Aaron Paul breaks down El Camino, surprise reunions, and if he'll play Jesse again
Warning: This post contains spoilers for El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.
Jesse Pinkman rides again, figuratively and literally.
When the wandering-wasteoid-turned-meth-maker-turned-broken-prisoner drove through the Nazi compound gates with a scream-laugh-cry for the ages, leaving behind Walter White to keel over beside his beloved machinery, it marked the conclusion of Breaking Bad, one of TV’s most intense and celebrated dramas. And that was it, the End, finito, Felina, we were told; the rest of the ride was yours to tell in your own head. But hell, or the New Mexico desert, has apparently frozen over, as creator Vince Gilligan has returned to his wicked and wise neo-Western. Six years after Breaking Bad exited, the fences and old wounds are busted open again in El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.
Aaron Paul shines in his return as the soulful-but-mouthy punk who partnered up with terminally ill chemistry teacher Walt (Bryan Cranston) to build that massive meth empire, and El Camino chronicles his time on the run in the wake of the show’s tragic, murderous toll. The two-hour Netflix movie, which was written and directed by Gilligan, also delves into the crannies of Jesse’s damaged, extraordinary past through extensive flashbacks, reuniting him with burnout buds Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) and Badger (Matt Jones), chillingly polite white supremacist captor Todd (Jesse Plemons), artful late girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter), and monstrous meth master Walt.
(Jesse also finally met the disappearer, Ed, played by Robert Forster. The 78-year-old actor died on Friday following a battle with brain cancer. EW interviewed Paul shortly before Forster passed, and over the weekend, Paul paid tribute to the actor on Twitter. “I had the privilege of knowing this beautiful man and working alongside of him,” he wrote. “A true gentleman that loved to act. I love you my friend. Thank you for loving me. You are and always will be a legend.”)
Below, Paul — whose stacked slate includes season 3 of Westworld, the final season of Bojack Horseman, and the upcoming Apple TV+ drama Truth Be Told — opens up about his return to the role that skyrocketed his career, what it was like to reunite with Cranston for a special super-secret scene, and the chances that you’ll ever see him again as Jesse.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Breaking Bad ended quite definitively six years ago, yet here we are with another adventure. What was your first reaction when Vince pitched you on the idea of reviving Jesse Pinkman? Was it a mixture of excitement and curiosity, but also hesitation about reopening something considered by many to be a masterpiece?
In all honesty, it was shock, first of all. But right after the shock it was just nothing but an enthusiastic yes. That’s how much I trust Vince. Yes, I think the way Breaking Bad ended was perfect. I think the show is perfect. I’m a little biased, of course, but I don’t think that you could have done anything more on this show. He just nailed it. With that said, if Vince wants to continue this story, he’s doing it for a reason. He doesn’t want to mess with his legacy. There’s a legacy for him to uphold here with Breaking Bad. And he’s the last person that wants to tarnish that. He told me in the first call, “Look, I don’t want to do this unless it’s perfect. There’s no reason for me to.” And then seven months later, he finished the script and he told me, “It’s pretty damn good.” [Laughs] So I trusted him.
You used to live and breathe this character during the show’s run. What do you remember about that first day of slipping on that skin again after all these years?
I walked on set. Matt Jones and Charles Baker were there. And it was very odd. It was a very strange day for all of us, including the crew, including Vince. But it was so beautiful. It was a family reunion, jumping into characters that completely changed all of our lives. It was beautiful. It’s pretty surreal, man.
The movie contains a cool flashback scene at a diner around the time of “Four Days Out,” following a lucrative cook. What was it like to share the screen again with your friend Brian, and not just in the finale era of these characters, but an earlier friendlier phase of their relationship, one you had last regularly played 10 years ago?
That was very different to jump back into, but it was also incredibly easy to find that particular skin again. It was so nice to be able to play Jesse in his happier days. He was still very much in love with Jane. It was before heroin came into the mix. It was a simpler time. Walt still had the looming death on the horizon — or so he thought — but it was so nice to be able to get in that wardrobe and sit opposite one of my nearest and dearest friends, my mentor, and play these roles again that completely changed our lives forever. It was really such a blessing.
