95 Minutes With Aaron Paul

The Breaking Bad star returns to his greatest role.

Photo: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Contour RA by Getty Images
Photo: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Contour RA by Getty Images

“I can only show you this ’cause you’ve seen the film,” Aaron Paul says, grinning proudly as he scrolls through hundreds — maybe thousands? — of photos featuring his 19-month-old daughter, Story. He settles on a short video of the two of them taken during a break in the filming of El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie. The clip finds the actor in full makeup as Jesse Pinkman, the emotionally pulverized, physically lacerated meth-maker. As Paul gently describes to Story the harrowing (and very top-secret) El Camino scene he has just filmed, his daughter gazes at her father’s bruised and grubby face with affection. “She’s totally fine when she sees Jesse’s scars,” Paul says, putting down his phone. “She looks past all of that and right into my eyes.”

It’s less than a month before the release of El Camino, and the 40-year-old Paul is sitting on the back terrace of his Los Feliz home, dressed in a beige linen shirt and matching slacks. A red Radio Flyer wagon — piloted by a lone teddy bear — is parked nearby at the foot of an immense artificial waterfall that cascades down an entire hillside. The nearly 100-year-old estate has been home to several Hollywood dignitaries over the years — including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Jim Parsons, and Twilight-era Robert Pattinson — and is anchored by a lush, panoramic garden so large Paul is still sorting through every plant. “When we moved in,” he says, “they gave us two binders of information about running this place.”

Paul and his wife, the anti-bullying-nonprofit founder Lauren Parsekian, took over the estate earlier this year, not long after a family trip to New Mexico. That’s where Paul had spent several months covertly reprising the role of Jesse, last seen in Breaking Bad’s 2013 conclusion. In his final onscreen moments, Jesse plows through the gates of a desert compound in a stolen El Camino, sobbing and howling after having escaped not only his Aryan Brotherhood captors but also the emotional clutches of his mentor turned manipulator, Walter White, played by Bryan Cranston.

For those who’d come to root for Jesse, the send-off felt victorious. But it also left some questions in the balance. Ever since the finale, Paul notes, “people always ask, ‘What happened to Jesse? Is he okay?’ And I’d say, ‘You know as much as I do.’ ”

Written and directed by Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, El Camino, which debuts on Netflix on October 11, begins right after the massacre in the show’s finale, which left Walter dead and tipped off police to the vast drug empire Jesse had helped build. The movie is deeply satisfying on its own, featuring all the twists and pivots of a gnarly, on-the-run thriller; but for Breaking Bad devotees, there’s the added emotional investment of having watched (and worried about) Jesse Pinkman for five seasons. El Camino also pairs Paul with several of his former Breaking Bad cronies, though to name them, or to reveal even the haziest plot points, would violate Netflix’s demands of secrecy. Suffice it to say that many of the show’s hallmarks — revelatory flashbacks, grisly humor, and abrupt violence — are still very much in effect in El Camino.

Still, it gives away nothing to note that the sole focus of El Camino is Jesse Pinkman, whose heartaches and fears were like psychological open wounds made visible through Paul’s fidgety physicality and sad, searching eyes. “I couldn’t be more opposite of that guy,” notes the actor, “other than the fact that I wear my heart on my sleeve. I don’t bury anything.” That on-the-surface rawness made for one of the more intensely symbiotic performances on television (while also earning Paul a trio of Emmys during Breaking Bad’s run). So much so that, in the years after the show ended, Paul himself wondered what had become of his troubled old friend. “He was real to me,” the actor says. “I loved Jesse. I cared for him. I wanted him to be okay.”

Aaron Paul in El Camino. Photo: Ben Rothstein / Netflix

Paul was just 17 when he moved from his hometown of Boise, Idaho, to Los Angeles, where he made his small-screen breakthrough with a Corn Pops commercial. Over the next few years, he’d land a series of one-off prime-time roles, playing parts like “Frat Boy No. 2” on an episode of Melrose Place and a Jackass-inspired stunt-doofus on The X-Files. He also tried out a couple of acting classes. “I saw people doing strange exercises that I just didn’t understand,” he says. “In my head, I’m like, Isn’t the point of acting to believe the situations are happening to you, as that character?

That’s how he approached Jesse, who was initially conceived as a ding-a-ling poser, one who likely wouldn’t survive the first season. He was spared after producers noted how well Paul and Cranston fit together onscreen. “They could find the humor and warmth in these two characters who didn’t want to be together,” says Breaking Bad and El Camino producer Melissa Bernstein. “Vince immediately knew Jesse was going to be a more meaningful character.”

