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One of the most stunningly memorable characters on the iconic AMC show "Breaking Bad" was that of Gustavo Fring, the apparently legitimate businessman who used his chain of restaurants to distribute methamphetamine across the Southwestern US. Played by Giancarlo Esposito, Gus has become a cult icon, but there is an incredibly deep body of work Giancarlo has done including "Malcolm X" "The Cotton Club" "King Of New York" "Mo Better Blues" "The Usual Suspects" "Homicide: Life On The Street" "Ali," "Law & Order," "Alex Cross" "Once Upon a Time" and many more.
He runs his own company, Quiet Hand Productions, which "aspires to make conscious content films that focus on the inspirational" taking a turn away from the Hollywood fad of big budget, big FX movies and going back to the strong story based movies that once reigned supreme.
Giancarlo also comes from a very unique background (or perhaps not so unique in our American history) that gives him a sharp perspective on the issues of diversity in America today, and one of his passions is spreading his message to the students on campus. He gives Campus Activities MagazineŽ an exclusive interview discussing just that.
Breaking Bad has turned into one of those mass cult phenomenons. With it's airing on AMC, it quickly hooked legions of loyal fans who never missed a week. Then, with its distribution to Netflix, it reached millions more people who got sucked into the marathon warp zone of watching great shows on a streaming format. It's no secret that college students are a big fan of Netflix-Less than $10 a month over the usual $100 cable bill. In fact Netflix was even credited with bringing Breaking Bad back from initially low ratings in the first season and the show now is in turn on of the biggest draws for new Netflix customers. The show found a new set of viewers, who were so hooked by the series they started watching it on the live airings of the current season. This went on for six seasons, and by the end, 10.3 million people tuned in to watch the finale alone. There are nearly 40 million Netflix subscribers that will have access to the finale in the coming months. Playing "Gustavo 'Gus' Fring" has stamped Giancarlo's image onto the history of the show's great success. "It is a wonderful thing to be a part of such an iconic television show," the professional actor with 144 IMDb credits and a Primetime Emmy nomination says. "It's also even better to be associated with that show with the iconic character of Gustavo Fring. I have been in the business for 47 years and I really love what I do. My career has spanned from the Broadway stage to television to film, and I've been lucky enough to be in a couple of movies that are in the 100 best of all time, like 'Do The Right Thing' and 'The Usual Suspects.'"
Both films won two Oscars. "Certainly in television (specifically for a cable television show), to have blown up the way 'Breaking Bad' did and to have it be known as one of the best shows ever on television, is an amazing event. I am very proud to be associated with it." Despite being in several other quality parts throughout his career, Giancarlo says he's still noticed a difference in the level of his public profile on an average street. "When it comes to being recognized, I have experienced some of that working with the projects directed by Spike Lee in 'Do The Right Thing,' 'School Daze' and 'Malcolm X' so a lot of folks recognized me from those. Films like 'Last Holiday' with Queen Latifah and 'Nothing To Lose' with Martin Lawrence and Tim Robbins and 'Derailed' with Clive Owen, Jennifer Aniston, RzA and Xzibit also brought new audiences. So I have a Caucasian audience that recognizes me from one set of films and an African-American audience that recognizes me for the other body of work and it is very interesting, as I am of half Italian and half African-American descent. For this particular show though, being on cable and now on Netflix, which has afforded it for so many different types of people, there is a very diverse audience. The fact that Netflix allows them to sit down and take in the entire show all at once has changed the game completely."
At the same time Giancarlo was doing another television show toward the close of "Breaking Bad" which gave him yet another audience. 'Once Upon a Time,' 'Breaking Bad' and 'Community' were all in the same year, which was great. I was really moved into a wide variance of television viewer ages, but I really believe 'Breaking Bad' is the show that has put me in the forefront of the spotlight of all of these audiences, particularly because people young and old are all drawn to it and find it fascinating. I love it when it draws the young bucks, many of whom are on college campuses, those that I regard as the young buccaneers (men and women) who are very smart viewers of television and film. They are in the place in their life where intellectually they recognize what has been rehashed and what story lines have been taken from other media and are really just a copy. They recognize the originality of 'Breaking Bad' and how much it speaks to them on the level of being current and contemporary. I am very honored they are the ones who have noticed not only my performance, but the excellence of the show."
