Giancarlo Esposito on ‘Jett’ and Playing a Criminal in Cinemax’s Stylized Noir Series

     July 3, 2019

jett-giancarlo-esposito-interviewFrom creator/writer/director/executive producer Sebastian Gutierrez (Gothika), the nine-episode Cinemax drama series Jett follows Daisy “Jett” Kowalski (Carla Gugino, who’s also an executive producer), a professional thief who’s fresh out of prison and trying to turn her life around for her daughter (Violet McGraw). But since the life of a long-time criminal never works out so smoothly, Jett is drawn back into doing one final job, by powerful crime lord and sometime lover Charlie Baudelaire (Giancarlo Esposito), that leads to a series of assignments from ruthless criminals that put everyone she cares for in danger.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Giancarlo Esposito talked about what attracted him to Jett, the role of family in the story, the stylized noir vibe, the sense of play that he has with co-star Carla Gugino, how he wanted to approach playing this criminal who’s also a family man, and why he’s so excited about the series. He also talked about why he enjoys being a part of the Netflix TV series Dear White People, being a part of the Star Wars universe with the upcoming Disney+ series The Mandalorian, and how he came to be involved with the Amazon series The Boys.

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Image via Cinemax

Collider: We last spoke when you were on the TV series Revolution, so it’s been a bit. I was so excited to hear that both you and Carla Gugino would be on this show together because I think you’re both tremendous actors, and these are really fascinating characters.

GIANCARLO ESPOSITO: They really are. I feel as if our production of this has taken that genre to a different level. Sebastian Gutierrez has written something very intelligent. When I first read it, I thought, “Wow, this guy has a real sense of character and people.” I was a little concerned that possibly the noir effort of the filmmaking might overtake some of the characterizations and what the story is really about, but it’s really about a woman, who’s a master thief, who has a double life. She has lived a life, where she’s been in the world of this very interesting lifestyle of stealing for the rich, and yet she has a daughter who needs her, after she’s been away from her, for years in prison. And the story just gets more and more complicated, as we work our way through it. It really is a character-driven drama that is action-packed and very thrilling, in the same token.

Family plays such an interesting role, in both of these characters’ lives, and it’s certainly not the conventional idea of family, at all.

ESPOSITO: That’s right. It’s very different. I particularly love Carla’s portrayal, with her gentleness with her child, and her best friend, who is her maid, and how we uncover how their closeness. And I love the idea that Charlie Baudelaire, who has a history with Jett, wants to pull her in for this one last job. We don’t know why he wants what he wants. We know he wants a piece of jewelry, but how that’s connected to his life and family, you’ll see how important that really is, as we move throughout the series. It has to do with his son, and a previous love of his life. He has a very strained and interesting relationship with his son because of his son’s choices. His son is a bit of a hothead. We shot a lot of episodes, all at one time, but as the story unfolded, I realized, more and more, that it’s about family. It’s about how we accept and move through communicating with the family that we love, and sometimes individuals and family, where we don’t love what they do so much, but we still love them, in our heart, and we have to accept them for whoever they are and whatever they do. It becomes a fascinating and intriguing piece, as well as a very exciting one. You really must pay attention to what’s happening. It really demands that you pay attention. It’s exciting, the way it’s been written. I certainly loved working with Carla, and I loved working with Sebastian, as well.

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Image via Cinemax

Both of these characters are very clearly criminals, but do you think of your character that way? Is it unavoidable, when he’s in the line of work that he is, or do you look at other aspects of him?

ESPOSITO: Whether he’s been forced into this line of work, or learned it, or chose it and couldn’t get out, there is a criminal element to what he does. These characters live in the world of criminals, and life and death, but it’s so well done that we feel like this is their vocation. When I see pieces that are noir, and that deal with criminal elements and rival factions, and I start to see guns come out, I say, “Wow, when there are too many guns coming out, all the time, it diminishes the effect that the gun is going to do something, or be frightening to you.” But in this piece, I feel like Sebastian really got a handle on being careful about being too gratuitous with the violence, especially in the second episode. When you see a gun come out, you go, “Oh, well, someone’s gonna use it,” and when it doesn’t get used, it dissipates the power of the element of surprise. But I feel like this piece is really investigating folks who live and breathe in this world, and that this is the way they survive and make their living. Jett seems to be the most careful. Charlie Baudelaire has been at the top of the game, for a long time, and for my portrayal of him, I tried to figure out how to give you the feeling that he really is done with this. He really wants to get out. He really is a little bit over the hill, and younger people are coming up, who are more dangerous and more frightening. They’re less respectful, and they don’t live their nefarious life by the code. There’s always a code. And certainly, Charlie is experiencing that with his son. He’s having those same problems within his own family because the guy is a hothead and will fly off the handle, and he’s also working all of the angles against him, which he doesn’t know yet. It’s complicated, but yet very understandable and very funny. What I loved about the piece was that it had moments of levity that were hysterically funny, and the audience is able to really wrap themselves around the humor of the piece.

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Image via Cinemax

There’s definitely a playfulness in the conversations between you and Carla Gugino that’s fun to watch.

ESPOSITO: Absolutely! I had the sense that, besides just being in business together, Charlie really has a deep love for Jett. As the series unfolds, you’ll see that he really has a love for her, but all of that goes awry when he starts to suspect that maybe she’s gonna betray him. Why would she ever do that? Well, we’ll come to understand that she was forced into a position that she couldn’t get out of. But I had such great synchronicity with Carla, and I think was really necessary for these two characters to live in that arena, where there is that titillation, and they’re excited by each other, but yet you always get the sense that this is a business relationship, even though they’re very close. Although, even if they’re close one day, the next day they could be bitter enemies.

