Aaron Paul on Breaking away and finding the Path back to TV
It’s impossible to not swear in front of Aaron Paul. After five years playing a foulmouthed meth apprentice on one of the best-reviewed television series of all time, the 36-year-old could be the first actor ever to be repeatedly hailed on the street by strangers with a simple “Yeah, bitch!”
“People curse around me all the time now,” Paul says, laughing, over beers in West Hollywood. But he’s not much of a swearer, in truth. Because Paul is not Jesse Pinkman, and Breaking Bad is over, and it’s time to forge his next act. “I don’t want to leave it in the past,” says Paul, who earned three Emmys for his role on the AMC drama. “But also, I do want to move forward.”
His three new projects will all land on screens within days of one another in the coming weeks. He butts heads with Kate Winslet and Anthony Mackie as a crooked ex-cop in the crime drama Triple 9 (Feb. 26), then defy orders from Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman as a guilt-racked drone pilot in the military thriller Eye in the Sky (March 11), and finish by incurring the wrath of Hugh Dancy’s cult leader on Hulu’s The Path (March 30), playing a conflicted follower. As different as the characters are, they’re all grappling with tormented minds — exactly the way Paul likes it. “I want to do stories that have my heart racing,” he says. “That’s why you don’t see me in romantic comedies. I love sappy movies, I do, but I’m drawn to characters that are going through a lot. I don’t know what that says about me. Maybe I love feeling those emotions because I know I can zip the skin off and walk away from them.”
It wasn’t always that way. In the early days of Breaking Bad, his costar Bryan Cranston helped Paul avoid the agony of going too deep into his role. “I was having dreams as Jesse about the darker side of Albuquerque and drugs,” he admits. “The first couple of seasons, Bryan had to tell me, ‘It’s okay to wash the makeup off and leave it on set.'” The key now is leaving the series behind. As he enters the second leg of his career — or his 15th, if you go back as far as his childhood theater work in Idaho, Paul jokes — he’s seeking versatility. Understandable, but transitioning off a hit can be trickier than it seems. Paul letting go of Jesse was the easy part. Getting us to let go of Jesse is not.
Paul started work on the 2014 thriller Need for Speed mere hours after shooting his final scene for Bad, hoping a potential action franchise would kick-start his film career. But the movie underwhelmed, earning just $43.6 million domestically. “It was heartbreaking for me,” he says. “But I feel fortunate.” This is typical Paul. He doesn’t tend to dwell on negatives. Halves be damned, he sees every glass full, until he empties it with frequent cheers and toasts when he gets excited. Clink: To television! Clink: To BoJack Horseman, his post-Bad passion project! Clink: To befriending Norman Reedus at Sundance 15 years ago after noticing Reedus’ baby — “and who isn’t obsessed with babies?!” Paul’s an unending siphon of positivity, and the type of companion to suggest a sudden change of scenery from his favorite dive bar to a swanky L.A. hideaway (a short journey during which he seems to know every hostess, waiter, and Uber driver in between). Here’s a guy who loves engaging in acting — and life — far too much to rest on one show’s laurels.
While searching for his next big role, he exec-produced (and starred in) the 2014 indie drama Hellion — which “no one saw,” he says — and Netflix’s cartoon showbiz satire BoJack Horseman, which returns for season 3 this summer. He agreed to voice a character but put a moratorium on live-action television. “I kept that in a dark corner,” he says. “I didn’t even open up to the idea of doing TV again. Not yet.”
So when he was offered The Path last year, he hesitated, hard. The drama, about a religious cult, had potent ingredients: a tortured character, a proven producing team (e.g., Friday Night Lights EP Jason Katims), and the chance to put Hulu on the map as a serious creative force. But it was still TV, so Paul passed. And then, un-passed. “It was one of the hardest decisions,” he says. “I had two sleepless nights. I couldn’t stop thinking about the character, the world. And I know I put [the producers] through hell for a moment, but…I’m happy that the next series I dived into is one I’m so in love with.”
Because if Breaking Bad was lightning in a bottle, Aaron Paul is a storm chaser. “I love pushing the limits,” he says, with a glint of mania in his eyes. “It’s a little crazy, but I think all actors are a little mad, in a beautiful way.” If that last statement makes you want to pump your fist and say, “Yeah, bitch!” don’t worry. He’s used to it.
A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1405, on newsstands now.