Giancarlo Esposito doesn’t look like he’s sixty-one years old nor does he speak like it either, with the steady buoyancy of his tone lacking in both desiccation and tapioca-coated feebleness.
Stepping aside one afternoon from the prolific filming and travel arrangements placed before the actor, Esposito spends the earlier part of our chat dispassionately filling me in about the details of one of the rollercoasters he boarded while attending a Better Call Saul wrap party that occurred the weekend before our interview, and it sounds intense. ‘It’s been voted number one smallest amusement park in the world,’ he gushes. ‘And has a wooden rollercoaster that is a bone-crusher that I had to go on twice, back-to-back because it was just so exciting.’
His adoration of rollercoasters near palpable -even through the phone- I ask anyway if he’s a big fan of them, sparking a nostalgic, five-minute illustration of a theme park in that sounds like Disney World, albeit a million times better. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that large crowds are absent from the brilliant narration, in addition to limited parking spaces and the ring of sweat left on the seat by the rider before you. There are whiffs of cotton candy, popcorn, and hot dog goodness in it, too, which are all nice to think of without their accompanying monopolistic prices.
Mainly though, I think this story is only good because it was produced through the mouth of Esposito, as with the rest of all his singular roles, including his latest within Disney’s The Mandalorian.
Where were you when the first Star Wars came out, anyway?
Wow, so that would be the late seventies, right? Yeah…so I was in Detroit, Michigan doing a Broadway show called Maggie Flynn at the Fisher Theatre. And that’s where I w — wait, wait. No, wait. I was in Yonkers and at Seton College doing a two-year Associate’s degree in Radio and Television Communication. I was in my first year of college, and I remember really loving this movie because it was just so different from anything I’d ever seen. And of course, I was in love with Princess Leia as every man had to be, and I really desired the strength of so many of the characters in the film. But it was just so brilliantly done. I remember it took me out of my place, took me out of my consciousness and took me out of realizing that we’re not earthbound. We could be space-bound, and look, now we are [laughs]. You know? A whole different world out there. Luke Skywalker, he had such the boyish nature and stance, yet he fought like a man, and yet he had an evolution spiritually. You know, all those beautiful things that are encompassed to so much of our colleges. I think of how Sid Arthur affected my life. And I think of this movie kind of in the same way, how it allowed me to start thinking about how to explore the vast beyond, and wonder if I could ever do that. Would I ever have the opportunity to do that? So I was fascinated by it, and it’s truly been an honor and such an incredible journey to come all these years later and be involved with The Mandalorian.
You’re involved with one of the actual first pieces of content within Disney’s new streaming service, Disney+. Tell me, that’s got to feel just a little cool. You’re setting the tone, after all.
It’s a really great thing to be a part of something that’s the startup, because there’s a lot of anticipation surrounding it, and there’s a lot of attention put into it. And also, equally so, there’s a lot of responsibility for those who make it to live up to the dream of what it could be. So, it’s the jumping-off point. You don’t know what it will be. In this particular case, I think Disney is very wise and very smart to deliver this particular series in terms of their support. What they’ve put into it, and the talent they’ve amassed to do it. I feel blessed. In a year I’ve done a first for Disney start-ups – this one being the largest- but I also have a film for Disney+ as well, called Stargirl, which is a wonderful story by Jerry Spinelli based on a book that’s targeted for a young-adult audience. And I think the book is phenomenal, the film equally so; I feel like I hit the jackpot.
Speaking of Stargirl, correct me if I’m wrong, but I hear your character within that title’s got a thing for bones?