Actors talk all the time about wanting to play roles that challenge and scare them. What were the ways that Charlie Baudelaire really challenged and scared you?

ESPOSITO: Well, Charlie had a personality where, when he was young, he really enjoyed life to the fullest. And then, things got to be a bit of a burden, specifically and especially surrounding his son. As we unfold in the series, you’ll find the history of that connection between them. And so, the challenge, for me, was that I wanted to be a guy who had fun with people, yet the fun stops when the artery for his economic success gets clogged, and when he’s unable to protect himself and his family, and he’s threatened. Charlie is a guy who worked his way up, from being a petty criminal to buying politicians. That puts you in a different position because you feel like you’re untouchable, but I didn’t want to act like I had all of the power. I didn’t want to act like I had all of the answers. For me, the most challenging thing was to be a tough guy without being tough, and having a soft spot because, eventually, that would be a weakness of his. I wanted him to be a guy who enjoyed all of the trappings and trimmings of his success, as this criminal. You’re always looking over your shoulder, but I didn’t want him to be someone who displayed being afraid, even though he’s trying to protect what he’s built. The challenge was to be slightly affable and fun, but never lose his edge. Part of it, for me, was also to be able to be soft and have that romantic feeling for Jett. Normally, we see these guys, and they’re really awful to their women, but the women in this are very, very strong. Even though there’s some nudity, there’s an extent of play in it. I wanted Charlie to ultimately have a great respect for Jett. He says to her, “I need this done, and you are the only one that can do it.” When Jett walks in, in a raincoat, sliding that off and hopping into bed with Charlie, that’s a great juxtaposition because he also has great feelings for her, as well.

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Image via Cinemax

I’m enjoying the show tremendously, and I love the mood and the vibe of it. I’m definitely curious to see where it all ends up.

ESPOSITO: I agree. We have a cinematographer who works so well with the director, and who had a vision, as well. I was worried that the vision of the cinematographer, and the color, the lighting, the richness and the depth might overwhelm the characterizations, but they work, hand in hand. With the vibrant colors that you see, and even in our dark moments, the light plays a very important part in telling the story, visually, because film and television is visual. I’m very excited about this show. I feel like we have a winner on our hands. I’m particularly excited because we have a strong female, in the starring position, who is not degraded. Yes, she does things that she has to do. She uses her body, her wit, her mind, her soul and her spirit, to be able to survive and stay alive, but she is in control until she’s threatened and put in a place where she has to do things that she doesn’t want to do. Even then, she’s in control. It’s an important, intelligent noir thriller.

One of my favorite TV series is Dear White People, and you’ve been such a huge presence, as the narrator, without actually even being there. What have you enjoyed about being a part that project? Will we actually get to see more of you, in physical form?

ESPOSITO: I love that project. I think (show creator) Justin Simien is a really smart director and writer. He really had a pulse and a really great take on expanding out of a feature film and into a series, with something that really has legs and is also very well-written. It has an intelligent vent on the historical past while bringing it into our contemporary present, and it takes us into the future of our young people, understanding how they navigate their lives today, at a college that was once all white, and racist and prejudiced, and built on all of those principles that were from another time. They keep asking me to come back. I was so honored when they asked me to actually show up on camera. Being able to do narrate it from anywhere, in sometimes a tongue-in-cheek, sometimes a revelatory way, and sometimes a vulnerable way, was really fun for me. And then, having the opportunity to be on camera and show up, and directly affect these young people’s lives in person, was fascinating to me. I don’t have a definitive that I will come back and be seen on camera again, but I’m hoping.

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Image via Cinemax

You’re also a part of the Star Wars universe now with The Mandalorian. As an actor, what’s it like to get to be in that world? Do you have a moment where that all really sinks in?

ESPOSITO: Yeah, it’s the moment you put on this incredible costume. The first day I shot, I really started to realize that I’m in another world. The moment I stepped [onto the set], I went, “Oh, my gosh, I’m about to be in a world where I could possibly have another iconic character on my hands.” I adore Jon Favreau, and his vision for this went far and deep and wide. I believe this is the first time they’ve ever shot a Star Wars series, to this extent, outside of London, and he did it in concert with George Lucas’ people. I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet for me. I feel like, “How do I find the legs for this character that I play in this?” If this is a mythological story that has been told for so many years, in such a beautiful way, in so many different versions, I’m very excited to be in this [version]. I’m blown away that, one day, I’m gonna look back and go, “Wow!” I have a dear buddy, Sam Jackson, who I absolutely adore, and he was in that Star Wars universe. I just was so happy for him that he was in that position, rightfully so. But for me to be joining all of the folks who have lent their talents and creativity, in this world, it’s still just settling in for me. When people ask me, “What do you look like?,” I just say, “You’re gonna be blown away.”

Do you know what the next thing will be, for you?

ESPOSITO: Because you mentioned Revolution, I can’t help but say how much I love (showrunner) Eric Kripke. I was doing Jett in Toronto and I walked down the studio hall, the second day that I was there, and who turns the corner, but Eric Kripke and a whole bunch of the crew that did Revolution. I was so excited to see them. I hugged them all, very deeply. I saw Eric scratching his head, and then he crossed his arms. I said, “I think I know what you’re thinking.” He said, “Would you?” And I said, “Of course, I would.” So, I’m doing a few episodes of The Boys. I did an episode last season, and I’m gonna be back to do a few more episodes. Every time someone brings up Revolution, I have these pangs in my heart because I had so much more to give, as Tom Neville. I wasn’t done. So, I always look to folks, who are really great writers and great showrunners, and go, “Wow, I wish I we could have continued.” So, I get a chance to revisit working with Eric Kripke again, and I’m happy about that.

Jett airs on Friday nights on Cinemax.

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