BEVERLY HILLS — Yes, we’re aware that “Breaking Bad” is just a TV show. But we’ll admit to breathing a small sigh of relief upon meeting Giancarlo Esposito and seeing that his face is, indeed, intact. Sitting down for a bite and a chat at the recent Television Critics Association press tour to discuss the actor’s new role as the seemingly villainous militia man Captain Tom Neville on the NBC drama “Revolution,” talk naturally veers to his Emmy-nominated turn as the assuredly villainous Gus Fring on “Breaking Bad” — a role he brought to a face-meltingly explosive conclusion last year.
Esposito, an enthusiastic and gregarious presence, says with a chuckle that people indeed do double-takes on the street. “That’s the biggest comment, ‘Oh gosh, your face is still OK. Phew!’ It was a very freaky thing to look at in the mirror.”
Fring, and now Neville, are just the latest in a long line of memorable characters on Esposito’s resume. From the agitating activist in “Do the Right Thing” to the Magic Mirror/Sidney Glass on “Once Upon a Time,” Esposito has been making his mark on the big and small screens and onstage for more than 30 years.
Q. While you’ve surely amassed a sizable group of fans who have followed you since the Spike Lee days, does “Breaking Bad” feel like a breakthrough moment for you?
A. People know me now more than ever. It’s wonderful to walk through an airport and have people stop me. There are still a few that go, “Wait a minute, wait a minute,” and they can’t pull it up. There are some that stop me for “Once Upon a Time.” There are others who stop me for “Breaking Bad,” and others who stop me for Spike Lee movies. It’s a wonderful thing, it means I’ve done a diverse amount of work.
Q. And that you’ve managed to imprint on people even though the characters have all been worlds apart. I mean, “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “Fresh” and “Once Upon a Time” couldn’t be more different.
A. I love to create a new character each time out of the box. I don’t rest on my laurels. Part of what I believe — and I think it’s from my training in theater — is that there is a certain amount of thought and care that I put in to creating every character. That’s where the fun is, in the rehearsal process, in my preparation, and to make those choices before I ever get in front of the camera or onstage. I made the definitive choice that I wanted [Gustavo Fring] to be very, very calm, so calm it might be scary. Actors love to act and we love to chew the scenery to a certain extent because we feel like we’re doing something, but with Gustavo Fring I wanted not to act. I wanted to be, to live it.
Q. In his pre-lights-out life, Tom Neville was an insurance adjuster. Now he’s the enforcer for a powerful militia leader. Do you think part of his shift is a sort of fantasy revenge for living the buttoned-down life of an insurance adjuster?
A. Absolutely. I want to create a guy that is having fun in his work after having been confined in his whole life. And he can use some of the skills he had as an insurance adjuster, i.e. being able to tell whether people were telling the truth or not, and give them the opportunity to save their own lives because if they don’t tell the truth, he’s going to kill them. (Laughs.)
Q. Are we going to flash back to see how he transformed? I’m guessing he was meeker at one time in his life.
A. Absolutely. We’ll meet the wife and the family and there might be a surprise within that as well! There’s so much room within this piece to discover, not only about our world without power but about these characters. I believe the show is about hope. I think it was originally thought of as a post-apocalyptic show. Now I think the audience is going to discover — and the way we all think about it — it’s a post-anti-apocalyptic world. (Laughs.)
Q. Because of the nature of the show do you find yourself at the store thinking, “Maybe I’ll pick up a little extra water and some beef jerky to keep in the basement, just in case”?
A. I do actually! This is 2012 and people really believe this is the end of the Mayan calendar and December is going to be it. There’s this program on TV now about people building bunkers and stockpiling all that stuff.
Q. We need to be friendly to those people.
A. We do, because I’m not building that stuff. (Laughs.) I’m coming over if you’ll let me in. But here again, they won’t let us in and that’s what part of this show is about, “How do we rely on each other again?”
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