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Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul on How He Learned to Play an Addict

Aaron Paul’s been acting for years (you might remember him from his appearance as “Wasted Guy” in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder), but only recently hit the big time with a recurring role on Big Love and a lead in AMC’s Breaking Bad, which wraps up its second season this Sunday. On Bad, Paul plays Jesse Pinkman, a low-level drug dealer who hooks up with his former chemistry teacher, Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston), to form a meth mini-empire. Vulture spoke with Paul about researching his role and the reason his character got a stay of execution.

What are you doing in town?
I’m here for the Peabody Awards. It’s a great honor, though I have to admit I didn’t know anything about the Peabodys before we won. But I guess it’s a big deal, so I was like, “hey, sweet!” And I thought that only Vince [Gilligan, the creator of the show] would get the actual award, but all of us got one. I think I’ll give it to my parents for their little library area.

Your character, Jesse, had a rough go of it this season.
I know, I know. Jesse was constantly beat down. It was really sad. Finally, Jesse found someone who he really connected with, Jane [played by Krysten Ritter]. At first, it was almost like she was a good influence, but then they started using together again.

The drug scenes seem very realistic. Have you ever tried meth?
No, absolutely not. It’s crazy what you can find online, though. I just go to YouTube and type in “heroin user,” or “video of heroin,” and so many videos pop up of people shooting up. It’s horrifying, but from an actor’s standpoint, it helps. It’s important to me to portray it as true as possible. You can see online, literally from when the second the needle goes in, the speech slows down and you’re in your own world. I’m also addicted to the show Intervention on A&E. I was actually part of an intervention, but not on the receiving end, of course.

How did you get the part?
I’d worked on Vince’s show, The X-Files, before, though I wasn’t on a show he wrote. When I came in for the audition, he was like, “Oh my God, you played Sky Marshall Winkie! That was my nickname in college!” His buddy from college had written that episode. Just the other day, I was asking how he got that nickname, and he was just like, “we were such geeks in college, there was no reason behind it.” Genius. He’s nicest guy, Vince. The show is so dark, and so it’s funny to see how nice he is.

How does it feel to be on cable’s hottest network?
When I read this script, I was like, “AMC?” I didn’t even know they were doing original programming — this was before Mad Men aired. But they’re so laid-back with us. Like, seriously, they’re like little kids about how well the show’s doing. They’re just as excited as we are.

Are you looking forward to the third season?
Oh, yeah. Originally, they were going to kill off Jesse in the first season. That was the arc when they brought it over to AMC. He was supposed to get killed in the last episode of season one, so Walt would be left alone. But then after we did the pilot, they really loved the banter back and forth between Jesse and Walt, so they decided to keep me around. Thank God.

Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul on How He Learned to Play an Addict