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Giancarlo Esposito On 'Revolution,' His Emmy Nomination And 'Breaking Bad'

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Giancarlo Esposito plays another leader on 'Revolution'
Giancarlo Esposito plays another leader on 'Revolution'

Giancarlo Esposito shares quite a few qualities with Gus Fring, an iconic "Breaking Bad" role that garnered him an Emmy nomination this year.

Both men have undeniable presence: Esposito's upright posture reflects his longtime yoga practice, and a conversation with him reveals a mind as alert and as thoughtful as that of Fring, a criminal mastermind who hid in plain sight as the manager of a chain of fast-food restaurants.

There are differences, of course. Esposito is a lively and engaging man, willing to laugh at himself and marvel genuinely at the good fortune of receiving a best supporting Emmy nomination for his work as Gus, a stealthy and formidable drug kingpin.

"I still don't even know how to talk about it, because I'm so excited," he told HuffPost in a recent interview in Los Angeles.

The actor is a good listener, as was the taciturn Fring, though in person, Esposito is not quite as still and perfectly collected as the Chicken Man, whose composure could be chilling. You did not want to be on the receiving end of one of Gus' penetrating stares, but Esposito is not a forbidding presence, which is good, given his higher profile these days.

"People are really shocked that they can see me in an airport and they can talk to me," he said. "Other people are afraid of me. They start giggling hysterically, laughing because they're so nervous."

Getting "so much love" from the public gives him pause now and then -- but only when people ask for photos. It's not that he's unwilling to pose for pictures with fans -- he's quite willing. He just says he sometimes wonders if he should smile or give "Breaking Bad" devotees "Gus face."

Whatever expression he chooses, he made it clear that the greater recognition for his work after more than three decades in the business has been a pleasant turn of events.

"What I say to myself is that it's all love, people are just giving and sharing love, and they want that connection because they respect what I do, and they're excited by it," he explained. "I feel like a gift was given to me and I was able to look at [the role] and see that it wasn't about me -- it was about the gift."

For years, people told him he'd get an Emmy nomination for one role or other ("NYPD Blue" and "Homicide" are just a couple of his dozens of acting and directing credits), but he "never looked out for it, never campaigned for it, never joined the Academy, and it didn't happen," Esposito said.

But getting a nomination for playing Gus was particularly rewarding, thanks to the contained yet charismatic nature of the character. Taking on roles that allow an actor to play someone "larger than life" is one kind of enjoyable challenge, but "with Gus, I calmed my spirit down and culled it down to the essence, [which allowed] him take me over, which was really special work for me," the actor said. "So I'm more excited about the nomination for this, because I feel like the connection with this role was really powerful. I've had those connections happen and felt that way before, but then everything else doesn't line up -- the show, the producers, the story. The stars aligned for the work, and now for them to align for me to get an Emmy nomination is even sweeter."

Esposito, who had appeared on "Community" and had a recurring role on "Once Upon a Time" last season, plays another commanding character, Captain Tom Neville, in the fall drama "Revolution" (premieres on Mon., Sept. 17 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC), a J.J. Abrams-Eric Kripke drama that portrays the world more than a decade after all electricity and power sources have mysteriously stopped functioning. Though life as depicted on the show can be difficult in some ways, "Revolution" also taps into a desire to be more connected to each other and to nature -- concepts close to Esposito's heart.

"I often think about, how do we return to a simpler way of living?" said Esposito. "Is there some way that we can start to think of each other as human beings again, instead of worshipping money, instead of worshipping electronics, instead of worshipping getting ahead just for me?"

Esposito laughingly admits he hasn't updated his Facebook page in months, and didn't own a television before he was married (and he's back to a TV-less state again).

"That's a terrible thing for me to say in an interview where I'm talking about a new television show I'm doing," he said with a smile, but there are pluses to being electronically disconnected: "I love to read, and I like the fact that there's some silence in my life."

Their life circumstances might be quite different -- Gus Fring kept a close eye on all his associates via security cameras -- but there are some similarities between Fring and Esposito's "Revolution" character, a former insurance adjuster who is part of the militia that governs the so-called Monroe Republic.

"I think people are going to be confused as to whether he's a good or bad guy," Esposito said of Neville. "Right in the beginning, you know or are led to believe that he's absolutely a bad guy, but then you're going to see him have compassion, and you're going to be maybe a little confused. He has a heart."

Esposito adds that in upcoming episodes, we'll see a contrast to the relatively sparse lives that average citizens are able to scratch out in the post-blackout era. When he's not on the road enforcing the law, the happily married Neville gets to enjoy the perks of being a high-level functionary in the Monroe Republic.

"He's from a very privileged lifestyle," he noted. "We've seen the world that needs to be reined in [in the pilot], but we haven't seen the world of ease ... the world of order. We're going to meet that world."

But viewers also see, in the show's pilot, why the Monroe Republic is not exactly universally loved.

"Neville has been on the road, on this horse, for probably two years," he said of the character's introduction in the show. "He has [a task to complete], and along the way, he tries to enforce what the new law is, which is that you cannot bear arms, you cannot own trade or have any arms at all -- which might be a good thing, given the state of our society today and things that are going on currently."

Viewers will also see, via flashbacks, how Neville went from office worker to military leader. "Those are interesting things to me -- to be able to discover how he embraced having this power," he said. "That's fascinating stuff to me."

One thing that's true for all the "Revolution" characters -- and the actors playing them -- is that it's often very hot where the show is shot in North Carolina. But truly experiencing the heat that Neville and his men would encounter helps Esposito connect with the character, so he stays away from the air-conditioned tent that accompanies the crew to outdoor locations. Even when his sweat has soaked two layers of clothing.

"Well, if I go in the tent, when I come out, I'm going to be hotter than when I went in," Esposito said. "It's not going to help me at all. It's going to fool my body into thinking one thing when that thing is not really true."

And thus the show allows this reflective actor to think even more about "what's real," as he puts it. "We fool ourselves as to what's real and what's not," he said. Esposito is the kind of guy who is willing to fly across country if necessary, but talked about enjoying rail travel "because you can see where you're going."

There's an interesting contradiction in the actor's quest for self-knowledge and inner peace even as he achieves greater success in an industry known for hype, image and constant hustle. But it's that kind of dynamic and compelling mixture that Esposito brings to his performances: A stillness and a sense of inquiry, a calmness and the sense that there are vast pools of energy just beneath the surface.

"The more I get connected to my own breath and my own yogic experience and my own prayer and my own idea, the ideas that have existed for so long -- that we all belong to each other and we could live a deeper spiritual existence -- the more I get connected to that, the more I shun this world," he said.

But don't think Esposito is one of those actors who takes himself too seriously; he's too self-aware and self-deprecating for that. I'll leave you with one of the things he said about the public attention that follows him around these days (and the next quote assumes you've seen the entire fourth season of "Breaking Bad").

"People who come up to me and laugh and go, 'We're so sorry you're not there,'" he said. "I get stopped every day by people who are so happy that my face is still on."

  • "Revolution premieres on Monday, September 17 at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.
  • The mid-season finale of "Breaking Bad" airs on Sunday, September 2 at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.
  • Tune in to the 64th Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, airing on Sunday, September 23 at 7 p.m. ET.
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