[Laughs] Yeah, you know. I play an interesting guy who’s a bit of a dropout probably from the big city; that would be my backstory for him. Very smart, very passionate, but also someone who really loves to dig in the earth. Stargirl’s story was natural to me because it’s really about finding out who you are from yourself. It’s about a very unusual girl who’s in a high school in Middle America somewhere. But I play Archie -sort of a camp counselor- but I’m a paleontologist. And yeah, I love the way you put it. He’s a little into bones and in terms of -yes, Archie really does touch and feel the power and the energy that’s encapsulated within every fossil. But it’s the history, it’s then going back and uncovering what time period, where, and how big. Every step of the way for someone who’s in that world is very visceral and very exciting, and they want to learn more and more about what they’ve just found. And as a young boy, I was fascinated with the uncommon like young King Tut. Because I felt like, ‘Oh wow, this person was so young and really had a lot of responsibility.’ And that was kind of how my childhood was. I had a lot that was put on me -or that I took on- and King Tut was the young king. But what was fascinating to me was the mummification and the jewels and how people were buried, the rituals. All those feelings about Egypt…So, it was a joy to play Archie and sort of relive my childhood dream of being in Egypt at that time and having the kind of science and agriculture and nature, and also the way they mummified people and would send them on to their afterlife. So, this movie is a good movie and I drew on some of my earlier examples and imprints to sort of be a part of it, but I totally had fun on set and really enjoyed what I was doing because the dialogue was so good. It’s like the family you always wanted; someone who’s not just nagging or bugging you, but you know when they see that maybe you need a few words of encouragement or even criticism that they give to you in a grateful, loving way that’s majestic and not negative. And so, I play that kind of guy; you know, he’s just a part of the story and then he sees these kids and they’re kinda scratching their heads going, ‘Whoa. Don’t know what to say, but I’m glad I came to see you. Thanks, bye.’ You know? [laughs] And that’s kind of what we all need in life sometimes; someone who’ll be the judge, someone who’ll be afraid for us, observant for us, or worried about us. We just need a few words.
For those of us who have yet to secure Disney+, not to fear, we’re also going to be seeing you in Epix’s Godfather of Harlem and Shudder’s Creepshow, which you mentioned recently was one of the weirdest places you’ve ever been?
Yeah. I have to say I’m very proud of both projects, of course Creepshow is very different. I met Greg Nicotero back when he did my face-off mask for Breaking Bad, my final episode. And you know, he’s a great artist and he’d just started to do The Walking Dead, which is a show that I don’t watch much because I don’t watch TV that much, and don’t have time to sit down to find it. But it was the weirdest thing because first of all, I did Stephen King’s directorial debut [Maximum Overdrive]. Great writer, Stephen King, who I bow down to. I think he’s terrific in every single way and every single genre! Amazing talent. And I did Maximum Overdrive with him, so he’d turn that up back in the day…and George Romero. If you grew up in the fifties, sixties, you knew George Romero. Everything was like kind of over the top, you know. He made the craziest kind of movies. And he and Stephen knew each other back then, so this particular episode that I did is a novella by Stephen King, and [Romero] wrote the original. So, Greg Nicotero -who I happened to befriend years ago, and then he became a director and he kept in touch- had called me and asked me to do it. So, I gotta say that doing someone a favor you gotta be all in, and I love Greg and had never worked with him as a director. So that was my desire. So, then I got chosen to do it and then, of course, Adrienne Barbeau who was in the original Creepshow by George Romero…He amassed all this great talent and said, ‘Hey, would you do me a favor?’ And I said I’d love to because I’d never done that genre. I’d been playing the baddest of badasses ever, and the most exciting characters ever; and to have the opportunity to play all the characters I’ve played in the last year and a half, I feel very, very blessed. And so, I decided ‘Hey man, go and see what it’s like for something to scare the shit out of you’ [laughs]. You know? You’ve been scaring the crap out of people for a while, why not go? And the script was good…We were able to infuse it and imbibe it with a personal relationship between a Doc and a Sheriff. And there’s a hurricane coming in, but then there’s something happening to them. And so I loved it. It gave me a sense of eager again. We had to have had the most incredible set you’ve ever seen. It was literally worse than the horror at the House of Horror because it was so real. And so that alone is a character, but then when the monster is revealed it’s just like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute.’ So yeah, it was the weirdest thing. I was excited. And I still am.
I can tell.
[Laughs] You know, you can’t creep me out easily. But I certainly was then.
