In the history of television and film, there is exactly one portrayal of a wigger—you know, the foolish caucasoid dripping with oversized streetwear and hip-hop affectation—that doesn't make us want to snuff somebody with the angry white knuckles of our clenched fists. That distinction belongs to actor Aaron Paul, who plays petty drug dealer and junkie turned bulk meth manufacturer and reluctant murderer Jesse Pinkman on AMC's exceptional New Mexico-set crime drama Breaking Bad. Less caricature than character study, his Pinkman has developed from a buffoon into one of the most tortured souls on TV, earning Paul a 2009 Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series.
In the show's fourth season, Paul's character continues to be led further and further down a road of irredeemability, ironically corrupted by his high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston. So far, Pinkman has already witnessed a statement killing and tried to distract himself from the pain and guilt of murdering an innocent to save his own life.
It's heavy shit, which is exactly what the 31-year-old, self-described character actor likes to explore, as he told us when we interviewed him for our August/September issue. In our extended interview with Aaron Paul, he speaks about getting inside Jesse Pinkman's drug-addled and troubled mind, working with Bryan Cranston, and how he nearly played a famous clitoris in a skit.
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
Going into Season Four of Breaking Bad, did you know anything that was going to happen to Jesse, or was it a script-to-script discovery for you?
Yeah, they keep it close to their chest, they don’t usually let us know too much ahead of time, so I had no idea. I always kind of think I have an idea of where the show is going, but then it goes completely in the opposite direction.
How do you deal with Jesse’s cliffhangers? Are you calling up [creator] Vince Gilligan begging to know what’s next?
Of course I’m dying to know! But I don’t think last season, with Jesse holding up the gun and pulling the trigger, I don’t think they’re trying to hide exactly what he did. I knew exactly what Jesse went [to Gale’s apartment] to do, and he pulled the trigger, so I felt in my head I knew what he did, and I thought that this next season was him trying to come to terms with his new reality.
That makes sense, but the last second camera move was a little ambiguous.
I think why so many people were so confused about half of what happened was simply because of the camera move. The camera move made the gun look like it was actually moving, but that was actually not the case at all. I think it was supposed to be set in stone, like, this is what is happened. It’s just the camera move made it look like he’s moving the gun. I’d be so upset if that was the cliffhanger, Jesse holds up the gun straight in [Gale’s] face and then all of the sudden moves the gun and pulls the trigger, like, "What is he doing? Is that just a warning?"
You spent time in a rehab facility to prepare for Jesse's recovery last season. How did you prepare for his new reality as a cold-blooded murderer of innocents?
It’s almost impossible to prepare for that, ‘cause I definitely can’t go out and commit murder. But just trying to get into that headspace, like how Jesse or anybody, really, would react. I think the moment you pull the trigger, it’s officially the loss of innocence. In the beginning of last season, when Jesse gets out of rehab, he’s talking to Walt and he says he learned about self-acceptance and he’s accepted who he truly is: the bad guy.
The entire last season, Jesse was trying to convince himself and convince others that he was just that, and maybe he’s not the bad guy, he has so much guilt on his shoulders, he completely blamed himself of his girlfriend Jane's death. He didn’t know that Walt had anything to do with it. So he’s blaming himself, and he’s like, “You know what, I am the bad guy.” And all last season he was just saying that, and then the final frames of last season proved that. And he is a bad guy. He possibly killed the nicest guy on the show.
As bad as he might be, Walt is the one responsible for pushing him to go further and further down that path.
Absolutely. If it wasn’t for Walt, Jesse wouldn’t be the bad guy; he was happy dimebagging back in the day, then Walt re-entered his life and pretty much blackmailed him to get into this business with him and Jesse’s life has been turned completely upside down. He wasn’t living, like, the perfect life, but he was happy with it. And now, as you’ve said, he just keeps going down this rabbit hole and just keeps struggling to get out of it.
Have you personally ever felt like a bad guy?
I've never felt like the bad guy.
I don’t know, maybe. Um…I don’t know if I really want to, like, express all the bad things that I’ve done with my life.
Fair enough. Speaking of lost innocence, your co-star Bryan Cranston once said that he saw innocence in you when you first met. Do you think that you've lost any of that as you've become more famous?
I hope I haven’t really changed much. I don’t think [I have]. But it’s so great to work with someone like Bryan who has been doing this forever; he’s like the leader of the show, and I’ve worked with some people who are number one on call sheets and they do have that kind of prima donna arrogance about them, and it’s upsetting because we all kind of came out to Hollywood or New York to chase these dreams, and those dreams really do change people at that expense, but I’m just very grateful to have a job. And working with Bryan, he’s such a child trapped in a man’s body, it’s actually really brilliant to be around, and I say that in the kindest way possible. He’s a very smart man, he’s amazing at what he does, he also knows how to goof around and have a good time and appreciate these good moments and let us all know we should feel very thankful and blessed. It’s great.
Have you always been able to go to Bryan for guidance?
Absolutely. From day one, really, he saw the excitement in me, just to work; he’s never let that go, and he’s been doing it for 25-plus years. And he’s kinda been giving me advice on set and off set with my career and just life in general. I always come to him and talk about my issues.
You've said before that you’re not in a rush to move to the next project and don't want to play anything similar to Jesse. So, what interests you for future roles? Is there a genre you'd like to try?