There are very different perceptions on how we watch shows with live airings versus on demand. While some slow moving sections of plot lines, however necessary, can kill the ratings of a show spread over an entire season, with on demand it's easier to get through and get to the exciting parts of the next episode. This tends to leave viewers in a perpetual state known as marathoning, unable to stop watching for as long as they have time to. Since college students perfectly fit the demographic of Netflix (cheap content they can watch any time with no commercials trying to sell them anything), Breaking Bad turned out to be one of those shows you can't stop once you start. "It is one of those shows. I remember getting a call from young Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. (who is Bobby's son). He is a college graduate and a young filmmaker himself. Every year I would see him and he'd tell me about how he heard of 'Breaking Bad' but hadn't watched it yet and I told him 'You gotta watch it.' Well, finally I get a call from him, and he is cursing me out on the phone saying he has been holed up in his apartment for 4 days straight because he couldn't stop watching (laughs). It does have the ability to suck you in and keep you there."
Clearly Giancarlo has the capabilities of a true method actor, considering how well he pulled off the dark and scary personality of Gus Fring and at the same time was working on much lighter shows like "Community" and "Once Upon A Time." "It wasn't strange at all. I got a call from one of the creators of 'Community' and it was a welcome switch, as was 'Once Upon A Time.' When you're acting on one particular show doing something that is so intense and then have the opportunity to lighten it up with what I would call the antithesis of the Gustavo character somewhere else, I look for those moments. Particularly this is because I like to play a wide variance of characters each time out of the box. So much so, that when I am preparing for a role, I don't look for comparisons or something I can model my character after. I look inside, and look to be original. To me, it is very important to create a character in an original fashion. I do look to change it up and try to find projects to work on that are different each time."
Being in multiple award-winning movies has certainly brought Giancarlo further opportunities and Breaking Bad is no exception. "I believe it has opened many doors, and I think many of those opportunities are still awaiting me. Right away it allowed me to be a part of a show called 'Revolution' which airs Wednesday nights at 8PM on NBC. That is the first opportunity that has come my way and is great exposure, and gives me the opportunity to work daily on 22 episodes per season, which is just about twice as much as 'Breaking Bad.'"
Giancarlo is also a filmmaker himself and the further his star rises, the better the opportunities are for him to be able to express himself through that form of creativity. "Being known more on many levels gives one a little more respect in the industry and allows you to do the work you want to do. Some actors just have their work as an actor and just want to collect their paycheck from a network or film company and move on, but I have some things that I would like to say in my life through my work as a filmmaker and producer."
Enter Quiet Hand Productions, the way for Giancarlo and his associates to produce content that can speak to people on a deeper level than pure entertainment. "I believe that in media, film and television should exemplify some of the best and the worst of the things we observe in our society. I feel that our current Hollywood film institutions are looking to make money, as partly they should be. They are looking to provide entertainment yes, but also to have big box office 'tent-pole' movies as we call them. Most of these movies are very expensive to make because of all the computer animating, special effects, huge set pieces and very well compensated stars. They need to put many people in the seats to make $200-$500 million dollars to recoup their costs. I feel that we should also have movies that are hearkening back to the independent films of the 70's and 80's that allowed people to think. The return to story is the way I like to think of it and that is what Quiet Hand Productions is looking to do; tell real stories about humanness and humanity. I'd like to have a key or a gem of what really makes us who we are in each film we produce. If people see it, they are moved by it because it connects them to something they have experienced in their lives, or perhaps some loss they have had. I would like to make films that have a healing element to them and allow us to see the world in which we live truly as it is. That is something I am committed to. I don't want to beat people over the head with some sort of message, but I would love for there to be a message that allows people to look at themselves in a fuller and more complete way."
