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Giancarlo Esposito, left, as Gray Bourgeois and Skeet Ulrich as Colin Broussard in Parish season 1 episode 2.Alyssa Moran/AMC/AMC

Giancarlo Esposito is surprisingly approachable for an actor who’s played some of television’s most notable bad guys, worked with directors such as Spike Lee and proved his range with more than 200 TV and film credits.

The actor beams hello in his signature bowler and a black button-down and takes a chair in a breakout room at the Langham Huntington Hotel in Pasadena, Calif., as a dozen publicists and other workers who call the star “G” sit at conference tables nearby.

He has just come from the stage at the Television Critics Association Winter Press Tour, where he and fellow creatives fielded questions about his coming AMC series, Parish, which had its premiere on March 31. The drama is a passion project that’s been eight years in the making for the Breaking Bad alum, and it marks Esposito’s graduation into leading man status.

“This show is really special to my heart,” the 65-year-old tells The Globe and Mail. “I’ve lived with it for so very long and through many different incarnations and developments.”

Parish is based on the 2014 U.K. miniseries The Driver and unfolds over six episodes. Esposito, who also executive produces, stars as Gracian (Gray) Parish. Viewers meet Gray at an inflection point: His son has been violently murdered and his luxury car service business is on the verge of collapse. So when a shady friend from his past (played by Skeet Ulrich) surfaces, Gray agrees to help him and winds up entangled in a violent crime syndicate in New Orleans.

“He’s the lead, he’s an EP on the show, and he co-authored this character with us,” explains co-showrunner Ryan Maldonado. “We’d have these long conversations where we talked not just about the plot but the personal stuff. It’s a show that demands to be authentic.”

Esposito relied on his love of cars, a history of financial struggles and experience as a father to four girls to portray the tortured driver with a special set of skills. Thus, themes of loyalty, commitment, devotion and fatherhood emerge onscreen.

“I love telling stories that reflect the common man – that’s where I’m at in my life right now,” Esposito says. “Those common stories are the ones that strengthen me, to know that people will see them and be able to be strengthened in their lives.”

Onscreen, as Gray’s world crumbles, Esposito’s goal is to showcase a man who has to rise to the occasion and do something extraordinary. But he’s also suffering and failing as a father, husband to his wife Rose (Paula Malcomson) and employer. To fix it, Gray goes down a path from which he might not recover.

Esposito says that’s why production set the story in New Orleans: It’s a vibrant place full of darkness. “New Orleans seems to be where you struggle with the ghosts of your past and the ghost of your future. … It seems like a place where you have to make a choice,” he says. “And our show was a lot about the choices that Gracian Parish makes, whether they be good choices or bad choices, and how they affect his family.”

Co-showrunner Eduardo Javier Canto says those choices also reflect the show’s central questions, as Gray struggles with reconciling the past and moving toward an unexpected future.

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Parish is based on the 2014 U.K. miniseries The Driver and unfolds over six episodes. Esposito, who also executive produces, stars as Gracian (Gray) Parish, whose son has been violently murdered and his luxury car service business is on the verge of collapse.Alyssa Moran/AMC/AMC

“Am I a good man, or am I a bad man who is really good at doing bad things?” he explains. “Gray is a character who is suffering a tremendous amount of grief, is over his head and is afraid to ask for help. There’s a little bit of toxic masculinity about that.”

Letting go of the past to focus on the future may be a challenge for Gray, but it’s something Esposito himself has had to learn. The actor, who started in theatre as a kid, recalls being bankrupt in Connecticut when his daughters were young. He had a 1964 Volvo B-122S that he’d redone with his own hands. He sold the beloved car so his family could survive.

“I still think of that car and wonder if I could ever find it again and buy it back,” he says. “I did the right thing. I let it go. I paid the mortgage. I eventually lost the house. That’s the way it went. It taught me not to be attached to anything.”

Those sacrifices also inform Esposito’s acting decisions on Parish as a grieving father who struggles to be there for his other child, Makayla (Arica Himmel). The series tackles fatherhood and its complexities from several angles, including the juxtaposition of Gray’s home life with that of his new boss and fellow father, The Horse (Zackary Momoh). It also uses flashbacks to when his son was alive to highlight how haunted Parish is in the present day.

Esposito recalls one particular flashback when Gray “is not being a good father,” and his son Maddox (Caleb Baumann) “is not being the cordial, wonderful son Gray wants him to be.” The scene turned physical, evoking a personal and painful memory for the actor.

“That resounded so much for me because I remember being in a horrible situation with my father and striking him,” Esposito says. “I never ever struck him before. But he was violent with me. And I thought I didn’t have the right to defend myself. That was my father. Then I broke down in tears, and I was crushed by that. Those are things that change your relationship forever.”

Parish marks the continuation of Esposito’s relationship with AMC, where he became a household name through his portrayal of Gus Fring on Breaking Bad and its spinoff, Better Call Saul. But it’s just one of several coming projects for the actor, who recently starred in Guy Ritchie’s TV version of The Gentlemen on Netflix and is scheduled to return in a new season of The Boys on Prime Video.

“I love creating,” he explains of his hectic schedule. “There’s adrenaline that comes when you’re creating, and you’re in a place where the passionate part of you is connected to the creation. It’s fulfilment. I work hard because I love it, and it feels like I’m not working at all.”

As for finally cementing his long-awaited status as a leading man?

“The reality is that this show has grown me, but my whole career has brought me to this point,” he says. “I’m happy to be able to represent in this way.”

Parish is on now on AMC.

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