Giancarlo Esposito is the Copenhagen-born son of an Italian father and African-American mother, whose most famous character, "Breaking Bad" meth kingpin Gustavo Fring, is a Chilean by way of Mexico, hiding in plain sight as the owner of a Southwestern fast-food chain.
You can understand how Esposito sees acting as a way of pulling together many threads of humanity together. Starting with his own humanity.
"I'm working on a deeper spiritual level to sort of heal parts of my personality," he told TheWrap recently.
"For me, what I try to heal is the major thing that I think all of us go through, where we came from. From our family of origin. I came from a divorced mother and father, obviously mixed race… all the stuff that my mother put on me about what it was going to be like to be black in America, and my father who was very, very specifically Italian. So for me, I heal what they couldn't heal in their relationship, which was how to understand each other."
Esposito spoke to TheWrap a few weeks ago, after NBC premiered his new series, "Revolution," to advertisers. On the upcoming J.J. Abrams drama, Esposito plays a genteel Southern military man, a part likely written with a white actor in mind. It's one of many roles that have come his way since he astonished audiences and critics as the ruthless but graceful Gus.
He's at the high point, so far, of a career that begin in New York when he was seven years old. (He made his Broadway debut a year later.) Now 54, he has directed the film "Gospel Hill" and built up decades of TV, film and stage credits. When he arrived at a lower Manhattan hotel for the interview, he was surprised to run into one of his fellow actors from Spike Lee's 1989 film "Do the Right Thing." The other actor was working as a bellhop.
Esposito's voice has the bouncy cadences of a native New Yorker. But as Gus, he speaks in a soft, rational tone, with pleasing remnants of aristocratic Chilean, even as he delivers such threats as, "I will kill your infant daughter."
The role has required him to play many versions of the same man — the dapper mastermind of a meth empire, the egoless manager of his chicken restaurants, and the frightened young man who would grow into both. This last version of Gus, appeared in flashback midway through the show's fourth season. It required Esposito, a non-native Spanish speaker, to do his scenes in the language with actors who spoke it fluently, as his character tried desperately to impress a self-satisfied drug lord.
"I didn't want to be the weak link in the language," he said. "And it worked for me. Because what I hadn't thought of is it was the first time I had to play Gus cowed. It messed me up. Being deferential. Being humbled. Non-powerful. Non-Gus-like."
He laughed his rich, deep laugh, the same one Gus very occasionally emits.
"At one point I turned around, and I think I broke into tears. It wasn't the six pages, seven pages of Spanish at all. It was that I had to play this other feeling. I didn't want to be weak. … And it was so great to have that flip on me."
The episode, entitled "Hermanos," is Esposito's Emmy submission for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. If he wins – and this would be voters' only chance to recognize him for the role — it will be for playing a man decades younger than himself, speaking a language he doesn't usually speak.
Which is a testament to Esposito's empathy as well as his acting. One reason he appreciates playing ruthless characters is the chance to find the humanity within them.
Days before the interview, Esposito was stopped and frisked by New York police while walking out of a theater where he was rehearsing a play. After several frantic minutes – with him and officers screaming, and their guns drawn – they realized they had the wrong guy. Their suspect had a hoodie, and Esposito was wearing a suit. When it was over, one of the officers recognized him, from his recent turn on ABC's "Once Upon a Time."
It sounded like a depressingly familiar case of racial profiling. But Esposito didn't want to dwell on it. Instead he talked again about healing.
"I refuse to walk around, carrying that sack of racist crap," he said. "Luis Buñuel made great movies. And in all his movies there's one old guy… who walks through the background with a big pillowcase, a sack of shit. That's your stuff. So when I'm healing, I'm healing my stuff."
"I'm healing the fact that I was pissed that my father and mother were divorced, that I didn't grow up in a well-rounded family. The fact that I started working at seven years old and that for a while – I loved it, I loved it, I loved it, but then I couldn't stop doing it because I'm supporting my whole family. So then it became a noose.
"I always saved the love for it, but it became something I had to do to support people. So there's some anger and resentment around that. The fact that this world was racist.
"I started working as an actor in 1966. There's a lot of stuff that you have to heal from your history."