The Best Of Fresh Air 2011
5:51 am
Tue December 27, 2011

Aaron Paul: Playing Bad On 'Breaking Bad'

Originally published on Tue December 27, 2011 7:18 am

This week on Fresh Air, we're marking the year's end by revisiting some of the most memorable conversations we've had in 2011. This interview was originally broadcast on September 19, 2011.

Vince Gilligan's AMC drama Breaking Bad stars Bryan Cranston as a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White who turns to dealing drugs after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. White's partner-in-crime throughout the series is his former student Jesse Pinkman, played by actor Aaron Paul.

Paul joins Fresh Air's Terry Gross for a conversation about the show and about playing a meth dealer who frequently finds himself in precarious situations. Over the past four seasons, his character has laundered money, killed one of his meth-making co-workers and taken a lot of punches from other drug dealers. And Paul says some of those punches really hurt.

In one take of a fight, "my head actually comes into contact with the opening of a wooden screen door," Paul says. "And I catch it, and my entire body spins around and splits the door into a million pieces and I landed flat on my head and chest. The scene continues to go on because [everyone] thinks I was just acting, but in reality, I was just completely out of it and I don't remember it happening."

Paul ended up going to the emergency room and being treated for a concussion after that scene. It also may explain why the next fight scene featuring Paul was shot mainly in shadows, making it difficult to make out the characters.

"I think they didn't want that to happen again," he says. "They also didn't want to hurt [the character hitting me]. He was beating a sandbag next to my face so he could actually come into contact with something. I remember the day of that shoot, we did it so many times that [the actor's] knuckles actually started getting bruised."

On Not Getting 'Killed Off' The Show

Originally Jesse Pinkman was supposed to be killed off Breaking Bad during the show's first season. Paul says he didn't learn that until series creator Vince Gilligan called him over one day during lunch.

"He goes, 'Originally Jesse was supposed to die at the end of this season,' ... and instantly my heart dropped and slowed down a bit," Paul says. "And he said, 'We don't think we're going to do that anymore.' "

Gilligan told Paul that he loved the chemistry between Walt and Jesse.

"He decided to change the whole dynamic of their relationship and really the whole dynamic of the show," says Paul. "But the entire second season, the entire third season, I thought that Jesse could be a goner at any moment because there's many things that this character could screw up on, and he could definitely meet his deathbed at any moment."

Other cast members, including Bryan Cranston, would joke around on set with Paul about his character's potential demise.

"Bryan would come up and give me a hug and say, 'I'm not going to say anything but it was such a pleasure working with you. It's been an amazing past year-and-a-half, and you have a huge career ahead of you,' " he says. "They would always joke around about it. They've kind of slowed down about it, but who knows — this kid could die at any second."

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE RINGING)

AARON PAUL: (as Jesse Pinkman) Yo, yo, yo, 1, 4, 8, 3 to the 3 to the 6 to the 9, representing the ABQ. What up, be-atch? Leave at the tone.

(SOUNDBITE OF TELEPHONE BEEP)

GROSS: That's how Aaron Paul used to sound as Jesse Pinkman in the early days of the AMC series "Breaking Bad." Back then, Jesse was a teenager cooking and selling meth, working with his former chemistry teacher Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston.

In Season Four this year, both were working for a drug lord and were in way over their heads. We're going to listen back to the interview I recorded with Aaron Paul in September, as we continue our series featuring some of our most entertaining interviews of the year.

Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston have won Emmys for their performances on "Breaking Bad." When the series began, Walt was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Needing money for his treatment, and wanting to leave money for his family when he died, he decided to use his chemistry expertise to cook crystal meth. His meth became legendary. Jesse, his former, flunking student who was already cooking and selling meth small time, became Walt's assistant cook.

Before "Breaking Bad," Aaron Paul was best known for his performance in "Big Love," as Amanda Seyfried's husband.

Let's start with a scene from the first season of "Breaking Bad," soon after Walt and Jesse have teamed up. Jesse was supposed to sell the meth they just cooked, and bring back the money. Walt is really angry when Jesse shows up late.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

BRYAN CRANSTON: (as Walter White) We were supposed to start at 3.

PAUL: (as Jesse) Hey, I'm out there making fat stacks, man, chill.

Hey, prepaid cell phone. Use it.

CRANSTON: (as Walter) How much is this?

PAUL: (as Jesse) Twenty-six big ones.

CRANSTON: (as Walter) Is that all, $26,000?

