How Giancarlo Esposito Makes Us Love His Bad Guys

As an actor, Esposito approaches his characters — from 'Breaking Bad' to 'The Mandalorian' — by peeling back their layers and giving them substance.

by Donna Freydkin
Originally Published: 
Getty / Disney

The best antiheroes are also the most multi-dimensional. Hannibal Lecter, when he wasn’t feasting on fava beans washed down with a dry Chianti, oozed slithery charm, had a biting wit, and an almost superhuman ability to read human beings. And sure, Tony Soprano was a homicidal, philandering sociopath, but one who also struggled with debilitating panic attacks and crippling depression. Add to that list Moff Gideon, the merciless yet disarmingly intelligent security operative of the Galactic Empire in The Mandalorian on Disney+. Yes, he once killed an officer for interrupting him. Was his reaction perhaps a bit harsh? Yup.

But then again, that happened off-screen, and maybe we don’t know the whole story. And actor Giancarlo Esposito is a master at filling in the villain’s backstory, and in doing so, making his baddies well, less bad.

Like Moff Gideon, “Human beings contain both light and dark and they struggle with that inside of themselves,” says Giancarlo Esposito, who plays him on the show.

“I realized that there are no clear-cut answers or clear-cut visions or views of a villain. It’s all dependent upon what they want in their life, what they’re trying to achieve in the story, and where they’re going. So for me, that opened up a door to say, there are no stereotypical human beings, only stereotypical characters in the way that they’re depicted. When I got to Moff Gideon, I wanted to play to his strengths.”

Those traits will be revealed (we presume) when the second season of the show premieres on Oct. 30. It’s a bit ironic that Esposito, a wonderfully thoughtful actor with a quiet, almost zen disposition, specializes in villains: His Gus Fring, on Breaking Bad and its prequel Better Call Saul, was a deliciously amoral Machiavellian drug lord. Esposito talks to Fatherly about being a key part of the Star Wars universe, wielding the legendary darksaber, and the three little words that governed how he raised his four daughters.

Your villains are absolutely monstrously awesome because viewers actually like them. How do you approach playing these guys and especially Moff, whose sole goal seems to be capturing baby Yoda?

Well, each one has been very different for me, I think the mold and the idea came to me when I was doing Breaking Bad and moving into Better Call Saul.

So each character may do things that are bad, or we think may lead to some badness. With Moff Gideon, I realized his strength was to be in charge, was to delegate, was to tell people what to do, was to not reveal what he wanted. The availability of my emotional place is to allow all sorts of things to come in and don’t judge them. And play both sides of the coin because I’m a human being and we need to see more of the struggle of human beings.

I assume kids come up to you all the time to tell you how much they love the show?

Many do. And I’m really blessed to be in the Star Wars universe because it gives young people a chance to dream. To see a universe where they can relate to it. And they can relate to all the weaponry and machinery and transportation that’s in that world. Kids look at me and go, ‘Whoah,’ because I’m all-powerful Moff Gideon. But what I’m really want to get at is that they have great questions about where our world is going today, and how it links up to a future world that may look better. And so then they’re starting to think about how they can contribute to that.

And so I’m always really astounded at what young people get from the idea of, I can also be a hero. What does that mean? And in today’s world, we have few heroes who have consciousness, and integrity, and amorality. And so I feel like this show is pretty fantastic for young people because they really respect and see the light. That’s something that can be exemplified through entertainment. They can be heroes who stand up to bullying. They can be heroes who raise money for causes.

That’s a great point, especially during this election cycle, where heroics are in very short supply.

I would hope that people do come alive and wake up. I know what I try to tell my daughters is to stand up for what you believe in, and to be true to yourself. There are a lot of people who still don’t get it. Money and power doesn’t sustain us. So I think we’re beginning to see, oh, there is another route, let’s figure out a way to get rid of our anger, and start to look at the world in a fresh way where people can understand each other’s cultures.

How does it feel to hold the darksaber? It must be pretty incredible.

I don’t think it can be quantified. There’s such a respect that we as an audience have grown to feel from a weapon like the darksaber or the lightsaber. It’s a powerful effect, and it can be used for good or it can be used for evil.

