Actor Giancarlo Esposito

The award-winning actor discusses the diversity of his roles in such series as Breaking Bad and post-apocalyptic drama Revolution.

Before landing his breakout role in the film, School Daze, Giancarlo Esposito had established himself as a promising young stage talent—winning the first of his two Obie Awards in 1981. He's since amassed a long list of film, stage and TV credits, including his Emmy-nominated role on the AMC series, Breaking Bad, and his current role on NBC's Revolution. Esposito grew up in Manhattan and appeared on Broadway at age 8. Through his Quiet Hand Productions, he made his feature directorial debut with Gospel Hill and continues to perform and teach at the Atlantic Theater Company. He also supports various arts and education organizations.


Tavis: Giancarlo Esposito is one of those go-to actors that elevates any project he’s in. An Emmy nominee for his work in “Breaking Bad,” Esposito has been in projects such as “Homicide: Life on the Streets,” of course “Law and Order,” and “Miami Vice.”

He’s co-starred on Broadway in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and was featured in movies like “Do the Right Thing” and “Malcolm X.” He’s currently starring on the NBC series “Revolution,” a post-apocalyptic drama that has become a cult favorite. Here now a clip from “Revolution,” which airs Monday nights on NBC.


Tavis: So my friend – speaking of NBC, my friend Jay Leno got himself in a little trouble making jokes in his monologue about the misfortunes of the network, and yet if there are two things on NBC that are working, “The Voice” is working – and “Revolution” is working. Why do you think it’s working?

Esposito: I think “Revolution” is a story that people can relate to.

I think part of it is it’s a perfect blend of science and character-driven drama and action, and it’s filmed in a very movie-like fashion. I think people want to have stories told to them that reflect what they’re actually living.

We’re in a world now that’s faced with all kinds of challenges in our society, including power, and what if is the big question of “Revolution.” I think Eric Kripke has drawn it very well. It begs the question if this were to happen, where would you lie amongst these people that you see.

Tavis: For those who have not as yet seen it, when you say, “If this were to happen,” set the stage of what has happened on “Revolution.”

Esposito: We begin our story 15 years after the blackout, when people are searching to find their families across the United States without transportation, having to walk to find their families and reunite with people they haven’t seen in years.

There are family farmers who have cultivated family farms in cul-de-sacs which once were their homes, and they’re protecting themselves against the militia, who comes and collects taxes and who sort of rules what used to be America.

So we’re in a very primitive, thrown back into a very primitive and disparate world, and within that we have rebels who are fighting the militia and we also have the idea, and the seed is planted that the power is out there, and it exists within nanotechnology.

If that nanotechnology can be activated once again, the world could have power again. So we get the feeling and the sense that this power outage worldwide was intentional.

Tavis: I referenced earlier in tonight’s program that I was looking forward to having a conversation with a fine actor named Giancarlo Esposito. I love your work, and while you are obviously talented at what you do and can play and have played all kinds of characters, why is it that I love you playing villains?

Esposito: I’ve thought about this. (Laughter) A little bit.

Tavis: You can smile, man, you can smile. He gave me this look like, “Did this Negro just ask me -”

Esposito: I’ll tell you why I thought about it, because I remember – I’m a lover of Sidney Poitier.

Tavis: Oh, yeah.

Esposito: And always wanted to be Sidney.

Tavis: Yeah.

Esposito: And have some of the attributes and talent that he had, and some of the ability to project a vulnerability and a dark and light side. That was Sidney.

I loved his work, and much more of his work for many other reasons. But I think what you like is that I try to make choices in the characters I play that aren’t only villainous, but that come from a deep and urgent need. That deep and urgent need, if I were to say it right on the nickel head, it would be they want to be loved.

Tavis: Right.

Esposito: So therefore, there has to be a vulnerability to be begging for love, and underneath any kind of deep anger is a deep pain, and out of that deep pain comes a wanting for connection.

Tavis: Right.

Esposito: So I can only imagine that that may have something to do with it.

Tavis: Right.

Esposito: I certainly have found a way not to exhaust myself from being that villain all the time.

Tavis: Right, right, right.

Esposito: Maybe it’s this laugh I have. (Laughter) But I never, I don’t know if I ever expected to be as successful playing the villain as I am, but I think it’s that you get a brief introduction, and you see a chink in the armor that is compassion.

Tavis: How, then, do you take advantage of, how do you connect to that vulnerability that allows you to play these kinds of characters so successfully? I hear your point about that vulnerability that you’re trying to get to, this need to be loved. What’s that give you to work with?

Esposito: Well, it gives me something to play against, in that particularly with this character, Tom Neville, and with the character I played before this, Gustavo Fring, a very different character than Tom Neville, there was something that happened, an incident.

Something particular happened in this character’s life that allowed a part of him to close and shut down, and become either angry at the world, angry at himself, or angry at somebody else.

