Giancarlo Esposito feels pressure with ‘Godfather of Harlem’ role

Rick Bentley
Tribune News Service

Los Angeles – It has never mattered to Giancarlo Esposito whether he was taking on the role of a talking mirror, a member of a California police department, one of the most evil men to step foot in Albuquerque, N.M., or a noted politician. He attacks them all with a deep passion, as he shows in his latest work, playing Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in the 10-part series “Godfather of Harlem.”

Esposito costars with Forest Whitaker, Vincent D’Onofrio, Nigel Thatch and Ilfenesh Hadera in the production, which launches Sunday on Epix. The series is based on the story of infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson (Whitaker), who in the early 1960s returned from 10 years in prison to find the New York neighborhood he once ruled in shambles. Johnson’s efforts to regain control bring him in contact with radical preacher Malcolm X (Thatch) and minister/congressman Powell.

Esposito feels more pressure when he’s taking on a character based on a real person. Powell’s well remembered because of his connection to the civil rights movement.

Giancarlo Esposito arrives at the 71st Primetime Emmy Awards on Sunday, Sept. 22, 2019, at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles.

“I feel extra responsibility when it’s a historical character to render them real,” Esposito says. “I do so much research for any character I do, but you have to make choices as an actor. With characters who don’t have a historical background, you give them your historical background.

“Every role needs to be full and complete, but even more with those based on real people because there are people still alive who knew Adam Clayton Powell. When I say I want to get the character right, that means to render the role completely human and completely complicated with all of the colors that he had as a human being.”

Esposito got his first real understanding of the Harlem politician when he met his son at an event years before the series was in production. Esposito was excited about the meeting because he knew how powerful Powell was and how much he got accomplished.

Before Esposito started working on “The Godfather of Harlem,” he had a full understanding of how Powell knew he was smart and charming. The only blip he saw was the year in college when Powell passed as white and ended it when he realized it was “not soulful.” Esposito sees the year as helping Powell become a great politician because everyone running for an office has to be able to adapt to the moment.

Esposito had to do some quick adapting himself during the early years of his career. The Italian-American actor and director would get called to auditions because of his name that were roles intended to be given to white actors. He laughs and says the casting director or producer would be apologetic when they would see him in a room full of people who looked completely different from Esposito.

Eventually, with a string of much-heralded roles in “Do the Right Thing,” “Malcolm X,” “The Usual Suspects,” “Twilight” and “Breaking Bad,” everyone began to put a face with the name. Other credits include “Once Upon a Time,” ‘Bakersfield, P.D.” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.” Up next is a starring role in the live-action “Star Wars” series “The Mandalorian” that will be broadcast on the Disney+ streaming service later this year.

Esposito can’t talk much about the “Star Wars” project except to say getting to be part of a beloved franchise is something that’s very exciting to him. Plus, he’s taking on a role unlike anything his fans have ever seen him play.

Playing diverse roles is not an official plan Esposito set out for himself when he was young, but he knows he’s always wanted to be able to take on a variety of roles. Esposito left the Broadway stage when he was young because there were so few roles for African-American actors.

“People didn’t know if I was black or white. They knew I had brown skin, but they also knew there was something different about me,” Esposito says. “Not knowing where you belong is a burden to carry. I wanted to be me and so I started to make choices that were reflective of my spirit, my politics, my humanity.

“That had me realize in my brain that I could do anything. My career has been based on meritocracy, quality, integrity. I feel more blessed that I have not allowed myself to think as a color. The idea is to play a human being each and every time.”