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INTERVIEW: Giancarlo Esposito, the Most Feared Man in Hollywood

He sits wide-eyed and brimming with excitement in a sun-drenched New York City apartment. Eager to chat and irrepressibly polite, it’s hardly the picture you would expect from a cartel-crushing criminal mastermind, but Giancarlo Esposito and Gus Fring are not one and the same. In fact, once you’ve had a conversation with the 63-year-old Breaking Bad star, you can scarcely imagine that this very same man who cast fear in the heart of Walter White. But therein lies the magic of Giancarlo Esposito.

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For over 50 years, the character actor has earned his keep on Broadway and in film, but in recent years, Esposito has transformed himself. Once a star of stage and comedy, the actor has become the most feared man in Hollywood, and rightfully so. His role as Gus Fring brought a controlled energy never-before-seen in a television villain, earning him the on-screen respect of Walter White and the off-screen adoration of the wider industry. Three Primetime Emmy Award nominations later, Fring will go down as one of Hollywood’s greatest characters, but just what made the Los Pollos Hermanos founder so enthralling?

“Gus was an observer. He completely observed you and looked right through you. And, when you leave space to really see people, space to really connect with them, they get a little nervous,” Esposito tells Man of Many. “We’re very busy in our lives and no one gives you their full attention. Gus did for many reasons, he wanted to learn more about you. He wanted to manipulate you. He wanted to figure things out.”

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It’s true, Esposito is vastly different from his on-screen counterpart, but there are certain elements to his personality you can’t help but compare. There is a unique intensity that sits just behind his eyes, something you can explain or dismiss, that makes his characters innately unmissable. Perhaps it’s why Esposito has become Hollywood’s villain of choice. From starring as the philanthropist druglord in Breaking Bad to the unrelenting Moff Gideon in The Mandalorian, Esposito has carved out a legacy for bad guys that feel real. As Esposito puts it, there’s no big, bad wolf at the end of the story. More often than not, it’s just a man conflicted by ideology and driven by human emotions.

“A good villain is a human being. They’re real. Sometimes they feel, empathy and sorrow and sadness,” he says. “These are all complicated issues we have to work through as human beings, and that’s my success in any villainous role I play. I try to create a human being who is struggling in the moment, and isn’t that our lives?”

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Now, Esposito is taking his antagonist talents to a whole new world, starring as the brutal dictator Antón Castillo in the latest Far Cry 6 release. And it’s a far stretch from the Broadway stages he honed his craft on. Set on the fictional Caribbean island of Yara, the first-person shooter follows the plight of Dani Rojas, a guerilla fighter attempting to overthrow a regime ruled as a dictatorship by “El Presidente” Castillo. But the leader has his own issues to deal with, struggling to raise a disobedient son destined to follow in his rule.

Landing somewhere between a wartorn cinema epic and a marvel of modern gameplay, Far Cry 6 is one of the most ambitious releases ever attempted by video game giant Ubisoft. And naturally, Esposito steals the show.

We sat down with the five-time Emmy Award-nominated actor to talk Far Cry 6, Samuel L. Jackson’s advice and what makes a killer villain.

MOM: First off, congratulations on Far Cry 6. From everything we’ve seen, it looks like it’s going to be a huge hit. Can you tell me a little bit about how you got involved with the project?

GE: Ubisoft wanted me to come in and talk to them about this particular game they were doing. Didn’t tell me much about the character, except that he was a dictator of a very small island, gave me a couple of paragraphs to chew on. And, then I was left thinking, “Oh, how do I even go in and meet them? And what do I look like? And how should I be?” Of course, certain thought s came to me, because I never want to repeat a character I’ve ever played before. I was thinking, “Okay, how do I start to create Anton Castillo as a man who is very proud, very charismatic, and also very severe in his dictatorship? What are his hopes and wants and dreams and desires?” I went in and played with them and I felt like they did not want me to play any character I ever played before i.e. Gus Fring

And I went, “Oh, okay, this is great. I have a new template with which to start to create this particular man.” What’s different about this character for me is that he is a father, and a concerned father. He’s concerned that his son is too soft. He’s concerned that he wants to leave a legacy for his son, and he’s grooming his son to be the next dictator. And, his son is empathetic to the revolutionaries, and is someone who is, again, a little bit soft, and also possibly falling in love. Oh my gosh. When he comes into the scene, everything changes. So, there were many different elements of this particular character that I was very excited to portray.

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MOM: The relationship with Diego is one of the more interesting sides of the game. It really shows that Far Cry itself, is not your stock standard video game, delving into some really confronting and often poignant topics. Is that what drew you to the role?

GE: I was really fascinated by the writer. Navid Khavari really wrote something that had real juice and real connection in the relationships. People are looking for something in characters, and film, and television, and even in games, looking to be accepted, looking for connection, looking to be loved. And so, Anton has lost so much in his life and suffered. When you sacrifice and when you suffered you have a different take on where you need to go, because you felt some pain.

Anton’s backstory having been raised with basically a silver spoon in his mouth, and having lost his mother, and having eventually raise himself, then, being pushed out of what he was groomed for, but he also someone also who is very patriotic. Anton has a dream and vision for his country, which is not shared by the revolutionaries who want to kick him out, because they may have been a part of the indentured servitude that he had to elicit from poor people to be able to take advantage of his country’s natural resources. So, it’s a complicated story and an interesting one, and that’s what drew me to it.

MOM: You hear the story and you just think, “Wow, that’s so complicated. There are so many layers to this,” but, the fact that they’ve put so much time and effort into this, it’s a testament to how the game has turned out.

GE: It stands out. It makes it very different, because the connection between the writing and what the piece is trying to say, and yet the fun is the biggest thing. And, the fact that you, as an audience, enter this world and navigate it in the way you choose, it empowers you to have some fun, and also to use your brain to overthrow Anton Castillo. And, let’s see if you can do that.

MOM: Are you a gamer yourself, or is this your first foray in that digital space?

GE: This is my first foray. I did do Payday 2 and worked a little, a few weeks on a piece called Mouse Guard, a film that was never made. So, I had some experience. I was not only interested in the experience of being in the suit, and how all of it gets put together, but I was also interested in the incredible technology that’s being used today to create a game that basically is a movie. And that, is wonderful. A movie with choices.

MOM: As an actor, the suit and the helmet must be confronting, particularly when it comes to getting some connection with the character. What was that process like for you?

GE: I got to tell you the first day I went in, you have to be marked on your elbow’s, knees, ankles, knuckles, and you’re wearing a suit. And then, they put a helmet on you, which looks like an old-time football helmet, with a bar in front of it with a three cameras, 1, 2, 3. One on the centre, two on the sides, and then a light in your face. And, you have to look beyond that to connect with your fellow actor to get some energy going and allow you to believe. So, when I first looked at myself… And, did I mention that every part of your body, every ounce of fat is showing, because it’s almost like you’re in a wetsuit, so you’re snugged up, and you have to get beyond feeling like you’re in the circus. But, isn’t that what we do is actors?

I felt kind of stupid at first, and I realised, “Giancarlo, if you don’t believe it, no one will believe it.” And, it’s all about your whole physicality, which will all be digitised in the news later. So, you’ve got to own it. Anton goes through some different phases in his journey in this game. There are moments where his physicality is very different from where he may have begun. I really enjoy away that work. It’s almost like my friend, Samuel L Jackson, who I adore says, you go to an audition and they have you read a couple times, and they give you some more papers and they have you read something cold. It’s almost like taking a hoop and putting the hoop at 10 feet up in the air and you’ve got to jump through it. And, then they put some fire on that sucker, and you got to jump through that. I always love that analogy, because when you give yourself challenges to overcome, this was a big one for me. But, when you’re an actor you learn to play again in this space, that is the game Far Cry.

MOM: In a way, it puts the onus back on you to go to the very root of being an actor.

GE: Exactly. That’s my job. If I can bring something fresh and new to everything I do in this way, and enjoy it, you’re going to get the sense of, that’s real for me. That always leaves an indelible impression on what I do.

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MOM: Now, in terms of Anton himself, he goes through this evolution throughout the game and he isn’t just a two-dimensional bad guy. I think one of the things that makes a really good villain is that they should be likeable enough to make the audience question their own morals, that’s part of the reason why Gus was such a great villain in Breaking Bad. In your opinion, what makes a good villain?

GE: I think a good villain is a human being, and that’s been the success to my villain portrayals. They’re real. Sometimes they feel empathy and sorrow and sadness. They’re not all one-note. For me, this story allowed me to have my heart open a bit because as hard as he is on Diego, he’s still trying to infuse him with morality, and a way of thinking, and a way of doing something, and a love for his people.

Everything for Anton comes out of a love… He doesn’t want to take advantage of the people, he wants to strengthen his country. Some will suffer due to that. So, although he doesn’t get it quite right, his sentiments are worthy. Preserving the history of his land and furthering his people to have them rise, he still wants his lifestyle the way he wants it. Anton is a genius in so many ways. He’s an architect. He is someone who understands. He loves things that are beautiful. He puts the pieces of his office together. He’s designed all that. So, he’s, in a way, a Renaissance man, and I love that about him as well.

MOM: Do you think there are any lessons that you, Giancarlo have learnt from Anton, and to that extent, Gus as well?

