Interview Date: 06/25/10
Run Date: 07/08/2010
Giancarlo Esposito made his mark in the theater before he’d even hit his twenties, earning an Obie and Theater World Award at the ripe old age of 17. From there, he took on Hollywood, starting with 1981’s “Taps,” finding a place within Spike Lee’s ensemble of actors for such films as “School Daze,” “Do the Right Thing,” and “Mo’ Better Blues,” and along the way also turning up such classics as “The Usual Suspects,” “Bob Roberts,” and…wait for it…”Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man.” Esposito also maintained a presence on television, appearing as a cast member of “Homicide: Life on the Street” and shorter-lived series like “Bakersfield P.D.,” “The $treet,” and “Girls Club.”
Most recently, though, Esposito has been showing off his acting chops as Gus Fring, fried chicken merchant by day, meth impresario by night, on AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” Although his schedule didn’t allow for Bullz-Eye to chat with him before the airing of the show’s third season finale, when the opportunity presented itself a week or two later, there was never any chance that we’d say, “Oh, sorry, too late.” As you can see, Esposito was just as happy to discuss his work on the series as we were to ask him about it, but he also took the time to talk about some of the other aforementioned projects on his resume, as well as his debut directorial effort, the acclaimed “Gospel Hill.”
Giancarlo Esposito: Hi, Will. How are you?
Bullz-Eye: I’m doing well. How are you?
GE: I’m well, thank you.
GE: Oh, well, thank you!
BE: How did you first find your way onto the show? Was it a standard audition, or did Vince Gilligan know of you and request you?
GE: I think that… (Hesitates) I don’t know if Vince knew of me. He may have known of my work. I got a call and an offer to do a guest spot at the end of Season 2, and I had just finished directing my first feature film, “Gospel Hill,” and just was getting that out to the world. Actually, it had been about a year after that. And I really didn’t want to work as an actor, and I thought maybe that I would get my next feature film done fairly quickly and just direct for a little while and take a break, but I was convinced by my manager, Josh Kesselman. The show was one of his favorites, and he said, “Why don’t you read it?” So I read it, I liked the episode that I read, and I went on as a guest spot. Then, in a couple of days, they called and asked if I’d do another one. So I found up doing two at the end of Season 2, which was interesting to me, because I enjoyed the family of actors that Vince has put together, and I really like Bryan’s work. It was delicious to be there…and that’s how it started.
BE: So had you yourself not watched the show, then?
GE: I had not. I don’t watch a lot of television. I’ve been in the world of film for awhile, and I had heard that AMC was doing two original shows. I’d heard the reputation of “Mad Men,” and I’d certainly heard about “Breaking Bad,” but I was really unfamiliar. I had never seen the show until I had read one, and then they sent me the first season, and I remember looking at that before I made my decision, and I thought it was a really beautiful show. I thought it was a little bit dark… (Laughs) …but certainly very realistic, and really well done.
BE: Well, I know that Vince has a vision which often extends well beyond the initial introduction of a character. Did he give you any idea of how big Gus’s part would come to be in Season 3, or was that a gradual thing?
GE: You know, it’s really interesting, and this is one show where…so many people who watch the show are intrigued by it because they don’t know what to expect. And I as well, not knowing the show before going into it aside from watching the first season, didn’t have any preconceptions as to what it would be. I did mention that if there were any more work on the show for me, I would love to be part of a family of filmmakers, because that’s what I do. That means that I’d like to be thinking about directing one, I’d like to think about being able to play as a regular. So I know I had mentioned that, particularly on a show that’s so well put together. But it’s funny: I never wanted to just come out and ask Vince what he had in store, because I knew what he’d say. He’s this kind of creator, where he’d say, “Well, I don’t know.” I think he’s the only person who can answer the question about how big he might’ve thought the part was going to be. I think it’s still growing. He and the writers work as a team, and they come up with some really great stuff. But I had no idea. As a viewer, you wait to see what happens, and that’s what I’ve been doing with this show as an actor. “Let me wait and be surprised each week.” So I haven’t really picked his brain about it. I am pleased that the third season was a lot and started to layer this character even more and have us wonder about who he is even more, and now I can’t wait for the fourth season to see where it goes.
