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Aaron Paul Didn't Think His 'Breaking Bad' Character Would Live This Long


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, continuing our salute to "Breaking Bad" and it's equally excellent spinoffs.


AARON PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Yo, yo, yo, one, four, eight, three to the three to the six to the nine, representing the ABQ. What up, beeyotch (ph)? Leave it at the tone.

BIANCULLI: That's how Aaron Paul used to sound as Jesse Pinkman in the AMC series "Breaking Bad." Back then, Jesse was a teenager cooking and selling meth with his former chemistry teacher Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston. Today on Netflix, we get the next chapter in the "Breaking Bad" story - a standalone movie called "El Camino." It stars our next guest, Aaron Paul, continuing the story of Jesse Pinkman. Both Cranston and Paul won Emmys for their "Breaking Bad" roles.

By Season 4, when Terry Gross spoke to Aaron Paul in 2011, Walt and Jesse were connected to a drug lord and in way over their heads. Let's start with a scene from the first season of "Breaking Bad." Soon after Walt, the chemistry teacher and Jesse, his former student have started cooking and selling meth. Jesse was supposed to sell the meth they just cooked and bring back the money. Walt has been waiting for Jesse, who is very late.


BRYAN CRANSTON: (As Walter White) We were supposed to start at 3.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Hey, I'm out there making fat stacks, man. Chill. Hey, prepaid cellphone - use it.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) How much is this?

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Twenty-six big ones.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Is that all, $26,000?

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) No, that's 2,600. And your share is 13 minus 25 bucks for that phone.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) How much meth did you sell?

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Nearly an ounce.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Last time I checked, there were 16 ounces to a pound. What'd you do with the rest, smoke it?

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Yo, I've been out there all night slinging crystal. You think it's cake moving a pound of meth one teenth at a time?

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) So why are you selling it in such small quantities? Why don't you just sell the whole pound at once?

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) To who? What do I look like, Scarface?

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) This is unacceptable. I am breaking the law here. This return is too little for the risk. I thought you'd be ready for another pound today.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) You may know a lot about chemistry, man, but you don't know jack about slinging dope.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Yeah. Well, I'll tell you, I know a lack of motivation when I see it.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Oh, my God.

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Come on. You've got to be more imaginative, you know? Just think outside the box here. We have to move our product in bulk - wholesale. Now, how do we do that?

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) What do you mean, like, to a distributor?

CRANSTON: (As Walter White) Yes. Yes. That's what we need. We need a distributor. Now, do you know anyone like that?

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Yeah. I mean, I used to until you killed him.


TERRY GROSS, BYLINE: (Laughter) Aaron Paul, welcome to FRESH AIR. I love that scene.

PAUL: (Laughter) Thank you so much.

GROSS: And I love the way your former chemistry teacher, who's now your partner cooking meth, is lecturing you about your lack of motivation the way only a teacher could.


GROSS: So your character, Jesse, was supposed to be killed off in the first season of "Breaking Bad." How did you find out...

PAUL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...That your character was doomed? When did you learn that?

PAUL: I didn't learn that until the - towards the end of the first season. And Vince - we were at lunch. And Vince is...

GROSS: This is the creator, Vince Gilligan.

PAUL: Yeah. This is creator Vince Gilligan - calls me over. And he's, you know, eating with all the writers. And he goes, I want to tell you something. And I go, what's that? And he goes, you know, originally, Jesse was supposed to die at the end of this season. And this is the first time I've ever heard any of this. And instantly, my heart kind of dropped and slowed down a bit. And he goes, but we don't think we're going to do that anymore.

And I was just - I was like, what do you mean? What are you talking about? Like, what are you - what's the plan? And he's like, no, we just - I just want to let you know that that's not the plan anymore. And I didn't know how to take it. But he said that they just loved the, you know, the dynamic between Walt and Jesse and the chemistry that, you know, Bryan and I kind of brought to these characters. He decided to change the whole dynamic of their relationship and, really, of the show.

But the entire second season, the entire third season, I thought that Jesse could be a goner at any moment because there's, you know, many things that this character has screwed up on. And, you know, he could definitely meet his deathbed at any moment. So - and they'd always tease me. They'd always joke around saying, oh, did you read the next script? And I would say, no, not yet. I haven't got it. You know, I haven't got it. And, you know, Bryan would come up and give me a hug and say, well, I'm not going to say anything. But, you know, it was such a pleasure working with you. And...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAUL: It's been an amazing past year and a half.

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAUL: And, you know, you have a huge career ahead of you. And so they'd always joke around about it. They kind of slowed down this fourth season. But we'll see. Who knows? I mean, this kid could die at any second.

