“Breaking Bad didn’t just open up doors for me — it took those doors down completely,” says Aaron Paul, who made a living for himself (and earned three Emmys) playing budding meth lord Jesse Pinkman for five seasons on Breaking Bad.
In the three years since AMC closed up shop on Bad, Paul has made a concerted move towards film as the next leg of his career, and he’s peppered his cinematic resume with indie dramas and ambitious thrillers. Yes, he’ll soon be back on your TV — or your TV streaming service, when Hulu’s gritty drama The Path arrives in March — but the 36-year-old remains committed to amping up his film career, and this month yields two big ensemble dramas: Triple 9, a crime thriller about crooked cops (in theaters today), and Eye in the Sky, a military thought-provoker about drone warfare.
“I just want to do stories that have my heart racing,” Paul says of his script selection process. “The moment you pick up a script… you know in the first five pages if it’s a ride that you’re going to want to continue to be on. That’s what I’m attracted to. That’s why you don’t see me in romantic comedies. I love sappy movies, I do — but I’m just drawn to characters with conflict.”
Eye in the Sky, which hits theaters on March 11 after a buzzy premiere in Toronto last fall, casts Paul as a drone pilot taking orders from Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman. The movie’s fidgeting with the notion of a “frustrating” ending is what cemented his involvement to the project. (He delights in hearing how EW found the film stomach-churning — in a good way.)
“It’s frustrating, but that’s the importance of that film — to not just make people think, but really, really think. It was the discussion, the conversation that the film allows,” he says. “I definitely want to make art that brings up some sort of question. I love that it brings up the topic [of drone warfare] because it’s so foreign to so many people who just go, ‘Out of sight, out of mind.’ But this happens on a daily basis and it’s a scary thing. War is a scary thing, and drones flying around that are being piloted by guys and girls in the safety of their bunker… it’s a crazy topic.”
Triple 9, by comparison, isn’t as much of a discursive igniter, but Paul was determined to lend a hand in that film thanks to its all-star Hollywood roster: Besides the chance to work with “genius” director John Hillcoat (Lawless), the film pits Paul against heavy-hitters Kate Winslet, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck, as well as Paul’s longtime friends Norman Reedus and Clifton Collins Jr., whom he’s been waiting to work with for 15 years. Curiously, the character perhaps bears the most resemblance to the Breaking Bad character he left behind.
“I get offered a lot of the strung-out druggie roles,” the actor admits. “It definitely goes through a filtering system [of advisors] and now I don’t see any of that. The character I play in Triple 9, he’s going through his sh-t and he does happen to have a pipe in his hand, but it’s a completely different role than Jesse. The reason I did that is because of John Hillcoat. I believed in him, and I believed in Matt Cook’s script.”
For Paul, choosing film projects can be as much luck as strategic thinking. “I was so used to rejection at a very young age, and once you realize that’s just part of the business and you can’t take it personally, then you start to really grow as an actor,” he says. “Now I’m at a place where you have to say no to more things than yes. It’s a beautiful problem to have, and I feel incredibly spoiled. But I know I’m extremely lucky and fortunate.”
Paul proffers this advice: If you want longevity, no matter where you are in your career, be picky. Citing Need for Speed, the unsuccessful action thriller that he began filming mere hours after his last scene in Breaking Bad, Paul says, “That was 100 percent a business move. I do love cars, and I think that’s really what was the tilting point. Of course you want it to have a bigger success than it did and it’s heartbreaking, but it’s just about being picky and I think those roles will come to you.”
He keeps his career wishlist close to his chest, but betrays a few hints of what he’d be interested in exploring: Superhero villainy, Almost Famous-ian musical probing, a turn on stage. (Recently, he had to pull out of an unannounced stage revival of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). And though he’s often pursued for dramas over comedies, the latter still find their way to him, and he bites — he’ll appear briefly in this summer’s buddy comedy, Central Intelligence, opposite The Rock and Kevin Hart.
“I just want to do good work that I’m proud of,” he says. He’s signed on to three more dramas this year (Come and Find Me,The 9th Life of Louis Drax, and The Parts You Lose), and couldn’t ignore Hulu’s The Path, despite trying to stay away from television. “Going back to TV, I realized how much I missed it,” he confesses. “I love telling such a detailed story over, in this case, 10 episodes, and diving deeper into a world, rather than being restricted to just two hours in a film.”
Hey, filmmakers — the ball’s back in your court to win him back.