BE: My editor and I went out to the set right at the tail end of filming Season 3, and every since then…I mean, I was already a fan, but now I’m completely addicted. This season just gave us non-stop excitement.
GE: It has really been creatively successful, I think...and, I hope, financially for Sony and AMC! But I do think that this season has been a special one. It really has been. The subject matter has come together with the acting, the rhythm, the timing, the music, the editing…all of it. I just think Vince is brilliant in the way in which he works with people, and the team of writers are absolutely brilliant, but the one episode that really got me was…I think it was 3.10. Maybe 3.9. But it was the fly episode. Just working with this fly for over ten minutes…for me, that was just sheer brilliance in the television form. It told us so much of an incredible story without any words, and that’s a great opportunity to be able to achieve that in this medium.
BE: Yeah, when I wrote my blog on it, I said, “Well, I don’t know if it’s my coincidence or design that this is airing opposite ‘Lost,’ but it’s definitely going to give the diehard ‘Breaking Bad’ fans their money’s worth for tuning in.”
GE: There you go! (Laughs) And it did!
BE: When you’re playing Gus, you’re like a panther on the prowl, and we’re left feeling like we never know exactly when you might pounce. You manage to be very intimidating without actually really doing anything.
GE: Well, I think Gus…he’s a character who I always envisioned and wanted to have a great stillness and dignity about him, and I always saw him as being someone who is very calm, very relaxed, but very much in control. He’s a thinker. He’s really thinking further ahead than most people think, which makes him somewhat of a…the possibility that I wanted was for him to be somewhat manipulative in a relaxed way, like letting someone play a chess game and think that they’re having success or being aggressive in their moves while, really, the trap was already set for them. Before they ever made their move, that’s the move that they’ve been pushed to make, or asked to make, or invited to make. I wanted Gus to have that feeling of a panther, of being an incredible intellect but also being graceful. That was a really important part of things for me: for him to have kindness and love and a grace that you couldn’t deny but you could think, “Wow, how is he getting me to do this?” I wanted him to have some of those elements, and also to be someone who is the iceman. It stops with Gus. That’s it. And I think the loving side of Gus was cultivated in the fact that Walter White’s still alive! (Laughs) I wanted it to have that kind of weight and heaviness. Now, a ton of people who often watch television shows will look at a lead and think, “Oh, he could never be in danger, he could never die.” I wanted them to get the sense that there’s a very strong possibility that he could meet his demise if he doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do. And the other part of it is that Gus really feels like this guy has the potential to really realize a greater part of himself if he could do it in a certain way. He believes in Walter. I wanted to have that happen, too.
BE: He strikes me as…I think the best phrase is “a thinking man’s villain.” He’s not a bad guy in the traditional sense, but at the same time, he’s clearly participating in bad things.
BE: You’re always watching Gus and wondering, “What’s he thinking? What’s he got going? How is he adapting his plan?”
GE: Yes, exactly! Oh, I’m glad that’s coming through. It takes a lot of courage to do less than more, but also to allow it to live. I know, from me, working with a great partner like Bryan Cranston, under great writing from Vince and the team…I know that the writing, which is first and foremost for me, is there. But to step out there and really do less but allow it to live…? I had a scene with Bryan, for example, where I was very involved, but most actors who would look at it would see that Bryan has almost all the talking for three pages. But I realized very quickly that what he’s saying is very important about his relationship to me, because he has a realization about how I knew about the near-murder of his brother-in-law, and that someone called him beforehand. It was this whole drawn-out thing, and I sat there and had to keep Gus alive, which meant that I had to keep listening each time to the way Walter told me the story and to have a feeling about it and to allow certain feelings to come out more than others, so he still appears on the exterior to be very cool. But you see he is thinking, that there is life inside of him, and you wonder what it is. That, to me, is kind of exciting. (Laughs) It’s great, because as an actor, you want to act, but sometimes it’s better not to act, to just be present. So I had to be present for those pages, but it paid off, because it helped the scene on the overall. It was a great scene between us, and I didn’t give away anything, so you kind of go, “Wow…” It’s like someone’s in your face arguing with you, but you’re just not on the same page as them, and at that moment, you can just observe them blowing your top and not be involved in it! (Laughs) So it’s been an incredible exercise. It really has been. And it’s been paying off, because it’s been effective…and that’s what I wanted.
