Gustavo Fring, the cruel heart of ‘Breaking Bad’ and its prequel ‘Better Call Saul’, has left his indelible mark on a generation of TV viewers. Gus is undoubtedly one of the greatest screen villains in history, rubbing sinful shoulders with the best of the worst including Darth Vader, Hannibal Lector, and The Joker. And by playing the fearsome drug kingpin so flawlessly, Giancarlo Esposito has become, as his four daughters like to remind him, a pop culture icon.
Given how Gus’ chilling menace has been so deeply ingrained in our collective psyche, the impact on the man embodying the role for 14 years — in ‘Breaking Bad’ from 2009 to 2011, and then ‘Better Call Saul’ since 2017 — must be even more powerful. And for Giancarlo it has, of course, changed his life immeasurably. But perhaps not in the ways you might expect.
When he’s not submersed in the world of the deliciously evil fried chicken entrepreneur — or one of the many other roles that have confirmed his place among his generation’s most respected actors — Giancarlo is a spiritual seeker, devoted to savoring moments of quiet and peace. And while this pursuit might seem at odds with playing a character who will happily slit his most loyal henchman’s throat with a box cutter, Giancarlo unites them in perfect, award-winning harmony.
“As I was creating the role, I thought that this guy’s rhythm is different,” explains Giancarlo. “So I started by whispering his lines, and then having his voice come to me, but there was still something else that I wanted.” So Giancarlo embraced meditation and yoga, practicing those disciplines on the set of Vince Gilligan’s modern masterpiece each day, to help him find that stillness that makes Gus the most tranquil of deadly threats.
“It was the awkwardness of the uncomfortable moment, and that needs space. I realized something about myself, that’s probably true for many others, that we’re uncomfortable with space so we fill it with a laugh, or whatever it is. I decided not to do that with Gus, and to fill that awkward space with a breath and an investigation. So I used that every day on the set, and my life changed.”
Through his devotion to mindfulness, Giancarlo is proud to be evolving into a better, more thoughtful version of himself. And in our arrestingly honest conversation, he discusses how he has improved as a father and a man since the breakdown of his 20-year marriage to Joy McManigal, the mother of his four daughters, in 2015. This ability to learn lessons from our mistakes — and better still, to use them to help others as Giancarlo does so generously by sharing his experiences here — is central to our mission at Mr Feelgood. So we are honored to welcome Giancarlo as the latest subject of our ‘Who the F*** Are You?’ profile, answering the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are.
“Part of why I’m here is because of what you stand for,” he tells us. “We live in a world where we’re not encouraged not to be authentic, we’re encouraged to keep up with the Jones’, or to be successful, and that’s measured in certain terms. For me, as I get more mature, I realize it’s about not having to impress anyone on a level that I thought I did years ago. It’s about enjoying my craft and my work, but also enjoying my life of mindfulness. And that means checking in. Taking a breath. We have to slow ourselves down to look inside.”
Who the f*** are you?
I am a compassionate, loving, sensitive, creative, artistic human being. I am not who I was yesterday. I am in progress. I am a collaborator. I am growing. I’m inquisitive. I am wonder.
I’m also a perfectionist. I also love my craft. I’m a striver and a seeker, so I’m always looking. But I realized that I can look less, and be inside, and still strive and seek. I realize that every moment is different. It won’t be the same. I grew up on the Broadway stage doing eight shows a week. So after a great show, the next night comes and I want to have a great show again. That’s our human nature. But tonight’s show will be will be different. It may be greater. So in our expectation of what we’d like to have happen, to be as great as, we leave out the fact that it could even be greater.
How are you feeling right now?
I feel great!
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, but I grew up in Rome, Italy, with two different languages being spoken in our home. It was a world of artistry and music. My father was working [as a carpenter] in the opera house and played classical music constantly. My mother was an opera singer. So I was taken on a journey of poetry, music, prose, and that’s what I heard growing up. There was a depth and breadth and poetic nature that spurned my imagination as a boy, and helped to feed my love of creativity.
What excites you?
Living. Learning something new. Being in a situation that I have no clue what it’s about. Being in a situation where I give up my control. As I get older, the tendency seems to be [to think] that I’ve lived long enough, so I should know more. But exactly the opposite is true. We are associators as human beings, we really just repeat each other. I’ll leave today and repeat five things you said, because I dug it, because I dig you. But maybe I’ll leave today and think about those five things you said, and even further exemplify my thought form and yours. So I like to be more honest, and understand that I don’t know anything about that. Then the door opens so I can learn more.
