How Giancarlo Esposito Forced ‘Breaking Bad’ to Get Even Better

The “Breaking Bad” scene stealer talks about how he turned a guest appearance into one of the most integral characters on TV’s best show

Giancarlo Esposito, who plays fast food mogul and crystal meth mastermind Gustavo "Gus" Fring on AMC's "Breaking Bad," told producers who kept inviting him back for guest appearances that he wasn't interested: He wanted a regular role on the series, one that would let him explore all of his character's many secrets.

The decision to make him the show's central villain has resulted in its most tense, jittery, and brilliant storylines. This season, it divided longtime partners Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). If Emmy voters have been paying attention to the drama, Esposito should join Cranston and Paul in putting a gold statue on his mantel.

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Among the discoveries about Gus this season: He's driven in part by trying to avenge the death of his former partner, Max. We talked to him about Sunday's season finale for television's best show, how he expanded the character, and whether Gus's relationship with Max went beyond business and friendship.

The episode "Hermanos," where we finally got a glimpse into Gus' background and what motivates him, is one of the series' best. It also left some viewers wondering about the nature of Gus's relationship with Max, the man Tio murdered right in front him. "Breaking Bad" creator Vince Gilligan says it's up to viewers to decide, but what's your take? Were Gus and Max friends so close that they were like brothers, hermanos? Were they lovers?
I think the magic of really good television is to allow the audience to draw their own conclusion. Certainly, there is a deep and abiding love between Gus and Max. Was it romantic? I don't know. You've got to make up your own mind to see if it was.

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I know, for me, I'm European. I was born in Copenhagen, raised in Italy. My father's Italian, my mother's black. My father kissed me on the lips my whole life, or cheek to cheek. We held hands. Is that looked at oddly in America? Of course it is. I would think that Gus has those same sensibilities. I would go for the professional aspect of it, to be honest with you, that he really cares about another human being.

Being that this is a guy he took off the street, put through school and trained him to be a chemist, to have his life dream come true, even though it played into what Gus wanted, is more important than whether they were lovers or not. Could they very possibly have been sleeping together? Of course they could have. I mean, James Martinez (the actor who played Max) is a beautiful man. (Laughing) He plays the role so beautifully and seamlessly that it allowed all of those thoughts to happen. I think that's what makes it great. To label it, to name it, to know, I think it's much less interesting. Is it possible? It's certainly and surely possible. Would it have been possible if they got a really ugly actor to play that guy? No one would have thought of it. (Laughing)

How defined was the character of Gus when you signed on for the show? Was it written on the page that you would play him as this deliberate man, or did you make all these choices about how to portray him?
Is it the chicken or the egg? It really is. I hate to take all of the credit for what I do, because the writing is so stellar and I pay such close attention to everything that's written, including the stage directions. I come from theater and they say, 'Don't read the stage directions.' In 'Breaking Bad,' I read every stage direction, because I think everything really is information for me to take further.

In the beginning, it wasn't defined. The guy was a nice guy. He appeared to be the manager of this chicken restaurant, but I always read into it that he was keeping a very big secret, even if he wasn't.

They didn't know if I was going to go more than one guest spot episode or two. I think if you ask Vince Gilligan, they didn't think that I would go four. That wasn't in their consciousness.

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How did the character become integral to the story?
What happened was that I was asked to do that guest spot. Within a couple of days of me finishing the first one, they said, 'Would you come back and do the season ender?' I said yes. Then they came back and said, 'Would you do more?' I said yeah, I would, but not as a guest star.

They asked me to do seven more guest spots, and I said, 'No, I'm not interested in that. I'm interested in really finding out who this character is.' I prefaced all of that by saying that I loved the show. I loved the people. I feel a family connection. I adore and think that Vince Gilligan is brilliant. But I don't want to just come in and out … I want to come in and have a full canvas to work with, and I expressed that.

I wound up doing 11, which was a clear indication … of their trust and devotion to doing what I previously had asked for, which was to be able to create a complete character and to be part of a family. For that, I'm completely grateful.

But again, Gus was just a nice guy who worked in the chicken joint, who probably had some secrets, and they were hoping to uncover some of that. I am in gratitude that they found, through my performance, that they would like to uncover a whole lot more.

Which they definitely did, especially, as we discussed, in the "Hermanos" episode. It was so satisfying for viewers to get a glimpse at what motivates Gus … did you feel that way, too, when you read the script?
Yes. Yes, it truly was satisfying … I've done other shows and other series, and they go along, and you have a dual thing going on, where you want to be able to be on something that's quality, and to make some money and feed your family. Then, once (your character) gets your office or your home, you know you're going to be around for a while. You're like, 'Yay, they're not going to write me out. I'm not going to die tomorrow.'

