Aaron Paul burst onto the scene with Breaking Bad, becoming a household name in the process. Now, after six seasons playing the beloved Todd Chavez in the surprisingly poignant animation BoJack Horseman, he’s gearing up for his next big role. But as Covid-19 tightens its grip, he concedes it’s strange trying to promote HBO epic Westworld – in which he plays Caleb Nichols, a PTSD-suffering Army vet turned blue-collar construction worker who resorts to crime as he struggles to find employment in a workforce dominated by androids – when real-life is increasingly more dystopian than sci-fi.
“It’s an…. interesting time we’re in,” he tells NME. “I was supposed to do a worldwide press tour for Westworld, and we were supposed to have a Brazil premiere, a big activation at South by Southwest festival and I was supposed to do some press and talk shows in New York – all that stuff was cancelled. Slowly but surely, every production is being shut down, which I think is the responsible thing to – just to try to stop this thing from spreading.”
But then arguably Paul is used to, even immune to, surreal experiences. Thanks to his Emmy-winning role as Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad, a crystal meth dealer who used the word “bitch” like a punctuation mark, he entered the pop culture pantheon in the late 2000s – leading to a succession of bamboozling moments for him. There was the time when Drake ran up to him in a Paris parking lot and hugged him. Or the moment Rihanna captioned a photo of them together with: ‘My life has been completed!!! #Pinkman4President’. He’s joined Arcade Fire on stage; the likes of Jake Bugg have played private candlelit gigs in his house; while self-confessed fan Iggy Pop joked at him on a talk show: “If I saw Aaron in the mid-west, I’d think I could score off of that guy.”
“Oh man, I gotta be honest, it just felt like Breaking Bad was on everyone’s tour bus. So it really felt like it was a big thing in the music industry,” says Paul. “The most surreal thing was I got invited to a Rolling Stones concert out of nowhere as their guest. Ronnie Wood wanted to meet up with me so I went backstage and met him in his dressing room, and he introduced me to Keith Richards – Keith was shirtless, smoking a joint and exactly as you’d imagine him. It felt like such a rock star moment. But it happened because they were massive fans of Breaking Bad – that’s crazy.”
We’re here ostensibly to talk about his film The Parts You Lose. It’s a bleak, slow burn drama in which he plays a wounded bank robber who develops a burgeoning friendship with a 10-year-old deaf boy (British newcomer Danny Murphy).
“I loved the story of this odd dynamic between a fugitive who is hiding out bleeding to death inside of a barn who is being helped by a young deaf boy who felt the urge to save him,” says Paul. “It was really important to us that we cast a wide net to try and find a perfect young actor who happened to be deaf. Danny saw that we were doing a worldwide search and he put himself on tape and sent it in – and he was such a screaming talent.”
Like Murphy, Paul started in the industry young. Unlike his breakout role as slacker Jesse Pinkman, he had a preternatural and unwavering focus on his career. Growing up the youngest of four children of a Southern Baptist minister in Idaho. He “just loved storytelling and make-believe – I never let that go”. When he saw films like The Goonies and Stand By Me, his world spun on its axis. “I thought to myself: ‘Oh wait, these are young kids playing make-believe – and they’re doing this for a living.’” As the family didn’t have any money, he started saving in a glass jar by his bed: “I was determined to move to LA to tackle this passion of mine.”
With just $6000 in savings and no financial safety net, Paul drove to Los Angeles in a 1982 Toyota Corolla at 17 – having graduated a year early. “The moment I got there, the first thing I did was plug my radio in. I sat in my little apartment, helicopters are circling my neighbourhood and there was a breaking news story about a massive heist that was going on at the Bank of America there – it was happening a few blocks from my house. So that was my first experience of Los Angeles – sitting and listening to the constant fire of semi-automatic weapons.”
After guest roles in shows such as The X-Files and sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, plus a regular role on HBO’s Big Love, it was when Paul was at his lowest ebb – 27, disillusioned and broke after six failed pilots – that the audition that was to change his life arrived.
While his now-best-friend Bryan Cranston’s decadent descent from milquetoast chemistry teacher Walter White to ruthless drug overload Heisenberg may have been called ‘Shakespearean’ and “the best acting I have ever seen” by Anthony Hopkins, it was Paul that provided Breaking Bad‘s humanity. Indeed, the character Jesse Pinkman wasn’t even meant to survive beyond the first season – until creator Vince Gilligan was so impressed with Paul’s bravura performance (and double-act with Cranston) that he decided to keep him in.
“I’m still experiencing the effects of it,” he says. “So many people to this day are still just getting caught up on Breaking Bad, like the younger generations who are old enough to watch it now. It goes in waves: a young kid in the eighth grade [13 or 14 years old] starts telling their friends: ‘Have you seen Breaking Bad? It’s on Netflix – you should watch it’. And then it’s another wave. Honestly, that happens every year.”