BE: Oh, it’s absolutely effective. Normally, I’m someone who’s focused on the dialogue, but I’m watching you, and I find that I’m actually paying attention to you as you’re acting with your eyes and your facial expressions. I’m often not aware of that.
GE: Good! Well, you know, the show has provided, I think, an outlet for thinking man’s television. It’s entertaining, but it’s real and not too outlandish. It has truly encapsulated the form perfectly this year, and I hope to be involved in the fourth season and have more excitement go on that’s equally as sublime and powerful.
BE: Well, I have a few questions about the character of Gus, but I’m not sure how many of them you can actually answer, since it’s possible that it could be addressing things that you know but can’t discuss. Something I noted in my blog was that, although there’s a lot of reference in both dialogue and set design to Gus’s family, we haven’t actually seen Gus’s family. Do you have any idea if we’re going to see them or any thoughts on where they are?
GE: You know, I think it’s very, very possible we’ll see them. We do have a set-up for it, where Gus and Walter had dinner and you saw some kids stuff around, and I think it’s probably perfect timing to sort of meet Gus’s family, because you’ll learn more about him and more about how he thinks and maybe how he raises his children. There’s no determination right now – I don’t know myself, and I love that they keep things close to the vest – but I would imagine that we’re going to see some kind of family here that we’re going to be very interested in.
BE: Something I’d also considered was the fact that, since we haven’t seen them, there’s some as-yet-untold reason as to why he sees so much of himself in Walt. Possibly something has happened to his family that he’s trying to help Walt avoid with his own.
GE: Yeah, I think there is a twist here, possibly. Y’know, I’d thought of this: that there’s a strong possibility that he’s only part-time with his family, and…maybe it isn’t the same reason as Walt’s, and I don’t know if this is even possible in the thinking of the writers, since I’d venture to say that they’re smarter than I am. (Laughs) In television, it’s the timing of the thinking and storytelling that really counts, but I would love it if, in fact, he did have some other completely secret life outside of the family as well. Maybe some other complete business that he goes away for months at a time doing, and he lives someplace else. I think that would be very interesting to hear from his child that, “Oh, Daddy, you’re home for a few months!” What else is he doing besides the chicken and this? (Laughs) So that would intrigue me personally, to be honest with you. And for everyone to think that he spends part of his time just away, that’s his game, that’s what he does, but no one knows what that is…? That would be even more interesting. Because already I think we see that he has a lot of strings. He’s the puppeteer of a lot of different pieces of this one empire that we think he has, or is trying to build. But I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a whole other empire that he was controlling as well, and he allows people on one side to think or know only these certain things about him that they think they know, but there’s this other whole piece of him. That’s why I think we’re going to see his family, or a mistress, or some other life beyond this. Because I think it’s fascinating. And, also, he’s given Walt this advice about his family, what’s first, and how it is. So there are all these great possibilities, and there has been this reference that Walter would like to think that they’re very much alike. But Gus is far removed from anyone, because I think he has the capability of being very, very much like Jonathan Banks’ character (Mike). Very much the cold killer if he has to. But I think he’s grown to a place where he has such intricate tentacles out there and a network that’s so fierce that he doesn’t even have to touch that. But I wouldn’t for one second think that Gus could not take care of himself in a very, very stealth and very, very effective way. And I think that, because of the way he thinks, nothing gets in the way of the business and nothing gets in the way of the family. So I can’t wait to see some of that blend and come to life in this next season.