Particularly what may drive something after that is either you become about forgiveness or you hold a grudge and you figure out a way to get back. That space is where I come from. That need to exact a vengeance is also a need to say, “I want to give this up, but I can’t.”

So I’m trying to look for a place where I can, through a look, through a breath, through a nod, I can facilitate my physical body to do something other than what my words are saying.

Tavis: Right, right.

Esposito: I don’t think about it that much, except I want to be a complete human being, and I think as human beings there’s no black and white. We all wake up on days where we just don’t want to smile and say, “Good morning, how are you.” Other days we’re effusive and wonderfully abundant with our energy.

I think it’s part of my growth as a human being that I’ve come to realize that part of me is to be in service, and we’re taught by our media many times that it’s me, me, me, what do I want, how do I get ahead, but there’s no place to get to. (Laughs)

For me now, I’m just in gratitude that I can be working every day, cultivating a gift that I was given, that I could cultivate that gift and be in the joy of that.

Tavis: When you look back – I was just thinking the other day because of something I was connected to about the corpus that Spike has now developed. He’s been at this long enough now to have a corpus, have a body of work here, and you are central to that body of work. When you look back on your Spike Lee work, what do you think of that?

Esposito: I love Spike Lee. I think Spike has advanced filmmaking, number one, in a very definitive way, and he’s allowed and opened the door for so many people to express themselves through his own expression, which I think is excellent.

I look back on those days as a time of excitement. I think about how excited we were to be able to have the opportunity to portray these characters – Samuel L. Jackson and Bill Nunn and Roger Guenveur Smith – all of us had an opportunity to be partners with Spike and be in his growth as he was so deeply within our growth. I admire him greatly for his contribution that he continues to give.

Tavis: I wonder if you’d just do me a favor and look in your camera right there and just say your full name for me. I love it.

Esposito: Giancarlo Giuseppe Alessandro Esposito.

Tavis: I love it. (Laughter)

Esposito: And that’s the Italian (unintelligible).

Tavis: Yeah, I know.

Esposito: Roll them Rs. (Laughter)

Tavis: See, I played for two days with trying to do that and I chickened out. I was going to introduce you that way. (Laughter) I said, “But I can’t get all that out,” and I couldn’t put that flavor on it the way you do. So I just said Giancarlo Esposito. (Laughter)

Esposito: Well, I’ve said for years and years I said my name is John Carlo Esposito so people could say it back to me, and then I realized there is something inside of me that has to honor both sides of who I am. My mother’s from Alabama, half Choctaw Indian, a Southern girl, dark-skinned; my father’s from Italy. For so long, and I learned, maybe through my work with Spike – he taught me a lot about racism in America, which I had already experienced, and through our disagreements and conversations about racism.

I would never say my name properly because I think people look at me like a freak. Then finally I realized you need to be proud of all of who you are. You’re holding up one side; hold up the other side just as great. Because you speak a little bit of Italian and your name is Giancarlo Esposito. It’s not Esposito, it’s Esposito.

So I love being an American, I’m an American, but I’ve got to say my name like my ancestors say my name.

Tavis: Yeah.

Esposito: Esposito.

Tavis: How has – my time is just about up, and I could do this for hours – how has all of that richness advanced your work as a thespian?

Esposito: It’s informed me. It’s allowed me to have the dream of being a universal human being. Yes, I know where I come from, yes, I know the advantages and disadvantages of who I am, but it’s allowed me to embrace all people without measure.

Even if I am treated a certain way because of the color of my skin, it’s allowed me to go, “That’s okay. I have a different kind of growth.” Being a thespian has moved me beyond all of my hopes and dreams and fears and challenges.

It’s grown me inside in a very, very deep way, and I am one of the grateful ones to be able to say that it’s forwarded my humanness.

And my spirituality and my depth. The only way I could play the bad guys I play is to be in deep mediation and prayer so it doesn’t stick to me, number one, and so I’m able to render it truthful and honest and organic, and I love what I do.

Tavis: Wow, and that comes through. Back to your camera – I’m going to put two sentences together. So you say the name and I’ll take it from there, one more time for me, please, sir?

Esposito: Giancarlo Esposito.

Tavis: The whole name, come on.

Esposito: Giancarlo – (laughter).

Tavis: Come on, man, the whole name.

Esposito: Giancarlo Giuseppe Alessandro Esposito.

Tavis: Can be seen in “Revolution” on Monday nights on NBC. (Laughter) Check him out. It’s good to see you.

Esposito: Oh, man.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith. (Laughter)

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at

“Wade Hunt:” There’s a saying that Dr. King had, and he said, “There’s always a right time to do the right thing.” I just try to live my life every day by doing the right thing. We know that we’re only about halfway to completely eliminate hunger, and we have a lot of work to do. And Walmart committed $2 billion to fighting hunger in the U.S. As we work together, we can stamp hunger out.

“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 23, 2013 at 8:47 pm