For Aaron Paul, one of the perks of having played Jesse Pinkman on Breaking Bad is the response of the fans. “People are always calling me a bitch or asking me to call them a bitch,” he says. “It’s very positive!”
No doubt Bryan Cranston – who played chemistry teacher-cum-meth cook Walter White to Paul’s deadbeat former student – has an abundance of memorable lines, too, but only Paul emerged from the show with a word, a single syllable, that works in all kinds of catchphrases.
And back in January, Paul let it rip from the podium at the famously boozy Golden Globes, waving a Best Television Drama trophy in the air: “Yeah, bitch!”
“It started in the last two or three seasons when the show became this phenomenon,” he says. “And I’m fine with it. If people are still calling me a bitch when I’m a 70-year-old man, that’s absolutely OK with me.”
The Globes was a pinnacle for what Paul calls “the BB family”. Debuting on then little-watched US cable channel AMC in 2008, the drama about a terminally ill father who, to provide for his family after his death, cooks crystal meth with Pinkman became a worldwide cult hit – latterly gaining popularity in the UK on streaming service Netflix.
Even though the show finished last year, the celebrations continue – hence the champagne and statuettes and Harvey Weinstein’s after-party. This awards season, Breaking Bad has been on an extended victory lap, scooping up prizes by the cartload, and Paul himself may add to his own two Best Supporting Actor Emmys before the spring is out.
And we may not even have heard the last of Pinkman either – creator Vince Gilligan has hinted he could return in the forthcoming spin-off, Better Call Saul, about BB’s shady attorney Saul Goodman.
But today, Aaron Paul’s at the Sundance Film Festival enjoying his non-Pinkman life. He’s officially here to promote a low-budget indie film, Hellion, which he produced and stars in. It’s a coming-of-age tale about a 13-year-old whose hell-raising antics force social services to send his younger brother to live with his aunt, to the dismay of his recently widowed father, played by Paul.
And there are three other films coming down the pipe; another indie, A Long Way Down, based on the Nick Hornby novel, then a couple of big studio pictures that will loom large from billboards before long: Need for Speed (fast cars, etc) and Exodus (as in “the book of”), directed by Ridley Scott.
“I just went straight into it,” says Paul. “On the last day of shooting Breaking Bad, a DreamWorks plane was waiting to take me to California to start shooting Need for Speed at 6:30am the next morning.”
It was better that way, with no mourning period. Breaking Bad had been a momentous six years. Not just the fame and fortune part – the strangers calling him a bitch – but personally, too. He met his wife, Lauren Parsekian, during season three; a whirlwind romance that began at the Coachella festival (Paul is obsessed with music, Radiohead especially). And so many friends for life, too – the aforementioned BB family.
Before the last day, he and Cranston and about 20 of the cast and crew got commemorative tattoos – Paul’s reads “no half measures”.
Whether Need for Speed is a half or full measure is a matter of opinion. Exodus seems to make sense after Breaking Bad – a weighty epic in which Paul plays Joshua to Christian Bale’s Moses. But a popcorn car flick?
“It was a business decision,” he says, bluntly. “I did it for financial reasons.” A payday in other words. And why not? Paul’s 34 now, thinking about kids, and his background isn’t remotely silver spoon. If anything, it has a True Hollywood Story quality to it.
Born on a bathroom floor in Idaho, he was the fourth and youngest child; the son of a preacher man – his father’s a Southern Baptist minister. It was a strict but happy childhood. “I didn’t even drink or start dating till I moved to Los Angeles when I was 17,” he says. “I lost my virginity at 19.”
It was 1998 when Aaron and his mum made that trip to LA; the two of them in a Toyota Corolla with $6,000 in their pockets. And so it began, Paul’s ascent through commercials and guest spots to arguably the best TV show ever, all without any formal training.
“I sat in on two different classes,” he says. “But they were doing these strange exercises. Two actors would sit across from each other, and one’s wearing a yellow jacket. He says, ‘I’m wearing a yellow jacket.’ And the other guy says, ‘You’re wearing a yellow jacket.’ And they just repeat it.” Paul shakes his head. “I just force myself to believe that I’m someone else. That’s my approach.”
They were happy days – the butterflies of auditions, the thrill of booking a Juicy Fruit chewing gum TV ad. But strange, too, sometimes, especially for a kid from Idaho.
A case in point: the Prince of Brunei took a shine to his cheesy teen comedy Whatever It Takes and invited him to his 25th birthday party at Stapleford Park estate, Leicestershire, where Paul broke his hovercraft and did shots with Michael Jackson. Or the time the same Prince invited Paul and his friends to his brother’s 16th birthday party at the Brunei palace.
“He had all his friends live there with him, and they all sleep on these little pads that surround his bed. But on the night we stayed, he insisted that he sleep on a pad, and I sleep in his giant bed by myself. And then he put the movie on. Prince Azim, I miss you.”
It wasn’t long afterwards that Paul’s phone stopped ringing and the money ran out. “I was on Big Love [the HBO drama about polygamy], but I was making less than $600 per episode so I finally asked my family for help – which really hurt. My parents don’t have any money. But they paid my rent for three months, and then I booked Breaking Bad.” The rest, as they say, is chemistry.
Photographs by Fred Jacobs, fashion by Gaelle Paul.
Need for Speed is out today