BlackBook Archives: An Interview with ‘Breaking Bad”s Aaron Paul

To all of our hearts discontent, this weekend marks the end for one of television’s greatest dramas. Brilliantly scripted, directed, and acted since its pilot episode, Breaking Bad has spent the past the past six years penetrating our emotions and slicing up our nerves, as we’ve navigated through Walter White’s dangerous and painful world—following his evolution from everyday family man and chemistry teacher simply trying to better his family, to a morally unsound and deeply tortured head of a meth-making empire. In its final season, show-runner Vince Gilligan—along fantastic guest directors, such as Bryan Cranston himself to Rian Johnson and Michelle MacLaren—have crafted some of the most visceral and riveting episodes to date, plunging us into the harrowing darkness that has befallen characters that encompass the Albuquerque-set drama’s rough and dusty landscape.

And although everyone on the show has undergone a tremendous arc in character since the initial season in 2008, it’s Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman who has altered the most outside of Walt. When we first met Pinkman, he was all bitches and yo’s, perennially clad in over-sized clothing and just a messed up kid with a good heart trying to make some money and get high in the process. But over the course of the series, Pinkman has undergone trauma after trauma, attempting to learn from his mistakes and better those he’s hurt in the process, but it’s only landed him amidst the deepest of hells. And fortunately for Paul, who has  “a face like a Boy Scout and an Idaho-inflected timbre flattening his vowels,” embodying the role of Pinkman—so far removed from his own personality— has earned him two Emmys Awards and four nominations thus far.
Back in the spring of 2011, I got the chance to chat with Paul about the upcoming fourth season of the show, the absolute joy of being a part of the cast, and a bit of starstruck Lost talk in between. The resulting conversation was used in a profile of Paul that ran in our 2011 Summer issue, but today, with the series finale airing this Sunday, we thought we’d share our full conversation with Paul for you. And my, how the times have changed.
Where are you right now?
I am in LA I just flew in late last night. We’re still shooting right now, I came straight from work to come into town for the. We’re on episode ten, we have three more to go.
How’s the shooting going?
It’s good we definitely take it to another level, it’s a much crazier ride this year.
You’ve had a lengthy shooting hiatus, no?
Yeah, we had a full year off. Usually we have about six months but this year we pushed by six months but I did a little traveling.
Where’d you go?
I went through Canada, New York, London, and then just kind of laid around and relaxed, and tried to get myself a job. I finally attached myself to something at the very end of the hiatus, a little indie film that we shot in Detroit.
It’s called Cripple, as of right now–it’s a true story about this guy is really successful mortgage broker, but he’s also a big partier and loves to drink and loves women, and one night he is celebrating and he dives into a lake fully-clothed when he’s drunk and ends up shattering his spine and breaking his neck, and becomes quadriplegic. So it’s about him coming to terms with his new existence and trying to see if he can overcome his new harsh reality. He does, and it’s a really inspiring story.
Was it a big transition for you, stepping from Jesse into that role?
I always find myself gravitating towards different characters. I’m definitely more of a character actor more than anything else; that’s my goal at least in life. This guy was definitely not “normal” he was definitely a wild child, which is always fun to play, but I’m the polar opposite of Jesse who is, well, one of a kind.
When you first signed on for the pilot of Breaking Bad, or even into the first season, did you have any idea how successful it would be?
Yeah no, I had no idea. I know personally it was one of the best things I’ve ever read and definitely the best pilot that had ever been placed in front of me. But after I read it, I was like, wait there’s no way in hell this would ever get picked up or see the light of day—this is not a television show, especially on AMC. When I read this, this is before AMC had any original programming, this was before Mad Men had come out. They were shooting the first season of Mad Men but it hadn’t aired yet, and I didn’t know AMC was doing original programming and trying to push their network by putting a show on that has to do with cooking and selling crystal meth. We pitched that show to people, and it’s a hard pitch because it’s not just about a guy deciding to cook and sell crystal meth because he’s dying of lung cancer, it’s about making really bad decisions for, at the end of the day, a really good reason. What would you do for your family? What would you do if you were pushed into a corner like that? I had never read anything like it.
A lot of people think you just crawled out of the woodwork, but you’ve been acting for quite a while now. 
I was on the original Beverly Hills 90210, that’s totally going to age me. It was one of my first jobs and I remember thinking to myself, “Oh my god, I’m on 90210 right now.”
Was it one of those things where you were watching it one day and the next thing you know you were on it?
Yeah, it was such a huge success, I came out and auditioned for it and then booked it and then a week after I was done from Melrose offered me this role and I really thought my career was about to take off—but then I just stopped working for a while. So you just never know.
Originally, Jesse was intended to be killed off Breaking Bad. So once it was resolved that he would stay, how much of the character was developed for you and how did you get to know him.
