Breaking Bad star is Armageddon drawcard, says Adrienne Kohler.

It is the delicate touches that so often define a great screen character - Marlon Brando and oranges in The Godfather, Robert de Niro's "Are you looking at me?" in Taxi Driver, and in the multi award-winning Breaking Bad, Giancarlo Esposito straightening Gustavo "Gus" Fring's tie before his character's gruesome death.

That deft touch perfectly defined the unforgettable character's elegant menace. Initially, Esposito was only meant to play the ruthless drug kingpin for one episode , but his portrayal was so riveting that he was soon a series regular until the dramatic death.

"Gus had a very interesting integrity and elegance about him. And I think that is what happened in season four. People went from thinking he was only a villain to being on his side," Esposito says.

Esposito is one of the biggest drawcards for this year's Armageddon Expo in Auckland next weekend. For the uninitiated, it's a convention that began as "geeks" trading sci-fi trinkets but has ballooned into one of the country's biggest shows. The growth of the expo mirrors the rise of geek culture.


Rewind to the 1984 movie Revenge of the Nerds, where a group of computer science students are bullied by the jocks on campus. So-called geeks and nerds were a trope writers used for socially awkward underdogs.

Thirty years on every teen is an avid gamer, seemingly every week a Marvel or DC Comics superhero movie rolls out, and top-rated TV show The Big Bang Theory has main characters that are all avid sci-fi, fantasy, and comic book fans.

Perhaps the real revenge of the nerds is that they grew up, took over mainstream culture and became cool. And their culture thrives on fandom and participation. Over Labour Weekend, more than 50,000 zombies, super¬heroes and anime characters will descend on Auckland Showgrounds to attend Armageddon.

In the past 20 years, it has grown from a small gathering to a potpourri of sci-fi, fantasy, gaming, comics, cosplay and about every other play you can name. Others landing in Auckland next weekend include stars of MacGyver, Stargate, Dr Who, The Hobbit, Supernatural and Supergirl.

Esposito is unusual in that although he has recently starred in sci-fi series Revolution, he is best-known for his role in Breaking Bad. Despite being a crime drama, the show has been such a success and generated so much buzz among fans that it has crossed over to the sci-fi, fantasy convention fan base.

Esposito is calling from New York Comic-Con, which this year attracted more than 150,000 fans.

"I am certainly excited to come to [in New Zealand]. I love travelling for the fans, The conventions are a great way for people to get in touch with their freer selves because they dress up as favourite characters and get to really honour the things they love."

The original and largest fan convention is the San Diego Comic-Con. Founded in 1970, last year it attracted more than 130,000 fans, and that is just one of hundreds held each year throughout the world.


However, Armageddon founder and owner Bill Geradts is adamant the New Zealand show is one of the best due to its diversity, and because it's one of the few still owned and run by fans.

"We haven't sold our show to an American company. We are a Kiwi-based outfit that is run out of Christchurch that has run shows during earthquakes and beyond. That isn't going to change."

The 56-year-old Esposito is as ebullient and charming as Gus Fring is buttoned down and vicious, and his accent is pure American - it seems fans are often surprised that he not Spanish.

"People come up to me all the time and think I'm a fluent Spanish speaker, they think I'm from Spain and say, 'How did you get the accent down so well?' I tell them I have a good ear and I do my homework and I study."

In part, that ear could be due to the musicality of his childhood, he says, as his mother was an opera singer and his father an Italian stage hand and opera buff.

"I think our lives are musical and what I do has an element of music in it because it is about the rhythm and timing; even in comedy you have to have a certain timing. The brilliance of Gus Fring was that I left enough room in my timing for silence to take place."

Esposito has had no shortage of practise. He's had a 30-year career that started when he was 8, appearing in Broadway musicals.

This theatre background and fascination with the contradictions of human nature gives depth to his characters, he says.

"I've always been interested in character-driven pieces. People, often in film or television, look at characters who do bad things and immediately label them a villain. I try to bring some humanity to ones I play, whether they are villainous or good. People are a mixture of good and evil, light and dark."

Despite his success playing a vicious druglord, Esposito has worked hard throughout his career to avoid being typecast as the black criminal. "I didn't like being stereotypical cast as black. So I learned a Spanish accent and learned how to diversify and be somewhat different from what people expected. It wasn't until the late 1990s that people realised that I was a bit of a chameleon."

