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In AMC's 'Parish,' actor Giancarlo Esposito drives the story

Giancarlo Esposito as Gracian (Gray) Parish.
Eliot Brasseaux
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AMC
Giancarlo Esposito as Gracian (Gray) Parish.

"I'm tired of being the passenger in my own life," narrates Giancarlo Esposito in the first episode of AMC's Parish. It's a sentiment that holds true for the actor as much as it does for Gracian Parish, the title character he plays.

Esposito, the actor best known for playing villainous foils – like drug kingpin Gus Fring in Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul – is finally behind the wheel as the hero, or maybe anti-hero, in a series he executive produced.

If you're looking for a show to ease into, Parish probably isn't for you. Within the first three minutes, Gracian "Gray" Parish is already skidding through the streets of New Orleans, Louisiana.

Soon, "You get the sense that maybe he's had a past life, which starts to come to light when he's encountered by an old friend who has spent some time in jail," Esposito explained to NPR. That friend, played by Skeet Ulrich, asks Parish for help – he needs a driver, for a businessman he knows.

Esposito's character quickly finds out that "businessman" is really code for Zimbabwean gangster engaged in human trafficking.

As the story barrels along, you realize Parish needs cash for his black car business – and he needs answers about his son's killing.

So the formerly retired criminal driver gets dragged back into the fold.

It's a familiar premise, sure. But Esposito said what drew him to this American remake of the BBC series The Driver was the character's possibility for nuance.

"One thing I've cultivated in my career is that you can say things without words – and say them with actions or your facial expressions," he said. That career began on the stage before Esposito appeared on screen in Trading Places and Spike Lee films like Do the Right Thing and Mo' Better Blues.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in Season 4 of <em>Breaking Bad.</em>
Ben Leuner / AMC
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AMC
Walter White (Bryan Cranston), Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in Season 4 of Breaking Bad.

Esposito's Breaking Bad co-star Bryan Cranston said that decades before the two would get the chance to work opposite each other as dueling drug dealers, he was awestruck by Esposito's menacing stage presence in a 1984 off-Broadway production of Balm in Gilead.

"He played a street drug dealer in this play, but he was so committed and so believable, I thought he was some guy who wandered off the street to start selling drugs to the audience," Cranston said.

Esposito remembers playing the role of Ernesto in Balm in Gilead well. He'd go out into the audience with a Polaroid camera as people were coming into the theater to watch the show.

"As they came in and sat down, I'd hustle them to take a Polaroid. And some people thought it was free and I said, 'No this is like ten dollars a shot.' The people that thought that I was screwing around tried to put it in their pocket...I remember I had a switchblade, and I'd pull the switchblade out and open it, and people would freak out."

A nervous stage manager confiscated his knife after some audience complaints, but Esposito said he just brought a new one the very next night. He also said that he took the proceeds from his Polaroid hustle and used them to fund cast parties.

It's that kind of commitment to the craft that another Breaking Bad co-star, Bob Odenkirk, remembers.

"Giancarlo is there for every aspect of this effort," Odenkirk said. "He's there for analyzing the script, asking what matters [and] prepping."

Esposito later joined Odenkirk again on the prequel series Better Call Saul.

"What you're always looking for in a role is a subtext that is almost contradictory to the text," Odenkirk explained. "I just think Giancarlo just played [Gus Fring] with such texture and subtlety that he had a rich inner life."

That subtle texture has become Esposito's calling card.

But Esposito said his newest character — Parish — is more true to his own life.

"To me, this is the highlight of my career. To be able to be in a position where I can truly be closer to who I am," he said. And yes, Gray Parish is a criminal. But he's also a legitimate business owner and a family man. (Paula Malcomson plays his wife, and Arica Himmel plays their daughter.)

Esposito has said the situation Parish finds himself in on the show — drowning in debt, a marriage on the rocks — is familiar. He's been through it himself.

"Having four daughters has taught me so very much," Esposito said.

They've taught him to be more open, and not just about the parts of his life that he's proud of, but of the stuff in the shadows. It's important, he said, because his children are watching him on screen and off.

"I realize – what I do, they see. How I sound, they hear. How I feel, they feel," Esposito said. "We've all become very close, so I can no longer be an enigma to them, because I'm at a level in my life where I'm just like everybody else. I want to live a good life and make a good transition [or] death. Although, I tell my kids I'm not dying, so you're stuck with me forever."

To me, this is the highlight of my career. To be able to be in a position where I can truly be closer to who I am.

Esposito is only slightly joking. He says he still feels his own parents, even though they've been gone for a while. His father, Giovanni Esposito, was an Italian carpenter and stagehand. His mother, Elizabeth Foster, was an opera singer from Alabama. They met on one of Foster's tours.

"My parents passed on to me a love of music, a love of the arts, a respect for that which takes place in motion in film and music and dance. They gave me the creative essence that I love and enjoy today," Esposito said. "They also handed me a great deal of their previous trauma, which has taught me that generational trauma exists. They both have been passed away for a while now, but I feel the healing of my own life healing their resting place."

Esposito is grateful for the gifts his parents gave him and he acknowledges their pain.

"Every time I...feel my dad, who was very Italian, very demonstrative, his way or the highway...Every time that comes up for me, I stop myself, take a deep breath and go, 'That's my father. That's Giovanni. That's not me.' I don't have to be him. I can be me. I can heal that space that he wasn't able to heal for himself, and it's the same with my mother," Esposito said.

Esposito recalled that his mother never got quite as far as she wanted to in show business.

"Each time I break through and become more of myself and commit deeper to my craft, and I'm acknowledged because, 'Oh you're so good and wonderful,' I know what's really being said. It's not my ego hearing it. It's my soul. You really are good at what you do. You really have created a craft," Esposito said.

That craft is on display in Parish, as he effortlessly takes the wheel.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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