Surprisingly, Giancarlo Esposito was somewhat less than enthused when he found out that celebrated Korean film director Bong Joon Ho was an admirer of his work. He had been told that Ho wanted to cast him in his new movie, Okja, which premieres on Netflix on June 28th. He recalls, “I thought, ‘oh to meet the director who’s a fan, what does he want me to do … something I’ve already done before?’ That’s the first thing that comes into your head but then after talking to him for a few minutes, I realized that he didn’t want that. He just wanted me to think and consider this role of Frank Dawson.”
Frank Dawson is the veteran corporate exec at the Miranda Corporation, a multinational food company and Okja is the name of one of the so-called “superpigs,” engineered by the Mirando corporation for mass consumption. Okja was raised in S. Korea by Mija, a young orphan for whom Okja eventually became her world. When Mirando Corp. comes to take Okja back to America, Mija fights with everything her preteen body has to prevent that from happening. The film is an exploration into the ways humans are unmindful in our treatment of the earth and each other as we share space in the universe.
Frank Dawson is not only a loyal employee of the Mirando corporation, he has also become a part of the family, acting as an avuncular figure for Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), who now runs Mirando in place of her deceased father. Esposito describes Frank’s character as, “someone who a long time ago realized he wanted to be a part of a corporation. To not necessarily have power but to develop a new means of feeding many people and that’s valid. We’re in a world now where we’re facing food shortages and I think part of Frank is that his scientific brain thinks there’s a way to solve that and to make money in solving that but Frank also has loyalty and allegiance to the Mirando corporation.”
The apple didn’t fall far from the tree in terms of Esposito’s choice of career. His mother was an opera singer. Asked what he believes she thought of his success he replied, “She is very proud of me and what I have achieved. I took her to see “Porgy and Bess” about a year and a half ago and she was still walking at that time and we walked into the theater and I was going to my seat and the audience started clapping. She stopped and she [asked], why are they clapping? The curtain had risen and we’re waiting for the show to start and I said, ‘I don’t know Mommy’ and we took a few more steps and more people started clapping. She asked me again and I was a little embarrassed and I said ‘I think they might be clapping for me’ and I think that’s the moment that she really got how far I had come.” He continued, “Toward the end of her life she really understood; I allowed her to know that everything I had came from her … this dedication … I didn’t go out to play, I would take voice lessons with her and she would teach me all these things.”
Born in Denmark to an Italian father and African American mother, Esposito was raised in New York City after the age of six. Perhaps his early and definitive success can be attributed to his training in the theater at a relatively young age. By the time he was eight-years-old, he was already acting on Broadway. He appeared in thirteen Broadway musicals before deciding that he wanted to be a dramatic actor. All that theater training, often considered the most rigorous type for an actor, paid off. Though he is decidedly not the type to boast, Esposito’s acting resume is quite impressive. Virtually all of his projects resonate with substance and universal meaning. The ones that stand out in his mind most are the multiple films he did with controversial film maker and self described storyteller, director Spike Lee. Lee’s projects stand out not only because of their quality but in large, partly because of what they represented. Asked if he ever thinks about the importance of his body of work, he answered, “I don’t normally. I do with one director and that’s Spike Lee and that’s because of his groundbreaking timing and because of the way we worked as a family. His great vision and support. I love him dearly because there weren’t many images of African-Americans that we could see and be proud of and Spike cultivated that and broke through. I’ve come to a place where I feel like everyday is a moment of gratitude for me because I have what? One, two, three films that are the hundred best of all time. Is that a measurement of what’s good or what’s bad? What is a measurement or judgment of that is folks like you and other people who stop me on the street and say ‘Wow, I grew up [watching] you. You helped me to think about things in a different way.y ‘Wow, I grew up [watching] you. You helped me to think about things in a different way.’”
When I met Esposito recently, amidst the hustle and bustle of Midtown New York City – in a hotel on the southern tip of Central Park – I am surprised, as I sense someone who has tamed the ego of his past characters. Away from the screen, Giancarlo radiates a subtle determination and humility; someone who has decided to be part of the solution rather than adding to the problem. You can imagine he reminds himself not to get too caught up in the superficialities of life. His overall outlook on life is, “We’ve been taught you need to get ahead, I need to get ahead. It’s every man for himself. It’s dog-eat-dog. It’s unfortunate because it’s not. Because no matter how much money you make here you can’t take it with you. So what am I here for? So I bring my own personal ideals into the characters that I play and into the decisions that I make to be a part of the film because I feel like that’s my responsibility because I have a spiritual essence about me and a spiritual practice that cares about all of humanity.”
Nadine Matthews @deeniemedia