During the show’s early seasons — before Cranston taught him how to mellow a bit — Paul treated the role as a 24-hour-a-day assignment. He’d sometimes lurk around Albuquerque late at night, investigating the city’s darker corners in order to understand Jesse’s world and mind-set. (Bernstein, who knew Paul before his Breaking Bad days, didn’t know about his after-hours research. But she has a vivid memory of him on the Bad set one day, “pulling up his hoodie, putting on some music, and doing some intensive pacing, like a fighter preparing for a fight.”) At times, Paul even dreamed as Jesse. ”It sounds odd, but I lived and breathed every moment of his life,” says Paul. “I know him so well it feels like these things happened to me, in a way.”

As the show’s final episodes neared, Jesse had become increasingly imperiled by Walter’s schemes. Most Breaking Bad fans assumed the character was going to die — as did Paul, who by then had been playing the character for five years. He wrote a letter to Gilligan, pleading that Jesse go out honorably. “I asked Vince to read it to the entire staff,” Paul says. “I said, ‘If Jesse’s going to die, can it at least be by his own hands? I beg you: Let him make that decision himself.’ Vince wrote back: ‘I could never kill the heart of the show.’” By the time Jesse roared out of the neo-Nazi prison, he’d been transformed from swaggering motormouth to wrung-out abuse victim — and had somehow become the show’s unlikely hero.

In the years that followed Breaking Bad’s sign-off, “I zipped off that skin and left it behind,” Paul says, “and Jesse stopped visiting me.” The actor didn’t learn about Gilligan’s plans for El Camino until late in 2017, when he was visiting New York City with Parsekian. The couple had met several years earlier at a certain California-desert music festival — Paul still lists his wife as “Lauren Coachella” on his phone — and had journeyed east so Paul could work on Hulu’s drama The Path. Paul got a call from Gilligan, hoping to discuss the series’ upcoming tenth anniversary. “I was standing outside,” Paul recalls, “and towards the end, Vince said, ‘I feel like I have an idea about the next chapter of Jesse Pinkman’s journey. What are your thoughts on that?’ ”

At that point, Paul says, “I was in a very good place. We’d just gotten pregnant, which we’d wanted for a long time.” Yet he’d struggled with some of his post–Breaking Bad endeavors, including The Path. The series, which cast Paul as a cult member with creeping doubts about his faith, was released in the wake of the quality-TV coup that shows like Breaking Bad had helped foster. But The Path never found the awards recognition or critical reverence of Paul’s previous drama, and by its third season, the actor was becoming frustrated. “I love everyone on that show,” he says of the series, which was canceled in 2018. “But story-wise, I don’t know if we knew the direction it was going.”

He found it hard to leverage his TV success into a film career. “I was so spoiled at the height of Breaking Bad,” he says. “I was being offered everything.” Paul landed his first leading-man role in the race-car drama Need for Speed and worked with Ridley Scott on the swordplay epic Exodus: Gods and Kings, but neither connected with U.S. audiences. He found greater success with supporting roles in indies, including this year’s American Woman, but Hollywood often seemed unwilling to let him be anyone other than Jesse Pinkman: In the Kevin Hart–Dwayne Johnson comedy Central Intelligence, Paul’s character even employs Jesse’s “bitch” catchphrase. When it became clear that he couldn’t sell big studio films on his own, he says, the fallout was immediate: “You do one commercial film that’s not the success they think it’s going to be, and you’re damned.”

It’s possible, of course, that the traits that make Paul such a transfixing TV presence are too nuanced for the big screen: For all of Jesse’s spaz-outs and “bitch”-snaps, Paul carries much of the character’s pain and (minimal) joy in his face — the kind of subtle gestures that work best within the intimacy of a prime-time drama. There’s also the fact that Jesse has never actually gone away, since Breaking Bad is effectively in a state of perpetual reruns on Netflix. Television actors — even those with multiple Emmys — have always struggled to navigate the gulf between TV and film. That’s all the more difficult when your best-known character is being rediscovered on a daily basis.

Either way, it didn’t help that, according to Paul, he was steered away from one film that would go on to become a “monster, monster hit” — he declines to name it — eventually prompting him to part ways with his longtime manager.

“There were some big thorns in my side that I had to let go,” he says of the past few years. “My wife knew all of this was going on, so when I told her what Vince wanted to do, she threw her arms around me. She knew it was an opportunity for me to spread my wings again.”

Over the next several months, Gilligan worked on the script for what would become El Camino, occasionally sending Paul a screenshot of a work-in-progress page. Finally, in early 2018, the actor visited Gilligan’s office, kicked off his shoes, and stretched out on a couch for almost three hours, slowly reading the El Camino script. “When I flipped the last page, I just laid there in silence.” From the moment Gilligan had told him about the film, he’d been eager to learn Jesse’s fate. “But I was also thinking, My God, what is this gonna look like, revisiting this guy?