What scares you?
My greatest fear is that I would become like my father. My greatest joy is that I’m exactly like my father. I loved him dearly, he’s passed on. But my greatest fear is that I won’t progress, I won’t learn, and that I won’t be as open as I am right now.
Thank God I have four incredible daughters who look at me and say a couple of things. One of the things they say is, “Papa, you are extra.” And they also say, “You have no clue.” They try to express to me, “Don’t you get it? You’re a pop culture icon.” And then I go, “I do get it. But I don’t really need to get it, right? It’s cool. It’s great. I just want to commit to what I do and love it.” But they just help and encourage me to take it in, which I’m starting to do, without taking it to a place of ego.
What is your proudest achievement?
My proudest achievement is my children. And it’s more than that, it’s my relationship with them. I swear I have just started to listen to them. Like when they say to me, “Papa, it would be nice if you didn’t speak to me that way.” When I’m trying to be a father, that means I’m not being the complete father I could be. Or, “Papa, it’s not so much what you say, it’s your tone.” Or, “Papa, you’re a bully.” I look at them, and I go, “I know. I’m a bully. I apologize.” You start to listen, and take in what they say, so that I can find a new way to be. And to be comfortable with that, not to fake it.
Recently, my second child looked at me gravely, and said, “Papa, what happened to you when you were a little boy?” So I then explain, “I get it. My father was a bully. And it’s no reason for me to be a bully. But certain things that you observe, sometimes come into you, and you use them.” Then I went on to say, “So I use that bully sometimes when I do my work. I play a quiet villain, who is a manipulative bully.”
Once I open up to talk about those things it heals me, and I’m able to have a different relationship with my with my daughters because of that.
What is the hardest thing you have ever done?
Admitting that I was wrong and making a correction. Across the board, that’s one of the hardest things to do. Admitting that my world revolved completely around me. I say to my children and folks in general, or sometimes even to myself, “You’re only seeing it through this prism that is you.” So of course it revolves around you. It’s how much you invest and attach your ego to that. I’ve been there, where it’s all about me, and I’ve finally started to see and to live differently, which has me enjoying life more.
I play this guy, Gustavo Fring, and my joke with myself is, “I’m Gus Fring and I can do whatever the f*** I want.” Because I’ve done it so well that people in the world believe that. They step aside for me, and I kind of laugh and giggle.
Thinking that you’re somebody is a great thing. You have to realize and understand that you are powerful. You are organically beautiful, you are original, there is no-one like you. You can do anything you want to do in the world. But there’s a fine line between getting the notoriety and becoming a pop culture icon, or whatever else, and balancing that with the knowledge that you’re exactly the same. So it’s how I use that in my world and my life.
I’m a divorced father-of-four. My marriage didn’t go the way I always dreamed and thought it would. Did I make a mistake? Yeah. So how do I make that correction? How do I help someone heal that I didn’t do the right thing with? How do I understand that and heal myself? How does my forgiveness for all of the wrong moves that I made tie into being forgiven? I realized I had to forgive myself for being on the road, not communicating, becoming distant and having my career be more important, but my kids be most important. They say, “Go home and kiss you wife first, then kiss your kids.”
So learning all of that wasn’t easy for me, and to understand over the last five years that you can recover from any mistake, it depends on what your intention is. My intention is to be with my family and that is inclusive of my former wife and all my children who are all really close. My intention is to be a father but also a friend. My intention is to have my door open for people who need it, and to be honest and true about that without losing my own personal boundaries.
Who was your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?
One of my greatest mentors creatively, as a dramatic actor, was Sidney Poitier. He mentored me from afar without knowing it. My mother knew him, but I never met him until I became an adult. The reasons were that he carried himself as a man with dignity, grace, aplomb, intelligence and all who he was. He didn’t put any of it away. I came up at a time where African Americans weren’t really first and foremost in theater, television, and film. So I learned how to take a part of me away, and become the guy with the gun, the thug who robbed the old lady, the drug addict. I learned to be less than enough. And when I saw Sidney as I was growing up, I went, “This guy is not living in his skin, his color, he’s living as a human being.” And that was the thing that I wanted most. So I learned how to play Spanish folks, African Americans, and different people with a grace and a quality that would lift people up when they saw it.
And so I was at an Oscar party, maybe four or five years ago, and he was there. I could see he was making his way to the door and I just had to make a decision. I approached him, he turned around looked at me, and I took a deep breath, and said clearly and succinctly, without rushing, “I just want to tell you how much you mean to me, and how you affected me as a creative artist and a man.” He turned to me completely and listened to everything I had to say. He thanked me. Talked about himself for a quick moment. It was all so very brief. Someone took a picture — which I never asked for because I will remember that forever — so I have a black and white of me and Sidney. He was just the most gracious human being in that moment.
Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?
My real-life heroes are spiritual. I love the journey of [Paramahansa] Yogananda. He is one of my favorite humans because he was so open to coming to America and sharing a new way of thinking, a simplicity, about breathing and yoga. His book is everything that I could want from my life. Because it’s a travelogue of the world. It’s not just a book that says, “Hey, go meditate.” His story is so devilishly lightly told, it is awe-inspiring to me.
What is your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?
Right now it’s a Prada coat. It’s cashmere. I wore it today, it was on one of these chairs, did you steal it?! I’m very tactile and sensitive to material, to feel, to touch, to energy.
It’s an interesting thing. When I was married and I’d come off the road, and be home with my former wife, the lovely Joy, I would never look in the mirror and I would grow a beard. Joy would come up [and touch my face] as mothers do. And I would pull away. I finally went, “Why don’t you share with her why you do that? So she doesn’t think you’re rejecting her.” So I told her, “That’s my life every day. Folks walk up, don’t even ask, and they start powdering me, straightening me, so that’s a reaction to them.”
What music did you love aged 13, and do you still love it now?
Oh my goodness. ‘The Dark Side of the Moon’. I still love it now. Meatloaf. Still love it now. Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. Classics. Still love it now. Music is something that is indelible in our beings as we grow up. I grew up with classical music and opera. I do still love that a great deal and I’m always inspired by that. I think music is the juice of our lives.
What is the most inspiring book you’ve ever read?
‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ [by Paramahansa Yogananda] has been the most inspiring. There’s another book called ‘The Religions of Man’ which helped me to understand the division of people over religion. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross ‘On Death and Dying’ — it’s amazing and helped me have less fear around transition. And I love George Gurdjieff, a great Armenian-Russian meditator.
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
I have a few. One is ‘The Best Years of Our Lives’. Very powerful movie about three veterans in different parts of the service. And ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’. It has everything. It has the triumph, the struggle, the determination, the courage, the passion. And for someone who is in trouble, to be standing on that bridge getting ready to jump, and to turn that around, they knew what life should be about.
What is your favorite word or saying?
“Ask for what you want.” People ask me, “Did you ever realize you’d be where you are now?” I used to be humble and say, “I never imagined.” But the truth of the matter is, yes, I always knew. I just started to find out how to ask for what I wanted. And if I work my craft, get really good, then there’s going to be no denying it. It’s going to come. So when people ask me that, I don’t want to sound like an asshole. But I knew this from the time I was on Broadway at nine years old. And I knew it wouldn’t be on Broadway, although I’d do 13 Broadway musicals. I knew it would be in some other way.
What’s driven me is the different characters of different people I get to play. An acting teacher said to me, “Acting is a way of healing your personality.” I’ve healed this crazy dude who wanted it all to be about him. I’ve healed the guy who’s like, “What? I’m not rich. Are you f**king kidding me? Look at me, I’m a royalty, motherf**ker!” My father was like that, “I’m smart enough, charismatic enough, I deserve it.” Well, we all have to earn it, and we have to earn it for me first. And if I’ve earned it for me, I’ve earned it for everyone.
What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?
“What a dick! What an asshole!”
There’s a beautiful picture next to my eldest daughter Shane Lyra’s bed, it’s me and her, and there’s this mess on the front of it. My second daughter explained to me that the reason why it’s deteriorating is because growing up, when she was mad at me, she’d stick her gum on my face! I thought that was hysterical.
That’s such a very intense question. What comes to me is that to be remembered in a certain way is honorable, and there’s judgment in whether what is said is good or bad. “He transcended life in a most graceful way.” I think those are the words that come to me. I’m a very open-hearted person. But there’s the other side too. I want to be remembered for both. And to know that I started in one place, and I end in another. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.
And finally, a quickfire five favorites…
1969 Plymouth Valiant. Maroon, black interior.
New York Yankees.
Roasted salmon on top of arugula, with olive oil, salt and pepper.
House of Skuff. It has a certain consistency that leaves my hair in a nice place. And it smells great.
Styling by Amy Soderlind @ Workgroup
Styling assistant Dalton Flint
Grooming by Mira Chai Hyde
The sixth and final season of ‘Better Call Saul’ is streaming now
Giancarlo also stars in season three of ‘The Mandalorian’