“And then there’s the older generation who, because there’s so much content out there, are only getting round to watching it,” says Paul. “There’s a lot of people who are just going to see me as [Jesse] Pinkman forever – so I think my job is to try and do things that are different, challenging and excite me, and then – you just never know how people are going to react.”
Last year, he reprised the role of Jesse in the Netflix epilogue El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. Though his acting was universally lauded, it received mixed reviews, with some critics feeling it added unnecessary layers of fan service to an already complete product. Now that the dust has settled, is he glad he did it?
“I think it’s great. I had no idea I was going to jump back into that skin again – at least in that big of a way,” says Paul. “I thought there might have been a world in which I’d join [spin-off] Better Call Saul for an episode or two, but when Vince asked me to tackle this with him, of course I jumped at the chance. It gives a bit of closure for this guy [Jesse] and what happened to him. To be honest, I felt the way Breaking Bad ended was beautiful. I thought it was perfect. But with that said, I’m happy that El Camino now exists to give a deeper look at the ending of this character’s story.”
When Paul was in Breaking Bad, he was inundated with big Hollywood film roles – rejecting some which went on to be blockbuster hits – which is why it seems unfortunate that he’s never had a big screen role which matches his obvious talent. The 2014 video game tie-in Need For Speed, about street racers, and cop corruption thriller Triple 9, were both considered flops. “It’s [Hollywood] so ruthless. It really is,” he says. “Worldwide, Need For Speed made over $200m and that was technically not really a success. They wanted that to be a massive franchise and unfortunately it just didn’t perform as well as they had hoped. And it was a punch in the gut – we had the best time shooting that movie, I love cars and racing. I shot that film literally the day after I wrapped Breaking Bad and then it didn’t perform which was a really a disappointment but you’ve just got to pick yourself up and march forwards – and keep fighting the good fight.”
However, now Paul is stepping out of Breaking Bad‘s shadow with another high-profile TV role – albeit one which looks more like a cinematic blockbuster than a lot of films. He joins the “war zone” – as the cast of Westworld season three call the set due to the brutally intense workload – as the robots break free of the eponymous theme park, seeking revenge on the outside world. It’s a season which explores the salient issues of free will, the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and social media’s impact on society – all topics that have been on Paul’s mind for some time. Something of a luddite, he hasn’t owned a computer in over 10 years, while his phone is restricted to making only calls and texts – there’s no email, camera or apps – while he combats the anxiety of information oversaturation by limiting his time watching the news. His motto is: “Phone down, head up”.
“I mean, honestly, I’d already been thinking a lot about those things,” he says of the series themes. “It’s impossible not to. You know, there’s a lot of benefits in technology – but there’s a lot of serious dangers. That we tackle all of this is one of the reasons why I’ve been a huge fan of Westworld since it started airing. I just love sci-fi – I think that’s my favourite genre.” Will he return for series four? “We’ll see what happens,” he teases cryptically. “I don’t know – it depends on if my character survives this season or not.”
Looking forward, Paul’s career has never seemed so promising – even compared to the post-Breaking Bad honeymoon period. But acting isn’t his only passion, he’s a massive music fan too. He even met his wife at Coachella – but has no ambitions to release any songs himself.
“I’ve never wanted to do an album,” he says. “Have I dreamed of doing one? Of course. Everyone has that rock star dream. But trust me, no-one wants to listen to that!”
Years before Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman lit the touchpaper for the trend of musical biopics, Paul starred in a Funny or Die spoof trailer for The ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic Story, playing the treasured parodist. “I thought it was genius,” he laughs. “That he had this tortured love affair with Madonna – classic! You know, Al’s such a beautiful man – I’ve been a fan of his stuff for my whole life.”
Having already portrayed ‘Weird Al’, are there any other idols he’d like to immortalise? “When I first moved to LA, I thought quite a bit about Kurt Cobain and what happened and I just love Nirvana – ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ was one of the first records I bought with my own money, so I’ve thought that could be interesting [to play Cobain].”
An intriguing thought – and one that would certainly get people to think of Paul outside the realms of Breaking Bad. Is that what he wants, though?
“It’s just about doing stuff that I continue to love. I mean, I’m madly in love. I have a beautiful baby girl. I have a job on a series I love [Westworld] and it’s a beautiful thing. I started a mezcal company with one of my best friends [Cranston]. I’m in a very happy place.” It’s been a bumpy road for Aaron Paul over the past few years, but now? The bitch is back.
‘The Parts You Lose’ is available on digital download now