Halfway through our discussion of Jesse’s future, Paul heads into his living room and returns with a half-empty bottle of Dos Hombres Mezcal, the liquor brand he co-created with Cranston. The two actors (who still check in with each other every day) were sharing sushi in New York City a few years ago when Cranston suggested they try to find another TV project. “I said, ‘Dude, it’s way too early,’ ” says Paul. “People are just going to think of Walt and Jesse.” They settled on Dos Hombres, which was released this summer. The timing worked out perfectly for the new movie. Breaking Bad lovers had become convinced the show’s cast members were involved with some secret project, and the Dos Hombres news became yet another cover for El Camino.

Gilligan and the film’s production staff had gone to obsessive lengths to keep production a secret — adopting code names, shielding locations from view, and even creating shared backstories in case anyone asked why they were in town. Whenever Paul was spotted around Albuquerque, he’d tell inquisitive onlookers that he was there for a “little passion project” — which, for the show’s fans, is an apt description of Gilligan’s new film. Rumors of a Breaking Bad sequel have been volleyed online for years now, as the show has never quite left its perch in the popular culture: AMC’s current Better Call Saul has earned Emmy nominations for ex-Bad stars Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, and Giancarlo Esposito. Breaking Bad remains so familiar that, as recently as last month, the New York Times ran a story with the headline, “Vaping Bad: Were 2 Wisconsin Brothers the Walter Whites of THC Oils?”

Yet as word of El Camino’s New Mexico shoot leaked last fall — after local papers noted the existence of a mysterious project named Greenbrier — there was some concern among the series’ faithful. “They’re like, ‘The show was so perfect, why mess with it?,’” notes Paul. When Breaking Bad went off the air six years ago, it was already considered one of the era’s great prime-time dramas: a visually inventive, smartly plotted, sometimes shockingly funny tale of sunbaked moral rot. But in recent years, with many of Breaking Bad’s contemporaries faltering in their later seasons, Gilligan’s series has increasingly found itself at the center of numerous “best show ever” conversations — one of the few prestige-era titles to not fuck up its finale.

For Bernstein, though, there was one very compelling reason to risk reviving a near-perfect show: Jesse Pinkman. “With Jesse, it felt like we were scratching at something that hadn’t been fully addressed,” she says. “It was the one story with an immediate fallout. And Vince came to writing this from an honest place: It wasn’t like, ‘We’re going to pay you 70 zillion dollars to do a spinoff.’ He had something to say, and I didn’t doubt for a minute that it was worthy.”

Paul, who’s in nearly every moment of El Camino, shot his scenes without any rehearsal. He became Jesse Pinkman the same way he had during the show’s original run: by convincing himself that he’d endured everything Jesse had endured — that their scars were shared. “It was easy to access those emotions, man,” he says. “It was all very much still in me, and it was nice to release those feelings again.”

But El Camino, for all its pulpy propulsiveness, is also a tale of severe trauma, with Jesse’s fragility more on display than ever before. It’s part of a performance that, in many ways, was informed by Paul’s becoming a father. “I look at the world completely differently now,” he says. “Having my daughter view the world for the first time, and seeing everything as being new, is so eye-opening. I see Jesse as this damaged soul — as this guy who’s just hurting — even more now.” Adds Bernstein: “When we looked for writers for Breaking Bad, one of the things Vince was really keen on was finding writers who’d lived a life — they’d seen some highs and some lows and really understood the tapestry. Aaron’s now further on down the road. He’s lived more, so he can bring all of those colors to his performance.”

Not long after the movie wrapped, Paul joined the season-three cast of HBO’s Westworld, which is nearly as guarded as El Camino. (He can’t say anything about his role, though he does admit he finds himself overwhelmed by the show’s elaborate sets: “You walk on and you’re like, My God, they have a lot of money. Holy shit.”) He’ll also star in Apple’s forthcoming crime series Truth Be Told and has spent the past five years voicing the asexual stoner Todd Chavez on Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. After a few years of attempting film stardom, he’d rather pursue TV than another megamovie. “I can’t live with that pressure on me, nor will I. I’m happy.”

Toward the end of our talk, the terrace door opens and Parsekian emerges carrying Story, who’s waking up from her afternoon nap. She soon attaches herself to Paul, who bounces her on his knee. “She’s in such a daddy phase now,” he says. There are birds circling over the Spanish-style roof and a fountain gurgling nearby, but for now, Story looks right into his eyes.

*A version of this article appears in the September 30, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Aaron Paul Couldn’t Be Happier to Be Jesse Pinkman Again