Giancarlo has been presenting his talk for college audiences for years. While "Breaking Bad" has inspired an entirely new set of fans and interested attendees, it's not what got him started on campus. "After the film 'Do The Right Thing' years ago, especially and specifically on African- American campuses, the question 'What does 'wake up' mean?' was buzzing. It's a very simple question at the end of 'School Daze,' one of Spike Lee's successful dramas. It questioned the perception of lightskinned and dark-skinned blacks and was a comment on how we in the African- American community appear to get along but sometimes don't at all because there is a racist attitude about the shade of one's skin. After that particular movie I began going on college campuses around the United States answering that question. It means we need to wake up to the fact that we are all one, we are all an extension of each other. If I were to answer the question now I would say that it goes much further than just being light or dark-skinned black, but extends to humanity in general. I began speaking after that movie on the film and what it really meant."
Giancarlo leaves students with a simple message. "This is your four years. This is the time for you to be in the world and change it. No matter what community or neighborhood you come from, or what friends you have, or what denomination you are, it is your responsibility to reach out. If you have never spoken to someone who is Asian, or from the Canary Islands or French or Italian, German or maybe British and happens to be Black, it is each one of our responsibilities to get to know that person. That is your microcosm for the world and you will soon be in that world when you graduate, and each person will have a harsh reality to face if you haven't spent the time to understand someone who is different from you."
Giancarlo speaks on this based on the fact that we all, at some point were derived from two different tribes in Africa. "Whether you are White or Black, there are two tribes we all descend from. Human beings can be tribal, and if we all work to understand each other in our tribal natures of who we are, we understand the group mentality that rules us. You see it on college campuses all the time, the white students, black students, Asian students, etc., all in separate groups. Obviously we do see some integration, but often not to the level that would really speak to a deep understanding of all humanity, so that is what I encourage. I put that responsibility on the students, to break out of what is normal, even if you are talked about. Be not only yourself, but be inquisitive and interested enough in those that are different from you to have an understanding of their culture and why they might do certain things. You can't judge a book by its cover, there is always something interesting inside those pages that might catch your attention."
Apart from his involvement in the film and television world, Giancarlo has specific experiences in his own life and background that have given him unique perceptions. "Without a doubt, I feel I am a blend of what I always like to say is the best of both worlds. My father is Italian, which in this country basically means white (laughs). It's funny because in Europe, nationality is so much more linked to identity, someone there is French or Italian or British or German. Here in the U.S., you're either White, Black or Latino no matter what real culture you come from. So, I feel very deeply qualified to speak on the topic, not only because I was born to a White father and a Black mother, but also because I have traveled the world."
Even deeper than that, Giancarlo's experience of coming to America is especially poignant. "I came to America at five years old on the QE2. On a boat. Which is the way our forebears came. I came to port at New York harbor at 33rd St and 12th Ave. and I always thought it was very exciting. I spoke Italian and a little bit of German and no English at all. I learned English and as I did, I learned here that I was not Italian. I was Black. It was something I really didn't understand. How did I become a non-person in 1963 in America, with no one interested in my cultural background, but only the color of my skin?"
Don't forget that this was a tumultuous time in America, with Giancarlo being introduced to the culture just as the Civil Rights Movement was coming to a head. "You were either a Black Panther or with the Resistance or not. It was a very odd time and place to be and it was interesting that years later I worked so much with Spike Lee, the radical race activist. I give kudos to him for that, but it has been an interesting journey to be regarded as an African-American actor after success with his movies. At that time people were surprised that I was of mixed race and that I could be so supportive of Spike Lee."
Spike got some flack from much of the African-American community because at one point he said Black people who became successful basically became White. "I asked him 'What does that mean they become white?' I think what he meant was that those people who had become affluent and successful turned their backs on Black people. They never return to the neighborhood and eat chicken with their fingers again," he says, laughing uproariously. "You know what I mean? What he was really trying to say was that they lost their soulfulness. I understand that now and I don't believe anyone should lose their soulfulness, Black or White. They should be who they are and exemplify all the aspects of the culture that they are from. We are a melting pot society, so these are some of the things that I speak about when I go on the road and speak to college campuses."
There is much more to Giancarlo's talk, which has evolved considerably over the years he has been doing it. To find out more, give Mike D'Andrea at Greater Talent Network a call at (212) 905-3801 or MikeD@greatertalent.com.