'Breaking Bad' star Aaron Paul looks back at Jesse Pinkman's greatest hits
Though "Breaking Bad" will have another eight episodes to run next summer after the eight that start airing Sunday night at 10 on AMC, this is technically the start of the show's final season. So when given the chance to sit down with the show's two leading men, I thought this might be a good time to let each of them revisit some of the most memorable moments for their characters, and what it was like to play those scenes. An epic Bryan Cranston interview is coming later this week (possibly in two parts), as we start with a chat with Aaron Paul about the ever-changing nature of Jesse Pinkman, what it's like to deliver those great monologues, how the famous robot line from "4 Days Out" came to be, and a lot more.
Let's start at the beginning. I've spoken to Bryan before about how he created the character in part through the costume and hair and makeup choices. How much input did you have in coming up with the way Jesse looks and dresses? Because that's not you.
Aaron Paul: Zero input. I had no idea. I had a preconceived notion of who I thought this kid was when I read the pilot and auditioned for it. But when I went out to Albuquerque and started trying on the clothes in the wardrobe fitting, I could not believe what he was wearing. But I loved it. It was great. It's literally a costume, like zipping on a different skin. It's exciting.
So at what point in reading the script or working on that episode do you feel like you found Jesse's voice?
Aaron Paul: I don't think I found it in the pilot. Because I had no idea where it was heading. I thought he was probably from some messed-up home. I didn't know his background. I felt like he was trying to be something that he really wasn't. I knew that in the beginning. I think finally now he's finding his own footing, and you can see the evolution of his clothes. His wardrobe has definitely changed. Midway through the first season, when you met his family, I felt I had a lock onto who this kid was.
Vince has said often that Jesse was going to die in the first season. At what point did you know this? Or did you not find out until after the fact?
Aaron Paul: I found out in the first season, towards the end. We were supposed to do nine episodes but ended up doing six plus the pilot. Vince was having lunch with the other writers, and they brought me over and said, "You know, we were going to kill Jesse off in the first season." And I still haven't read the next episode yet! And I go, "Yeah, what does that mean?" Vince says, "Well, that's not going to happen anymore." And I go, "Well, when is it going to happen?" I thought maybe in the next season. They said, no, that was always the pitch that Vince brought around to all the networks: the arc of the first season is that this kid brings Walter White into the drug world, then ends up dying a horrible death and leaves Walt hanging alone. I guess once he shot the pilot, that changed his mind. He wanted to keep Jesse around. Thank God.
Did you ever find out specifics about how you were going to die?
Aaron Paul: I feel like I did, but I kind of forget it. I'll just tell stories: I think he died in a crazy gun battle. Or I think it was a meth explosion.
What was it like the first time you and Bryan were working together in the RV?
Aaron Paul: It was extremely hot, but fun. The first scene that Bryan and I ever did together was outside of the bank where Walt is giving Jesse the money to buy the Winnebago. That was the first scene we ever shot. And it was instantly fun. The dialogue was, "You are not how I remember you from class — at all." That was the line where he says, "What are you, gonna break bad all of a sudden?" Working in that Winnebago was extremely difficult, because you're shooting in the middle of the desert with a bunch of people, with lights, cameras, extremely hot. But it was so sad to see it meet its demise in season 3. Watching it get crushed was like watching one of your favorite characters die.
Let's stick with the Winnebago for a second. "4 Days Out," the battery runs down, and it's just the two of you stuck in the desert. You've done a couple of episodes like that. When it's just you and Bryan for an hour, either there or in the superlab chasing the fly, what's the atmosphere like?
Aaron Paul: "4 Days Out," I think it's my favorite episode. It's just so fun. "4 Days Out" and "Fly" felt like a play. It's all on one location, or one set, and the atmosphere is so good. This show is the story of struggle: constantly trying to keep their head above water. With "4 Days Out," it was just a cook in the dessert, and then the battery dies. What are you gonna do? You're fucked. Really, we can't just jump it? No, because the generator caught on fire and you used up all the water. So now we have nothing to drink, and we're going to die here in the middle of the desert.
I actually tried to not drink water during that shoot. I went almost three days, which is a horrible idea, with no liquid. And then I realized, "This is way too method right now." When I tried to drink water, it was actually too difficult. It was hard for me to swallow. But it's always fun riffing off of Bryan.