There were not half but full measures of secrecy employed to keep this Walt-Jesse scene a secret. Did it feel like an undercover mission?
It did. I have such funny videos of Brian and I walking in our sort of Star Wars cloaks, walking from our trailer to the SUV that takes us to set. It was pretty great. I also thought that maybe those clothes drew a lot more attention to us? [Laughs] But I don’t know. Obviously, it worked. I know they flew in Bryan on a private jet so he wouldn’t have to deal with the public at the airport. Obviously, we were never seen out in public together. I couldn’t go and hang out with Matt or Charles. I could only see them on set. But for me that was the easiest part to keep it a secret. I mean, I love throwing surprises. I love surprising my wife. I love lying to people in an innocent way. And this was just that on a big scale.
Is it true that the customers in the diner were crew members?
One hundred percent of those people were crew members or family of crew members. We needed that diner to be filled with people who we could trust to not leak this information. And also just to be a part of it, you know? We wanted to be surrounded by loved ones, to be a part of this really cool day. The day Bryan came on set with that bald cap and those loafers and that classic Mr. White outfit. I mean, the faces that showed up, the people who flew in just to see this moment, they thought, “Well, look, if I’m going to visit one time, it’s gotta be during this time.” It was pretty cool to be a part of that.
Did it surprise you to learn that a healthy chunk of the movie would explore Jesse’s very unhealthy relationship with Todd? Was that something you had always hoped to explore more during season 5? We didn’t get enough of Jesse in his days of meth captivity…
Yeah. I was so happy to see that dynamic in the film. I was always so curious what really went on when he was in that hole. It wasn’t just being in the hole and cooking meth; there were a lot of messed-up things that went on. We definitely got a glimpse of that during this story. You see these new scars on his back that are clearly him being whipped, and then other scars where it’s clearly cigarettes being put out on his skin. It’s a pretty messed-up thing that he was dealing with for a long time. And to be able to work opposite Jesse Plemons again — my God, what a gift — he’s just so brilliant and so subtle, and he just really absorbs into every one of his characters in such a beautiful way. I loved seeing more of Todd. I mean, I love just being creeped out and hating Todd, you know?
A couple of years ago, you pranked fans on social media by telling them that you and Vince were working on a sequel series about Jesse in Alaska. Jesse mentions Alaska in the show, and in interviews in the past, and last year’s EW interview, you said that you thought that Jesse ran far away and went into hiding in a mountain town in Alaska and “just started building things with his hands.” How did it feel to find out that he did, in fact, elude the authorities and end up in Alaska?
Yeah, it’s pretty wild, man. When I first read the script and there’s that great scene with Mike [Jonathan Banks] and Jesse on the riverbed and Mike mentions Alaska, I just — my heart dropped and I thought, “Oh my God, is this a little seed that is planted for the audience for later? I’m not sure.” I was hoping so. I guess I just know this guy so well, you know? So I was very pleased to see that he ran off into the final frontier.
Do you think that he had paid his price for his crimes and that is enough to warrant his Alaskan ending? As Mike tells him, though, he can “never put things right.”
I mean, he’s done such terrible things. But he has been through hell and back multiple times, so I don’t know. He still is paying for those sins. I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as a road that we might think. I think he’s still got a quite bumpy road ahead of him.
Does the woodworking business take hold? What does his life in Alaska look like, in your mind?
One hundred percent. I think he’s going to keep his nose clean. He has quite a bit of cash on hand. And he’s going to live a very modest lifestyle. He’s moving to a very small place in Alaska, so he doesn’t need all that much money. He knows how to work with his hands, and so he just needs to refresh those skills and become the artist that he was always meant to be.