BE: Obviously, a lot of your strongest scenes this season were with Bryan Cranston, but of the others that you worked with, do you have any particular favorite moments that really stood out as highlights of Gus’s story?
GE: Well, I think this year for me…I mean, as an actor, I loved all the scenes on the high mesa. I loved that very Western / cowboy feeling that happens there. In Episode 3.13…or maybe it was 3.12…I was out on the high mesa with him again, and I just ask him if he’s thinking clearly. Basically, I’m asking if he’s lost his mind. Those scenes were great for me because they’re very much the scolding of a child, coupled with the showdown of the O.K. Corral. (Laughs)
BE: In my head, I had kind of an Ennio Morricone soundtrack going.
GE: Exactly! It’s ringing in your ears. He’s serious, man! I (Laughs) So I loved those. Those are really special. But the dinner scene, to me, between Walter and Gus was very special, because it was just a different way of seeing Gus. He’s more relaxed, he’s cooking, he’s giving a little of what could be threatening advice but also could be loving. That was one of my favorite scenes this season, because it gave Bryan and I the chance to be somewhere else, to be in a completely different environment where we were outside of work, outside of the lab. But I loved the scene with Aaron, where we’re all having our big confab with Jesse and Walter, and there are the two different sides. That’s another really favorite scene, because it also had great lighting by Michael Slovus to really heighten the musical score and the writing that’s in there. And the first one of those scenes was completely in Spanish, which I absolutely love, because it allows us to realize, think very quickly, and jump into Gus’s world on the Spanish side, where he’s dealing with the cartel or he’s dealing with men who don’t speak much English and have a whole different way of thinking. When you speak a different language, you speak Spanish, and they deal only in Spanish. It’s a whole different way of communicating, often without words. So I liked seeing Gus there with his own people. Some of the stuff with Bolsa earlier on in this season…I loved Javier Grajeda as an actor and thought he had a very wonderful way about him. And one of my favorite scenes all season, of course, was when Gus and Bolsa were on the phone, and he’s calling me while the hit man is at his place. That, to me, just showed that ruthless part of Gus, that was accommodating and not overexcited, but basically he’s talking to a man on the phone who’s getting killed at his order right there in the present, at that moment. To me, that was just…the way that was done was just absolute art. (Laughs) The art of the bad guy, all the way around. I loved it! I break the phone, drop it in, and go back to work, very calm and very relaxed. “Sorry, Juan. Bye!” (Laughs)
BE: I loved the scene with Gus and Gale in the season finale. That was the moment where you realized, “Uh-oh, he’s hit the wall. This is the end for Walt.”
GE: Yeah, that to me is another favorite of mine. There’s so many I have, but I have to say that this one and, obviously, the phone one is just beautiful to me. But Gale…I love David Costabile as an actor. He’s quite expressive and has so much gentleness about him, so I love that juxtaposed with the message that’s coming from the scene. Absolutely. I didn’t have to act that. It’s just so creepy. “Are you ready? Can you be ready now?” And he pauses, and he’s, like, “Uh, I don’t know, I need a few people…” And I just don’t say anything. I just look at him. “Well, maybe one.” (Laughs) To me, that was an incredible scene as well. And there was a little piece at the beginning of that scene where I walk over to the telescope and he starts talking about the stars and this, that, and the other, and I was sorry that they cut that, but I think I understand why: to get us right into the meat of things. Everythign was nice and lovely from the very beginning, but I would’ve loved to have heard that. Maybe it was three or four lines at the very, very beginning at the door, after I come in. But I was amazed at how they blended that so beautifully, and I understand why. Vince, I believe, directed that episode…didn’t he?
BE: He did.
GE: He did! He’s a great director. I can’t sing his praises enough, just in terms of how he has a separate head as a director. It’s not the writer coming through, although he created the show. Looking at it, he’s looking at things from a directing standpoint, and he did a beautiful job directing that episode. What an all-around talent he is. But I loved the stuff with Gale. And who knows what’s going to happen there, either, right?
BE: (Laughs) I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the interviews Vince did right around the time of the season finale, but he said, “Geez, I think you people are overthinking this thing. I was of the presumption that, when Jesse fired, he killed him!”
GE: That’s what Vince said himself?
BE: Yeah! He said, “Maybe this is a sign that I should reconsider this, because it never occurred to me that Gale wasn’t dead!”
GE: (Laughs) People have said to me that they thought they saw the gun move to the left. “Didn’t you see? At the very end…?” A dear friend of mine said this. I said, “What?” “Didn’t you see?” “No! The guy’s dead!” But she keeps insisting, “No, no, no, his hand moved! He closed his eyes, he pulled that trigger, and his hand moved!” “That was the jump from him pulling the trigger.” “No!” (Laughs) And Vince is so honest and down to earth that he can say, “Shit, I’m not the smartest man on earth, but I didn’t think of that!” Which I think is kind of great. But I didn’t think of that, either, to be honest with you! When I heard it a few weeks ago, I went, “Oooh, that’s very creepily interesting…” (Laughs) People love Gale!
BE: It could happen. Suddenly, Season 4 takes a whole new turn…
GE: Yeah! How about that?
BE: You mentioned about how you kind of embrace the not-knowing of what’s going to happen next, but was there any particular point during the season where you saw how Gus’s story was going to go and you were just, like, “Oh, this is gettin’ good!”
GE: Yeah: when the lab came up. And I think that goes for all of us. This art department who worked on this, they were particularly fantastic and had very good intel. I met a gentleman who came out of…he was on the DEA task force in Mexico, and I think he helped guide and talk about what equipment there was. So everything was all sweet and nice until then, but when I walked through the set and saw this lab being built, I got excited. (Laughs) I really did. I even talked to my manager, and I said, “Oh, man, this lab…they’re spending money!” I remember saying that to him. Because, I mean, you walk through and you see these beautiful stainless steel tanks and all of it, it’s all the stuff they use, and it’s expensive. And the first time I walked through, I got a little excited, but by the end of the week…they’d built the lab, and they were under the gun to build it quickly but efficiently, because we had to get in there. When I finally walked through the finished lab, I said, “Okay, Gus is gonna be around for a little while. This is going to get really interesting.”
BE: What’s funny is that, like I mentioned, I was out there while they were filming the season finale, and (unit production manager) Stu Lyons was giving us the set tour, and he said, “Okay, you guys all signed your confidentiality agreements, right? So you can’t talk about what we’re getting ready to show you. Well, here it is!” Our jaws were just hanging open.
GE: Yeah! (Laughs) Yeah, that was the exciting moment for me, because I really realized that there was life to Gus. The other exciting moment that continued that was to be in a place that we were going to call his house. They asked for pictures of my children – I have four girls – to use. They may not focus in on the faces when we see them on the wall, because they may want to actually have a family for me, but just the fact that we know that there are children around... (Trails off) So I brought in a bunch of photos. That and the lab confirmed that there was a real life to Gus, and it made me start to think more about what future Gus might have and what it could be. It’s funny: Josh Kesselman, my manager, kept saying, “The kid’s gonna kill ya. The kid’s gonna kill ya.” (Laughs) He said, “That’s the way with all great guest spots.” Usually, they love what you’re doing, but you’re gonna die. But I said, “No, I don’t think so with this one. I don’t think so this season. There’s a lot of life to him, and we’re going to find out a lot more about Gus. It’s gonna be a real rollercoaster ride.” But, certainly, that lab did it, man. That was it. I said, “Okay, I’m definitely around more than I thought I’d be, and as much as I wanted to be.” Because I really did want to be a part of a family of creators who had the opportunity still to bring something real and natural to what they do, coupled with the ability to not know. That’s TV: the un-knowing. And I love Vince, that he can say that: “You guys are overthinking this, I never thought that Gus was anything but dead.” I think that’s great, because you’re then allowing new and fresh ideas to take fruition, to become real, if you’re not attached. It’s pretty cool.
