Giancarlo Esposito recently realized a lifelong dream: meeting Sidney Poitier. The actors crossed paths at a post-Oscars party, where Esposito had to work up the nerve to approach his idol. “I’m half Italian and half African-American, and my dream was always to be a communicator and an artist,” says Esposito. “When I came to this place called America, I was regarded as a black man, not a human being or an Italian. But his performances were always without color, even if they dealt with color. He had such dignity and compassion and charisma.”
Esposito says seeing an actor like Poitier opened his eyes to possibilities for himself. “Some of us are put in a box or we put ourselves in a box and we keep repeating ourselves because we like to work. Sidney was an original every time,” he says. “And I was finally able to tell him that he inspired me to cultivate a sound spirit in what is not a level platform I play on in the motion picture industry.”
Though he turned 56 last week and has been a professional performer since age 8, Esposito says he hardly considers himself a veteran. “I feel like I’m just beginning,” he says with a laugh.
Yet Esposito is set to be honored with a major career achievement, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on April 29. Though he has a long stage and film career, he is being recognized in the television category, as the medium has been very good to him of late — he’s starring on season two of NBC’s “Revolution” as insurance adjuster turned militia leader Tom Neville.
Esposito had a significant role in Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and did a season on NBC cult favorite “Homicide: Life on the Street,” but it was his role as Gustavo “Gus” Fring on the AMC hit “Breaking Bad” that catapulted him from “that guy” character actor to a force to be reckoned with. Gus started in season two of the show as a seemingly gentle soul using a fast-food joint to front his drug empire. By the end of season four, he had gone down as one of the most terrifying, yet complex, bad guys ever to grace the smallscreen.
Esposito does not downplay the effect “Breaking Bad” had on his career, referring to the show as “bringing me back from the dead.” Point out that he has always worked regularly as an actor, and he responds: “Things were dry, and I worried I wouldn’t be able to support my family. But the real problem I should have recognized was that I wouldn’t be able to support my spirit. I still get this great joy from delivering something real and honest and truthful in helping to tell a story. There’s just nothing like it in my life.”
Esposito was born in Denmark to an African-American mother, a nightclub singer who once shared billing with Josephine Baker, and an Italian father, a stage carpenter. The family moved to New York when he was 6, and by 8, Esposito was into voiceover work. Also at the age of 8, he landed his first role in a Broadway show, the musical “Maggie Flynn.”
Many stage productions followed, and at 17, he auditioned for the movie “Taps.” Casting director Shirley Rich kindly informed him that he needed to learn to act for the camera. He took her advice, enrolling at Elizabeth Seton College and spending a year at the Actors Institute in New York. After winning his first of two Obie Awards for Charles Fuller’s 1980 play “Zooman and the Sign,” he booked his first film role. The movie was none other than “Taps,” which still hadn’t been made since his audition five years earlier.
He often played men on one side of the law: there were cops (“The Usual Suspects,” “Homicide: Life on the Street”) and drug dealers (“Fresh,” “King of New York”). After “Breaking Bad,” he admits many offers to play villains came his way, most of which he turned down.
“I remember seeing James Cagney in ‘White Heat’ and realizing you could love a villain if he’s played in a way where you can relate to him,” Esposito notes. “That’s what I tried to do with Gus. And I saw some of those features in Tom in ‘Revolution’ that also appealed to me.”
While he awaits word on another season of “Revolution,” Esposito is pursuing a second passion: directing. He made his feature debut with 2008’s “Gospel Hill,” about the murder of a civil-rights activist. And he is “deeply ensconced” in a movie he hopes to shoot by the end of the summer, “John Brown: Patriotic Treason,” which will star Ed Harris as the abolitionist. Esposito will also star as Frederick Douglass in the film based on Evan Carton’s 2006 book “Patriotic Treason: John Brown and the Soul of America.”
He says he couldn’t be happier with the place he is in right now. “The most important part is to keep creating. I’m excited to be on this trajectory; I think I’m right where I’m supposed to be.”