That episode has one of my favorite Jesse bits: when Walt finally figures out how to get the RV started, Jesse starts cheering, "Yeah, science!!!!"
Aaron Paul: "Yeah, science!" And the robot line.
Yes, the robot line is even better.
Aaron Paul: That was a Friday night, last shot of the night. They checked the gate and said, "That's a wrap." But Nick Shuster, our focus-puller, came up to me and says, "Oh, you should've said, 'What are we gonna build: a robot?' And I go, "Oh, that's brilliant!" And we tell them we need to do it again, there was a problem with the focus, so they called action, and I did it one time, and they decided to keep it in.
And Bryan didn't break?
Aaron Paul: No, no. It was great.
Another one from season 2, where it's mainly you in an enclosed space is "Peekaboo," you're stuck in this horrible house with this horrible couple and their poor, filthy, neglected child, and Jesse is trapped with the horror of what he's wrought. How many days were you in that place?
Aaron Paul: It was six days, I think. And they actually cleaned the place up a little bit. The person that owned it was a hoarder and had 15 cats, I think. There was just feces all over the place. The smell was unbelievable. But it really put you in that environment. It really showed the audience that Jesse has a heart, that moment where he sees the kid. And that's what's so devastating, is there are so many kids out there like that. And when Jesse saw that little boy, he knew that he had to get this kid out of there. And I loved that.
I have different friends who come to watch the show at different times, and there always comes a different point for each of them where their sympathies switch from Walt to Jesse. Where do you feel in the show that moment is? Or are you too biased to be able to tell?
Aaron Paul: I think I might be too biased. But at the beginning of the show, everybody seemed like they hate Jesse. They'd go, "Ohmigod, this idiot!" I'd get that from fans all the time: "You are such an idiot! I hate you!" And I'm like, "Well, okay, thank you?" But now it's so different: "Jesse's such a badass!" Definitely for our female fanbase, "Peekaboo" was the episode where it became, "Ohmigod, I love this character." And some guys were like that, too, but others were, "Whatever, he's going to get everyone killed." But I think by the end of season 2, everyone feels for Jesse. I can't imagine; if you didn't, wouldn't you be kind of a messed-up person? But Jesse wakes up with his girlfriend dead next to him. He's really going through a lot.
(I've omitted the next minute or so of conversation because it inadvertently wound up suggesting too much about what's coming in the next eight episodes, but in it, Paul briefly discussed Jesse confronting Walt in "End Times" about the poisoning of Brock.)
I want to ask you about another scene where Jesse actually confronts Walt about all the bad things that have happened to him as a result of their partnership, which is the speech in the hospital bed from "One Minute." What was it like, first reading that when you got the script, and then doing it?
Aaron Paul: Oh, when I first read that, I was blown away, and then very excited to be able to play that. Jesse has just gone through so much, and it's nice to be able to release all of that inner turmoil on the character that's caused all of this. It's fun, and very rewarding and exhilarating.
Getting back to Jane, what kind of rig did they put you on for the heroin scene? How was that done?
Aaron Paul: This guy Crow, one of our crew members, built this rig. It was just this platform, the shape of my body, a little smaller, and they just lifted it up. It was so fun! It was incredible. That's what's so great about this show is it's so artistic on every level. They try to push the artistic boundaries. We always have those token "Breaking Bad" shots, the camera underneath the table, or --
Aaron Paul: Shovel cam! Or the scene where you're inside the dryer, drying the money. Just interesting shots.
It seems like there's been a steady character progression for Walt, while Jesse seems to change personae much more frequently, not just in each season, but multiple times a season. He starts off the second one, he's the screw-up, then he realizes he can take charge, then he's in the relationship with Jane, then the junkie. How hard is it playing this guy who is so many different people in such a short period of time?
Aaron Paul: You just take it day by day. What's great about the show is it's honest. You're a product of circumstances. We all are. So a certain thing happens is going to cause you to react a certain way in the future, and it's going to change you. It's exciting. And it can be fun to play the junkie, the character who's messed up and high. But I'm glad I'm not playing that high always. It's nice to play kind of a schizophrenic, crazy character.
Because the emotions you have to play as this guy are so intense, is it ever hard to leave it at the office?
