Better Call Saul Q&A – Giancarlo Esposito on How Kim Is "Changed Forever" in His TV Directorial Debut

Giancarlo Esposito, who plays Gustavo Fring on AMC’s Better Call Saul, breaks down the big moments of directing his first TV episode, why this episode is so pivotal for Kim’s character development, and what it’s been like to play Gus when he’s not in control.
You have directed a couple of feature films. When and how did the idea of directing an episode of Better Call Saul come about?
Before Better Call Saul, starting with Breaking Bad. I read the [Breaking Bad] script and I really loved it. I didn't want to do the guest spot because I had been the king of guest spots; I wanted something more. So, I came to do one guest spot and I recognized how this family of filmmakers, led by the genius of Vince Gilligan, were really putting it down. And when I say that, I mean that they were doing something different, innovative, new, and had an energy to it that I had never experienced in all of my guest spots on television. So, I did that. Before I got off the plane, they asked me to do another one and so on and so forth… and it turned into me becoming a series regular and doing all of that show.
I was inspired so much by what they were doing.. and I thought it might be good to learn from these masters of television. I wanted on board, so I gave Vince my film with the intention of him liking it and hopefully being asked to direct. So, I asked Vince around Season 4, which was the season where he called me into his office to talk about my imminent demise. We talked some more and I said, "Hey, did you watch my film?" And he said, "No, I haven't gotten to it yet." Around that time that I realized that I would never ask again because you ask once and you keep going, and my value to them was as an actor and I went on to finish that show and then the ask back for Better Call Saul. … So, we kept going. Before Season 6, I got a phone call in August from Vince, Melissa Bernstein, and also Peter Gould… and [Peter] said, "We're calling to ask you if you would direct." And I said, "Hold on a minute." [Makes a cheering noise] Literally. I put the phone away from my ear and I screamed. I thought, “Good things come to those who wait."
Was it a challenge to direct this show versus the work you had previously done in features?
Once I was asked to direct, I thought, "Wow, I'm in trouble now. Can I do it? Do I have a vision? Do I know this show?" And what I started to realize was I'm not the Breaking Bad geek I would have liked to have been or the Better Call Saul geek, but I knew that this show was a different show than Breaking Bad. It was a show that was much more character-driven and personal on some level. And I recognized that was why they probably asked me – because I'm really good with actors. I have a sense of character and I wanted to be able to learn this style that works so well for Better Call Saul, what that is and how it gets made, and I certainly had a very true and full experience in the process.
The specific thing I learned is how to tell a story more filmically, how to not to be afraid to use the genius words that we are given in Better Call Saul to the maximum degree, but not having to be right in close-up all the time because the words really express the feeling and emotion. The challenges that I had were specific to time. I had a certain amount of time to prep the episode and then came to find out that time would be cut short because we had an actor who played Casper who was stuck in Europe on another film, and we had to thread the needle and get him. Coupled with that, a section of my episode was to be shot as a location in Germany. So, we were preparing and planning in regard to the look of Germany itself, Bavaria, that whole area, and we also had to be in concert in regard to being aware of the seasonal change in Albuquerque. We didn't have the right season. So, that was a terrific challenge of location. I needed a barn. I needed a German country road. I needed it to look lush and green; it did not. … So, what we wound up doing was bringing in a lot of big plants and big trees and placing them in the right place.
So, we shot all of that very intricate scene, inclusive of violence, having to make an adjustment to see how much blood we wanted to see, how much emotion do you want to see. I wanted to see the tables turn between Lalo and Casper. All of these things were elements that were really important to me so that we would feel as an audience that Lalo Salamanca was about to bite the dust. And for a director who plays Gustavo Fring, that was a great moment for me, because I want to be able to kill him in the director's chair. [Laughs]  it's the best place to kill a character, rather than in the actor's chair. So for me to pose that threat to Lalo and have us really as an audience go, "Oh my God, is this the end of Lalo Salamanca? In this way?" And then have the tables turn and have that shift on Casper, to me was a wonderful thing to be able to realize during an episode of Better Call Saul, especially one that I directed.
Giancarlo Esposito directing Better Call Saul
What were some of the other favorite moments that you got to do in this episode?
I have to say the bookends – as I've come to call them – were strong for me. The beginning of the episode reflects who Kim is and how she becomes Kim, interior-wise. How does she become this person who makes the choices that she does? To be with Jimmy, to be a very, very good lawyer, but to be someone who gets caught up in the idea that she could be in this adrenalized grifter phase and help Jimmy get the revenge that he's looking for against Howard Hamlin. The beginning of the episode is young Kim and her mother in a department store and young Kim has stolen some earrings and she gets caught. It's a very poignant moment because Kim was looking for her mother to actually be a mother. And so even though she is chided, she is proud that her mother stood up and scolded her and is teaching her the right way to go. And they turn the corner to get to their car, her mother drops her hand, they get in the car, and her mother has stolen them, gives them back to Kim, and tells her basically in so many words "Good job but you got caught.” Don't get caught basically is the lesson that's being sent.  If you look really closely in certain scenes, you will see in the veterinarian's office and other places in the piece that she's wearing those exact earrings. And those earrings are what Kim wears in most episodes of Better Call Saul. We recognize them. They mean something to her.