BE: In regards to your comment about the longevity of guest stars, “Breaking Bad” definitely seems to be the exception to the rule, because I was convinced that there was no way Bob Odenkirk would last for more than a few episodes. He just seemed too cocky. And, yet, here he still is.
GE: That’s right. Absolutely. I think that Gus has put a time limit on things, and he feels like there’s probably five seasons. Maybe one after this fourth one. I think that’s what he’d been thinking, and I think that’s probably wise. It gives us the opportunity to not feel as though we have to rush the story, but also not feel like we’re going to overtell anything and repeat ourselves. I think that’s very wise of Vince. I think he has two seasons – four and five – to continue to make a gem of a piece that’s cohesive and goes where he wants to take it and leaves the audience satisfied…and then we’re done. People will talk about it for a long time, and he’ll go on to create something more spectacular or equally as interesting, which is my hope. But I think it’s a good thing he’s onto. I think it’s exciting, I think people are involved and digging it, and I think…you know, if he feels like he can tell the “Breaking Bad” story for another two seasons, it’s going to be one of the most special shows that’s ever aired.
BE: Well, I don’t want to drag down your whole afternoon, but if you’ve got a few more minutes, I did kind of want to ask you about a few other things you’ve done in your career.
GE: Yeah, sure!
BE: First of all, one of my other critic friends wanted me to ask you about your experiences working on “Homicide” and how that was for you.
GE: Oh, I enjoyed “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Again, I really love strong show runners, who don’t do it all themselves, but their presence is so tangible even when they’re not there. Vince was in New Mexico a lot, but he was still felt. Tom Fontana was also one of those guys. For me, to meet Barry Levinson…he came down a few times, but he wasn’t really around at the seventh season of “Homicide.” I know him a little better now because he lives very close to me in Ridgefield, but because we also collaborate on interests like the Creative Coalition. I was in his Hollywood documentary. But, really, the reason for me being in “Homicide” was a guy who just adore, I just think he’s another really brilliant guy, and that’s Tom Fontana. He’s a good show runner, he brings in good people around him, and for him to ask me what I wanted to do, just knowing that I’d be coming in and taking over for Andre (Braugher). But what kind of character would he be? He said the guy was half-Italian and half-black, and that’s what I am, so I thought that was great. It was great to be able to cultivate and learn how to blend my natural cultural background into a television show for that seventh season. And it was interesting to work with Yaphet Kotto and Clark Johnson and (Richard) Belzer and Jon Seda…all very great artists. I particularly liked what he did with that show technically, in the way that the camera moved and was always in sort of this ensemble setting of theatrical television, in a way. I mean, the camera was in and out of conversations, on someone’s shoulder, and I liked that way of working, because it keeps you really attentive as an actor, and you have to know what you’re doing. You have to be alive, and you have to bring it each take. So for me, it was a great experience. It was just too short-lived. I didn’t feel like I got a chance to really spread my wings. In essence, I wasn’t as relaxed as I think I am now or can allow Gus to be on “Breaking Bad.” But “Homicide,” to me, was a great experience. I love shows that are shot in a local place. As painful as it may be for actors from L.A. or New York to go to Small Town USA, or Baltimore, MD, or even where I’m at now…or will return to in January, or whenever they decide we’re going back…in Albuquerque, NM. It’s great to have that, because that puts you in that local feeling, and whether you want to be there or not, I like to immerse myself in the area of such because that’s where it’s shot. It’s a different feeling, a different rhythm of things, and it affects everything. I loved being in Baltimore, so “Homicide” was a win/win situation. I was living in Connecticut, and it was a drag being away from home, but it was also very exciting.
BE: Speaking of filming outside of L.A. and New York, I understand you were in Portland not too long ago, filming an episode of “Leverage.”
