On 'Homicide,' Esposito steps in to fill daunting void Newcomer: Giancarlo Esposito dips into his background to play Giardello's son.

September 24, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

After two months on his new acting beat, Giancarlo Esposito says he is "dropped," and that's good.

"Yes, dropped is very good," he says. "Dropped for me means being in a place where nothing rocks my world. Dropped means I took the pressure off myself and told myself I have to be completely rooted in my own power."

What kind of pressure did Esposito face joining the cast of "Homicide: Life on the Street," the most critically acclaimed cop show on television, for its seventh season?

"When I came down [to Baltimore in July], I was a little bit nervous," he said, "because everyone said: 'Hey, you're taking over for Andre Braugher. You have to fill his shoes.'

"And I said, 'Hey, I'm not playing his character. I'm playing a new character.'

"But I realized there was a certain amount of pressure on me to do well. Yet, I realized that the best I can do is what I do. My whole life now is about this show, but I feel like it's worth it, because it's working and I'm getting a lot back from it."

What the 40-year-old Esposito has done in television, film and on the stage is pretty impressive. He won Obie awards for his stage performances in "Distant Fires" and "Zooman and the Sign." He's appeared in such Spike Lee films as "Do the Right Thing," "School Daze," "Mo' Better Blues" and "Malcolm X." Most recently, he was seen in "Twilight" with Paul Newman. Other film credits include "Waiting To Exhale," "Nothing To Lose" and "Bob Roberts" -- more than 40 features in all.

On "Homicide," Esposito plays FBI Agent Mike Giardello, son of Lt. Al Giardello (Yaphet Kotto). In tomorrow night's new season premiere, "La Famiglia," Mike Giardello comes to Baltimore to help solve the murder of one of his father's cousins in Little Italy.

The character is a complicated one, and Esposito wants to make him even more complex -- perhaps having him involved in an interracial relationship.

"On TV, that's still sort of a no-no, but don't you think that's something we should be able to look at without being disgusted? And isn't this the perfect multicultural show for that?" he says.

"A lot of what Tom Fontana and I discussed in terms of Mike Giardello's character was to be able to use my background of being half Italian [father] and half African-American [mother], and that certainly was important to me, because you don't see any of that on television today.

"I have a very strong personal history surrounding my background with my mother and my father. They're like two different worlds. They're now divorced. So, the history of my Italian side is very different than my African-American side, and this show is starting to be able to use both those sides."

For example, because Mike Giardello has some experience "in the 'hood," says Esposito (supplying his own quote marks), the character can trade slang with people on the street, as viewers will see in episode three this season.

"But, you juxtapose that with a guy who is basically very straight, who comes from the world of the FBI," he adds, "and you have some very interesting possibilities."

In terms of his character's psychology, Esposito says, "I've decided to make Mike a guy who is just trying to come back into the world of civilization. Being in the FBI, I would imagine you have very poor people skills. It's all about investigations. It's all about paperwork. It's all about bureaucracy. So, I feel his people skills wouldn't be very good.

"Now, of course, for television, you have to make him somewhat accessible and vulnerable so that the audience will be able to like Mike, so I can't go too far with that.

"But I can show that his inability to deal with people comes from his background of being shuttered in this high-tech world of the FBI, and this return to Baltimore is his chance to come back into the world. And to come back into the world where he once left such a strained relationship with his father is a perfect way for him to start to get to know the harsh reality of what real life is about."

In addition to its realism, Esposito says the thing he loves most about "Homicide" is the fact that it deals with "unfinished business."

"I must say, it is very different being in a show like 'Homicide,' because most of the time our television characters reflect that of heroics. We have heroes, we have villains, and it's very cut and dried. We have cases that are solved constantly. But, in life, some things are never really solved but are an ongoing process of discovery and investigation," he says.

Another pleasure is working with Kotto. "I have great respect for him. He's intense, he's a very precise actor. He tells me I'm a thinking actor, and I take that as a great compliment coming from him. Communicating what is going on between Mike and his father is a great challenge in this role, and doing it with Yaphet is a great help."

In the end, though, Esposito is the one who has to make us believe in and care about Mike Giardello, and that gets back to being dropped.

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