Emmy-nominated Actor Giancarlo Esposito has played numerous iconic roles on the big screen and TV over a nearly 30-year career — none better known than Gustavo “Gus” Fring on the AMC drama series Breaking Bad and prequel Better Call Saul. He’ll be seen next year as Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in Epix’s series Godfather of Harlem, about famed gangster Bumpy Johnson. Johnson was played by Laurence Fishburne in the 1997 film Hoodlum (distributed by Epix owner MGM) and by Forest Whitaker in Godfather of Harlem, which is part of the network’s effort to pivot from movies to original series. Multichannel News senior content producer, programming R. Thomas Umstead met with Esposito on a Brooklyn, N.Y., set to talk about Godfather and about Gus Fring’s longevity. Here are edited highlights.
MCN: What drew you to Godfather of Harlem?
Giancarlo Esposito: The really delicious writing of an historical piece always has the elements that could make not only our history come alive again, but also give us opportunities as actors to retrace historical figures who really changed our world. Many people don’t know the record and history of the gentleman I’m playing, Minister and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. They don’t know how many amendments he got passed for minimum wage, for the Education Act and the list goes on and on and on and on. He was one of our very first bona fide civil rights leaders way back in the ’30s. People know Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, but they don’t know Adam Clayton Powell’s tireless struggle to get his agenda pushed through. So for me it’s very exciting to play this particular character and render him real, truthful and honest.
MCN: How do you think the series will play with younger viewers given its historical bent?
GE: First you have some iconic actors in it — Forest Whitaker, Paul Sorvino and Vincent D’Onofrio. Also, this is a really perfect blend of a show that shows you the collision between politics and organized crime. When people think of organized crime they think of the Italians, and they don’t really know the history of organized crime in Harlem and how Bumpy Johnson took over the numbers racket, prostitution and drugs from the Italians, which was a very courageous and brave move. I say all that because it gives the show some context [for younger viewers] through the excitement of violence that happens in the show, along with the relationships that are formed. I think young people will really start to understand where corruption comes from.
MCN: This is coming in the midst of number of shows that are portraying African-Americans in diverse roles on a number of distribution outlets. Is this a great time to be an actor of color?
GE: Oh absolutely. I think it’s a great time and again you know this show is different because we have Italian gangsters, the African-American gangsters and the politicians, so it’s a really unique blend of what was really going on in history at that time. So, yes, the opportunity to be able to play these kind of characters in this kind of show on a wonderful network is a gift. And it’s not only the subject matter; it’s also the seamless writing. They’ve done so much research to write what really is truthful.
MCN: You’ve had a number of iconic roles including of course Gus Fring. Did you ever think that character would become so popular?
GE: I guess I’m a little surprised. I knew that in our fourth season of Breaking Bad the dynamic shifted during the show. People always loved [lead character] Walter White but they started to move toward Gustavo Fring, a bad guy who was very different than any kind of bad guy they’d ever seen before. He was shrewd, he was polite, he was affable and he took care of the people who worked for him. So that was all something that [series creator] Vince Gilligan and I came up with. I was determined to play that character as someone who’s an upstanding member of society — that was very different than what anybody had ever seen. Of course, I had no idea it would blow up so big and that people would call me Gus, not Giancarlo, on the street [laughs]. That’s OK. That means I did my job well.
MCN: Now you have reprised the role in Better Call Saul. Was it always the plan for your to appear in the Breaking Bad spinoff?
GE: I joined Better Call Saul at the end of our third season — we’ve now finished our fourth and are going into the fifth — and it’s been really nice to do that. I didn’t want to do it — they had to convince me to come back. I initially said, Gus was done and I was through. But the idea appealed to me because to play a character in a prequel changes the dynamic of things in a major way. Even if they’re using me as the catalyst in the same kind of timing journey of Breaking Bad, it still gives me the opportunity to explore things that I hadn’t explored before, and that’s the reason I went back.