Giancarlo Esposito is charisma embodied. An authority figure who has portrayed some of television’s most iconic villains, starting with Gus Fring in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul, but also recently Moff Gideon in The Mandalorian. “Characters of few words,” he reacts. Yet what can the 63-year-old actor be talkative and generous in our interview for season 2 of Godfather of Harlem, from Sunday on Starzplay.
The series, created by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein (Narcos) and awarded at the Emmy Awards, explores the convergence of the criminal world and civil rights in the 1960s through the fate of Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker), his friendship with Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch) or his rivalry with Adam Clayton Powell, a political leader played by Giancarlo Esposito. A role in which the actor has invested a lot and which allows him to share his vision of the profession and of the world.
Interpreting a person who really existed is a challenge. Do some research or stick to the storyline? How did you approach the role of Adam Clayton Powell?
I think it’s a great responsibility for an actor to play a person who really existed, who played an important role in history through the changes he initiated and the role he played in the American movement of civil rights. Ultimately, few people know Adam Clayton Powell, except maybe die-hard New Yorkers. It is an honor to have the opportunity to tell, reconstruct his story, and add to it, mix with it, my performance as an actor.
I had a freer approach, because I knew the laws he passed, I knew whatever he was fighting for, I had done a lot of research to understand who he was. I then realized that it took a bit of my personality to bring it to life on screen. A character always has several facets. It is not all research or a scenario. Adam Clayton Powell was a complex, colorful person.
A man of great ideals, he ended up corrupted by money and power. He could have had his own TV series …
It’s true. In the 1940s, Adam Clayton Powell was one of the leaders of the American civil rights movement, then the first congressman from the African American community. He became chairman of the Education and Labor Committee in the 1960s and passed important social laws. But he did not let himself be told how to live his life, he spoke loud and clear, in defiance of danger. He could very well have been the hero of his own series, it would have been interesting and fun to watch.
You interpret it with a little cartoon side, close to caricature. Why ?
Adam is what we call a character larger than life. The United States of America was ruled by white southerners, and perhaps he thought you had to act like them to exist. His personality could be overwhelming. He didn’t act like he expected respect, like he had to convey a good image of himself. No, he let people see that he was a human being like them, that he too was looking for freedom. In the United States, “the land of freedom, the homeland of the brave” to use the national anthem.
What was it like playing an exuberant character after the coldness of Gus Fring from “Breaking Bad” or Moff Gideon from “The Mandalorian”?
They were, in fact, men of few words, very internalized. So it was a pleasure to let go of the pressure, to let off steam. I said that Adam was larger than life, he was even bordering on caricature. I hope I haven’t taken it too far. Adam was very comfortable in his skin, he was living the life he wanted to live. He knew there was always more to do, and he worked hard for the community, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. You don’t necessarily see such public figures today, who are really doing everything in their power to change things, so that people regain their dignity.
“Godfather of Harlem” resonates with the news and with the Black Lives Matter movement.
There are strong correlations between our series and what’s going on in the world. The public must look the past in the eye, remember what happened, and thus realize that it is repeating itself today. This is what makes the series so contemporary. Without forgetting the voluntarily anachronistic music, in the era of time. I really think it’s important to show, in different ways, what happened historically, what these men were. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Malcolm X, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante… They all had an agenda to make things happen, for their community, their organization, their party, their people. They initiated a new type of change, their struggle was political and personal. We find the same identity and race struggles today, still ongoing struggles.
Do you see yourself as a committed actor, and is acting in “Godfather of Harlem” a political act?
Very good question. And yes, for me it is a political act to play in such a series. We always try, as actors, to find a personal, intimate connection with what we play whether it is entertainment, fantasy or history. There was the civil rights movement, and by echo and extension, what could come out of the Black Lives Matter movement: that people recognize that all lives are equal, that all human beings are the same, with our different cultures, different religions, different histories. We are at a time in the history of humanity, and of our planet, which asks us to come together. I think that Godfather of Harlem, in its own way, at its level, is a way to face the truth, to share it with as many people as possible, and to reflect on it together.
From the “Homicide” series to the Spike Lee films, you have a rich career, but you confided that everything had changed with the short and little-known series “Girls Club” by David E. Kelly: you played a boss there.
In a career, and even in life, you mature over the years. Me, I started to realize that there were roles that I could play but that I had never thought of before. Girls Club is thus one of the first series where I was the person “in charge”, at the head of a team, in whom we can trust. It was 20 years ago and few minorities were thus represented at the top of the social pyramid, at the height of their careers. I felt that I needed to take on more roles of this type, that I set an example, serve as inspiration. Whether we are African-Americans, Indians or other “minorities”, we are quite capable of having responsibilities, of making decisions, of running large corporations… and the whole world needs to know that.
That you can also play legendary antagonists, like in “Breaking Bad”, “The Mandalorian” and soon the video game “Far Cry 6”.
I’m very excited to play a big bad guy in this video game franchise. Because the technology is impressive, but also and above all for the history. It finds its inspiration, once again, in the news, with these third world countries which want to manage themselves and no longer depend on the great powers. My character, Anton “El Presidente” Castillo, reigns over his country, his resources, and wants to convince his people that to regain their power, they need a leader with an iron fist. Anton is all the richer as a character because he has personal and human problems, including a son in doubt, whom he must bring up and whom he wants to train as his successor.
I like stories that are true, believable, organic, with complex characters, neither all black nor all white, because we are not. In a world like ours, a work must allow us to see the complexity behind the action, to show who we really are. Because, often, everything goes too quickly, you do not understand the engine of such and such a character, which led him to have these thoughts, these emotions. I look for roles, characters who have existed or not, which make me think differently about who I am.
It should be mentioned that the cast of “Godfather of Harlem” has the air of meeting the best “faces” of cinema and TV.
It’s so great to work with all these actors. You have seen that there is Isaach de Bankolé in season 2, well known to you. Paul Sorvino, whose career I have always followed, Chazz Palminteri the same. Without forgetting Vincent D’Onofrio, a master. But we must give back to Caesar and Forrest Whitaker what is his. Today he has the stature and the possibility of choosing his projects, projects that allow him to see different worlds, cultures and ethnicities living together. He participates in making Godfather of Harlem a great series.
One last bonus and 100% French question: you played in Mylène Farmer’s “California” music video in 1996, what do you remember?
I remember how wonderful, talented, and beautiful Mylène was. She took us on such an adventure, a very provocative video, sexy as hell. But I also remember Abel Ferrara, a talented filmmaker, who was the director of the clip and who was always late for the set. One day, he called me to tell me that he wouldn’t be there and that I had to direct the clip. Me, the actor. (laughs) So I told him to get ready for in 15 minutes, that I was going to come get him. There was a great Porsche in the clip, we weren’t allowed to use it, but I convinced the team to give me the keys and I drove at full speed down Sunset Boulevard to its hotel. This is the genius of Abel. (laughs) I was very amused.