Giancarlo Esposito is thinking about robbery.
“Have you ever walked into a bank and thought, ‘There’s all this money here’?” he asked recently. “And there’s the door, and you see a sweet young teller. You know she’s green. What if I just went and said, ‘Just empty the money in this bag.’ Would I get away with it?”
It’s a brief reverie from the star of the new Netflix heist series “Kaleidoscope,” about a master thief seeking revenge, assembling a team and facing his mortality. But it’s also standard for an actor always immersed in thoughts of his work, whether he’s playing a neighborhood agitator who wants to see some Black faces on the local pizzeria photo wall (Buggin’ Out in “Do the Right Thing”), a ruthless drug lord hiding in plain sight (Gus Fring in “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul”) or the leader of a remnant of the Galactic Empire (Moff Gideon in “The Mandalorian”).
Prolific, palpably thoughtful, he seems ubiquitous. But he is constitutionally incapable of mailing it in. His work is intensely personal.
“I’m a really committed actor,” he said during a recent video interview, dressed dapper as ever in a black dress shirt, silver jacket and sleek eyeglasses. “I believe that my work will heal my personality, that it will allow me to know more of who I am and experience more emotions. So then I can understand more of what my motives are in life. I look at my work as a meditation, as a spiritual journey. It’s an investigation for me.”
Esposito’s run as Gus Fring ended in August with the conclusion of “Better Call Saul.” (With Jonathan Banks.)Credit…Greg Lewis/AMC
For most of his career, he has done his investigating in supporting roles, quietly stealing scenes from better-known stars. In “Kaleidoscope,” an experimental thriller premiering on Sunday, he is the main attraction, the leader of a criminal enterprise and a cast that also includes Paz Vega, Rufus Sewell, Rosaline Elbay and Jai Courtney. It’s a rare chance to see a popular character actor make a splash in a lead role.
Not that those supporting parts haven’t given him room to shine. In the current chapter of his career, which began when he arrived on “Breaking Bad” in 2009 and has brought five Emmy nominations, Esposito has fostered a riveting but careful consideration of good and evil.
Fring went down as one of television’s indelible villains, a soft-spoken killer who never broke character as a pillar of the business community. Gideon, the character that made Esposito a part of the fanatically popular “Star Wars” universe, is a war criminal who believes in law and order. In “Godfather of Harlem,” which kicks off its third season on Jan. 15, he plays United States Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. as a man not immune to moral compromise.
In “Kaleidoscope,” which has a nonlinear structure in which episodes can theoretically be watched in any order, Esposito’s character actually has two identities and two names. One is Ray Vernon, a devoted family man who also happens to be a jewelry thief until he ends up in prison. When he escapes years later, battling Parkinson’s disease and closer to the end of life than to the beginning, he becomes Leo Pap. Consumed with desire for revenge against his former partner in crime (Sewell), whom he blames for both his incarceration and the death of his wife, Leo puts together a colorful and deeply flawed team to pull off One Last Job, in classic heist-film fashion.
The character is a classic Esposito creation: a good bad guy, or a bad good guy, or perhaps just a reflection of the fact that even the best of us have demons to tame. The actor’s facility with such roles helps explain his current popularity in an era of television that, though a ways past the heyday of Tony Soprano and Walter White, still loves its antiheroes.
“We struggle with our own nature,” he said. “For me to keep it real, I feel like people have all of these sides inside them. If I’m not representing that, then I’m playacting. For me, acting has been a way to share who I am: the good, the bad, the ugly.”
Within the industry, however, Esposito has a reputation as one of the good guys.
The “Kaleidoscope” creator and showrunner Eric Garcia recalled a tricky prison scene, in which the inmates are fed a meal that contains magic mushrooms to create a distraction for a potential escape. It’s a strange and very funny sequence in which a cafeteria full of hardened criminals are reduced to uncontrollable giggling and wordless wonder at life. Shooting involved a lot of extras, or background players. Garcia wasn’t sure how it would come off.
“Then GC gave them this speech about how you are your vessel, you are the thing that the acting flows through,” Garcia recalled in an interview. “It was probably five, 10 minutes, off the cuff. When they were done, they were all Brando. Every single one of those actors was sure that they were going to be the next thing, because he just imbued them with it. And as a result, they’re fantastic in the scene, and it was an amazing day of filming.”
“That’s just one example,” he added. “But it was that sort of thing that would happen.”
Esposito’s good cheer isn’t always so formal. “My favorite thing was in between camera setups when he’d sidle up to you and mutter a joke under his breath, something that would crack you up in between scenes,” said Elbay, who plays the heist crew’s chemist, Judy. One day on the set Elbay was admiring one of the miniature animals that Leo carves to keep his hands busy.
“He slipped it into my pocket on the last day of shooting,” she said. “He’s just a really, really lovely team leader and collaborator, and he made it a very, very lovely experience for me.”
Esposito’s performance in “Kaleidoscope” derives much of its power from its humility, especially once Ray breaks out of prison and becomes Leo. We see him become increasingly frail, confronting his disease and a life full of regret.
“He has the brain skill, but the body’s going,” he said. “In a way, that’s the tragedy of our lives. As we get older, we get more delicate and we get more fragile. I still have the brain and the sense of a younger man, but to think, ‘I have to be careful stepping off that curb,’ it’s a bitch.
“By the time Leo realizes how sick he is, it’s just too late and he knows it’s going to go downhill,” he continued. “So this job becomes really important to him.”
Esposito (pronounced Es-POH-sito), 64, caught the acting bug early. Born in Copenhagen to an Italian stagehand and carpenter and an African American opera and nightclub singer, he made his Broadway debut as a child in the musical “Maggie Flynn,” about the New York City draft riots of 1863. He was immediately hooked. “I had a feeling that the world I could live in was something other than the world that most people lived in,” he said.
His early film roles for Spike Lee, in “School Daze,” “Mo’ Better Blues” and especially “Do the Right Thing,” carry a sense of youthful exuberance. But his many TV roles are marked by a sense of implacable stillness that bespeaks the maturity that comes from a long career. Think of Fring, straightening his tie with half his face missing as he checks out of “Breaking Bad.”
“He is very calm, and he’s always trying to give the best energy to create a good atmosphere around him,” said Vega, who plays Ava, Leo’s lawyer. “When you have to work and always rush and do so many things with so many elements, it’s good to have someone like him there.”
As for the starring role? It’s nice, but you don’t get the feeling it carries special weight or pressure for Esposito. It’s not like he has trouble finding meaningful work or getting recognition for it. His dance card is full for the foreseeable future, including a Netflix movie for the Russo Brothers, “The Electric State.”
He’s one of those guys you tend to believe when he says it’s all about the work.
“I love what I do,” he said. “To be versatile is important, and I’ve had the ability and the opportunity to be diverse in my career. And man, I feel so lucky.”