GE: Absolutely. I feel like for me, Gus was an observer. He completely observed you and looked right through you. And, when you leave space to really see people, space to really connect with them, they get a little nervous, because we’re very busy in our lives and no one gives you their full attention. Gus did for many reasons, he wanted to learn more about you. He wanted to manipulate you. He wanted to figure things out.

What I’ve learned so much from Anton is that he is someone who’s in a struggle with himself. Is this the right way to rule his people with all the pressures of his life. And, he has loss in his life, loss of his wife, loss of his love. So, these are things that we have to work… Complicated issues we have to work through as human beings. And, that’s my success in any villainous role I play, I try to create a human being who is struggling in the moment with certain circumstance, and isn’t that our lives?

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MOM: There’s obviously, Far Cry, and Breaking Bad, but also The Mandalorian. You have started to definitely carve out a bit of a legacy for villains. Who’s been the most fun to play?

GE: I have to say they’re all fun in their own way. I really had a blisteringly wonderful time with Anton, because it was something that spurred my intellectual brain, because I realised that I had to be the mirror for the audience, even though they’re taking all of that mirror and digitising it, it’s still my mirror. Was the same with Moff Gideon, in a world of a volume that is the largest in the world, having to see a mountain over there, or an ocean in front of me had to be portrayed through my eyes, and my consciousness. Nothing else was there to cue that except for the world around me that was created and I was in that world alone. So, I learned that I had to use all the facilities I have to be able to paint a picture with my own complete being. To me, that was fascinating and wonderful that to have the opportunity to do.

MOM: Do you think starting out in theatre helped you out in that?

GE: I really do, because the reality is when you’re doing it playing Gus Fring and such a serious guy, you’re in a trajectory of a movie, and a film, that you don’t ever jump out of. In Far Cry, the ability to play in a race, and do it again, and have it then be corrected in a way that works for the animation, which by the way, looks exactly like me. I looked at it and went, “No, that’s me. They’re full of crap.” You know what I mean? But, I realised, “Oh yeah, I didn’t have that white jacket on, and that red sash. They put all that in.”

I feel like the opportunity in this world presented me with so many great challenges to be able to have to live. So, I was able to feel expansive. And, that’s what we want to feel as actors. You don’t want to feel in a box, you want to feel expansive. Certainly I’ve been allowed to do that with all these great characters I’ve had the opportunity to play in the last couple of years.

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MOM: You touched on it there, but the animation is unbelievable. It looked exactly like you. Were you shocked when you first saw it?

GE: I was absolutely shocked. While I was working on this piece, I wanted to go to the other part of the facility and see what all these people do. I’m thinking there’s going to be like five or six guys on a computer working, and there were a hundred people. I met one gentleman who was just working on this scabbard for a knife that I carry on my waist. “How long you been working on that?” “Oh, about six, eight months.” The work is so specific and so creative, so, I have a huge debt of gratitude to pay to the artisans who, many, hundreds, not only here in America, but also in France, also… Not in Toronto or Canada, where I was based as well as France, put their heart and soul into this. Those are the folks who are the real champions of this game.

MOM: Now, just from a personal perspective, I have to get this in there. But, I absolutely love you as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in The Godfather of Harlem. Watching it, that just looks like it’s just the most fun character to play.

GE: It is true. people who don’t know, or have never been exposed to the history of Adam Clayton Powell, he was a really great man, and a fun-loving human being, the fun loving part of it has been great to play. People who see it goes, “oh my gosh, this guy lives so large. He has such a large personality, and is so charismatic.” And they think, “oh gosh, is this guy, as an actor, Giancarlo Esposito, oh is he overdoing it?” And, they go back and they look at some videos back and they go, “Oh my gosh. He nailed it.”

Really fun for me to play this particular character, because not only I’m one of the best lawyers in New York at the time, but also a preacher at a Baptist church. So, colourful, so bright, and someone who wrote the Civil Rights Bill. And so, such an important figure in our history that no one knows about was important for me to shed the light on who he was, but also have fun doing it.

MOM: What do you hope the people get out of Far Cry when they play it?

GE: I hope they enjoy it. That’s the bottom line. I hope they’re entertained, and their imaginations are spurred to a point where they start to hear the resonance of not only the message of how do we take back our own voice? How do we represent ourselves in a way that is graceful, forceful, yet allows our voices to be heard? How do we shake ourselves out of complacency, and stare at the big corporations who are trying to change the world and have it be automatic in certain ways without thinking, “Follow me, I will guide you. I will lead you?” I want them to get all the fun they can out of this game, and really relate to all the different characters and their plights, and enjoy the advanced technology that’s been given to us by Far Cry 6 and Ubisoft. I can’t wait. You’re going to be blown away.

Far Cry 6 is the latest main instalment of Ubisoft’s Far Cry series. It is set to premiere on Amazon Luna, Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, and Stadia on October 7, 2021. You can check out the full trailer below.