GROSS: Well, when I interviewed Vince Gilligan, he basically said he couldn't imagine the series without you.

PAUL: Oh, I love that man. How nice is he?

GROSS: But that - he also made it clear that's no guarantee.


GROSS: So - but, you know, that kind of uncertainty, I could see that being a little helpful because Jesse's never sure how long he's going to live. So...

PAUL: Right.

GROSS: ...Why should you know?

PAUL: Yeah. Exactly. That's true, yeah.

GROSS: Jesse's changed so much in the course of the now four seasons of the show. And, you know, he starts off really small-time. You know, he's almost, like, still a kid. And now he's involved with this big drug ring and - where there's a lot of violence, a lot of money. At the end of Season 3 - last season - Walt is afraid that the head of the drug ring is going to kill him as soon as Walt has finished training his assistant cook, a man named Gale, in how to prepare the meth recipe. And if the drug - head of the drug ring kills Walt, he'll probably kill Jesse, too.

So Walt thinks the only hope is to have Jesse kill this assistant meth cook, Gale. So he convinces Jesse that Jesse has to murder the assistant cook. And so you, Jesse, kill Gale. And then you just really become dead inside afterwards. So you kill him. You're dead inside. You start using meth again. And then you end up going to your support group - your drug support group. You want to confess that you've killed a man, but you can't confess that. So you make up a story that you've killed a dog. And here's a clip from that scene in the support group.


PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Couple weeks back, I killed a dog.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) You hit it with your car?

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) No. I put him down. I watched him go. I was looking him straight in the eye. And, you know, he didn't know what was happening. He didn't know why. He was just scared, and then he was gone.

GROSS: And then members of the support group try to comfort Jesse. And one of them says, oh, well, the dog was suffering. Putting him down was a kindness. Then when Jesse says, that's not what happened, the woman in the group assumes, oh, the dog must have bitten someone, so you did the right thing. And then you say it wasn't that. And then another person in the group assumes, like, well, you must have started using meth again. And that took you to the dark side because that's what meth does. And everybody's trying to help you justify killing this dog. And you know that there's really no justification for what you've done, which is killing a man. So let's pick up the scene from there. And the leader of the support group speaks first.


JERE BURNS: (As group leader) How'd you feel about what you did, Jesse?

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) I don't know.

FRAN MARTONE: (As Colleen) Who cares how you feel? What kind of a person kills a dog for no reason?

BURNS: (As group leader) Colleen.

MARTONE: (As Colleen) You put an ad in the paper. You drop him off at a shelter.

BURNS: (As group leader) Colleen.

MARTONE: (As Colleen) You can't just sit there and talk about killing a helpless, innocent animal.

BURNS: (As group leader) Colleen, we're not here to sit in judgment.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) Why not? Why not? Maybe she's right. You know, maybe I should've put it in the paper. Maybe I should've done something different. The thing is, if you just do stuff and nothing happens, what's it all mean? What's the point? Oh, right. This whole thing is about self-acceptance.

BURNS: (As group leader) Kicking the hell out of yourself doesn't give meaning to anything.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) So I should stop judging and accept?

BURNS: (As group leader) It's a start.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) So no matter what I do, hooray for me because I'm a great guy? It's all good? No matter how many dogs I kill, I just - what? - do an inventory and accept? I mean, you back your truck over your own kid and you, like, accept? What a load of crap.

BURNS: (As group leader) Hey, Jesse, I know you're in pain...

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) No. You know what? Why I'm here in the first place is to sell you meth. You're nothing to me but customers. I made you my b****. You OK with that, huh? You accept?

BURNS: (As group leader) No.

PAUL: (As Jesse Pinkman) About time.

GROSS: That's my guest, Aaron Paul, as Jesse Pinkman in a scene from this season of "Breaking Bad." You are so lost at this point in the storyline. Do you feel like the character you're playing now is different from the character you started playing on "Breaking Bad" because so much has happened to him, he's changed so much?

PAUL: Oh, 100%. He's - he is so broken now. I mean, he was a lost kid at the beginning of the series, you know, just kind of struggling to find his way. But he was content with a dime-bagging it, you know, just selling teenths at a time and living in his aunt's house. But when Mr. White comes back into his life and they continue to go down this dark rabbit hole and they can't seem to get out of it - they're both so in way over their heads.

And now, you know, Jesse has completely really lost the support of his family. He had lost his first really true love, I think, with Jane that was - started off as a good influence on Jesse, but then just turned into a - like a chemical romance, really. And then - and now, you know, he's a murderer. And he's just lost and tortured. And it's so tragic what he's going through.

GROSS: And murder really isn't in his nature.


GROSS: But he's had to do it. And he has to live with the consequences of that. Did you have to figure out, who is Jesse without the drugs and the poses?