I had no idea who this kid was. I had read the pilot and I think they had an idea where they were going to take this role, but they also thought they were going to kill off Jesse at the end of the first season. So going into it, even now, I definitely feel like I have a grasp of who this kid is for sure, but starting off I was going in blind really from what I gathered from the 50 or 60 pages. I read in the pilot but the more and more scripts I got, the more backstory I got, and realized what he was all about and then started molding it from there. But I always try and do something that’s completely opposite from who I am.
A lovable meth addict is a rare character, I’d say.
So many people come up to me and say, “Oh my god, you’re my favorite lovable drug addict!” But it’s true, he’s truly just a lost kid, he got mixed up in the wrong crowd. When you first meet him, you don’t know if he’s bad, but then you realize he’s not a bad soul, he’s just trying to make a buck. He is cooking and selling drugs and I guess technically that is wrong, but I don’t think deep deep down he’s a horrible human being—he’s just trying to survive.
For all of the show’s danger and darkness, there’s a bizarre comedic sensibility that always manages to make it’s way through the cracks in the strangest moments, which I love.
It was like that from day one.
Were you a fan of Bryan before working with him on this?
A huge fan! And he pops up in everything. But I had never seen him do any dramatic material, and I knew he was involved when I read the pilot and thought it was a really interesting choice. He was obviously a talented, talented man, but I had no idea to what extent. Once I started working him he blew me and the audience away. He’s just such an open book and he gives so much. He’s truly such a mentor of mine and I’ve learned from him and from day one.
Are you two close?
Oh, we are. We’ve have a great relationship. Our entire cast does; we have such a good time. We know that this is so rare, and not just the show itself, but just the connection we all have is very rare. I’ve been doing this for fourteen plus years and I’ve never experienced anything like this—not even close. But it’s truly like a home away from home and doesn’t feel like work at all. That’s when it gets a little sad, but it’s so fun from top to bottom everyone has a blast.
The bloopers are so great to watch. I imagine you have to keep things light on set when you’re delving into really rough territory on show, as to not let that completely bring you down.
We have to. Bryan says if we don’t do this, we’ll just get sucked down this dark depression. We have to break the tension with humor. I think what’s so great about the show itself, it’s not just dark—there are some really funny elements to the show; you find yourself laughing at very bizarre things.
Like the bath tub scene.
Jesse is pouring acid on dead human flesh and you’e laughing.
How involved do you get with Jesse, in terms of where the writers are taking the role?
I might chime in every now and then, but at the end of the day the writers do their thing and they’re brilliant at it. I love to be surprised just like an audience member would be. We’re all salivating to get the next episode just like everyone is waiting to see the next show. I always think it’s going in one direction and it’s the complete opposite. I thought the second season was pretty dark and in the third it got more intense, but this season—obviously with Gus and his whole situation—he’s like this silent villain. He’s so menacing. Season four is just…it’s the darkest thing I’ve ever experienced.
Last season ended on an incredibly intense note. I have no idea where you guys will even go from there. But you’ve now won an Emmy, how was that experience for you and did you ever imagine you’d be up on that stage?
I wish I would have said this one stage, but I was so out of my mind—I was a hundred percent prepared to just go to the Emmys and have a good time and not have to go up on stage to talk in front of all these people. I was looking forward to that and was totally happy just to be invited to the party. I was honored just to be in the same breath as these people. I’m also the biggest Lost fanatic—what Michael Emerson did with Ben Linus is remarkable; anytime I watch him onscreen I’m utterly speechless. And what Terry O’Quinn did with John Locke, he totally played two characters; he’s so great, he’s so good. I got so starstruck when I was walking the carpet and it was the first time I met Terry O’Quinn, and I was like, “Oh my god that’s John Locke!” I went up to him and introduced myself. I don’t know if he knew who I was, but I told him I was such a huge fan and he thanked me and continued on his way. I was like, “I just have to tell you, I can’t believe I’m here, let alone you and I are in the same category together.” And then I saw a lightbulb go off and then he told me congratulations. He actually tracked me down at the Governor’s Ball and told me congratulations. And Michael Emerson, who I’ve known through years now through random events and me accosting him and kissing his feet, he is such a huge supporter and he’s incredible.
And to have you and Bryan both win.
Literally, when I hugged Bryan, I hugged him and told him I had no idea what I was going to say. Going up on stage I went into another world, and then walking off I had all my friends with me. They were all outside of the auditorium, and all the girls were crying their eyes out and my buddies were sobbing as well. One of friends was crying and he couldn’t be in public, so he ran to the bathroom and he was just in the bathroom letting it out and Michael C. Hall was in there and was like, “Are you okay?” and he was like, “Yeah, my buddy just won an Emmy! I’m so happy for him, I just can’t believe this is happening.”
