Boys” and “The Mandalorian?” And don’t forget “Last Holiday,” “Once Upon a Time,” “Dear White People” and “Godfather of Harlem.” These days, if it’s buzzy, culturally relevant and being dissected by everyone on your Twitter timeline, chances are Esposito is in it.
In the last few years, he’s explored the full bite of his chops, playing the parts he dreamed about since his Broadway debut at 8 years old. He’s brought his signature yet intangible mix of “grace and fire” to the Southern charms of Adam Clayton Powell in “Godfather of Harlem,” the stony reserve of Moff Gideon in “The Mandalorian” and the corporate callousness of Stan Edgar in “The Boys.”
Eric Kripke, who created “The Boys,” described Esposito as “literally the nicest, most enthusiastic, effervescent person on the planet,” despite the fact that his character is a clear “sociopath.”
“I love how he captures Edgar’s upper-class breeding, his polite brutality, in a way that makes the character utterly terrifying and absolutely charming in the same moment,” Kripke said.
Which, of course, brings us to Esposito’s most beloved (and Emmy-nominated) villain: Chilean drug lord Gus Fring, who first appeared on “Breaking Bad” and is now part of the prequel series “Better Call Saul.”
But Esposito, whose near-impenetrable Fring consistently tops lists of the best villains of all time, almost didn’t get the part. Gilligan said he didn’t immediately think of Esposito for the role at first — largely because Gilligan doubted they could get him.
“Watching a tape of Giancarlo [as] Gustavo Fring … I just about jumped out of my seat. I remember saying, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t even know we had a chance of getting this guy.’ The minute we started watching we thought, ‘This is the guy.’ The way he plays this character it just burns itself into your brain.”
Despite being one of the industry’s most charming chameleons, Esposito has proved unforgettable. It isn’t much of a stretch to say he has done it all. Though he’s still holding out hope for Danny Glover’s long-incubating project about Haitian revolution leader Toussaint L’Ouverture, or perhaps even playing Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, he also really just wants to play an “everyman.”
It all goes back, Esposito explained, to wanting to play past any and all stereotypes or preconceived notions of who or what someone is. Who is a Black man? A corrupt corporate exec? A villain?
“It’s not about me anymore,” Esposito said of his career and the roles he can now choose. That career metamorphosis, he said, “has deepened me. Because now I play roles in a different way. I look at their impact on our society.”