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Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul on Jesse’s Tattoos, Meeting Meth Heads, and Romance in Paris

Aaron Paul. Photo: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

Earlier this year, New York’s Carl Swanson went to New Mexico to watch Aaron Paul (a.k.a. Jesse Pinkman) shoot an episode of Breaking Bad. (Everyone here was jealous; you are not alone.) That story ran in our TV issue. Now, with the fifth season of the show premiering on Sunday, we’re breaking into Swanson’s vault to share with you an excerpt from his transcripts. Herewith, a snippet of conversation that took place on a spring day in Vince Gilligan’s on-set office. Sigh.

Is that tattoo real?
Fake. Thank God. I mean, it’s so aggressive. It’s a Celtic scorpion — I never really knew that. When I got here for the pilot, I had no idea what Jesse’s whole vibe would be. I had an idea about who the character was, but they asked, “Do you think Jesse would have tattoos?” And I was like, “Probably.” And then we just started flipping through these random tattoo books. Usually you think these things through, but we started shooting so quickly. I have [the scorpion] and then there’s the clown and that random snake that sort of dangles. Jesse’s hard-core, you know?

Is that what attracted you to the character?
It was also that I read the script and it was so dark — and yet I found myself laughing so much. It was, hands down, the best pilot I’ve ever read. But I didn’t think it was going to get picked up; I didn’t think it had a chance in hell of making it. [But] I met with Vince. And I told him I’d done an episode of the X-Files and he said, “Which one?” And I said, “‘Lord of the Flies.’” And he said, “Oh my God, you played Sky Commander Winkie. That was my nickname in college.” I felt that he was pulling for me; he fought for me.

And Jesse wasn’t even supposed to be such an important character in the beginning, so you did something right.
The first few seasons, I wouldn’t ever take [Jesse’s] skin off. I would go home and just right away be preparing, constantly be in his head. Bryan [Cranston] taught me that you have to leave it on set, because these characters are going through so much

And you’re probably nothing like Jesse in real life.
He couldn’t be less like me, but he’s a combination of people that I have met. I’ve been in L.A. for fifteen years and it’s impossible not to see drugs, and friends that have kind of fallen down that path, people experimenting. And sometimes it takes over; the drug has control of them. I have had people — just beautiful creatures; beautiful, amazing people — have their souls sucked out of them. By meth, actually. It takes over so quickly. And I don’t see the attraction to it. What’s so great is that AMC and Sony got so much shit for making a show about the making of meth. They got such hate mail before the show even aired: “Shame on you! I will never watch AMC again! You should not be doing a show that glamorizes meth.” But that stopped the moment the show went on the air. Now I get approached by former addicts who feel they have a connection to my character. I was in New York and I met this couple who’d been together fifteen years — they met in rehab trying to be sober. They were using for ten or twelve years. They both came up and hugged me. They were shaking: “Oh my God, Jesse.” And I was like, “Nice to meet you, I’m Aaron.”

You’re never really safe on this show. Were you ever worried you’d get killed off?
I guess in the back of my mind I thought maybe it would be easier for them to write me out of the show if I started fucking up … You know, Bryan once came out of nowhere to give me this long passionate hug — he wouldn’t let go. He was saying, “Oh, it’s been so great to work with you on this show. We’re lucky, aren’t we?” This was in the middle of the third season, out of nowhere. I was like, “What are you talking about?” He said, “The new script — you haven’t read it?” And then he walked away. And I had to run and get it.

And then it was just that you beat him up at the end.
There are still some remnants of the beating I gave him on his face.

It’s crazy that you had such a small-town upbringing, and now here you are.
I know, right? I grew up all over Idaho — I was born in Emmett, a very small town. And then I moved to California when I was 2. My dad [who was a minister] would go to different congregations. I moved back to Idaho when I was 6 or 7, and then lived in a little town called Twin Falls and then moved to Boise. So quite different from L.A. I’d been to Disneyland a couple of times and that was the closest I’d been to L.A. But I knew what I wanted to do at a very young age. I think by eighth grade I knew I wanted to be an actor. I’d done church plays and stuff, but my first actual acting class was in eighth grade. I was obsessed with it. And we did a career day right before high school and I got really excited because you did these multiple choice questionnaires and at the end you added up the points and it would point you to what career you would be good at. And mine said: the arts. And then there wasn’t a room to go to ask questions for that. And I was really upset by it.

So were you raised very religious?
Oh, yeah. Very. I mean, I have my own views no, [but] I grew up believing that once I died I’d fly around in the clouds. Oh yeah. I guess you just believe whatever is placed in front of you. So me moving to Los Angeles at such a young age — when you’re 17, 18 years old you think you’re an adult, but you’re an infant. I started having my own beliefs, my own opinions, really. I think that for some people faith is good — they have something to draw to.

You’re going to be getting married soon? Or, at least, you recently got engaged [to Lauren Parsekian]?
We got engaged on New Year’s. We were in Barcelona, staying with her aunt who’s an artist out there, and then we did an impromptu trip to Paris. Well, she thought it was impromptu; I had the ring burning in my pocket for three months. I always knew I wanted to do it on New Year’s in Paris. With her. It’s the story, you know? Paris is the most romantic city on the planet. We were walking the streets alone with a bottle of Champagne in hand, and right before midnight we were sitting on a stoop in St. Germain, surrounded by lit-up Christmas trees. And we started dancing to some Edith Piaf … and then I popped the question.

Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul Is a Serious Romantic