Jesse didn’t shoot Walt in the finale because he didn’t want to follow another order from Walt, and he didn’t want any more blood on his hands. And when Jesse enters Kandy’s welding shop to ask for the money, he has got to know how this will play out. Given that the white supremacists are dead, was his showdown with Kandy [Scott MacArthur], who built the chains that enslaved him, was this residual revenge? Or was it unfinished business? Or, as Vince says, was he exorcising demons? He is suffering from PTSD…
Honestly, I think a little bit of all of the above. [Kandy] was responsible for a part of his captivity. This guy knew that he was chained and kept as a prisoner and just being abused and tortured, and he seemed totally okay with it. So this is Jesse’s opportunity to just rid the planet of a very evil person. And it was a way for him to get some sort of vengeance. But he also gave him a way out. He’s like, “Look, I’m not asking for all of your money. I’m just asking for $1800.” And then he’s out. And that is it. He gave him a chance, and he’s like, “All right, well, you want to do this old-school Western shootout? Let’s do it.” And he was ready for it.
What did you like about reuniting with Krysten and ending the movie with a Jane scene, along with that message about having agency in your life?
I thought it was such a beautiful way to end this film. He looks at the seat next to him and it’s empty, and then out of nowhere Jane appears, and they’re just in love, and they’re in a much less complicated time in their lives. And she ends up giving Jesse the best piece of advice that he could receive: Just take control of your own destiny and run with it. And that’s exactly what he did at the ending of this movie. I just thought it was such a beautiful way to move this story forward.
There was a longer Jane scene that didn’t make the cut. What do you remember about shooting that scene?
It’s so funny. On the day, Vince realized — he’s setting up a shot, he’s like, “There are so many damn shots of you in a car! We gotta get you out of your car.” So it starts with us driving and then the car breaks down and then it cuts to me on the phone with AAA, trying to pretend like he knows why the car broke down to have a chance at maybe slightly impressing Jane. And then it cuts to him just walking over and sitting down next to Jane, and he’s telling her what he feels about her, and they had this back-and-forth. And then it cuts into what was left [in the film].
But also there was a totally different ending to the film that I was really crushed to see make the cutting room floor before we started shooting. That letter to Brock was the very first thing that Vince wrote when writing this script. Once he completed that letter, he started the script. Originally the voiceover of that letter was how the movie ended — just driving through Alaska and you could just hear what was inside of that letter…. It’s heartbreaking, it’s beautiful, just honest. But Vince just thought, “You know what? Maybe it’s best left unknown.” And we don’t need it. He was right. But I love knowing what was in the letter.
Can you share even a line from that letter?
“Dear Brock.” [Laughs]
I swore to Vince that I would never share what was in that letter. But… [Jesse] just could not be more open and honest. It’s just really him saying, ‘I’m sorry,’ and that’s it.”
It’s interesting to imagine whether little Brock would even want to read such a letter from Jesse after everything that’s transpired.
When, if he’s ever even able to read it. I’m sure his grandmother is the one that’s going to open it up and probably take it to the police and… who knows?
Did making El Camino provide even more closure than what you had before, when you had closure? Or does it rekindle the flame enough that you’d consider doing another movie down the road?
You know what? It really is so nice to see a glimmer of hope in Jesse’s life, and there’s a subtle layer of peace that just kinda falls over him as he’s driving into Haines, Alaska. It’s honestly the same sort of closure that I forced myself to create for him. But just much more layered. I always hoped that he would find himself in the middle of Alaska, and now he is. But it did just get me excited, obviously, to work with Vince again. I just love that man so much, and if I could only work with him for the rest of my career, I would be the luckiest guy in Hollywood. I feel so blessed to be able to work alongside of not only a damn genius, but just such a humble, beautiful one.
And does this dip back into Jesse make it more, less, or the same amount of likely that you’ll want to play Jesse on Better Call Saul?
[Laughs] If Vince asked me to jump onto Saul, I would do it in a heartbeat. And I would know it’s for very good reasons. So we’ll see. Look, we talk about it all the time, we really do, and we want to do it for the right reasons. We don’t want to just throw you in a scene that doesn’t make sense. Obviously, we would love to give that to the fans of Breaking Bad and the fans of Better Call Saul, but we don’t want fans to kind of scratch their head and they’re like, “Well, why did that happen?” [Laughs]
Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.