It is this ability and his mixed heritage of an Italian father and African-American ¬mother that has seen him play a variety of characters.

In Spike Lee's 1989 Do the Right Thing he was a young black guy demanding the local Italian pizza owner put up pictures of black celebrities; in The Usual Suspects, FBI agent Jack Baer, and in the split role of newspaper reporter Sidney Glass and the Magic Mirror in Once Upon a Time.

"It feels great to come into my own and have the opportunity to play such a variety of different of characters and be trusted to do that. I hope I can continue to do that."

It has also seen him move into the more futuristic sci-fi genre with his role in Revolution and the recent announcement that he will be in the sequel of The Maze Runner.

"Revolution was a show I wanted to do because I wanted to make a comment on what could happen, and I felt that [series creator] Eric Kripke was asking the question 'What if?'
"It was also simply that I wanted to be in a western, and it seemed to me to be a contemporary and modern western.

"I like to be involved in projects that make people think about what the future might be if something like this happened. People think it is out of reach, but it is not. Everything could crash and what would we all do - what kind of human beings would we become?"

The Maze Runner appeals in much the same way, he says.

"I wanted to affect a younger audience who are being asked to think about what direction the world might take, where they might take it ... In a way, it is a modern-day vampire story, someone trying to get their genes or trying to figure out why they have the plague and no one else does.

"All of these things were such great issues and I thought James' [Dashner] writing was so awesome that I wanted to be part of that. I also wanted to get back on the big screen."
He hopes the higher profile and acclaim from Breaking Bad will help fuel his other passion of film-making.

He directed and produced his first movie, Gospel Hill, in 2008 and is developing a movie on American abolitionist John Brown with Ed Harris in the lead role and written by Jose Rivera of the Motorcycle Diaries.

"People don't know American ¬history and John Brown was a man who was vilified by history but in the end was a real hero because he wanted to free people from slavery - he was a white man who was devoted to the truth."

It is clear Esposito has a passion for raising social issues and he has been quoted as saying he hoped his role in Breaking Bad would raise awareness around the methamphetamine trade - but does he really think it makes a difference?

"Yes, I stand by that. At least ¬people would be aware and have some knowledge of it, and of what it did to people's lives. You saw what the money and the greed did to somebody.

"I wanted to be part of something that exposed that and showed it in a different way."
He is definitely not like Gus, he says, although people are often ¬surprised he is not dead-eyed and scary in real life. "I'm not him. I'm a humanitarian who loves people and I love what I do, I immerse myself. I can embody that or the opposite. It is just part of my tool kit of the things I can do it."

'Oh hang on, these are the fans'

Michaela de Bruce believes dressing up as a favourite screen character has moved from being embarrassing to being an outlet of expression.

The 38-year-old is a dedicated "cosplayer" and will join hundreds of others in weird and wonderful outfits at next weekend's Armageddon Expo.

It has been a hobby for years before heading to her first Armageddon in 2003, where she entered a dress-up competition as Galadriel from Lord of the Rings.

At the time, she says, most people thought cosplay meant dressing as Japanese anime characters. It took until about 2006 before people realised it could be much more than that.

"Most people who went to the shows were still wondering why people dressed up if they weren't selling something."

She first got involved as an extension of her interest in theatre costuming.

"I loved watching musicals ... For me, costuming is lot about learning the craft, as well. I've learned how to use fibreglass and prosthetics - I'm working with leather and constantly covered in glue and dye."

In 2007, de Bruce started judging and noticed the focus slowly shifted to computer
game characters.

Another shift has been game and movie owners realising they can use cosplay to promote their products, she says.

"In the past, the people who owned the copyright of characters have been very hard on people dressing up as characters, there have been cease and desist orders. But slowly they have realised, 'Oh hang on, these are the fans'."

Another trend is visitors to the shows wanting to take photos with the cosplay characters, de Bruce says.

"More people are doing that than ever before. Also, because we are becoming really saturated with pop culture, producers are much more aware of their fans.

"The Marvel characters were very rarely seen here but when the The Avengers came out, now you can't go anywhere without seeing Iron Man, and people just love it.

"I think it is because cosplay has crossed over from being an embarrassing side hobby to something people realise the general public is interested in.

"It's form of outlet and expression and community."