Giancarlo Esposito would not do it.
His Breaking Bad boss, Vince Gilligan, had called him in to discuss the possibility of directing an episode of AMC’s hit series, then asked if he minded shutting the door.
“I will not close that door, Vince!” Esposito recalled saying to Gilligan. Although this reporter was not present, it’s easy to imagine he sounded like he was yelling. Esposito is a passionate man, and his love for the show he’s been working on for three seasons brings that out in spades. “'I know what you’re gonna tell me, and I won’t close the door!' And Vince just started laughing.”
Esposito, too, laughed as he retold the story, but he couldn’t help feel sad that day when he finally got up and did what he was asked. (Reader, you will be sad, too, if you haven’t watched tonight’s season finale and continue reading this story. So, pretend it’s Gus Fring threatening to kill your infant daughter and stop now.) In that moment, Esposito learned what Breaking Bad viewers witnessed on Sunday night: the tense, suspenseful, season-long showdown between Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Gus Fring (Esposito) concludes with the chemistry teacher prevailing over the drug kingpin.
And how! If you’re wondering if it was really necessary for Gilligan and his writers to blow Gus Fring’s face off, the answer is, Hell, yes! Not only was the manner of his demise surprising—death by bombing—but the end comes for Gus in a highly creative and artful way that ties together significant threads in the Breaking Bad saga. It also gives viewers a classic TV moment: Fring emerging from the blast on his feet, revealing he’s lost half his face, and then taking time to fix his tie, before finally collapsing.
“I think it is perfect,” said Esposito, 53. “I thought it was quite shocking to have something so horrific happen and you don’t really know what’s happened until it’s upon you. And still the instinct is, as human nature goes, to fix his tie as he goes down. It’s just brilliant. It’s an incredible character study of a human being, and I think the writers nailed it. I always imagined how Gus would go. In a hail of bullets? Would he be poisoned? And I think, much like the character is so quietly and silently explosive, the end of Season 4 is commensurate to that. It’s really explosive, and it’s really kind of marvelous that he’s able to stand up and walk. But that’s Gus.”
That is Gus, the cool, calm, collected cat that was one step ahead of Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul) the entire season until, finally, Walt finds a way to outwit him, and the delicious dance ends. To hatch the plan correctly, the writers knew they couldn’t make Gus a victim of his own fatal mistake. That would only disappoint viewers who have developed a weird sympathy for the dapper gentleman with the stone-cold stare, the man who did not hesitate to have a child murdered or slit a pal’s throat himself with a box cutter. The writers made the decision to let Walt win when the third episode of the season was being produced. Then they struggled for months to lay the foundation for how he would manage it.
“We’ve all seen movie and TV shows where the hero is set up against a very worthy opponent who suddenly, oftentimes inexplicably, slips up and screws up at the last minute and gets himself killed,” Gilligan said. “And we wanted Gus Fring to be amazingly brilliant to the end. As much as we would have liked the mano a mano sort of ending where Walt is looking at Gus in the eyes when Gus meets his maker, we realized Walt is not that much of a tough guy and he will not have that ability. But, at the very least, he’s very smart, and if he outsmarts this brilliant man, then hopefully it would just be as dramatic and as satisfying even if Walt is not face-to-face with him when he goes.”
Instead, it was the disabled Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis), his longtime enemy, who got to look into Gus’s eyes before setting off the bomb that Walt had planted on his wheelchair with his consent. Decades earlier, Salamanca murdered Gus’s business partner Max (James Martinez), and in a twisted act of revenge, Gus had regularly visited Salamanca at a nursing home to threaten the old man or brag about the latest member of the Salamanca family he’d recently offed.
“The ending truly has poetic justice,” Esposito said. “It has a very deep and contemplative poetic justice because, as the audience, you’re like, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! I can’t believe that just happened! That’s Gustavo Fring! That can’t happen.’ But it did. It did.”
“I hope that people are sad and that there’s a public outcry,” Esposito continued, laughing some more. “And I hope there’s an opportunity to come back in some other way only because I love the show and I would love for the public to see a little bit more of what made Gus do what he did. Is there more from his past? But you know what? I have to say that being sad—and for some being glad, taking a deep breath for Walter, is exactly what you should feel. I think it’s good television that makes you feel that way for someone so despicable.”
It’s Esposito’s masterful performance that makes viewers connect with and, at times, feel sympathy for Gus, a man of few words who carefully folds his suit jacket before puking and thinks nothing of walking into a firestorm of bullets. Gus Fring was not originally designed to be as integral to Breaking Bad as he became; the character was created after big-bad villain Tuco Salamanca (Raymond Cruz) was killed and the writers felt there needed to be another nemesis for Walt and Jesse in the second season. Because Tuco was larger than life, Gilligan said they imagined the crime boss as reasonable and businesslike, an enigmatic drug lord pulling strings in the background who would appear in the series a few times. But Esposito, seeking to challenge himself with a character unlike any other he’s played in his long career on TV and film, asked to become a more permanent part of the Breaking Bad family. Gilligan could not resist.