Of course, I had to practice a little bit. I think of it a little bit like kendo, that Japanese art of fencing with a stick, or fencing. It’s not about killing so much as it is about learning how to parry— learning how to use it in a way that teaches you a physicality that is like no other. And so for me, I had a blast.

It’s been my dream come true to be able to be in this place and in this otherworldly position. This show is about a man who sacrifices his life to take care of the Child, that he doesn’t even know what incredible qualities this child has. So it really is the hero’s journey. And I love that.

One thing that really stands out to me is that you’re a lead of one of the biggest shows on the air — and you’re not a cookie-cutter blonde dude with blue eyes.

I’m really proud to be a mixed-race. I have to say it’s come with its challenges. And all the young people out there who maybe might see this or are who are also mixed race, and maybe feel self-conscious about it — I, at a certain point, in my early teens, let go of the fact that I was mixed race. I came from Italy, my father’s Italian, my mother’s Black — I let it go because I thought I had the best of both worlds.

And that was the positive way for me to fit into my body at that time. And it allowed me to start to see the world in a different way. I’m part of the best parts of the world, color-wise, ethically, it’s given me a wider spectrum to draw upon to understand that people are people and that we’re human.

You have four daughters. What sage advice do you give them?

It was to do what they love to do, to seek things out and to be around people, places, and things that were uplifting. To always be true to themselves. Now young people go through stages of adolescence and then get into the teenage years, where they really struggle with who they are and how they fit in the world. And so for my children, I tried to allow them to open up that prism and to feel like they fit in anywhere. I tried to be really honest with them about my experiences, and allow them to know that I’m a sum of many of my experiences.

What we do in our lives is actionable. So if we hold on to stuff that doesn’t allow us to feel whole, then we’re going to live that way. And then we might have a little anger or resentment. But when we realize that we can do anything, because we can, and we put our intellect with our spirituality, with our self-esteem, then we realize we are becoming the person that we always want to become, and that that’s true and organic and real.

What’s been the best part, for you, of raising your daughters?

The most rewarding part about being a father, for me, was to come to a point where I could listen to my children. As we get older, we get a little more jaded. And I grew up with a father who was pretty smart. And a mom who was very, very, very creative. I feel like I have to shut up. And let me listen first, to their feelings, to what’s going on with them emotionally, to what’s happening with them psychologically, to what they’re learning. Because the more I’m quiet, the more I learned about my four girls, who are all completely different, who have aspirations of their own, who are worried about our world, the more I’m able to counsel them in a different way. And they’re able to teach me something that is new and more appropriate for today’s living than when I grew up. So there’s no template.

The best thing has been to stop myself and go, ‘Oh, those words are really a thought form that came from my mother and father. And they’re not really what I believe.’ But they’re the go-to when I’m asked a hard question. So that’s one thing: To listen better. My second child is now 22, but when I looked at her at 16, and I had been really impatient with her, and we were having some kind of disagreement. And I just stopped.

And I had to say to her, ‘I’m sorry.’ And I explained to her that I’m an impatient human being, I want it done now. And the moment I said to her, ‘I want to tell you something about myself,’ coming from this very strange conversation, all this love poured out of me. Because I realized, ‘Oh, I’m not so good at listening to my children, because I want to protect them.’ I want to tell them how it is. I want to tell them my experience. And that should guide them. Why don’t I tell them about my heart, and who I really am?

And that changed the game in my relationship with my second child, it changed the game completely, because then she went, ‘Oh, I kind of get it now.’ So I said, just have patience with me. Because I’m impatient with myself. It may seem that I’m impatient with you. But I really, I’m impatient with myself. And the third thing because things good things come in threes is to be able to say, which is very difficult for a parent, ‘I don’t know.’ Sometimes we just don’t know. Let’s talk about it. Let’s find out together. But that’s a vulnerable place to be as a parent, but it’s the only place to be as a parent, because it allows you to listen, to really hear, and to really see with a different kind of vision.

The Mandalorian is streaming now on Disney+

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