PAUL: (as Jesse) No, that's 2,600, and your share is 13 - minus 25 bucks for that phone.

CRANSTON: (as Walter) How much meth did you sell?

PAUL: (as Jesse) Nearly an ounce.

CRANSTON: (as Walter) Last time I checked, there were 16 ounces to a pound. What'd you do with the rest, smoke it?

PAUL: (as Jesse) Yo, I've been out there all night slinging crystal. You think it's cake moving a pound of meth one teenth at a time?

CRANSTON: (as Walter) So why are you selling it in such small quantities? Why don't you just sell the whole pound at once?

PAUL: (as Jesse) To who? What do I look like, Scarface?

CRANSTON: (as Walter) This is unacceptable. I am breaking the law here. This return is too little for the risk. I thought you'd be ready for another pound today.

PAUL: (as Jesse) You may know a lot about chemistry, man, but you don't know jack about slinging dope.

CRANSTON: (as Walter) Well, I'll tell you, I know a lack of motivation when I see it.

PAUL: (as Jesse) Oh, my...

CRANSTON: (as Walter) C'mon. You've got to be more imaginative, you know. Just think outside the box here. We have to move our product in bulk, wholesale. Now how do we do that?

PAUL: (as Jesse) What do mean - to like, a distributor?

CRANSTON: (as Walter) Yes, yes, that's what we need. We need a distributor. Now, do you know anyone like that?

PAUL: (as Jesse) Yeah, I mean, I used to until you killed him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Aaron Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love that scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: Thank you so much.

GROSS: And I love the way your former chemistry teacher, who's now your partner cooking meth, is lecturing you about your lack of motivation - the way only a teacher could.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, your character, Jesse, starts off as - I mean, he's a kid from the suburbs who's an underachiever, and he's modeled his look and his way of speaking on hip-hop culture; probably watched a lot of like, Beastie Boy videos.

PAUL: Yes, absolutely.

GROSS: And you get the picture from the cell phone message that we played. Who did you model Jesse on, early in the series?

PAUL: Really, it was a combination of people that I've met throughout my life, and people that I've encountered in New Mexico. And it's all over the place. And so I just kind of tried to form a unique, interesting personality through people that I've encountered.

GROSS: So we're into the fourth season of "Breaking Bad" now. Have you come close to counting how many times you've used the word bitch?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: Oh, wow. The yos and bitches - it's too many to count. It's incredible. And all of those are scripted. Nothing - a lot of people ask me if - do you just improv the yos or the bitches sometimes? And everything's on the page. It's great.

GROSS: So your character, Jesse, was supposed to be killed off in the first season of "Breaking Bad." How did you find out that your character was doomed? When did you learn that?

PAUL: I didn't learn that until towards the end of the first season. We were on the sixth episode, so the fifth episode plus the pilot. And we had one more to go, and I hadn't read the script yet. And Vince - we were at lunch, and Vince is...

GROSS: This is the creator, Vince Gilligan.

PAUL: Yeah, this is creator Vince Gilligan; calls me over and he's, you know, eating with all the writers. And he goes, I want to tell you something. And I go, what's that? And he goes, originally Jesse was supposed to die at the end of this season.

This is the first time I've ever heard any of this. And instantly, my heart kind of dropped and slowed down a bit. And he goes, but we don't think we're going to do that anymore. And I was just - I was like, what do you mean? What are you talking about? Like, what's the plan? And he's like, no, we just - I just wanted to let you know that that's not the plan anymore.

And I didn't know how to take it, but he said that they just loved the, you know, the dynamic between Walt and Jesse and the chemistry that, you know, Bryan and I kind of brought to these characters. He decided to change the whole dynamic of their relationship and really, of the show.

But the entire second season, the entire third season, I thought that Jesse could be a goner at any moment because there's, you know, many things that this character has screwed up on, and, you know, he could definitely meet his deathbed at any moment, so.

And they'd always tease me. They'd always joke around, saying: Oh, did you read the next script? And I would say no, not yet. I haven't got it. You know, I haven't got it. And, you know, Bryan would come up and give me a hug and say, well, I'm not going to say anything but, you know, it was such a pleasure working with you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: It's been an amazing past year and a half and, you know, you have a huge career ahead of you. And so they would always joke around about it. They kind of slowed down this fourth season, but we'll see. Who knows? I mean, this kid could die at any second.

GROSS: Well, when I interviewed Vince Gilligan, he basically said he couldn't imagine the series without you.

