Aaron Paul: ‘Even after I tested for Breaking Bad, no one wanted me to play Jesse Pinkman’
The actor on the most challenging ‘Breaking Bad’ scene he ever filmed, the one thing he wished his character had done in ‘El Camino’, and his forthcoming role in ‘Westworld’ season three. By Jacob Stolworthy
In 2008, a small television series scraped its way onto the air. In its bold pilot episode, a mild-mannered chemistry teacher, facing a life-changing cancer diagnosis, started cooking meth to raise money for his family. Ratings started low, but when the first three seasons were added to Netflix, the show became a global success.
Eleven years on – and six years after it drew to a close – Breaking Bad is now considered one of the greatest US dramas in TV history, frequently mentioned in the same breath as The Sopranos and The Wire.
Last week, a film sequel – named El Camino – was released, focusing on Jesse Pinkman, the lackadaisical meth-cooking partner of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White. In the show’s final season, Jesse became a prisoner of a clan of white supremacists who tortured and forced him to cook more product. His final scene saw him driving away from the compound having been rescued by White; El Camino, a cameo-filled epilogue to Pinkman’s story from series creator Vince Gilligan, picks up precisely where the series left off.
Today, Aaron Paul – pouring tea from an expensive-looking teapot in a central London hotel – is worlds away from his character. He’s also happy to revisit the darkest moments of his time on Breaking Bad, a show he still can’t believe he was a part of. “Even after I tested, no one wanted me,” he says. “Vince played his trump card and said, ‘I’m not doing the show unless he’s the guy’. He gave me a chance when, quite frankly, no one else would.”
Below, the actor reveals secrets behind the most challenging scene he ever filmed, the one thing he wished for his character that never came to fruition, and what to expect from his new role in the third season of HBO series Westworld.
Could you believe it when you got the call about El Camino?
I was shocked. Vince Gilligan was actually calling me about his ideas on the Breaking Bad 10-year anniversary and wanted to see what my thoughts were. He then said, “There’s something else I want to talk to you about.” He’d been toying around with the idea of telling a story that follows Jesse after Breaking Bad. I was so shocked and excited, because Vince is such a brilliant storyteller and he’s not going to tell a story for no reason; he’s the last person who’d want to mess with the legacy of Breaking Bad. He asked me if I’d be on board and I said, “Of course – what’s the story?” So he had the arc of the film, but said, “If it’s great, let’s do it, but I’m not promising it’s going to get made. If I just can’t crack it, we won’t do it.” Seven months later, he calls me and tells me it’s done and invites me to his office to read it.
You must have been so excited to see what he’d come up with.
The reason why I was so excited is because I heard his excitement. He couldn’t wait to share it with me. So, I went to his office, I took off my shoes and I laid on his couch. I was just in there solo. I took my time with it and it took me about three hours to read it. I thought it was beautiful.
I’ve read that the first draft of El Camino was much longer. How did you feel about having things cut when it came to filming?
I got Vince on a very long call after I read it and I said, “With a lot of things, less is more, but with this particular movie, I think more is more.” I think people have been wanting this for so long. What we have is great, but definitely some things were cut. Things that I was so connected to, because I’d been reading and re-reading the script and had just spent so much time in this world. With that said, I think the final product we have here is so special. It’s over in the blink of an eye.
If Walt had survived, what do you think would have happened if Jesse had ever come face to face with him again?
He would just walk away. He wants nothing to do with him. He’s the reason that Jane died, he’s the reason – in his head – that Andrea and all of these people died. It was all because of Walt. His whole life was just turned upside down and shaken to its core. Jesse was not in a great place before being reintroduced to Walter White, but I don’t think he’d be a killer. Jesse was a murderer. He was pushed into a corner to do very bad things because of that man.
Both Vince and Bryan Cranston have spoken about getting so caught up in filming the show that they struggled to detach after going home. Did you have a similar experience playing Jesse?
I did a little bit. Especially during the first two seasons of Breaking Bad, I found myself staying in character and convincing myself that it was a good idea to find the darkest alleys I could find in Albuquerque – and there are some pretty dark alleys in Albuquerque. I would just be Jesse. I would make the people around me believe that I was this character on drugs, trying to gather as much information as I possibly could. That was interesting, but also scary and very eye-opening. But Bryan really taught me that it’s OK to go into the hair and make-up trailer at the end of the day and wash off that skin, to take off that wardrobe and just be yourself. It’s healthy. So that’s how I do it now.
Do you have anything you wanted in particular for Jesse that never came to fruition?
I wish that Jesse was able to let Drew Sharp’s parents know what happened to him. Because he wanted to do that. He tried. I think it was in the episode “Blood Money”, Jesse was just losing all sense of reality and spinning out of control. He wanted to help out Drew Sharp’s parents. Yeah. [long pause] I wish he was able to maybe write them a letter.
I would have liked to have seen Skyler or Marie in El Camino. Were their appearances ever considered?
Maybe. Not that I know of, though. I read one version of the script that changed slightly before shooting, but for the most part it was pretty much the same.