GE: I was! Yeah, I like different places, and Oregon was great to me. It’s so energetically beautiful. Yeah, Tim Hutton called me…I was on my way to the premiere screening we had in L.A. for Season 3 of “Breaking Bad,” and Tim called me that night on my cell phone and said, “I’ve got a major guest role and I don’t have anyone cast. Can you fly out tomorrow to be here Friday?” And…I’m trying to raise money for my second feature film that I want to direct, so I was doing meetings, and I said, “Well, I can get there by Friday morning and work that day, but the only thing is that I’ve got to go home and get my daughter back east, because I promised to go away with her next weekend, and if you’re shooting straight through Wednesday, I can do it, but I’ve got to make the trip to get her.” So he said, “Yeah, come, come, come!” So I worked a 15-hour-day, flew home to the east coast through a tsunami in New York to pick up my six-year-old daughter to stay with me for six days while I did that show. But we had an incredible time. It was a great character. It’s a completely different kind of show, obviously a little lighter than “Breaking Bad”… (Laughs) …but I play the brother of the head of an African country who wants to coup his brother out. He’s educated at Oxford and raised in America. I loved that I could speak with a little bit of a British accent and bring some of my African accent into it to play such an outrageous, big kind of character. So I had fun doing that show. I love working with Tim. He does a very specific and wonderful kind of work on that, and it was really fun. (Laughs) It’s always lovely to step into something and have an accent coach and all that stuff. And I love music. The theme of the show was surrounding this famous piece, “Shahrazad,” which is a famous violin piece and which one of Tim’s team who studied the violin when they were a kid has to pick it back up and play this concert. It had all of the elements that were right for me. And I certainly loved Portland. Again, I’ve been blessed. I did a “Leverage” and a “Lie to Me” all within 10 days of each other. That was another great piece. I came back to L.A. and did a “Lie to Me” with Tim Roth…the season finale, actually. I’m very proud of that, too. Another show that’s cut from a different cloth but very, very real and good actors on it. I don’t know when that will air, but I know the “Leverage” is airing on June 27th.
(Writer’s note: Although you’ve obviously already missed it at this point, do check your cable company’s On Demand, as it may be available through there.)
BE: You know, I asked Tim about “Taps,” so I should probably ask you about it as well. What do you remember about the experience of making that film?
GE: Oh, golly, I remember Tim winning the Academy Award in the middle of shooting! (Laughs) I remember him having to leave…and, then, that was the year that the Academy Awards were canceled, so he came back down and we shot, and then he left again when they rescheduled them. But I remember him bringing back the Academy Award, and that to me was a delicious moment. It was a triumph for him as an actor, and for Redford for making such a beautiful film, but also to all of the cats who were in “Taps” that he came back and shared it with. He could’ve left it in L.A., but he brought it back with him so that he could share that with all of the cats he was working with, letting us see and feel what that was like. That was a special moment. And, also, George C. Scott delivering a four-page speech in a scene. His speech to the cadets was something I’ll never forget. The guy never had a short side, he never had the sides in front of him or a script. He would play chess all day with the guy who set up the generators. He’d drift away and do what he wanted. George C. Scott endlessly played chess.
BE: He played it with Tim, too, he said.