Honestly, genre-wise, I think anything across the board as long as it’s story-driven and is a consistent character that’s something I haven’t necessarily played. Something that terrifies me, I think. Something that I’m a little nervous about is the best kind of projects to put myself in, just a completely different skin to kind of play with. For me, that’s the most fun. I consider myself absolutely a character actor, and that’s what I want as a career. I don’t need to be the lead star or any of that, as long as I’m doing stuff that I’m proud of, really.
What's an example of a role that terrifies you?
For example, I just did one little indie film this last hiatus, Cripple. It’s a true story about this guy, Adam Niskar, who’s this kind of heavy drinking, womanizing businessman at the top of his game and he’s celebrating a huge promotion and he’s pretty drunk and he dives into a lake, fully clothed, breaks his neck and his spine and becomes a quadriplegic. The story is him coming to terms with his new existence and seeing if he can kind of pull himself out of that. I myself cannot imagine going through something like that, and I’ve never been around someone who’s had to go through something like that. Those kinds of stories really intrigue me—people that I’m completely not. Just something like that, to just like transform into someone else is what I’m all about.
That's some equally heavy material for your vacation from Breaking Bad. What do you like to do for yourself when you come off a particularly intense day of shooting?
I like to sleep. A lot. [Shooting Cripple] was strenuous because I was little in 99% of the frames and working every day, all day long, but working on Breaking Bad, it seems like a pretty heavy show, but it’s such a family environment on the set, we just goof around and laugh all day really. That’s the only way to do it, because if we didn’t have that, I think we’d be pretty depressed all day. This show, as you said, it’s pretty heavy. It’s good to have a sort of sense of humor to break through the tension of the material that we’re playing with.
And the show can be very funny sometimes, you find yourself laughing at a lot of the dark humor situations that these characters go through, but I will say this: Season Four is so much darker. Not in terms of more explosions and more depth and all of that—there’s definitely that going on—but just what all these characters are going through is just so intense. At times it’s hard to and of take it off, but you have to leave it on set and go home…and sleep.
Portrayals of drug addicts often rely heavily on cliché. What did you do to ensure that Jesse's addiction came across as truthful?
A lot of research. You can find anything online, and I’ve said this a million times before, but YouTube has been like my best friend. You can type anything in on YouTube and you’ll find it, and it’s genuine stuff, it’s real people living these experiences. Like the first time Jesse was using heroine, I couldn’t track anything down of someone using heroine for the first time, but I definitely found some stuff on YouTube of people literally shooting up heroine and what it did to them, what it did to their speech pattern and how it kind of slowed their voice down and how they just started nodding off. Just watching that stuff over and over and becoming addicted to shows like Intervention, showing what it does not only to the person that is using but to the family members around them and their friends.
And I’ve had personal experiences with people I’ve cared for deeply and I’ve seen drugs really just eat their soul and take it away and they become this vacant, absent person. And at a certain point I could tell they had some sort of control over the drug, but they went to this like, tilting point, where the drug completely had control over them, and I think that’s where Jesse as sort of at at a certain point in the second season with the whole heroin addiction. But yeah, it’s pretty intense, so hopefully all the research kind of pays off in the end.
How did you address your friends?
I obviously would confront them, try to have some sort of group meeting, you know, like an intervention really. And the thing is, when they get to a point like that, you really need people, you need a support system. When you’re addicted to…I’ve never been addicted to drugs at all, but I’ve seen it completely take over people’s lives. And you have to have a support system, because you can’t do it by yourself, you just can’t, because you’re too weak. How I handled it was just to try and be there for them. And they may not want help, and you keep trying and keep trying and keep trying, but at a certain point you can’t sacrifice your own happiness to save someone who doesn’t want to be saved.
What is something that you think works against you personally as an actor?
I guess my pickiness, really. I get a lot of frustration from my team—my agents, my manager—at times. They’re like, “We gotta get you a job.” But they understand—I’ve been with my manager since day one, for 14-plus years, so he really gets me. I’ve gone through many different agencies, and it’s hard for them to understand what I’m all about. I don’t wanna do jobs just for the money, I want to do jobs for the role, the actual project, I don’t care if I get paid anything really. I just want to do something that interests me, that challenges me. And if that happens to be in a big-budget movie where they’re paying me a bunch of money, then fantastic, but usually, to be honest, big-budget films…nothing against them, but it’s hard, it’s tough, to find something that’s so gritty, and like, I just gravitate towards indie darlings I guess. And that’s the type of film that I love. But yeah, that is definitely something that holds you back from working more. Because a lot of projects come my way, but you just have to…I say you have to say no to those projects, make enough you’re passionate about if you want longevity in the business, so, who knows. I could be completely wrong, but….
You did a great Funny or Die trailer for a fake Weird Al Yankovic movie. Is there any chance we might see more than just a video short?
You know, it’s so funny, so many people actually think that’s a real-life movie trailer and people are convinced that that movie’s really going to happen, but no.
Funny or Die originally approached Bryan [Cranston] and I to do a skit together actually. We had a creative meeting and pitched ideas back and forth. We were going to do a skit on Octomom—this is actually Bryan’s idea—where Bryan was going to play Octomom’s vagina, holding a press conference, and then I was going to play Octomom's clitoris. You’d have to read the script, it was actually pretty funny. We couldn’t work out the schedule because of work, and then she went out of the spotlight, so we decided not to do that anymore.
Any plans for more comedy?
It’s so hard for me to kind of fall in love with comedy, but if something comes my way…I mean, I loved Weird, I thought that was a really fun character.
It was fun, and you got to get heavy.
You gotta get heavy, you gotta get heavy! Exactly!
Interview by Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)