NEW YORK – Walter White has lived a hectic life since learning he has terminal lung cancer, then deciding to apply his skills as a high school chemistry teacher to cook and sell methamphetamine so that, after he’s gone, his family will be provided for.
During the first three seasons of the AMC drama “Breaking Bad,” Walt (played by series star Bryan Cranston) has grappled not only with cancer, but also with a Mexican drug cartel, his tormented wife, a brother-in-law who is a DEA agent, and his unstable partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman (co-star Aaron Paul), a past washout from Walter’s chemistry class who had become a drug-abusing dealer.
Bleak, suspenseful, shocking and, at times, bitterly funny, “Breaking Bad” has charted the transformation of Walt from a middle-class Albuquerque, N.M., milquetoast to a dark virtuoso of the crystal-meth game. His cancer seems less of a threat these days, but he regularly faces other perils. Meanwhile, thanks to the genius of this series, viewers root for Walt to escape each close call, despite his growing villainy.
“Breaking Bad” begins its fourth season Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT, and, further upping the ante, future episodes pit Walt, mano a mano, against his most formidable opponent yet: big-time drug boss Gustavo “Gus” Fring.
Gus has been a presence since Season 2, when, played by Giancarlo Esposito, he emerged as an instantly fascinating character – a man of professional mien, soft-spoken, even-tempered, precise.
“I decided that I wanted to play him really graceful, calm, even modest,” says Esposito. “I decided to trust that I could do very, very little, and get my point across.”
He gets his point across all right, chillingly, while keeping Gus unexceptional to the naked eye.
“I wanted him to be someone who hides in plain sight,” says Esposito.
Gus keeps his criminal activities under wraps beneath his identity as a legitimate businessman. He owns several outlets of a fast-food chain, Los Pollos Hermanos (“the Chicken Brothers”), as well as an industrial laundry processing centre (a perfect cover, literally, for his huge subterranean meth-processing lab).
Walt and Gus have had their past differences. Can Walt now forge an agreement with Gus to get back to running the lab with Jesse?
Well, not before the unforgiving Gus teaches them a lesson on the order of: Even if it doesn’t make good business sense to kill you, I’ll make you wish you were dead.
The mysterious Gus is apparently from South America. The 53-year-old Esposito was born in Copenhagen to a black opera singer from the U.S. and a white Italian stage technician at a Naples opera house.
His mother returned to New York with Esposito and his brother when he was still a child. There, understandably stage-struck, he landed an agent, auditioned for a musical about an Irish woman protecting orphaned children of runaway slaves, and made his Broadway debut as one of those orphans in “Maggie Flynn,” starring Shirley Jones in the title role.
“I went into show business to help my mother pay the bills, and to have some fun,” he explains. “And I absolutely fell in love with it.”
He worked as what he calls a song-and-dance man throughout his youth in numerous musical shows. But then, in adulthood, he decided to develop what he saw as a different craft: acting.
“I wanted to be able to create characters – complicated people who you couldn’t just take at face value, where there was always something else going on,” he says.
His long list of credits includes dozens of TV guest star roles, as well as several series, notably “Homicide: Life on the Street” and a groundbreaking 1990s comedy, “Bakersfield P.D.” His numerous films include “Do the Right Thing,” ”Bob Roberts,“ ”The Usual Suspects,“ ”Ali“ and ”Malcolm X.“ In 2008, he directed his first film, ”Gospel Hill,“ in which he starred with Angela Bassett and Danny Glover.
Esposito says he was originally signed for a single episode of “Breaking Bad.”
The story called for Walt to be dispatched by a go-between to a fast-food restaurant to meet a buyer for the methamphetamine he and Jesse had cooked in their motor-home lab. On arriving, Walt almost missed Gus, hidden in plain sight in his restaurant manager’s uniform.
“In that first scene in Los Pollos Hermanos when he didn’t know who I was, for me to play that little game got us both very interested in each other,” Esposito recalls, speaking as much about himself and Bryan Cranston as about Gus and Walt.
“We listened to each other,” he says, explaining the secret to their acting chemistry, “and real listening is listening with every part of your being. From the beginning, that’s the way I felt working with Bryan. I love working with the guy.
“And what always surprises me about Bryan is, he’s really funny,” Esposito adds. “Masterfully funny.”
In a separate interview, Cranston draws an equally admiring contrast between Esposito and the role he plays.
“Giancarlo is a warm, spiritually embracing kind of man,” Cranston says. “And then, when he turns on Gus Fring, he goes dead. Like there’s a screen that comes across his eyes, where you cannot go any further. He won’t let you in there! It makes it easier for someone working with him, because he’s so real and honest.” By which, Cranston means, Esposito in performance is honestly intimidating.
“The whole season is like a chess match with him and me,” says Cranston.
And not just between Walt and Gus, but between two fine actors connecting on screen.
“This,” says Esposito, “is the acting I’ve always wanted to do.”