PAUL: Oh, I love that man. How nice is he?

GROSS: But he also made it clear, that's no guarantee.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So - but, you know, that kind of uncertainty, I could see that being a little helpful because Jesse's never sure how long he's going to live. So why should you know?

PAUL: Right, yeah, exactly. It's true.

GROSS: Jesse's changed so much in the course of the now four seasons of the show. And, you know, he starts off really small-time. You know, he's almost like, still a kid. And now, he's involved with this big drug ring and - where there's a lot of violence, a lot of money.

At the end of Season Three - last season - Walt is afraid that the head of the drug ring is going to kill him as soon as Walt has finished training his assistant cook, a man named Gale, in how to prepare the meth recipe. And if the head of the drug ring kills Walt, he'll probably kill Jesse, too.

So Walt thinks the only hope is to have Jesse kill this assistant meth cook, Gale. So he convinces Jesse that Jesse has to murder the assistant cook. And so you - Jesse - kill Gale, and then you just really become dead inside afterwards.

So you kill him; you're dead inside; you start using meth again. And then you end up going to your support group, your drug support group. You want to confess that you've killed a man, but you can't confess that. So you make up a story that you've killed a dog. And here's a clip from that scene in the support group.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

PAUL: (as Jesse) A couple weeks back, I - uh - killed a dog.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (as character) You hit him with your car?

PAUL: (as Jesse) No, I put him down. I watched him go. I was looking him straight in the eye, and he didn't know what was happening. He didn't know why. He - he was just scared, and then he was gone.

GROSS: And then members of the support group try to comfort Jesse. And one of them says oh, well, the dog was suffering; putting him down was a kindness. And then when Jesse says that's not what happened, the woman in the group assumes oh, well, the dog must have bitten someone, so you did the right thing. And then you say it wasn't that.

And then another person in the group assumes like, well, you must have started using meth again, and that took you to the dark side - because that's what meth does. And everybody's trying to help you justify killing this dog, and you know that there's really no justification for what you've done, which is killing a man. So let's pick up the scene from there. And the leader of the support group speaks first.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BREAKING BAD")

JERE BURNS: (as Group Leader) How'd you feel about what you did, Jesse?

PAUL: (as Jesse) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (as Colleen) Who cares how you feel? What kind of a person kills a dog for no reason?

BURNS: (as Group Leader) Colleen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (as Colleen) You put an ad in the paper; you drop him off at a shelter...

BURNS: (as Group Leader) Colleen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (as Colleen) You don't just sit there and talk about killing a helpless, innocent animal.

BURNS: (as Group Leader) Colleen, we're not here to sit in judgment.

PAUL: (as Jesse) Why not? Why not? Maybe she's right. You know, maybe I should have put it in the paper. Maybe I should've done something different. The thing is, if you just do stuff and nothing happens, what's it all mean? What's the point? All right, this whole thing is about self-acceptance.

BURNS: (as Group Leader) Kicking the hell out of yourself doesn't give meaning to anything.

PAUL: (as Jesse) So I should stop judging and accept?

BURNS: (as Group Leader) It's a start.

PAUL: (as Jesse) So no matter what I do, hooray for me because I'm a great guy? It's all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just - what, do an inventory and accept? I mean, you back your truck over your own kid and you like, accept? What a load of crap.

BURNS: (as Group Leader) Hey, Jesse, I know you're in pain...

PAUL: (as Jesse) No, you know what? Why I'm here in the first place is to sell you meth. You're nothing to me but customers. I made you my bitch. You OK with that, huh? You accept?

BURNS: (as Group Leader) No.

PAUL: (as Jesse) About time.

GROSS: That's my guest, Aaron Paul, as Jesse Pinkman in a scene from this season of "Breaking Bad." You are so lost at this point in the storyline. Do you feel like the character you're playing now is different from the character you started playing on "Breaking Bad," because so much has happened to him, he's changed so much?

PAUL: Oh, wow, 100 percent. He is so broken now. I mean, he was a lost kid at the beginning of the series, you know, just kind of struggling to find his way. But he was content with dime-bagging it; you know, just selling teenths at a time and living in his aunt's house. But when Mr. White comes back into his life, and they continue to go down this dark rabbit hole - and they can't seem to get out of it; they're both so in way over their heads.

And now, you know, Jesse has completely, really, lost the support of his family. He had lost his first really true love, I think, with Jane, that was - started off as a good influence on Jesse but then just turned into like, a chemical romance, really.

