I am, I will, I can, and other Giancarloisms for Penn to live by.

A review of “An Evening with Giancarlo Esposito.”

Giancarlo Esposito at Comic-Con. / Photo credit: Flickr

By Sam Gilbert

The lights of the Penn Museum’s Harrison Auditorium dim at exactly 6:05 pm on April 2, to cue an audience that is in part still crowding in from the grim weather outside, shaking the rain off coats and umbrellas and squeezing their way to their seats. Phones pocketed and conversations hushed, the hall has been sold out by Penn students who now fix their gazes on an empty stage.  

Giancarlo Esposito is a household name for his stern and serrated villain performances, ranging from the critically acclaimed Breaking Bad (and much less acclaimed, but every bit as good spin-off Better Call Saul), to video games where he plays the satirically cruel dictator of the fictional Caribbean state of Yara. He is, as moderator Malik Muhammad introduces, a “busy man.” Here to deliver a keynote for WeDigUpenn, a Wharton club dedicated to “increasing  satisfaction for Wharton undergrads with historically low satisfaction.” He emerges to join Malik on stage to a roar of applause that rings around the coffered dome and sunburst ceiling.  

Mr. Esposito appears quite different in both costume and demeanor from how Penn is used to seeing him. Gone is the boxcutter and boiler suit of Gus Fring, whose ruin would come at the hands of a certain disgruntled former chemistry teacher, and instead, here sits a man who smiles at the silhouetted crowd. Brown blazer and black boots both glowing in the spotlight. He speaks with an energy and confidence that betrays his message tonight to this college community:  

“I am a man who makes mistakes three times,” he says, “before I realize I don’t want to do that again, and I do things a different way.” Mr. Esposito speaks in waves. Pensive reflections on his nature, life, and career (as prompted by Malik’s short and well-shaped questions), precede a sudden burst of energy that draws him to his feet to regale the audience with anecdotes of a co-star inspiring performance, or recital of his fan-favorite line, “you have something I want!” from his portrayal of imperial bad guy Moff Gideon in the Disney+ Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian.  

Woven through the jokes, recollections, and performance, Mr. Esposito shares his own story. It is no less compelling than what he has done on screen and on Broadway since he was a child.  

When asked about his biracial identity, Mr. Esposito speaks candidly about how his skin color has influenced his career. He recalls early moments, when he would be screened by producers that were attracted to his Italian-sounding name, only to be rejected upon arrival when they realized that he was black. On the occasion he was cast in the knowledge of his identity, he was only offered roles that echoed harmful stereotypes of black people in America, which he denounces now as “unsavory roles.”  

Snaps of fingers and appreciative nods ripple through the crowd when he describes the action of “carving out an identity in Hollywood.” Mr. Esposito then gives a kind of formula for developing character in the face of life’s uncertainties. He implores his audience to ask themselves, “What is it you love to do?”  

There is a certain magic happening here, as he describes how he starts with a whisper when he is first getting to grips with a new character. Or that when he was offered the contract to play Gus Fring in Breaking Bad (a show that was doing exceptional numbers before he joined for the show’s second season), he pushed for a conversation with showrunner Vince Gilligan on the nuanced  

specifics of the character, risking a generational role for the chance to give further to the creative vision of the show.  

“Hiding in plain sight,” he explains, was the single line of stage direction that sold him on the role of Gus Fring and sparked a creative journey that has produced one of the most iconic villains in the history of television.  

For the audience, it isn’t hard to see the relevance of the message in their own lives and careers. To carve out a space for oneself in any arena requires passion, guts, and absolute self-belief. As Mr. Esposito explains, “a modular approach,” where any lesson learned or skill gained can further ambitions and enrich life in fashions that may be hard to anticipate.  

In his concluding notes, he shares his mantra, which he offers freely to Penn students to use in times of trouble:  

“I am. I will. I can.”  

In a campus culture that is often parodied for its perceived obsession with resume-building, networking, and the hustle, it is stirring to hear a story so especially told, about the power of creation and embracing the work in one’s life that comes most naturally.  

As the lights come back on, and the audience files back out into the rain, at least one Penn student is thinking about the personal aspect of their own work, and where it might take them in the future.  

Sam Gilbert is a junior in the College studying History, currently on exchange from Queen Mary University of London for the 2023/24 academic year. His email is gilsa@sas.upenn.edu.  

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