Aaron Paul: It is. Sometimes, I used to take it home with me and try and stay in that skin as long as I could. But you realize you don't necessarily have to do that. The writing's so good on this show, they make it easy. What makes it hard is when the writing's not on the page. But sometimes you do take it home. You have to work on your stuff for the next day or week, so you're in that headspace anyway. But it's nice to just wash your face, get in the shower and relax, and not have it within you for a couple of hours. And then jump back into it. Jesse, he's just constantly getting beat down. So it's exhausting to play this character.
What's the atmosphere like on the set, what's going through your head, when Jesse shoots Gale?
Aaron Paul: So much is going on. What I do when I take on roles is I try and truly live through the person's skin. So to put myself in that place was very hard. Obviously, I've never killed anybody. But it was difficult, because you know this character didn't want to do this, but he felt he had to. He's killing quite possibly the nicest character that has ever existed on television! Let alone "Breaking Bad." He didn't want to do it. He was terrified, he was scared, but he felt like he had to do it. Jesse was willing to be a martyr in the episode prior, go out guns blazing, and then all of a sudden Walter White shows up and runs those guys over and saves his life. Because Jesse would have died, for sure. He might have gotten off a couple of shots, but he'd have died. So Walt saved his life, and Jesse felt he owed him.
After this happens, Jesse goes through a kind of nihilist phase, just trying to dull himself out and turning the house into this hellpit. What was it like on set when you're on the set, and the Roomba is flitting about and the speakers are thumping?
Aaron Paul: It was pure chaos. He has to keep his mind busy, he has to be preoccupied with a lot of stuff. He couldn't be lost in his own thoughts, because then he's just living a nightmare.
What kind of direction are all the extras in this party being given?
Aaron Paul: My God. These extras. The background players in the party were brilliant. There was this couple, there's a close-up shot of them having sex in the middle of the living room, and there's blood dripping down the person's back. And they're actually doing that. You can see other scars on his back — this is a thing they do — and she's scraping her nails, and I thought, "That is makeup! There is no way that's real!" And it was real. You realize you were in that environment, and it was very disconcerting. Very hardcore.
After that, Mike takes Jesse under his wing. Jesse just wants some kind of father figure, right?
Aaron Paul: Yes, he wants to be told what to do. He's striving for that. And he wants a father figure. His parents completely bailed on him. So he needs that in his life.
You had several years where you and Bryan were very much in sync, then you're doing a lot with Jonathan Banks. What's he like to work with?
Aaron Paul: Unbelievable. He's brilliant. I love that man and I will be friends with him forever. He's incredible. Just like with Bryan. They're both such mentors of mine, on and off set. I hope to be them when I'm older. It's great. We are blessed to have the cast that we have.
The last one is the problem dog speech in NA with Jere Burns. They started giving you a lot of speeches after a while. Was there a point where you realized, "Hey, this is something they like to have me do"?
Aaron Paul: We all get these speeches. I hate to toot my own horn, but we're so blessed to work with this dialogue. The writers on our show are just top-notch. When I read that speech, written by Peter Gould, I went, "Oh my God." When they'd give me one earlier in the series, I'd be terrified: "That's four pages of dialogue. I hope I can pull this off." Like in the hospital bed, I was trying to figure out how to do this, because there's so many different ways. You don't want to do it one note. There are so many layers. With this one, it's perfect because it was a confession. It gave Jesse an opportunity to confess his sins, and he absolutely needs to do it to someone. Even though he was talking about a dog, he was able to confess to everyone and say, "No, it's not okay! It's not about self-acceptance! Fuck you! What you're teaching us is wrong!" And Jesse believes that he should never be forgiven, ever. He needs to be punished. It was really, as an actor playing this character, it was a nice release.
A lot of the time when you do these speeches, the camera's got you in a pretty tight close-up, and yet in the scene as constructed, you're delivering it to Bryan or Jere or whomever. Are they there beside the camera, or are you playing it to the camera as if it's them?
Aaron Paul: No, they're there. Sometimes they're behind the camera. But I have to say, all the background players in that scene were so great. They were all just in the moment as well. They weren't just sitting there. It really helped. I really felt like I was there. That's the goal: to feel like you're transported into a different world. It's all about make-believe, and playing pretend. And that's why we do it.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com