In 2008, Giancarlo Esposito received a script for a critically loved but little watched show entering its second season called Breaking Bad. A line in the stage directions captured the actor’s attention. It described the character he would play, Gus Fring, a drug lord masquerading as a fried chicken mogul, as “hiding in plain sight.”
“It galvanized me,” Esposito told a crowd of about 200 students, faculty and staff during a visit to Rider University on Saturday, March 29. “I thought, 'That’s me, this is who I am.' I’m a dude who’s hiding in plain sight, afraid to say who I really am or live as who I really am for fear that people would go, ‘Oh, wait, he’s a fraud, he ain’t real.’”
Sponsored by the Student Entertainment Council, Esposito’s appearance included a talk followed by a Q-and-A with students. The actor bounded on stage in the Yvonne Theater about 10 minutes after 8 p.m. to Breaking Bad’s theme music and raucous applause. He wore a dark shirt and tie, a black and green plaid sports coat, and a black hat not dissimilar to the one that transformed Walter White from a meek chemistry teacher to the Scarface-like Heisenberg.
Esposito’s energy and easy laughter, not to mention his beard and unkempt hair — which he explained were for his role on NBC’s Revolution — came as something of a surprise to those expecting the buttoned up and eerily self contained drug lord Esposito played in his best-known role.
Esposito told the crowd that he nearly turned down the role of Gus because he refused to audition for a guest spot. He was eventually offered a regular role, but the salary offer fell short.
Recalling the moment, Esposito touched on two themes he repeatedly returned to during his talk, choice and interconnectedness. “Be observant of yourselves, be observant of your talents, be especially mindful of what you need and make a choice about who you are and what you want to be,” he said. “You can change the choice. Don’t be afraid. We’re always changing.”
He asked for more money, and the network acquiesced. “They helped me to make that work and the rest is history,” he said, adding, “When you get really truthful and honest about who you are and what you need...the universe greets you, it hears you."
The universe greeted Gus Fring with acclaim. In 2013, TV Guide named him the third nastiest villain of all time. New York magazine made a Gus mask available on its website to download and print. Fans continue to adore the character but sometimes, Esposito said, in person they eye the man behind the character warily, afraid they’re meeting the ice cold killer from Breaking Bad in real life. Judging from his appearance at Rider, inquiring fans are more likely to receive a toothy smile and a joke that breaks up the room than anything like menace.
“I want to play roles all across the board of people I am not,” Esposito said. “I want to play ethnicities I am not. I want to open myself up...to represent the worldly, intelligent, graceful humanity that I see.”
Esposito continues to grow. He’s moved from acting to directing, saying he’s planning to start filming a movie this summer about the abolitionist John Brown in which he’ll play Frederick Douglas. He first stepped behind the camera for 2008’s Gospel Hill, which starred Angela Bassett and Danny Glover.
Esposito’s acting dream began on stage, and he commended Rider for cultivating stage actors. He first appeared on Broadway in 1966. Hoping to move from stage to screen, Esposito later auditioned for the movie Taps only to be told by the casting director that he needed to learn to act for the camera. Deflated but motivated, he cultivated a style of acting that is quieter and more calculating than his stage presence — one that would eventually give birth to the character hiding in plain sight. “I had to learn how to do nothing,” Esposito said.
Between Taps and Breaking Bad, Esposito learned a Spanish accent and embraced roles for Spanish men, saying that’s how the world viewed him anyway. The son of an Italian father and African-American mother, Esposito was born in Denmark and lived in Italy before moving to the United States as a boy. Growing up, he said he used to hide his heritage, ashamed of it in front of his mostly Jewish friends.
“Sometimes some of us are going to be lost for a little while, but I’m here to tell you, you can be found if you want to be,” he told the audience of mostly students. “It’s about making a choice. Who are you? What do you want from your life? How do you want that dream to play out?”