And then - and now, you know, he's a murderer, and he's just lost and tortured, and it's so tragic what he's going through.

GROSS: And murder really isn't in his nature.

PAUL: No.

GROSS: But he's had to do, and he has to live with the consequences of that. Did you have to figure out: Who is Jesse without the drugs and the poses?

PAUL: Yeah, yeah, I really - you know, joining this series, obviously I had no idea where this character was going, and I didn't really have much of a backstory. But as the seasons have gone on, I feel like I have a true grasp of who this kid is, inside and out. And it's incredible how I feel like, such a personal connection with Jesse.

It feels like he's almost a part of me, to be honest. But I couldn't be such a polar opposite from this kid. But going to work every day, and kind of zipping on his skin, is such a - you know, such a dream.

GROSS: What makes you the opposite of Jesse Pinkman?

PAUL: I feel like I have my life together, really, and Jesse just seems like he's constantly just struggling to keep his head above water. And he's just this, you know, messed-up kid trying to find his way. But you know he has this soul; he has this heart.

I mean, that's why I feel people, you know, are rooting for him. And they just want to, you know, hug him and tell him it's going to be OK. But at the end of the day, like, is it really? Is it going to be? You don't know.

GROSS: He wouldn't accept that hug anyways.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: No, no, he actually would not, no.

GROSS: You've taken a lot of punishment in the series. You've been beaten in a lot of very imaginative ways. Would you have problems watching scenes like when you're beaten up, or scenes when your face has been beaten to a pulp? Do you watch yourself in those scenes?

PAUL: I do, yeah. I mean, I'll watch it when the show airs, you know, whether it being if I fly home to Idaho with my family - you know, they have a "Breaking Bad" night every week, and so - I come from a huge, huge, loving family, and they've been supportive since, you know, day one.

So my parents are, you know, they're still madly in love. It's their 40th anniversary coming up in November. And I have many siblings. I have 14 nieces and nephews. And they throw a huge party.

GROSS: Whoa.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: Yeah, they throw a huge party every Sunday night. So that's pretty great.

GROSS: Your co-star, the star of the series "Breaking Bad," is Bryan Cranston. Did you know him from "Malcolm in the Middle" - I mean, from watching him on "Malcolm in the Middle," in which he played the father?

PAUL: Oh yeah, I loved him. I loved that show. I thought he was great. And...

GROSS: And how old were you when you first started watching that?

PAUL: Oh man, I actually - I was in L.A. when they were casting that pilot. I remember reading that pilot. And I went out for the older brother - didn't end up getting it, obviously.

GROSS: Oh, no. Really?

PAUL: Yeah. Yeah. And yeah, Chris Masterson ended up getting the role, and he was brilliant on it. Bu, yeah, I was a huge fan of that show from day one. I think I've probably seen pretty much - like, every episode. But my mom is the biggest "Malcolm in the Middle" fan. She's obsessed.

GROSS: Maybe that helped to ease the blow that you were going to play somebody who cooks meth in the series.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: Yeah, yeah. Exactly. When I told her that Bryan Cranston was the star of "Breaking Bad," the pilot that I had just booked, she lost her mind. She was so, so, so excited because she knew one day, she would be able to meet him, you know. So she was ecstatic.

GROSS: So you're, obviously, very different from the Jesse Pinkman character that you play on "Breaking Bad." In fact, you know, he's a meth head. You grew up in Idaho; your father is a Baptist minister, yes?

PAUL: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. He's actually retired. He doesn't have a church he does every week anymore but he still does, you know, weddings and funerals, and sometimes will guest-speak at some churches. But yeah, throughout my entire life growing up in Idaho, we would go, you know, to his congregation every week and he would preach - yeah.

GROSS: What was his preaching like?

PAUL: It was - it was great. It was inspiring, really. I mean, he would get up in front of all these people and kind of just get lost in the moment as well. And I think that's where I take – not that I'm saying he was really standing up there acting, but he would just really get lost into these stories. He would speak. And, you know, I left at such a young age.

GROSS: Left Idaho, and left home?

PAUL: Left Idaho. Yeah, I left Idaho at 17. You know, I graduated high school a year early and just - you know, the typical story; packed up my car and moved out.

GROSS: When you left home at age 17, which - as you point out - is really young...