Pouring out your heart to M.C. Hall in the bathroom, a dream.
Can’t beat that.
Have things change for you now that you’ve been on the show and won an Emmy, are you getting offered more roles and do you feel your perception has changed?
Offers, no. I wish. Let’s be honest. No, I mean, I think people see me in a different light. I’ve just been doing it for so long and I’ve known a lot of the people in this business forever, but I think maybe that validates that I’m not going anywhere and I’m not going to give up on this dream of mine. Hopefully it will open some people’s eyes and give me a job.
Are you able to relate to the drug use in the show—not in a personal way but towards more of the what it means for these characters?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean right now where Jesse’s head’s at it’s so hard to relate, but where Jesse’s head’s at in terms of the whole relationship he has with drugs and the chemical romance he ended up having with Jane, I absolutely can relate to that. I mean I’ve seen what drugs can turn people into; I’ve seen beautiful creatures completely lost to the drug world, and I can see their souls slowly drifting away—just gone, especially with meth in particular. I’m so happy I’ve never had an issue like that, but I’ve seen how drugs can completely take over one’s life and at a certain point the people think that they have control over the drug, but then in a matter of moments the drug has complete 100% control over them. The only way to stop is if they have help or if they hit their rock bottom.
I think what people love so much about the show is how far it’s outside of our daily lives and so removed from what we see everyday but you can still relate to these characters and the things they struggle with.
Totally, that’s why I applaud the writers. When I read this pilot, I thought there was no way this was going to be show on TV, this is not a story that a network is going to want to tell. But the thing is, it’s a story that needs to be told—and this stuff happens. When we were shooting the pilot it was like art imitating life: a principal at a school was arrested because he was selling crystal meth to his students. So it’s out there, and a lot of people are scared to tell the stories. Before our show aired AMC, they were getting a lot of harsh criticism saying, “Shame on you guys for supporting a show that glamorizes crystal meth,” but then once we aired, obviously all those people realized that it wasn’t glamorizing it at all—it’s showing the harsh reality of this world. And no one in their right mind would trade lives with these characters.
So has the show given you a new perception on the drug world and drug dealers?
Yeah, 100%. When you think about the drug world, you think it’s this cut and dry type thing, but there’s so many different layers and different reasons why people get into this world and get trapped in it and it’s so sad.
Do you find meth addicts seeking you out and talking to you?
It happens quite a bit, to be honest. And every single one has been a positive experience. I’ve had people get really, really, emotional and they will start shaking and say, “Thank you, thank you for being a part of a show that makes me constantly realize and remember why I am clean and sober.” It’s not like people that are sober watch it and they’re itching to start using, it’s a reminder that hey, this is a horrible existence, stay as far away from this as possible.
How did you prep for this new season?
This new season was completely different than anything else because where Jesse’s head’s at, I mean you can do research, but nothing you can really dive in one on one. Obviously, the final frames of season three is of Jesse pulling a trigger, I feel it’s truly like he’s in a very intense head space.
That final moment, just the shot of your face holding the gun, that single shot was deserving of an Emmy itself.
Thank you, I would hug you if you were here. That’s literally how the next season starts, and he’s in a pretty dark place. It definitely picks up where we left off; not a lot of time has passed. When I say that this season is much bigger and darker than anything anything I’ve ever experienced, I just mean in terms of where all these characters are heading and where they’re at emotionally and physically. It’s more of like an internal emotional journey with these characters this season. It’s really great, I’m really curious to see what people’s thoughts are.
You’ve also been on Big Love this year, how have you been managing between these two television worlds?
That was great, the first couple seasons of Breaking Bad I was going back and forth. I would literally start the same day. Big Love would shoot in Valencia and Breaking Bad would shoot in Albuquerque, so I would just fly back and forth. I felt like I had split personalities, but it was my dream to just play such polar opposite characters. I feel like I find myself in between those two roles in reality, so it’s nice to just slip on different skins.
And after being there for frequently, you’ve become a big fan of Albuquerque.
Oh yeah, I love it. The first couple seasons, when I shot the pilot in Albuquerque, I was stuck in a little hotel and it wasn’t near anything. So all I did was hang out in the hotel and go to work; I didn’t get to experience all that is New Mexico. I was thinking to myself, oh dear god if the show gets picked up we’re going to have to shoot it here? The was my original reaction, but once we got picked up, I actually got a place and got to explore the city. Then I got to explore the state and I fell so in love with it and I’m obsessed. I’m a home owner there now and very proud of it. Albuquerque is so much of another character of the show,it’s a huge part. The landscape and the skies are endless.
A very doomed sense of emptiness.
The landscape just seems to desolate and lonely and that’s exactly where all of these characters are at a certain point. They’re very, very lonely and searching and searching. It’s such a great fit, it’s perfect.
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