You’ve previously said you’d love to be in Better Call Saul. How do you reckon Jesse could fit in there?
You know what? I always thought, at least at the beginning of Better Call Saul, there’d be a big possibility of Jesse showing up, but as I watched the show, I realised that it would be a big stretch for him to be there. I think it’d have to be pre-Breaking Bad, with me playing a much younger version of Jesse, which just doesn’t work unless they did some sort of strange ageing thing, which would be interesting. The more I watched the show, I thought to myself, there’s no way of Pinkman showing up, but then Vince calls me and says, “I have an idea.” I think now – especially with El Camino – I really can’t imagine Jesse showing up, but if Vince and Peter [Gould] wanted him to, I would jump at the chance.
As a viewer of the show, which Breaking Bad characters would you like to see appear in future episodes?
I’m always just so pleasantly surprised. I knew that Gus was coming back for some time, but I loved the hinting at him returning with the names of the episodes. It was genius. They have such a great way of teasing fans that way.
What’s the most challenging scene you’ve ever filmed as Jesse?
Oh God. There’s quite a few. I think the scene that just had such an emotional toll on me was where he’s trying to revive Jane. That was so hard on me. I don’t know if you know this, but they made a special rig for Krysten [Ritter] to wear so I could really just hit her as hard as I could without it hurting her. That was pretty brutal. I went to a place that day. It was hard for her as well. I remember one take, when they yelled “Cut”, I just – I was so devastated that I just couldn’t come back from it. As was Krysten – she started crying and I thought I’d hurt her from the thing that was wrapped around her. It was just so hard on her emotionally. We were telling such a heavy story. But there were actually a lot of laughs during very dark moments of the show. It wasn’t all so torturous.
Do you have a favourite Breaking Bad episode and scene?
I mean, honestly, I think my favourite episode was “Four Days Out”. Just acting with Bryan – it felt like a two-man play. But I think my favourite scene was the dinner scene between Walt, Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Jesse. That was so much fun to shoot and every time when they yelled “Cut”, all three of us would just start laughing, because it was so uncomfortable. Skyler pouring nearly a bottle of wine into her glass and asking if Walt had told her about their affair. Jesse using his water glass almost like a security blanket, hiding behind it. Oh, there are so many.
Vince said one of his biggest regrets about the show was not giving Jesse Pinkman bad teeth. Would you have been up for donning a fake pair?
[Laughs] It would have a been a different thing, but yeah.
Ten years from now, Vince calls you up and says he’s got a terrific idea for an El Camino sequel. Are you in?
Of course. I would follow Vince anywhere. When he approached me on this, there was zero hesitation. I know I was a part of Breaking Bad, but I’m such a huge fan of that show. It’s good to be proud of your work, but it wasn’t because I was in it; it was just such a beautiful show on all cylinders. It was… all the stars were aligned with this one. I thought the ending was perfect. But again, Vince is the last person who’d want to mess with the legacy so there was zero hesitation, only excitement.
You’re now a part of Westworld. I know you probably can’t tell us anything, but what can we expect from season three?
Well, I was such a diehard fan of the first two seasons. We were actually trying to come up with a world where I was going to be in the first season. I was just so deep into negotiations on this other show and the logistics couldn’t work out. And then they approached me again for this third season and I was actually deep into negotiations on this other show, so I was reliving the same moment in my life again! I was stressing out because I had to turn Westworld down the first time around. I just watched it and thought to myself, “My God, this is the perfect show.” I couldn’t miss out on this second opportunity. So I sat down with them and they pitched me this character and they pitched me the broad strokes of the arc of the rest of the series. It is insane. This show is so unbelievably ambitious and I walk onto these sets and my jaw is on the floor. I feel like I’m a little kid again playing cops and robbers on the biggest scale possible. It’s so much fun and I love sci-fi – that’s my favourite genre. It’s great, man.
So we’re in for a treat?
Yes. I had to pinch myself sometimes, because it’s odd – I’m the new kid in school. I’m going to a school that I love a lot and I love everyone in the school and I just want to be accepted [laughs]. But I’m playing a really interesting character that I think people are going to really like. I’m opposite all of these characters in their wardrobe and having a little bit of an out-of-body experience. It’s good to be a fan of something you’re in.
Breaking Bad, Bojack Horseman, Westworld... That’s an impressive list of credits to your name in such a short space of time.
I got to tell you, man, I’m the first to admit how lucky I am. But it’s Vince Gilligan who gave me a chance when, quite frankly, no one else would. I’ve had a lot of ups and downs and at the lowest point of my career, I wasn’t able to pay my bills. I was borrowing money. I thought, “What am I going to do?” Then Vince Gilligan hired me. No one wanted me – even after I tested, no one wanted me as the guy, and Vince said, “No, he’s the guy – he has to be the guy.” Vince played his trump card and said, “I’m not doing the show unless he’s the guy.’” So, they were like, “Alright!”
El Camino: A Breaking Bad Film is available to stream on Netflix now