GE: Yes, indeed! George would just get up, go to the podium when they said, “We’re ready for you, sir,” pick up that speech anywhere from the middle to the third part of it to the fourth page. He never looked to refer to where he was. He knew it. And every gesture would be the exact same as he had done before. He was a consummate professional and artist, really pretty amazing. So I’ll never forget that speech to the cadets in the quad, because he just showed such professionalism, that he could act beyond the words. That was a great lesson for me. I’d come from the theater, it was my first movie working with a bunch of Hollywood actors who only learned one page at a time, and for me, it was hard to try to figure out a way to learn how to not only be there but to respect them on a deep level. I’d come from the theater, a different world, and these guys seemed to me…it was a different style of acting. If you didn’t know your lines, you didn’t know anything, and if you couldn’t get beyond not knowing your lines, then you couldn’t really start to work the character. You have to know… if you’re so far into your character, then you’re going to be the character. You don’t have to know what to say. I wanted to work with actors like that, so it was a great moment for me on that film to know that there were different styles of acting. But the one thing that tied everything together was passion, and for me, George C. Scott displayed that passion and that depth. To know his lines was the first step, and then to put all the other gestures into it and not have to think about it on the day, it created a sense that he could relax for a minute. You can’t even get to the real acting until you can relax, because you’re not worried about what you’re going to say, and then walking and chewing gum becomes easier. It’s building blocks. So George taught me that and confirmed that my stage career served me in the right way, because I’m going to look at things on a deeper level and tend to lend more of myself to them because there’s more of myself present and available. So that’s a moment I’ll never, ever forget. And then another moment…you know, while we were shooting that film, Ronald Reagan got shot by Hinckley…and I was on a military academy with the students from that academy. Everything went nuts. I mean, everyone freaked out. There were arms there, too, so everyone had a little bit of a conniption, but they calmed down and everyone was fine. But that was a highlight of sorts, certainly.
BE: I was curious how you came into the Spike Lee camp, seeing as you collaborated with him on several occasions.
GE: Yeah, Spike…I was doing a play at the Negro Ensemble Company called “Zooman and the Sign,” and it was a Charles Fuller play. Charles had won…no, wait, he had not yet won. “Zooman” was a play that he did at the Negro Ensemble Company before “A Soldier’s Story,” which he won the Pulitzer Prize for. It was a fantastic play, and Spike was finishing up at NYU, and he was doing his time at Maxie Cohen’s First Run Features, where he was cleaning films, and he came to see this play I was in. I was 17 years old, and I won the Obie and Theater World Award, and Spike came and was blown away. I used to go down and visit him at First Run Features and watch him clean films, and he told me about a piece he had that we shot for two weeks and got shut down. It was called “The Messenger,” a film that was never made, about a bicycle messenger. Spike was a big cyclist, as was I, and still am. And, so, he had talked about this other piece he had called “School Daze,” and he gave it to me. It was a musical. So that’s how I got involved with Spike. Eventually, “School Daze” was finally made. I made several trips down to AU Center, the Atlanta University Center, with him, and that’s how I got connected with him. We liked each other, and I went on to do five films with him in his early years, when I really think he was doing some of the great, spontaneous work that he tries to continue to do. It’s gotten much harder for him, though, because you’ve got to sort of break out and make movies on a different level to get them made at all, it seems.
BE: Last one. Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
GE: Yeah: my film “Gospel Hill.” (Laughs) Yeah, I gotta say it. It’s gotten a lot of love on the film festival circuit, from Zanzibar to Kenya to Sedona to Santa Fe. I’ve had it at some many different film festivals, and we’ve won 11 different awards, and people have been really moved by it. It stars Angela Bassett, Danny Glover, Samuel L. Jackson, Julia Stiles…it’s a great, great piece. I had a hard time finishing the financing to get the larger platform release. We did release it in New York, and it’s been all over the place, it’s on Netflix and Showtime, but I don’t think it quite got the love it deserved. It’s a great performance by Danny Glover, and an equally beautiful performance by Angela Bassett, but one of the greatest performances in the film was by an actor whose praises haven’t been sung…or they’ve been sung, and people just have not yet discovered how great he is, but I think he’s going to have his Richard Jenkins moment…and that’s Tom Bower. Tom Bower is a very, very deep and special actor, and I think that because of his performance and Danny’s, this movie really lives and breathes. It’s called “Gospel Hill,” and it is available if people should want to see it.
BE: I’ll be sure to include a link to the film’s website.
GE: Oh, thank you!
BE: Well, I’ve bent your ear for far too long, but it’s been a real pleasure talking to you. As I said, you really made the season for me, so I really wanted the chance to speak with you and, uh, spread the gospel, as it were. (Laughs)GE: Hey, I appreciate it! I appreciate you spreading the gospel on something that’s worthy… (Laughs) …and I hope we speak again!