In the Godfather of Harlem, you bring to life the late Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who was an avid Baptist pastor. Now I read you almost became a priest instead of taking the acting road, so what was it like years later combining two of your aspirations within the same ballpark
It was good, certainly different religions, you know. My grandmother was a Baptist Order in the Baptist church, and my mother followed her as a singer and piano player as well. I grew up in that church and my mother went to the Pentecostal Church. So I knew that world. So playing this role really harkens back to my time in the Baptist church, where I really feel like it’s the Holy Roller church. The Pentecostal church, the Baptist church, the Holy Roller church. You’ve got the evil spirit and the fire. And so, playing Clayton Powell, that was playing one piece of him, because he was very passionate, very organic, and a really wonderful preacher. And he was also a really wonderful speaker. So that combined with incredible intelligence, you know, having sixty-eight bills passed through Congress no one else could pass. He did that. So when I thought this, what was wonderful about me playing the role, was that I get to play him.
My mother would always talk about Clayton Powell, the women talked about him. He was a ladies’ guy. He was a preacher. He was a congressman. He did all of these things. He drank, he smoked, he praised God. He moved people. But he was also part-politician, working to get things done for African Americans. And they loved him in Harlem. So that was my stomping ground, long before it ever became Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd. And it was an honor, a very deeply large responsibility to bring him to life.
And man, something happened when playing that role because all I’ve been getting is phone calls from the network and phone calls from our creative producer who’s texting me every other week just going, ‘Oh my gosh, oh my gosh.’ It’s the role of a lifetime. I don’t know what to say about it because I haven’t seen any of it yet, but I do know how I felt. I felt free and right in my element and didn’t know what I was doing, because when you don’t know as an actor what you’re doing and you can’t track it, then something good is happening [laughs].
Before we let you go, one thing off the record…There was a poll going on between you, Denzel Washington, and Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson on which actor people would want to see play President Obama in a movie. Now congratulations are in order as you came out on top, but my question for you is…would you be down?
Wait, you gotta tell me about this poll…First of all, I’m so honored. I love Denzel. I just saw ‘The Rock’, I was in the gym riding a bicycle. I used to see him at the gym in LA. Yesterday I was in the gym peddling away, getting those calories off and there’s ‘The Rock’ on Kelly Clarkson and he brought her a flower! I didn’t even know. An IMDB poll? That is so cool.
I can’t wait to tell my publicist and call my social media guy. Are you kidding me? Am I down? [2004, Boston] Barack spoke at the Democratic National Convention. I was standing four feet in front of him. And I was so moved by his speech, I whispered to my former wife who was with me ‘He’s gonna be President of the United States’. I walked out of that room -I was with a friend of mine and his family- and he had gone out to get the car so we’d walked out to the parking lot, and I just hear, ‘YO! YO, STOP! YO!’ And I’m like, ‘Wow, people are really yelling at me, man. That’s so ghetto’ [laughs]. And I turn around, over my shoulder, he goes ‘Yo man, now wait a minute!’ It was Barack. He had just spoken, with one other person with him, no bodyguard, no nothing. Came up to me, put it out, and said, ‘I just wanted you to know how much I love your work, and I want you to know that when I had my first date with Michelle, we went to go see Do The Right Thing and then we went and got ice cream.’ And basically, he said to me that I changed his life. And I was like, ‘You gotta be kidding’. I said, ‘Well young man, you’ll be the next president of the United States’, or something goofy like that. Not quite that way, probably didn’t even say that. But that’s how I’m gonna remember it [laughs].
So, when you ask me am I down? It would be the role of a lifetime to play this dignified, graceful, very intelligent, beautiful man. And if that opportunity were to come my way, I would be all over it. And I think people would be able to -from the performance I would give- really be able to see all the sides of the conflict that Barack went through, in and outside of his party, out of his desire for the American people. His intention was everything. One of the strongest, most powerful, cleanest intentions of a President we’ve had in years. No scandal, you know. No matter what you say about him if you wanna judge his presidency so bad, do it. But that’s so silly. Look back. The guy only had a short amount of time, tried to please everybody, make things better. He did what he could…It’s nice to be popular and to be on these polls, so I’d like to thank the fans. I had no idea I came out on top, and I’m shocked that I did. How wonderful. I would love to do it. I’m up for the task.