“Giancarlo’s not necessarily what we had in our minds when we conceived of Gus, but as soon as you laid your eyes on him in his audition, there was no one else that could play the role,” Gilligan said. “It’s interesting because Giancarlo is a very animated person in real life. He’s full of emotion, he is always smiling and he greets you with a big hug. He’s a very enthusiastic, affectionate person who is just the opposite of who Gustavo Fring is. Gus is the ultimate poker player, completely unemotional and amoral and efficient and pragmatic and does not wear his heart on his sleeve. Giancarlo must dig very deep, I think, to play this role because I don’t know where he finds these elements within himself, because he is, in fact, so opposite of what Gus is.”
“The ending truly has poetic justice ... As the audience, you’re like ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! I can’t believe that just happened!’”
The dichotomy is what fascinates viewers and is sure to get Esposito a ton of awards-season love. Gus is, without a doubt, a powerhouse, but Esposito’s interpretation of him is minimalist and exact. Gus may be smoldering inside, but the only indication the viewer ever gets is through the weight in his eyes. You can almost see his wheels turning through his gold, horn-rimmed glasses. To reach Gus’s incredible Zen state, Esposito says he turned to his daily yoga and meditation practice.
“The largest challenge was not to act—to just live Gus,” Esposito said. “To get myself to a place where I was breathing evenly, where I was paying attention not only when I spoke but more attention on when I didn’t speak. Since I’ve played roles where the writers write more than less—I’ve done a lot of Spike Lee films that require a larger-than-life energy—I wanted Gus to have an internal light, an internal fire, an internal energy, and an internal hatred and revenge. So my challenge was to not always make things happen, but to allow Gus to come through my being. And that’s more than being, more of a channel or a transformer or a chameleon for the words. It’s what it means when you truly allow a character to live.”
Because the role became an intrinsic part of Esposito during production, certain scenes were hard to shake, he said. As he prepared to film Gus’s death scene, he felt the intensity on his own spirit. In the same way, when Gus sliced the throat of an employee he was fond of because he’d made a grave mistake in the season opener, Esposito had to find a way to release his feelings.
“As an actor, performing something as reprehensible as slitting someone’s throat, especially a character and an actor that you like, is a little difficult,” Esposito said. “Sometimes when actors do something so gory, they try to find a way to disassociate themselves from it. But psychically and spiritually, I’m doing the action. I’m putting the action into the universe. So I was only concerned with allowing myself to know that was a complete Gus move and not a Giancarlo move, so none of the action would stain me and disturb me and give me sleepless nights. To me, that was the beginning of Gus’s demise, because I live in a world of cause and effect. Karmically, if you take that kind of action, something’s going to come of it, even though at that point in time I didn’t know what was going to happen to Gus.”
Filming Gus’s death, added Esposito, “rocked my world a little bit. A little part of yourself as an actor lends his spirit to that of Gus, so a little part of me dies as well with Gus. Giancarlo is a little bit more vulnerable as a person than Gus, and what goes through my mind is, believe it or not, OK, I have two weeks, I have to get my affairs in order. I gotta make my peace.”
The death scene itself, though, thrilled the actor, who went through five hours of makeup and prosthetics for Gus’s final on-screen moment. “I have died many times in film and television, but this is one of the most fantastic deaths I’ve ever experienced. Truly. I can’t imagine a better way to go out. This guy is a mastermind, and if you’re gonna get a mastermind, you really have to work.”
Breaking Bad fans, for sure, will miss Gustavo Fring, but Esposito’s colleagues on set might miss him a tad more. Many of Gus’s scenes were filmed at his fast-food fried-chicken chain, Pollos Hermanos, where Esposito often took over the kitchen to make his mean fried chicken.
“I love the fact that we shoot at a Twisters and I can really get behind the grill and really fry some really good fried chicken,” Esposito said. “And it’s fun because it makes it really authentic and realistic. And when people come by the counter—the crew and whatnot—I see them grabbing a little piece of skin. That means I’ve not only done a good job of acting, I’ve done a good job as one of the world’s best chefs. Ha ha!”
Next on television, Esposito will have a guest role on ABC’s new Once Upon a Time, which premieres on Oct. 23. But don’t count Gus completely out of Breaking Bad just yet. It’s possible he could return in flashbacks during the series’ final run next year, Gilligan said. Gus’s past in Chile—and the reason Don Eladio (Steven Bauer) did not kill him with Max—is still unrevealed.
“It’s really kind of amazing and astute of viewers to want more from that story and very well done by our writers and Vince Gilligan,” Esposito said. “To create a character that is so deeply interesting that people not only hate him or despise him or are afraid of him right through their televisions, but also they have a feeling of sympathy for him—that is something that is a gift to me in playing this character.”