Guilt can be a powerful motivator.
Peter Gambi, or “Uncle Gambi” as the Pierce kids call him, may be Black Lightning’s single most important ally. A brilliant, highly trained former special operative who’s just as handy in a firefight as he is in a lab, it’s unlikely there would even be a Black Lightning without the support, training and resources that Gambi provides to Jefferson and his family each day. And while the longtime resident of Freeland loves the Pierces like family, that’s not the only thing motivating him. After all, Gambi used to be a part of the ASA, the sinister, covert government agency that’s responsible for Freeland’s metahumans and is now brutally occupying the city.
Gambi left once he realized how the ASA operates and set up shop as a tailor who quietly aids Freeland’s heroes from his secret lair underneath. But leaving and moving beyond are two entirely different things, and when it comes to letting go of his past, it’s clear that Gambi still has a long, perilous journey ahead of him that’s already nearly cost him his life.
Fortunately, James Remar doesn’t have to live in hiding the way his onscreen counterpart does. The veteran actor sat down with us on a recent Black Lightning set visit to discuss the challenges Gambi will face this season as well as when he might be able to come out of hiding. In the process, he shared his thoughts on Agent Odell and the ASA, how it feels to have your character nearly killed off and exactly where things are between Gambi and Jefferson these days.
Note: The below interview has been edited for clarity.
What’s Gambi’s main goal this season?
It’s the same goal he’s always had to protect his loved ones and make as much progress as he can make towards reconciling his past and continuing in the amends process. You know, cleaning up the mess that he made as a younger man. That's been his life's goal for a long time. And I think emerging from the underworld would be a nice thing to do.
Yeah, you’ve been isolated from the rest of Freeland for a while.
I get to have very intimate scenes with Nafessa and Chantal. You know, Grace Choi and Anissa, and also Jefferson, Lynn and the family, as well as some others that you’ll see a little later. But being able to move freely about living my life in the open air and sunshine is something that he certainly hasn’t been able to do for a while.
What do you think it’ll take to finally be able to do that again?
Well, it’s going to take finding out who wanted to put him there in the first place and making sure they're no longer capable of doing that.
Were you surprised when the show seemed to kill Gambi off?
When you're an actor on a TV show, you're always expecting to get killed off. So, when it happened and it wasn't permanent, it was it like, “Phew! Dodged that bullet!” But I think it was kind of cool. It was skillfully done. In fact, last year’s episode where I do get supposedly killed was directed by Michael Schultz, who’s directing the episode we're shooting right now. He's just an amazing person to work with. He's 80 years old, and he's directed everything under the sun. And he's got more energy than anybody.
When Gambi’s appeared this season, he’s often been cloaked. Is it weird sharing your face with another actor?
It's cool. Yeah, to see a shot where my character cloaked as the other face enters the sanctum and the camera comes around behind us, I take the helmet off and it's me. I love it and that isn't even trick photography. That was a Hollywood switch, is what we call it. As they came around, he jumped out and I jumped in. So, they didn't have to do anything with computer graphics or anything. Those are always fun.
Recently, when Jefferson was talking about some of the distance that’s come up between him and Lynn, Gambi made reference to his wife. Is that opening the door to us meeting her later this season?
Your guess is as good as mine. I mean, they certainly have planted the seed. And we've talked about it in the past. Gambi has a past that includes relationships. It's not just putting kids in pods and being a bad ASA guy, as you know. He's a human being. So, I think that would be nice. It'd be fun to play with someone coming back.
What if they cast Kim Cattrall?
That never occurred to me! I think it would blow some minds for sure.
The more we’ve learned about the ASA over the show’s three seasons, the more evil and nefarious they’ve become. Did Gambi have any idea how bad they were?
No, that’s why he quit. Once he found out what these experiments were doing and the truth of what was actually happening and how cold and inhumane it was, he quit.
Let’s say the ASA is allegorical to any branch of the service or any special operations outfit that drafts young men and women. You know, when I was a kid and I was growing up, I had a draft card for Vietnam. All the guys I know that went and came back, they did horrible things that they've regretted for their entire lives. But they went in there with their eyes wide open and very idealistic thinking they were doing something good. I think that's just the story of people that have been in the military and the espionage services throughout history.
Of the Pierce family, who do you think needs the most help from Gambi?
Needs or accepts? There’s a fine line there. I don’t know who needs my help, but Anissa and Gambi make a pretty terrific team, and let’s just say that something critical happens this season and I’ve got to be there for her. The scenes that we play together are really good scenes. They're good acting scenes that are very rewarding. We have a really strong relationship because, you know, Anissa has the fewest questions when it comes to her relationship with her Uncle Gambi. She’s just straight ahead, “Help me out and let's just get this done.” She's a no nonsense customer.
Does Gambi see what’s happening with Jennifer and Agent Odell? I can’t imagine he’d approve.
Not really, no. I'm not super privy to it. We keep an eye on her. We talk about it. We know that she's being tantalized and perhaps tempted, but you can't play too heavy handed with a teenager. They're going to just rebel and do exactly the opposite of what you say.
What do you think is Gambi’s overall impression of Agent Odell?
Oh, he thinks he's just this cold dinosaur—this absolutely heartless guy that has just gotten in way too deep. That he is so blinded by his sense of purpose, that he's forgotten his humanity. That's where we split. We were both in the ASA. Gambi was a special operations guy just like him. But Odell is willing to compartmentalize and set aside that he's experimenting on kids for what he deems to be the greater good for the security of the country. He sees himself as a patriot, and if some people get hurt in the process, well, so be it. My character says, “You know, enough people have been hurt in this process. We need to stop now and do it differently.”
That's where we're different. He's willing to go to any lengths to advance his agenda and I'm not going to do that anymore because I formed a connection with people that I love. You know, Jefferson is a metahuman. I don't want him in the pit.
On that note, Jefferson and Gambi had a falling out pretty early on in the series. They’ve mended ways since then, but what sort of ground would you say their relationship in on now?
We’re on very good ground. After I get “killed” and even Jefferson doesn't know that I'm alive, he tracks me down and he finds me holed up in this motel, and he says, “When are you going to learn that you are my family?” And he pulls me in for this big hug, and that's the end of all that nonsense. We're tight.
With Jefferson having been locked up at the ASA, Gambi’s become even more of a father figure to the girls. Now that Jefferson’s out, will he acknowledge what Gambi’s done for his family? He has to be pretty grateful, right?
I can't say what he's got to feel, but you know, he volunteered for that lock up in the pit. We take away from it that which is good, which is this cool new suit that the ASA developed and Gambi is very adamant that “I could have done the same thing if I had $20 billion and twenty-five guys working around the clock.” But then, I disable it from any of the ASA’s tracking devices, so we make it his.
What’s the one thing you hope the audience takes away from your character this season?
That he’s an honest person that cares about the people that he loves and is willing to go to any lengths to defend them.
Black Lightning airs Mondays at 9 p.m. (8 p.m. CST) on The CW. Visit our Black Lightning page for more features, news and articles about the Pierce family.