With this (episode), the triumph was that they asked me for some family pictures. I brought in pictures of my four daughters and put them all on the wall. (Viewers) never really saw them, but just in case one day they did and wanted to reflect back to that scene, they could see my family, which meant (Gus) could have a wife. I could have this whole, other … I could be living like Gus does in plain sight, but have the trimmings of the whole family. We haven't seen that. I don't know if that will happen. But, yes, for people to see the background of a character that you create and understand … because a lot of our villains that we experience, in many ways they're one note. I certainly didn't want to have Gus be that.

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What truly motivates Gus, especially going forward, now that he's got his revenge on Don Eladio and Tio? He has money, he has power, what keeps him ticking now?
I think that what motivates Gus for much of what we've seen has been revenge, building his empire, playing his cards right. But since that really horrible moment that we finally see in ("Hermanos"), we understand him a different way. It's not only revenge, but the revenge has played into taking over, into making this family his family.

I think if we were to go back even further than that, we'd see his connection to the Pinochet government and where all the previous incarnations of Gus came from and what his dream for his empire is.

We haven't seen that yet, but I think the motivation is a two-fold motivation. It's to bring people to their best selves in whatever they do, which is why he has such patience for Jesse, who is a ne'er‑do‑well drug addict.

And, I have to say, what moves Gus is the family. It's to take care of the family. It's outlined in Gus' "a man provides" speech to Walt. This is really how he feels. You do the hard things that you have to do, some of them you will not want to do, to take care of your family. That is your gig. That's your job. That is the marker of a man. You don't want any complaining. Walt is a whiney complainer. You don't want any complaining. Yeah, you've got cancer and you're dying. Suck it up. Live the rest of your life and croak, like a man. (Laughing)

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Right. That is what Gus would do, how he would play it.
That's what Gus would do. I really, really feel like that's his motivation. He wants to bring people to their best selves. He wants to teach people how to be in control and have self‑control. He wants to teach people how to be successful and he wants to allow them to be smart. Walt has missed the boat, in terms of understanding that little good piece of what Gus is trying to display.

As viewers, as crazy as it sounds, we're actually kind of rooting for Gus. Despite everything he's done, the box cutter murder of his assistant, the threats to Walt's whole family, and what we know he's capable of…
It's fascinating. Yes, I would hope that you do. If that's the case, and I've been told that by others, then that means I've done my job really well. Because if in one week, you're really hoping that Jesse takes that ricin cigarette and puts it in this food and kills Gus, then in the very next episode Gus stands down the cartel and you're like, "Yeah!" because those guys are worse than he is (laughing) … this is what I wanted. I'm a thoughtful person, and I want to be challenged.

If you can go then, from one episode feeling like, 'Oh, gosh, I want him to be dead,' and then in the next episode going, 'Wow, that was a great move. I'm really glad he did that,' it plays into my theory that nothing's really black and white. There are some gray areas in life for all of us. 'Breaking Bad' truly is a show where you can really play with that and display it. Have the opportunity to really move into that gray area in a wonderful way.

The season four finale airs on Sunday… have you looked ahead at the next season yet? Do you know anything about it? Do you want to know anything about it at this point?
I don't really want to know and I know that Vince doesn't know. It's interesting, because I've read what he's talked about, and I know from before we even finished season four, people were asking.

Vince has already stated, he told me two years ago, that he only thought it was a five‑year series, because there's a lot to wind up. He's got to wind up Gus and Walt. He's got to wind up Hank, finding out or not finding out. He's got to wind up all these different little aspects of this piece.

I think a good storyteller acknowledges that there's a beginning, middle and end. Well, I'm going to say this. I don't think Vince knows. I think it's going to be a discovery for him, as it will be for us, and I don't want to know right now. I just want to bask in the energy of this really pretty incredible fourth season and see what he comes up with for the fifth.

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So, without spoiling the major events of the season finale, just tell us what we should expect from it?
Oh, I think you've got to expect some very explosive confrontation. You've got to leave the season … 'Breaking Bad' is so good at leaving the show in a very impolite way. (Laughing) They leave you in an impolite way, because you've got to wait another year to see it. I can guarantee you it's going to be good, quite, quite powerful, and will really give you pause to think about how television is made.

This show is organic, truthful and real. There is not a false beat, not a false moment. This last episode is a culmination of everything that they've tried to do with 'Breaking Bad' over the years, so it's pretty fabulous.

The "Breaking Bad" season four finale airs Sunday at 10/9c on AMC.