PAUL: Yeah. Yeah. I really - you know, joining this series, obviously, I had no idea where this character was going. And I didn't really have much of a backstory. But as the seasons have gone on, I feel like I have a true grasp of who this kid is, inside and out.

And it's incredible how I feel, like, such a personal connection with Jesse; feels like he's almost a part of me, to be honest. But I couldn't be such a polar opposite from this kid. But going to work every day and kind of zipping on his skin is such a - you know, such a dream.

GROSS: What makes you the opposite of Jesse Pinkman?

PAUL: I feel like I have my life together, really. And Jesse just seems like he's constantly just struggling to keep his head above water. And he's just this, you know, messed up kid trying to find his way. But you know he has a - he has this soul. He has this heart. And that's why - I mean, that's why I feel people, you know, are rooting for him. And they just want to, you know, hug him and tell him it's going to be OK. But at the end of the day, like, is it really? Is it going to be? You don't know.

GROSS: He wouldn't accept that hug anyways (laughter).

PAUL: No, no. He actually would not, no.

BIANCULLI: Aaron Paul speaking to Terry Gross in 2011 - more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with Aaron Paul, Emmy-winning costar of the TV drama series "Breaking Bad." A sequel to that series, a movie called "El Camino," premieres today on Netflix.


GROSS: You've taken a lot of punishment in the series. You've been beaten in a lot of very imaginative ways. What are some examples of the worst beatings you've taken in the series?

PAUL: Oh, wow. Well, some of the worst beatings really came at the very beginning, which was done by a character - name of Tuco, this guy played by Raymond Cruz. And he's just this very loud, violent drug dealer who addicted to meth. And there was this one scene where he's beating me up with a bag of money and beating me to a bloody pulp. And that's the first time Jesse goes to the hospital in the series. And then the next time that he got beaten up by Tuco - really, Tuco is going to - is about to put a shotgun to his face and pull the trigger. And he throws Jesse out of this house. In one of the takes - probably on the eighth or ninth take - my head actually comes into contact with the opening of this wooden screen door. And I catch it. And my entire body flips around. And it splits the screen door into a million pieces. And I just land flat on my, like, head and chest. And the scene continues to go on because he thinks that I'm just acting. But in reality, I was just completely out of it. And I don't remember it happening. And I ended up getting this pretty serious concussion. And I just felt like...

GROSS: Oh, oh, really?

PAUL: Yeah. Yeah. I got a...

GROSS: I thought you meant the character thinks you're acting. You mean the actor thinks you were just acting.

PAUL: Yeah, no, the - Raymond Cruz thought that I was still just in the moment. But then there was a point where he picks me up, puts me on his shoulders. And he's going to slam me against the wall. And I try to grab him and just tell him - to tell him to stop. And so they shut down production for a little bit. Ambulance was called. And they sent me to a hospital. I was saying I was fine. But I just felt a little drunk, to be honest, which is so, so strange. I just, you know, ended up going to the ER and spent about six or seven hours with one of our executive producers.

GROSS: Would you have problems watching scenes like when you're beaten up or scenes when your face has been beaten to a pulp? Do you watch yourself in those scenes?

PAUL: I do, yeah. I mean, I'll watch it when the show airs, you know, whether it being if I fly home to Idaho, and I'm with my family. They'll - you know, they have a "Breaking Bad" night every week. And so...

GROSS: (Laughter).

PAUL: I come from a huge, huge, loving family. And they've been supportive since - you know, from day one. And so my parents are - you know, they're still madly in love. It's their 40th anniversary coming up in November. And I have many siblings. I have 14 nieces and nephews. And they...

GROSS: Whoa (laughter).

PAUL: ...Throw a huge party. Yeah. They throw a huge party every Sunday night. So that's pretty great.

GROSS: So you're obviously very different from the Jesse Pinkman character that you play on "Breaking Bad." In fact, you know, he's a meth head. You grew up in Idaho. Your father is a Baptist minister, yes?

PAUL: Yes. Yeah. Yeah. He's actually retired. He doesn't have a church he does every week anymore. But he still does, you know, weddings and funerals and sometimes will guest speak at some churches. But yeah. Throughout my entire life growing up in Idaho, we would go, you know, to his congregation every week. And he would preach.

GROSS: What was his preaching like?

PAUL: It was great. It was inspiring, really. I mean, he would get up in front of all these people and kind of just get lost in the moment, as well. And I think that's where I take - not that I'm saying he was really standing up there acting. But he would just really get lost into these stories he would speak. And it was fun to watch and to hear. And, you know, I left at such a young age and left...

GROSS: Left Idaho and left home?

PAUL: Left Idaho - yeah. I left Idaho at 17. You know, I graduated high school a year early and just - you know, the typical story - packed up my car and moved out.

GROSS: I wonder if there was any pressure on you to be the good kid because you were, like, the son of the minister, and if so, if acting was a kind of, like, release valve for that because you could be all the people that you weren't allowed to be.

PAUL: Oh, yeah. Totally. I - 100%. I mean, you nailed it. It's - you know, I forget who told me this, but they said, you know, acting is really like a cheap form of therapy. It's such a nice release. You know, we're all kind of crazy in our own way. And it's true. It is a great release. And it's so much fun just to kind of zip on different skins.

BIANCULLI: Aaron Paul speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2011 interview with Aaron Paul, Emmy-winning co-star of the TV drama series "Breaking Bad." A made-for-TV sequel to that series called "El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie" premieres today on Netflix.


GROSS: When you left home at age 17 - which, as you point out, is really young - did your parents...

PAUL: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Try to, like, bar the door and do everything in their power to prevent you from going and telling you that you were making a huge mistake that you would always regret, that you were throwing your life away and throwing away everything that they had ever done to help you in life, et cetera?

PAUL: You know what? Not at all. It was quite the opposite. I always had the plan of moving to LA. They knew I always wanted to do this. And I think really in eighth grade, I made it certain just to let my parents know this was my plan. You know, I'm going to move to California or New York, and I'm going to try to become an actor, and that - they knew that from early on.

And so when I started taking it very seriously in high school, and they would see, you know, these productions that we put on, and they'd see how excited I would get about them, they were all about it when I mentioned to them that I wanted to take zero hour - where I'd go to school early, you know, to do an extra class and take correspondence, which was really homeschooling, as well - just to graduate early, so I could get out to LA, you know, sooner than later. And they just applauded me, and they said, go for it. Just do it. You want this. Like, I love - you know, like, I love your passion. And so they supported me.

I love - you know, there's a great story. My - most of my teachers were supportive, but there was this one teacher that that came up to me when I was saying goodbye, really, because I had graduated. I'm done. And she said, I feel that you're making a big mistake. And what is your plan B? I mean, do you have another plan if this doesn't work out? Like, what if it doesn't work out? And when I told my mom that - because everyone - from everywhere, I was getting blessings from every side. But I told my mom that. My mom went straight into the school and just said, how dare you say this to my son. Like, what's your plan? What's your second - what if this doesn't work out for you? You know, what's your plan B?

And it was just so great to see my mom, like, take that control because I've never seen her like that in my life. And it was just so great that they were supportive of going after dreams and - because if you don't, then what do you really have, you know? You might as well just shoot for whatever you want to do.

GROSS: Well, they must find a lot of faith in you and in your ability to follow through on the dream.

PAUL: Yeah, no, it was - and, you know, obviously, I couldn't have done this without them. And it's incredible. I'm very, very blessed.

GROSS: So you get to LA, and then what? You don't know anybody there. You don't...

PAUL: Yeah. No. I know.

GROSS: You have your car. It's packed up. What then? What?

PAUL: Yeah. I actually - my mom came out with me, found a little studio apartment, and she just wanted to make sure I would get settled. And it's funny - like, the weekend I was moving into this little, tiny studio apartment in North Hollywood, a bank robbery is in progress, like, two blocks from my place...


PAUL: ...A giant bank robbery. And it ended in crazy bloodshed. And my mom is, like, oh, my God. Where am I allowing my son to move to? But she - you know, she got on a plane and went back to Idaho. And I'm sure she was scared for my life, but she was still very, very, very supportive.

GROSS: Aaron Paul, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much.

PAUL: Thank you so much, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Aaron Paul, Emmy-winning co-star of the TV drama series "Breaking Bad" speaking to Terry Gross in 2011. A sequel to that series, a movie called "El Camino," premieres today on Netflix. It's written and directed by Vince Gilligan, creator of "Breaking Bad" and co-creator of another spinoff project, "Better Call Saul." On Monday's show, Elton John returns to talk to Terry about his new memoir. It's pretty forthcoming about family, addiction and sexuality, and so is their conversation. Hope you can join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


ELTON JOHN: (Singing) Hey, kids, shake it loose together. The spotlight's hitting something that's been known to change the weather. We'll kill the fatted calf tonight, so stick around. You're gonna hear electric music, solid walls of sound. Say, Candy and Ronnie, have you seen them yet? Ooh, but they're so spaced out - B-B-B-Bennie and the Jets. Oh, but they're weird, and they're wonderful. Oh, Bennie, she's really keen. She's got electric boots, a mohair suit - you know, I read it in a magazine, oh... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
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