[WARNING: The following story contains major spoilers about the Season 4 finale of Breaking Bad. Read at your own risk.]
As Gustavo Fring, Breaking Bad's Giancarlo Esposito has embodied one of the most memorable TV villains ever. And he knows it.
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"I think I've created a character that will live on for a long time in people's nightmares," the 53-year-old actor tells TVGuide.com with a laugh.
First appearing as a meek owner of a chain of fried chicken restaurants, Gus quickly emerged as a calculating — and when need be, deadly — meth distributor who put Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) to work. Whether slitting an employee's throat with a box cutter or taking out what's left of the Mexican drug cartel with a poisoned bottle of tequila, Gus was always a portrait of menace.
But almost all great villains don't outlive their opponents. Such is true for Gus, who in Breaking Bad's Season 4 finale was killed in grisly fashion when Walt rigged the wheelchair of Hector "Tio" Salamanca (Mark Margolis) with a bomb that finally took out the chicken man (and half of his face) once and for all.
We chatted with Esposito about Gus' defiance even in death, whether we'll ever see Gus again in flashbacks, and why he thinks Walt will always be haunted by Gus.
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At what point did you know for sure that Gus wouldn't make it out of the season alive?
Giancarlo Esposito: I knew in Episode 3 that Gus would meet his end. [Creator Vince Gilligan] and I sat down and talked, and he said, "Let me close the door." And I said, "No, please don't close the door," and I started laughing. He said, "OK, I'm going to kill Gus," and I said, "Oh, I had a feeling that was coming." He explained to me that it's best for the show. We didn't realize Gus would ever be around as long as he would be. It was a very interesting conversation to hear that you're going to have your ultimate, imminent demise. But it certainly felt right.
But you had a great season of material before the end.
Esposito: We talked about it, and he said, "It'll be fantastic no matter what." At that point in time, he explained to me we will have already gone into Gus' background with the cartel [and get] some great stuff that maybe aligns [Gus] with the Pinochet government in Chile. I said, "OK great, as long as it's in a very fantastic and explosive — pardon the pun — way."
Obviously, Gus had to go for Walt's story to continue in a believable way.
Esposito: Yes, it's got to happen. The story is about Walter White. And it was at the right point for Gus because people have been rooting for Gus after [Episodes 8 and 10] when he was faced with his vulnerability with the cartel and he goes back and gets his revenge. People were really sort of pulling for Gus. But he is the mastermind here, and it builds up this tension in a fantastic way.
Gus was defiant until the very end, standing up and walking out of the room before collapsing.
Esposito: It was a really great misdirect. He is defiant, yet calm and relaxed and not afraid. It's just a fabulous thing for him to not scream, panic, or anything else that's supposed to happen. He does walk out of there. You think, "Oh man, he made it." And then he turns his head, and you see half his face is blown off. It's such a shock.
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Whose idea was it for Gus to straighten his tie?
Esposito: Vince and I had talked about it. He said to me, "I want him to do something. I don't know quite what it is. Maybe it's straightening his tie." And I said, "That's perfect because I do that all the time." It's a subtle last move that he would make, and to be able to go out in that way is fantastic.
How much makeup work was necessary to achieve that shot?
Esposito: They sent me out to California to get my head cast. It was an hour and a half with this plastic material on my head. Then, they came out and they worked the cast into a place where it would fit me exactly. They molded the plastic so that half my face could have craters, and then they put the make-up in. It took five hours of makeup that day. They digitized it later. It was a real process that was kind of fascinating.
As you said, viewers really responded to the Gus flashback in Episode 8. Did you enjoy playing an entirely different version of the character?
Esposito: It was really kind of nerve-wracking in a way. That's the first time I felt Gus was vulnerable ... and it threw me. Gus has been strong and powerful through the whole thing. No matter what he does, there's a calm and grace and aplomb about him, and the dignity that he carries himself with. And then all of a sudden, he has to be groveling for his life and he doesn't know if he's going to live or die.
There's been a lot of speculation about Gus' relationship with Max (James Martinez), who we met in the flashback. Do you think they were more than friends?
Esposito: I love that it's not so black and white. Gus took Max off the street in El Salvador and, probably more than any other chemist that Gus has hired, he nurtured Max. It was a long relationship. It's not surprising that people felt that they were lovers because ... their relationship was very, very deep. I think it's less than clear for a reason.
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Obviously, Max's death haunted Gus.
Esposito: It's a defining moment in Gus' life, and it's very telling because it allows us to know what made him who he is. To see what got him to be so cool and calculating. He's been sick since that moment. He has not been able to get over it. He has lived his life [trying] to figure out how to get revenge for what happened.
But ultimately, Gus' quest for revenge — and his torture of Hector Salamanca — did him in.
Esposito: I think it was a cancer on him. There is a morality tale in all of Breaking Bad, and I think it's the drive for that revenge that allows Gus to miss the fact that Walt could get to Hector and that Hector would give up his life to kill Gus because of his hatred for him. It is a morality tale. Gus doesn't get a chance to get Walt because he's so focused on the hatred of Hector. It certainly blinded him a little bit.
Do you think we'll see Gus again in flashbacks? Maybe to answer some of those lingering questions about his past?
Esposito: I do. Only because we don't know the rest and ... Gus is an important character and has contributed to the show in such a great way. I can't think ahead of Vince, but I know in my heart that he'll come back to wind things up for his character. And maybe, in some weird supernatural way, [he'll] be a driving force behind what may happen to Walt. Walt has really gone all the way, and I think his conscience and his life is going to be completely changed by this. We'll see how in those last 16.
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And Mike (Jonathan Banks) is still out there somewhere. Do you think he'll seek revenge for Gus?
Esposito: I think it's very possible Mike will be back and try to pick up the pieces. I think there's a possibility that Mike and Jesse would come into play and be strongly aligned, and I think Walter's going to really have to watch out.
Now that Jesse knows Gus didn't give Brock the ricin, do you think he suspects Walt?
Esposito: I think he does. ... I think there's a possibility that Jesse and Walter may have it out. The fact is that Gus did not do it, and I really believe that's going to lead in the last 16 episodes to a big questioning of Jesse and Walt's relationship, which is going to lead to some downfall on both of their parts. They could kill each other. Who knows?
What has playing this character meant to you?
Esposito: I set myself up to do something that was truly different in its nature, by creating a character who is ... so relaxed and so poised and cultured. It took a lot of courage to be able lay back on something and try to create someone who was so calm. I let the menace come out of my movements and my eyes and everything else. I did what I set out to do, and I think I've created a character that will live on for a long time in people's nightmares.
And now you're doing fairy tales on Once Upon a Time!
Esposito: [Laughs] Yeah, I'm now up in Vancouver shooting Once Upon a Time, playing the magic mirror. It's been fantastic just getting this work under my belt. It's a little different. It's dramatic, but it's funny. So I get a chance to play a guy with some comedy. It's an interesting piece to follow up Breaking Bad with. It's really nice to be able to be doing something completely different.
Are you sad to see Gus go? What did you think of the finale?