Giancarlo Esposito.Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution — Author: Daniel Benavides -- License:

When the name Giancarlo Esposito appears on the credits of any movie or tv series, those who don’t know what the actor looks like, always look for a typical Italian-American face. When they think they know who it is, they always later find out their guess was wrong. That’s because Esposito doesn’t have your typical Italian appearance.

Esposito is half African American, half Italian. His mother was an opera singer from Alabama, and his father was a carpenter and stagehand from Napoli, who worked at the San Carlo Opera Co. at the seaport of Napoli, which is where the two met. He was born in Copenhagen, Denmark, and for the first six years of his life he lived in Italy and in various parts of Europe along with his parents and his older brother, Vincent. When the family finally settled in Manhattan, Giancarlo was speaking Italian fluently.

It wasn’t until they came to US that Giancarlo found out what it meant to be biracial, ‘What I noticed was anger of other young black boys. I didn’t understand why I was being treated differently. I would say – I’m half-Italian, half-black. My name is Giancarlo Giuseppe Alessandro Esposito. They wanted me to choose.’

He didn’t have to, growing up in the entertainment business led Giancarlo to make his Broadway debut in 1966 when he was just 8 years old, playing a slave child opposite Shirley Jones in Maggie Flynn. In his young years he kept doing theatre plays, being an actor meant wearing a different skin every time. By the time the 80’s came he was seamlessly moving back and forth between tv work and feature films, appearing in high profile series such as Miami Vice and films like Taps, The Cotton Club, Trading Places.

It was the encounter with director Spike Lee that changed his life forever. The two would come to collaborate on four pictures; the first School Daze would become his breakout role as the leader of the black fraternity Gamma Phi Gamma. But it was the second movie Lee and Esposito did together that really put the actor on the map.

It was Lee’s seminal film Do the right thing. The film focuses on the growing racial tension between Sal, the Italian-American owner of a pizzeria played by Danny Aiello and the African American neighborhood where the establishment stands. Buggin’ Out is the name of Esposito’s character and he is the first in the movie to suggest the idea that there should be black celebrities next to Sal’s heroes on the wall of fame inside the pizza place. The racial politics of the movie where not lost on Esposito who has both Italian and African American blood.

In fact the role had a deeper meaning for him. He explains how looking at Aiello was like looking at his own father, but when the hate escalates into violence and the script required Aiello to keep shouting racial slurs towards his direction, he just wanted to get up and shout, ‘I’m more Italian than you!’ It took all of Esposito’s inner strength to draw on his African part instead. The collaboration and friendship with Lee was so successful that Esposito took part also in the director’s subsequent films Mo’ Better Blues and Malcolm X. Ten years later his dual heritage would come into play in one of his most famous characters, FBI agent Mike Giardello on police procedural tv drama Homicide: Life on the Street.

Nowadays Esposito gets probably most recognized for his work on the critically acclaimed series Breaking Bad. Between 2009 and 2011, Esposito appeared as Gus Fring, the calm, polite, graceful but ruthless underneath mastermind of a New Mexico-based methamphetamine distribution ring. For that role he was nominated for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series. It was in fact at the Emmys that we met. One thing that often excites my curiosity is the mispronunciation of Italian names by American people.

It’s well known the case of Italian actor Don Amici who changed his name into Ameche to have Americans pronounce it properly. So, when I approached Giancarlo, after the conventional introductions, I straight out asked him, ‘Do you know how your last name is pronounced?’ He knew immediately where I was going with my question and his response was comical and sweet. He pulled his daughter, who was accompanying him, closer to him and asked her the same question, ‘How do you pronounce our family name?’

When she said it right, stress on the second syllable instead of the third, we both rejoiced at what appeared to be a private joke between us. Not only he passed my test, he then proceeded to tell me that he’s an Italian citizen (Italian citizenship is based upon the principle of jus sanguinis) something that makes him very proud.

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