From the chilling Gustavo Fring in Breaking Bad to Moff Gideon in The Mandalorian, Giancarlo Esposito has undeniably created some of the most memorable characters in pop culture and has left his mark on Hollywood. 

This success is something that the young Esposito could have only dreamed of achieving as it certainly wasn’t an easy ride to get to this point. The actor received his big break in 1989 starring in Spike Lee’s seminal Do The Right Thing as the excitable Buggin’ Out. Despite the acclaim and attention this role brought, Esposito was back working in a restaurant in New York when the money ran out. 

He continued as a jobbing actor and consistently worked in Hollywood productions but it wasn’t until his scene-stealing performance as the iconic Gustavo Fring in Breaking Bad that the actor started to become one of the most in-demand names in Hollywood. In the years that followed, Esposito’s career flourished as he landed roles in The Mandalorian, The Boys and Maze Runner and worked with iconic directors like Guy Ritchie, Bong Joon-Ho and Francis Ford Coppola. 

His next creative challenge is in Ti West’s climactic MaXXXine. Following the events of X and Pearl, Maxine Minx [Mia Goth] she sets out for fame and success in 1980s Hollywood while being targeted by a killer known as the Night Stalker. Esposito plays Maxine’s entertainment lawyer, Teddy Knight. Like Maxine, Knight has a dark past that he is trying to run from…

Giancarlo Esposito

Square Mile: I loved your character in MaXXXine; how much freedom were you given to manifest your own vision of him?

Giancarlo Esposito: Ti West and I had talked about the possibility of taking the character in different directions, but I really wanted Teddy to be in Maxine’s corner and on her side. I was really intrigued by not only this vision of Hollywood but also Ti’s willingness to talk about and share what he thought about the overall time period – and then mould the character as I saw fit. 

I always start with the dialogue and I had a vision of him from the beginning. I had a strong feeling that Teddy should not be who you think he is and that he had another life. He’s now legitimate in Hollywood but he has to call on that other life to be able to help Maxine out of her jam. I love it; he’s a guy who has many skills, some of which he has to return to in the picture. 

SM: Did you and your co-star Kevin Bacon give Ti West guidance about depicting Hollywood in the 1980s?

GE: I didn’t at all. It’s really funny you mention that, it never entered my mind because it was an independent film. I really loved that movie because of its independence in the Hollywood era. We shot that in Upstate New York, so we were out of the rage of Hollywood. 

This movie has a quiet, understated and sometimes very powerful aggression in it. Not only the folks who are looking to get what they want from Maxine but also from Maxine herself. It’s such an interesting thing about asking for what you want and then going out and getting what you want.

SM: What do you most like about Teddy? 

GE: I love this character. I have four daughters who I believe in – so the link for me was to really believe in Maxine. 

He says to her, “Keep your head down, learn your lines and be on time; you’re Maxine Minx, believe in yourself.” This is the part of the character that I relate to, because in my life, I believe I’ve got to where I am through hard work and dedication – and loving what I do. 

Look around Maxine’s world; she’s in porn and no one ever looks at her and thinks that she’s got talent until she shows it and she does. The first scene of the movie is unbelievable; she walks in and nails it. This is what Teddy sees: he sees a star. She’s not a star laying on her back, she’s a star standing on her feet.

SM: Do you think that’s what makes this trilogy so successful? We almost relate to Maxine because she wants a better life for herself and has the drive to become a star.

Giancarlo Esposito

GE: There’s an interesting point too that we are trying to outrun our past – and I know the feeling of that. For whatever reason, shame or embarrassment, we don’t want to share because, ‘If you knew who I was then would you still love me now? Would you still think of me the same way?’

We have to live life with many challenges, but we should try not to relive our past. Instead, we should come to an understanding of it, so we know who we are now and who we want to be in the future. So, because Teddy has a past himself he recognises Maxine does too, and that her past is haunting her. She wants to squash it, kill it and bury it so nobody sees it or knows it.

I’m having this experience in my life now at a mature age, having loved what I do and committing to every role and character that I play, realising that I don’t have to be so afraid of what I used to be. I can talk about it and when you talk about it, sometimes you can help someone. 

SM: One thing I love about your career is that you can never predict what your next role will be. Is that a conscious choice? 

GE: Absolutely. When I called Ti, I was on another set and I was reading the script the night before and I could see Teddy. I said, “Ti, I gotta do something different with my hair.” I’m an ex-mafiosa dude from New Jersey. He’s different, everything about him speaks to how he remade himself when he came to Hollywood. 

When I first came to Hollywood, I saw people with fake tans and wigs and men with makeup on. This is what I wanted Teddy to represent: what he wants to be, and he’s going to get there. 

The answer to your question is yes. I want roles, even if they’re tiny roles sprinkled throughout the movie that have a powerful message and representation to challenge me. I want to do things that I’ve never done before.

For me, these kinds of roles allow me to be a kid again. They test and challenge me to see if I’m still willing to play, or if I’m just willing to phone it in and do the same thing I’ve done over and over again – I’m very unwilling to do that!

SM: There’s a great quote in the movie that described Hollywood as the “Belly of the Beast” and eventually the “Beast may spit you out and never get a taste for you again.” Did you have these anxieties after your breakout role in Do The Right Thing? 

GE: Oh, there’s no doubt about it. That feeling coupled with, “Can I do it again?” If you’re a real actor then you lay your heart bare and open and then people will go, “Woah!” You wonder if you could ever be at that depth and that level again. Then you’re in the belly of the beast and it’s a very critical place, as people look at you to see if you live up to their expectations.

After [my breakout], I ended up at a restaurant on 73rd Street. I had Chita Rivera come in with Bob Fosse and go, “We know you! What are you doing here?” I said, “I’m making a living.” They couldn’t fathom it. 

Giancarlo Esposito

SM: Do you see aspects of Maxine in yourself and your journey? 

GE: Yes, that’s the Maxine in me; I had to survive. In that moment, they looked at me and were singing my praises, having seen me on the Broadway stage and loving my work – and wondered why I was here after I did a major movie. It was because the money ran out and I had to pay the rent. 

That reminds me to always be a survivor. This is what I love about this movie, Maxine is a survivor. She not only has the goods but she proves it and she just needs a break. And for me, I needed another break after Do The Right Thing and I needed support and a Teddy Knight in my life, which I did – someone to tell me to keep going. 

Yes, self-doubt is always going to come up for actors. It comes up for me to this day and I understand what it feels like. But that’s your brain telling you that ‘maybe you can’t’. My mantra has become, ‘I am, I will, I can!’ We are our own worst enemy so we have to take away the demon that says, “You’re never going to get there.”

SM: You were recently in Cannes for the hotly anticipated premiere of Megalopolis, what was this experience like?

GE: It was a surreal experience. Only from the genius mind of Francis Ford Coppola could you create this story that has an ending that is inspiring for our world. It deals a lot with politics, family, jealousy and money but the suggestion is that we need a new world and how will we achieve that. This movie opens your eyes to accepting that a new world needs to be for the people and by the people. 

SM: It must be inspiring to see someone display the level of intense dedication to their craft as Coppola? 

GE: It’s inspiring because Francis is a risk-taker who believes in himself. Because this story has lived within his soul, spirit and mind for so many years, he felt like he needed to tell this now. He’s at this mature age where he feels like if he didn’t tell this then he would be remiss no matter what anyone thinks of it. That kind of courage inspires me. 

When we began, we knew the script was complete, but a script from Francis Ford Coppola is never complete. Francis is sending you texts the nights before. He sends inspiring texts that are story-driven, about pieces of mythology and things that really happened to give you an idea of how to play it but not directive in that idea. 

He is very open to play but then you get on set and he’s given you all these ideas and he wants you to say this or say that, and is also asking for suggestions. A filmmaker who is open in that way might have you believe he doesn’t know what he’s doing [laughs]. But it’s not that at all.

If you bring too much mind to it, then you are overthinking it and overdoing it. But if you bring too little mind to it, then you’re not living up to what he’s asking you to do. He understands that film is relative: he might use this take or he might not, or he could tell you something completely the opposite of what you thought he wanted. He’s experimenting and that’s what film is.

Working with Francis makes you realise that film is an experimental venue. You can get many things and choose what you want because, after all, it is a director’s medium. 

Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks in Better Call Saul

SM: That process reminds me a lot of Guy Ritchie; was that true to your experience on The Gentlemen?

GE: It was absolutely the case for me. When I was on my way to set in London, I hadn’t met Guy yet. I walked into the gentlemen’s club, and they stopped me and said that Guy would like to see me in his trailer. There was this old-looking truck on the side of the road and he opened the door and I walked in and it was like being in a living room at the Queen’s palace. 

We had an hour-long conversation, which was about kids, family, film and all these things – and then he talked about the script. I had learned a two-page monologue and had it down and he said, “I don’t think we’ll use that, I think we’ll put that somewhere else; I want your thoughts on it.” I had to let everything go in my head.

He asked for suggestions about my character’s first meeting. We figured out the thumbnail of a new scene, it came together and we wrote it down and he looked at me and said, “Do you think you can learn this? When are we shooting? Ten minutes? Oh fine. Do you think you can work with that?” 

SM: How did you find that process? 

GE: I was enthused and amazed, because here’s another artist who understands that what they had written worked OK, but how do we make it better? How do we extend it?

He had great ideas – this scene became completely different. He took part of what I already knew and put it somewhere else. You make a film in that way as to what’s appropriate and what speaks to you on the day and you bring it all together. 

SM: Would this typically frustrate actors? 

GE: I think so, but it really made me respect and fall in love with this sequence of events that Guy manifested. My job is to serve the director and the material, not get caught up in, “You didn’t give me enough time!” or “You told me it would be this!”

If I’m really playing as an actor, then I’m playing in the sandbox. That sandbox could be on the beach or it could be in the clouds.

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SM: You often take different creative challenges such as working with the Korean director Bong Joon-Ho on Okja…

GE: I’m always wary that people want me to play something I’ve played before because I’ve got fans out there. In my process with Bong Joon-Ho, I was told he was a fan of Do The Right Thing. When an actor hears that the director is a fan of theirs, it’s usually a slam-dunk that you’ll get the movie.

I went through two or three meetings with Bong and he was very measured in how he wanted to start our relationship. He speaks enough English to understand but everything was through a translator. 

I understood through the look on his face how much he loved what I did… but am I the right guy for the role? He loved me in Do The Right Thing and as Gustavo Fring but he didn’t gush over me at all; he talked to me much like Guy Ritchie. I loved working with Bong, he challenged me in many ways – to have the coolness but also the vulnerability and understanding – to act without words.

SM: I only recently realised that you were in Trading Places. Is it a common occurrence that people will message you, I didn’t realise you were in this movie / show?”

GE: It is, especially with the advent of social media. That clip of Trading Places has come up over and over again, and people are like, “Wow, I didn’t know that was you!” People do that all the time from Gustavo Fring to Do The Right Thing; they don’t realise that’s the same person. 

And that’s what I love about what I do and the characters I create. If you can go back and see that little clip of Trading Places and go, “Wait a minute, that’s Giancarlo Esposito!” That makes me so happy because not only is there a time difference, but there’s also a very characteristic difference in how I create different characters in that moment in time. 

SM: How do you create this difference in your characters? 

GE: I’m always looking for a backstory. I could just read the lines and then I’m done. But I have all these questions. When you want to play truly in the sandbox, you ask yourself things that will challenge you – and some may be outrageous and different and others might be mundane.

But, It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do that because it allows me to be different every time, or at least strive for it. Whether I make it or not we find out in the end. And I think with Teddy Knight I’m really proud and I think I made it! 

Giancarlo Esposito and Mia Goth in Maxxxine

SM: Did you ever get starstruck in the early days? Eddie Murphy was as big as they came in the 1980s.

GE: He sure was. I love what Eddie Murphy does and he has certainly cultivated a career not only as a fine actor on screen but also in his voice work and his comedy as well. It was around the time he took off on Saturday Night Live. 

To be in a scene with him on Trading Places was a little daunting because I didn’t know what he was going to do. At that point in time, there were the real actors and then the comic actors, and there was a delineation. I considered myself a real actor, I don’t know if I considered Eddie a real actor until I worked with him on that movie. I realised that he’s got the stuff. You know why? It’s because he was really able to tap into who he was – a guy from Brooklyn. I really respect that, a guy from the streets, a guy who was really funny but also had the ability to be real and truthful and honest. That movie thrives on his personality and who he is. 

I wasn’t afraid, I wanted in! That’s why I’m in the background of that scene doing my best to upstage him and engage him – and it worked. I respected him a great deal. You can either be jealous or you can be proud, and those are two different feelings about someone you’re working with who may be further along than you. 

At that time, I had been in the business longer than Eddie had, so my choice was to be proud of this young dude who was coming up and blasted his way through, because it’s going to pave the way for so many others. 

MaXXXine is in cinemas now.