Aaron Paul officially got the last word in on Breaking Bad, punctuating the show’s Golden Globe acceptance speech for Best Television Drama with Jesse’s bad-boy catchphrase, “Yeah, bitch!” For six years, Paul created one of the most indelibly wounded and tragic characters in television and now that the show has run its course, it’s time for the 34-year-old actor to find that next thing.
In fact, he’s got several.
Next month, he revs the engine of Disney’s Need for Speed, a big-budget action movie based on the popular videogame. But before Paul shifts into the Hollywood fast-lane, he returns to the Sundance Film Festival for Hellion, a gritty drama about a family on the verge of disintegration. He plays Hollis, a recent widower who hasn’t recovered from his wife’s passing and as a result, is failing as a father to his two young sons (Josh Wiggins and Deke Garner.) When the eldest, Jacob, gets into trouble with the law, Child Protection Services moves in and places him with his aunt, played by Juliette Lewis. Hollis has to put his life back together, quickly, if he has any chance of keeping his boys together.
Hellion was written and directed by Kay Candler, and it’s appropriate that it’s premiering at Sundance. Two years ago, she debuted a short-film version of Hellion at the festival; and took special notice of Paul’s well-received turn in Smashed, which won a Special Jury Prize. Together, they embarked on a truly independent project, one that only ever gets made because passionate people insist on it. “We didn’t really get paid for this. No one did,” says Paul. “We did it because we loved it. We all knew that we were part of something special. It was a small crew, maybe 30 people. One of our producer’s parents were making food for us, you know, lunches and dinner. It was just such a sweet project, and we were just making a film that we all believed in.”
In addition to the quartet of exclusive photos from Hellion, Paul spoke to EW about playing a father figure, his upcoming Netflix cartoon, and what his first reaction was to the idea of a movie based on a video game.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Hellion is based on a short that was at Sundance two years ago, the same festival that you had Smashed in competition. Did you meet Kat Candler then or did you connect with her later?
AARON PAUL: We actually never met then, but I think James Ponsoldt had seen her short and they sort of got to know each the last couple years during the festival circuits. James was our fearless leader on Smashed, so after the script and her short film was sent to me, I got an incredible letter of recommendation from him. I respect James so much, so whatever he says to me rings true in my ears. I saw the short film and read the script and I just thought it was such a beautifully honest story.
I set up a meeting with Kat and she flew out to Macon, Ga., where I was shooting [Need for Speed] at the time. Within two minutes, I knew I had to work with her. She just exuded such just love and passion and excitement for the project. So yeah, it was a no-brainer for me. I told her over milkshakes, I was like, “I have to do this. Let’s make this movie together and see what happens.”
This seems like something different for you, at least in the sense that you’re playing a father figure. I don’t recall you doing that before.
Not to this extent. On Big Love, the finale, I had a baby. So I played a father, Amanda Seyfried and I played parents for one episode. That was pretty exciting. But [on this] I felt really grown up. This is the first real true nitty-gritty father position I’ve been in. It’s different but I loved it. The kids were great.
You really went the Grizzly Adams route with the beard.
[Laughs] It was fun growing it. It was very itchy, but this character kind of gave up [on life]. He just doesn’t care about his looks, you know. He just doesn’t make any effort, so that’s why I felt it would be nice to have him have a beard. Not only have a beard but a completely unkempt beard. No trimming. Just let it go. We were shooting in the middle of Texas, in the summer, and it was so unbelievable hot and there were so many mosquitos, so it was incredibly hot on my face. The beard was really a warm furry friend that would just never leave.
I know some folks who have seen the movie and they can’t stop talking about Josh Wiggins, who plays your eldest son. This is his first film and he seems to have just come out of nowhere.
He did come out of nowhere. And we are so unbelievably lucky that we found him. I think he was just hanging out at a dirt-bike track in Texas. The character he plays, Jacob, is a big dirt-bike racer and he was just hanging out and Kat was there, kind of scouting, recruiting people to come in to audition for this film. Working with him on set, he’d just get lost in the moment. He just transports himself there. I think he has the same take as I do; he forces himself to believe that the situations are actually happening to him. And that’s the goal, right? Get lost in it and forget that you’re acting. That’s what he does always. People are going to be just blown away by his performance. He is incredible.
Obviously, you have to relate to your character, but did you also connect with the boys, who are kind of running amok. Was your childhood similar to theirs in any sense?
Not really. I had a very loving upbringing. Both my parents were always constantly there for me. But I could identify, or at least I thought I could, relate to these kids. I could just understand why they’re doing what they’re doing. They’re rebelling because they lost their mother, and they father is just emotionally absent. He’s just not there. He’s checked out. So Jacob, he’s rebelling, he’s becoming chaotic and the hellion that we speak of in the film.
After Sundance, I suppose you’ll focus on Need for Speed?
Yeah, I’m very excited about that film. I think it’s going to surprise a lot of people. I think a lot of people are thinking, “Oh, another car movie.” They’re going to compare it to Fast and the Furious, but you know, Fast and the Furious didn’t start the genre and it’s not going to end the genre. The only comparison I would say is, “Yeah, we both have cars.” That’s it. It’s a gritty, super-fun movie and I’m excited for people to see it.
I’m curious what was your first reaction when someone – whether it was your agent or someone else – said to you, “Hey listen, there’s this video game that they’re going to turn into a movie… are you interested?”
No. No. My first impression was, “Absolutely not.” I just don’t know if I want to do that. They sent it to me anyway and I read the title page and it said Need for Speed. “Oh man, I don’t know.” And nothing against Fast and the Furious — those movies are super fun — but I just didn’t know if that was the right move for me after Breaking Bad. But I read the script and I was so excited about it. I could relate to this character; I kind of had a personal connection with Tobey Marshall, the guy I play. And it’s very character driven. It’s very story driven. It has a lot of grit and lot of heart. Just so much emotion, and that’s why I jumped aboard.
After that, what do you have up next?
I’m executive producing a show for Netflix, this cartoon called BoJack Horseman, and it is so fun. I’ve never done a cartoon before, so I’m executive producing it and I’m also a voice of one of the regulars.
What’s the gist?
It’s about a washed up ’90s sitcom star who’s a horse, and he used to star in a show called Horsin’ Around. Now he’s just kind of a drug addict slash alcoholic, has zero morals whatsoever. And he’s just trying to get his career back on track. And I play Todd, his human houseguest that just never leaves. We got Will Arnett to do the voice of BoJack, and amazing other people do other cameo voices throughout the season.
Are you all finished with Exodus, the Moses movie?
I’m all wrapped up on Exodus. I wrapped right before we broke for the holiday season. They’re back now in London, doing their final week on it. But yeah, I’m all done.
I was raised on annual viewings of DeMille’s Ten Commandments. How will this be different?
First of all, it’s 2014. It’s going to look dramatically different. Plus, we have Ridley Scott holding the reins, telling the story. It’s going to be interesting. I don’t want to give anything away.