PAUL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...did your parents try to like, bar the door and do everything in their power to prevent you from going, and telling you that you were making a huge mistake that you would always regret; that you were throwing your life away, and throwing away everything that they had ever done to help you in life, etc.?

PAUL: You know what? Not at all. It was quite the opposite. I always had the plan of moving to L.A. They knew I always wanted to do this. And I think, really, in eighth grade, I made it certain just to let my parents know this was my plan. You know, I'm going to move to California or New York, and I'm going to try to become an actor. And so when I started taking it very seriously in high school and they would see, you know, these productions that we put on, and they would see how excited I would get about them, they were all about it when I mentioned to them that I wanted to take zero hour - where I'd go to school early, you know, to do an extra class and take correspondence - which was really home-schooling - as well, just to graduate early so I could get out to L.A.

They just applauded me. And they said, go for it; just do it; you want this. Like, I love - you know, like, I love your passion. And most of my teachers were supportive.

But there was this one teacher that came up to me when I was saying goodbye, really - because I had graduated, I'm done. And she said: I feel that you're making a big mistake, and what is your plan B? I mean, do you have another plan if this doesn't work out? Like, what if it doesn't work out?

And when I told my mom that - because from everywhere; I was getting blessings from every side. But I told my mom that, and my mom went straight into the school and just said, how dare you say this to my son? Like, what's your plan? What's your second - what if this doesn't work out for you? You know, what's your plan B?

And it was just so great to see my mom like, take that control, because I've never seen her like that in my life. And it was just so great that they were supportive of going after dreams.

GROSS: Well, they must have a lot of faith in you, and in your ability to follow through on the dream.

PAUL: Yeah. No. You know, obviously, I couldn't have done this without them, and it's incredible - very, very blessed.

GROSS: So you get to L.A., and then what? You don't know anybody there. You don't, I mean....

PAUL: Yeah, no, I know.

GROSS: You have your car; it's packed up. Then what?

PAUL: Yeah. I actually – my mom came out with me. Found a little studio apartment, and she just wanted to make sure I would get settled. And it's funny: The weekend I was moving into this little, tiny studio apartment in North Hollywood, a bank robbery is in progress like, two blocks from my place.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: A giant bank robbery, and it ended in crazy bloodshed. And my mom is like, oh my God; where am I allowing my son to move to? But she, you know, she got on a plane and went back to Idaho and felt, I'm sure, very safe. But I'm sure she was scared for my life but she was still very, very, very supportive.

But yeah, I didn't know anybody. I just, you know, saved up a bunch of money from random jobs I worked in Idaho, and just tried to find myself an agent and a manager.

GROSS: And succeeded?

PAUL: And succeeded. Yeah. Yeah. I got a...

GROSS: Oh, how did you do it? Did you just talk them into it, or what?

PAUL: Yeah, I just talked them into it, and bribed them a little bit. But...

GROSS: With...

No. I -

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: No, I didn't bribe them. I actually - I ended up going to this acting competition that was held downtown Los Angeles. And I mean, there's just thousands of kids there. And I ended up signing with a manager there, and then he found me an agent pretty quickly - like, you know, a couple weeks later. And that agent, Loch Powell, is now my manager, and I've been with them since day one. And, you know, I really owe everything to him. He's great.

GROSS: Well, you paid off.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So can I just say something about the voice that you do as Jesse?

PAUL: Yeah.

GROSS: There's something about the voice that - Jesse always seems to be on the verge of like, complaining or whining, or feeling put upon.

PAUL: Right.

GROSS: It's like he still a teenager, you know what I mean? It's like, still, his parents are nagging him or his teacher is nagging him. That's his kind of like, posture in the world a lot of the time.

PAUL: Right. Yeah. It's true.

GROSS: Is that what you've been trying for vocally?

PAUL: Yeah. No, I mean, it just - I see Jesse as this kid that still hasn't found his footing, you know? And I love that he, you know, he still calls Walter White Mr. White.

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah. That's so great.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: He's just lost in his own world. And - I don't know. I think - well, you know, this season is where he's really, he's kind of taking the reins of his life.

GROSS: Well, I just want to say, if Vince Gilligan is listening, please do not kill off Jesse Pinkman.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

PAUL: Yes. I agree. Thank you so much.

GROSS: Aaron Paul, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PAUL: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Aaron Paul plays Jesse Pinkman on the AMC series "Breaking Bad." Our interview was recorded in September. It's part of our week-long retrospective of some of our favorite entertainment and pop-culture interviews of the year. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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