That plays into the bookend idea that I have that at the end where you're really focused on Kim in the car on her way to Santa Fe on the day that they are supposed to complete this elaborate and extensive scam that they have been working on. … [Kim’s] on her way to the biggest meeting of her life that will change her life forever, put her in a new realm of lawyering with a company she's wanted to be with and a mentor she respects and has wanted to be with for a long, long time. And she makes a U-turn. … We really had magic in one take where she's driving. We were supposed to stop, but we kept going with the car, and she started to drive from fair, sunny skies into dark, foreboding clouds. And that tells the story visually of what she's feeling coupled with the great acting that she gave us on the day.  Kim's life is therefore changed forever. So, we had a glimpse of the backward and forward of how Kim has come to be. We don't know where she'll end up yet, but I know I was so chuffed and excited y to be able to have this episode as a turning point for her character because I love what she does on this show.
Gus isn’t in this episode, but let’s talk about his journey this season. He is clearly rattled in a way we’re not used to seeing from him. What’s it been like for you to play that?
I always wanted to be able to have the opportunity to play something other than what we know of Gus. What we know and love of him is that we don't know all about him and there is a mystery to certain parts of him and that of course is very important for our audience because they relate to that part of Gus. So for me it’s, “What is it like to feel vulnerable and in a place that's not really home?” As an actor for many years, it feels wonderful because when you start to shift things up in regard to what you've been doing for a long time… it allowed me to be really, really on my game as Gustavo and really monitor how to be more present and vulnerable. I started to feel uncomfortable in shooting, and I kept wondering, "What is this uncomfortable feeling I'm feeling?" And I quickly understood and came to realize it was that I was a fish out of water feeling like this.
[I was used to Gus] controlling the chaos, being the guy who thinks beyond others. He thinks of the future and what moves people might make against him. And with Lalo Salamanca, he's unable to really figure that out. Because Lalo is a loose cannon, that makes him feel uneasy and I loved playing it because it was something new and because to give up your power on screen is not easy. Many actors struggle with it and that's why they want to control everything, because they don't want to give up their power. But for me it's important to be an actor to not always be in a position of strength.  … So, this season with Gustavo Fring, it's allowed me to play another creation and element and characterization of a character who we've seen one way. I'm so excited for the fans to see Gustavo Fring this season because without losing your power in a way that demeans you or makes you weak, to lose your power as a man and allow it to be gone and allow yourself to be in a place that says, "I don't know."
Giancarlo Esposito as Gustavo Fring on Better Call Saul
Speaking of playing against what we’re used to, tell me about that scene between Mike and his family as he watches them use the telescope?
I have a very tender moment with Mike Ehrmantraut where the guy who is always kind of the guy who takes control on Gus's behalf talking to his daughter right across the street from her in a house. They don't know he's there. He's observing them in his weekly visit, talking to his granddaughter. And I was able to elicit and get a wonderfully soft and marvelously moment in performance from Jonathan Banks that I think is one of his best. For a guy who is so locked up in murder and death and all the stuff he has to do, [it’s great] to have those moments where he really is able to be soft and wonderful with his granddaughter in the midst of the chaos of his life. And I was really able to have you feel a family feeling from that, a sharing that just worked so marvelously in terms of the episode.
How does it feel to be wrapping up Better Call Saul? What has the show meant to you?
It's a double-edged sword to wrap up Saul, especially this year because I've been asked to enter the fold. When you direct, you're sort of on the inside. You're talked to in a different way because they can share elements of story and process that you don't really have the wherewithal because I'm so busy trying to create the character and really steeped in the concentration and focus of that. So I feel more solidified as a member of a family of filmmakers within these two great shows that will go down in history as the best shows of all time. And I think many feel that Saul even takes Breaking Bad a step further and I would agree with that, so it will become and probably already is one of the best shows ever on television. I feel like I've really gained a new friend in the skills that I've learned from doing this particular show and this genre. It allows me to know I can direct any television show if I'm interested in doing that, but I want to do the ones that are the best. And that to me is really, really a special place to live.
Coupled with that, I've had the ability to do some of my best work as an actor without a filter – and was encouraged to do so, to weigh in and asked questions, which makes me feel like I'm a member of another family, an actor, a director, creator such as Vince Gilligan can trust. I am sad to have this show go, but I am elated to leave it in the position I have.  I showed myself well. I have ideas that would extend a show, and I'll say it here because I love saying it because it tickles my fancy, but I do think there's a limited series or a season of “The Rise of Gus.” I think eventually people might want to know who this guy Gus Fring really is, who was Gustavo before Better Call Saul, before Breaking Bad. So I always invite that. If there was an interest or if there was storyline to be garnered from that investigation, I would love to return to that.
But even with Better Call Saul ending, we know that you’ll still be on our screens in The Driver. What can you tell us about that show?
It is based on Danny Brocklehurst from Manchester, England's story about a very unassuming everyman. I wanted to play a man of the world reflecting that everyday personality, a basic human being who's not making it right now. … I would like people who don't feel seen, who don't feel acknowledged, who don't feel like they have a chance to be who they really want to be – I would like them to see themselves in this show called The Driver. I'd like them to start to realize that they just have but to realize and dream a big dream and then put it in action. Take action to make it happen and… those dreams can come true. ... It's a powerful piece and it's fun and action-packed, and it blends an African culture and an American culture and looks at America in a whole different way.
Better Call Saul’s midseason finale airs Monday at 9/8c on AMC and AMC+. For more on the final season, read our Q&As with Executive Producer Peter Gould , Bob Odenkirk, who plays Jimmy McGill , Michael Mando, who plays Nacho Varga, and Rhea Seehorn, who plays Kim Wexler, and Tony Dalton, who plays Lalo Salamanca.
Better Call stars reflect on what the show means to them: