Actor Giancarlo Esposito sat down with The Torch News Editor J. Wolfgang Wool and KVAL for an interview prior to his keynote address at Lane’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, but he began by explaining the etymology of his name. This is the full transcript of the interview.
The Torch: So, Mr. Esponito —
Esposito: It’s Esposito.
The Torch: Thank you. Sorry about that. Esposito.
Esposito: No worries. I’ll correct you again. It’s Es-poh-zi-to.
The Torch and Esposito: Es-poh-zi-to.
Esposito: So Espositos in America think their name is Esposito, but it’s not. It’s pronounced (enunciates) Es-poh-zi-to in the proper Italian pronunciation. When the name came over here, they just started to say it differently. The is a whole history behind that name, which I won’t get into here. (everyone laughs)
In Naples, Italy, Esposito is like Smith. You can open the phone book and there are literally thousands upon thousands of Espositos. And the reason for that is Esposito means “exposed child.” There was a priest who ran an orphanage, and he gave all the children who have been given up by their parents his own name of Esposito. And that’s how they became so prominent in southern Naples.
The Torch: Wow, thank you for that.
Esposito: You’re welcome
The Torch: That actually ties into my first question. You moved to America when you were 6, to Manhattan, and that was around the time the Civil Rights Act was first passed. Were those events related at all in your parent’s decision?
Esposito: No, I can’t say that they were. My mother was an opera singer from Cleveland, Ohio. She met my father in San Carlo Opera (a traveling opera troupe). They had gone to Europe on a tour of (the George Gershwin opera) Porgy and Bess. Back in the late ‘50s, the State Department used to do these State Department tours and they went behind the Iron Curtain and they went to Europe.
That’s the reason my mother won the Marion Anderson scholarship, came to New York, won the role of Bess in that show, then went to Europe to meet my Dad and got married over there and toured Europe. It was just time for them to come home. Although that was a very profound time for me because I was very young and had experienced only a European cultural upbringing.
Then, I was thrown in New York, where people sort of double-taked at me because of the color of my skin, or looked at me with suspicion. That was my sort of first uneasy feeling that maybe I was in a place that made me feel uncomfortable.
KVAL: Mr. Esposito, your main thoughts you’ll share tonight vis-à-vis the Civil Rights Act and the legacy that has had on American society?
Esposito: I’ve been very moved by Martin Luther King my whole life. I feel like he pulled together the impossible, and that was to be morally correct and spiritually sound. In our remembrance of him, it’s very important to look within our own hearts today and see where our own spiritual, moral political prejudices lie.
We are now in this place. We are very proud of this place we call America. But yet there are people and nationalities of people who come after us, who look to us to be free. Are we in support of the same freedom that was afforded us, the African-American people, at a very difficult time in our history? Are we in support of freeing other nations and allowing them not only to be free but to be free of our desires politically and economically?
So now freedom comes to the world, but with a price. It very much resembles what happened back in the 1800s, which began with John Brown. No one really speaks about John Brown, but he was a white abolitionist, a Calvinist who believed in the divine. He believed in God. But he fought for the freedom of African-Americans. That led to the Civil War. That was economic because the South didn’t want to give up slaves, because they would have no one to work for free.
So here we are in our process, and we have all these countries in the Middle East and around our world who want democracy, but, yet, what price does that take? Does it take the Haliburtons going in and the Boeings — all these different companies who go in, who are promised contracts to develop that country? Or is freedom really free? That will sort of be the topic of conversation tonight. How are we going to forward the gift given to us as Americans, both black and white. I come from a mixed racial background, so my view is a little bit different.
I believe this the reason I feel so connected to Mr. Martin Luther King, because he was about equality for all people, all men and all women. So we are just catching up with ourselves here because when we talk about freedom — when we talk about Civil Rights — I think many of us still think in terms of men, but we also have to talk about equality for women. We are still catching up to that.
KVAL: So it’s a great legacy of 50 years, but there is still much work to be done?
Esposito: I believe so. I believe there is a lot of work to be done and I believe the work to be done is the work that is inside each one of us. It’s on a personal level. I firmly believe that you can’t heal a nation unless you have healed yourself. Human beings have a great facility for knowledge and for education and for learning, and what happens is, we learn things from our families of origin that (were) true to them.
So I will talk a little bit tonight about being discerning. Even with your own families. Being discerning, being questioning — developing that question mark in a graceful way to ask questions about the world around you. About the family that you live in so you can get to the root of what’s been passed on to you so you can decide if you want to take that on or not. To basically become critical thinkers, but to think in a different way about our world. We had the chant when Obama came into office and we talk about change, and how important that is. But now it’s time to really live it on a personal level. Once that happens for masses and groups of people we will move forward.
Because you are a leader or you are a follower. You are a connector, a dreamer, a hoper, but it’s the doer in our world that really changes things. And so if you feel that you have no voice, then you feel disconnected and then you just might become that follower who feels that they have no impact. I’m in the performing arts to feel like I have a palpable impact when someone comes to me after a stage performance and has tears in their eyes. But it is the same way in the world. It takes courage to march to a different drummer. It takes courage to be questionable and it takes intelligence coupled with that courage to be someone who says, “I don’t feel like this is right, but let me follow the right steps to change it.” That is what leadership really becomes about.
The Torch: Mr Esposito, what impact do you think globalization has had on civil rights? You kind of touched on this a little bit, but could you elaborate a little more on globalization’s role?
Esposito: It has a huge impact, because now the world has become smaller and information travels faster. So what happens through the field I’m in — entertainment — is that people in in Iran, Iraq or Bahrain — all these far-away countries that we would have to look in National Geographic to find — now they find us. They find our entertainment, they find our television, they see our films and they see that life looks a little better for us here then it looks for them in an oppressed society. And they want freedom. The walls start to crumble and things start to change. I think it has one the most profound impacts on our quickly changing world without a doubt.
KVAL: A showbiz question if we could?
KVAL: Your role as Gus on Breaking Bad. Could you explain the popularity of that role? It really has become a fan favorite.
Esposito: We have a time in television where I believe we are returning to the golden age of television, in that we are more creative than ever and that we have the opportunity to do a variety of shows that are returning to story. I think Breaking Bad has been one of the leaders in that arena. Not only is it entertaining, but it is a very truthful, honest story that you or I could see happening. Especially at a time where many Americans in our United States are struggling with employment, jobs. You know companies pull out as did the company from Portland here Helix —
Lane instructor Greg Evans: Hynix
Esposito: Hynix and their 2,000 jobs that had been laid off. Everyone is struggling to try to recover economically. So the show, Walter White’s story, is just that: an educator dying of cancer, wanting to leave his family something. People turn to illicit ways of making a living. I think that the popularity of the show is because the writing is so good and it is believable. I did the show — oddly enough, even though I play the meth kingpin Gus Fring — I did the show because I had interaction with two young guys from Mormon Utah. In their last year of school they go to all these different places in the United States. I really like these two guys and I remembered them. About five years later, there was a story of these two who on their mission disappeared into the vast wasteland of crystal meth. I think they were eventually recovered, and eventually returned to Utah and cleaned up and got safe. But they delve into that world and got sucked up by it. If you don’t know, there is really a major problem of crystal meth in our American Society. It is looked at in a very different way because it has a different access point. It’s not cocaine, it’s not marijuana, but people are suffering from it. So I took the role because I wanted people to know more about that particular scourge and I wanted people to do something about it.
The Torch: So talking about “Gus,” do you find it ironic that you go an NAACP nomination for your role as a drug kingpin?
Esposito: Uh, I think it is possibly a little ironic, yes. (laughs) Without a doubt. Especially and specifically because in our African-American neighborhoods that’s their business, and something has to be done about that. You know when I ran into two drug dealers who stopped me at a red light? Well, in the beginning they stopped me — they rolled their window down, and they recognized me from Spike Lee films. This is going back years and years ago. I pulled over and got out of the car and we had a nice rap on the corner. But their car — I was driving a rental car, I was doing a shoot in Detroit, and they were in a Mercedes. So they stepped off and started to get back in the car and I said, “If I don’t say anything to these guys, who am I? How can I even live with myself?”
So I said, “Hey, wait a minute?”
And they said “Yo, what up?”
Then I said, “Why you doing what you doing?”
They said, “What you mean?”
I said, “I know what you doing. I know you’re slinging.”
They were like, “Yeah, OK, so what?”
“You know, why? Why are you selling drugs in your own neighborhood to your own people?”
And he looked at me and said, “Look at that car you driving. Look what I’m driving.” (laughs) He said to me, “I make more in a week — in a day — than you make in a week or a month.”
I said, “OK, but just know one thing: The possibility that it is a very short life is very real. So just remember that.”
And that was it.
I remember those two young Mormons years later on the news — that story came out. And those young cats in Detroit, they made an impression on me and that’s when I decided I didn’t want to play drug dealers. I stopped playing any kind of street thug — drug dealer, in the hood — many years ago. I had to, because other than some of the other actors in Hollywood — some of who I know and some of who I don’t — they don’t feel that is a reflection, or that they should be a role model.
But I do. I feel like visual impressions in our world are very strong. For me, they are, because I’m an artist and photographer, and I’m a painter and I’m a director. So when I see something visually, I remember it. I record it. I can see motion and movement in it. I can see spirit in it. I can see logic in it. I can all of these different things, and I feel as if someone sees me on television or in a film doing something or shining brightly — really happy with the trappings of what I’ve received because I’ve played this drug dealer — whether it is the car I’m driving or the rings I’m wearing or the gold — all this. They relate to that on a subliminal, subconscious level and that might be the choice that they make. And what an awful choice that would be, because that is such a dank and horrible life.
So I feel like I have an obligation, especially in the African-American communities, which are still a little outside of the rest of the rest of us, you know? And sort of left behind. I have been working in Carolina, in Texas, there are parts right outside of Austin, right outside of Wilmington, where you can go into the African-American neighborhood and you can’t understand what these brothers and sisters are saying. They have their own language, you know? And it’s all about the crack. It’s all about the drugs.